Lenten Liturgy Beyond Church Walls

Church of the Pilgrims Lenten liturgical journey took us beyond our church walls. Folks at our worship planning session came up with the theme of "Be Salt. Be Light. Be Bold." We came to this theme after exploring the Beatitudes, our Brian McLaren lectionary focus for the season.

As we wrapped-up our brainstorming session, Roberta, a regular at Pilgrims, reiterated "we need to be bold, we need to be bold." Roberta's emphatic-ness stayed with me.....

In order to BE BOLD, this is what we came up with for our Lent order of worship.

Pilgrims Lenten Cross--like a reverse Advent candle wreath.
Pilgrims Lenten Cross--like a reverse Advent candle wreath.

10:55  Taize singing led by Rob Passow, our music director, and the choir. Keep singing until 11:05

  • Liturgy of the Cross--opened up with some words about Lent then snuffed out a candle each week on our handmade Lenten cross. This marked the movement towards Jerusalem and how Lent calls us to pay attention to how the ways of death are around us on a daily basis. .
  • Choir sang an anthem.
  • Biblical story--told using Biblical storytelling or responsive with the congregation.
  • Sermon--8-10 minutes.
  • Hymn--we used that as an invitation to come forward to the table.
  • Communion--short and sweet with the ordained and non-ordained (example: two of our confirmands) breaking the bread, pouring the cup, saying the words of institution.
  • 11:45!
  • For 30 minutes people were invited to be BOLD. Be SALTY. Be LIGHT. They had several choices to make for acts of service: 1) taking already made bag lunches out to Dupont Circle to hungry folks; 2) making more bag lunches for Open Table, our lunch for hungry neighbors each Sunday; 3) working in our urban garden; 4) participating in an advocacy conversation that changed each week (Syrian conflict, Darfur, homelessness in D.C., community organizing).

At 12:15, folks came back to our coffee hour room to debrief for a couple of minutes (how can you imagine your boldness today influencing your upcoming week?). We sang an Amen or Alleluia then benediction.

Coffee hour continued.

Things I noticed during Lent:

1) Our usual worship lasts until 12:15 or so, and we did what we wanted to do in 45 minutes within the sanctuary walls. Take-away: what are we *really* doing in those additional 15 + minutes?

2) We focused on composting in the garden on most weeks, including our worm composting. I watched Jeff and Gregg, two members, CUT UP FOOD for our worms. Worms will eat produce in any shape or form. But Jeff and Gregg thoughtfully cut-up food for our little wormies. Take-away: intention + paying attention + thoughtfulness=connection, even with worms.

3) The very human experience of being together in experiences of outreach as part of worship. No liturgical scripts. No prayers written out. No faces in the hymnals. Just us making food, composting, listening, engaging, connecting with hungry folks. Liturgical improv beyond church walls. Take-away: Pilgrims works hard at having worship where we are ourselves. But still. Bulletins and such do put me/us roles. In sharing the work of outreach, we/I dropped whatever liturgical roles I/we inhabit and we talked, conversed, learned, farmed, organized.....

4) Coffee hour had a buzz. Folks dribbled in after their outreach and were chatting it up. When we paused for reflection and a final song, people went right back to their conversations. Take-away: People dribbled in because the various service experiences didn't end at the exact same time. In a normal service the benediction declares worship over in one moment. Time felt more fluid with folks coming in, already connected via service.

5) The outreach was a great way to split people up. Church cliques exist. Service was a great way to mix-up Pilgrim peeps. Take-away: Need to be intentional to get folks out of their church molds.

Analysis of Pilgrims Lent, part 3 of 3.

Background on Pilgrims Lent can be found here and here. This is continued analysis of Pilgrims Lenten worship. Here I focus on our weekly Eucharist experience.

Laban Movement Analysis:  (LMA). One of our members, Andy Wassenich, tuned me into LMA and I used it to give thought and theory to our communion experience each week. Before we came to the communion table, we had a walking meditation. People walked mindfully around the sanctuary with three reflection questions that were shared during the walk. We walked because Jesus' primary mode of movement throughout the Lenten stories was walking. He walked himself from the wilderness to Jerusalem. We did the same.

