When Worship Works

4044933922_d27e258d54_bWorship doesn’t always work. It doesn’t work when your student pianist can’t get through a whole hymn verse without stopping and starting three times. Or when the toddler, who accidentally bumps his head, drowns out your sermon’s climactic crescendo with his screams. Or when your congregation, who faithfully shows up Sunday morning after a long weekend of mission projects, only has enough energy left to go through the motions. Worship experiences are certainly not all under our control.

I work hard at worship, though, because I believe it deserves my hard work. Nothing, in my mind, better inspires or better pulls a community together than good worship. Every year I tell my students that worship done well can transform a person’s faith. Worship done poorly can kill it.

In my position as Chaplain at Monmouth College my students and I lead weekly Chapel services all year long. In addition to these, we design and lead special services annually: Christmas Convocation, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Baccalaureate. Seeing as the Baccalaureate Service is our church-related college’s premier worship moment, it gets planned a year in advance.

The planning process for this year’s Baccalaureate Service was particularly frustrating. We had lined up an amazing preacher—the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget—so we wanted an amazing worship service to surround her sermon. The Baccalaureate Planning Committee and I came up with all sorts of wild ideas at first. Special lighting effects. Flash mobs. Marching bands and drum lines. (The beginning brainstorming phase of worship planning, when no idea is a bad idea, is always fun.) When we narrowed our focus, though, and started hammering out the possibilities, we kept running into setback after setback. We can’t do this because so-and-so isn’t available. We can’t do this, because there isn’t enough time to rehearse. We can’t do this, because so-and-so has fallen into the abyss of final exams and end-of-the-year stress and is no longer responding to email. When the day of Baccalaureate arrived, I felt confident that what we had eventually planned would work. But I also knew that a whole host of things could go wrong.

In the end, it was beautiful—more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Things came together for this service that we didn’t plan. Emotions were evoked that we didn’t expect. Worship leaders rose to the occasion in ways that can only happen when they are inspired and feeding off the energy present in the room. I was honestly blown away.

And humbled. Clearly, what made this worship service work, was a divine guiding hand. Yes, good worship requires a lot of hard work, planning, and preparation. But it’s work that’s never about us. So when it comes time, after you as a leader have put in all that you have, the best thing to do is get out of the way.

God makes worship work.

[feature image: susanlloyd]

My Summer Priority–write, write, write

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Photo credit Ralph

People often don’t realize how hard those of us in an academic community work during the year. The enviable focus is on our summers “off”—which assumes a career of leisure in higher education. I am actually on a twelve-month contract, though, so I will go in to the office every day this June and July. But, with the students gone, the pace is slow, the surroundings deliciously quiet, and I can focus on goals and priorities that I rarely get to August through May.

June and July equal hope in my world. I start looking forward to these summer months in December, start planning what I will do with this time in January, make my reservations and pay my deposits by February. All this planning is what gets me through the incredibly hectic winter and spring that lies ahead.

This summer writing is my priority. Here’s a glimpse of my plan-of-action:

  • Online Classes: I’ve been considering taking some online writing classes as a convenient and fairly inexpensive way to challenge myself, get feedback, and generate new work. There are lots of places to take online writing classes. I’ve explored the Gotham Writer’s Workshops, The Loft, and Creative Nonfiction’s classes. I decided to sign up for Creative Nonfiction’s Summer Bootcamp because I like how they structured the class as well as the fact that it would require me to write and submit daily assignments. I am also taking a class on blogging (The Clumsy Blogger’s Workshop) that I discovered through the RevGalBlogPals community. I hope to learn more about utilizing the blog medium through this course and instill a good habit of writing and posting weekly. Remember that quote from John McPhee? “Writing teaches writing.”
  • Writing Conference: Every summer since moving to Illinois I have enjoyed a week at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival in Iowa City. This summer, though, a new conference caught my attention and I decided to sign up for it instead. This July I’ll be attending Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon. Kenyon College is known for its great writing program, which is what led me to explore what their summer institute offered. And when I found out that they were offering this week-long conference on spiritual writing with my favorite poet Marie Howe as one of the teachers—I was so there! I’m also really excited to meet Amy Frykholm from The Christian Century and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, The Velveteen Rabbi, who will also be teaching that week.
  • Reading for Writing: I cannot wait to dive into my books! I always have lots of books I want to read, but never enough time. So I try to be strategic and read books that serve a good purpose for me. I’m interested in reading different styles of writing—styles I might want to tackle myself some day. So here’s an incomplete list of the books I hope to read this summer and why:
  • Practice saying “No”: I used to think that I had to say, “Yes!” to every opportunity or else those opportunities would no longer keep coming.  Now, I know better.  Now, I know myself and my priorities better so I can discern whether or not an opportunity is worth acting upon.  Thomas Merton once said that the imagination should be allowed a certain amount of time to browse around.  June and July is this “browsing around” time for me and I plan on protecting it by saying “No” to any opportunity that doesn’t fit with this priority.  This way, come August, I can start saying “Yes” again.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: A Magnetic Experience

magnet-strength-magnet-on-clipsI’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. It never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own meditation practice. It’s fascinated me to witness more and more students who have been drawn to sit with me in silence each Friday. Honestly, it seems like exactly the thing this techno-addicted generation would avoid. So I can’t really explain it, but the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel—attracting students to this time and space of attentive stillness.

