Vomit and Ashes

We took ashes out into Dupont Circle this past Ash Wednesday. At 8:30am on Wednesday, Jeff and I roamed around Dupont Circle, stopping at the Dupont Metro for awhile, letting the strangers we were among know that it was Ash Wednesday. “We have ashes for Ash Wednesday. Would you like to receive?” In the evening, we went back out again before our Ash Wednesday service. I went on this shift with Andy Thomas, Pilgrims Young Adult Volunteer, to share ashes in the dark and freezing cold.

Andy and I walked up P Street, stopping a few folks along the way, asking if they’d like to receive ashes. At one point, we were two for two.

That quickly changed as we parked ourselves at the south end of the Dupont Metro. People just blazed past us. It was ear-bud-palooza out there in the evening commute. Don’t want to interact with your environment? Wear ear buds while walking around. Need an excuse not to make eye contact with another human being? Ear buds.

After getting a whole lot of “No’s”, Andy and I walked up to Dupont Circle, traffic circle + public space + resting place for many among the benches that encircle a large, stone water fountain. In reasonable weather, the benches can be lined with bike messengers, homeless folks, folks wearing ties, folks wearing pencil skirts, folks playing chess.

With the temperature around 25 degrees, the benches looked empty until Andy and I noticed 2 figures sitting on the outer circle of benches. We headed over. As we approached the two guys, I noticed one leaning over. As we got closer, we realized the guy was puking.

Stomach bile. Chunks of food. Mouth spit.

First thought–This is fucking gross, turn around and head back to Pilgrim.

Second thought–This is fucking gross, share the ashes.

I asked one of the bench buddies if he’d like ashes. He looked at me with eyes glazed over, slowly rocking back and forth. Somehow he gave a “No.”

I turned to his companion who at this point was sitting upright and wiping puke off his mouth.

I asked him, “Would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday?”

With the same type of glazed over eyes, with the same type of rocking back and forth, this guy said, “yes.”

I looked up at Andy as if to shore myself up for this moment. Then I blurted out to Andy, “remind me to wash my hands after this.”

Clearly not the most pastoral of words. And true.

I started to lean in to our friend on the bench and he slowly, I mean slowly, lifted up his winter skull cap to make room for the ashes.

“From dust you have come, to dust you shall return” and plunk went the ashes on his skin kept warm by the winter hat. He slowly pulled his skull cap back in place.

Andy and I hustled back to Pilgrims for our 7pm in-the-building worship.


Ritual and liturgy on the streets creates a mash-up of people. Strangers get knocked-up against each other. Separated out from the liner, sequential movement of an in-the-building type of liturgy, ashes on the streets expose ritual’s power. Gone are the pews, the communion table, the font. Gone is the church architecture that sets the context and initial meaning of the ritual.

On the streets, ritual gets blown apart from the confines of Church walls and can be interpreted a million different ways with no one in a robe or a title or ordination status to define.

I have no idea what our friend on the bench was thinking when I asked him about the ashes. What we did see was the lifting of his skull cap. Even though this guy was completely inebriated, he had enough awareness/memory/body memory to lift his hat to make room for the ashes. Does he even remember?

Dupont Circle isn’t too far where the million dollar row houses of Dupont and Georgetown exist. Embassy Row is right up the street. The gardens and front stoops are Southern Living beautiful. The neighborhoods are images of stability.

Dupont Circle absorbs the grid of the city street architecture–Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues come together to create this circular public space. public street space goes from linear and grid-like to circular; the Circle itself being a shape that has no beginning and no end.

Grid of Dupont Circle. The green dot is the Circle.

An experience like our friend on the bench vomiting, and then saying yes to ashes, tells me that the sheer unpredictability of ritual on the streets makes it near impossible to assume the direction of God’s Spirit. We’d like to think faith and Church life move in a grid-like, sequential way: birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral.

Out on the streets, God’s Spirit gets vomited up all over the place, the Spirit symbolized in a circle of puke on a public sidewalk and incarnate in the one who vomits.

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...

Underground Queer Hymn Verse!

You know you're off to a great start in a worship planning meeting when your guest music director says, "Do you all include the gay verse in that hymn?" The hymn: "In the Midst of New Dimensions."


The fuller question from Billy Kluttz, our guest music director on November 22nd: Do you all include the gay verse of "In the Midst of New Dimensions" that has been edited out of the version used currently in the PCUSA, UCC, and Methodist hymnals?

Here's some history of the hymn:

The hymn was written in 1985 the  by Rev. Julian Rush (b. 1936), a United Methodist minister who served churches in Dallas, Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs for 17 years, until he came out as a gay man.

When Rush came out, the United Methodist church in Boulder where he was appointed decided he was no longer fit to be their minister, and stopped paying his salary.

"In the Midst of New Dimensions" has beautiful imagery from the Hebrew Bible: pilgrim people, olive branches, God of rainbow, and fiery pillar.

What's been edited out of the hymn is this original verse:

Through the years of human struggles, walk a people long despised, gays and lesbians together fighting to be realized. 

Here's what Billy has to say about this underground hymn verse:

I think Rush’s hymn, and its adoption/adaptation by mainline denominations, speaks to the tenuous relationship between queer people and the institutional church. For LGBTQ folks, church music offers a rare point of connection and refusal. In church music, the systems of religious heterosexism/transphobia and the realm of queer imagination collide. Even in this transformational space, however, queer people must sing in code—or be silenced.

There are several types of “gay hymns”. Perhaps most often there are the hymns we creatively claim. We make use of the political theology in broader hymns about inclusion. We change, or improve, existing lyrics. Hymns written by people of all gender identities, expressions, and sexual orientations are claimed by queer communities as reflective of our experiences of God’s expansive grace. Perhaps less often, we also dare to write the specifics of our relationship with the Divine in hymn form, such as in Rush’s hymn. Sadly, these hymns are often sterilized during their adaptation by the broader church.

How do we sing as about relationships with the Divine in hymn form? What happens when a hymn or a verse goes underground in order to support the Church's status quo? What does  it mean that a culture has been created within the Church that queer folks sing in code or be silenced? If the role of liturgy is to create transformation, how can music sit outside that expectation?

The Church can have lots of conversations about music. Electronic keyboard vs. organ? Piano vs. organ? Hymnal vs. projected screen? Old hymnal vs. new hymnal?

Those conversations can get really narrow and limiting by playing into our cultural and structural individualism--that singing is for ourselves and exists only within the space between the walls of the sanctuary. "I like this music. I like that music. I don't like this music. Will people like us if we do "x" style of music?"

Creating a beautiful sound together is a beautiful experience.  Billy asking us to sing the underground gay verse of "In the Midst of New Dimensions" took us beyond what we sound like. Billy's question was a reminder to me of the purpose of our singing at Pilgrims-- we sing in order to build an alternative community in the name of Jesus, for the sake of the healing of the planet. We can talk keyboard, piano, organ, hymnal, and screens all day long. And that seems to focus on the sound within the building.

We are singing God's holy welcome, God's justice, God's love into existence.

Leave out the gay verse in "In the Midst of New Dimensions" and God's welcome gets sterilized.

