Plastic Christ: songs of absence

by Derek Olsen

My daughters, 10 and 8, are approaching the end of their first year at a Christian school. It’s been a bit of a shift for us, moving from the public school system. One of the chief things we’ve been adjusting to is contemporary Christian culture. While the school is non-denominational and has a roughly even blend of Roman Catholics and Protestants (and, yes, both are equally puzzled by the appearance of our Anglo-Catholic girls who don’t fit any of their paradigms!), there is a general embrace of the evangelical-flavored Christian subculture.

When my younger daughter arrived in her second grade class, she was quickly asked whether she preferred TobyMac or Justin Bieber. It was a culture question: do you participate in “Christian culture” or “secular culture”? Predictably for her, she said, “Neither one,” messing with their simplistic paradigm. (I still don’t know who TobyMac is…)

I do understand the desire behind the construction of a distinctly Christian subculture. Parents who choose to go in this direction can feel secure knowing that their religious values will be reinforced by the culture their children consume. It represents a way to conform externally to the same kinds of entertainment as the broader culture, but without the culture’s more problematic content. That's their choice; that's not the road that we have taken.

While there can be something very comforting about a “safe” Christian subculture, in the end I find its intention to insulate Christian culture from the broader culture misguided and ultimately dangerous. Yes, there are philosophies and attitudes antithetical to Christianity and Christian living in modern culture, especially in pop culture. Yes, there are songs and movies and such that I don’t let my girls listen to and watch. But ignoring them won't make them go away; attempting to hide your children from them is not a tenable long-term strategy. We regularly discuss the lyrics of the songs on the pop station in the car on the way to ballet, and I model for them what it looks like to listen and critique, noting what is both positive and negative.
More generally, though, we do a disservice to our work of evangelism, and to our own deep wrestling if we ignore what the culture is saying generally, and in particular what it is saying about and to the church.

images-1.jpegI drove the girls to school in my wife's car this morning. The radio was on, and, in an attempt to avoid the disc jockeys’ gossip about the latest pop princess, I switched over to the CD. I didn’t know what Meredith had in there; as a result, the soundtrack for our drive to school was Suicide Commandos’ “Plastic Christ”:

Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe,
That God will hear your cry?
Do you believe
In eternal life?
Do you believe
That you will never die?
Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe
That God will save your life?

The name of the band might tip you off to the fact that this is not a Christian group; half the moms in the second grade class would probably freak if they even suspected its presence in our car. However, there is no doubt that the lyrics wrestle with fundamentally religious questions.

My wife and I have never been into pop music. For my part, I find most of it musically and philosophically anemic. I much prefer the Goth and Heavy Metal from my youth, and, these days, much of the new music I listen to is best characterized as Industrial.
Industrial and its related genres like EBM (Electronic Body Music) aren’t all that common here in the US; it tends to be a more European and continental phenomenon. Nine Inch Nails is probably the best-known American representative of the genre. Like metal, it's best listened to at loud volumes; like Goth, it tends to wrestle with emotion, meaning, and aesthetics. Characterized by a heavy use of electronic instrumentation, sampling, and computer manipulation, as a genre it investigates the philosophical hole at the center of industrialized society in a post-certainty world. That is, in the aftermath of the 20th century when we saw the two great pillars of the Western social contract, the state and the church, fail humanity in dramatic fashion, where do we turn now for certainty, authority, and meaning? One possible answer is a Nietzschian nihilism trending towards hedonism as exemplified in the lyrics of folks like Marilyn Manson and Thrill Kill Kult. And yet, there are also much more articulate and nuanced approaches that explore humanism, spirituality, and post-Constantinian faith. Particular standouts for me are Assemblage 23 and VNV Nation.

While I'm sure some of the parents at my children's school would be scandalized by our choice of music, I see it asking some deep and important questions that the church needs to both hear and be able to answer. The lyrics to “Plastic Christ” can be read in at least two ways. One interpretation can see it as straightforward mockery of a simplistic faith. A better interpretation, I think, reads it as deeply ambiguous. The act of posing the question—rather than simply making an assertion—invites the listener into the question itself. Do you believe this, or don’t you? It invites soul searching. My answer is, naturally, “yes”—but the act of investigating the question, seeing how I qualify and interpret it, is an exercise worth conducting.

At its root, I see this song as participating in a body of songs in this genre that grapple with the question of the presence and/or absence of God. Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” and VNV Nation's “Gratitude” spring quickly to mind as other examples. We can, like the Christian subculture, try to duck the question. Or, as people of faith in but not of the world, we can listen to the question with integrity and attempt to respond to it in kind.

Indeed, I find this season of the year, as we walk through the last days of Lent and move towards the cross in Holy Week, the question of the presence or absence of God in the midst of suffering to have a particular poignancy.

Assemblage 23, brain-child of Seattle-based Tom Shear, confronts listeners directly in the catalogue of his own deeply personal struggles with this issue in “God Is A Strangely Absent Father”:

Depend on me
And I will let you down
You'd think you'd have learned by now
In your hour of need
I'm nowhere to be found
And while you bleed
I'm indifferent

[Chorus] God is a strangely absent father
His back is turned perpetually
All the orphaned sons and daughters
Abide in their suffering

That is the first verse and the chorus; there are two additional verses in the same vein.

What do we do with this? Some would simply write it off as modern impiety. But is that the best we can do? I’m a grown-up—I’ve heard blasphemy and impiety, but what I’m hearing here is pain. I’m hearing someone who has looked to God for solace and hasn’t found it.

First, I choose to treat this song as an honest question that people—particularly seekers—bear in with them through our doors (if they make it that far). Do we have an honest answer for them? If Tom Shear walked into your parish, sat next to you in your pew, and asked you point-blank questions about where God was in the world and in our lives, would you be able to give him an answer that doesn’t sound glib in the face of personal pain?

Second, hearing his lyrics remind me of others. Try on these:

[God,] Take your affliction from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
With rebukes for sin you punish us;
like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;
truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears.

For I am but a sojourner with you,
a wayfarer, as all my forebears were.
Turn your gaze from me, that I may be glad again,
before I go my way and am no more.

Or, perhaps, there’s this set:
Lord, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the
point of death;
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;

They surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.

Recognize them yet? If not, here’s your final clue:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.

These impious lyrics, these words which Jesus uttered from his own lips in his last moments, are all from the Psalms. That’s Psalm 39, 88, and 22 respectively. Usually psalms of lament will have sections like this, then make a turn that praise and thank God for his presence and salvation. Psalm 22 does this, and the end speaks of the vindication of the sufferer.

But Psalms 39 and 88 lack this completely. The sections I’ve excerpted contain the ends of both psalms. There is no happy turn. Psalm 88 literarily leaves us alone and in darkness.