LMA is a theoretical and experiential system for the observation, description, prescription, performance, and interpretation of human movement.

"At the heart of LMA is a recognition that movement is a psycho-physical process, an outward expression of inner intent" (Ed Groff). LMA has four major themes: body, effort, shape, space. It works to bridge polarities in movement: bound/unbound, group/individual, simple/complex, exertion/recuperation, mobility/stability. I'm a LMA expert nobody and what I took away from it, and how it relates to communion, is how we can build awareness with our bodies and how we are present in our bodies in a space.

What shape does our body take in the sanctuary while walking? Growing. Shrinking. Hallowing. Are we controlled and contained? Fragile? Vulnerable? Relaxed and at ease? Tense?

Our body takes shape in space.

There is also the inner space of breathing. That's an inner shaping. Our bodies expand and contract while breathing.

One writer of LMA says:

People who develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation.

How we experience our bodies impacts how we perceive ourselves and our sacred power. The external shape (and internal breathing) can be a mirror to our inner happenings--do we feel powerful and proud, ready to create transformation? Or do I feel like shit about myself and I walk around with my body posture and movement reflecting that shitty reality?

Movement has meaning. We walked, like Jesus, to embody our reality---that we are not static but in the process of transformation. Always.

Communion: Continued vision for Pilgrims communion---dismantle the "normativity of the proper." ( I got this phrase from my friend, Claudio Carvalhaes). That means this: the Church has wedged it's tighty-whities up so tight with communion that it's created a sacrament based on anxiety-ridden ordering of space, patriarchal/colonizing doctrines, and clergy-ego-power driven liturgical practices.

Time to blow that shit up.

Coming back to the use of improv---we improved communion. We were gathered around the rickety table, standing in mountain pose and symbolizing our readiness to share. We offered up a time of prayers---people calling out the vulnerability of broken bodies and the broken planet. Then Jeff or a church member started to chant the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. Basically what elements of creation, prophets, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit do we need to give thanks for? People called them out. We sang a lovely Sanctus. People didn't have bulletins so heads were looking ahead, not down. We improved the words of institution--people called out the story after a prompt by whoever was at the table. One Sunday neither Jeff or I was at the table.

We moved the sacrament into the margins of society and unexpected places. Clean water. ACA workers.  A dying cousin. My nephew with leukemia.The sacrament was taken to those unexpected places and peoples through the improv.

Here the intrinsic relationship between the planet and the sacrament could be felt--and it wasn't constructed by me or Jeff. People were moved by nudge of the Holy. The dualism of planet and sacrament was broken down.

The experience of communion moved away from the right and proper words and gestures (and people/power) to "authenticate" communion and into the realm of the Holy Spirit.

Each week we were at a beautiful, crappy looking table surrounded by people trying to connect with each other, their hopes and dreams, trauma and heartache with each other. We gathered as a body seeking Gospel stories of Jesus to shape and move us, nudging/pushing/challenging us to notice God. We weren't bound to the imperialism of the Church that claims "if you don't do communion this way it won't be right." We weren't bound to time and space and things. Through words, prayers, song, movement, bread, anointing, and our bodies we found the sacrament waiting for us, letting us in, and cracking us open for what is to come.

Analysis of Pilgrims Lent 2014, part 3 of 3

My last two posts (here and here) focused on the liturgical structure for Lent at Pilgrims. This post focuses on analyzing our liturgy through theory and method. I'm not going to evaluate what worked, what didn't work. These next two posts  is about looking at Pilgrims Lenten liturgy through a conceptual lens (note: I try to keep my posts to 500 words, hence two posts for analysis). Here goes:

Improv: Improvisation is the artistic method that creates a state of saying "yes....and." Improv involves intuition, and spontaneity.  It has structure to create safety in order to take risks. It involves making things from what is at hand, making something out of nothing. Improv is comedy. It's jazz. It's hip hop. It's cooking. It's theater. It's parenting. It's MacGyver and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (go, 70's!) fighting the bad guys.

