Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"The White-Robed Army of Martyrs Praise Thee"

Cover, Martyrs Prayers. Saints & Sinners LLC, Used by permission.
All Saints.

It's a day we remember those who have died in Christ, and with whom we have hope to be raised at the Last Day.

though part of our yearly celebrations regularly involves a reading of the names of those we have known who are no longer among us, it's more than a memorial day for those we have known and loved ourselves.

It truly is a day for remembering all the saints.

And when we remember all of them, among them we also remember those who died not simply as Christians, but actually because they claimed the faith of Jesus.

These we call the martyrs, "the witnesses."

Revelation describes their voices, first crying out from under the heavenly altar, then being joined by countless throngs, all dressed in white robes, hailing the victory of Jesus over sin and death. The ancient Christian hymn, "Te Deum" (We Praise You, O God) (UMH 79 and 80) lists them with all the company of heaven who sing to God in endless praise, along with angels, all the powers of heaven, cherubim, seraphim, apostles, prophets, and with them, the whole church throughout the whole world.

But who are these, robed in white? What did they die for? And how did they die? What words were on their lips as this life was taken from them, or as they knew their deaths were near at hand?

Martyrologies over the years have collected stories of some of their deeds and some of their last words, at least for Christians who lived and died in Europe. Foxe's Book of Martyrs. whose original edition ended with the persecutions under Queen Mary I of England, has been perhaps the best known and most widely republished of these in the English language. However, it was also the work of a controversialist, a Protestant who himself had fled the persecution in England, to join with other Calvinist Protestants in Basel, Switzerland. (Basel was one of several "safe haven" towns for some English and French Protestants fleeing persecution in the mid to late sixteenth century). So while this book has enjoyed an enduring legacy among Protestants, if also infamy among Roman Catholics
, it is hard to know with clarity where its accuracy ends and its editorial embellishments begin. 

Scholars of every denomination have been at work since the time of Foxe, and particularly since the late 19th century, seeking to recover and present a more accurate picture of the stories and prayers of these and other Christian martyrs throughout the centuries and throughout the globe. However, much of this work has remained in academic essays and libraries, not exactly accessible to, much accessed by, a wider public.

This is why I find the just-released music and video project Martyrs Prayers, by United Methodist musician, singer and deacon, Michael Bell, and Episcopal priest and scholar, The Rev. Dr. Duane Arnold, such a compelling collection. I'd mentioned it earlier on this blog, back at a time when the project was still very much in a developmental stage. The tracks I'd heard then I thought, embodied well a line from Medieval rhetorician, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, "Permit an old word to regain its youth by giving it a home in another situation where it can be a novel guest, giving pleasure by its strangeness."

Today, for many Christians, the stories and prayers of martyrs are at best "old words" locked in "old books" or "old libraries." They are also rarely guests at all, much less novel guests.  But thanks in part to this collection, they may become familiar and welcome guests. We can all hear them, and we can share them in study and worship, in all their wonderful strangeness, with fresh new arrangements in music, comprehensive liner notes with background and lyrics, and an expanding video collection that brings them to life.

The prayers of some of the"White-robed army" we meet here are confident in the face of death. Here's a prayer from Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury martyred by knights of King Henry II in 1170:

Into your hands, O Lord, 

I commend my spirit. 
For the name of Jesus, 
and in defense of the truth
I am willing to die.  

Others show vulnerability and trust, such as the prayer of the 19th century Korean Roman Catholic martyr, John Ri:

The sins of my entire life,

by which I have offended you
weigh me down like a mountain
of my own creation.

I wonder what will be the end of all of this. 

I cannot bear this alone,

but your strength will keep me from falling.
The prayers of others will uphold me 
in my time of need.

Some even speak words of forgiveness and blessing, such as this anonymous prayer found at the Ravensbruck concentration camp, bearing witness to the all-forgiving love of God:

Lord, remember not only those of good will,

but remember also those who have hurt us, and those who have killed.
Remember the fruit of courage, generosity, the greatness of heart
that has grown from this cruelty.
When all who have hurt us come to be judged by You,
may their forgiveness be found in our company of love.

I, for one, hope this project represents the beginning of an outpouring of memorable, singable prayers of martyrs and saints, from many composers, many cultures, in many languages and genres.