Hearing “God is a Strangely Absent Father” gives me new ears to hear these psalms again. It helps me to be confronted and challenged by these scriptural words which confess the experience of divine absence spoken by unknown Israelites sometime over 2,500 years ago. It reminds me that our tradition made the deliberate choice to include and retain these psalms as words to be heard for posterity. These psalms give us no glib or easy answers, and they take on new poignancy as words from the cross itself, words spoken by the dying Christ.

In turn, the psalms lead me back again to the song, and ask me how I would hear it if it appeared under the rubric “psalm of lament”? Does it really sound so foreign alongside the words of the psalms? The psalms remind me that this is no new song—songs of absence have been sung by believers and non-believers alike throughout recorded religious history.

How often are we guilty of trying to shelter the church from the difficult words of Scripture and, in so doing, lose hold of the very passages where we see our forebearers—and our Lord himself—wrestling with these same hard questions that do not resolve themselves with easy answers?

If we were to cut ourselves off from the music and the art (and—dare I say it—the Scripture?) that asks us the difficult questions, does that makes us safer or more complacent and ultimately more afraid to face the hard questions ourselves?

As we enter the last days of Lent and the period of Holy Week, Jesus calls us into a place of suffering. It’s a suffering very much experienced in the world around us—as well as in our selves. Sometimes we are blessed by the power and presence of God in these moments.

Sometimes we’re not.

Sometimes we need to ask with Jesus “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we need to hear it and take it seriously from the lips of those around us.

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.

Noah: the movie and the myth

by Linda McMillian

For three years I taught English for Academic Purposes and English for Business in a university in eastern China. It was a fun and exhilarating time, and I found many things to interest me. But in the evenings, when all of us expat teachers would gather for a cool beer, the one thing we often spoke of was the wacky western names our students had chosen for themselves. Oh, sure, there were plenty of Peters, Marys, and Janes too. But there was also Dime, Tomcat, and King. Who could forget River, Sheriff, or Jupiter? And Ark. There was a boy named Ark.

I never asked my students what they might have been thinking when they came up with their western names. As long as they were happy, that was good enough for me. But I happened to be friends with Ark's mother, and, one day, I asked her about it. She is a passionate and expressive Chinese woman, middle-aged and newly middle class. "Oh, teacher," she said, grabbing my forearm, "Ark have all my hope, my mother hope, my grandmother hope. All the hope in Ark." And I asked her if she had heard of Noah and his famous ark? Turns out, that's where she got the idea.

So as I watched Noah's ark twist over the raging seas and across the silver screen last week, I thought of Ark Ding and the hopes that he carries. And I've been thinking about arks and their stories quite a lot since then.

There are only two genuine arks in the Bible: Noah's now-famous ark, and the ark that floated Moses to safety. (The other ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is actually more of a chest; the ancient word is not the same, so modern translations may be confusing on that point.)

They have quite a lot in common, these two arks. Both were made for floating: one on a river, one on flood waters. Both arks hid their occupants: The ark that held baby Moses hid him from death, and Noah's ark hid him from the power of the accusing angel. Moses’ ark protected him from the violence of the Egyptian city-state, and Noah's ark protected him -- and whoever else was with him -- from the wrath of God. Thus, the Hebrew people were saved by Moses, just as humanity itself had been saved by Noah and his followers. Both arks protected a precious cargo, both became famous, and both have been the star of a Hollywood movie.

In general, it shouldn't take too long to build an ark, but the Christian Bible says that it took Noah 120 years to build his. Why so long? Well, Islamic tradition holds that Noah had to first grow the trees before he could start building -- so that would account for a good many years. I don't know much about ark building, but I do know that 120 years is the number appointed for man to live (Genesis 6:3). I don't know of anyone who has actually made it to 120, but the detail is there for us to use in our storytelling. So when I read that it took Noah 120 years to build an ark, I think that the ark must have been the work of his lifetime, the crowning achievement of his days on Earth. So, I think that we can re-frame those words as "It took the best years of Noah's life, and was his crowning achievement."448px-Noah_mosaic.JPG

This makes Noah a lot like my friend in China. Her Ark, too, is the crowning achievement of her life. Building the child into a man is her work and her reward. It is her full-time job to get Ark into the best schools, to arrange the best tutors, to schedule the examinations and interviews. She is building an ark for all her hopes. I wonder if crusty old Noah could ever have imagined that, one day, he would inspire a delicate and sophisticated woman in a land he had never heard of?

Of course, we can't know that Noah was crusty at all. We are just telling stories... all of us. Darren Aronofsky, the director of the new film Noah, is telling us his story on the big screen, but he is not the first one to tell a story about a flood. The one closest to our own Christian version is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of how Utnapishtim built an ark to save himself and his family. In this story, God is called Ea, but he appears to be the same character who was previously called Enki by the Sumerians, and who would later be called Yahweh, the Lord God, and A'llah.

Search out the histories of such diverse places as Malaysia, Burma, and Australia and you will find stories of a great flood. Closer to hime, the Hopi, Inca, and Caddo all have flood stories. And I imagine that my Chinese friend, Ark Ding's mother, would be happy to tell you about their flood story in which A-zie and his sister, survived in a bottle gourd. After a bit of wrangling, they managed to repopulate the world but it's a bizarre story. You should look it up.

So, you see, there are lots of stories. In fact, there are as many stories as there are storytellers because, if we are honest, we all put our own spin on things.

In the weeks since the movie Noah has come out, we have been treated to a variety of "What's wrong with Noah" commentaries. So let me just be clear about something—there is nothing at all wrong with Darren Aronofsky's Noah story, my Noah story, or your Noah story. There may be parts of the story that are also historically, archaeologically, or scientifically true, but these are theological stories that we tell one another so that we can know God more fully. Their historical or scientific significance is secondary.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I love the science. Science, or history, or archeology can be true or false, and they broaden our understanding. But stories are true. That's the nature of stories. So, when Darren Aronofsky tells his Noah story, it is as true as any other story.

There were some things I liked about the movie, and some that I wished were different. You will no doubt have the same experience if/when you see it.

For one thing, I did not care for Aronofsky's depiction of the fallen angels, or for his portrayal of Methusaleh’s death. But his depiction challenged me and caused me to revisit my own Noah story and to clarify my thinking about it. Isn't that what a good story does?

I did like the film’s juxtaposition of fire and water. Both are destroyers. Both are purifiers. And they are both the gatekeepers to the Hebrew concept of Shalom which begins with a Shin (the kabbalistic letter for fire) and ends with a Mem (the kabbalistic letter for water.) Lamed, the middle letter in shalom (Shin, Lamed, Mem) is thought to be a grand and broad place. Lamed is the chief of all the letters, towering above the rest. We only arrive at the Holy Lamed of Shalom after we have been through the water or through the fire. Maybe both. So somebody did their Kabbalah homework when they wrote that bit in.