It isn't just one thing--it's many things. Though, I guess, it really isn't a thing. It's a process. It's a way of making and creating.

We had lots of improv in our liturgy during Lent. We used an improv game to create a primary experience of improv. After the storyteller told the Gospel by heart, we did a Biblical tableau. People were invited to call out a particular moment in the story (structure: particular moment in the story) and come up in front of the sanctuary and strike a pose (improv) that reflects that moment. Then others came up and shaped out with their bodies their own interpretation of that biblical moment. One rule (structure)--had to be touching each other via hand, foot, shoulder. Bodies had to touch.

The Biblical story came to life in front of us through risk-taking, vulnerability, and saying "yes" to the invitation to build. Those are in and of themselves Biblical values. Improv creates space for the Holy Spirit to be seen, touched, and experienced.

Deconstructing Power: Power and liturgy go hand-in-hand. Liturgy can affirm hierarchical, dominating, and life-sucking, can't-afford-food-for-my-kids power. Liturgy demands relational power--the kind that creates space for people to connect and feel their own capacity to create Holy change. Deconstructing power means dismantling constructed sources of power.

Like improv, deconstructing power came in lots of ways in our liturgy. One way was moving the furniture out of the way.

Our "created just for this Lent" communion table.
Our "created just for this Lent" communion table.

Read this post for background.  Goodbye pulpit. Hello small, rickety communion table. Hello trying to figure out where to place your body in the space. Liturgical furniture is one way of creating a border--a marking point between preacher and people, liturgist and folk, communion and all who share.

Jeff preached note-less sermons. He moved mindfully around while preaching. I was sick the Sunday I preached. I sat in a chair as close as possible to the front pews. Liturgists stood without the pulpit and had to decide where to stand and place themselves. Gospel storytellers had room to move. We started the call to worship from the back of the sanctuary, at the font, and moved up the aisle to our crosses.

A pulpit gives a visual anchor it also grounds energy, spirit, and power in one place.  Our bodies are in one shape behind the pulpit--standing. The power source is located in one spot. During Lent, our bodies were all over the sanctuary, creating and symbolizing power in it's most shared, relational existence. The is the power of the Gospel stories during Lent.

Lent 2014 at Pilgrims, Part 2 of 3.

Our "created just for this Lent" communion table.
Our "created just for this Lent" communion table.

Lent 2014 at Pilgrims, Part 2! Read about Part 1 here. During our worship planning session for Lent, Mary Ester, one of our members, said we should move the furniture (communion table, pulpit) out of the sanctuary and have the preacher, storyteller, and announcement person be in the open, arid space. Mary said she can hide our bodies behind furniture. Let's break down the barriers between bodies and people.

So we did. We have a newly constructed, small, wooden communion table that looks like it might fall over at any minute. The preachers, storytellers, and liturgist are just in the middle of our liturgical space.....with our bodies.

I've noticed, within me, this keeps the energy moving. Up until this moment in the service there has been lots of movement in body, energy, and voice. Even though Jeff maybe be moving around just a bit while he's preaching, it's enough to keep up the flow that's already present. The thought of a preacher getting behind the pulpit at this point in the service feels like an energy killer.

This means sermons with notes!

More vulnerability. More risk. More of the preacher being "seen" by those around.

After another hymn, announcements, choir singing we move on to communion....

Before we come to the table, we do a walking meditation. As Jesus moved himself towards Jerusalem, his primary mode of being was walking. So....we take on that body movement and posture in a walking meditation before we come to the table.

We ring a meditation bell, Rob (our music director) starts a very simple droning on the piano, and people walk mindfully around the sanctuary. One of the leaders offers up three meditation questions, one at at time, that are based on the theme of the Sunday + Biblical character.

Examples: When the blind man was healed, I wonder what that healing felt like in his body? I wonder what healing feels like in our own bodies?

