Safety Pin Sunday

Church of the Pilgrims incorporated safety pins into our worship on November 13th.

The safety pin as a symbol of disruption and inclusion took off after the presidential election.

There were lots of opinions and thoughts on wearing a safety pin.

We went with this:

  1. Symbols matter. As Jesus people we are a people of symbols--bread, cup, water, cross, rainbow, ashes. At Pilgrims, we organize our community life around symbols. Symbols shape identity, connection, and mostly importantly....
  2. Action. Wearing a safety pin means you act upon what the pin symbolizes. As Jesus people we are to disrupt injustice, take risks for the sake of creating safe, brave space. We are people of the bread and cup.  We people of the font.  These  sacramental symbols demand action in the public square. In living a sacramental life, we are to embrace ancient and current symbols and create an ethic (choices, action) of justice and love. A Christian ethic without actions is nothing. Period. End of scene. So...if one is taking communion and then keeps silent about the possibility of 3 million people getting deported might want to also re-think wearing a safety pin. You might want to re-think a lot of things.

We used safety pins during our prayers of the people which happens near the end of our liturgy.

We did this:

We had six little glass candle holders filled with safety pins on our communion table. During prayers of the people we are all gathered around the table in a circle.

I said something about the safety pins--meaning, purpose.

I invited people to share safety pins with one another. I modeled the way we did this after the way we shared communion in September.

Six people (six candle holders) needed to come forward and take a jar. I didn't ask anyone to do this beforehand--folks needed to initiate this moment themselves. Those who took a safety pin candle holder walked to someone in the circle and asked, "do you know anyone who would like a safety pin?"

I modeled this language of asking after the question our Pilgrim families ask when they take bag lunches up to Dupont Circle to share food with hungry folks-- "do you know anyone who needs a bag lunch?" Our Pilgrimage groups do the same when they take out bag lunches to parks throughout D.C.

This language gives choice.  If claiming to be a people of safe ways, the last thing we want to do is slap a safety pin on someone without consent. In our ask, people were invited to take a pin and put it on themselves, giving space for their own agency to be part of the prayer time.  The person who received the pin would then walk to someone else in the circle.

As music played, people moved through the circle, sharing safety pins.

After we were all pinned up, I framed our sharing of prayers around disruption.

How can we disrupt moments of white supremacy, misogyny, Islamophobia?

What if you hear a co-worker make a racist joke? How do you respond in the moment?

Folks were invited to picture a place in their life where they had witnessed supremacy in action. Folks shared that place/experience with the person standing next to them. I reminded them we are still in prayer, still praying as we shared with each other.

After sharing, I invited folks to share their out-loud prayers as our not yet disruptive actions breaking into the here and now.

"I told my co-worker to knock it off with the racist joke."

"I stood next to my female co-worker when a male colleague tried to physically intimidate her."

I invited folks to pray AS IF their actions had already taken place. As if their prayer for justice had been manifested. As if they had already acted in a disruptive, prayerful way. As if we DO have the power to knock racism and sexism off its pedestal and place our bodies in the space where justice is needed.

This is another improv tool---you claim how you acted before a scene takes place. "I was super confident in that improv scene."

Speaking actions into existence was hard for folks. It showed me we have work to do.

A handful of folks used the prompt:

"I hosted people during inauguration weekend to protest."

"I spoke up against bullying in my office."

I also trust that people were imaging situations in their heads. It took a lot of risk and vulnerability to share in this way inside your head and outloud.

After the calling out of prayers, we went right into the Lord's Prayer, skipping over our usual part where folks ask for prayers of healing.

During the last hymn, a church member came up to me and asked if I was doing the benediction. Nope--Jeff is. This church member had a prayer request for another member. She shared with Jeff.

Jeff shared the prayer request after the hymn. Then other people started popcorning their prayer requests.  I loved how people created this moment--we aren't quite done yet! They went "off script" and shared their prayers--not letting liturgy end without getting in their prayer requests. That itself was an act of disruption.

Communion Without A Center

Church of the Pilgrims has been having conversations the past two months focused on race, racial identity, and anti-racism work.

By anti-racism I mean work that moves us in and out and through the lethal knot of white supremacy--the belief that white people are superior to all other races.

Our worship services have also been part of our anti-racism work. As we planned our Homecoming Service, the service that is our liturgical marking spot for the beginning of fall, we looked at how we were going to serve communion in a way that modeled the creation of more just and loving social structures.

This is what we did.

We followed our usual pattern of singing ourselves to the communion table after our choir sang the anthem.

Folks gathered in a circle around the table and usually the folks who are leading the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving stand behind the table.

We work hard at having three people at the communion table for the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving--usually me, Jeff, and a non-ordained person. Sometimes it can be me and two other people. Sometimes Jeff and two other people. At times two or three people whose names aren't Ashley or Jeff.

This time no one was at the table.

We did this to deconstruct the center.

In anti-racism work we are disrupting the center, breaking through that lethal knot which binds us to a horrific and violent racial structure.

Our work as Followers of the Way is to create a moral imagination where we can begin to see our trust, our actions, our voices flowing out of the ways of Jesus rather than the ways of white supremacy.

Our Prayer of Great Thanksgiving was done with multiple voices, voices coming from various parts of the circle.

Empire/Imperial Ways/Supremacy wants us to listen to one voice, the loudest voice, the what appears to be the most powerful voice. With multiples voices, we had to look, listen, and find the voice of the prayer. We had to turn our bodies to locate the voice.

Before the service I asked two people to hold the bread and the cup anywhere in the circle. The bread and the cup that we were going to break and pour was somewhere in the circle rather than sitting on the table.

When we got to the breaking of bread and pouring of the cup, I called out "who as the bread!?" Cody, our new Young Adult Volunteer, called out "I do!" Jeff walked over to Cody and together they broke the bread.

I called out "who as the cup?!" Kathleen McBride and her kids yelled out "We do!" I walked across the circle and poured the cup with Kathleen and her kids.

