Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals? Part 3

Early Christian grave marker. "Here rests in peace Maxima, handmaid of Christ..." CC 3.0.
Third in a series of entries from an essay by Dr. Heather Josselyn Cranson, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Music Ministries at Northwestern College in Orange, Iowa. The full essay may be downloaded from the GBOD website, here.  

What's happening with the dead? And where is heaven?

These are two questions United Methodist Services of Death and Resurrection seem not quite as clear or confident about as our hope in the resurrection of the body.

Waiting for the General Resurrection... Or Walking With Jesus?

The Services of Death and Resurrection appear to be either non-committal or inconsistent about the current state of the dead in Christ. Some elements in these services seem to follow Wright's assertion (and that of many Christians for centuries) that they are “in God’s keeping” until a general resurrection at a later time. Others imply they may have already reached “the other shore.” And still others may be open to either interpretation.

  The wording at the placing of the pall leaves open when the appearance of Christ may be: “Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children. What we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (UMBOW 141). When is Christ thought to appear? Will those praying this prayer imagine this appearance within the narratives of the biblical accounts of the second coming of Christ, or rather as a “less than Grim Reaper” who meets them at death? Likewise, in one of the prayers previously cited (UMBOW 143), we pray “bring us at last with them into the joy of your home…” (italics added). When is at last?   Does it point to a period of waiting from now until the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead?  Or might it instead be heard as pointing to the end of our own lives as individuals, after which we (as souls separated from dead bodies) may be immediately taken up to our final reward? 

The way Psalm 130 appears in this ritual could point to two different outcomes as well. If the Psalm is interpreted as the prayer of the deceased, then “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word do I hope” (UMBOW 144) could be understood as a confession by the deceased that the promised resurrection is yet to come.  However, if it is understood primarily as a prayer of the living acknowledging their grief, then the living may simply be confessing that they are waiting for the end of their present grief in this life. This reading, which seems more likely in the context of the ritual, does not address the current status of the dead in Christ at all.

As we have seen already, the Gospel lesson (John 14) may or may not place the resurrection after Jesus’ return. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself” (UMBOW 148) could be understood to point to a time of waiting between our deaths and the return of Christ in glory. But for those who believe in the immediate translation of the soul to heaven, the “coming again” in this text may just as easily be understood to occur at each person’s death.

The Commendation grammatically separates death from resurrection in two separate sentences placed on two different lines.

“Receive Name into the arms of your mercy.
              Raise Name up with all your people” (UMBOW 150).

This grammar and formatting could imply a separation in time between these two things, but need not do so. Persons who may be unfamiliar with or unconvinced by the idea of waiting before resurrection may not hear or see any affirmation of such waiting in such subtle wording.

Several places in the services refer to a “state of peace.” But who is at peace? What that peace is for?  How long does that peace last? Answers to each of these vary widely in these services.  The post-Greeting prayers praise God for those who “now rest from their labor” and ask God to “grant… peace” to them (UMBOW 143).  Here the dead are pictured in a state of rest for which we ask God’s peace. However,  it is unclear whether this state of restful peace is understood as transitional or final.  In the confession of sin that follows, the living ask “that we may end our days in peace” (UMBOW 143). What does this mean? Does it refer to the process of dying itself, to a peaceful attitude as we face our own deaths, or perhaps to being at peace with God and others when we die? At the commendation, the pastor, with hands upon the coffin, prays “Receive Name into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace…” (UMBOW 150).When does the “receiving” happen? Or perhaps more pointedly, are “the arms of your mercy” (which might point to a period of waiting prior to the resurrection and new creation) a state preceding “the blessed rest of everlasting peace,” or is the latter simply another name for the former? In this case, not only the intermediate state of waiting, but even resurrection and new creation as the ultimate state may seem to be denied. Finally, at the Committal, verses from Revelation promise that “the dead who die in the Lord… will rest from their labors” (UMBOW 156). The context of Revelation makes clear there is an intermediate state for the dead in Christ prior to the resurrection, but in the context of a confusing set of references to rest and peace in this liturgy, the scripture itself could be understood to say the final destiny is this very rest and that the dead in Christ immediately attain it.

