Category Archives: Creativity

“Darkening Sky” Spirituality

old bridge (deposit photos).jpgChange. Say it soft and it’s almost like puking.

I used to dread Autumn.

About thirty years ago (college era) Seasonal Affective Disorder dawned in me. My love for distinctive Midwestern seasons got complicated.

Since then, good support and meds have helped attune me to my holistic health, but I’d be lying if I said the 4th quarter was easy.

I trust I’m not alone with clinical depression and a sense of guarding my emotional health when the weather turns cold and dark.

In the Midwestern USA where I’m from, there is no more intense earth season than fall to enact the disruptive, beautiful prospect of transformative change.

All through autumn we hear a double voice:
one says everything is ripe;
the other says everything is dying.
The paradox is exquisite.

Gretel Ehrlich

In the psalms, life comes naturally in waves, and each one is faithful unto itself. Right now, you may be in a season of great joy. Enjoy it; it will pass. You may be in the midst of freaked-out fear. Hang on; something different is on its way.

In 12 days, I’m hosting a free/tip call-in class called Deep Change and the Psalms: Navigating the Intensity of Harvest Time, and you’re all invited.

Is it possible to accept a life that includes melancholia? Can we prepare for seasons of disruptive change and frame them as good? Or at least understand them so we can make the best of them?

What I’m calling “Darkening Sky” spirituality is a psalm-centered faith. This is theology that honors our most intense moments of transition, acknowledging God smack in the middle of whatever slow-mo rotating stage we’re on.

The parts of life we judge as intolerably dire straits the psalms name holy. As my psalmentor Rev. Dr. Clint McCann says, these moments of honest suffering are not good, but normal. See also Ecclesiastes 3 and Jesus’ mystical ministry of disrupting pretty much every life he encountered.

Need some courage? Here are a few psalm-songs that might be good company for your holy life that might feel like it’s unraveling: (Note: these are NOT cheer-up songs, but psalm-honest cries for what’s happening in you).

As summer moves into autumn, we know earth seasons will turn as they always have. It’s something we know, but sometimes do not wish to allow.

Here’s to allowing change to ripen what’s in our heart-gardens, that Gretel Ehrlich’s exquisite season would bring us to fullness before moving into the next.

Register now for Deep Change and the Psalms: Navigating the Intensity of Harvest Time.


Midrash Jesus II

laughing jesusAnd it came to pass on the day following the Sabbath that Jesus pinched a nerve in his back while painting a neighbor’s house. For his day job was carpentry.

Flat on his back in terrible pain, he prayed many psalms of lament, including Psalm 6 in moments of greatest suffering.

Monday at the third hour, just as the Lord was groaning, “OMG, I am weary from my groaning and my eye grows dark due to vexation*,” Mary knocked and entered, carrying a young, fresh puppy. This was Mary— no, not the one you’re thinking of. The other one. See, there’s Jesus’ mother, there’s Martha’s and Lazarus’s sister, then there’s… It’s confusing. Anyway: Mary.

Mocking him good-naturedly, she sing-song asked him, “Hmm. Which is easier, to forgive someone’s sins or to heal his body?”

And, setting the puppy down, it ran straight for the Rabbi, tromping on his chest and licking his face. And behold, the Lord became mirthful– at first a slightly painful sputter which quickly turned to delighted giggles.

Jesus laughed.

“This puppy can eat crumbs from my table anytime!” giggled Jesus. “Blessed are you, little dog, for you have made me forget myself and remember love.”

And Mary laughed too, partly because she loved Jesus so dearly, partly because some people thought the Lord could not get hurt or ill because he was somehow less than fully human (for she herself preferred the synoptics), but mostly because healing is a beautiful mystery that can come from unexpected places– even from a different species.

And after a few moments, the Lord dismissed the puppy and said to Mary in a grateful sigh, “Mary, be a servant and bring my ibuprofen, would you?” for though he had experienced great healing, the inflammation in his upper back region yet was great. “And something to eat,” he added, for he knew it was bad to take on an empty stomach.