As for the "Crazy Noah" motif, I didn't have a problem with it. It wasn't part of my own Noah story when I entered the theater, but I am glad that Darren Aronofsky introduced that to me. I think it makes a lot of sense. After all, the process of deciding to build an ark far from water with nary a rain cloud in sight should make one a little bit crazy. The movie shows Noah struggling, consulting with others, and sometimes missing it altogether. Frankly, I can relate. I don't need a hero who is perfect. But my take-away from Aronofsky's Noah story is that, if a guy like Noah can be a hero, so can I. Because I make big mistakes too.

Noah_islam.jpgOne of the big mistakes Noah makes in Aronofsky’s film is that at one point he decides to ensure that all humanity is erased. But there is a funny take on this in the Islamic tradition. In that tradition, Noah preached and begged the people to repent. He really did do his best. But in the end he had only convinced 76 other people to join him in the ark. Even one of his sons didn't get on board (Koran 11:42). It was in utter frustration and despair that Noah prayed to God that he wipe everyone off the face of the earth (Koran 71:26). Later the writers of the Psalter would be equally passionate in their frustration and anger (Bible, Psalm 137), but we don't say that they were crazy—just that they were frustrated and angry. Darren Aronofsky let this facet of the story play out in a different way, but it is not something he made up out of thin air—it's part of other stories too.

Some people have made a lot of the fact that Darren Aronofsky does seem to make things up to fill in the canonical gaps. One of the things that I’ve heard is that Noah's wife is named and her character is fleshed out into full humanity. (Yeah, people complain about that.) But just because she wasn't named in the canonical version doesn't mean that Noah's wife did not have a name or a history. Just turn to Bereshit Rabba 23:3, where you can read that her name was Na'amah, which means “pleasant one.” The passage goes on to say that she was the sister of Tuval Cain... just like in the movie.

The biggest complaint I've heard from Christians is that it just doesn't seem very good of God to destroy the whole world. They think it makes Christianity look bad. But that is part of the story too. It's a story, remember? I think the story of Noah is a colorful reminder to us that we are living in a world that really is going straight to Hell, but that those of us who have been given an ark have also been given a responsibility to fill it up.

The good news is that there is a way out of the overwhelming waters, an escape from the smoke and fire. If you have the good news, if your ark is sitting high in the water, then it's time to get busy and fill it up. If Jesus comes back tomorrow -- we're telling stories remember -- then I want him to find my ark so crowded with joyful converts that it is about to capsize! I don't want to drift into heaven on the QE2. There's not a story about that.

So go see the movie. It's a good story. Think and re-think your own stories and tell them to one another. We're all going to get through the water, and we need our stories to help us on the way.

Linda "Lindy" McMillan is a native of the American state of Texas. She currently resides in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Lindy's vocation is adventure, expressed in the ministry of loving the world back to its peace in God.

Church Arson: facts and prevention

by Eric Bonetti

Arson? In my church? Not likely.

If you're like most people, you dismiss arson as a remote possibility--something that never could happen at your parish. "It mainly happens in urban churches," is heard all too often. Or, "We've never had an issue here."

The reality, however, is very different. Church arsons are commonplace and far more likely than, for example, a fire caused by candles or incense. Additionally, church arsons can be disastrous, wreaking havoc with church finances and the emotions of church members.

Here's what you need to know about church arson, and how you can prevent it.


1. Church arson is common

According to federal crime statistics, arson is a leading cause of church fires, led only by cooking and HVAC fires, and far more likely than candle-related fires, which are the fifth most likely. Approximately 130 churches are damaged or destroyed by arson every year.

2. Churches are particularly vulnerable to arson
Churches often follow a predictable schedule that increases risk. Additionally, churches typically are soft targets, with problematic design and landscaping features and lax attention to security issues.

The risk is exacerbated in the case of churches that are involved in controversial social issues, or that serve at-risk populations -- which describes the vast majority of Episcopal parishes. Consideration also must be given to disgruntled church members or employees.

3. Insurance is no solution
All too often, people say, "But we're insured--we even have full replacement value coverage." But that rarely solves the problem.

Time after time, law enforcement officials investigating church arsons hear people express their profound sense of shock, dismay, and even betrayal that arise when a fire is deliberately set. Such events typically rock a parish to its very core and take years to fully resolve, if ever.

Complicating these matters is the priceless nature of many church contents. Many churches contain beautiful stained glass windows, furniture and other items given in memory of deceased parishioners that carry with them great sentimental value.

Additionally, many churches that suffer a catastrophic fire discover that the skills needed to replace hand-carved stone and wood, mosaics, and other features common in churches are difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

Lastly, a major building project takes a long time and serious project management capabilities. Thus, even with insurance, parishes that have suffered an arson often face a long, uphill battle to recover.

4. Warning signs often abound prior to an arson

Law enforcement, government officials, and insurance carriers all agree that warning signs typically are present well in advance of an arson. These include vandalism outside the building, particularly if several incidents occur in a brief period of time, and if there are signs of activity (trash, debris, footprints) around remote parts of the building, such as basement windows.

5. There's nothing we can do to prevent arson
Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of arson, you can take simple, easy steps to reduce the risk.


Fortunately, it's easy to reduce the risk of church arson, and often costs little. Here's what you can do to make it less likely that your church will suffer a deliberate fire.

1. Assess the risk

Many local police and fire departments, as well as insurance carriers and locksmiths, are willing to conduct a free security survey of your facility. You also can do your own: Look for burned out lighting around the building, plantings or architectural features that create shadows around the building, and locks that are not deadbolts or old and worn. Look for flammable materials around the building, like dead grass, dumpsters full of paper or other risky debris, or containers of gasoline or other accelerants. Mulch also is risky--it's not only flammable, but it carries the added drawback of attracting termites.

When doing your survey, don't ignore the interior of the building. For example, ask yourself the question, "If someone breaks in, how easy is it to get into the sacristy, offices, nave, or other high-value areas?" While even a small fire can cause extensive smoke damage, your goal is to close and, preferably lock, as many interior doors as possible to limit the damage, and to reduce the likelihood of multiple intentional fires.

2. Know who has access

Do you know who has keys to your building and how many copies of those keys exist? If you're like most churches, you have no idea. Re-key locks every three to five years, and mark all keys "do not duplicate."

Don't hide keys on the property. Locksmiths and law enforcement alike will tell you almost every church they visit has one or more keys hidden near the office or sacristy. Such hiding spots become readily known, and are all too predictable. Even if you have an alarm system, someone who discovers keys in an office or elsewhere may have plenty of time to get into trouble before police can respond, even in a suburban church. And control access to your church after normal business hours--there are few legitimate reasons to be in the building between 10:00 p.m and 6:00 a.m.

