Friday, March 25, 2011

Bearings, Part II: Playing with the Angles

Shivering sail killendes Segel
When your ship is under engine power, the process of taking and using bearings is relatively simple. Use your map to identify known points and the distance between them, measure the angle between your position and those two positions, and use that to calculate your relative position. Then use relative positions over time to calculate speed. The crew simply adjusts throttle, rudder, and other fairly predictable components to correct or keep course.

Things aren't quite so simple, though, if your ship is under wind power. Exactly where, when, and how much the wind will blow at any particular time and place is ultimately unpredictable. Winds can move from gusty to still, and from one direction to the opposite, in a manner of seconds, sometimes. As that happens, it's no longer enough to identify the fixed points and know the distance between them. Now one also has to play with the angles of the sails as well. 

Steer the sails too into the wind, and you'll go faster at your current heading. Turn them to the side a bit, and you'll go a bit slower, making it possible to start changing your angle in the opposite direction. Put the sails parallel to the wind, and you will slow down considerably, a useful maneuver if you're coming in too fast or find you're heading in the wrong direction and need to make a larger course correction. 

Again, the challenge-- the wind remains unpredictable. 

Jesus said something about this. "The wind blows where it will, and you can hear its sound, but you know neither where it came from nor where it is heading. That's how it is for everyone born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). 

And so it is for everyone planning and leading worship with such Spirit-born folk!

You can get your general bearings from reliable maps-- like the church year and the lectionary. But the vessel you're planning to pilot has sails. So it's not enough to know what season it is or what text to use. You have to keep catching the winds and readjusting, playing with the angles.

That's true both during the planning phases for worship, and especially when you and others are leading worship in the moment. 

Playing with the Angles: Planning
I am convinced that one of the reasons worship falls flat-- or worse!--  in so many of our congregations is a less than "inspired" approach to worship planning. In 2009, I ran a survey for users of GBOD Worship Website about how they were using the worship planning helps I develop. Among the things I wanted to know from users was how worship planning worked where they were. 87% of respondents indicated they used what I refer to as "solo" or "silo" planning. Either they planned everything solo, or they assigned parts and pieces to one or two others and simply assembled them at the end (Thursday afternoon, often) in a plug and play fashion. Almost invariably, these were planners for "traditional" worship. Why? In contemporary worship, there are usually so many "moving parts" (music, sound, lighting, video, drama, art, presentations to develop) that a more regular team based approach to planning is absolutely essential if it's going to work at all!

What happens on those teams isn't just coordination. At its best, it's collaboration. Even more, it's "con-spiracy"-- "breathing together" and sensing together where the winds of the Spirit (as well as other winds!) might be blowing in the scriptures, in the lives of the worshiping community, and in the artistry and skill they and others may bring to the worship moment. 

In a team like this, you quickly realize there are many possible angles to play with a given text and season-- soundscapes, visuals, lighting levels, sound levels, kind of musical accompaniment, where the congregation sings, how the congregation moves-- and each of these pitches the ship in a slightly different angle of approach to the destination. Sometimes you need a direct, almost perpendicular approach. At others, you want to come in alongside, almost parallel to shore. Having a skilled team that is also attentive to the winds and what they can do can help you plan to play the angles well.

Playing with the Angles: Rehearsal 
Always rehearse your newly angled creations. Use rehearsal to test the angles, but also to play with them more. Don't assume you're here simply to "nail down" what you had planned in your team. You may have a wonderful vision of how it might go. But you don't know in your bodies how it will go until you've physically walked through the moves, and especially the transitions, yourselves. You may discover a better way to do something in rehearsal as you put what you had planned into something closer to "sail" conditions. You may also discover that what you had imagined may be too awkward to pull off gracefully, or too difficult to teach the congregation as you had planned it.  Maybe the folks running the board can't switch fast enough from DVD to MediaShout at a key point. Or maybe where the singers end up places their wireless microphones too close to the speaker system. You don't know until you do the run-through. So always do it, the evening before if possible, always ready to play with and rework the angles.

Playing the Angles: Worship in Progress 
As well as you've planned, and as thoroughly as you've rehearsed, the Spirit and other winds still blow where they will. And they may blow in a very different direction than anyone had anticipated when worship actually happens. 