Several places in the Services of Death and Resurrection seem more clearly to reject Wright’s description of a time of rest preceding resurrection. The petition that God would “enable us to die as those who go forth to live” following the Greeting (UMBOW 142), implies an active existence more in line with Wright’s conception of post-resurrection eternity than the peaceful rest of an interim period.  Similarly, the pastor’s prayer during the Committal asks “Receive into your arms your servant Name, and grant that increasing in knowledge and love of you, he/she may go from strength to strength in service to your heavenly kingdom…” (UMBOW 156). This petition also points to an immediately attained energetic and dynamic existence for the dead rather than the rest and peace of the deceased before resurrection.     

On balance, the ambiguity of some prayers and readings combined with a few that more clearly suggest the immediate translation of the dead in Christ to their final reward tilt United Methodist ritual at least somewhat away from Wright’s interpretation and toward the more “popular” teachings he rejects. 

The Location of Heaven

Where is heaven? Ultimately, Wright reminds, heaven is joined to a new earth in a new Jerusalem in the new creation. In this new creation, heaven descends to earth, rather than humanity floating up to the clouds and abandoning the earth entirely. God’s home comes fully among resurrected humans and other creatures dwelling in the new earth. New creation with heaven coming down into our midst is the ultimate fulfillment of the Incarnation.  The Services of Death and Resurrection, however, include over 20 uses of “rise,” “risen,” “raise,” and other “upward” verbs, as tends to befit metaphors of resurrection, if not of heaven. Still, this may create at least a subliminal clash between the eventual "upness" of resurrection and the "downness" of heaven coming into a "new-created world," especially for those whose chief imagination of the afterlife is “going up yonder.”  

The images offered in some of the selected passages from the New Testament may also be confusing on this point. 

Revelation 21 is clear enough:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among [people]. He will dwell with them as their God” (UMBOW 146).

The gospel reading from John is less than clear.  John seems to waver between assumptions that heaven is “up and away” and implications that it is “among people.”  “And if I go and prepare a place for you [up and away], I will come again [among people] and will take you to myself [up and away], so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going [up and away].  I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you [among people].”

I Peter 1:3-9, including in the Committal (UMBOW 158), includes a line that is confusing enough that Wright gives it particular attention. What does “an inheritance… kept in heaven for you” mean?   Wright notes that many believe that this phrase implies that our inheritance is being kept safe in a heaven above earth, so that once we have died we may go to that lofty place to receive our “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” inheritance.  But Wright suggests an a different interpretation with a clever analogy. If Wright were to tell a friend he had invited over for a drink that he had kept some beverages in the refrigerator, he wouldn’t insist that his friend climb into the fridge and remain there while drinking them. Nor, likely, would he expect the friend to serve himself. The refrigerator is not the destination, but the storage facility. A good host keeps the beverages chilled, then goes and brings them to the guest. Likewise, he says, God will bring our inheritance kept in heaven for us down to us, resurrected and living in the new earth in the new creation.

  How might typical attendees at a United Methodist funeral make sense of this? Where would they understand heaven to be? If Revelation 21 is included among the readings, they might understand heaven, ultimately, to be among the dwellers of a new earth in a new creation. With that text omitted, however, popular assumptions of heaven being “up there” or “the place we go when we die” might easily trump the biblical proclamation of God making God's final home among us.

Part 4-- New Creation and Other Conclusions-- is coming soon! Watch for it!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals? (Part 2)

Icon of the Resurrection. Public Domain.
Getting the Ritual (W)Right

Second in a series of entries from an essay by Dr. Heather Josselyn Cranson, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Music Ministries at Northwestern College in Orange, Iowa. The full essay may be downloaded from the GBOD website, here.  

N.T. Wright’s argument and concern in Surprised by Hope are not limited simply to what the churches teach about the meaning of death, life after death, resurrection and new creation. Ultimately, he hopes,  that

“those who take seriously the argument of this present book will examine the current practice of the church, from its official liturgies to all the unofficial bits and pieces that surround them, and try to discover fresh ways of expressing, embodying, and teaching what the New Testament actually teaches rather than the mangled, half-understood, and vaguely held theories and opinions” of the current culture (p. 25). 