In the event of lock-ins, vigils, or other legitimate overnight events, consider maintaining security in unused portions of the building. Particularly in large buildings, the presence of people in one area does not mean that other areas are automatically safe.

3. Don't rely solely on one type of security
The best security programs rely on three things: physical security, electronic security, and security awareness. None can fully substitute for the others, although you should of course start with good locks and lighting.

Most locksmiths can provide easy, affordable suggestions to improve physical security. Similarly, alarm system installers can provide recommendations for electronic systems, which are often very affordable. Just make sure that you own, versus lease, any alarm system that you install. Leased systems often involve expensive monitoring fees, combined with terms and conditions that make it difficult to change providers.

Another suggestion: Consider fencing areas around your church that cannot be seen from the street. While costly, fencing can be a powerful deterrent, as it makes it difficult to flee the area in a hurry. Just make sure you use chain link or other fencing that maintains visibility, or you will trade one issue for another.

Security awareness involves enlisting the aid of friends and neighbors, and taking note of anything unusual. See an unknown car in your lot when the church is empty? Get the tag number and call the police to request that they check on the property. But don't challenge questionable individuals yourself. Parishioners who live in close proximity to the church also may be willing to check the exterior of the building at random times, which can be particularly useful if a rectory is not located on the grounds.

4. Keep up with maintenance
Dealing with a difficult door? Get it repaired, before it provides unwanted access to your church. Burnt out lights? Same thing.

It's particularly important to quickly deal with vandalism, which often escalates to more serious issues. Repair any broken windows or graffiti immediately, and notify the police for even the smallest incidents. Even if the culprits aren't apprehended, police can increase patrols and prevent disaster.

Pay close attention, too, to maintaining fire and security alarm systems. Security professionals who work with churches often hear, "We have an alarm system, but it causes a lot of false alarms, so we don't use it much." Or, "But it's inconvenient to lock unused portions of the building!" Possibly true, but arson is a far greater inconvenience.

5. Recognize that prevention carries multiple benefits
Preventing arson involves increasing security, which in itself provides multiple benefits, including reducing the likelihood of vandalism and burglary. Additionally, steps such as controlling keys and access to unused areas of the building comports with many guidelines for preventing sexual misconduct, which recommend eliminating areas where inappropriate conduct can occur unobserved.

In short, while it's important to maintain your parish as an open, inviting place, that are easy steps you can take to reduce risk and maintain a safe environment for all who use the building.

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

Asking too little

by Ann Fontaine

In the course of my interim ministry and training work I have been observing churches and their lives. I am coming to a conclusion that we ask too little of people and the result affects our church growth, both in numbers and in our depth of life in Christ. I do not have any hard evidence or measurable data just my experiences.

My thinking about "are we asking too little," came from a person who started attending church with her husband. He had grown up in the Episcopal Church but she had grown up in what we now call the “none” church. She had no knowledge of or feelings (positive or negative) towards church. After they had attended for a while she wondered to me why they did not ask anything of her. She felt they were nice and welcoming but shouldn’t there be more? I have heard this from others since that time.

This was the beginning for paying attention to what I see as a failure to ask enough of those who are coming to church to find something more than a social club. In the old days church was just a thing people did. They joined to find friends or for business contacts or to look like a good person. Now none of those reasons for church are necessary. At least in the Pacific NW people get those needs met elsewhere. The only thing we have to offer that is different is Christ and a way of life.

As I see growing churches I see churches who raise the bar on membership. Just showing up occasionally and having ancestors who were once active is not enough. All are welcome but to really be a member requires more. Can we be totally welcoming as a church, offering all we have: sacraments, ministry, and care, unconditionally, to those who walk through the doors? At the same time can we ask more of those who want to be part of the decision making and shaping of the life of the church? It is a fine line and one that invites continual reflection.

"Below the fold" is an example of one church's process. The result is increased numbers, more commitment, and increased depth of faith. The essential steps were looking at the core values of the church and if they are the values it wants to continue, developing a mission statement, in the language the church uses, that reflects those values and asking people to make a commitment to be present and support the church through service and giving.

This example is just one way a church can develop a process of deepening faith and life and commitment. Development will vary according to the core values of each church. I believe it is essential to do the work of discovery before any other steps.

What I have come to believe is that we often ask too little of people. And they go away saying, “is this all there is?” Instead let us be bold and share the gift we have been given so people will find spiritual nurture, a place to center their hearts and exercise their gifts.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine lives on the Oregon Coast and oversees communications for her local St Catherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church. She is a trainer and mentor in the Education for Ministry program and an editor for Episcopal Café. Her book is Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on scripture

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Singing the Lord's song: justice and the church

by George Clifford

Owen Thomas was first a physicist and then a theologian in the Anglican tradition. He is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and an adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Additionally, he has taught at the Gregorian University in Rome and served as president of the American Theological Society.

His credentials caused me to pause when I read the following in an article he authored:

The presence of the reign of God is a matter primarily of outward signs and actions rather than the progress and perfection of the inner life. The focus of the reign of God is primarily on public, communal, political, economic, and historical life rather than on private interior life. The traditional emphasis in Christian ascetical theology on interiority has led the Church in its mission to focus primarily on private, emotional, and family life to the exclusion of public, work, and political life. ("Interiority and Christian Spirituality," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan 2000), 59)

Lest one succumb to the temptation to dismiss his view on the primacy of the external over the interior for Christian spirituality with an ad hominem attack (e.g., what else should one expect from a physicist?), Thomas' justification for his conclusion is worth considering. He argues that Christians splitting the spirit from the body and assigning priority to the former is odds at with the totality of our tradition. Jewish spirituality emphasized the unity of body and spirit. The Gospel of John echoed that message by prominently declaring that the Word became flesh. Thomas stands in good company. Contemporary historians of Christian spirituality like Urban Holmes share Thomas' assessment that Christian spirituality rightly emphasizes the external over the interior.

Lent is an especially appropriate season in which to revisit this insight. In Lent many of us pay extra attention to our spiritual journeys (this is good). However, we tend to interiorize this focus seeking to identify the breaks in our relationship with God and to become more attuned to God's presence through more time in prayer and study. We may choose a spiritual discipline designed to help us in that achieving those goals, even using nominally outward oriented disciplines such as fasting or helping others to improve our interior life. Inadvertently, perhaps unintentionally, we further divorce the spirit from the body, as the spiritual slowly becomes ever more synonymous with the interior life (this is not so good).

