Friday, September 29, 2006

Water works

I woke this morning from dreaming about being somewhere where the meeting was going to shift from a meeting as in "business meeting" to the meeting (synaxis) of the baptized to worship God in a service of Word and Table. My struggle in the dream was getting the room set up. It was my responsibility to improvise the movement of chairs and furniture into an arrangement for the assembly. (My dreams are often struggles like trying to find my sermon notes or vestments and get to worship on time.)

Well, why set up the space like a “court room” where the judge is at the front, with table for counsel and a jury box (choir)? Why not create a space that invites the assembly to be around the strong central things? But where and how would they be placed? In the dream, the people’s seats would be around the central things: on one side, lectern with the Bible and presider’s chair just behind it, and the Table on the other side. The seating of the people would be “choir” style facing each other across and open middle. The table was a little distance from the seating so that at the Eucharistic rite the assembly can gather around it.

But what about the font? Would we need the reminder of the water of our baptism at a jury-rigged service? In my dream (and in my waking conviction), “Yes, we would.” The church is always born in baptism and sustained in the baptismal covenant by water and the Spirit.

So, where to put the font or bowl of water? Well, maybe at the entrance to the room where people can touch the water as they enter and make the sign of the cross, one by one as they enter. Or, in the case, since the group was already in the room, in the center of the worship space (as above).

If worship is primarily actions (gathering, proclaiming, eating, sending) around public symbols (assembly, font, lectern, table) supported by words, then what would we do with the font? What are the water works. Maybe there would be words. Maybe not.

I imagine the presider moving to the font, inviting the assembly to stand, and turning while lifting water three times in cupped hands and letting it fall back into the font without words in gestures that say, “Remember who you are…Remember who you are…Remember who you are….” Indeed, then we were gathered and ready for the opening dialogue, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you./And also with you.”

Where would you put the font? Or, in your dream, is it superfluous?

More on water works to come.

Daniel Benedict

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Teaching Online--One Big Classroom!

I have been infrequent in posting lately, in part because I have been preparing for and beginning an online course. This is a brief look at the course.

How is this for amazing: my current class room is 5500 miles long and 2500 miles wide stretching over 7 time zones! I am in Hawaii and students are in Oregon, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Last fall I was invited to teach an online course on presiding at the Eucharist. The course took shape around a notion of the presider as icon of the risen Christ as host—in persona Christi—and of the congregation as icon of the beloved community, the holy Trinity. Recalling Hovda’s book and the scriptural text from which he drew the title (2 Timothy 1:6-7) I titled the course “No Cowardly Spirit.” The subtitle, “Grace Driven Holy Communion” was chosen by the host organization for the course, Lumicon, as a not so subtle link to the popular “Purpose Driven” books by Rick Warren.[i] I taught the course in the winter of 2006 and am, as of this writing, leading it again in the fall of 2006. I envisioned a course that would combine readings in pastoral care, liturgy, the arts and practical liturgical sources. I was convinced that it needed to be more than a course in gestures—touch here and rub there. The online context gives the students time that my a-day-or-less “labs” could not afford. The challenge I saw was how to engage learners at a distance, particularly when it came the sharpening their skills at the table and inviting peer feedback.

The course description reads:

A pastoral and practical exploration of leading the assembly’s celebration of the Eucharist. Participants will enrich and expand their sense of the congregation’s sacramental life through reflection on art, explore the significance of the body and of our senses in ritual prayer, and form a deeper sense of self-identity in presiding or assisting at the Lord’s Table, including a sharpened discernment of the grace of their call to preside or assist. The course will employ readings, online media, film, observation and hands-on practice. Access to and use of a digital video camera… will be basic to the course. A high-speed internet connection is essential.

The inclusion of those who assist at table was to remind myself and participants that the role of the deacon (and assisting ministers) should be included in consideration of best practices at the Table.