*Yes, from Psalm 6.


Give Me a Word for 2016

Portrait by my frolleague Roy DeLeon

My word arrived the other day: qavah.

At the turn of the year, Abbey of the Arts offers a free mini-retreat— twelve moments to imagine the next season of one’s life and ask for a word.

In the tradition of the old desert moms and pops, the Abbey’s Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks consider what word or phrase might be a compass, seed or traveling companion for the coming year. In past years for me it’s been a koan-thing– an idea to chew on over months.


Richard’s Word History:
2011 Stretch
2012 Empty
2013 Salmon
2014 Turn
2015 Edge


Which brings us to what 2016 seems to be serving up: qavah. (keh-VAH)

It’s a Hebrew word used a lot in the psalms, meaning wait, hope, expect. As in,

Wait/hope for God.
Be strong and let your heart take courage
and wait/hope for God.
(Psalm 27.14)

It’s root means gather.

As this word and I claim each other, here’s what I’m wondering about in a stream way:

Wait Patience Time
Weight
Loss Longing
Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!
Okay! Tell me!

Expecting, Pregnant. Growing with Life
How exquisite and terrifying to have growing life within you.
Incubation takes time. What do I expect?
Surrendering, Giving one’s self.
Nutrition for a womb-person, energy for new ideas, new mysteries.
Will it be born? Borne away? Will it be what I expect?
What will its lifespan be? Is this how I value fresh, new things?

What comes to those who wait?
Sometimes good things. Sometimes nothing. Or worse.
What do I expect?
What am I waiting for?
My waiting and longing– is it hope-full and expectant of goodness, or am I tapping my foot offended like it’s a waste of my time.

Hmm. Could be an interesting year!

If you’re interested, try a “Give Me a Word” thing at the Abbey.

All best blessings to you, my friends, as we ease into a new year.


Give Me a Word

IMG_2256It’s happened the past three years at this same time.

I’ve discovered a centering, resonating, challenging word as a kind of companion for the coming year. And it happened again this morning. Thought I’d share.

Following the tradition of desert pilgrims, hundreds of my fellow Dancing Monks at Abbey of the Arts have been seeking their own words, too, with the question:

“What is your word for the year ahead? A word which contains within it a seed of invitation to cross a new threshold in your life?”

It’s a powerful moment when we put ourselves in a position of open-hearted vulnerability. In this case, it’s surrender to a piece of vocabulary, a part of speech. I’ve lost some of you by now, but some of you are curious as to what manner of weirdness this be.

In 2011, my word was Stretch.

2012: Empty.

2013: Salmon.

My word for 2014 arrived this morning: Turn.

Turn.

To commit a switch on or off,
to flip over a piece of grilling salmon.

Autumn maples.

Milk on its last day,
to repent and move again,
to reach for the corner of the page you’ve finished.

His face was set toward Jerusalem.

To respond to magnetic attraction,
to move a screw deeper,
to switch moments: is it mine or yours now?

To evolve in season.
To reorient.
To be romanced.

Turn.

What’s on your mind as 2013 closes up shop?

What hopes and fears are with you about 2014?

In which areas of your life are you excited and curious? Which ones carry anxiety?

If you want to try “Give Me a Word” yourself, Abbey of the Arts has a free 7-day mini-retreat that guides you through a contemplative process of discovering your word.

Here’s entering a new calendar year with hope. May you welcome all the goodness coming your way.


7 Marks of a Decent Worship Song

So you’re a musician, worship leader or songwriter. At its best, what’s a song do? Worldmaking.net tries a riff.

Print a copy.

#7: Pan-generational
Gathering infants and elders.

There are two types of people in the world: those who like to divide people into groups and those who don’t. [Wait for chuckle.]