Over the last few decades, I have listened as numerous Episcopalians – as well as persons from other Christian traditions – criticized the Episcopal Church's seeming preoccupation with social justice and human rights to the exclusion of evangelism, prayer, etc. Perhaps one source of this criticism has been that we have failed to express our concern for social justice and human rights effectively and consistently in Christian language. Assuredly, a second source of this criticism has been the widespread preoccupation with interiority that Thomas noted.

Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has made enormous strides towards more fully incarnating God's justice. Although far from perfect, we more clearly stand for the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or gender orientation. We seek to welcome all, regardless of income, political affiliation, or theological/liturgical distinctions. With each step we have taken in these directions, others and I have discerned God's presence and activity in our midst.

Now, I hear God calling us to sing another stanza in the Lord's song. This stanza has us:

• Bringing good news to the poor (e.g., working to create a strong social safety net and to ensure all have quality, affordable healthcare while questioning the justice of an economic system that allows one corporation to buy another for $2 billion when the latter has no marketable product, let alone made a profit),
• Proclaiming release to the captives (e.g., campaigning to free hundreds of thousands from among the millions incarcerated in our nations jails and prisons),
• Helping the blind recover their sight (e.g., teaching people to see as God sees),
• And liberating the oppressed (e.g., aiding the victims of addiction, wounded warriors returning home with unrecognized psychic and moral injuries, and opposing tyranny, slavery, and exploitation everywhere).

Such is the year of the Lord's favor.

This is not a ministry of ashes on the street, which is sadly more often theater than a ministry of enduring substance. Singing the Lord's song is a ministry of transformation, of awkwardly, perhaps even uncertainly, living into a new reality, the Kingdom of God on earth. In singing the Lord's song, we follow in the footsteps of the prophets and of Jesus, doing as they did, not foretelling the future, but discerning God at work in the world establishing justice, embracing with love, and empowering for life.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings ().

Apologies do not count when you shout them

by Maria L. Evans

"Apologies do not count when you shout them."--from "The Journal of Best Practices," by David Finch

David Finch is a man whose marriage is in big trouble--until he realizes he may have Asperger Syndrome. In his book, "The Journal of Best Practices," he details how he re-tuned his normally distracting, disruptive hyper-focus into commitment towards saving his marriage. Because he takes things incredibly literally, he writes down instructions to himself in what he refers to as "the Journal of Best Practices." Although this book can be incredibly uncomfortable at times (for a variety of reasons), his list, meant for himself, turns out to be pretty good simple advice for many of us during Lent, when many of us struggle with sorting through issues involving reconciliation and forgiveness.

Most of his notes to himself are short pithy sentences--things like "Be her friend, first and always," "Use your words," and "Help her with the laundry,"--in a way, not so unlike some of Jesus' clearer instructions about forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn't mince words either--"Seventy times 7," "Whenever you stand praying, forgive," and "Love your enemies," just to name a few.

What David Finch found out, though, after a time, was that no matter how simple the items on the list were worded, it could still become confusing, conflicting, and convoluted when there was no context involved. Even for someone whose mind worked in such a literal way, he began to understand (sometimes in hilarious ways, at other times in very painful ways) that there was a place where his meticulous lists didn't work. It would cause his temper to flare and his wife to burst into tears or lash back. In the end, he comes to realize that it was as much the business of creating and understanding the context of his Journal of Best Practices, as it was the best practices themselves. He learns that relationships, particularly our more intimate ones, are about simply being present, and forgiving and reconciling when we are not present enough...or too present.

Likewise, when we take those pithy statements that Jesus says in the Gospel, and start to move them from ancient time to our time, particularly when they are in the middle of parables that we can't fully understand the context of them in his contemporary world, those statements can at times run counter to our modern way of thinking about them. Jesus' simple statements can seem conflicting, unreasonable in a modern context, or even harsh. We can find ourselves paralyzed in knowing the next best move to get to a place of forgiveness or reconciliation. It might even, at times, feel like the best thing to do is withdraw or hide from them.

We don't have to be on the autism spectrum or know someone who is to appreciate that any of us, on any given day, can well be suffering from a sort of "relationship autism." We are imperfect beings and even the most astute of us can find ourselves in that spot of lashing out, or having a conflict that we are taking in a very literal sense, when in reality we've missed all the cues that hint that there is really more to what's behind the conflict than the conflict itself. It might be because we really don't know and understand the story of the person we're dealing with--their old painful triggers. We might be oblivious to our own painful triggers and need some work to excavate their history. It might be because we're using a mode of communication that creates limits on our interactions--for instance, how many fights have we seen break out when we're limited to 140 characters?

Likewise, being "too present" can be just as problematic. No matter how educational our own experiences have been in understanding the various mistakes in life, enabling or manipulating prevents others from making their own mistakes and "hitting their own bottom." Sometimes our best-intentioned advice or actions, in truth, reveal that we are struggling with our own discomfort factor more than we are the other person's problems or feelings.

No doubt, any of us can benefit from making our own "Journal of Best Practices"--but when the list becomes convoluted, it's probably best to realize our best chance at forgiveness and reconciliation will be in the recognition of when we are "too present" or "not present enough."

When is a time you struggled to find the balance in being "just present enough?" What did you learn from discovering your own "best practices" in life through the lens of the Gospel?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Evaluating ourselves

by Marshall Scott

Ah, siblings, it is that time again! Oh, sorry; what time? It is the time for preparing for annual reviews.

For me, there are two projects for that preparation. The easy one – well, not exactly easy, but easier – is preparing my own materials for my boss to review. Far and away harder is it to prepare to evaluate those who report to me. How shall I do that, and be fair? Indeed, what does fair mean? It has to mean accurate, of course. In some sense, it has to be just (a more complex consideration than “fair”), both to the work provided by the employee and the work expected by the organization on behalf of those served (in my case, patients, family members, and staff of our hospital, and members of the community around us; and, indirectly, the diocese that stands behind the hospital). I think it also has to be compassionate, acknowledging that each person has had different needs and experiences over the past year that have affected how and when that person worked.

I have tools to bring to this process, of course. Last year at this time I asked these same people to set goals for themselves. I even had some standards for those goals. There are many such standards in use, but I’ve long used SMART; and there are several definitions of SMART, but I’ve used “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Trackable.” So, all my employees should have goals to measure against, goals that they themselves chose. Those are helpful, of course; but they also have their limitations. If the goal wasn’t completed, how much progress is enough? If no progress was made, how much of that was the responsibility of the employee? More often, this is part of the conversation: “Well, I said I would pursue A, B, and C; and I didn’t get to C. On the other hand, D and E came up and were very important, and I did well with them.” Were D and/or E more important than C? Or, were they simply important enough?

And there certainly are events that inhibit progress that aren’t the fault of the employee. There are personal and family events, both sad and happy. And there are changes in the environment, from the goals of our institution to the social dynamics of health care, that can make some goals irrelevant or unattainable. In that light, how did the employee respond? This is one of those points where I think compassion comes in, not only as a factor in how I relate to my employees, but also as a measure I model for other managers and administrators.