Mountain Pose
Mountain Pose

After about 5 minutes of walking with questions, we come to the table singing "Come Bring Your Burdens to God" and stand near the table in mountain pose under the three crosses. The question becomes: where will you stand? Close to the table? Out on the margins of the mashed up community? The invitation is a "all is welcome, no exceptions" and claim your own place at the table. Where will you stand? Close to the table? Close to others? On the  margins of the mashed up group?  What pushes your comfort zone without putting your body in major discomfort.

This is yoga---finding your edge. Taking your body to the edge is place between new sensations and pain. You seek new sensations. Avoid pain. This is how change takes place in the body.

We offer time for prayers---for broken and whole bodies, for the broken and whole planet.

Our communion liturgy is improvised. Jeff and a couple of others have chanted some initial words that move us through the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving and people call out the content. Example: Let us give thanks for the planet which God created (chanted). What of creation do we need to give thanks for? (spoken) People call out the thanks.

We work our way through the primary elements of the Prayer. We improvise the Words of Institution. Example: Leader shares "On the night before Jesus was betrayed, what happened?" People fill in the rest of the story. It's a multitude of voices at once. 

We share the bread. Share the cup. Offer anointing of hands with the words, "Jess, your body is sacred."

Our closing hymn each week in worship.
Our closing hymn each week in worship.

We sing "Sacred the Body" hymn #27 out of the Glory of God as the closing hymn each week. Note: This hymn was created by Ruth Duck for a worship service I was part of while at Union Seminary in NYC. #amazing

In the next blog post on liturgy, I'll give my reflections on the liturgy as a whole and the "back story" ritual and  movement theories that are present.

Lent 2014 at Pilgrims, Part 1

Now that we are nearing the end of Lent, I've got a handle on our Lenten liturgy and know what the hell is happening each week.... This Lent we are focusing on "the body." I wrote out our initial planning stage in this blog post, lifting up our playful and intentional exploration of our liturgical space and it's relationship to the body, our bodies, all bodies, preacher's body, liturgist's body....all these thoughts have been incorporated into our Wednesday night Lenten series that focuses on the body and Adult Ed on Sunday's that is focusing on death, dying and final rituals.

After our planning session and several weeks of tossing ideas into the air and lots of back and forth between me, Jeff, and Rob Passow, our music director, this is what we've come up.  We sub-themed each Sunday: hunger, vulnerability, movement, touch, and dying.

We begin by singing "Somos el cuerpo de Christo."

Somos el cuerpo, we are the body of Christ, Hemos oido el llamado; we've answered "yes" to the call of the Lord. 

Somos el cuerpo de Christo. We are the body of Christ. Traemos su santo mensaje. We come to bring Good News to the World. 

The music dims and the first part of the call to worship is read at the font. This was written by our intern, Jess Fisher.

When the time was right, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. Today, the time is right for us, so we set our faces towards the cross. Our journey begins with water. Like the deep water that the breathe of God swept over in the very beginning, like the overflowing water that sustains us in the earliest of moments of our vulnerable lives, like the living water that connects us in Baptism as we join the Body of Christ. 

The person saying the words moves forward to the table with a second person, carrying a THURIBLE. Yes! We are using a thurible to "mark the path" from font, table, and cross and to give a visibility to the Holy Spirit. While these people are moving forward, we sing the "El Cuerpo" song again.

At the table, these words are read: In between birth and death, we answer God's call, as we come to the table and meet at God who became human and moved amongst the broken, learn what we hunger for in our stomachs and our hearts, and reach out to touch our neighbor in the midst of life.


The two people move towards the crosses (thurible kicking out incense) and we sing the song again.

At the cross, these words are said: The journey leads us to death, at the foot of the cross, we bring an offering to God, one of incense and oil, which in life reminds us of the presence of God's Spirit and in death prepare our bodies to be returned to the earth. But even here we find Good News: our God goes before us in birth, in suffering, in death, and in new life. 