For Wright, it’s not enough to focus just on what we say. It may be even more important to focus on how we put these ideas into action when we gather in ritual. Why? Because what we do in ritual-- through singing, actions and prayer-- shapes us even more deeply than what we say in our teaching. Indeed, ritual may shape how we even hear what is being taught in the first place.

Unfortunately, Wright laments,  these biblical, Christian affirmations are rarely embodied in typical Christian funeral services. And where they are, they are too often buried and disfigured by incompatible teachings and practices.
Sometimes, denominationally approved liturgies or resources are at fault. As often, however, the fault lies with improvised rites, impromptu statements made by pastors or funeral home directors, or the choice of music or poetry made by families or others planning the service.

How, then, might the United Methodist “Services of Death and Resurrection” in The United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) and The United Methodist Book of Worship (UMBOW) fare under Wright’s scrutiny? Do United Methodists have the “[W]right stuff?”

Bodily Resurrection
When it comes to affirming the bodily resurrection as the core of Christian hope, the answer for our ritual is “Yes, mostly.” The given name of these services is a strong starting point: “Services of Death and Resurrection.” The words at the Gathering and the Word of Grace each cite the physical death and bodily resurrection of Jesus as the basis for Christian hope in bodily resurrection (UMBOW 141). All three of the suggested epistle readings (I Corinthians 15, Revelation 21, and Romans 8, UMBOW 145-147) explicitly locate Christian hope in the resurrection of the body and the new creation. The prayer of commendation likewise points not to “heaven” but to resurrection: “Raise Name up with all your people” (UMBOW, 150).  And the Committal at the grave site reiterates the hope in resurrection with readings from Romans 8:11 and I Corinthians 15:53. 

In addition to offering prayers and texts in support of faith in a bodily resurrection, the Services of Death and Resurrection refrain from including words which directly undermine such faith by suggesting that only the soul of a person is raised. On the contrary, the images of resurrection and life after death found in these services are boldly physical, from the slaked thirst of Revelation 21, to the fragrant oil of Psalm 23, to the bodily activity and strength of Isaiah 40. 

Still, hope in the resurrection of the body is not the only possible way one may read these services, especially given that many of our clergy choose not to use all of the readings and may focus instead solely on Psalm 23 and John 14. Those who use only these two texts may seek to comfort those who find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death with the hope that “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14), and giving assurances that their loved ones are in those dwelling places now and for all eternity.

Either of the options for the opening prayer (UMBOW 143) can also be used to underwrite such a view. The conclusion of the first prayer, “that nothing in life or death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus,” can be interpreted to support the immediate transit of the soul to God and heaven at death. So can “bring us at last with them into the joy of your home not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens” (UMBOW 143). The problematic words are “at last,” and “your home not made with hands.” These could make it appear that our final hope is in a disembodied state far from earth.   

Still, the vast preponderance of prayer and biblical texts in the United Methodist ritual clearly affirms bodily resurrection as the core of Christian hope for the baptized. To use this ritual in a way that would affirm primarily a disembodied existence in heaven would require removing or ignoring most of what the ritual provides.

Stay tuned for part 3-- looking at the status of those who are dead and the nature of "heaven"-- coming soon!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals? (Part 1)

Hieronymus Bosch. Ascent of the blessed.
This marks the beginning of a series of entries from an essay by Dr. Heather Josselyn Cranson, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Music Ministries at Northwestern College in Orange, Iowa. Here are Part 2, Part 3, and the Conclusion. The full essay may be downloaded from the Discipleship Ministries website, here.  

N.T. Wright believes that many Christians have it wrong about life after death. In his 2008 book, Surprised by Hope, the Bishop of Durham (England) and noted Biblical scholar argued that many Christians have allowed a fuzzy mixture of more contemporary teachings about life after death, reincarnation, and Stoic and Gnostic ideas of body/mind dualism to weaken if not replace what he sees as the clear witness of scripture and the teaching of the church.  So pervasive is a non-biblical vision, Wright asserts, that “most people have little or no idea what the word resurrection actually means or why Christians say they believe it.” (Surprised, p. 12)

Christians are partly to blame for this state of affairs, notes Wright. Too many Christian hymns, stories, and sermons perpetuate reassurances that death happens only to the body, not the “important” part of a person. Wright maintains that Christians are called to correct such views and confess a biblical understanding of resurrection.