Be Spirit-ready to play with the angles yet again!

Sometimes, it means you'll change a song. Other times, it may mean you discover a need for a time of healing prayer. Maybe the sermon needs to move in a very different direction, or not happen at all. Season, lectionary and planning may still mark the general direction for what you do, a kind of undergirding, but exactly what you do may need to look and feel very different, dropping some things, adding others.  

So take your bearings. Use good maps. Play with the angles. And let the Spirit lead-- as the Spirit has led the church in the wisdom of the past, and as the Spirit now blows with fresh wisdom among those who are born again in your midst.

And stay tuned for Bearings, Part 3: Fluid Motion in Four Movements.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards


Image Credit: By Segler1982 (Own work)  CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bearings Part 1: Good Mapmaking

Quartermaster Seaman Tom Vest, pictured at right, is carrying out a mission critical function for his ship and crew. He's taking bearings from nearby land features and relaying that information to the folks responsible for steering the ship. With this information, the ship and its crew can navigate the waterway and get to their intended destination safely and on time.

How does this work? Without going into the technical details of the particular device he is using, it works by an ancient mathematical, architectural and nautical skill called triangulation.  If you know any two fixed points and can measure the angles between them and your location, you can determine your location. Measuring changes in those angles over time generates your relative velocity. That in turn and enables you both to predict where you will be at any particular time if you keep your current course and to make whatever small or large corrections in course you may need along the way. Triangulation has been used with stars for navigation at night, with visible landmarks for navigation during the day, and more recently (along with doppler shift calculations) with global positioning satellite technologies (GPS).
Effective triangulation and therefore navigation depends first of all on taking the bearings accurately. You need to know what fixed points you are seeing and the actual distance between them. 

Where does someone like Tom Vest get that kind of information?  From the work of mapmakers, folks who have been where he is now before he got there, and recently enough to have noted any significant changes in the landscape, measured out everything, and laid out an accurate picture of what they saw. To the picture they add a scale that gives his equipment the accurate distance between the landmarks or geographical features he uses for bearings.

The church through its history has created and continually refined good maps to help Christians  take their bearings as they navigate the waters of discipleship and mission in the name of Jesus.

For worshiping communities, perhaps the most important of these maps is the Christian year. The seasons of the Christian year portray the most significant landmarks of the life of Jesus and the church in mission in the world. We can easily take rough bearings from the seasons themselves. Advent is a season of new beginnings and expectation. Christmas is a season of celebrating incarnation. Lent calls us to baptismal disciplines. Holy Week takes us to the execution of Jesus and mourning his death. Easter opens us to the joy and power of the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Rough bearings are helpful along the way, but not as much when you're seeking to hone in on your destination. Only the seasons listed, not the Ordinary times after Epiphany and after Pentecost, give us even rough bearings. So if we're looking for maps for our common worship that will take us somewhere,  we need a more precise scale. 

The church's lectionaries throughout the centuries have been that more precise scale, giving all the seasons a particular context and weekly  anchor in the scriptures. 

Let's take Advent as an example. The rough bearing for the season is about new beginnings and expectation, but beginnings of what  and expectation of what? Sixteen centuries of Christian mapmakers have thought it important for us to begin with the end of all things in mind. The first and primary focus of Advent is expectation of the second coming of Christ, the judgment and end of the kingdoms of this world as we have known them, and the full inauguration of the new creation in him. This remains the focus solidly through the first two, and generally through the first three weeks of Advent in our current lectionary, keeping a tradition going back to the fourth century. Only after such an extended meditation on the second coming do we begin to transition to the first. Why? Because we cannot fully appreciate the significance of the first coming, the birth of Jesus, until we do so through the lenses of the fulfillment his birth begins. 