I structured the course with the intent that participants would:

  1. Deepen their awareness of the factors shaping leadership and participation in the Lord’s Supper as communal ritual prayer
  2. Appreciate the significance of the body and senses in embodying “presence” to God and to the assemblyDevelop an expanded presidential style and practice congruent with their self-identity and their denomination’s theological and liturgical understandings and norms for the Sacrament
  3. Engage with art and film as venues for reflection on the iconic and metaphorical dimensions of presiding
  4. Create a digital presentation of their presiding at the table to be shared with other course participants (real time peer observation and feedback would be preferable but is not possible in this learning venue)
  5. Develop a statement of their “best practices” intention and outline a plan for implementing these practices in their ministry setting
  6. Experience themselves within a distance learning community

The reading for the course includes Robert W. Hovda’s Strong, Loving and Wise, Robin Jensen’s The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community, William Willimon’s Worship as Pastoral Care, and each participant’s primary church statement or directory on its theology and practice of Holy Communion. In both courses all have been United Methodist and so, we used This Holy Mystery (Discipleship Resources, 2005; also online--search Google) linked to the official ritual texts and rubrics in our hymnal and book of worship as the source of norms. Additional readings were drawn from Volume 1 of Worship Matters, ed. E. Byron Anderson. The course includes six sessions with reading and activity assignments for each.

Here are the session titles and flow of the course:

  • Course introduction, including self-introductions and establishment of online relationships and familiarization with the Blackboard Learning System™ and the syllabus.
  • Bench Marking and Stretching: participants prepare and share statements of their current understandings and practices related to the sacramental presidency and of what formative experiences shaped them. They also identify and interact with their denomination’s normative sources, and move further into course readings.
  • Iconography and the Eucharist: participants engage iconic art from the ancient and ecumenical church and explore it as a venue for deepening their sense of biblical and liturgical connections in appreciating the Eucharistic action. Students begin to sketch their understanding of how the presider can be understood as an icon of Christ and of how the whole assembly is an icon of the Trinity.
  • Sacramental Leadership and Communal Liturgical Prayer: participants explore pastoral relationships and how liturgical prayer and full engagement of body gestures, vestments, and attentiveness informs the larger context of congregational prayer, life and witness. This includes interviews of members of their congregation relative to how they experience services of Word and Table.
  • Actions that Pray: here participants move to deeper integration of their reading, listening, reflection and interaction with each other around issues of liturgical prayer. Participants hone their sense of the communal action of the church in the Sacrament and their role as presiders. In a sense, the course culminates in this session as participants make and share a digital video of themselves presiding (or assisting) at the table. Each receives feedback based on the observations of the instructor and their peers.
  • Imagining and Implementing “Best Practices”: in the final integrative session students reflect on and share what they have learned and how they intend to enact it in their ongoing presidential practice in their setting. Each, using the medium of their choice, makes a presentation of how they imagine and intend to grow into a stronger presidential or assisting role in their ministry setting.

In recent years I have been increasingly drawn to the ministry of forming pastors and priests in their vocation of leading the assembly in sacramental prayer. I have led a number of half-day and day long "lab" type events. While I delighted doing those practicums, I love teaching in this more extended conversation with students.

In the two courses I have had the pleasure of working with learners from a variety of settings and stages in their lives. So far I have worked with seminary students, students in graduate programs, seasoned clergy in large and small membership churches, and pastors who lead with quite different assumptions about worship, particularly in matters of style. I even had a few laity in the first course because they wanted to dig deeper and explore what it means to be an "assisting minister."

So far, the level of participation has been high, which is essential for an online course. Much of the “teaching” function happens in the peer relationships over the weeks of the course. It is almost as much fun as being a pastor serving a local congregation!

Daniel Bendict

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Reflections on Goodness and Greatness

(The following essay was written by a former colleague, Dan Dick, Research Director in the new Solutions Team at the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Dated September 5, 2006, it is part of a regular column he writes for staff of the agency. With Dan’s permission I include it in my blog. I post it without comment, except to say that I am deeply appreciative of Dan’s thoughtfulness and discernment. I will make comment in my next blog entry.)

One of the most popular business books of the past five years is Jim Collins’, Good to Great. The main premise of the book is simple and solid – good enough isn’t good enough. If you want to dominate a field, you must strive for excellence and make the necessary sacrifices to be great.

Implicit in the argument is a cultural perspective that says great is better than good. In the modern world, few argue that great is great and good isn’t as good. But has this always been the case?