Getting the Theology Right
A biblical, Christian understanding of resurrection begins by affirming bodily resurrection. The body of Jesus is raised from the dead, not just his soul. After the resurrection, his body has some unusual abilities to interact with his environment (appearing inside locked rooms or suddenly disappearing, for example), but he remains physically embodied in every way. Jesus eats, drinks, walks, talks, breathes, retains the scars from his crucifixion, and even cooks a breakfast for his disciples. Wright confidently asserts that such a mysterious yet very much physical resurrection is at the core of the true hope awaiting Christians, as individuals, after death.

But not immediately at death. Rather than moving from this life to the resurrection, Wright asserts, “all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness… firmly held within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Christ,” awaiting resurrection (pp. 171-172). We are resting in God’s keeping, but this “waiting state” is not “heaven,” nor is “heaven” the name of  our final destiny. Rather, citing Revelation 21 and 22, Wright notes that earth is heaven’s destiny. We do not go there. Heaven comes and dwells among us, raised and embodied, here, as part of the remaking of all things including a new heaven and a new earth.

And the new earth and new heavens are part of an entirely new cosmos. God’s intention in salvation from the beginning, says Wright, is nothing less than the rescue and recreation of all things, including but not limited to humans or earth. “The wrath to come,” to use John Wesley’s phrase, is not primarily about destroying sinful humans, but rather about a remaking of all things, restoring them, with the redeemed in Christ, to God’s purposes from the beginning. 

This, then, says Wright, comprises a biblical, Christian vision of life, death, resurrection and the new creation. We die and are buried. We are held in God’s keeping. God renews and restores all things, the whole universe, wedding a new heaven with a new earth where all those raised with Christ dwell in resurrected bodies.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Worship: Mirror and Model

Mirror (with model). Used by permission, CC 3.0.
by Ron Anderson
Contemporary discussions of the function of worship in the life of the church tend to focus on the ways in which worship serves as a means to reach out to the unchurched, as a tool for evangelism, as the central practice for church growth, and as a set of products shaped by consumer desires. (The recent Call to Action report in the United Methodist Church provides only one recent example of these tendencies.) But what if we began to think about worship from a different perspective? What if we began to think of worship as a kind of mirror and model for the Christian community?

Worship as Mirror  
We know what mirrors do; they reflect back to us an image. Some mirrors are shaped in ways to help focus images (even images at great distances, like telescope mirrors), some to expand our field of vision (like side mirrors on semis), and some distort images (like the “Bean” at Chicago’s Millennium Park). Some of these reflected images are helpful, some are simply fun, and some are harmful.

Worship can do all of these things. It can distort our vision and be harmful when we expect worship to look exactly like us, when we expect worship to express our particular feelings, sensibilities, and tastes. In this sense, worship becomes a kind of “looking glass”—the kind of mirror we use for personal grooming and self-adoration. You might say that such a mirror prompts a kind of narcissism, a loving gaze at our selves.

But the mirror that is faithful worship sharpens and expands our vision. This mirror reflects back to us the brokenness of our lives and brings us to self-examination. It helps us look more closely at our lives, our blemishes and our wrinkles, helping us see that we are not quite as kind, as just, as attentive to the poor, or as welcoming of those who are different from us as we think we are. Yet, as it reflects this reality to us, it also reveals that we are more than we can see. This mirror shows us, even in our brokenness, an image of redemption, healing, and love. It shows us that we bear the image of God.

 Worship as Model
A model is something used to represent something else—whether that representation is of something concrete, like the plan for a church building, or something conceptual, like our understanding of the universe. Models can represent the actual “state of affairs” in our world or they can represent an idealized state, such as John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation 21-22. Models provide frameworks that help us understand things, ideas, and relationships.

When worship primarily models the actual conditions of our world, it is affirming and forming us in the values, prejudices, and behaviors of the dominant cultures in which we live. That the “worship hour” remains the most racially and economically segregated hour in our public lives is but one example. Another is the way in which many growth-oriented models for church life look increasingly like models for shopping malls, with specialized shops (worship services and musical styles) catering to every taste and level of income. A third example, especially in North American protestantism, is the way in which some of our worship practices reflect confusion between our allegiance to God and our allegiance to nation.