There are few places left on the planet where a community can consistently gather to sing as one voice and sing in order to shake up the world.

When we sing as a congregation, we participate in an ancient, subversive practice. The early Church would sing to defy Empire and construct an alternative to Imperial violence and war. I can imagine the sound of music coming of house churches, an auditory sign of belonging and community to Jesus rather than Caesar. Music in the early Church was a sign of an alternative, safe space.

When we sang the words, "Through the years of human struggles, walk a people long despised, gays and lesbians together fighting to be realized" on November 22nd our Pilgrim voices created a safe space. If you were new to Pilgrims that day, you would instantly get a sense of our values in our singing of those words.

When we sing as a congregation, we are singing about Who we belong to. When we sing, the words we sing just aren't words connected to a pretty melody. When we sing, we are proclaiming a world as it is in order to create a world as it should be.  As we sing, we are proclaiming our trust in the Holy One and the way in which we live together as people of God's Way.

Inviting Kids Into Biblical Storytelling

Last spring, we killed of Sunday school at Church of the Pilgrims. That means we are being more intentional about how to form our kids around the faith within already existing structures at Pilgrims.

Pilgrims already has stations set-up throughout our sanctuary for kids. These stations are based on our liturgical principles that in worship we tell stories, we see things in new ways, and we make connections. At each station are age appropriate books and quiet toys (even though kids can make anything loud) for kids to engage with during liturgy.

The idea is that when kids need to move, because that what kids do....they move around, they can go to a station, and engage in what's happening in liturgy on their level.

Some might think the kids aren't paying attention. But they are.

And they are engaged in play which is a research driven vehicle for promoting self-regulation, language, social competence, and  cognitive learning. Meaning--play is essential for kids to learn about religious language, how to be in community, and how to learn and be formed around the faith.

Pilgrims used to have a children's sermon--when we'd ask the kids to come forward and listen to one of us deconstruct the sermon. It worked. It was fine. Adults giggled when the kids were being themselves.  Eventually the children's sermon faded out of our liturgy.

Now that we don't have Sunday school, parents are having conversations about how to be intentional about experiences for our kids. One comment was "how can we have more structure?" Structure is important for kids and what does intentional structure look like without Sunday school?

Maybe we should pull the children's sermon back into the liturgy?

After reading some stuff on children's sermon (like this) I had one of those A-ha moments--- there is no data that says children's sermons are an essential way to engage kids, teach them the faith, etc. Children's sermon definitely hit the nostalgia button and since bunches of churches do children's sermons that means they must be effective. Right?

Casey Wait Fitzgerald is a master biblical storyteller plus a beloved friend.  Casey and I were chatting about storytelling one day, pondering the role of a sermon in light of biblical storytelling and Casey said something like, "I think telling the story by heart is enough."

Pilgrims does Biblical storytelling. So.....

What if our kids were invited forward for the telling of the Biblical story? What if they had this moment in the liturgy where they were together as a small community? What if they were invited up because a story is about to be told that is so important we want to make sure they are part of that telling?

For the past few Sundays, the kids have been invited up practically sit at the feet of the storyteller.

Story is told. Kids eyeballs are locked in on the storyteller. They listen. Some squirm. One little 2 year old eye spies the candles on the table and starts to chat about the idea of  blowing out the candles. The storyteller keeps telling the story.

At the end of the story they head back to the pews with their parents or go back to a station.

After we did this the first time, a child-free, kid-loving adult commented, "why haven't we thought of that before?" Jeff said, "I wonder what other parts of the service the kids can own....coming up and listening to the choir during the anthem?"

Here is what the kids experience with Biblical storytelling:

  • Scripture in the ancient church was an oral tradition. As the kids participate in this storytelling moment, they are re-connecting to that oral tradition. As they sit at the feet of the storyteller, they are part of the tradition and how stories were passed down through the generations.
  • Storytelling builds relationships. As the story is told, those listening are connected to the storyteller. The storyteller is connected to those listening. Storytelling inherently involves intimacy, vulnerability, and connection. These are essential elements of faith formation and liturgy. The kids are part of these elements in the telling of the story.
  • Ownership. The kids have a moment to own in worship. This is one reason why we have stations---so the kids consistently experience ownership of the liturgical space. This space is for them just as much as the adults.
  • Creating storytellers.We can use the kids proximity and experience with the storyteller as a starting point to teach the kids how to tell stories.
  • Biblical storytelling is anti-gimmicky-crap. Lord have mercy there is so much awful shit out there that is supposed to make our kids become perfect Christians. The tradition, in it's imperfect ways, has given us a the gift of something like Biblical storytelling. When we engage kids in these ancient invitations of faith formation , we invite them into a sacred, communal experience that is thousands of years old. It is in the depth of the tradition, in the ancientness of the practices, that kids will be drawn into the radical nature of the Holy One and Her followers.

Urban Farming: Creating An All Saints Day Memorial Garden

A pansy and a rock are now part of our garden at Pilgrims.
A pansy and a rock are now part of our garden at Pilgrims.

All Saints Day is the Sunday in the Christian calendar to remember, celebrate, and  honor those saints who have gone before us, who create the great "cloud of witnesses."

Saints are not the model of Christian and human perfection.

Saints are those flawed, broken people (everyone) who God used to do holy things (all the things).

All Saints is the liturgical reminder that nothing, neither life nor death, can separate us from each other and from God.

Church of the Pilgrims has an All Saint's Day service that includes the lighting of candles and sharing the names of those who have died, particularly in the last year.

This year at Pilgrims we set the invitation to invite folks to come forward and light a candle, possibly saying the same and something about the person they are lighting the candle for. This happens in replace of a sermon.

At the end of the service this year, we created a memorial garden in our urban garden. This was inspired by many things, including a ritual that took place outside of worship a few weeks prior for a woman whose lost a baby from a miscarriage. As part of the ritual, we planted an azalea in the garden as an act of remembrance.

Creating this memorial garden was surprising simple. I asked several folks who had experienced loss in the past year to help out----buying pansies (which thrive in the cold), rocks and helping with the liturgy. Andy, our young adult volunteer, prepped the garden by loosening up the soil.

After communion, as we were gathered around the table, these words were spoken:

We have remembered the communion of saints through song and prayer, Word and sacrament. Now we remember by creating beauty in our garden.


 Together, following the sound of Rachel’s drumming, we will gather up these pretty pansies, the rocks, and walk to the garden. There we will create a memorial garden for our cloud of witnesses by planting the flowers and writing on the rocks names of those who have died.


 In the planting and in the writing of names we will create a space where love and relationships and memories are planted. It will be a place where we can visit and remember.


 The plants and rocks won’t last forever. But neither do we. Hopefully those we remember with the rocks and the plants, in this creation of a memorial garden, will feel a bit closer to us.


 As Rachel starts to drum, follow her. Rachel’s drum will sound like heartbeat, reminding us those who have died are still close to us.


For those who need a shorter distance to walk with no steps to climb, follow Andy.

Help take the flowers and rocks and markers out to the garden.


Let us go, plant, and remember.

Then we walked back to the garden with the beat of a drum.