Taking only the rough bearings for Advent can sometimes take us on a variety of interesting diversions that lead us to miss the deep Christian grounding of the birth of Jesus not only in its historical but its cosmic significance. We may still arrive at the manger on Christmas Eve-- we may even have followed that particular journey to the manger for several weeks-- but we will have arrived there by the equivalent of a tunnel in which we miss all the scenery that puts the significance of the birth of Jesus in its fullest context. Stories immediately surrounding the birth of Jesus are wonderful in their own way. But how more wonderful, how more worthy of honor and glory, majesty and praise is the Incarnation of God, Lord and Judge of heaven and earth, making all things new. Celebrate Advent as the mapmakers have shown us, and we really have something to sing about come Christmas!

Am I saying that we must always use the lectionary to be faithful disciples of Jesus in our worship? Not at all. The readings for a particular Sunday in the Christian year, or even for a whole season, can vary widely, and in some contexts must do so!

We always need new mapmakers to scour the harbors where they actually are, remeasure, find things not seen or perhaps under-appreciated by others who did not know that particular terrain as well. We especially need new mapmakers in places where the terrain has changed.

The issue is not whether we use exactly the readings from the United Methodist version of The Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday in Advent in Year B  on December 4, 2011, or even on any of those Sundays. 

The issue is whether whatever we read or do in worship during Advent helps us get the perspective that Christian mapmakers for this season have been showing us through their selection of texts. If other texts would help your worshiping community explore and become captivated by the return of Christ and the consummation of all things in him as the context for his birth than anything in the lectionary, by all means use them.

Safe navigation requires accurate bearings. And accurate bearings require reliable maps and scales. 

But accurate bearings also require knowing how to measure and move with the angles!

More on that in Part 2: Playing with the Angles

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Season of Self-Emptying

As I prepared to write my Ash Wednesday meditation last week, I read a blog post entitled "Eating Chocolate for Lent" from one of my favorite professors from Seminary, Amy Laura Hall. Her words grabbed a hold of my imagination, and they completely changed the way that I approached the meditation I was preparing.

In the blog entry, she wonders what it looks like to invite persons into a season of self-emptying for those who have been habituated in the emptying of themselves, especially women, many of whom have been "taught from their first year to bite their tongue and offer their food." She wonders, if Christian virtue is about coming to a mean, what would it look like for those who have been emptying themselves in unhealthy ways to take on habits that contribute to their personhood?

If some of the folks in our congregations have been emptying themselves in this way, then might we as those who lead worship and call others in the name of the Church to observe a Holy Lent very well contribute to their oppression of some persons?

This question rattled around in my head all day. I'm still thinking it through, but I thought the questions generated by Dr. Hall's blog entry are worth considering.

Below, you will find the content of the meditation I gave to my congregation prior the Invitation to Observance of Lenten Discipline. I don't offer it as any kind of definitive response; rather, I'm posting here as a place to further the conversation because I believe it is one worth having:

"As I prepared to invite you to observe a Holy Lent, my thoughts about this subject became deeply complicated. As I read a blog entry from one of my favorite professors in seminary, I was challenged to consider what it means to call others into a season of self-emptying, when there is the possibility that many among us might be emptying themselves in ways that actually lead to their oppression. I thought of this particularly about women, some of whom have been told "from an early age to bite their tongue and offer their food."

Lent is about becoming more human, not less human. Christian virtue is about moving towards a mean. Lent is about embracing Christ as the beginning and ending of our lives. Perhaps, for some of you among us, men and women both, there are things that we need to give up or take on to become more human. And that might not always mean stopping eating. For some of us, it may mean to begin eating. This same professor in seminary once recommended that a young woman with body image issues bake herself cookies every day during Lent. For this woman, such a discipline became a time of healing, even though we might at first glance consider her actions a sign of indulgence.

Even as I fast myself at different times, even as I recommend fasting to others, I also wonder about the places that my recommendations might do damage. After all, the prevailing message we have ringing in our ears is "DON'T EAT." The worse thing I could do as your pastor is to baptize that message without qualification. Perhaps the fast to which some of us are called is to fast from doing things that destroy us. From running ourselves ragged. Perhaps our fast must be from busyness. Perhaps it is for those who have felt unable to speak for one reason or another to give voice to the pain that is within them."


