Gimme shelter: thoughts on worship, ethics and aesthetics....

As the blessings and gravitas of this extended sabbatical bubble up into consciousness, let me offer a midpoint reflection. It clearly has been simmering within since we departed. But last week, two postings pushed them to the surface. And while the insights are wildly different, they offer a context for contemplation. 

The first is from Flannery O'Connor in an excerpt of a letter:

I am very pleased to have your letter. Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for you to find a God-conscious writer near at hand... I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden, for the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories... The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

Like her compatriot in letters and Roman Catholicism, James Carroll, Ms. O'Connor accepts
with brutal honesty the brokenness and evil of our times. From the racial violence of Charleston to the unfolding brutality of Bill Cosby as a possible serial rapist - from the ambiguity of brokering a nuclear arms treaty with Iran even as ISIS continues its deadly march towards a renewed caliphate to the eco-disasters sweeping the Northern Hemisphere - Christian realism acknowledges that there "are many rough beasts now slouching towards Bethlehem to be born." As Carroll puts it: our era must be defined by both the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The Holocaust because it calls Christians to account for our historical antisemitism with clear-headed and unsentimental repentance. And Hiroshima because it pushes us to own our ability to destroy God's creation and our wanton willingness to do so. O'Connor states with a chilling perfection that our human condition in a modern consciousness is all about living as "unhistorical, solitary and guilty" people all at once.

The second is taken from the story of the inventor of the digital camera who once worked for Kodak: Steve Sasson.  In 1975, Sasson discovered a "film-less" camera, but management thought it was just "cute" and asked him to keep it a secret. Sasson suggests that Kodak eventually gave up the ghost and collapsed after once being the industry leader because:  1) They misunderstood their mission; 2) They failed to discern the signs of the times; and 3) They feared loss. In fact, as late as 1992, Kodak intentionally chose not to explore the digital realm because they did not want to cut into their existing revenue stream. As my old church mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to say: they became trapped in the trappings and it killed them. 

Writer and pastor, Thom Schultz, explains Kodak's fall from a 100 year position of power like this:  Kodak failed and squandered tremendous opportunities because its leaders chose to defend the status quo. They ignored reality and applied cosmetic changes to an irrelevant product. They refused to be bold and creative. They also believed their own press releases without taking stock of a radically new culture until it was too late.

Both of these insights - the challenge of Christian realism and the natural inclination of most institutions to play it safe until it is too late - speak to me. For you see even as I rest and read - practice jazz bass and explore the wonders of Montreal on my sabbatical - I continue to wonder about and wrestle with the experience of worship and Christian community for this moment in time. Not the meaning of worship, ok? Worship is always about turning our hearts toward God. It includes praise and lament, silence and song, ritual and communitas bathed in grace. Worship is not fundamentally about the individual or even the gathered body of Christ. And yet, unless the community is nurtured at a deep level with symbols that speak truths deeper than our distractions and sacraments that open our hearts and minds to awe and gratitude,worship becomes wooden and dogmatic. "Nehustan" as the Hebrew texts say, "a thing of brass become idolatrous," as recorded in both Numbers 21: 4-8 and  II Kings 18:4.

I wrestle with this professionally, of course: I have served the local church for 34+ years. But I also find myself raising questions for my return  to ministry after the sabbatical because I have only gone to worship twice in 10 weeks. Sure, it has been physically and emotionally refreshing to sleep in - and I've chosen to do so not only on most Sundays but throughout the rest of the week, too. And sabbaticals are intended for physical and emotional rest. But there is almost nothing that happens in most worship these days that attracts me. In this, I find myself in the company of most of Montreal and probably North America, too - and it is a reality that has taken me by surprise. An unintended gift? A vocational challenge? An invitation to go deeper into the unhistorical and solitary guilt of the modern /post-modern spirit? Probably yes to all three... so here are a few clues that emerge from all of this.

+ First, worship that honors mystery and tradition - grace, doubt, hope, truth, fear and love - needs silence. There is too much noise in most worship these days. At the same time, our culture is so saturated in sounds that many do not know how to enter deep silence. Could extended musical meditations become both a tool to contemplation and an experience of the transcendent for modern worship?  My hunch is that a good third of worship could be devoted to sharing different forms of silence in community.

+ Second, although I don't know how to "label" this for worship, our time for conscious reflection has to include: scripture, questions, contemporary readings/ poems and dialogue. Wrestling with the ethical dilemmas of Christian love  in conversation that includes space for questions and reactions - even disagreements - honors the role sermons have played in the Reformed tradition. But let's face it, most folk are both biblically and liturgically unschooled these days so a measure of education is essential for community building. At the same time, our public readings must expand to embrace the poetry and wisdom of this moment in history, too. Ortho-praxis increasingly matters more to me than ortho-doxy - right action vs. right thinking - because I am not at all convinced that holding correct doctrine alone becomes compassion and justice in the real world. Like Lou Reed said, "The goodly hearted made lamp shades and soap." (another Holocaust reference for uninitiated.)

+ Third, worship that would attract, sustain and nurture me would be sacramental and Eucharistic. I need to be fed by Christ in the sacraments and by Christ as the gathered body n community. Truth is, I don't "get" Jesus if it is all about words. I need to see and experience what his radical grace looks like and I need to taste in order to see that he is with me in the most ordinary things like bread and wine and broken, sinful people. And I would want the feast to conclude with some public statement from the gathered  faithful about what we/they are going to DO about their worship encounter as the new week unfolds: how will this matter and take shape, form and flesh within and among us? 

This is worship that I could get into and commit to strengthening. Doing this kind of worship would make a clear link between aesthetics and ethics in my life. Adding to the brutality of real life is inevitable just by breathing, right? It is the human condition so let's not advance bullshit or sentimentality.  Rather, let's also playfully honor a sacramental alternative that is grounded in beauty, truth and compassion. Perhaps this is part of what faithful living will look like for me on the other side of this experience? Let's see how it ripens...


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