We have needed these prayers of martyrs ringing in our ears as their words of faith, hope, love and longing continue to flow from the heavenly altar and greet our Lord  at his final victory.

We have needed to leave off our habit of only occasionally mentioning or singing of martyrs, and then perhaps as idealized abstractions, and to start hearing their prayers, singing their songs again, or for the first time, that they may become our songs as well.

Perhaps, if their prayers become our songs, more of us will be able to answer the question the album's liner notes and the project's website asks us: "What would you die for?"

And when we can do that, perhaps we will know what it means to join the praises of that White-robed army we remember on All Saints... including this white-robed soldier of Christ.


Interceding in and after the Storm

Hurricane Sandy, October 29. Public Domain.
Like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Hurricane (SuperStorm) Sandy raises or should raise huge theological questions.

And therefore equally huge questions about what it means to pray.  

Did God send this storm? If so, why? Is it to punish The United States and Canada for something? If so, for what? Is it judgment on the rich? On the oil companies and other fossil fuel producers and users whose products contribute to global warming? If so, how could this storm be so indiscriminate in the destruction it brought? Are "Acts of God" intended to generate "collateral damage" on such a massive scale? If so, is God less just that human Just War principles? 

If so, why pray or place any hope in a God so capriciously destructive?
 Or maybe we believe God is not so directly involved in "natural" events. Maybe these events just happen, and whether God can or cannot do anything about them, God generally doesn't. Pace some televangelists, if the hurricane is coming, get out of the way! It's coming. No amount or type of praying will change that. If people are hungry, feed them. Don't expect God to do what you can find a way to do.

If so, why pray or even bother with a God who cannot or will not protect us?

But what if God's interest and power are not known in cataclysmic events, any more than Elijah heard the voice of God in the fire or the whirlwinds or the earthquake, but rather in the sheer silence that followed. What if God's interest and power, God's voice, is known precisely in relationship with us?  What if God is Love, the face of Love, the voice of Love, the power of Love, present, abiding, waiting, always. 

If so, prayer becomes a very different thing than reciting, asking or pleading for what we want or wish. Nor is prayer a kind of ritual or spiritual power-play to convince God to act.  Perhaps it is more like a spiritual d√©tente, like Job with his questions. Perhaps at times it is more like surrender. Perhaps the heart of intercession  is holding what we love before the gaze of Love, sometimes daring, sometimes longing, sometimes fearing, sometimes doubting, but always expecting what Love may do. 

Sometimes, as with Elijah in the sheer silence, Love asks things of us. "What are you doing here?," God asked the prophet. "There is work for you to do, too, so get about it, and do it well. You can do it. You are not alone."

hose in search and rescue, those who assess damage, those who reassure children and adults, those who care for the weak and wounded, those who bury the dead, those who make sure the funds and resources get where they need to go as efficiently as possible, those who clear roads or repair fallen power lines, those who fix what is broken, and those who build anew-- are all responding to the call of Love from the sheer silence, though not all know they do.

Sometimes, Love asks of us nothing but to hold what we love in Love's gaze. And wait. Or lift up another.

We may not know what Love may do. We may not see the life the Spirit quickens. We may not feel or perceive much of anything at all.  It may just be sheer silence, truly a gift after such a storm. And in the silence the sense, "It is enough." 

How will you intercede, individually and as congregations, for and with those whose lives have been marked by the SuperStorm, or any of life's storms? Words alone will fail, though we need them, too. But Love never fails.

How will your intercession today, this weekend, and in the weeks and years ahead enable you and your worshiping communities to lift up the myriad joys and sufferings of sisters, brothers, and fellow creatures before the Triune gaze of Love? 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Worship and Election Day

Photo by Theresa Thompson. Used by permission CC-BY-2.0.
United Methodists and others are beginning to organize a variety of opportunities for worship in connection with the upcoming November elections in the United States.

Some are beginning to plan ecumenical "Election Eve" services on November 5 as occasions to gather communities across multiple denominational (and party!) lines to pray together. I've been asked to offer a model for such a service.