In contrast, the model of faithful worship enables us to encounter God’s vision and plan for the world. Worship, more than anything else, should model for us (even provide the place in which we practice) the ways in which we, in all our difference and brokenness, can become a community beloved in that difference, encounter a prophetic and caring word, and be drawn to a common banquet table. Faithful worship models for us the ways in which we bring lament and praise to God, intercede for those close to us as well those to whom we are strangers, and learn to blend our diverse voices into a harmony worthy of a generous and merciful God.

What is the mirror and model of worship showing you? How is it shaping your life as a Christian community?

E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is the Styberg Professor of Worship and director of the Nellie B. Ebersole program in Music Ministry.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fast Food at the Table of the Lord....

Well, that's one way to talk about Fast Food (or in this case, Junk Food, plus a healthy dose of consumerism!) at the Table of the Lord.

But we have another way, don't we. We may actually serve the usual items-- bread and grape juice or wine.

The "food" may be regular.

But for any number of reasons, our approach to how we celebrate the sacrament as whole is focused on the "fast"  part. We feel some compulsion, or under some compulsion, to speed it up and get it over with.

Why Fast Food at the Table of the Lord?

We have our reasons.

But when push comes to shove, let's be honest about the primary reason.

Celebrating communion with our full text takes sooooo... lonnnng.

But does it, really?

From Long to Timeless: Praying The Great Thanksgiving Well

A group of some of the finest worship scholars in the UMC met at Don and Jane Saliers' home in Vermont in the summer of 2006 to develop what would become our downloadable resource, Living into the Mystery: A United Methodist Guide for Celebrating Holy Communion. Part of what we were talking about during this gathering (and reflected in the introduction to this resource) was time. But we wanted to do more than just talk about time. We wanted to answer the concern that the Great Thanksgiving in Word and Table I may be "too long." 

So we ran an experiment. We timed ourselves celebrating it at a reasonable rate, no rushing-- and even using the sung responses.

Guess what. Total time was 4 minutes.

We re-ran the experiment.

Same thing.

The whole Great Thanksgiving, with sung responses, in 4 minutes.

That is on the low end of the length a congregation stands (or sits) to sing the average hymn. It's way less than the length of a sermon. Or the typical "worship set" in contemporary worship. It's shorter than the average "pastoral prayer." It's also shorter than announcements, children's moments, or prayer request times in congregations that do these.

Yet time after time it's the Great Thanksgiving that becomes the candidate to be shortened.


Maybe, we thought, it's not because it IS longer.

Maybe, it's because it SEEMS longer.

Why? A number of recent studies of brain function and time perception have begun to suggest some reasons. Basically, the perception of time appears to relate to the speed at which memory is being encoded by the brain. When the brain, body and emotions are more fully engaged, the hippocampus (a region of the brain that looks sort of like a seahorse and is especially important for memory formation) tends to encode more memories with less latency, so time seems to move more swiftly. If there is less going on, less body motion and less at stake emotionally, the brain encodes less, and time seems to slow down. However, if something frightening or disorienting happens, such as falling from a great height, or being just about to crash the vehicle you are driving, time seems to stretch out. Why? The hippocampus seems to kick into overdrive and you record way faster than usual. When you play back the memory in "real time" it seems stretched out, just like playing back the footage from a high-speed camera in real time.

Put in more common terms. Time flies when you're having fun. Time slows down when you're bored. And time stretches when your world seems to be ending or at least going seriously awry.

Of course, it's not time itself doing any of these things, but your perception of time.

Which brings us back to why the Great Thanksgiving can seem longer than a hymn that is actually longer.

It comes down to boredom.

A good hymn or song engages the body in making and sensing vibrations and possibly dancing or keeping beat. The melody evokes emotional responses and feelings. And, though probably least significant of all, the language centers of the brain help you form and make cognitive sense of the words. Singing is a memory bandwidth hog! Which means time can seem to move more quickly (or at least less slowly) when you sing.

What about the Great Thanksgiving? It all depends on how it is performed!

What are you are presider doing with your body? Do you look like a robot? Or a limp noodle? Or do your posture and motions reflect your competence to lead the assembly in this prayer? Body language matters maybe most of all!