For serving the bread and the cup, we usually pass baskets of bread and cup around the circle. One person after another the bread and cup get passed. It's predictable. You can anticipate when the bread/cup are coming to you. You know who is going to serve it to you.

This time we crisscrossed across the open space of the circle. People were given the invitation to walk across the circle to share the bread and cup. Once shared, that person would take the bread and cup and walk to another part of the circle.

In this way, people had to pay attention to each other. They had to ask "have you been served?" If someone said yes, the person with the bread and the cup moved on to someone else, still asking the question "have you been served?"

Imagine....if we did this out in public. Excuse me, are you hungry? Do you know someone who is hungry? Do you need some food? We have some food to share.

I had some fear and anxiety in thinking this through. What if we left someone out? What if someone got ignored?

Then I got over myself. My fears. My anxiety. Trust Pilgrims. Trust the Spirit. Trust this body of Jesus people.

In sharing the bread and the cup in this way, we had to take some risks. Asking "have you been served" has a level of vulnerability to it--you don't know. You had to ask. A connection was created. Empathy was present. The Spirit in her improvisational ways moved through us.

We made eye contact. We paid attention to each other in a new way. We had to look around. We moved in unpredictable, non-linear, multi-directional ways. This counters the linear, one directional way that supremacy seems to work--listen to the white voice, the white body, the white power structure.

Instead, we listened to the voice of the Spirit, the body of God's people, the structure of sharing in order to shape and interact with each other.

Liturgy is the work of the people. Liturgy is NOT the work of a status quo people.

Liturgy invites us into a new kind of work, a new way of imagining, a powerful way of disrupting and dismantling the center.

Improv and Empathy

I had my second improv class this past Monday at the Washington Improv Theater. Focus this week: Physical Arrangement

Physical arrangement in improv is when you use space as structure for improv.

This is an example of physical arrangement.

One of our first exercises had us all in a circle. Our teacher, Lisa, tossed us an invisible, red ball. She held the ball in her hands. While the ball was invisible, the ball was real. We treated the invisible ball as if it was a real red ball. We tossed the ball around the circle. Key observation: we could NOT say no to the ball. Lisa created the reality that there was a red ball. Therefore, we honored the space Lisa created by tossing this very real, very invisible ball around our circle.

My favorite exercise was physical mirroring. This is when you have a partner and you mirror each other's physical movements. I stood facing my partner and moved my right arm up and in a circle. She moved her right arm up and in a circle--mirroring my exact movement.

I loved this exercise because it was slow and our movements were simple. Empathy seems to drive the slowly, simple movements. My partner wanted me to be able to follow her movements. In order for me to follow she had to go slow. She had a sense of what I was going through as a follower and what it took to merge movements.

We built off this exercise by both moving as the same time--taking turns leading and following each other's movements. While we took turns leading and following each other, there was this mysterious merger we had with each other. The boundaries between who was leading and who was following were clear and blurred all at the same time.

Empathy and improv are connected. This connection seems to break through the binary of right and wrong. In improv, there is not right or wrong. There is only risk. There only "is."

Examining right and wrong is crucial when it comes to liturgy and the experience of liturgy.

In theory, the Church can embrace the truth that as humans we are a mess, we are fallible, we aren't perfect. Jesus embraced imperfect people. Therefore I/we will, too! Except we don't have too because I/we are always right.

Embracing the reality of imperfection seems to get blown out the sanctuary door when imperfection (our humanness) is part of the liturgy.

  • Sing perfectly.
  • Sermon must be consistently right.
  • Your kid(s) are making noise in worship which must mean you aren't right in your parenting.
  • This liturgy is making me uncomfortable which means there must be something wrong with me and/or these worship leaders are just wrong.

When our internal landscape of rightness rears its non-empathetic head....when we cling like hell to our rightness, we literally create our own reality on top of the reality we want to reject and ignore. The consequence--we miss out on the invitation to share in Jesus-like-empathy. We miss out on being human together.

  • Someone stops singing because tears are coming down their cheeks.
  • A parent struggles to parent their child(ren) in worship and feels helpless and lonely.
  • Preacher give crappy sermon because they are preoccupied with a family matter.
  • This liturgy made you uncomfortable? Say more about that....

Improv and empathy. It's real. And it's not just for the theater or the Church. It's for everything.

This mirror exercise is lifted up in a Science Friday podcast with Alan Alda, the actor, who started the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Sciences at New York's Stony Brook University. This center trains doctors and scientists in improv in order to become better communicators by accessing empathy.  An example was given of a doctor, who had been trained in improv at the Center, was giving a patient the news she had 6 weeks or so left to live. The mirroring exercises that the doctor had participated in allowed the doctor to sit, listen, feel, and notice the patient as the doctor delivered the news. Mirroring allowed the doctor to access empathy, and in turn, be present with the patient in her own grief, confusion, and questions.

Here's a link to the podcast.

Foundations of Improv Class

I'm a big fan of improv, especially its connection with liturgy. I've taken several improv classes over the years, mostly 2-hour classes here and there.

Casey Fitzgerald over at Faith and Wonder found a Foundations of Improv class through the Washington Improv Theater and we signed-up for the Monday afternoon, 8-week class. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is taking the same class at another time during the week. Looking forward to reflecting with my improv peeps.

The class was advertised like this: Discover a new sense of freedom and play. Meet fun and other interesting people. Get away from the grind of the scripted city. Unleash your creativity and learn more about yourself.

Thinking that could be a new PR language for Church of the Pilgrims.

Our first class was this past Monday. Here are some my take-aways, including some insights from our teacher.