The whole experience of leading this group has been life-giving for me. It’s exciting to feel how the students are drawn to the group. It’s incredibly easy for me to prepare—all I have to do is maintain my practice and inspiration about how to lead the next group always comes. Also, the feedback I get oftentimes validates what I am learning.

For instance, a few weeks ago, following one of our meditations, I shared an observation.   I had been noticing that as I meditated and focused on my breath, the thoughts that interrupted me that were thoughts of the future (things I needed to do, conversations I imagined having, dreams of what might come) always entered my mind from the right side. On the other hand, thoughts of the past (events I relived and replayed, memories, past hurts) entered my mind from the left. So the phrase “staying centered” took on literal meaning as I sought to focus my mind in its center, on what is right in front of me and in the present moment. This has been helpful to my practice, so I shared it with my students. As I did, one of them gasped, “Oh my gosh! That’s exactly what happens to me!” Others affirmed a similar experience so we paused to contemplate and marvel over the way our minds work and what we can learn when we pay attention.

I recently heard someone describe how his practice of meditation has “softened” him. This rang true of my practice as well. I’ve been surprised to discover meditation softening me to others—not just those who irritate me, but everyone: the colleagues I work with, my students, people I see on the news. At first, meditation felt like a very me-centered, self-absorbed practice. But by diving deeply into myself and paying careful attention to all that is inside of me, I’m finding that I not only learn about myself but about what it means to be human and what we all hold in common. It’s a gift I keep going back to for more and more and more. It’s magnetic.

 

 

Serious Business

I enjoy reading the Paris Review’s interviews of writers because they are often inspiring. I ran across their interview of Maya Angelou the other day and was particularly struck by this question and answer exchange:mayaangelouwriting

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

I love so many things about this quote. I love the vivid image of Maya Angelou writing poetry on a made-up bed surrounded by sherry, a dictionary, a thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. It sounds like a perfect hot mess of inspiration. I love that Ms. Angelou includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Zoroastrians, friends, lovers, and mothers in her statement about trying to be good. It’s the perfect inclusive nod to our human desire to be our best selves. Also, I love Ms. Angelou’s honesty and courage in naming that she is “trying” to be a Christian, but that she regularly blows it. I blow it too. So I appreciate her saying this. Because, of course, this means I’m not the only one.

Overall, though, I love that Ms. Angelou described her work at trying to be a Christian as “serious business.” I have all sorts of respect for someone who understands that a faith commitment is just that—a commitment. And that it can’t be done well, or at all, unless you take that commitment seriously.

When I spent a week on a Spring break trip with a few of our Muslim students and observed firsthand their ritual of praying five times a day, I noted how this worship ritual shaped their daily life and consistently called them back to God. I go to worship weekly and try to meditate daily for the same reason—to return myself to God and to my commitment to practicing my faith.

Faith is not a magic bullet, or a quick and easy pill we swallow upon our baptism (if we’re Christian). Faith is messy. Faith is doubt. Faith is challenge. Faith is comforting green pastures as well as craggy mountains to climb. To say faith is anything less is a misunderstanding or a misconstruing of faith itself. It is a day-by-day commitment to one’s self and one’s God. It is serious business.

 

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit

Everywhere I have served as a pastor I have had a group of clergywomen to whom I could turn for RevGals coversupport and encouragement—a safe space to talk with colleagues who understood. Women pastors need such spaces because, even though we are less and less unique (as of 2013 36% of Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors are women) we are oftentimes still treated as unique by the Church and her members. After my move here to rural Illinois, away from parish ministry and into college chaplaincy, finding a group of clergy women was difficult. Connecting to the RevGalBlogPals community has helped me not feel so isolated.

I’m proud to be a contributor to this collection of essays. As I have been reading through it, I keep returning to the Table of Contents. I just love seeing all those female names listed with the title of “Reverend.” Resonating with essay after essay I look these clergywomen up on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about their lives and to connect with them through social media. I am hungry for this company of women and for these stories to be told.

I really think churches should study this book so they can better understand what their female pastors are experiencing.   Those who don’t believe women should be in the pulpit should read it too. Then they might realize just how wrong they are.  When I read this book I can’t help but think, these women are good–seriously good–at what they do. It’s an honor to be included among them.

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor is available for purchase through the publisher, SkyLight Paths Publishing. It can also be purchased at Amazon or through Barnes & Noble.