Where are your eyes? In a book? Looking all over? Or focused on each moment, rapt in wonder, love and praise?

What are you doing with your voice? Reading through the text rapidly? Or praying these words intently? Stumbling around, or moving with the cadences of grace?

What is the pacing?  Do you say every part of the prayer at the same rate? Or do some parts move more swiftly, while others move more slowly, drawing attention to more dramatic moments, such as the build-up to the great Amen that concludes the prayer?

Where is the emotion? Do you pray with a flat affect? Or, just as problematic, are you "hamming it up"? Or does what you are praying inform the emotion with which you pray it and lead others?

And what is the congregation doing? Are they just sitting there? Or even just standing or kneeling there? Or are they consciously and bodily engaged, perhaps joining you as presider in the same postures of prayer?

How and how often are the congregation involved in praying this prayer during the prayer? Do you only say the words, or do you and they also sing them? Do you as a presider "hog" the limelight, praying in long monologue (and maybe even monotone!)  while the congregation watches? Or do you see and embody your role as prompting their sacrifice of praise and thankgiving? The Great Thanksgiving is primarily their prayer, and your role is to lead them to pray it.

The point of all of this?  You and your congregation can make the Great Thanksgiving feel slow, or you can make it feel timeless-- either outcome in the same four minutes!

The solution is not to cut it short or rush through it! The solution is to pray it better and help your congregation do the same!

From Awfully Slow to Awe-Filled: Sharing the Bread and Cup

Okay, we've all been there. The Great Thankgiving may have been a wonderful experience-- timeless, even! There was a strong sense of the presence of the Spirit moving in your midst as you prayed. And then--

First, there may be another word of assurance that in the United Methodist Church everyone can receive who wants to. We're friendly that way.

Then, there's often some sort of complicated explanation about which aisle you come down, and how to do intinction, or where you can get your little cups, and where to put them afterward, and...

And then, to add insult to all this ritual injury (I mean really, to go from a high point at the fraction to these mundane and unnecessary explanations?) there are the lines. 

Long lines. 

Sure the choir may sing something. Yes, there may be something for you to sing, too. But what really can take forever in a service of Holy Communion is waiting to receive the bread and cup.

There's a very, very simple solution to this.

First, no more "second" invitations. If you did the invitation to the Table prior to the Confession and Peace, you've done the invitation. Any more is redundant. 

Second, no more explanations. Don't spoil these holy moments with too many words. Just say, "Come," or even simply gesture in silence. You can print more elaborate instructions in the bulletin if you must. For now, just get folks moving to or around the Table. 

And as you get them moving, don't make them wait in long lines. Create more stations. If you have two stations, adding a third increases the rate of receiving by 50 percent, and you haven't rushed or "herded" anyone at all. In fact, if you don't have a time problem now, adding more stations means you actually give people more time to taste, see, and give thanks for the goodness of the Lord in the sacrament without having added a single minute to the service.  You might even be able to free up enough time to add a station for healing prayer, or a set of prayer station with a guided meditations for persons to visit on their way back to their seats.

And again-- it will have taken no more time at all.

But even if it does, time spent like this seems not awfully slow, but awe-filled.

Fast food at the table of the Lord? 

If you rush people, they'll feel rushed. If you bore people, they'll feel bored. If you dread celebrating, they will too.

But if you love the Lord and help the congregation love the Lord in praying and receiving around the Table, they'll feel love-- and loved! And you can do that in nearly the same amount of actual time. Maybe even less, depending on the number of stations you offer.

I've always found snacks a poor substitute for a meal, and fast food a poor substitute for a home-cooked dinner.

What if...

What if we remembered that here at Christ's table, his greatest desire is truly to feed us, his flock, and welcome us home?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

No More Summer Worship Multi-Tasking: Use the Lectionary to "Think Series"

In the U.S. in particular, we live in a distracted and distracting world. Multitasking seems required of us all the time, but what we know is that our brains are simply not set up to make that work. 

In fact, as significant research at Stanford University has shown, much to the surprise of the researchers, the more we multitask at things such as email, Twitter, documents we are writing, and the like, the worse we get at multitasking and the worse our capacity to filter out irrelevant information and remember and keep track of important things

What's even worse, people who do such multitasking over time believe and feel they're getting better and better at it, and they crave it more and more!