Alan Combs

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pray for All Affected by Japan Earthquake and Tsunami... And Not Just This Coming Sunday

Donald Hayashi, President   1133 Woodland Meadows Drive, Vandalia, Ohio 453777
Phones: Office (937) 263-3556     Home (937-890-2729

NEWS RELEASE       For immediate Release
March 11, 2011

The National Federation of Asian American United Methodists (NFAAUM), representing ten Asian American ethnic groups in The United Methodist Church, requests prayers and expressions of love and concern for all persons affected by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan today.  It is the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began almost 150 years ago.  It is a tragedy of gigantic proportions, and Asian Americans are in prayer for the safety of the millions of persons who are affected by this natural disaster.

“We ask all United Methodists to join with us in prayer for the millions who are affected by the earthquake and resulting tsunami. We recognize that this disaster affects not only Japan, but all countries of the Pacific Rim.  We also are praying for the safety of emergency crews who are searching for survivors and giving comfort to the victims.

“It is our hope that all United Methodist churches during their weekly worship services will be in prayer for all who are affected by the devastating earthquake and tsunami.  Further, we await word from UMCOR for additional ways in which we can respond.  It is through events like this that we can be the people of faith and reach out in love to all.” 
-- Mr. Donald Hayashi, President, National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

The Japanese American National Caucus, which is part of NFAAUM, has issued this statement: 

“We are shocked with the enormous proportions of the disaster of earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  We offer our heartfelt condolences to the families for the loss of loved ones and damage caused by this tragedy.  We stand united in our concerns, prayers and support as many of our constituents and churches are related with families and friends in Japan.”
-- Rev. George Nishikawa, Chair, Japanese American National Caucus

+ + + + +

UMCOR is connecting with its partners to assess the damage resulting from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Please give to Pacific Emergency, Advance #3021317.

New Prayer Hymn in face of Japan/Pacific Earthquake and Tsunami

Quaking Earth and Swirling Water

Written shortly after the 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. Meter is Trochaic. Suggested Tune: RESTORATION ("Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy")

Quaking earth and swirling water
Highways turned to waterfalls
Sweeping people, houses seaward
God of mercy help us all!

Walls of water rushing eastward
Leaving havoc in their wake
Sirens sounding, children crying
God of mercy help us all!

When the waters have subsided
When the earth stops shivering
Move our hearts to offer succor
God of mercy help us all.

Safiyah Fosua

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rising Gas Prices vs. Worship: How Worship Can still Win

Back in the summer of 2008, as average gasoline prices passed $4.00/gallon I published a piece on the GBOD worship website addressing the kinds of choices congregations might make to help our participants not only afford to be involved but even increase their involvement while actually saving both money and the environment.

Tonight, as average prices nationwide have moved to $3.57/gallon, and predictions that we may well see $5.00 or more by summer, my colleague, Dean McIntyre, posted a note on Facebook that he may be taking the bus to work again soon.

So it seemed a good time to polish up the 2008 article and get it back into circulation again.
Here it is, mildly updated.

National Public Radio broadcast a story three years ago (June 9, 2008) that may be an indicator of things to come-- again. Meals on Wheels programs across the country were scaling back substantially because of the high and continually increasing costs of fuel and food. Not only were they unable to afford the kinds of food they once did, but they also were not able to obtain volunteers to deliver food as often because those volunteers couldn’t afford the fuel to deliver the food. The result: fewer deliveries per week, and what was delivered was often frozen.

The cost of fuel in the United States is likely to make a mark on congregations, once again, and maybe even more profoundly this time as prices appear likely to go higher than 2008 levels. People who need to drive a considerable distance to attend worship, meetings, or other events may be especially affected. Some people are already beginning to wonder whether they can continue to afford the cost of such travel at all. Others may soon start making trade-offs, such as continuing to travel but reducing financial contributions. Still others might choose to attend less often but continue their current rate of contributions.

This is not good news for many of the ways we organize our lives and ministries as congregations and worshiping communities.  It is a serious challenge, and one we must begin seriously to engage.

Theological Realities
As we consider the challenge of these situations in the United States, there are at least two theological realities about who we are as church that we need to affirm.