Then there are the tools for assessment. We have a good tool, and employees can use it both to request feedback from co-workers and also to evaluate themselves. It is the institution’s tool, and not my own; and so I might have phrased differently some of the questions. On the other hand, the principles and values behind the questions are valid and clear.

The hard part about this tool, of course, is what it means to be “fair” from the other side. We describe ourselves in ways that we might call “hopeful,” and we ask for feedback from others we expect to do the same (and I use “we” advisedly here, because I’m not better than anyone else on that point). I don’t think folks want to be inaccurate – to lie – but I acknowledge that we all want to put our best foot forward, as it were. So, the feedback over all begins to remind me of that literary creation from our fellow Episcopalian, Garrison Keillor: “all the children are above average.” Each year I am reminded by good folks in Human Resources that if our standards are appropriately high, simply Achieving those standards is an accomplishment; and that Exceeding Expectations should be unusual, and Outstanding performance rare. Being a clinical, scientific endeavor, we can all envision a bell curve (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually illustrate it this way), with a broad, high middle section of “Achieves,” with a small “Exceeds” section and an even smaller “Outstanding” section to one side; and a measurable (if not too big) section of “Fails to achieve” to the other. But, of course, as clinical and scientific as our context is, neither our employees nor their work are exactly amenable to measurement. That is not true only of chaplains, but of chaplains it is, I think, particularly true.

All these things go through my mind as I try to think through, not simply whether this chaplain or that “Achieved” or “Exceeded,” but also whether I have. How shall I evaluate myself? What rational, and what rationalizations do I consider? And if I will consider those rationalizations for myself, mustn’t I also consider them for those who report to me?

There is something to be said about it being “that time again.” Specifically, there is something to be said for me in that “that time” comes at this time. Because this activity takes place in the spring, it always takes place, to a greater or lesser extent, in Lent. All of these questions about what is accurate, what is just, what is positive, what is rationalized, are as important in my soul as they are on my desktop. If I understand that we are all called by God, and are called in part by God to reflect God’s presence in the midst of my life and work, then how I live both as employee and as employer are relevant for contemplation. What have I done to take those good values entrusted to me by those I report to and enable those to report to me to reflect and achieve them? What have I done to help those I work with live out their ministries, whether they report to me or I report to them? If I take seriously this process, it is my spiritual process reflected in my employment setting. It is an exercise in humility.

So, I end up turning this around. This management process in my institution is just as meaningfully a management process in my relationship with God. Perhaps that seems obvious for a person whose work is “clergical” (to distinguish it from that other honorable meaning of “clerical”). I find myself thinking, though, that it has a more universal application. We passed not long ago the Spring Ember Days – unobserved, largely, except by those Postulants and Candidates who write letters and those bishops who read them. I was looking again at the collect for the first of the Ember Days:

“Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, in your divine providence you have appointed various orders in your Church: Give your grace, we humbly pray, to all who are [now] called to any office and ministry for your people; and so fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, that they may faithfully serve before you, to the glory of your great Name and for the benefit of your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

The rubric in the Prayer Book identifies this collect as “For those to be ordained.” I couldn’t help but think, though, that we teach four orders of ministry; and that “any office and ministry for your people” seems to me include any of the four. If we are called to reflect God’s presence in daily life – if we are called by God to reflect God’s presence in daily life – then “any office and ministry” is not just limited to how we are called in and through the institution of the Church, or how we are called formally to participate in Word and Sacrament. It must reflect how each of us is called now, and what each of us is called to.

So, how during this Lent will we evaluate our performance? If we were to take all our ministries seriously enough that we wrote an Ember Day letter, what would we include? What goals have we set, and how well have we accomplished them? Even if there is some point at which we were Outstanding, how often did we simply Achieve – or perhaps Fail to Achieve? Each of us has been called to some office or ministry by God, served within some order of ministry. How would we evaluate our performance? We know it is not our performance that can save us; but any realistic assessment of our performance must convince us of our need for the One who can.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Fred Phelps is dead

by Linda Ryan

Fred Phelps is dead. The founder and patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) died in Topeka, Kansas, Wednesday, March 19th, of an undisclosed illness. He was 84 at the time of his death. Fred Phelps and his church are highly recognizable names to much of America, and that was (and is) the way they want it.

Phelps and his followers are most known for their picketing of funerals of those with whom they vehemently disagree: those who died of AIDS, young gay men like Matthew Shepard and even the very straight Jerry Falwell who, in the opinion of the WBC, didn’t go far enough in condemning homosexuality. They picketed the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that God struck them down for defending the US and its increasing acceptance of homosexuality.

Their fame, or notoriety, grew through those outrageous public acts which they claimed as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The church, mostly made up of Phelps’ family members, included a number of lawyers all too ready to file suit against anyone who curtail their appearances or rights to be as vocal and obnoxious as they chose. One case against them went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that they could not be sued for monetary damages resulting from mental or physical anguish caused by the WBC’s demonstration at a family funeral. The WBC was guaranteed the right of free speech – but the door was also opened for other groups, on any side of a given issue, to have their say, no matter whether or not they conformed to what was generally considered the religious or social norms of the majority.

As Phelps aged, he went out less and less, leaving the active demonstrating to his family. Gradually, it seems, his influence with the church also waned and leadership of the congregation changed to non-family members. According to some news reports, Phelps was excommunicated from the church he had founded because he had endeavored to create a kinder relationship among church members. Somehow, given the images of Fred Phelps, the word “kind” does not seem to fit. Who knows? Away from the spotlight he might have been a real prince.

Members of the WBC appeared to indicate that Phelps would not have a funeral because the church does not believe in “Worshipping the dead,” as they stated it. How ironic that the man who picketed so many funerals would not be having one of his own, but then, perhaps it is just as well. For some, the opportunity to retaliate in kind might just be too strong to resist.

One thing I wonder, though, is if there is anyone who is really mourning Fred Phelps? His family seems divided between those who left the church years ago and were estranged from the patriarch and those who stayed on and carried on the mission he had laid before them. There are reports of abuse from some of Phelps’s many children, but others say he took a Biblical view of punishment and did it strictly by Biblical standard. But do any of them mourn his passing? Certainly the WBC isn’t draping itself in funereal black and planning a grand sendoff for the founder of their congregation. The communiqué on their website is a scripture-laced (if highly selective choice and interpretation of text) condemnation of much of what mainstream (and even outside-the-mainstream) Christian communities stand for.