The thurible is placed at the bottom of the crosses where compost and remnants of wood rest--showing from dust and compost we come and return and executions are a human creation.

Pilgrim Matt Webster in Mountain Pose, with Dana  Olson guiding us through a meditation.
Pilgrim Matt Webster in Mountain Pose, with Dana Olson guiding us through a meditation.

We sing the song again, and when the song is finished, everyone is still standing.

Folks are then invited to stand in mountain pose, taking on the place where Jesus looked out over the horizon on the first Sunday in Lent. A guided meditation is used in this moment to connect with body, and the primary working theme of the liturgy (hunger, etc).

We gently sit after this, and sing another song.

Someone tells the very long Gospel story by heart. Phew!

Creating the story of the Woman at the Well.
Creating the story of the Woman at the Well.

Jeff then invites people to name an part of the story that stands out to them. A moment in the story is called out and people are invited to create a "tableau" of the story with their bodies. One requirement---you have to be touching someone in the tableau. This is an improv game we've adapted for worship.

Below are more pictures of our sanctuary. In my next blog post, I'll share what we are doing with the sermon and communion + my analysis of the liturgy.

Powerful People: Bethel Lee and Yoga Chapel

Bethel Lee
Bethel Lee

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Bethel Lee is chaplain to Yoga Chapel, a ministry that weaves together the art of Christian reflection with the wisdom of the physical yoga practice, and ordained into the United Church of Canada. I've said this before---Bethel creating a yoga chapel pretty much makes her the most interesting person in the world to me.

Below is a reflection Bethel wrote for Yoga Chapel and the yoga practice she's offering during Lent that focuses on the garden. It's so beautiful. Bethel created a yoga practice that is woven into this reflection, in between the opening and closing meditations. This Maundy Thursday, our plan at Pilgrims is to end our service in our own garden, using some of Bethel's words.

Opening Meditation: Genesis 2:4-9

The author of Genesis describes the beginning of Creation in this way: God waters the face of the earth, just as we might water a bed of flowers. And then, with this now fertile ground, God plants a garden in this new world. And this garden is where humanity begins.

It would’ve been quite a different story if the author had placed our origins say in the desert, or a valley, or a swamp. But sometimes this is how we perceive ourselves. When we’re not doing so well or when we’re really struggling with something, it can be tempting to believe that the place we come from, that the stuff we’re made of is no good. Swampy. Bleak. Brittle.

Lent is traditionally a solemn time, a difficult time. And during Lent we are called to remember that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” In the season of Lent we are called to remember how fragile life is, how fragile we are – our bodies, our thoughts and all our big plans– we are humbled that in the large scheme of things, they are but dust.

But as the writer of Genesis insists, this dust that we come from and this dust to which we return isn’t passive or meaningless – indeed it is rich and fertile, and when watered by God it always bears the capacity to give birth to new life. No matter what might fall apart in your life – whatever may be going on in your body, your thoughts or plans, the message is that there is always hope.

If you were to hold the same view of Creation as the writer of Genesis does, how might that change how you see yourself? How might you understand and treat yourself? How might you understand and treat others, if you too carried the vision that the source of your being, the place from which you come, is a garden – a place flourishing with energy, a place where things grow with wild abandon, a place of beauty and a place of new life.

Closing Meditation: Mark 14:32-36

Toward the end of his ministry, toward the end of his life, we find Jesus in a garden. In a garden called Gethsemane, he pours his heart out to God as he battles unbearable grief. This garden scene seems worlds away from that idyllic garden in Genesis – that hopeful beginning, that place of bubbling life. This garden, at night, where Jesus has thrown himself onto the ground seems like such a dark and desperate place.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if in Jesus’ darkest hour, it was this sanctuary of a garden – surrounded by this green growth and organic beauty that he could see and touch and smell… I wonder if it was this garden that reminded him of who he is and what he’s made of. As Jesus waters the garden with his sweat and his tears, I wonder if he remembered in this moment that there is always hope for new life when God is the Gardener.

In the words of May Sarton, may God, “Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.”