A decent worship song sings us into harmony across generations, noticing our diversity in age and blessing us together.

One of the fallouts of so-called “contemporary” worship since the 80’s (I was there– the one with the mullet and the fiery red strat) has been the dis-integration of the multi-generational worshiping assembly.

We think we’re smart to niche-market our worship. We try to give people what they want according to their preferences. We imagine teens desire something different than their parents and grandparents.

One result can be a fragmented (or neatly divided) worshiping community. It’s the biggest reason people call me for consultation.

A good worship song presents us as one global Christ-body, to use Paul’s metaphor. And it’s not only so we kindly include people in the room. It’s that we deeply affirm that there are gifts and challenges for each season of life, including tender babyhood, passionate adolescence, ambitious young adulthood, transitional “half-time” mid-life and wise elder years.

When we are together in worship, we pay attention to all that we are– tender, ambitious, transitional, wise. When our moments of song and prayer do not speak to all of these, we find ourselves in a body without an arm or an ear.

Contrary to what our surrounding pop culture preaches, it’s good to get old. Youth need to know this, as well as our elders. Imagine the alternative that is happening now.

Contrary to what our culture says, it’s good to be kids. Grown-ups need to know this, as well as youths. What happens to a civilization where this isn’t true?

Is your community’s repertoire speaking to all the seasons of life?

#6: Expansive
Because Christ-life is more than we think.

When I first heard Marty Haugen’s Psalm 23 song, I cracked open.

“Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life.”

Jesus Christ. [Don’t you love non-blasphemous invocations?] Psalm 23 will never be the same for me.

That song was both instructive and expansive. That is, it both taught the Psalm and expanded my reality. The song helped the Holy Spirit break through the borders I had set up around what was true.

In singing, we embody more than theology. We make the sound of a world-wide community transforming. Listen closely, and you can hear boundaries breaking.

Ask any United Methodist, they he or she will tell you a good song can be a sermon. The Wesleys had it down to a science. Some 21st-century writers are working at it, too.

A good worship song not only unpacks and prays our scripture, it takes a wrecking ball to our idolized ideas.

In worship we are meant to offer heart, mind, soul and strength to the Holy One of which we are a part. And you can bet these hearts, minds, souls and strengths won’t come back to us the same. I’m thinking of Jesus’ irritating, holy habit of saying, “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” and his metaphor of wineskins. Sometimes that old container has to go.

Take a careful look at your congregation’s singing repertoire. Are there enough songs that blessedly expand our ideas?

#5: Integrative
Some re-assembly required.

When Psalm 25 sings, “To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” the Psalmist is not chipping out a wedge of life’s circle graph. In fact, in Hebrew there is no word for a separate spiritual part of the self. For it to ring true, the spiritual life is integrated with all dimensions of one’s experience. A better translation might be, “To You, YHWH, I open my life.” (Hear a progressive rendition of Ps. 25: “To You.”)

A good worship song helps us integrate aspects of our lives that are otherwise dis-integrated. Because our surrounding culture and the weather of life can fragment us, right?

A few examples: In a time of such fear as we are in right now, we may be told that certain people or particular nations are the problem. Worship snaps us out of such fear, antagonism and superiority, leveling us with the least of Jesus’ brothers- and sisters-in-Love.

In an era of global power struggles, we may be tempted to see our nation– wherever we may reside– in competition with the rest of the planet. Sunday morning offers us the vision of everything created and belonging to One, our common citizenship to the One Holy City (Ps. 87).

In a TV/mag/online culture celebrating individualism, we may feel alone. Experiencing spiritual community wrecks our walls and invites us to a powerfully vulnerable part of the Holy Whole.

A good worship song helps us integrate Holy Reality into our conscious lives. It pushes against the surrounding culture, and, as we sing it, helps us rehearse this integrated life and practice it with breath, words and gesture.

What great old hymns, Taize chants or new rock songs help you integrate Holy Reality (aka Kingdom of God, emerging Christ, Holy Spirit) into your life?