The GLBTI community, people who have probably more reason to rejoice than just about anybody, has those who have expressed joy and relief that Fred is no longer among the living. On the other hand, there are also a number who have expressed their belief that God will judge Phelps and that they had no need or right to do so. There have been prayers offered for him, just as for anyone who has died. Some too have offered forgiveness for the unrepentant Phelps. They take the words of Jesus very much to heart and forgive for their own soul’s sake as much as to release any ill will and resentment against him.

In a way, it is said that Fred Phelps did gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (GLBTI) a kindness with his rhetoric of hate and outrageous public behavior. People looked at the WBC and its antics and began to see GLBTI in a slightly different light, especially as family members and friends began to come out. How odd that the current climate of growing acceptance of equality between straights and GLBTI began with such hatred and malice. There is still a long way to go before globally and even here in the United States that GLBTIs can enjoy all the rights and benefits their straight counterparts already enjoy, but it getting closer. It seems almost ironic that such progress could begin with someone like Fred Phelps and his religion of hatred and judgment.

So what now for poor Fred? Is his fate to be laid in a wooden box and whisked away to an undisclosed grave where he will become part of the regeneration of the earth but without any kind of marker to attract unwanted attention? Will he become another resident in a local cemetery that will grow into a tourist attraction? Will he be cremated and his ashes scattered to the four winds? Has he reached the pearly gates and had God say in a kindly voice, “Hullo, Fred, I’ve been waiting for you. Come on over here; I have a few things to explain to you …” or perhaps he’s been met by Matthew Shepard and all those whose funerals he tried so hard to disrupt?

Still, I have to wonder, is there anyone to mourn Fred and to grieve for the man who made a decision to fight the civil law instead of defending it and instead to push for his version of God’s law instead of following the footsteps of Jesus? Will anyone regret his passing and miss his presence in their lives?

Fred Phelps was and is not the only person of his kind, but was undoubtedly the most openly vocal and visible about it, saying loudly and often crudely things that some think but dare not express aloud. There are still those who openly agree with every word he said and applaud every public demonstration of those words. Conversely, there are some who are on the exact opposite end of the scale with most others falling in between the two.

The Westboro Baptist Church will go on with its same activities, under new leadership, raising up a new generation to follow in its footsteps. The world will continue turning and life will go on, sometimes changing laterally, sometimes regressing, sometimes progressing. Fred Phelps is now a part of history and, as a baptized Christian, part of the Communion of Saints although I suspect he will never be listed in the bracket for Lent Madness*. I wonder if, in a hundred years or even fifty years, people will look back and wonder about Fred Phelps and pray that he has received the justice and mercy God promises to all.

Rest in peace, Fred.

*Lent Madness is a wonderfully informative and highly amusing Lenten practice from the publishing house that brings us the daily devotional Forward Day by Day. It features saints both ancient and modern pitted against each other in a format much like that of the NCAA. To see it in action, please visit Lent Madness and join in the contest.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Rebuilding the Church one leader at a time (with a shovel)

By Julia Groom

It’s no secret. The Episcopal Church has been in decline since we peaked in the 1960’s. About 50 Episcopal churches are now closing each year. For most parishes, what felt like a pinch in the budget, now feels like a punch. Yet we’ve been SO slow to change.

Remember the March of Dimes? They were founded to eradicate polio. When that happened they had to either fold or find a new focus that was relevant to their core beliefs. They chose the latter. Their new purpose is to eliminate birth defects.

The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) asked diocesan staff what they needed to help congregations thrive in this new culture. They responded ‘we want to brainstorm with the best of them, learn how others are finding solutions.’ So, for the past four years the ECBF has offered a national symposium, Buildings for a New Tomorrow (BNFT). We’ve learned the best practices for closing and merging congregations, how to drastically reduce energy costs, and ways to raise revenue through some very novel ways of using church buildings. We keep finding innovators who have something new to offer.

This year the focus has expanded to include the land. The keynote speaker, Ron Finley, has been described as the “eco-lutionary Gangsta Gardener of South Central LA.” He is well known for challenging the city government to allow growing produce in the parkway strip between curbs and sidewalks. He’ll waste no time with folks who are just fascinated by chatting. You are invited to bring your shovel and “Let’s plant some sh*t”, which is the theme for this year’s symposium (in Fort Lauderdale, April 28-30). Check out his TED Talk or featured articles in “Spirit”—the magazine of Southwest and AirTran airlines, as well as in The New York Times. His appearance at BFNT has been underwritten by Church Insurance, of the Church Pension Group.

We don’t have all the answers, that’s why have brought others to the table. The Anglicans in Canada will be coming to teach. A huge contingent from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will be attending. We are so excited to be starting new partnerships with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and the United Church of Christ, both of whom are funding this year’s event.

I’m stunned at how quickly this response has gelled from other church leaders. It just shows that our work crosses denominational lines. All churches are facing the same challenges. Our energy is fully focused on creating creative chaos so new solutions can emerge.

Bonnie Anderson, the former president of the House of Deputies, is offering her wisdom from serving as senior warden of her parish in Pontiac, Michigan. That economically depressed city is described as “the town for sale” since many public buildings are available for purchase and the challenges to her parish are daunting. Bonnie will “Light Lay People’s Pants on Fire,” a passion of her ministry.

I’m grateful that so many people across the Episcopal Church, and now our ecumenical and international partners, are moving the Church forward. You can see some of what has been offered last year at the symposium and check out our agenda for April’s gathering.

I’m willing to bet you’ll be inspired if you join us. Some self-described cynics have told us past symposia have given them hope. This year looks even better.

Julia Groom is president of the Episcopal Church Building Fund which is based in Richmond, Virginia. She may be reached at

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Singing the Lord's Song

by Donald Schell

What is it we’re really doing together in church?

Actually what do we think we’re doing together in any human community or collaborating group?

How do we find our God-given humanity in community?

And what’s the natural connection between church activity, especially in worship, and other human activity?

Through forty years of priesthood, I’ve found these questions keep getting bigger and more interesting. Some church colleagues seem to hear a judgment or skepticism I don’t intend when I ask these questions.

In fact though, I’m grateful the questions don’t ask themselves from an alienated skepticism. They show up with a mostly enjoyable, usually patient, not-knowing, a Godly Play sort of wondering. My wondering continues to renew my hope. My only impatience is to see on regularly on the watch for human creativity, courage, and compassion wherever they shows up, and when we glimpse this Trinity, wherever we catch its movement, to sniff the air for a trace of the Spirit of Jesus.

With a bit of intuition, a handful of hunches, and my small bundle of discoveries, following the questions’ energy feels as exhilarating and anxious (and as charged with wild energy and human hope) as chasing after tracking dogs who’ve found a scent of a child lost in the woods.

But this story doesn’t begin in the woods. Early one recent morning my wife and I drove up the Interstate to join our daughter walking from her house to the community center pushing her daughter, our eleven month grand-daughter Hannah in her stroller.