When exactly did good become bad and great become better? Tracing the etymology of both terms, it is fascinating to see how they evolved, and to consider the implications when applied to spiritual communities of faith.

The Good – the root of the word good (gōd) is ghedh, meaning to unite, to join, or to fit. In its earliest usage, it described the quality of integrity. When something belonged, fit well, was right and true, it was considered good. Qualitatively, the good = perfection; when everything was in its optimal place and in right relationship with everything else, it was good. (This aligns more closely with the modern definition of great.)

The Great – this root, grete, means course, thick, or bloated. In its earliest usage it described immensity, usually of a natural disaster (i.e., great flood, great quake, great plague). Great was a quantitative term, not a qualitative term. Alexander was “the Great” not due to his charm and intelligence, but due to his power, possessions, and reach.

Throughout the Middle Ages – indeed into the late 19th century – it was preferable in most societies to be “good” than to be “great.” Goodness equated to moral fiber, standards of conduct, and defining values. Greatness was about achievement and accomplishment. Shakespeare muddied the waters mightily, using the word “great” humorously to state quality, while subtly implying girth.

A question raised by Alexander Pope, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Benjamin Disraeli and others is a question worth considering today: can true greatness be achieved apart from fundamental goodness? Is something large, powerful, successful, popular, and well run necessarily good?

Many churches strive to be great, but to the exclusion of being good. To strive to be good – to have integrity, wholeness, virtue, and grace – if often denigrated; it isn’t enough to be good anymore.

The consideration for our congregations is this: many, perhaps most, can never aspire to greatness as defined by Collins, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and many others. Leading the industry, squashing the competition, gaining market advantage, positioning at the top – these are not within reach of most of our churches, and in fact divert their attention from their real work.

What is within the reach of every congregation is “the good.” Each local church has the capacity to work for integrity, balance, wholeness, and radical community. Other words that spring from the root of good – ghedh – are gather and together. True good is not the work of any individual, but of the community.

Greatness is fine, and a commitment to excellence is never unwise, but let’s be fair to poor little “good.” Our church might make a world of difference if we were simply able to shift our thinking from Great to Good.

Research Update is produced by Dan Dick for the General Board of Discipleship. Information contained in Research Update is intended for internal use at the General Board of Discipleship and partner agencies UMCom/UMPH. It is not for reproduction without the author’s permission. You may contact Dan at ddick@gbod.org.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

dream fragment—mysticism and trust

i was a graduate student in search
of a topic for my dissertation:
the connection between east and west
—lotus land and the doctrine of justification by faith.

where do these night fabrications come from?
what prompts the dreamer’s concoctions?
here a pinch of a week long class in chi gong and yoga;
there a central tenant of christian grace—blend well.

“i am enough, i have enough, i do enough”
we repeat while resting on the floor.
“christ died for us while we were yet sinners”
the presider assures the faithful.

the soul’s mysticism, the perfect form,
a place to be, being in space and time,
being before god, god being for us,
all things connected, all accepted…

Note: I make no case here. I only share the edge of a dream upon waking. Somehow it reflects the ongoing quest for the strong center and the open door.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Daily Prayer: Cloister or Coffee Shop?

In “Frog Liturgy”—my previous blog—I noted two patterns that habituate seekers in prayer: (1) daily prayer (the communal “daily office”) and (2) weekly Lord’s Day liturgy gathered around water, word and meal. Here I will focus on daily prayer as a personal and communal discipline.

One of the primary dimensions of the liturgical renewal agenda of the last thirty years has been recovery of the “daily office”—the church praying at the cardinal points of the day: sunrise, zenith, sunset, and night. Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and perhaps other churches have official liturgical patterns and texts for prayer for these times of the day.

Having these services of prayer in our worship books and acquiring the regular use of them in patterning our daily prayer are two different things. The first is more or less accomplished, but the latter as a widespread practice is far from being widespread.