Once we gathered in the garden, these words were spoken:

From ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and soil to soil. As we plant our flowers and write names on the rocks, we honor the lives of the dead. We honor they are now our ancestors, our communion of saints, a community of deep time.


As we plant and name, their spirits become imprinted upon our garden and linked to this land and Church of the Pilgrims.


While the mystery of death remains hidden from us, the living, we can be aware of death in our lives and how death can drive the beauty of this garden. 


We can still be guided and cared for by our invisible community of the dead, made visible in these flowers and rocks.  It is they who can remind us of the sacred responsibility we have as the living to protect and care for all of Creation—the home of the living and the dead. We can remember, as we plant the flowers in the soil and place the rocks, that life doesn’t disappear; it just changes shape and form.


If you don’t have a plant to plant for someone or the name of anyone to write on a rock, help someone else plant their plant. Help them place the rock gently on the soil after they’ve written a name.


 Let us show each other we aren’t alone in our remembering.

Let us plant and name. Let us remember.  

Rocks and Pansies
Rocks and Pansies

And with those words, we planted and wrote names on rocks. It took about 10 minutes. Some were silent. Some talked. Some hugged. Some helped others plant. Some just witnessed.

You don't need an outdoor garden to create a memorial garden. You don't need an architect or a master design plan.

You could plant in pots or various containers. Plants could be for indoor or outdoors. You could just use rocks.

To create a memorial garden you will need: Your body. Your tenderness. Your intentionality. Your body as memory maker. Your love. The living. The dead.

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.

Podcasts on Story Divine and Presbyterians Today

These were fun!

I did a podcast with the amazing Casey Fitzgerald on her Story Divine of  Faith and Wonder podcast site. Focus: Emmaus Road and my own Emmaus Road story.

[audio mp3="http://godofthesparrow.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Episode_13_On_the_Road_Again.mp3"][/audio]

Next up is a podcast with Rocky Supinger for Presbyterians Today on liturgy, worship planning, and this liturgical die-in I created for the Forum for Theological Exploration.

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/214909282" params="color=ff5500" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Pilgrims Book of Life

This isn't our membership book. Our book is less worn but brown and leather and you get the idea.
This isn't our membership book. Our book is less worn but brown and leather and you get the idea.

Church of the Pilgrims has a book that keeps the names of those who have become members of the church. The book looks something like this:

I wrote a blog post about Pilgrims most recent confirmation service where we welcome Sam and Emma into the Church. You can find that blog post here.

In the post I wrote about how we took our big, leather bound membership book and used it in the liturgy. Since then, we've been incorporating "the book" into particular liturgies.

First, the background on how the book became part of our liturgical life at Pilgrims.

In May, our family went to a bar mitzvah for our dear friend Eli. Eli had his bar mitzvah at this fabulous, rainbow flag waving Temple Rodef Shalom. (Patrick, one of Eli's dads, blogs here).

During Eli's bar mitzvah, the Torah was brought out from the Torah ark in this gorgeous moment that involved Eli, the cantor, the Rabbi and Eli's other bar mitzvah companion. I was so taken by this moment---the doors open to this colorful, beautiful, gently glowing "home" to the Torah, this sacred, holy book that holds the stories of life and death of the Jewish people. A few moments after Eli's reading of the Hebrew, Eli, like his dad when he was bar mitzvah'd a few years ago, was welcomed into the faith through the Torah.

I watched Eli hold the Torah. Embrace the Torah. Become part of the Torah. In his Hebrew, I heard Eli become part of Judaism and was now ascribed, at least in my mind, to the Book of Life-- an image, and for some Jewish communities an actual book, that is the muster-roll of God. Rooted in the Psalms, the book ascribes the names of those who are working for justice for God. This image of the Book of Life is liturgically part of the High Holy Days for many Jewish communities.

This is NOT Eli's bar mitvah! But this is Temple Rodef Shalom. You can see the home of the Torah behind this family.  This is the scroll that Eli read from that took me to the idea of how to create the experience of being connected to generations prior.
This is NOT Eli's bar mitvah! But this is Temple Rodef Shalom. You can see the home of the Torah behind this family. This is the scroll that Eli read from that took me to the idea of how to create the experience of being connected to generations prior.

It was such a powerful image to witness Eli turn the pages of the Torah, witnessing his connection to the Jewish faith going back thousands of years.

Eli inspired Pilgrims confirmation liturgy in this way:

Could we have a moment like this in our confirmation liturgy where the sense of ancientness of who we are comes alive? How does Pilgrims connect Emma and Sam to a sense of ancientness? To a history? How could that connection be witnessed? How could Sam and Emma, like Eli, physically draw themselves closer to the history of a religious tradition?

Pilgrims membership book then became part of the confirmation liturgy---creating a moment when Pilgrims big, leather-bound membership book was opened up and Sam and Emma were invited to write their own names into our book. Bettina Burgett, our clerk and keeper of the book,  then wrote down the date and "confirmation" as the process of membership.

Now Sam and Emma were in our book, along with those founding members of Pilgrims whose names are also in the book--their names and the date of membership at the very beginning of the book.

Leaf through the heavy, cotton, age-worn paper and  you will see those who have come before Sam and Emma; those who have loved Pilgrims and brought us into this moment in time together.

In this particular moment in time at confirmation, we made the writing of the names a public, liturgical moment. Sam and Emma wrote down their own names--no one else wrote their names for them. They used their own agency.

We watched Bettina confirm their signatures with the date and means of membership. Usually  Bettina writes in the names and dates after the membership moment has passed--it's a moment that was private and a task. It seems we've now raised the bar for Bettina's position within the congregation---going from "clerk" to "clerk of the book."

In a way, the Sam and Emma writing their own names created this boundary of time and space--pulling past into the present in a public, physical way.  In this public action, Sam and Emma, and Pilgrims as witnesses, gave reverence to our past, pulling the names off the pages and into our liturgical space.

Since that moment worked out pretty well....

At a baptism in June we pulled out the book of baptism and weddings. It looks the same as the membership book. Our general baptism liturgy includes these actions right after the water--we put a stole over the newly baptized. We anoint the baptized with oil. They are offered milk and honey, the first meal in the ancient church to the new baptized. We light a candle. The baptized one is welcomed into the Church by a member.

All of these post-baptism moments link us back to the early Church and their ancient ways--these are rituals that transcend time and root us in the ways the early followers defined community up and against Roman Empire.

book of life
book of life

Now we have the book. It's not a telephone book. Not a pool membership book. It's not the sign in sheet at a yoga studio. It's Pilgrims book of the living and the dead.

The baptism book rested next to the font with the stole, honey/milk, and oil. As part of our sequencing of post-baptism actions, Bettina wrote  the baptized one's name into the book since the little guy wasn't old enough to write his own name. Our little Pilgrim, now baptized, was in our book which holds not just the names of those before him but, in essence, their commitment/struggle/joy/heartbreak that has made Pilgrims....Pilgrims.

A Liturgical Die-In

Structure of the Liturgical Die-In. This is what we worked off of in our collaborative planning.
Structure of the Liturgical Die-In. This is what we worked off of in our collaborative planning.

The Forum for Theological Exploration  (FTE)  had their annual Christian Leadership Forum in Dallas, TX  at the American Airlines Training Center during the first week of June. I coordinated the worship along with leading an idea lab on liturgy on the streets.