  • Mistakes are where the magic happens. 'nuff said.
  • We did a game called "Bid-did-it." It involved snapping fingers along with calling out one word that built upon the person next to us. Basically everyone is snapping and words are going around a circle. I found myself trying to plan ahead for my word. "When it gets to me, I'm going to say THIS WORD." Funny. Turns out it's hard to listen to people if I'm trying to control the crap out of my mind. Casey commented later that you can't listen to anyone else when you are thinking about your next step.
  • Our teacher added later in an email: If you are listening fully, you cannot be thinking ahead and therefore your response is almost guaranteed to be based on what you heard.
  • Snapping got my out of my head, used another part of my brain. Harder to obsess over my own thoughts when snapping.
  • In the spirit of listening, our teacher shared this: I am also a big fan of the adage someone else said of, "Listening is the enemy of anxiety." It is physically impossible for our brains to be anxious and to be listening at the same time. Truly. So if you find yourself ever freaking out or anxious, in any situation, try to gently remind yourself to listen to whatever is happening. You cannot freak out and listen at the same time. Suhweet! Instant anxiety cure! 
  • We did a game that invited us to call out something about ourselves, others either stood next to you if they had the same experience or stood at the other side of the room if didn't have that experience. Someone called out "I like processed cheese!" Most of us laughed. When we bring our personal experiences into the circle, and when we are specific, we bring our true selves to the space.
  • The work of improv involves dissolving the instinct to just waiting around in a conversation to have space to share your own thought. "Boy, can't wait for this person in from of me to stop talking so I can share my own shit."
  • Improv is training ourselves to have ideas and be ready to let them go.
  • We did some basic scene work. Our task in a scene is to listen and agree. And trust what our partner is going to bring to the scene.
  • Our teacher offered this up: If character 1 says, "The sky is orange," the sky IS orange. We cannot refute or argue this. However, that doesn't mean that we have to like that the sky is orange. For instance, it can make our character sad, or confused or scared. We can react to the sky being orange in any way, even with anger, but we just can't dismiss the idea or argue with the premise itself. This is agreement. 

Did I mention our teacher, Lisa Kays, teaches improv AND is a therapist. Geez.

Class #2 next week...

Decolonizing and Disrupting Liturgical Space

This past weekend I was part of a discernment retreat in Peachtree City, GA organized by the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE). FTE gathered forty or so young adults for a weekend of pondering life and leadership, as a young adult, within the Church. The retreat offered small groups, a keynote, discernment cafe based on elements from the Art of Hosting, workshops, and worship. I led a workshop called Liturgy and Improv: The Practice of Freedom. FTE pulls together an incredible group of people across the theological and denominational spectrum: including Baptist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Church of God, Non-denominational, Methodist, and PCUSA. There are a lot of folks from the "I used to be "this" denomination and now I'm "this" denomination.

Worship is held twice a day, 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening.

The focus of our Saturday evening  service was handwashing.

We had some opening words, the story in John of Jesus washing his disciples feet was shared, I offered a brief reflection about handwashing, and we had a prayer.  Then the invitation to wash each other's hands was given.

The gentle, intimate act of handwashing started....and so did the singing.

Folks. Here's the scoop. Church of the Pilgrims has LOTS of improv in worship. We have stations set-up for kids around the sanctuary which means kids are cruising around all the time. We have time for testimony. We improv the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving. We move around during worship.

But....we sit in our pews. We still sing when the order of worship says to sing. We don't call and respond to the preacher or liturgist.

During handwashing on Saturday night, one person stood up and started singing. She gently stopped. Then someone else started singing. Some started to sing along. That song came to a close and another person started singing.

My PCUSA/UCC self was up in the front thinking to that same self, "um. now what."

The key element of improv is the "yes....and..." I could hear my internal voice saying "yes. yes. yes. yes." "Yes. This is what's happening. Singing is what's happening."

Then one person became deeply, deeply moved by the Spirit. Wailing soon followed. A group of people gathered as a prayer group. And from that group came speaking in tongues.

I started to  wonder about the rest of the order of worship. Do I ditch what we had to planned to do? How do I weave all this together? The ritual of drinking milk and honey was to follow the handwashing---the first meal in the early Church after baptism was a cup of milk and honey. After we washed our hands in the water of new beginnings, each of us had a glass of milk and honey. Would that just be stupid considering how the space was being transformed?

I was conscious of my body in the space. This isn't the kind of experiences we have at Pilgrims. Was my body, facial expression revealing a level of "shit, not sure what to do here?"

I also knew as the human leader of worship in that moment that considering the range of liturgical experiences in the room, all of this spontaneity could be causing anxiety to creep into the bodies of some folks. While the tearing and tongues was happening, we were still in community together. How do we/I continue to make this a space of welcome and openness and love?

I kept going with the liturgy. We kept going. I said something about gratitude and being fully human. We sang our final hymn over the sound of wailing and tongues (I could still hear the murmur of those speaking in tongues....what an amazing, Spirit-driven, fertile like soil sound to hear).

The next day someone from my workshop asked me what this weekend was like for me.

I shared how that worship service stretched by leadership, revealed that skills of improv are in me, and challenged my experience of a worship leader.

These are my realizations:

1) Pushing Boundaries Shows How Disruption is Socially Constructed: If a kid walks around during worship someone might say, "that is so distracting." Someone from a more traditional liturgical space could walk into Pilgrims and think "Jesus, this is awful chaos." How does liturgical space, even without words, define what is OK to do in worship?  Who decides what is respectable to do in worship?  How does liturgical space reveal these expectations in just how we carry our bodies, how we keep silent, how we dress, how and when we respond in worship? How do we as humans control the space, possibly snuffing out the movement of the Spirit?

2) Decolonizing Liturgical Space is Sacred, Badassery Work: One of the participants in my workshop said later that part of  his call is to "decolonize liturgical space." YES! Who is in charge of liturgical space? Can we claim that what we (those in the dominant power structures of society) experience as distracting in worship comes from our social context? That it comes from our experience of liturgy growing up? That what's distracting in worship is informed by the binary, by patriarchy, by whiteness?

Liturgy, in its white, North American context, was used/has been/is used to control. Liturgy is still used to structure, systematize, and build-up dominating ways of life. How is worship used to expose and detangle us from the lingering history of domination and the current systems of domination? How does liturgy create space for imagination, new ways of being together, intimacy, and community? How does liturgy let us experience the mess of being human together rather than the need to control each other?