At exactly 10 we arrived at the center. Apparently the building had once been an elementary school, but the long deserted hall felt far too quiet for a school. There was no one in sight, and no voices except bulletin boards announcements of yoga classes, support groups, art classes, various kinds of lessons, and community interest notices.

Then our daughter opened an unpromising classroom door on a startling blur of adults and small children shaping themselves into a large human circle on the carpeted floor. The cinderblock walls resonated with parents’ and children’s voices. Their circle almost touched the walls of the square room, but as we slipped off our shoes, and unsnapped Hannah to lift her out of the stroller, moms scooted to make places for us in the circle just as Jenny, the Music Together teacher, began a rhythm.

Ellen and I smiled at each other seeing our granddaughter’s bright, expectant eyes. This is what we’d come for. Everyone joined Jenny, the teacher, slapping our thighs and then the floor in front of us in time. As we slapped, we all also followed Jenny rocking side-to-side or forward and back.

No, wait. If I smooth over this part of the story, we’ll lose something important. As soon I wrote “everyone” and “we all,” what I was remembering was the children, mostly younger, who happily watched or wandered (walking or crawling) within the circle. Most of us were slapping the floor and our thighs, but somehow song and movements, watching and wandering made a single whole.

Building on a rhythm we were making together, Jenny shifted seamlessly to the greeting song that Maria and Mateo’s mother and grandmother and all the regulars knew. Ellen and I learned the song quickly and joined easily. Jenny called out the children’s names so our song greeted them one by one, and after we’d sung a greeting to each child, Jenny led us singing a generic welcome to the mothers, to the dad, to the two grandmas, and to the grandpa (me).

Jenny modeled another gesture and song, and we followed her. Our singing and movement unfolded with few spoken directions or none. Intermittently the smaller crawling and walking children participated singing and clapping or moving with us. Sometimes they stopped to look and listen.

I thought frequently about peripheral vision, how we use our peripheral vision to sense the presence of those around us, guiding ourselves to caution or trust. I watched myself watching the group, relishing my recent learning that the rods of our peripheral vision are over a thousand times more sensitive to movement than our central vision. I watched the group, even the wandering little ones, watching each other in peripheral vision, taking in the movement and feeling of the leader and the circle. We were collaborating, not only by following Jenny’s lead, but with that eye and ear consensus you can spot watching and listening to an a cappella group or a string quartet.
Jenny laid a basket of egg-shaped shakers in the center of the circle. Grownups and children crawled and toddled out to share them around the circle, leaving any additional shakers clumped here and there inside our perimeter. Jenny started us singing, “Mary wore a red dress, all day long.” The few of us who didn’t know it learned the song quickly by ear. Jenny led us playing at different rhythm patterns and gestures with the shaker eggs. Then she asked parents to call out a favorite activity of their child. Pairing children’s names in paired verses around the circle we sang favorite activities like “Maya eats bananas” and “Seth loves funny jokes” to our tune, “Mary wore a red dress.”

And Hannah meanwhile had crawled to the middle of the circle where the basket had been.

Our daughter had told us that Jenny (like all Music Together teachers) asked that visitors participate because having all the adults model participation was intentional in the learning process. In 1995 just after St. Gregory’s San Francisco moved into our new church, we had two Music Together morning classes like this in our worship space each week. I’d glimpsed them at work when I had reason to go into the church, but I’d kept my head down, not wanting to interrupt. The memory I carry from those glimpses is sight rather than sound - young mothers and small children seated in a circle in our big rotunda, altar space, and even seated, kneeling or cross-legged how they moved together to mark a rhythm. That was my memory - the peripheral glance and unfocused seeing of a circle just like this one. Oh, I also remember a small feeling of regret that Music Together wasn’t something we’d known to do with our children. So this time, I’m grateful that our daughter’s doing it with Hannah.

In the fifteen years or more since I’d known Music Together as our church’s tenant I’d been looking for ways to develop congregational and community music making, especially singing together. As we were developing Music that Makes Community, we kept asking ourselves:

- How can we free people to sing who didn’t know that they could?
- What gives people the courage to own their voices and a shared song?
- What moves people to improvise and create and share a new song?

Over those years I had (and continue to have) the privilege of working with skilled musicians to recover and share the wisdom and practices of traditional oral transmission music making. Over that decade and a half occasionally someone would mention Music Together. Then recently I’d watched my friend Emily Scott leading workshops on making oral transmission, paperless music with children. Emily is the founding pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn and before that had been my founding program director for our Music that Makes Community project. As she was beginning St. Lydia’s, Emily supported herself as director for children’s music at First Presbyterian Church New York City. For that work she’d combined practices we’d developed together with what she’d learned from subsequent training in Music Together. Recently Emily had suggested I take a good look at Music Together to learn from their practice, so our daughter’s invitation to visit Hannah’s class came at a great moment.

Woops, we just left Hannah in another moment. No regrets about my digression, except that I just now left Hannah in the middle of the circle with egg-shaped rattles in every direction. So –

- what happened as we continued singing and keeping time with our shakers was that Hannah crawled to one shaker, picked it up, spun herself from crawling to sitting, picked up second egg in her other hand, dropped both, crawled again to another shaker and then another, and then settled in front of her grandmother, took a shaker in each hand, fixed her eyes on Jenny, and began to shake her eggs to match the simple rhythm of the group. I felt, as grandparents can, like I was falling in love with this small person. I loved that she’d felt, and seen, and heard the invitation in the music. I loved that she’d taken a shaker in each hand. I was astonished at the ordinary human brilliance that allowed her to keep time with us. And I was touched to the heart by the peaceful, rapt look on her face watching Jenny lead us.

Was this a musical moment? A human moment? I’d say it was emphatically both a musical moment and a human moment. And there’s more.
Peter Brook, the great theater director said, “ A holy theater not only presents the invisible but also offers conditions to make its perception possible.”

Obviously the Music Together class wasn’t theater, but it was moment that offered conditions to make seeing the invisible possible, so I’d venture to call it a holy moment.

The movement, the gestures, and the music Jenny was guiding us through brought us and Hannah to that moment, so if not theater, were these classic building blocks of ritual making a liturgy? Again, the simple answer would be, “of course it wasn’t liturgy.” But the simple answer misses something of God’s unsolicited presence in our simplest shared rituals.

The Russian priest and liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, “Worship is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.”

What is the deep reality of the world? The “conditions that make perception possible” the “vantage point” we’d arrived at showed something unexpected at the very heart and center of our world. Not the inevitable threats and troubles that fill the news, not the self-doubt and self-protection that diminish and sometimes paralyze us, not the monstrous deformity of envy and malice that destroy others, but a little child leading us by finding her place in the circle of humanity.

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:36-37.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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