One of the questions I ask myself these days is, "How do we share the story of God's grace and judgment with the world in Christ in ways that communicate, challenge and convert the hearts of contemporary people?" It isn't a new question, of course; and we've been wrestling with answers since the first gathering of women and men shared a Passover meal with Jesus in the Upper Room. What's more, every age must explore its own ways of responding and some are more faithful than others.
Perhaps one of the reasons why this question has resurfaced this morning so boldly is that I have been ruminating in my head and heart about the experience of our recent ecumenical Ash Wednesday worship. And as is so often the case, other things that I am reading bring my reflections into greater focus. As I noted yesterday, what I missed most from the worship experience was a deep Lenten aesthetic: many of the individual parts of the liturgy were beautiful - and many of the worship leaders were effective in communicating, too - but my overall sense was that we had constructed more of a Fat Tuesday celebration than an Ash Wednesday encounter with our wounded mortality. So, as I am want to do, I've been letting this reaction percolate...
+ One factor that has bubbled up is that we're all still "fresh" in building worship together. We know one another - professionally - and we may even like one another, but we're still learning how to trust one another in creating worship. Some come from very low traditions, some from a high church environment; clearly we all have different histories and understandings about worship aesthetics that range from casual to intense. I think we're going to have to find ways to learn to talk and plan at a deeper level in the future. Beyond simple participation and writing liturgies by committee, it would be valuable if we also spent time teasing out the atmospheric truths to the liturgical season. That way each of the components - visual, musical, poetic and theological - could be created with a shared vision and understanding. Absent a unified vision, I think we will miss a God given opportunity to go deeper in community.
+ Another factor at work within and among us has to do with how we comprehend our Christian metanarrative. In a recent Christian Century, Thomas Long wrote an article called "Cellouid Scripture?" It is a critique of popular culture's reaction to the Kathryn Bigelow's film Zero Dark Thirty. Apparently, many culture warriors are angry that this story of hunting Osama Bin Laden treats torture with an ethical numbness. But Long makes a more important point:
Normally this tempest woruld rage only in the teapots of film criticism, but this time it boiled over to the highest levels of government... Senator John McCain join Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin in writing a letter to Sony Pictures that called the movie, "grossly inaccurate and misleading. You have," warned the senators, "a social and moral obligation to get the facts right." REALLY? Since when does Hollywood have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right. Washington's anxiety over the movie's facticity is sad evidence that, having ceded the task of constructing our social narrative to the entertainment industry, we are now fearfully beholden to it. If we allow movies and television to be our only storytellers, then we are bound to be alarmed when they press the limits of acceptability.
Long goes on to write: "... we should be disturbed if the movies are our only gospel, a kind of celluloid scripture governing howe we understand history and ethics. In a postmodernity that's boldy free of metanarratives, the price we pay may be getting jerked around by little narratives that float down the cultural stream. At a deeper level, the concern for historical veracity misunderstands the moral value of fiction. Paul Ricoeur once described narrative fiction as an opportunity to experiment with alternative constructions of the world, a chance to ask imaginatvely, "What would life be like if the world were THIS way?"
So one of the questions/concerns I would like to explore with my ecumenical colleagues is how do you share the metanarrative of our common faith? My hunch is that in an era shaped more by a hermenutic of suspicion than of trust, we are teaching/preaching some different stories. That may, indeed, be one of the reasons we haven't quite been able to create liturgical cohesion. I know that in my faith community we have had to radically reconsider how we do Christian formation so that we sustained a shared and deep understanding of God's love and judgment in Christ. At this point in my journey, I see the whole arc of the story as "the Paschal mystery." That is, how God's healing grace enters time and history to create compassion and solidarity from out of the most horrible realities through those who love and trust God. Or, as St. Paul would put it, "God has shown us in Jesus Christ that good can be accomplished through all things for those who love God." Not that all things ARE good, not that we always get what is good; but rather good can come from all things through our loving trust of the Lord - and Jesus makes this clear. This would be a rich and helpful conversation, too.
And the last factor is simple: we need to make certain that we bring our music and worship leaders into the planning, too. Sensitive and creative clergy can do some great things, but as the Apostle Paul also reminds us, we are part of a body - and we need ALL of the body's gifts to create worship. Especially the wisdom and presence of our musical and worship leaders.
In my on-going reading of Henri Nouwen this Lent I've been convicted by this insight: We are all a part of a struggle from absurd living to obedient living. Nouwen reminds us that the word "absurd" is, in fact, derived from the Latin surdus meaning "deaf." That means absurd living is a way of remaining deaf to the voice of God speaking from within our silence. "The world conspires against us hearing that voice and tries to make us absolutely deaf... overcoming our strong resistance to listening in order to become obedient people (including worship leaders) requires discipline." I give thanks to God this day for what we've started with shared worship on Ash Wednesday - and look forward to where the Spirit might lead us next.