3) Improv at Pilgrims Prepared Me: While we don't have falling out, falling down, tearing of the spirit or speaking in tongues at Pilgrims (why  not?! because it's not part of our tradition? what does that mean?!), the improvisation that goes on at Pilgrims prepared me for this moment at FTE. At one point I didn't have a clue of what to do next. And I kept telling myself "yes." Improv rooted me in the reality of what was going on. Improv let me see the beauty of the singing. It let me hear the murmur of the speaking in tongues. It pushed me to wonder "what's next?" And what does next look like? And how will what's next be loving and welcoming and continue to keep this open, fluid, Spirit filled space?

In essence, improv pushes me to decolonize my own body and mind in order that I don't control the shit out of liturgical space to benefit my own desire to control.

The Holy Chaos of Holy Week at Pilgrims

Ready to process, listening to Jeff tell the Palm Sunday story.
Ready to process, listening to Jeff tell the Palm Sunday story.

The structure of Church of the Pilgrims Holy Week services have stayed the same for many years.

In the past couple of years, we nuanced things a bit to add more elements of participation. Some highlights of what we did this year:

Palm/Passion Sunday: We did a repeat of last years public procession around the block. We gathered at 9:30am, armed with umbrellas and stuff from Oriental Trading, to decorate umbrellas. We also created signs with recycled cardboard that read, "Feed Your Neighbors," "Grow a Garden" and "Black Lives Matter." This is the ethic of our faith with words that are short, sweet, and to the point. Like Jesus and his followers, we walked with anti-Imperial words of the Jesus movement.

We gathered on our front steps and heard Jeff tell the procession into Jerusalem story. Sang a song and off we went with the beat of a drum. We had one person up front (me) to make sure we stayed together. Jeff was in the back of the procession to try to keep chaos organized.

We stopped at the steps inside the church to get organized with our processional song and into the sanctuary we processed. That's when utter chaos happened. We usually loop around the sanctuary a couple of times. For some reason, that didn't happen. People were everywhere with their signs and umbrellas.

Jeff remarked later that chaos must have erupted at some point in Jesus' procession. After all, Jesus and his crew didn't take 2 months to plan his procession. It just happened.

We ended our service with the arc towards the Passion narrative---so Palms---> Passion.

Maundy Thursday: We had an agape meal in our Fellowship Hall and Pilgrim storytellers told the Passion story by-heart. At the end of each part of the story, the storyteller blew out candles on the tables. As we got closer to the end of the story, storytellers also blew out candles on our Lenten cross we used throughout Lent.

Palm Sunday table. We recycled these elements for our Maundy Thursday tables.
Palm Sunday table. We recycled these elements for our Maundy Thursday tables.

Emily, our intern, created table-scapes with clear cylinder containers filled with water and one palm. Emily recycled this idea from her Palm Sunday communion table-scape. For Maundy Thursday, she added to each table a glass candle holder with white candle, a wooden, bark candle holder with a tea light, communion cups, a dried up palm from Palm Sunday,  and small glass juice pitchers  from Pilgrims circa 1950.

One of my favorite moments of Maundy Thursday is observing the meal come together in our kitchen. Lots of food that needs organized into baskets and trays. People jump in and make it happen. Connects a bit with the chaos from Palm Sunday. (see picture in the gallery below).

Thursday afternoon, Emily, Rachel, and I worked with Andy Wassenich, Pilgrim and actor/director and our voice building coach, on our stories. Funny. When we prepare your voice your storytelling is stronger. Noted.

Good Friday: This year we carried our large wooden cross in like a coffin into our candle lit, dark, Taize infused sanctuary. We placed it down on the ground in the middle of our space. Near the end of the service, people came forward during the prayers to hit a nail into the cross three times. Emily, trusty intern, orchestrated this and CHOPS to Emily for pulling something off she had never seen/experienced.

I'm pretty sure Emily had some internal chaos going on with this new-to-her leadership role. Emily had never been through a Holy Week before and we tossed this part of the service for her to lead. SHE PULLED IT OFF WITH GRACE AND LOVE. People then placed tea lights around the cross as we sang, Will You Remember Me When We Come Into Your Kingdom.

Easter: More of our members is in event planning and gave us 60 tulips for folks to place on the cross during our opening  hymns. Pilgrims bring additional flowers to supplement. Some ideas work. Some don't.

Around 10:15 we realized we  were about 40 flowers short of what we needed. Justin blazed off to Trader Joe's and pretty much saved the opening ritual action. Justin did this WITH GRACE AND LOVE. Usually people come down the center aisle to place their flowers on the cross while singing opening hymns. This time people came from all directions. Floral mash-up! More chaos!

Then.....skipping ahead in the service....Emily told the Emmaus story as part of the invitation to the table. THEN....Rachel and Carol sang our invitation to the table. They did this WITH GRACE AND LOVE.

As the gluten-free bread and cup were being shared, little Kate, age 3, walked into the middle of the space to check things out. I asked her if she wanted to help serve. She said yes. I paired her up with Karen. Karen welcomed Kate into the experience of serving. Both served WITH GRACE AND LOVE. Our last song had our kids jamming with Jeff as he played his guitar and they played random instruments. <chaos>

Holy Week theme: CHAOS WITH GRACE AND LOVE. I know I could be more organized in some areas for Holy Week. There are some things for Holy Week we could talk through more with key leaders.

And....there will still be chaos. Just as there was with Jesus and his followers with this incredible, restless, less-than-relaxing story. I can't even imagine the chaos going on with Jesus' followers during the last week of his life. Can you?

Talking through details with folks would be helpful not to eliminate chaos but to help folks be more present in the chaos. Trying to minimize chaos feels, on some level, like I'd be trying to sterilize the story. Trying to think through some additional details with folks for the sake of being more mindful, aware-we-are-in-the-midst-of-a-chaotic-story, cognizant that as we feel the chaos of Holy Week, we are, in essence, feeling the nature of Jesus and his followers during those final days.