The best model I can think of, for historical and ecumenical reasons, as well as because it is widely shared across multiple denominations, is Evening Prayer. United Methodists have excellent resources for designing a rich service of Evening Prayer that other denominations could easily recognize and be able to share. See The United Methodist Hymnal (878-879), The United Methodist Book of Worship (564-576) or The Upper Room Worshipbook (14-20). In addition to the biddings listed for the Prayers of the People in each of these services, one might add a prayer for the upcoming elections themselves. Here is an example.

For faithful citizenship, for access to vote for all who seek it, for a fair and complete tally, and for the unity of our communities, states and nation, we pray to you, O God... Christ, have mercy.

Others are joining an fairly rapidly growing movement to offer a service of Word and Table after the polls have closed, as a sign and pledge of our unity in Christ, whatever our diversity at the polls. For more information on this, and the opportunity to let others know you are doing this, see

I've also been asked to suggest an order of worship for such a service. Again, since the point of this gathering is not to call attention to the occasion per se, but rather simply to help us be the body of Christ together, I would recommend using the most widely used form of our Service of Word and Table, Word and Table I (UMH 6-11).

However you design a service of Word and Table for this occasion, do not offer "drop in" or "self-serve" reception of the elements. Such approaches do not constitute Holy Communion in our ritual or our teaching on the sacrament.  For United Methodists, as for most other Christians in the larger historical ecumenical sacramental traditions, communion does not consist in distributing the elements to individuals (more or less an individual act that focuses on the elements themselves) but rather in the gathered community offering its praise and thanksgiving to God for all that our Triune God has done to save us. The sharing of the elements is part and parcel of this larger, whole-assembly celebration of the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, not an after effect of some "magic words" spoken by some ordained person at some previous point in time.

It is those who participate in the actual Eucharistic sacrifice (our common prayer of Great Thanksgiving) who normatively are those who receive. We then may also extend the table from such community-wide celebrations to those who would have been present, but who for substantial reasons (such as illness or incapacity) were unable to attend. And the norm here is to extend the table as soon as possible following the regular service of worship involving the gathered community. Leaving elements after such a celebration for people to receive at their convenience does not constitute an extension of table in our sacramental theology.

To be sure, other traditions do offer "come and go" options. This is because they have a very different sacramental theology than we do. They are free to follow their theologies and practices. We are called to follow our own.

Many of our congregations will have used the readings for All Saints on November 4, and so will have skipped the readings actually assigned for that day. So a Tuesday evening service might be a great time to allow your congregation and others in your area to hear what they may have missed. The readings for November 4, 2012 are Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:11-14, and Mark 12:28-34. You can use our Lectionary Planning Helps, focusing on the November 4 readings, to help you develop an Election Eve celebration that also prepares your congregation(s) for the coming Sunday. And as you do, you may also find some of our prayers and other resources for elections helpful.

Whenever and however you gather as communities of Jesus Christ in light of the coming elections, may you find ways, amidst any political differences, to embody and celebrate the reality that he has broken down every dividing wall of hostility, and may the peace of Christ, surpassing all human understanding, radiate through your hearts and lives.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Worship Planning, Cycles of Perception and the "Emergent" Brain

A model showing how the brain perceives pain, by P. Forster.
Public Domain.
The Goal of Worship Planning 

In worship, we Christians "offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice" (UMH, p. 10).  By the phrase, "we offer ourselves," we mean that we seek to give God all that we are as individuals and as a worshiping community. The older language from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and John Wesley's Sunday Service for the Methodists
make the nature of our offering even more explicit. "And here, we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee" (UMH, p. 29).

What we discover as we offer ourselves fully to God in this way is that God connects with us, nourishes us, challenges us, corrects us, cleanses us, strengthens us, disquiets us, and comforts us. Opening ourselves to God opens us to God's edifying presence and action in our midst.
See the post, Un sacrifice édifiant, for more on this.

So if we take our role as worshipers seriously, we gather in worship not to receive something for ourselves, but rather to offer all we can to God. This means the core question for worship planners is not, "How do we help worshipers feel edified?" Instead, the core question is,  "How do we plan worship so that it becomes more likely that more of us may be ready and enabled to give ourselves fully to God?"

The Cycles of Perception

With our eyes on that prize, leading and motivating the people's self-offering to God, we can now turn to a consideration of how understanding the neuroscience of perception may help worship planners do just that.