#4: Focused Function
We’re beings doing.

A worship song is folk art in the traditional sense.

When I took a Norwegian Woodcarving class at college (doesn’t everyone?), Harley Refsal taught that a true piece of folk art has a specific function. A beautifully crafted chair is meant to be sat in, not just to look pretty. That gorgeous quilt is for the bed, not the wall. A hand-thrown pottery bowl wants to contain soup, cereal or ice cream.

The design of the piece is not arbitrary; its form serves the needed function.

Same with decent worship songs. Songwriters take great care to craft a song that serves the community in a particular way. Where some songs are meant to proclaim grace or invite celebration, others stretch our minds and invite resistance. Good worship songs don’t parrot scripture or repeat a line eight times to force meaning. They make our imaginations pop around a specific point.

Worship leaders, knowing this, take great care to select songs that serve our transformation. He or she may choose a song to help us embody passionate praise in one moment, surrender in another. It’s not shoving any old song into the slots. Good worship leaders intentionally select music that engages our mind-body-spirit experience and carries us further into it.

But back to songs. Consider your most moving musical experiences, whether they be in church, on the dancefloor or driving your car. It was specific, right? The perfect song at the right time. Not general. A good story doesn’t mention tea; it’s a steaming orange mug of Earl Grey.

A Gathering song is inviting. It might remind us we re all in the same boat, and are welcome for exactly what we are. Maybe it sets up the theme for the day.

A good Offering song might remind us it’s good to share, and we all have a part.

A Prayer song offers sound to hold delicate spoken petitions. Or they disrupt our idolatrous ideas of how we think prayer works.

A Sending song might remind us that we bear the Christ out to the world, and we are each unique in the ways we are faithfully doing that.

A good worship song functions for a particular occasion, the right tool for the job at hand. Review the current Top 25 CCLI songs and test my theory amid the awful ones and the brilliant ones. (Here’s your pass to be judgmental. Enjoy.)

By the way, good worship songs are in every genre and form– liturgical, pop choruses, ancient hymns, contemplative chants, etc. Don’t resist any when they are called for.

The next time your worship team has an hour to kill, together make a list of the best songs that serve the movements of worship: Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, Sealing (the Sacraments) and Sending. Listen carefully to one another’s experiences with the songs. Honor the differences. When you see functional gaps — “Hey, we don’t have a really good song for _________,” email your local songwriters and we’ll get right on it in the workshop.

#3: Prophetic lyrics
Words that comfort us and mess with us.

The role of an artist in a community is to stir up imagination, invite people to stretch their minds.

A decent worship song does, too.

Just as scripture contains vital tensions of law & gospel, grace & discipleship, “easy as pie” & “give up your life,” our worship music challenges us to grow to maturity in Christ.

A good worship song wonders over our sense of what we’re sure of.

When I was in seminary, Marty Haugen helped me see that at the time I was good at writing songs that brought comfort and grace, but that I was short on the prophetic edge that offers the holy gift of bewilderment. (By the way, my friend Bono always tells me not to name-drop. It’s tacky.)

For example, it’s important for our growth to be reminded that our pet names for God aren’t the only game in town. As much as God may be like a father to us, God is also like a crooked judge, a woman kneading dough, and a still, small voice in the breeze. The alternative is the prospect of idolatry: worshipping a hedged-in idea about God instead of the Ever-Living God.

Does this mean we will not always agree with the words we are singing? Does this mean we won’t like all our songs?

It seems to me Jesus’ ministry was centered not in teaching information but delivering provocations that were seeds of renewal, forgiveness and restoration.

We need a steady diet of songs that don’t just reinforce the way we are thinking presently. Spiritual life is built to stretch.

Is your congregation’s repertoire sufficiently challenging?

#2: Singability
Because that’s the point, right?

A song enacts unity, and as such invites all present to participate.

