#Blacklivesmatter Liturgy

On July 5th, Alton Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge police while selling CD's outside a convenience store. That same week, Philando Castile was killed by Minneapolis police after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her young daughter, were in the car at the same time.

On July 10th at Church of the Pilgrims, our liturgy proclaimed #blacklivesmatter.

Our liturgy at Pilgrims has as solid structure--prelude, call to worship, sharing of thanksgivings, sharing the peace....

Yet we are a nimble bunch. When something horrific happens during the week, we are able to tell the horrific story by making last minute changes to the liturgy. While the structure might stay the same, the content or actions or songs might shift to reflect what's happened to the planet.

This is what we did on July 10th.

We scrambled around that morning, placing 12 candles on the table, filling the font with floating candles, making two #blacklivesmatter banners. One banner went around our communion table. The second one hung from our choir loft.

We had 12 candles on the table to name 11 African-Americans who were killed by police. While the list of African-Americans killed by police is longer than 11, I picked 11 names that were listed in a Washington Post article in early July. We added a 12th candle to represent the many others who have been killed.

Sam and Emma light candles for #blm during our prayer for illumination.
Sam and Emma light candles for #blm during our prayer for illumination.

During our prayer for illumination, two of our youth, Sam and Emma, helped to light the candles while I read the names. We read a few names, sang a song, read a few more names, sang the same song again, read a few more names, closed with the song. This moment was slow and contemplative.

Rachel Ford, our summer intern, was set to preach on excerpts from the Book of Job. Rachel kept the Job texts, pulling in more of her own story of naming, claiming, and resisting the social construction of whiteness.

During prayers of the people, we read the names again. Eleven people in the congregation took turns calling out a name and this time we added the object that was connected to their death.

Alton Sterling, CD

Philando Castile, broken taillight

Eric Garner, cigarettes

The list continued....

We also read the names of the five police officers killed in Dallas during a peaceful #blacklivesmatter march.

I asked two of our elementary aged kids to read two names of African-Americans killed by police during prayers of the people.

This is what happened with one of our kids.

I asked Pilgrim kid to read a name during prayers of the people. Pilgrim kid said yes. Pilgrim kid then went to the bathroom and

turned his shirt inside out. His shirt had a Super Dino cartoon on it and Super Dino was holding a gun.

Pilgrim kid thought it would be inappropriate for him to read a name while wearing the t-shirt. He turned the shirt inside out.

When we include kids in liturgy, when we ask kids to participate in meaningful ways in liturgy they have something to react/respond to. Inviting creates a structured moment, giving kids the experience of making a choice and a decision about how they will respond to the invitation to participate.

In Pilgrims nimble state, we were able to organize our religious life around the killings of Sterling and Castile.

In inviting people to read names, especially two of our Pilgrim kids, folks were able to interpret their individual lives and Pilgrims around #blacklivesmatter.

We're baptized in these waters (baptized in these waters) And in each other's blood (and in each other's blood)

-from American Skin (41 Shots), Bruce Springsteen.

Our Pilgrim kid was given the experience to interpret his clothing and actions in relationship to #blacklivesmatter. This is how our liturgy constructs identity and worldview, and how liturgy can give us the choice to enact those identities and worldviews in order to create a world made new.

The Sacramental Nature of Springsteen and the ESB

Eucharist and Springsteen The video below is  of Springsteen and the E Street Band performing their song "High Hopes" on the Jimmy Fallon show several months ago. I love this performance. Who else would bring 17 band members, cram them on to a stage, and have a wrap around balcony for an audience?

What I'm most taken by in this performance is the movement of the bodies of Springsteen and the E Street Band. They engulf their instruments with their bodies. It's memorizing to watch Tom Morello, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Soozie Tyrell, and Everett Bradley (my fav!) organically move their bodies to the words, energy, and rhythm of "High Hopes." Each has their own unique movement on stage yet they all fit together as a band/community in their uniqueness.

They have "presence." This is a word used in theater, referring to "stage presence." Stage presence refers to the impact the performer has on the audience. Presence heightens the spectators' own awareness of their own presence in that particular moment, time, and place. Presence of a performer can create a liminal space. Liminal is a fancy word used in ritual studies. Wikipedia has a good definition:

....when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual's liminal stage, participants "stand at the threshold" between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes..... 

The ESB's presence is a communal one---their liminal impact  through sound and body movement doesn't occur in isolation; they create presence and liminality together.