Liturgical Analysis with a Seven Year Old

Pilgrims kids are in worship all the time. We have three stations set-up throughout the sanctuary that invite our kids to engage in our liturgical experience at their own developmental level. On any given Sunday you can see our kids sitting in the pews with their parents or moving around to one of stations when their body has had enough of sitting.

When I observe our kids in these stations and I see them drawing, felt-boarding, working with the sand tray, I can wonder, "are they paying attention?"

Thankfully the Spirit intervenes on my wondering with an experience like this one.

On Transfiguration Sunday, we used tableau's to explore the transfiguration story together. See this video.

After we were done with the tableau’s, I went back to the storytelling station to check-in with Skanda, one of our seven year olds.

After the “Hey, how are you Skanda?” we quickly moved into this conversation:

Skanda: Pastor Ashley, what were you doing over there?
Me: We were creating sculptures with our bodies. That’s how we told the story today.
Skanda: Why did people get up there and do that?
Me: They wanted to show others how the story made them feel.
Skanda: Why didn’t my dad get up there?
Me: I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. Some people like to observe and watch things.
Skanda: How did you let people know you were going to do this? Did you call them up this week?
Me: No, Andy taught us how to do these last week. I just explained it again.
Skanda: Oh, how much longer until worship is over?

Love this kid.

Skanda had been back reading in the storytelling station the whole time. One, including myself, might think, “there is no way Skanda’s paying attention. That kid is totally checked out.”

Oh, but he’s totally checked-in. Not only listening and watching but also wondering about how I/we made it happen. “Did you call people up and let them know?”

Pilgrims are used to doing stuff like this in worship so phone calls and emails aren’t needed. And I adore Skanda’s thinking—what needs to happen prior to worship to get people on board? How do you create ownership with liturgy? Does Skanda need his own heads-up in times of transition?

He noticed we did something a bit out of the ordinary. Skanda paid attention to his dad’s participation. He wondered about what needed to happen prior to doing something like human sculptures. Skanda thought critically, at his age level, about liturgy and its parts–especially the parts that happen before the Sunday performance even happened.

Paying attention

Next time we have worship planning, I’m calling up Skanda.

Watercoloring from the Font

Watercoloring prayers from the font
Watercoloring prayers from the font

We watercolored from the font on January 18th.

Our theme this Epiphany season is "what does the Kingdom of God look like?" This builds off our Advent themes/candles of vulnerability, courage, resiliency, and empowerment.

Rachel Pacheco, our Pilgrimage Program Manager, preached on a miracle story in Mark---the one with Jesus calling out a demon--and the Wedding in Cana. Rachel focused on imagination as a key piece to kingdom building.

After Rachel's sermon we were invited into our Epiphany practice of creating a mosaic, putting the pieces together, of what the kingdom looks like. Emily invited folks to imagine something new, let our imaginations take hold of us and picture transformation and holy change.

People were then invited to create a mosaic square by drawing, painting, or writing what has been sparked in their imagination. People could use charcoal pencils, cray-pas, and markers to create their paper tile. They came forward to the table and glued their prayers on to foam board.

One station was watercoloring and we filled the font with water so folks could use the water as a means of creating their prayer with paints. Emily gave this a context: the font is an experience of new beginnings, of transformation. Our imaginations can take us to new beginnings, call forth something new and sacred.

I avoid like hell taking pictures of people IN worship. But this I couldn't pass up. Watching our kids stretch themselves on a stool to reach in and get some water to use for coloring was......amazing. The water, the font, the use of color, imagination, the facial expressions, the improv, the creativity....

A Cake of Imagination
A Cake of Imagination

THEN....during the last hymn we brought out a cake---The Cake of Imagination. I started cutting up the cake and those folks who cut-cake-better bumped me aside to take over. We ate cake ("was that the host?" someone asked?) and celebrated imagination as a expression of the Kingdom.

Powerful People: Improvisational Worship, Improvisational Unionism

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.

This post comes from Michael Oswalt, a dear, sacred friend who arrived on the Church of the Pilgrims scene in the early 2000's. He left for several years to get his law + M.T.S. degree at Duke, where he refused to get sucked into the pull and financial incentives of corporate law. After graduating from Duke, Michael returned to D.C. and Pilgrims to work for the SEIU. Michael now commutes daily from the skyscrapers of Chicago to the cornfields of Northern Illinois University to teach labor law at NIU's law school. Here Michael writes about the intersection of improvisation and unionism. 

Improvisational Worship, Improvisational Unionism

Michael M. Oswalt

 First of all, let me say that I’m absolutely delighted to have the chance to explore some thoughts on Ashley’s wonderful God of the Sparrow blog. Having seen first-hand the creativity and intention that she puts into thinking about the structure and possibilities of church life, it is no surprise to see those same gifts reflected here on a weekly basis. And indeed, with the space that I have I’d like to touch on a way that some of the innovative things that happen at Church of the Pilgrims have influenced the thinking that I do in my day job as a labor law teacher outside of Chicago.

nerf ball
nerf ball

Most memorably for me, in 2012 Pilgrims spent a season focused on worship as improvisation. A newcomer walking into an adult education class that year would have been more likely to see a Nerf ball flying across the room or web of bodies miming a fantastical scene than a lecture. A visitor to the service might not have noticed anything particularly out of the ordinary (at least for Pilgrims!), but those who had a hand in planning it out would have felt a fluidity in the order of events that was palpable, a sense that the unexpected was not just to be expected, but somehow the “point.” A famous example of what I mean was an instance where a congregational send-off to a member moving away unexpectedly morphed into a formal laying-on of hands at the urging of someone’s child, who had simply wondered out loud: “Why aren’t we putting our hands on her?”