This may be closer to the number one slot, because if a congregational song is not a place we can all meet, it’s useless. Scrap it for parts. We usually know a decent song when we hear it, but here are a few suggestions to an intentionally singable community song:

  • It’s in a good key for most voices to sing energetically. Otherwise, people are frustrated at the get go. This, however, doesn’t mean a song can’t ask you to stretch for a few notes. Sung prayer requires energy, after all. Christmas and Easter hymns call us up to a high D. The Star-Spangled Banner is sometimes done in a key leading us to a high E or F, making it, ironically, a lousy community song. Mostly, we sing well together between C and C.
  • Accessible melody. Whether it’s a chant from Taize, a Bach hymn or cutting-edge rock song, the tune engages all ages and all abilities. Rhythms are regular in pattern or at least This means contrary to what your praise band guitarist says, not everything you hear on the radio will work in your circle.
  • …But not too easy. If the song is simplistic, it’s not gonna last. A good song needs a little work to get right.
  • Vocabulary check. Our songs use language we understand or can come to understand. Sounds simple, but often with ancient texts or present-day jargon, we may not be on the same page without a little education. Not a bad thing if we’re aware.

#1: Ancient-Future Tension
So what time is it?

A decent community song reminds us that we have a heritage of faith going back generations. It also engages our present-day reality and pitches our imaginations into the future.

The number one mark of a decent worship song is also among the most important descriptors of faithful worship.

Tradition

A good song connects us to ancient things. Does your community know that faith is old? Roots are important. It’s a disservice to faith to have it look like a trendy thing, something we just discovered with the latest pop singer. Why? Because that’s so today’s media culture– here today, gone tomorrow– and it’s just the tip of the iceberg we are about subverting in worship.

Does your community’s repertoire have good old ground we can sink our roots into?

+

Innovation

While our roots of faith are deep and ancient, we have 21st-century imaginations. Let’s not pretend we don’t have cell phones.

Aren’t we genuinely curious how the spiritual life is faithfully lived in us, you know, now? If so, won’t we be experimenting constantly with the freshest language and music to pray, celebrate and lament? Our songwriters will be always riffing on the culture, asking us to attend to changes in our jobs, families, bodies and politics. A decent worship song always invites us to pay attention to our spiritual life, both communally and individually.

All this puts us in the now, leaning into the future. Inventive, adventurous words, grooves and symbols will always be part of our music.

Put another way, a good song does not parrot our ancestors. It honors our lineage by always reforming, always evolving into God’s future.

So. Discuss.

This article is a gathering of individual pieces around Worldmaking.net’s “Top Ten Marks of the Decent Worship Song” developed in the Worldmaking.net newsletter.

Thanks to the photographers giving permission to use their work above. From bottom to top, the photographers are Mircea Preda Struteanu, Aaron Schwab, Enrico Nunziati, Robert Linder, Adriana Cikopol, and anon.


Thwart! and other benedictions

Well, it’s Springtime again. When a young man’s fancy turns to vocabulary.

This is just to say I’ve placed several new words in my “Favorite” column on the Word Game page.

For those of you unfamiliar with my brand of geekosity, this is an ongoing list of words I enjoy based purely on sound and feel, not on what they mean. It’s utterly subjective and is a ridiculous waste of time and energy unless you enjoy words as I do. 🙂

To me, it’s a practice of both anti-literalism and poetry.

So, you bibliophiles, I offer for your consideration:

Nigh – Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying.

Thwart – The power of a curse word in an unassuming package.

Hyperbole – If we’d had a daughter.

And two for the Least Favorite column:

Particularly – Listen to you. Back off, man.

Vegetable – Yeah, I see you. Do you need that many syllables?

Rebuttals and recommendations welcome.


An Open Letter to my Gay Friends

Heteros please read, too. 🙂

This has been a long time coming, but I’m finally ready.