The conference started Wednesday afternoon and went until Saturday morning. Each day we had two, 30 minute worship services--one in the morning, one in the evening. The worship services connected to the theme of each day and to the overarching theme of "Active Faith Matters." The CLF also grounded itself in the 60th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the murders of Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. What does an active Christian faith mean in the face of supremacy and domination?

I came to Dallas with structure for each liturgy, hoping the energy, world view, and passion of participants would be infused into the structure. For our Friday evening liturgy, I created a structure for a liturgical die-in. What follows is the liturgical framework, sermon, prayers and reflections from the leaders of this liturgy and  its participants.

This is what was created in a mere 30 minutes.

We gathered in our conference room standing as a mass. No chairs. We were standing up while singing "I'm on My Way to Freedom Land."

(play the song while you read the rest of this blog)

Emily weaving her way through the crowd telling the Gospel story.
Emily weaving her way through the crowd telling the Gospel story.

Emily Wilkes, intern at Church of the Pilgrims,  shared the Mark story of a group of friends busting through a roof of a house to get their paralyzed friend, who was on a mat, as close to Jesus as possible. Emily had memorized the story and she told it by heart.

Emily's Reflection from the experience:

Standing among a crowd of nearly two hundred people, I began to tell the story of a paralyzed man whose friends tore off the roof of a building. I wove in, out, and through the crowd; their physical closeness and excitement gave me permission to channel their energy in my storytelling. It was an ecumenically diverse space, where many shouted affirmations as they felt moved. This evident participation drew me even more deeply into the story, and I was transformed through its telling. Within myself, I could imagine I the confusion, tension, anxiety, and joy the crowd surrounding Jesus must have experienced. The two hundred of us inhabited and embodied the story together. After we’d entered into the story as a community, we were then ready to enter into the sermon.

After Emily's storytelling, we sang a Gospel Canticle, "Blessed be the Lord, for he has come to his people and set them free" from the bilingual hymnal, We Pray in Song. We sang this several times with contemplative energy.

Kimberly White

gave the sermon, also weaving through the FTE crowd.

Here is

Kimberly's sermon


Hands up! Don’t shoot! These words and the gesture have become a rally cry of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has swept our nation. In the aftermath of the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, many people set out to demonstrate against a system that was oppressive. And here, we find the paralytic man in his own oppressive state. He is confined to a mat, unable to move.

While we don’t know what lead to this man’s paralysis, we do know that he is a representation of something. This paralytic man is a representation of what oppression can do to a person, and even a community. He represents hopelessness – he has been in this state of paralysis with what seems like no hope of healing. He represents this notion/thought/idea that this paralysis is permanent. He represents helplessness– because of his paralysis; he can’t even get to the one who could offer hope. And on top of that even if he could move himself, he can’t get past the crowd – the crowd that should have been crowd surfing him to Jesus in the first place.

But thank God for the four men. It is the four men that stand in solidarity with him. It is worth noting that all the texts that narrate this story call it “their faith,” which Jesus says. That the paralytic had faith himself, we know from the proclamation of his forgiveness, which Jesus made before all that were gathered. What we are taught in this moment is that not only did the man have faith, but the bearers had the same faith with him. While the paralytic couldn’t change his condition on his own, they recognized that there was one who could help him. All they had to do was get him to Jesus – the source of his healing. Spiritual healing – his sins were forgiven. Physical healing – he was able to pick up his mat and walk.

And here, we find ourselves – our America – paralyzed by oppression. The oppression of addiction, homelessness, hunger, depression, poverty, war, gender inequality, racial injustice and a myriad of other things. Think again of Ferguson, of Cincinnati, of South Carolina, of Baltimore. Think of the protests that were taking place. Think of the die-ins. Those who lay in the same position as the paralytic man. Die-ins represents this same image as the paralytic – helplessness and hopelessness. Those who participated in these protests did so as a sign of solidarity to fight against all that was and is taking place in the city and the broader community. Like the four who carried the paralytic man, each of those who have made gestures likened Christ to have done so for one purpose and one goal – to get to the truth. These four bearers carried the man to the truth. And today, I invite you to pray in the posture of this paralytic man and those who have laid in solidarity. That our prayers would be like the four men, carrying us to truth. That our prayers would speak love. Speak community. Speak life. And tell the story of our faith, as a community, that will lead us to healing.

Here is Kimberly's personal reflection after the die-in:

It’s happening in Florida. It’s happening in Ferguson. It’s happening in New York. It’s happening in Ohio. It’s happening in South Carolina. It’s happening in Baltimore. It’s happening all around us – hundreds of people are laying motionless on the ground in a position of death staging die-ins as a form a protest to the atrocities that are facing our communities. While this act of protest has, as of recent, come on the heels of a death in the Black community, this day, it happened as a form of worship. For days we gathered in Black Hawk Ballroom to talk about #ActiveFaith, and in this space we had the opportunity to put those discussions into deed. The act of a die-in has become a sort of rally cry for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we were able to see the correlation between these die-ins and the one that the paralytic man faced everyday due to his own oppression. As the scripture was recited, the crowd began to fidget.

As the sermonette went forth, the crowd verbally affirmed the words. And then, in that space, we were all asked to get in this posture of the paralytic man and those who have laid in solidarity. As the history was given, names of those Black and brown bodies that have been gunned down were read off, and prayer was offered up, the images of unmoving bodies strewn on the floor floated in my mind. I imagined every face. I felt every body. For a few moments, I opened my eyes and looked to my left and to my right. Feelings of grief, shock, fear, anger, hope, and a myriad of others things overwhelmed my body. We worshiped in this position. We prayed in this position. And in the end, just like the four men who carried the paralytic man to Jesus, we helped each other out of that position and back onto our feet. While we know that the oppressions of the world won’t be healed in one moment, in that hour of worship, we stood in solidarity with the ones who will fight until healing comes. We stood in solidarity with the dreams of our ancestors. We stood in solidarity with the dreams of our neighbors. We stood together after laying in a position of death. We stood, in order to tell the story of our faith, as a community, that will lead to healing.

Marquisha leading the die-in prayer
Marquisha leading the die-in prayer

Marquisha Lawrence led the die-in prayer after Kimberly's sermon.

Here is Marquisha's prayer:


n Ferguson, we die in for 4.5 minutes representing the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown's body lay in the street. As you lay there, we ask that you reflect on the word that was given to you on Wednesday...reflect and pray about how you can be bring innovation, wisdom, connectivity, transformation, healing, dreaming, discovering, risk taking, questioning, truth telling, boldness, authenticity and new possibilities back to your ministry settings, in your own congregations, in your own cities, in your own states, in your own denominations, in your own academic settings.

I invite everyone to die in...now...

(4.5 minutes)

(Ashley's note: When Marquisha said "now" 200 people dropped to the floor on their backs in an instant. We stayed on our backs throughout the entire prayer).