The chart above illustrates how we perceive pain (Dolore, at the top of the chart, in Italian), but it is also an illustration of how we perceive any "feeling."

The chart starts at the bottom, with the word "Irritazione" (irritation). We can just as well say "stimulus." 

Note what happens with the stimulus as it makes its way toward our brains/bodies registering it as the feeling of "pain." There are two major pathways involved. The first and most rapid is the pathway through the sensory system (to the right). But note that sensory input is necessary but not sufficient to "add up" to the "feeling" of pain (or any other feeling!). 

The other major pathway (to the left) is through what is known as the "limbic system." This is the part of the brain responsible for processing and outputting emotion. It involves three specific regions: hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala. Note, too, that the role of the hippocampus is really about memory-- something we might normally consider a cognitive function rather than an emotional function. Again, both the "emotional chemistry" activated by amygdala (typically, responses of alarm and aggression in response to perceived threats or attacks) and hypothalamus (hormones associated with reward, bonding and regulating autonomic bodily functions, among others)
AND the cognitive function of memory (remembering what this experience was like) are part of the "limbic signal" sent to the cerebral cortex.

When both of these kinds of signals arrive within close temporal proximity-- the sensory signals noting serious irritation and the limbic signals assigning it an emotional and "remembered" value-- the output is the "feeling" or "perception" of pain.

Note, again, cognitive processes are involved here, but primarily as a subset of what will become the overall "limbic signal."

What does all of this have to do with worship planning? And more specifically, what does this have to do with worship planning that makes it more likely that we will offer ourselves fully to God?

Quite a bit. Because, though this chart does not show it, a fundamental finding of neuroscience is that we make every single decision we ever make, every one of them, primarily based on outputs from the limbic system (emotion), and then, secondarily, later, our "cognitive" systems "kick in" to make sense of the decision the limbic system had actually already reached. The poet e. e. cummings, it turns out, got it very nearly right when he wrote "since feeling is first." Feeling per se, as neuroscientists describe it (the output of the combination of sensory and limbic inputs), is not first. Sensory outputs and limbic outputs (emotion plus memory) are. When limbic outputs are reinforced by sensory outputs, and thus resulting in feelings, the "decision" made already in the limbic system is powerfully reinforced. And then, and only then, does the brain come up with a stated "reason" for the decision.

If we were to put this into a kind of prioritized order of what moves us, we might think it would be it would be 1) senses, 2) emotion informed by memory (limbic outputs), 3) feelings, and then, dead last, 4) conscious thought. 

However, the case of pain itself provides a different ordering. This is because we have ample evidence of cases where the "feeling" of pain can be experienced as excruciating at times when the objective "sensorial irritation" happens to be quite low, or, the reverse, where the feeling of pain is almost absent even though the actual sensorial irritation is very high. This is because the limbic outputs are capable, independently, of dramatically amplifying or dampening the signal the receive. So at least an equally likely, and maybe often more likely ordering might be 1) limbic outputs, 2) sensory outputs, 3) feelings, and 4) conscious thought. (For more on the formation of feeling, see Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain).

What tends to move us in any direction, Godward or otherwise, then, are first of all the outputs of our limbic system. This is why Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith asserts that we are fundamentally "desiring animals" (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, 2009, Kindle location 534). 

So if worship planners want to move people Godward, if we want to plan worship in ways that make it more likely that people worshiping with us will offer themselves more fully to God, we must pay attention first and foremost to the emotive and the memory-forming and memory-inducing aspects of worship, as well as the sensory aspects of worship. We must ask ourselves, as first matters, "What actions, music, songs, and sensory environments, and in what sequence, will best move worshipers to open themselves and offer themselves more and more to God?" And since memory plays a significant role in the limbic system, it will be important and wise to keep in mind that familiar and repeated elements may be as significant or even more significant in worship that opens people to God than the new, the "creative" or the surprising. 

The "Emergent" Brain

In what has been discussed so far, it would seem that neuroscience dramatically downplays the role of the cognitive in forming or shaping decisions. Indeed, it does, and so it presents a serious challenge to much of what happens in worship and worship planning in many contexts. Where expository preaching is placed as the centerpiece or primary reason for gathering for worship, as is often the case in Protestant worship settings, the design of worship privileges the cognitive, often to an extreme degree. What neuroscience would seem to be telling us is that such emphasis on the cognitive in worship has the potential to undermine the capacity of the worshiping community to offer itself fully to God, since we are far less moved to action (if, indeed, we are ever directly moved to action!) by the cognitive processes of our brains than by the outputs of our limbic systems, over which we have relatively little direct cognitive control in real time.