As much as you know I resist labels, I have noticed something about you, my gay, lesbian and transgendered friends. With no exceptions I can think of right now, you have a unique boldness that I love and need in my life. When I witness it, I want to be more honest with myself, take risks that matter, and not waste a moment of my love and life.

Maybe boldness isn’t the right word. Because in some cases, society has not given you a choice. But whether you’ve felt strong or not, you’ve decided to survive and thrive and to me that looks like courage.

Here’s the thing: I love people who know their uniqueness, who have come to trust it and live that uniqueness fully. I consistently experience this with you.

You have taught me about an artist’s freedom. Just write it down, sing it your own way, paint it passionate. Art is supposed to stretch us, and true humans are intended to feel it all. You know yourselves the way only those who have come to an edge can.

Many straight people have never been confronted with the question of how our true, free selves look. Lots of us haven’t done the work you have.

You have stories of brave risk. One friend told me in his pre-out life he held intense feelings of protection for his family– how could he trouble his family with who he really was? How could he cause pain to his friends by coming out? And he held this for years.

By pure chance, in many regards I am a person of privilege in my particular society– caucasian, male, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, middle-aged; I may never feel the weight of risk that you have. I may never have to place my physical safety, my job, my sense of livelihood and reputation on the line for merely being who I am.

You have. I know you have.

And though we all have unique and powerful things in our identity that ask to be noticed– top of the list for me has been the stigma of divorce, mental illness, and an artist’s lifestyle– sexual orientation is, at the moment, the hottest button I can think of.

As a result of coming out, it seems to me you are attuned to integrity. Similar to my friends in recovery, you have a strong B.S. Meter for both yourself and others. Many straight people are at a disadvantage here; some of us have not yet grown to be honest with ourselves. We rarely consider what is at stake in living honestly and fully because we just haven’t had occasion.

As you know, I am all about “world-making” when I teach about music and liturgy– that what we enact as a community is what we create for the whole world. I am so happy that Sam was baptized in a church where families of all combinations were present, that his earliest years were surrounded by both gay and straight couples, differently-abled bodies, folks from all ages and social status sharing pews with their arms around each other. This is the world we wanted our fresh, new baby to know is real and good.

Trish and I figured this out last year: at ten years old, Sam has been to more same-gender weddings than straight ones.

That’s just to say the world Trish and I offer the next generation is one where you are among the most brilliant loves.  Not in spite of your sexuality, because of. We believe one of our greatest purposes as parents is to seed the world with someone who honors the beauty of you and all who live out their uniqueness. This ten-year-old does not see you as a them. And he will tell his friends.

Whatever a person’s story, those who live out their uniqueness are Christ emerging in the world.

So where can straight people sign up to be gay for a day?

Or have a mental illness? Or be in recovery from addiction? To, in whatever way required, come to the edge of themselves? Because whenever and however you do that, you come alive, and as Howard Thurman said, above all the world needs people that are alive. The alternative is unspeakably tragic for all.

What if all people had the occasion to cultivate a deep, centered clarity about who we are? To not waste time hiding, padding what’s true, or waiting for others to get comfortable with the truth before it’s revealed?

We’d understand something stupidly simple– that we all have brave stories, breakthrough seasons, and have hearts that function best open wide.

Do you know what a gift that is to the world? Especially right now?

God. Thank you.

It’s ridiculous that so many do not recognize you as the Christ among us, the Buddha awakening. [Deep breath.] At the risk of opening a can here at the closing, I’m sorry the world is so damn slow. I’m ashamed that the church has fought against you. I’m exasperated at the fear some still feel when they see you.

Weary heros of humanity, thank you for choosing to survive and thrive.

Thank you.
Thank you.

I am thinking especially of you today, and celebrating you:

H & J
M
M & M
J
B & S
D & R
H & J
M & S
M &
B
C & S
C
R
C & M
E & partner
M
R
C
S
BB
K & K
A with D