  1.      We are the body of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God made flesh. We are living fully into our vocation as Christ's body best when we are in one another's actual presence from time to time for fellowship, worship, common work, and accountability. This means that gathering in real time and at the same places, including for worship, is non-negotiable. We can be together in other ways as well-- via email, blogs, chat, video calling, and the like. And in times like these, we definitely need to explore more ways to use those communication tools to keep in touch. But we can't be together only in those ways and be fully the body of Christ we are called and made by God to be.

  1.            We are the body of Christ wherever we are, wherever we go, wherever God sends us. That means the mission field into which we are sent as disciples of Jesus Christ is literally wherever we go and wherever we gather. We are not the body of Christ only when we gather a large percentage of our particular congregations for worship and other programming on Sunday morning. We are the body of Christ individually, in one-on-one conversations, in small groups, in larger groups, and in worshiping communities that gather as many of us at the same time at the same place as possible. But for the majority of most of our time during most weeks we are most likely functioning as Christ's body as individuals, one-on-one with others, or in small groups. We need to take that seriously when we're talking about time and travel to church facilities.

Institutional Implications
What may be some implications of the current and foreseeable economic realities and these theological realities taken together? Let me suggest four here. You may think of others.

  1.      People who are already stretched financially or whose connections to your congregation are less strong may be likely to attend less often, especially if they have to travel a good distance to get there. If worship and other programs meeting at your current buildings are the primary connections in your community of faith, you are likely to lose community members unless you are proactive about creating ways to strengthen their connections. Even if the personal connections are stronger, the expectation that as many people will attend worship weekly at your current facilities or other meetings or programs requiring significant travel may be unrealistic.

  1.      Discretionary financial giving to all non-profits, including congregations,  is likely to decline or become more targeted. We saw this happen in 2008 even before the economic collapse later that year. You may be able to do little about the decline in giving that is likely to come, especially from those who now have relatively less to give. It may be important, however, to find ways to do two other things:    
    1. Reduce expenses in areas that are not mission-critical and that people are not as passionate about, and
    2. Invite increased targeted investments in areas that are mission-critical and that people do care about in your congregation and community.

  1.     Congregations that depend financially on people traveling to attend worship services regularly may be seriously challenged. Instituting some form of electronic withdrawal or other means to receive financial resources from members and friends of the congregation may help offset this challenge somewhat. But do not underestimate the effect of emptier offering plates on the morale of the congregation, even if other means of receiving financial support are doing relatively well. Consider the possibility of returning to the ancient Christian and earlier Methodist model of collecting an offering in worship specifically for the poor each week rather than or in addition to a weekly offering for the local and missional expenses of the congregation.

  1.      Congregations whose institutional life depends on significant travel by participants may find the capacity to achieve some institutional aims seriously challenged. This includes choir practice! Consider how to schedule choir rehearsals at times and places where participants are already likely to be. (See Dean McIntyre’s 2008 article for more specific reflections and suggestions for choirs). Think about moving as many meetings for internal committee work into electronic communication channels as you can. You will not be able to do this for every issue or committee, nor should you. The face-to-face community life of such institutional committees is vital to their functioning as Christian communities, so planning needs to allow for that to happen regularly, if not as frequently.

Implications and Ways Forward for Christian Community
All the concerns listed so far address, in essence, fundamental institutional needs of healthy congregations. But the church is far more than an institution. We are the body of Christ, an organic community in our Triune God that is loved by the Father, given life through the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are in a communion of saints that spans time, cultures, and history. The Spirit binds us with God and with one another even when we are apart physically. But we experience and can express our life in Christ most fully when we "assemble ourselves" and "encourage one another toward love and good works" (Hebrews 10:25).

So, how can we find ways to assemble ourselves as regularly or more regularly than we now do, given our current circumstances? Here's one set of suggestions.

  1.      Map out the current most regular travel routes ("regular beats") for participants in the life of your congregation. This could be done physically using a large map of your region and a series of pins and string marking travel routes or online using something like a Google Maps mashup (such as Communitywalk) to enable members of your congregation to make such a "beat map" online.

           Many church consultants have suggested making a pin map of where people in the             congregation live and finding ways to connect people who live near one another. That may     be valuable as well, depending on your setting. However, the role of our homes has         shifted in U.S. culture dramatically over the past thirty years. Homes are now "launching         pads" and "final destinations" rather than "dwelling places" or "meeting places." Many of         us spend far more time outside our homes than in them; and when we return there, it may     be primarily for family time (if any) and sleep. Fewer of us really "live" where we sleep.