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way. We lie here before you praying for our cities, praying for our congregations and praying for ourselves that we might have courage, that we might have wisdom that we might be bold enough not to cower when you have called us to stand tall...when you have called us to be innovative...when you have called us to speak truth to power...when you have called us to dream a bigger dream...you have called us to sing a new song...when things get tough and we can't find our way, help us to remember that our work is not in vain and neither were the lives of:

Freddie Gray

Kevin Allen

Rumain Brisbon

Tamir Rice

Akai Gurley

Kajieme Powell

Ezell Ford

Dante Parker

Michael Brown

John Crawford III

Tyree Woodson

Eric Garner

Victor White

Yvette Smith

McKenzie Cochran

Jordan Baker

Andy Lopez

Miriam Carey

Johnathan Ferrell 

Carlos Alcis

Larry Jackson

Deion Fludd

Kimani Gray

Marissa Williams

Timothy Russell

Reynaldo Cuevas

Chavis Carter

Shantel Davis

Ervin Jefferson 

Kendrec McDade

Rekia Boyd

Ramarley Gray

Trayvon Martin

Dying in Prayer
Dying in Prayer

I invite you to silently rise and support each other as we get up.

We end this die in the way that we end every die in with the words from our dear sister Assata Shakur: repeat after me:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom

It is our duty to win.

We must love and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.


Marquisha's Personal Reflection

In preparing for the liturgical die-in, I was sure to add in the names of many of those who died in police involved deaths. The list is pages long, but I randomly selected 33 names. When the section of the prayer came to the 33 names, I told myself to: “slow down and articulate every single name. Do not go too quickly, for this may the last time that their names are called in honor.” As the names were read, the tension in the room swarmed with people crying, moaning, and tapping--all with their backs on the ground. It was hard to tell whether these reactions were from despair, discomfort or a myriad of other feelings, but for that moment, these 33 people were acknowledged as humans, worthy of honor.

Once we were standing after Marquisha's prayer....

The crowd had this posture during the Jesus is Coming song.
The crowd had this posture during the Jesus is Coming song.

We finished with a cathartic song, "Jesus is coming, this I know. Freedom is coming, this I know."  We sang this over and over and over again. And over again. Until finally someone tossed open the doors of the conference room,  the song coming to a close and  off we went to a reception and dance party that included a band with a horn section.

Reflections from Two Participants from the Die-In Liturgy

Hassan Xavier Henderson-Lott

In the fall of 2014 I began to associate myself with the alliance #ShutItDownAtlanta. This organization served as an avenue through which many of differing identities expressed our frustrations concerning police brutality in America. Among the many who gathered in solidarity with the victims and the families of victims who had fallen, were individuals; African-American women and men whose lives though well-lived, are overshadowed by fear and the suspicion of whether or not their lives actually matter. Never before had I been provided an outlet to express my truth. Loudly we marched in hundreds chanting and singing! But there was never was a time to grieve in community. Internally, in the comfort of my own heart and mind I mourned the losses of my sisters and brothers murdered by police. Strength was the name of the game! “Don’t let them see how badly you hurt.” I would not cry. I would not give-in to emotionalism.

However I did not then understand the importance of weeping. Loudly I marched through the streets of Atlanta, solaced by the display of “strength” as intense rambunctiousness. But in Dallas, I was vulnerable. I prayed through weeping. The die-in experience affirmed for me the strength in silence and the credibility in crying. As I lied on the ground I experienced a transfiguration of the room. The carpeted floor became concrete. The silence of the room was loud with the sirens of emergency vehicles. I was Michael Brown and Eric Gardener and Yvette Smith. I heard nothing, including my Mothers mourning the loss of their son. I returned to witness participants striking the floor with their hands. They were supposed to be completely still. They were in pain! I knew that the experience was all too real for many in the room. They beat against the wooden floor of a ship. I was on a ship, lying on my back; my mother still mourning the loss of her son! I witnessed the pathology of black suffering in America. I experienced a historical memory of my past. It became not only real but tangible to me. All within four and a half minutes I traveled back over four hundred years. I got up, on my feet. And I danced in the same confident hope of my ancestors. “Jesus is coming, Oh yes I know!”

Andre Gilford, Jr. 

Bodies lying

Spirits standing

All colors together

In prayer.

During the Forum of Theological Exploration’s Annual Christian Leadership Forum, I participated in a gathering of young adults committed to spiritual renewal and social justice. These individuals came to Dallas with a purpose, seeking a renewed sense of purpose and mission among those who share in that pursuit. During our corporate worship time, our various feelings and experiences came together in prayer, unexpectedly. We were white, black, South Pacific, Asian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, middle class, upper class, in seminary and discerning the call. We were all different, but together we came to a sacred space to worship. And in our worship, we provided space for the Black lives denigrated by the power of a racist and oppressive system called America by dying in. We prayed together in silence by lying on the floor and being still in the moment. Die-ins represent the four and a half hours that Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO laid in the street after being killed with his hands up by a local White police officer.

By lying on the ground together with my peers and colleagues in ministry, I was overwhelmed. My spirit, still standing, connected with the spirits of the ancestors who cry out from the earth calling for this system of racism and oppression to be ridden. I felt connected to the spirit of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and many others who have been killed at the hand of racism. As I laid there, I listen to my sister Marquisha Lawrence speak the name of the known sisters and brothers who unwillingly gave up their lives for the freedom of those who continue to be the subject of violence and pain under the guise of racism. Never before had I felt immense feeling in prayer. There was something to our bodies lying and our spirits standing; all colors together in prayer. We needed that space to take a moment and use our bodies to resist all injustice against those most at risks. In that moment, we stood still and provided space for our spirits to connect with the spirits of all Black lives. Our bodies laid on the ground stood as a symbol that Black Lives (do) Matter.

Professional Photographs by the Forum for Theological Exploration, Atlanta, Georgia.

Confirmation and an At-Table Service

Confirmation at Church of the Pilgrims comes every once in awhile. This year we had two confirmands.

Emma and Sam (my 13 yo) were confirmed into the Church the last Sunday in May. Emma and Sam had spent the past 6 months in a shared confirmation process with Western Presbyterian Church down in Foggy Bottom. Western had five kids. We had two. We joined forces.

Every 4th Sunday of the month, we'd gather at either Pilgrims or Western for a dinner liturgy. We shared a meal (upgrading from spaghetti to a taco bar as the year progressed) while we shared in liturgy---prayers, candle lighting, hearing a topic of the day like OT genre, Advent birth narratives, Jesus as subversive agent against Empire. We'd chug root beer and marshmallows, made s'mores.  We'd talk over each other and then we'd listen, then start talking over each other again. The youth would annoy the adults, the adults would annoy the  youth, adults would have to separate people....you know...it was like a family dinner table.

When it came time to plan Pilgrims confirmation liturgy, I knew I wanted to share this At-table experience with the rest of Pilgrims. So the tables and chairs were hauled into the sanctuary for the liturgy.

A glimpse of our confirmation liturgy!

Two of the confirmation mentors started off with this welcome:

We welcome you to this at table worship, a time to share in a meal and worship together.

We  gather in this particular way for a couple of reasons: this is how the early Church gathered for worship—at tables, in a home, sharing in a meal, sharing in communion, song and prayer.