Presence and liminality are important to me in the Eucharist.  For me, Presence isn't located in the elements of communion rather in the act and participation of communion.  Communion is a gathered, communal meal, rather than a ritual that focuses on the objects of bread and the cup. It's a lumped up sum of people seeking to end up on the other side of the communion experience existing in a new way however profound and subtle.

In the video I'm taken from beginning of the song, to middle/threshold/liminality, to the end because of the presence of the band--their movements, sense of connection, deep sense of community on stage, and passion for music that critiques the dominant social order. My favorite movement/presence moment starts at 4:52 when they hit the refrain and their bodies create a magnificent presence on stage--fluid, connected, communal, liminal.

The Baptism of Springsteen
The Baptism of Springsteen

My spouse, Bob, and I went to the Springsteen concert in Columbus during Holy Week.

In this picture. Tom Morello takes a gi-normous sponge, full of water, and drips it over the head on Springsteen who, at this point, is down on his knees. Morello was making a dramatic moment out of cooling off his front man. I see baptism. You can see Springsteen in the JumboTron with Morello leaning over him. Look to the right hand side of the picture for the real thing.

What an image to have in the middle of a 3+ hour concert that prophetically blasts songs about social responsibility, taking care of each other, economic justice, and offers up a social critique of capitalism. It's what Christian baptism claims--that in community we take responsibility for our place on the planet. Baptism creates a liminal experience of taking us from one existence pre-baptism to a threshold, liminal moment of transition, and into to a new existence within community with the Presence at-hand. Thanks, Springsteen, for doing the same.

van Gogh, Springsteen, and the Lectionary

The Road Menders, 1889.
The Road Menders, 1889.

The Phillips Collection in D.C. recently concluded its exhibition on Vincent van Gogh's repetitions. Repetitions is a word that van Gogh used to describe closely related versions of the same subject. van Gogh painted subjects in repetition in order to experiment with color relationships and brushstrokes.  He also seemed obsessive about keeping some details exactly the same in repetitive paintings---using precise measuring tools to make sure the distance between the eyes of a subject were the same.

Here is an example of a painting that van Gogh repeated--The Road Menders. In this painting, van Gogh highlights two of his major subject matters--nature and the difficult life of the working poor.  With the use of color, van Gogh changes the focus of subjects in the painting from workers (one of the left with workers) and trees (one on the right with the workers somewhat faded). 

van Gogh worked quickly, sketching out a painting in 45 minutes rapidly from life. The Phillips Collection commented that he would take the sketch back to his studio to repeat the subject, reworking and refining the subject on canvas after canvas to "extract the essence of the motif."

I love that idea--reworking and refining the subject on canvas after canvas to extract the essence of the motif.

I saw this exhibit a few days after listening to an NPR interview with Bruce Springsteen on his  new album, High Hopes. In the interview, Springsteen talks about his creative process and his own style of repetitions.

Springsteen talks about how he writes a song and it may not make it on the album in the making. But he holds on to the song. And holds on to it. And holds on to it until the time is right. The song gets nuanced a bit and makes it on to the current album. Specifically, Springsteen talks about the song "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The song was originally written as a rock song for the E Street Band but they weren't quite able to pull it off. Springsteen then made an acoustic album where the song appeared in acoustic genre. Now on the album, High Hopes, Springsteen and Tom Morello (rock god!) pull off the song the way Springsteen originally intended.

Springsteen and Morello on the Ghost of Tom Joad.
Springsteen and Morello on the Ghost of Tom Joad.

Tom Joad was first written in 1995. Springsteen has been working with this song, "extracting the essence," for almost 20 years. Springsteen has his own version of repetitions. While van Gogh focused on brushstrokes and color to get at the essence, Springsteen uses cords and vocals to do the same. And....van Gogh and Springsteen's works both focus the lives of the working poor.


I love the lectionary because it repeats and it allows me to "extract the essence" of the story. I can come back to a story over time, see it with various nuances and noodle over details. Over a three year period, we hear a greater portion of the Biblical narratives. And then we repeat. And repeat again.  And I keep coming back to the same work of art--a Biblical story. Extracting essence takes time--sometimes years--and the discipline of the lectionary invites me into the process of repetition.

The subject matter in van Gogh's paintings didn't change. The words to Tom Joad didn't change. Biblical narratives don't change. But light, brushstrokes, cords, social context, time, and the artist/preacher/liturgical artist change. Those changes create repetitions, deepening the connection to the subject matter and creating space to extract the essence of the motif.

Watch Springsteen and Morello rock out "The Ghost of Tom Joad."