What made that instance and so many others “improv” was the congregation’s embrace of something called “yes-anding.” Yes-anding is the life-force of improvisation. It is what gives improv its free-form, spontaneous quality, because making a commitment to yes-and means accepting whatever comes along and building on it, no matter how bizarre or seemingly out of place it might at first seem. You want laying of hands? Let’s do it. And somebody get a candle up here too. That’s yes-and.

So how does any of this relate to labor law?  Well, I think that in some ways unions have recently adopted their own commitment to improvisation, only the setting is the workplace, not the church, and the activity is strikes, not worship.

Understanding my point requires recognition that in recent decades unions have essentially abandoned the strike. Because of how judges have limited the right to strike and expanded employers’ rights to defend against them, strikes have generally been viewed by unions as risky propositions with little upside.

A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration outside McDonald's in Times Square in New York
A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration outside McDonald's in Times Square in New York

But things changed in late-2012. That year Walmart workers staged a nationwide strike on Black Friday, and days later fast food workers struck for the first time in New York City. Both happenings were preludes to more and bigger strikes that continue today.

To this point the strikes have generated media attention and some popular momentum to hike the minimum wage, but as Walmart and the major fast food companies like to point out, in absolute terms the number of workers actually walking off the job has been quite small. Moreover, unions ultimately need members to survive, yet the Walmart workers group, Our Walmart, says it’s not interested in unionization, and the fast food workers, who do say they want a union, seem unlikely to reach that goal anytime soon based on how the employment structure of the industry interacts with modern labor law.

So why would unions be excited about these efforts?

For the same reason Church of the Pilgrims scrapped its usual script and did a laying-on of hands to say goodbye—they’re pushing improv. At Walmart and in fast food the decision to strike is the ultimate yes-and. Imagine plugging in orders at a McDonald’s register when a group of activists comes streaming through the door cheering for you to stop what you’re doing, walk outside, and join a chant for “$15 and a Union.”  It’s a scary proposition, no doubt, but for over two years now unions have prompted a good number of McDonald’s workers to accept that invitation. In the moment they have been saying “yes-and.”

Putting resources into this type of improvisational workplace activism is a major departure for American unions. Strikes are usually considered useful only where they impact employers where it hurts—the bottom line. Here unions seem excited to raise up the courage of a select few who opt to strike, even if the vast majority of their colleagues do not. Most labor strategies come with some goal related to getting more members, or at minimum an identifiable end game. Where all of this might lead, however, is unknown and probably unknowable.

But that’s improv. The right number of participants is the number of participants. Wherever the action takes you is okay.  If the era of mass mobilization is over, the era of working with whoever happens to show up has begun. With improvisation, that’s enough.

Will any of this help fix inequality or maybe rebuild the labor movement? Who knows?  But many of the workers involved in the strikes echo the sentiment expressed by Walmart striker Dominic Ware: “It’s amazing, it’s really amazing . . . [I]t just touched me in so many ways that I really haven’t taken it all in . . . It’s just beautiful man. We’re winning. No matter what Walmart says, we’re winning.”[1]

For unions, the hope is that Dominic’s co-workers, and Dominic’s friends, will see his experience not as some brave personal feat but as an invitation to see his activism now and raise it later—because you can bet there’ll be another chance to yes-and right around the corner.

[This post is adapted from a forthcoming article, Improvisational Unionism.]

[1] Josh Eidelson, Historic Walmart Strikes Hit 100 Cities, The Nation, Nov. 23, 2012.


Michael Oswalt-DB-13-web
Michael Oswalt-DB-13-web

Professor Michael M. Oswalt joins the Northern Illinois University law faculty in fall 2013 teaching primarily in the areas of labor and employment. Professor Oswalt’s research focuses on the relationship between law and activism, particularly how legal and other regimes transform the possibilities for engagement in civic and institutional arenas, including the workplace. His work has appeared in the Duke Law Journal, the Minnesota Law Review (with Catherine Fisk)and theJournal of Catholic Legal Studies.

Professor Oswalt graduated from Haverford College and holds a joint degree in law and theology from Duke University’s Law and Divinity Schools. At Duke Law he was a member of the Duke Law Journal and served as Note Editor for the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy. After law school he clerked on the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals for Judge, now Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. Most recently Professor Oswalt was a law fellow for the Service Employees International Union where he provided counsel to a variety of low wage worker organizing campaigns. He is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and has been active in a number of IAF-affiliated community organizing networks.

Death to the Offertory!

Let's Do This!
Let's Do This!

Ok, we didn't completely kill off the offertory at Pilgrims.....

But we've switched it up.....

We've do lots of innovative things in worship at Pilgrims. For some reason, for the last 15 years (my tenure at Pilgrims) we have left the moment of the offertory alone. Picture it:

  • compost on the floor as a communion table
  • prayer stations throughout the sanctuary
  • stations for young children throughout the sanctuary
  • walking meditations
  • people writing cinquains
  • sparklers and bubble machines have made appearances.

Then comes our offertory.  For the past 15 years, we've had 4 ushers collect the financial offertory. The ushers move two-by-two at the designated time with an exactness that mimics no other moment in our improv, participatory based liturgy. Brass plates are used and a minimal amount of money goes into the plates since most folks give via mailed-in checks or on-line. After plates have been passed with minimal eye contact and talking, the ushers come forward during the doxology to eventually place the plates on two, small, almost-out-of-site tables that are at the farthest point away from those worshiping. Our liturgical methodology of image-driven, connectional, experiential, and participatory sits outside our offertory experience.

But it's a new day! Here's the inspiration to die to the old, rise to the new.

  1. We are focusing on Stewardship this fall as we start-up a Capital Campaign to renovate our building. We can't blow-up the building so we are going to renovate it to bring it into the 21st Century.
  2. I went to the Ohio State vs. Navy football game a few weeks ago. I was taken by the ritual the "beer guy" calling out "beer here!" and someone in the middle of the aisle giving a nod to signal, "I want one." Beer Thirsty Person then passes down the aisle a $10 bill which gets passed down to Beer Guy via hands of 10 strangers. Beer guy sends back beer + change with said strangers passing back the beer and change to Thirsty Person. How cool is that! Considering our *ucked up banking system, I was really taken by this human exchange. It involves trust, human touch, and strangerhood. The human initiative during this ritual was something I wanted to hang-on to for a new way of sharing the offertory.