 Today we do the same. And we celebrate two particular people—Sam Goff Glennon and Emma Oosterveld. Today we confirm Sam and Emma, we celebrate their confirmation into the christian church. We confirm Sam and Emma together, as a community, because this is how we live out our faith. We gather at table because this is how Sam and Emma gathered with youth from Western Presbyterian the 4th Sunday evening of each month in a shared confirmation process.

Sam and Emma had their confirmation process at table. being at table today gives a glimpse of confirmation process.  So welcome! We live in the ways of Jesus which means all are welcome at these tables to eat, drink, connect, and build community. Let us confirm Sam and Emma! Let us worship God.

We continued with candle lighting and singing. Then we broke the bread with 2 of the mentors and Sam and Emma. Emma said the words of institution while Sam broke the bread. 

Emma: But what Jesus did most of all was share meals with everyone who wanted to eat. he liked having dinner so much that some people even called him a glutton.

Sam: Jesus would eat with people who broke the law, he would eat with people who didn’t take many baths, he would eat with people nobody else liked.

Emma: At the end of his life, Jesus had one last meal with his friends. he took the bread, gave thanks to you, and said, “take and eat. this is by body. do this. remember me."

Then one of the mentors invited people to share in the bread and the cup around the tables. Then we shared in food on the tables: s'mores, cheese, fruit and such.

Emily Wilkes, our intern, told the story of friends busting through a roof for their paralyzed friend.

Folks then wrote hopes and dreams (after a 3 minute sermon) for Sam and Emma on sticky notes, symbolizing that's what Church does---busts open anything for all of us to get as close to the Presence as possible. Our hopes and dreams take us to that Presence.

Then came the confirmation.

Bettina Burgett, our Clerk, offered these opening words. Sam, Emma, Bettina, and I were around our small communion table amidst the tables.

Sam and Emma, you have completed a 6 month process of confirmation, an experience of community, liturgy, conversation, questioning, laughing, service and learning with your companions from Western Presbyterian Church.

You went on retreat at The Pilgrimage with the Western crew, making meals for Open Table, hearing Eric from the National Coalition for the Homeless speak about his experience of homelessness. 

You took bag lunches around Dupont Circle and McPherson Square. You fought of cockroaches in the Pilgrimage kitchen and Paul Reuther had to intervene on your middle school pranks.

You did improv with Andy, served at Open Table. You were cared for and loved by your mentors: Matt, Jeff, Lauren, and Carol

You went before Session, sharing your noticings and wonderings of this community.

Emma and Sam, in front of Pilgrims, with our support and love, do you wish to be confirmed into the Church?

Then people shared their hopes and dreams for Sam and Emma, people standing up one at a time where they were at their tables and reading their hopes and dreams. The 4 mentors went first. Most beautiful part---people affirming Sam and Emma as they are NOW as human beings. Total acceptance.

Then the questions were asked. Bettina started off with the question of trust. Then I asked a person at each table to stand and ask a scripted out question. As that person stood and asked the question, that person's entire table stood up, symbolizing solidarity with Sam and Emma.

People--this makes me teary just writing about it. Oh, and I had pondered over how to do this for some time. Original idea came from Margee Iddings. Then I emailed trusty Andrew Wassenich, my improv guy and member at Pilgrims, about how to pull off what I wanted to do. Andrew solved this in, say 35 seconds. People are beautiful.

The questions:

  • Emma and Sam, Do you trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Sam and Emma:  I do.
  • Emma and Sam, will you seek to be a faithful member of this congregation, and be part of the building up of this community? Will you?
  • Sam and Emma, when the world acts in violent ways, when you see the meanness of others, when you walk past a homeless and hungry person on the street corner, will you choose the way of life and live with compassion and kindness? Will you?
  • To the congregation: Do you fully accept Sam and Emma as equal members of this congregation, embracing their honesty, truth-telling, and creativity? Do you?
  • Will you, Sam and Emma, and you the community gathered, commit yourselves to this life? Will you?
  • Will you, Sam and Emma, and you the community gathered, love neighbor as yourself and strive for peace and justice? Will you?

Then  Sam and Emma shared how they want to live out their faith in the upcoming year. Both want to take bag lunches out to Dupont Circle and share with hungry people. Amazing.

We laid hands on Sam and Emma and prayed.

Then....Pilgrims has a Registry Book---the book that has the names and dates of all the new members, baptisms, and weddings. It has the names of the very first church members going back to the early 1900's. Bettina, as Clerk, is keeper-of-the-book. After laying on of hands, Sam and Emma wrote their own names into our Book of Life and Bettina wrote down the date and "confirmation."

This was the most moving part for me----witnessing Sam and Emma be part of this great cloud of witnesses of Pilgrims, using their own hands to write their own names, having the congregation witness the act in a public way rather than the their names going into the book in a private, off-liturgy moment.

THEN.....we shared the cup with the mentors and Sam and Emma doing the words and actions. THEN we shared a toast to Sam and Emma with our little communion cups. The early Church did this while at dinner and liturgy--toasting to Jesus rather than Caesar and Empire. So....we toasted to Sam and Emma. Then we kept on toasting to life and people and love and stuff. We toasted to Beau Biden, who had died the day before. Joe--we love you.

We sang a song then ate cake.

It was a wonderful day.

Communion on the Streets for Pride

Capital Pride takes shape outside Pilgrims.  That's our intern, Kristin, in the front of this pix. Check out the bubbles in front of her...coming out of our bubble machine.
Capital Pride takes shape outside Pilgrims. That's our intern, Kristin, in the front of this pix. Check out the bubbles in front of her...coming out of our bubble machine.

Capital Pride was last weekend in Washington, D.C. and the Saturday afternoon parade starts at the footsteps of Pilgrims. And by starting out in front of Pilgrims I mean this the chaos you see the picture above.

Pilgrims opens its doors for Pride for bathrooms, water (with our water station handled by the Fairfax Hotel) and this year we added communion in the sanctuary. Our sanctuary had the AC going full blast and one of our Parish Associates, Charles Van Gorder, was present to share communion, talk, and be present. Our sanctuary became a meditative space for those seeking some quiet and stillness from the chaotic, sensory, rainbow scene out front.

This year we also decided to take communion to the More Light Presbyterian marchers while we waited for the parade to start. This meant taking communion to 22nd and N Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20037.

Our fabulous interns, Emily, Andrew, and Kristin took old communion trays and made them fabulous.

Emily cut up baguettes left over from lunch from Pride officials lunch and staging area at Pilgrims.

Jess Fisher, former intern, and I took the bread and the trays to the More Light Presbyterian waiting area. We shared in communion using the human microphone method--a method used by the Occupy movement to run meetings and liturgies. We used improv for the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving. The whole thing went something like this:

Me: We gather

Crowd: We gather

Me: To share a sacred meal on the streets

Crowd: To share a sacred meal on the streets....

Me: What acts of creation do we give thanks for? People called those out. What acts of the prophets do we need to remember? People called those out. What acts of Jesus do we need to remember? What acts of the Spirit? People called those out.

Then we used the human microphone for the Words of Institution.

We shared.

As Jess and I walked back to Pilgrims with what was left of the juice and bread, some folks stopped us to have their own communion moment. Before taking the bread and juice, one person said to Jess, "I have done some very bad things in my life. Very bad things." Jess shared with love and acceptance.