  1. Reduce how frequently people are asked to travel outside of their most "regular beats" to participate in church-related activities (including worship, meetings, programs, etc.). While it is reasonable to expect that committed Christians will do their best to participate in the life of the church at your current facilities when they can, the time may well have come to find ways to reduce the demand for "extra-beat" travel wherever possible, encourage carpooling, and be proactive about helping folks use of public transit to enable more efficient use of money and fuel for travel. Don’t just tell folks to do it. Show them how they can.

  1. Look for shared travel routes and most common intersection points of these regular beats throughout the week. Use this information to facilitate carpooling and also to suggest possible meeting places during the week that do not diverge far from existing regular beats.

  1. Consider whether you have the possibility for turning some of these existing "natural meeting places" of your congregation into regular meeting places for smaller group activities, including meetings, small groups for discipleship, accountability, or mission, and even, potentially, worship. The last of these may seem controversial. If we are the body of Christ, don't we all need to worship together at the same time in the same place every week? The question I would raise is whether the weekly gathering of the whole congregation in one place at the same time is actually happening now in an increasing number of our churches. Any congregation that offers more than one service on Sunday, or offers worship in multiple campuses already does not meet as a whole every Sunday at the same place at the same time. Consider what happens with your current facilities if they were to become a center for a weekly gathering for people in the more immediate neighborhood, while other weekly gatherings may occur where the regular beats of folks outside the immediate neighborhood  may more naturally intersect.

Of course, offering such "dispersed worship" brings other questions that also need to be addressed. Here are two:

  1.      Would the congregation need to be dispersed for worship always? No, and depending on the regular beats of your existing congregation excluding your building facilities, maybe rarely or not at all. But it could decide to meet in its "regular" space as a whole, or in several celebration services on a given Sunday, perhaps once a month or so.

  1.      Does the congregation have access to enough clergy to offer weekly Communion (as we are strongly encouraged to do!) if it meets more regularly in dispersion? Yes, in many places it does, or it can. United Methodist elders are appointed to serve not only the particular congregation and buildings to which they are sent, but the surrounding community as well. An increasing number of Annual Conferences are already relating nearby congregations into clusters for shared ministry. Whether your Conference creates such clusters or not, several United Methodist (or other!) congregations and clergy could determine common beats and share clergy for worship leadership at various times throughout Sunday or throughout the week. Retired elders and elders in extension ministry could also serve in this way. There is little reason that the vast majority of such gathering places could not offer a full and vibrant service of Word and Table weekly.

These are just a few possible ways forward. The Spirit has brought us together as diverse and highly creative communities that are, no doubt, more than capable of finding many more.

May we not cling fearfully and defensively to all of the ways we have known in our lifetimes until now. May we instead respond as the body of our Risen Lord with creativity, courage, and joy in the face of the opportunities for witness and service the Spirit will open before us in what may be significantly changed circumstances.

Taylor Burton-Edwards is Director of Worship Resources, The General Board of Discipleship.
"Inflation, Worship and Community" Copyright 2008. 2011 The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church, PO Box 340003, Nashville TN 37203-0003. Worship website: This article may be reprinted and used for nonprofit local church and educational use with the inclusion of the complete copyright citation plus the words "Used by permission." It may not be sold, republished, altered, used for profit, or placed on any website not under GBOD auspices without written permission. To obtain written permission, contact

Originally Posted 6-13-08/ Revised 3/10/2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

New Resource: A Prayer for the Workers of Wisconsin

O God, who desires not sacrifice but mercy,
not a fast from food but from oppression in every form,
look with compassion on your people in Wisconsin,
part of whose legislature has locked the public 

out of its chambers
and voted to end most collective bargaining rights 

for state employees.

Anger rises, violence threatens,
but you, O Christ, show us the way of justice with peace.
Restore justice for those who are employed,

that employers and employees may again reason together,
and lead those who must confront
to speak and embody truth with love.

Kyrie, eleison.
Christe, eleison,
Kyrie, eleison.