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.