Reflections from sharing communion on the streets:

1) You know all those rules and constructs that the Church  has around ordination and sacraments and whatever? Guess what?  The streets don't care. Thank you, Jesus! When Jess (non-ordained) shared communion, the person didn't ask if she was ordained. Jess didn't ask if the person had been baptized. Who has time for those questions on the streets? Jess carried the symbols of love, life, community, and new beginnings and the streets called her to share freely. For me, the streets expose the absurd nature of the Church. Can you imagine if Jess had said, "Oh, wait. I can only share this with you if you are baptized." Or I had said, "Jess, get out of the way, this is for me the ordained to serve." Seriously? #assholeclergy

2) God is there. We didn't take the Church to 22nd and N. Nor did we take God there. God and the Church and the Spirit are already on the streets. We were greeted by God on the streets. "Well hello there Pilgrim people and MLP's. Thanks for being here on the streets. I've been here all along. Says God every friggin' day."

3) Boundaries get blown up on the streets. See #1. But there wasn't a table to center us. Or walls of a church to show us we are Church. I had to call out "The Lord Be with You" in a loud, directive way and get folks to bunch up together. We had to create our own space within the space of 22nd and N. We also started on our own initiative. No time and space boundaries of liturgy that prompted me to start like "now it's communion because that comes after the hymn which comes after the sermon."

4) Sensory + the Sacred + the Profane:  The quiet nature of the sanctuary that people expect? The table manners of church respectability? Pigeons walking around? Garbage at our feet? There is no separation of the sacred and the profane on the streets. It's all sacred. The symbolic nature of the Eucharist gets infused all over the streets. And the sacred nature of the streets gets infused into us and the sacred meal. Again, boundaries are pushed, challenged, and blown-up when you have dueling piano players on a float behind you and Cher being blasted in front of you. The senses, our lives, our hopes, dreams, urban air, urban sky, urban asphalt, human brokenness and joy....it all gets knocked up together on the streets in a way, for me, that doesn't happen in a sanctuary.  The "this is how we are supposed to act with communion, at the table" gets re-configured on the streets. And maybe not re-configured but you are you on the streets and less of what is expected of you, constructed of you by the Church and Empire.

Why are we doing communion ONLY behind closed doors? And who decided that along the way? And why is that the way we follow?

Some of the photos in the gallery were taken by Marti Mefford.

Storytelling with Faith and Wonder

My good buddy, Casey Fitzgerald, is a master Biblical storyteller and has started a blog called Faith and Wonder to explore more deeply personal storytelling in relationship to Biblical storytelling. Casey's tag line is "living and telling stories with Spirit." Being a Biblical storyteller means Casey learns the Biblical stories by heart and shares those stories with congregations and audiences of every interested sort. Casey's pretty bad-ass.

Casey started a podcast not only for Biblical storytelling but to have others tell their personal story alongside a Biblical one.

Casey asked me to jump on her podcast to share my own personal Emmaus Road experience. Here is our 25 minute podcast where I share my story of worshiping at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia and realizing I had a choice to make: Will I be a minister for Christ or a Minister for the Machine?

Check out the podcast HERE.

Check out Casey in storytelling mode here.

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 chaos.....one 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.


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.

Urban Farming: Garbage, Jesus, and Good Friday.

A Nicaraguan boy carries a large bag of trash for recycling while fighting with flying vultures in the garbage dump La Chureca, Managua, Nicaragua, 10 November 2004. La Chureca is the biggest garbage dump in Central America. Hundreds of trash recollectors search in tons of smouldering garbage mainly metals (copper, aluminium), others concentrate on glass which is cheap, but in bigger amount. The majority of the recyclers are families with children for whom recycling is a regular job. The children very often eat the food they find on the dump, none of them goes to school, they suffer from skin diseases, they have high levels of lead and DDT in blood. Photo by Jan Socher
A Nicaraguan boy carries a large bag of trash for recycling while fighting with flying vultures in the garbage dump La Chureca, Managua, Nicaragua, 10 November 2004. La Chureca is the biggest garbage dump in Central America. Hundreds of trash recollectors search in tons of smouldering garbage mainly metals (copper, aluminium), others concentrate on glass which is cheap, but in bigger amount. The majority of the recyclers are families with children for whom recycling is a regular job. The children very often eat the food they find on the dump, none of them goes to school, they suffer from skin diseases, they have high levels of lead and DDT in blood. Photo by Jan Socher

(This blog post appeared on Good Friday, April 3rd, 2015, as part of a Holy Week series for Presbyterians for Earth Care).

In 2012, the world generated 2.6 trillion pounds of garbage with over half of that amount going into landfills around the planet.

Those landfills are home to 1% of the global population. Children and their families who are the poorest of the poor live on the outskirts of landfills. Many use these landfills as a place of work—trading garbage for cash or consuming salvageable waste in order to survive. What was food for the dogs and flies becomes food for a family.

  • La Chureca is the largest garbage dump in Central America, located on the edge of Managua. One thousand people live and work on the “City of Trash” every day. There is even an elementary school located on the dump with six classrooms.
  • More than 2,000 families live on the Bantar Gebang landfill that lies outside Jakarta, Indonesia.
  • Thousands of families call the Tultitlan garbage dump in Mexico City home while spending 12 hours a day, in scorching hot sun, looking for recyclable materials to sell and make less than a dollar a day.
  • The Veolia landfill 100 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia, known to locals as “Trash Mountain,” received toxic coal ash from a massive spill that occurred in December 2008 at a Kingston, TN power plant. Taylor County, where Veolia landfill is located, is 41% African-American and more than 24% of its residents live in poverty.

In the time of Jesus, Gehenna was the landfill located just south of Jerusalem. This was the city dump of Jesus’ time. When Jesus would speak of hell, it is thought he was speaking of Gehenna which was filled with the household trash, Empire’s leftovers, and bodies of the dead. With no sanitation or plumbing systems in Jerusalem, people would toss their urine and feces into the streets. Imagine this: the streets of Jerusalem steaming with human shit and pee as Jesus was taken to the Imperial cross of execution. The Roman Empire closed in on Jesus and his followers, and Jesus’ final footsteps on the planet were pressing upon the garbage ridden streets of Jerusalem.

As a small child in La Chureca landfill picks through garbage, as birds and dogs and flies hover over the “what is left,” there, too, is Jesus’ body, naked, broken resting upon the planet’s garbage. It is with the poorest of the poor, the poor who make a home and eat dinner in garbage dumps, where Jesus rests his body each and every day, pushing us to see garbage as sacred.

It’s all sacred. All of it. The plastic water bottles. The rotting meat. The Styrofoam. Ripped Clothing. Banana peels. Broken bicycles. Flies. Rats. Dogs. The poop of the rats and dogs. Seagulls. Children of the garbage dumps. Their school. Every bit of the “what’s left” is sacred and holy.

There is no division of the sacred and the profane. In fact there is no profane. On this Good Friday, we sit at the foot of the cross, an Imperial cross that might have been possibly littered with trash and human feces from Gehenna and Jerusalem, a cross soaked with blood and dripping flesh. Without mercy, Jesus was nailed to a cross with those viewed as human garbage hanging next to him. It is in the nailing that Jesus nails us to each other.