So....this is what we've come up with after our worship planning creativity session in August:

We are using sub-themes of Stewardship each Sunday: Earth-honoring, relationships, family, jobs.....stewardship is the sharing of life in the Kingdom of death (that's our theme). Stewardship hits everything. (Note: I'm also over this Stewardship word. It's so loaded. Let me know if you use something else.)

When folks walk into the sanctuary, our font is imaged in a way to give a hint of sub-theme. Example: Earth-care/honoring was last week and I dumped a large amount of lobster compost into the font. I put in faux tea lights. A glass vase was in the middle of the compost and held our new stewardship cards.  These cards list off ways to engage in Pilgrim life and have open-ended sentences like "I will honor the Earth this week by......." People grab one of these cards as they come in. It's important to me that they pick up a card themselves--it isn't given to them. They have agency in that moment to take the first step to expand the experience of stewardship and the offertory.

Visually, the communion table mimics the font. On Earth-care Sunday, I put more compost on the table and made a well in the middle. This was our bowl where folks eventually placed their cards. Each week the table will be the "container" for the stewardship cards.

After our announcements, one of us comes to the table and sets the context. We are expanding our offertory time in honor of our theme of Stewardship. Our hope in this season is for folks to meet their edge, stretch, challenge themselves with sharing life. Then we have someone come forward and share a 3 minute, personal story that connects to the theme of the day. This person has been already asked, given reflection guide and instructions for how to write and share the story. We've been doing this type of storytelling in worship for years, usually in the beginning of worship. Again, switching it up.

After story has been shared, Storyteller prompts people to get their card and ponder how they want to share life this week. The card changes each week, too. Sharing money is an option on the card.

Meditation bell is rung. People ponder. Choir sings.

Then folks are prompted to come forward with card and any financial offering while singing a song that was taught in the beginning of worship. They place cards and money in the bowl. It's also important to me that these cards and money are co-mingled together.  We gather around the communion table and people are invited to call out what they put down on their cards.

Then we move into prayers of the people. Sing another song. Do benediction. Head off into the world.

Die to the old, folks. Rise to the new!

Blessing of the Plants in Worship

plant communion
plant communion

Four years ago, Church of the Pilgrims started an urban garden with one raised bed. Now we have four raised beds, a root veggie garden, herb garden, large perennial bed, four beehives, and several composts. The produce grown from the garden goes to creating meals for Open Table, our Sunday lunch for hungry neighbors.

We've done a lot of work in these past four years in incorporating the garden into life at Pilgrims, particularly our liturgical life.

Several weeks ago, we had our spring planting day after worship. Before we plunked everything into the soil, we blessed and honored the plants in worship. How to bless the plants came out of a brainstorming session with Jess Fisher and Dana Olson, our two interns.

I preached on the Emmaus Road, focusing on "recognition" and how breaking of bread (the non-human) and community (human) push us to recognize the Holy One. I'd give this sermon a B, mostly because I was focused on communion that followed.

As part of the invitation to the table, I had people share their hopes and dreams for what they want to recognize in this Eastertide season. I stood next to the font which was in front of our table---everything surrounded by the plants we would soon plant.

Plants growing out of font and table.
Plants growing out of font and table.

We had a lime tree, olive tree, creeping thyme, tomatoes, eggplants, sunflowers, basil, cabbage, peppers, and native plants. These plants were grown by non-Monsanto seeds by Pilgrims or purchased at a farmers market from a local farm.

During Pilgrims baptismal liturgy, we share hopes and dreams for the person being baptized. Someone shares a hope and dream, then they take the pitcher and pour water into the font.

We did something similar with our "recognitions."

I had planned to have people call out what they hope to recognize/pay attention to within themselves, Pilgrims and the planet in their pews with me pouring into the font.  Jeanne Mayer, a long time member at Pilgrims, was the first one to share. She came up, grabbed the pitcher out of my hand, shared in front of  everyone. This is the pattern in our baptism. Not sure what I was holding the pitcher for everyone. Thankfully Jeanne pushed me out of the way.

Our intern, Jess Fisher, arranges the scene.
Our intern, Jess Fisher, arranges the scene.

One-by-one 10+ people shared. The recognitions focused on growth, perspective, expansiveness, and community.

People were then invited to come forward to our open table, singing "Come to the table of Grace", and take a little communion cup, dip it into the font with the water full of hopes, and water the plants.

As we gathered around the table, we prayed, shared our hopes and dreams for the plants, and continued with an improv Prayer of Great Thanksgiving.

After worship, 15 of us went to our garden and planted our hopes and dreams.

Powerful People: John Allen and Lenten "At Table."

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.John Allen grew up in Needham, MA, graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina and received his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2013. He is currently a Pastoral Resident at Wellesley Village Church and ordained in the UCC. John spent a lot of time in James Chapel, the liturgical laboratory at Union, and thrives on liturgy that takes us full throttle into the heart of the Biblical narratives.  While at Davidson, John was Pilgrims summer intern in 2008 or 2009---I can't remember what year. Below John shares his experience of liturgy "At Table."

Christian worship, even in its more modern forms, tends to be unidirectional. Classic architecture dictates all participants facing the front, more recently communities are making a shift toward worship in the round facing a center point. Neither of these arrangements however allow truly erode the sense of authority and sacredness having a fixed location which others face from a distance.

At Village Church we have begun gathering for worship around tables. This “At Table” worship service happens in the evening, over a meal, and invites participants to make worship at each of their tables. Bread and juice are set out in the center of each table and participants eat food and share conversation with one another, blessing and sharing the elements at each table and having sacred conversations about ordinary life.