There is a plan
Robert Benson in a lecture on daily prayer playfully recalls his early years as a seeker when he heard the church insistently say, “Come to worship. Study the Bible. Pray daily.” He recalls that his church had a plan of practice for the first attending worship and studying the Bible, but for praying daily there was no plan. He recalls the church's presumption that he was supposed to know how to do it and to do it. He goes on to share his discovery that the historic church does have a plan; one that is largely unknown to ordinary Christians who know that they “should” pray daily—even want to pray daily—but don’t have a grace filled plan for how to do it. (By the way, Carolina Broadcasting & Publishing, Inc has a very useful resource featuring Benson introducing daily prayer and I commend it to churches and individuals who would like to take up this amphibious practice. Go to http://www.dailyprayerlife.com/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1 for details.)

Where do we pray--monastery or stairwell
If we are to be amphibious, inhabiting the present reality of daily life, and to simultaneously perceive and breathe in the realm of the Spirit, where do we pray? The question is both literal and metaphorical.

I learned Daily Prayer in the context of the monasteries that I regularly visited during my years of pastoral ministry. The faint smell of incense, the icons, the choir seating, the chanting of the Psalms, the periods of silence, and the sense of the holy and sacred were thick, sensuous, and delicious. Prayer in those cloistered settings was deeply formative and memorable. In days following my times at the monastery I continued to pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer with a sense that I was connected to the ongoing prayer of the church and specifically to those monastic communities. In fact, I still do. In pastoral life, I prayed daily prayer (inviting any and all in the congregation to join me--and some did!) in the church worship space. One man joined me daily for five years! In recent years as a worship specialist without local church assignment, I created an oratory in my home or found an acoustically rich stairwell or bathroom in my office building in which to sing the daily office. The monastic model nurtured and formed me in a life of marking the times of the day with the patterns of the daily office. In no way does what follows imply that monastic prayer is inadequate, misguided, or unnecessary.

It did, however, occur again to me yesterday as I prayed Morning Prayer at my table looking out the window at the ocean and neighborhood, that a vision of “secular” prayer might be more in order for non-cloistered seekers. Perhaps, I need an alternative vision and place for prayer that is equally formative, nurturing and delightful. My “oratory” downstairs in a corner of my office is fine and connects me to the monastic context, but sitting at the table upstairs opens me in ways that connect me to the workaday world and God's amazing creation.

Daily prayer in the postmodern context
In our postmodern context, delight, desire and sensuous connections are not to be shunned (as in earlier ascetic spiritualities), but to be embraced. Prayer in a garden, on a deck or lanai, in a bustling coffee shop, or in an office building window allowing a view of the city and its environs may be as connective as the prayer in the cloister is formative.

Thus positioned, praying the daily office allows for sensual connections and delights that evoke thanksgiving and sharpening of the vision of a world drawn up into the love and light of the Holy Trinity. It may provoke in us a deeper yearning for the reign of God in the midst of the endangered creation and the catastrophes of geopolitical conflict. In other words, the daily office context for non-monastic seekers is not the cloister or monastic house (focused on inner connections), but the worldly domain where outward connections are welcomed and delighted in or lamented. This is not to say that inner connections are not also made. In our postmodern context there is no hierarchy of inner and outer, spiritual and worldly, beatific and grisly.

The aim of all our prayer is recognition of God in all of God’s love and mystery. The result or fruit of the church’s prayer enacted in the ordo (pattern) of daily prayer is the divinization of self, community and cosmos. We consistently practice participation in the church’s prayer, whether solitary or gathered, so that our unique visions of God’s love and glory are connected in the concrete instances and realities of “our” experience of being person, society, and universe.

If the monastic or cloistered model fosters discontinuity for us, then the vision of where we are literally and metaphorically located needs to be reconstituted as “secular” prayer. The pattern (ordo) remains; the place and the sense are transformed.

One of the moments of grace and freedom for me several years ago was an article in Sacramental Life (published by the Order of Saint Luke), where Charles Hohenstein suggested that we may not be able to pray all of daily prayer liturgy (morning, noon, evening, night). Dealing realistically with our limitation, he suggested that we can pray parts of it that we have memorized to say or sing. I found it freeing to think that we can participate in the church’s prayer as we drive to work, or prepare the evening meal, or tumble tired into bed. While I usually pray all of Morning prayer, I pray parts of Evening Prayer as I walk the beach or noon prayer as we sit down to lunch.

Is this not a faithful way to hallow life and time and breathe the air of God’s coming reign? Might it be positively amphibious!