From my garbage in Arlington, VA, to the sanitation workers of Arlington County who pick it up, to the garbage ridden waters of the Anacostia River which borders Washington D.C., to the the poor living near the Veolia landfill to the families of Bantar Gebang; to Gehenna and the human waste of Jerusalem, the nails on the cross today pierce together what is seen and treated as the waste of the planet.

Ecofeminism stretches us to embrace it all as sacred, to see how each and every bit of what’s treated as garbage, the human and the material, are nailed together.

On this Good Friday, we sit and wait. Together. Nailed together as the planet continues to be pierced, broken, torn, and rendered. As your hands and arms stretch out today to toss away a piece of garbage, as your hands and arms extend to pick-up garbage, we remember the ones who live, eat, live, learn and are family on a garbage dump. Today we remember Jesus and his outstretched arms, executed in a city that looked and smelled and was a garbage dump.

Prayer: Holy One. Holy One of garbage and landfills. We are nailed together. Garbage and all. May we never, ever forget it.


 In an ecclesiastical move that defied logic, reason, and history, parents of young children at Church of the Pilgrims have killed off Sunday school.

Several weeks ago, Nancy (Elder for Education) and I scheduled a meeting of parents during Buffet, Pilgrims lunch on the first Sunday of the month.

Goal: talk through Sunday school and if it's what we need to be doing. Why? Because not many folks were attending.

There, around a table, while sharing a meal, while their kids climbed under the tables and wheeled themselves around the Fellowship Hall in Kozy Kars, Nancy delivered the reality of Sunday school--

Low attendance. Reality. Check!

After musing around with the reality of "it takes everything we've got to make it to worship" Pilgrims parents said, "let's just stop."

And just like that....a door was opened.....for new ideas.

New goal: Weave the kids into already existing things at Pilgrims instead of creating extra stuff.

So...it was done. Good-bye learning via the ways of the 1950's. Good-bye to an element of Pilgrim life that didn't fit anymore. Good-bye to the hamster wheel of doing something because we were supposed to be doing it.

Hello to bandwidth for me to do something new with the kids and families.

Perspective Building: 

A couple of days later I was having a conversation with Sabina, the lead teacher at School for Friends, the preschool located at Pilgrims. Sabina shared how they were focusing on perspective in February. Sabina  and the book "Dramatic Difference" led me to this:

I bought two books for each family:  Where the Wild Things Are and  Brave Irene.  I copied 5 stories out of the Family Story Bible  by Ralph Milton. These are Gospel stories that focus on one character who needs help.

Parents read the books + 1 Biblical story each week with the kids.

Then they have a conversation with questions like 1) How could Zacchaeus, Irene and Max be friends? 2) How could they visit each others stories? 3) Can you create a new story with Max, Irene, and Zacchaeus? 4) How could Zacchaeus help Irene? How could he help Max? 5) How are all 3 bold? (Be Bold! Be Salt! Be Light is theme for Lent).

Next make a plan to do something---write a new story, have more of a conversation....how do they want to respond to these questions? Execute plan!

In the write-up I handed off to parents I also included meal time ritual of candle lighting, sharing high and lows, experiences of being bold and brave.

Ryan's Wreck Your Journal
Ryan's Wreck Your Journal

Wreck this Journal: 

Taking a play out of the playbook from Theresa Cho at St. John's Presbyterian, I rifted her Wreck this Journal format and created a Wreck this Journal for each kid. Putting journals together---what a great job for an intern! Thanks, Emily.

I've watched two of my kids work on their Lenten journals. Really amazing to watch energy explode as they realized they could literally wreck the journal. Here is a picture of Maddie's journal and a picture of Ryan's---easy to identify whose is whose.

Maddie's Wreck Your Journal
Maddie's Wreck Your Journal

I can't tell you the amount of space I feel in my work. I loved doing the journals. I loved talking with Sabina and having time to create at-home materials. I love not having to think through the details of Sunday school.  I've noticed I've slowed down a bit, my brain doesn't feel so full and chaotic. Sunday mornings have been a dream---I have more time to get ready for worship which is it's own labor intensive endeavor at Pilgrims. I feel so much more mindful on Sunday mornings. Less program. More people.

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.

Freeing the Natural Voice

Freedom Sculpture in Phily. Breaking through with the whole body.
Freedom Sculpture in Phily. Breaking through with the whole body.

It's exhausting chasing down one's authentic self. Takes a lifetime. Might as well get started. -Kristin Linklater

I got started, again, this past Thursday in a voice building class led by Andy Wassenich, a member at Church of the Pilgrims and an all-around theater guy. Andy is leading a 2-hour, 3 week class for myself and 2 of my co-workers, Rachel Pacheco and Emily Wilkes.

I approached Andy for a class in order to circle back around to the experience of freeing the natural voice. When I'm in worship, how does the sensation of my voice connect with the sensations I'm feeling in the rest of my body? How does my voice embody anxiety or stress? Joy and community? How does my voice impact the invitation to take risks in liturgy and how is that invitation to risk  expressed through my voice?

How do we as worship leaders at Pilgrims use our voice as a means of expressing the Holy intention that a sacred space is a place of transformation? How do we get out of our heads and into our voice/body while leading?

Andy started off with a reading from Kristin Linklater from her book, Freeing Shakespeare: The Actor's Guide to Talking the Text. Here are some highlights from the reading plus some of my thoughts:

  • The basis of Linklater's work is this---the belief that voice and language belong to the whole body rather than the head alone and that the function of the voice is to reveal the self. This hits home that worship leadership is embodied leadership.
  • Linklater's work book isn't a verse-speaking manual. She aims to recondition the body and mind so that the voice can express visceral and spiritual urgency. What could be more urgent than expressing the Gospel belief that some have food, some have none and God bless the revolution?! (Thanks, Bev Harrison).
  • The breathing musculature is woven around the rib cage, underneath the lungs in the diaphragm, connected to spinal column and roots itself in the pelvic floor. It is  not metaphorical to say "the body breathes." Improvisation is used a lot in Pilgrims worship. How do we let our bodies breathe as we say yes to new beginnings and radical ways of living?
  • When a baby is born, breath is its life. A baby's voice communicate essential information long before words are learnt. So....when a baby cries it worship, my thought need not be "be quiet!" but baby is expression emotion via wordless message.
  • The adult voice is conditioned to talk about feelings rather than reveal them. That's downright yummy.

Andy led us through some breath work that involved being on our backs and creating (creating!) a primordial sound "huh." We did that over and over. And over. Being mindful of where the sound is located in the throat and building intensity with the "huh" sound. Primordial, like the murmuring deep that the order of life came out of in Genesis. We moved on to other exercises to stretch the sound of our voices.

The work of freeing the natural voice is an act of liturgy/chasing one's authentic self--it takes risks, vulnerability, and getting out of my own way. How do I free my voice from social expectations? Break through personal habits? How do I engage mindfulness with my voice while I'm preaching, storytelling, communion-ing?

Two more weeks of voice building. Looking forward to giving space to the authentic self.