At Table is a model for Christian worship with its roots in the early Christian meal. Jesus’ first followers did not meet in churches, while their movement was fledgling and their numbers small, they met in each other’s homes, or in rented rooms, for dinner. Gathering in ‘supper-clubs’ was a common form of meeting in Roman society. All the ship-builders in a city might have had a weekly dinner meeting, or all those who worshiped Dionysius. So also, the ‘Jesus people’ had their weekly dinner.

Whether religious or not, all these meals followed a familiar pattern. Guests would gather, say a blessing, and eat having informal conversations with those around them, about their day, their lives, and probably a good bit of gossip.

Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life
Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life

After a time, the host would rise and bless a cup of wine, sometimes as an offering to emperor, or some other deity. In the case of the first Christians, this cup was offered in memory of Jesus.

After that, attention would turn away from eating and toward the “symposium,” a time of conversation on a specific topic. This might be a time when one of Paul’s letters would be read or a story about Jesus told and the guests would discuss and debate long into the night.

Many ancient ‘supper clubs’ were quite homogenous. Those who attended these meals all worked together and were often all from the same ethnic group. Early Christian meals however seemed to break some of those trends. People from all walks of life ate together, and it seems possible that women’s leadership was recognized more in these gatherings than in other spaces.

It was this sort of radical inclusion that often got Christians in trouble in the ancient world. They were accused of being an unruly bunch who were bad for Roman society because they would not follow social norms. Hence the common accusation hurled at Jesus in the gospels “he eats with sinners.”

It is remarkable how many well-known Biblical stories take place around meals and it is telling that the central sacrament of our faith is the sharing of bread and wine. In recognition of this Hal Taussig and Janet Walton at Union Theological Seminary have developed a modern Christian worship service called “At Table” which seeks to bring the spirit of these earliest Christian gatherings to life for us today.

The service we do at Village Church is our own adaptation of their work.

What we have learned doing this worship at Village Church is that stripping away pretensions and formality around worship creates a space for profoundly genuine experiences of God and one another. By dispensing with vestments, fixed roles, a singular table, and polished forms of speaking and prayer, worshippers are invited to meet God as they are, and to witness each other having that experience.

There are plenty of awkward moments in the service.

  •  Storytellers often stand up to talk and struggle to quiet the room down.
  • Sometimes uproarious laughter at one table impinges on a painful story being told at another.
  • Sometimes people pouring grape juice into their glasses pour too much, and they have to pour from their glass into someone else's to be sure that all have some.

These are the moments I love in the service because the people of God are asked to be improvisational in navigating a shared sacred experience. Worship is a rehearsal for life. The more choreographed forms of Eucharistic worship in our community may instill us with a sense of God’s abundance and abiding presence, but they do not quite help us practice the bumpiness of communal life.

Gathering At Table we learn that we encounter God as we navigate our interactions with one another through humor, grace, laughter, and honesty.

As we go forward, I wonder how we could bring more spontaneity into our time together. For now we plan who will lead different moments, who will tell a story, what songs we will sing, who will cook dinner for everyone. The one thing we never plan is who will do the dishes, but people stay, often because they want to linger over a conversation, or simply because they are faithful disciples.

I often wonder if we might carry that trust to other areas of a service. What would it look like if we did away entirely with roles and entrusted the yearnings of the community to lead us through our time together? What if we asked folks to bring a bit of something to share and trusted that we would be well fed? What if we heard someone’s story and said, that’s the one we all need to hear, stand up and tell it again.

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.

Breakfast at Pilgrims Beach

During Epiphany, sermons during worship at Pilgrims focused on sharing epiphany stories; giving witness to moments in our lives that were revelations and "a-ha's" when it comes to living in God's Way.  Our stories revealed risks taken, security upended, and the discovery of community to sustain and embrace us.  Each preacher rooted their story in a particular Biblical narrative. I used the story of Jesus sharing breakfast on the beach in the Gospel of John.

I used this text to talk about my experience taking communion during my Jesuit Volunteer Corp year in Atlanta, GA at the Open Door Community. This is what I said about taking communion once a week at this intentional, Christian community:

[blockquote indent="yes" ]In the receiving of communion, Open Door would take to the streets in worship, at the county jail, day labor sites, under bridges---pushing to embrace the streets as holy places. In the sharing of food and human connection in these places, and by laying claim to the presence of God in these places, the community sought to disrupt business as usual. It was solidarity in action—letting liturgy enable us to see the city in a different angle and with different eyes and to start to feel it in your bones the realities of poverty and the streets.[/blockquote]

In order to "feel communion in our bones" I took an idea out of the liturgical playbook of a clergy companion, John Allen (former intern at Pilgrims many moons ago) by sharing the communion meal around a faux campfire.

This is what I came up with:

When it was time for communion, we mindfully made our way to the entrance of the sanctuary and sat on the floor.

We gathered around the fire pit, we picked up the pause I set in the sermon to share in epiphanies that had come up so far in the service. We did this each week during Epiphany right after the sermon.

People shared beautiful testimonies. Really beautiful.

Then we "improved" the prayer of great thanksgiving. I offered up prompts like: "what part of creation do we need to give thanks for" and "what prophets and prophetic communities of now and long ago do we need to remember."

We did the words of institution together--creating the story of the last supper together.

When I got to the point of offering up the fish, I said, "what do we need to say about the fish?" Jamie Ernesto, age 7,shouted out "THIS IS THE FISH!" Yes. It is the fish. Stop the theological blah, blah, blah. It's fish. People LOL'd.

People talked to each other while they shared the bread and the cup---like a real meal.

The passing was a little chaotic, "can someone pass the cup?!" was shouted out a couple of times.

The fire. The sharing of epiphanies. Jamie Ernesto. Laughing. Talking.

This was one of my most memorable communion experiences ever. Parts of this communion could be replicated again. Yet we can't replicate the human beauty of this experience of the palpable authentic holy presence of Pilgrims.


Here is a clip of communion at Pilgrims beach.