There's a reason media multitasking feels so good but works increasingly poorly. Our brains reward us with "dopamine blasts" when we encounter something new. The brain apparently does that so we have the incentive to deal with the new thing in a focused way, once we can focus in on it. But that's the key. This dopamine-reward mechanism was not designed to be stimulated again and again in rapid succession. Keep stimulating it, and we become "high," rather than more focused. Literally high. In reality, such constant task-switching may be measurably damaging our brains. 

Worship planners are often tempted during this period of unrelated texts after Pentecost to "multi-task" worship after Pentecost, jumping around the lectionary texts or topics from week to week, or even changing  up the order of worship each week for the sake of variety. We justify it to ourselves that variety is good. We may think we should give folks a "break" since choirs, Sunday school, and other programs may be off for much of the summer vacation season in the U.S. and Europe. We may follow suit, offering a more low-key, casual feel. 

The more casual approach and variety may feel good. Likely it will. But given the fact that worship happens and folks generally hear these texts and a sermon only once per week, you may very well be reducing their biblical memory and enhancing their biblical illiteracy by changing up the worship order too much or by jumping among the texts or topics rather than diving deeply into them from week to week.

Instead, "think series." 

And think series, not only in terms of texts for focus, but the basic patterns of your worship as well.

Pick one stream of texts to focus on for several weeks on end. Read them all in worship if you can. 

And accompany that series of texts with repeated elements of worship that help all who worship with you enter these texts and the work of the Spirit through them in a more profound way. 

So plan intently -- not casually! Plan with the end of what God can do with us, with the particular brains we actually have, in mind. 

Quit multitasking during these months-- and see how the people invited into practices of worship that reinforce the message of scripture may actually grow, rather than decline, in the intensity of their love for God and neighbor.

For another take on the dangers of multi-tasking, from Harvard Business Review, click here.

Image credit: Christine de Pizan, Multi-tasking. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

No More Dry Confirmations!

As most folks do their confirmations during the Easter Season or on Pentecost, it seemed a post about confirmations might be appropriate. It has been my practice during my ministry to baptize and/or confirm the members of our confirmation class during worship on Easter Day. One issue I ran into as I worked on the service for this year was that I wanted to make sure I used all of the proper parts of Baptismal Covenant I with the Confirmands.
I think often when we work on such a service there are at least two tendencies. The first is that because there are 16 sections, there is the sense we may be free to pick and choose the elements that we think are important. The other tendency is that since there are so many churches out there doing so many different things, it is not always clear which elements in the covenant are appropriate and/or necessary. In my case, my hunch was that they needed to go through all the elements of the service, but I wanted to make sure I was doing things right. I had a conversation with Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources at the GBOD, and his urging to put an end to “dry confirmations” seemed to be just the right answer.

It is important for Confirmands to take part in the renunciation of sin and profession of faith because these were promises that were reaffirmed by their sponsors at their baptisms if they were baptized before they could answer for themselves. This is their opportunity to “own” the baptismal promises, to take responsibility for their faith, and ask the Holy Spirit to help them in this endeavor.

In my case, I was pretty sure that all of the sections needed to be carried out, but the part that tripped me up the most was the Thanksgiving Over the Water and the opportunity for the Confirmands to remember their baptisms and be thankful. How could this be accomplished in a way that made sense, when we really weren’t prepared for a congregational reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant?

What Rev. Burton-Edwards suggested, and what I found easy to accomplish, was to have the congregation join me in the Thanksgiving Over the Water, and then have the Confirmands all dip their fingers into the font and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. We then followed this act with the prayer to the Holy Spirit as we anointed them. This worked extremely well. We were then able to move on to the reception in The United Methodist Church and the local congregation, and finish up with the commendation and welcome.

What is important to me from all of this is the way in which our whole ritual is useful, appropriate, and meaningful, even if there are no baptisms during the service. “No more dry confirmations!” helps to make the relationship between baptism and confirmation clearer to all involved, it resists the temptation to pick and choose from the liturgy, and it offers yet another visual and sensible sign of what is happening during the ritual.


Alan Combs