 

 

Writing Sex

romance31I’m attending a lot of panels here at AWP: a couple on social media, one on the contemplative writing of Thomas Merton, and one on writing the “occasion” poem (which inspired my forthcoming inauguration prayer.) All the panels I’ve attended have been really useful and informative, so yesterday I decided to attend something completely different. I attended a panel called, “No Shame: Sex Scenes by Women, About Women.” Clearly, I was not going to get any good sermon material here. I just went into the panel open and without expectation. And I chose a seat in the back, hoping there wouldn’t be any required audience participation.

Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the best panels I attended. To set the scene, it was standing room only. The convention hall room was full of women. We sat shoulder to shoulder in rows of uncomfortable chairs. There must have been about two hundred of us crammed in there. No one looked liked a sexual deviant. In fact, most of the women looked a lot like me (see yesterday’s post about the boring gray dress slacks with the black blouse.) There were a few men scattered in the room, but (good for them) they kept quiet and let the women hold forth. The presenters were all amazing; strong, courageous, smart, witty women who spoke frankly about the role of sex scenes in good literature. (We’re not talking erotica here, folks.) The takeaway theme of the panel was that it’s never just about the sex in literature.

In fact, the panel was more a discussion about the messages our culture sends women about sex and sexuality. The most retweeted quote (yes, I tweet now!) from the panel was, “Sex is often about power, and female sexuality is too—and female power often makes people anxious.” One of the presenters shared how after her mother-in-law read her novel, which included a few fictitious sex scenes, mother-in-law called her husband to tell him that his wife was obviously a sexual deviant who must be molesting his children. To her credit, the presenter refused to let mother-in-law shame her and she kept on writing. But shame seems to be the name of the game when women talk sex.

In the discussion that followed the panelists’ presentation many confessed to their sexual shame and their need for liberation. Typically, the stories included messages of shame that were received early (between eight to twelve years old) and then kept up for a lifetime by a culture ill at ease with a woman’s sexuality. Listening to these stories unfold, I couldn’t help but think about how the Church has been the main supplier of this sexual shame. Maybe we should have a panel discussion too.

In a lighter moment, a woman shared that she was too worried to write about sex for fear of what her family and friends might think. To which one of the presenters replied, “It’s time to stop worrying about whether people like you or not. We’re grown ass adults. Pack that away.”

Obviously, there was lots of hilarity in between the meaningful discussion. One presenter rattled off a seriously long list of clichés, words to avoid when writing the literary sex scene. The list included: gazongas, bodacious bosoms, family jewels, ta-tas, tube sticks, penis fly-traps…(there were more, but I was laughing so hard at this point I couldn’t write.)

Finally, there was a sense of camaraderie in the room by the end of the discussion—or to use a more churchy word—a sense of community. I had turned to my neighbor sitting to my right and my left numerous times during the course of the panel to share a laugh or an appreciative nod. We were no longer strangers. We had bonded over a subject that is important to all of us, and yet one that we rarely have the freedom to talk about. Maybe we should talk some more? Maybe we could find ways to celebrate our sexuality, rather than shame? Maybe we could be more like Fred Rogers who, in my book, wins the prize for the best non-anxious description of the way God made us. “Boys are fancy on the outside. Girls are fancy on the inside.” (Tweet this.)

Out of My Zone: A Pastor Attends AWP

I decided to stand out today as I got dressed for my first AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). So I pulled on my gray wool dress pants, black ballet flats and a black blouse. When I registered yesterday I noticed a lot of body piercings, black framed eye-glasses, leggings and boots (Doc Marten style.) I rode the elevator with a plus-size woman in ripped (on purpose, I think) black nylons underneath a pair of black denim short-shorts. Later, I noticed a man with a necklace of large bones. A presenter at my first panel wore denim and a red baseball cap with the rim flipped up. Am I cool enough to be here? I thought to myself as I settled into a comfortable seat in the middle.

There are plenty of people here who look like me, but this isn’t a church conference. I went to Hell’s Kitchen last night for dinner. I would have done this at a church conference, but it would have been ironic and silly. Not so at AWP. There’s a giant Craft Bar in the middle of the convention center where we are attending panels. At the church conference, this would be where I would go to learn new art to make with the kids in Sunday School. Here at AWP, this is where I buy beer. I think they were open this morning.

Everyone’s been so welcoming. I spoke to Susan Ito of LiteraryMama after her panel presentation. She was so nice and encouraged me to blog more and to get on Twitter. I visited my friend, Michael Morse, at Canarium Press’ table, to buy his new book of poetry, “Void and Compensation.” They had a great deal, three books of poetry for $30.  So I asked the publishers which of their poets would be best to quote in a sermon.  It took them a minute to register my unfamiliar question before responding that it depended on my congregation. I told them I was a college chaplain, so I could be pretty edgy.  “Oh!” they exclaimed. “Well, then, here you go!” And they quickly filled my arms with new books.

Needless to say, I’m having a ball. This is just the kind of conference I have needed for encouragement and new connections. I hope to blog more about it soon. But now I’m off to begin my foray into the world of Tweet and Twitter. (It’s sounds so cute, how hard could it be?)