Whither theology, then? Or whither doctrine? Or whither the value of teaching? Does it turn out these aspects of our faith and practice, which we tend to emphasize highly, even to the point of testing and ensuring the theological integrity of the texts we sing,
are nearly useless as prompters to worship?

No. They are far from useless. Indeed, they are quite useful. But the question is how they are useful in mediating our worship to God and faithful discipleship to Jesus. And the deal is, counter to the expectations of the Enlightenment, "reason" is not a direct mediator of motivation or transformation.  

But, it can be a very powerful indirect one! This is because the cycle of perception does not run in only one direction. Nor is nearly any part of it "fated" as it were always to generate the same results. Instead, every part of it can influence and even, to a certain degree, reshape the response of every other part, as we have seen in potential for the limbic actually to determine the degree of the sensorial to reach perception.

So, just here, we see indicators of an opening for what is sometimes called "downward" emergence. True, our thinking about decisions comes "after the fact" of our brains actually having made a decision, a process called "upward" emergence, because the thinking about the decision results from processes "below" and prior to the thinking itself. However, that very thinking about decisions also has the capacity to work "downward" to reshape how our limbic systems will make the next decision. In other words, the "upward emergent output" can turn out, thanks to the memory functions of the hippocampus that are critical in informing the limbic system, also to become a "downward" channel for input, if the hippocampus helps to store it and if the stored memory of it is recalled (and we so "re-member" it). This is the same mechanism by which cognitive behavioral therapy is thought to work. CBT teaches people to practice thinking differently both before and in response to a given kind of circumstance, thus through repetition of the practice encoding this different way of thinking in memory. This, in turn,  can help people feel differently and then decide and so behave differently.

The process of downward emergence of cognitive processes is greatly aided by association with other processes that are experienced and so encoded in memory more directly. This is why music, rhythm and movement are so prevalent in worship, worldwide, and across nearly all cultures. Music, rhythm and movement all have immediate sensory processing and nearly immediate emotional processing. When joined with cognitive content, the cognitive content (doctrine, theology, argument) more easily becomes part of what is encoded in memory, and so comes to influence both our emotional and our physical response not only to the actions (music, singing, dance, rhythm, or movement) but also to the content itself and so to future cognitive content being evaluated through the limbic system.

This does not mean that music, movement, dance or the like must directly accompany the cognitive content. It can also be proximately connected, within the same or similar kinds of experiences, such as a song before a reading of scripture or the sermon, or singing some elements of the Great Thanksgiving. So not every element in worship must involve singing or dance to allow its cognitive content also to be encoded in ways that move us to open ourselves to God. But the presence of these other elements can certainly help. For more on the role of music, rhythm and movement in memory, see Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia.

And this is also why creating significant changes in the music, flow or practices of worship are likely to generate a nearly immediate and strong emotional response, no matter how good the "reasons" for the changes may be and no matter how well a leader or leaders may have explained it in a newsletter. meeting or sermon.  

Putting It All Together

So what may worship planners learn from the cycles of perception and the principle of downward emergence of cognitive processes? 

1. Planning and leading worship is about helping worshipers increase their desire to offer themselves fully to God. 

2. What moves us to offer ourselves more fully to God is rarely an explanation (including this article!), and far more frequently the association of an powerful emotional response with the memory of past such responses and the content associated with it in the past

The primary role of cognitive input in worship may be to help prepare worshipers for a response in the future, as well as to reinforce responses from the past.

4. Cognitive content delivered in conjunction with music, singing, movement, or other sensory stimuli that do not compete with the cognitive content may be more likely to be remembered more quickly than such content delivered without accompanying sensory stimuli.

5. Regardless of the type of the stimuli (sensory, emotional or cognitive), repetition that forms familiar patterns of worship associated with appropriate emotions over time are essential when the aim is motivation or transformation.

What else do you learn from these insights from neuroscience?