Thursday, September 30, 2010

Church by Design

I have been searching the internet this past week for pictures to go along with the sermon for World Communion Sunday--pictures of all kinds of tables, from basic to elegant and comfortable to awkward. The design of the table matters...but also those who are gathered around it.

But in my wanderings, I came across the following blog entry about students in an industrial design class at Lund University in Sweden. Sweden, if you didn't know, is international home of the place that has given us the functional, if not high end, designs of IKEA, which grace the apartments and homes of many of my friends and family. So I thought to myself--this would be interesting to see the inner thought processes of the people who one day may be designing furniture for my dreamt-of kids and grandkids.

The challenge to the students was, however, to design components for a chair without knowing what the other components might look like. Each chair leg, the seat and the backrest were all designed independently of each other. The kicker is that each of the 6 designers in a group was given the same word to use as inspiration for their component.

See the results here:

What Can You Bring to the Table?

Sometimes church (and more specifically, the United Methodist Church) feels to me like one of these chairs. We each are given a Word...and then told to come up with a component without necessarily talking to each other about how those components can and should function together. Some of the chair components in these pictures are just silly. But some of them would be perfectly functional and perhaps even lovely if they could be worked into an intentional design with component parts that looked and functioned in similar ways.

The problem is--who gets to decide which word gets used? The words that the students were given were highly diverse: vain, voluptuous, awkward, vicious, androgynous. It would be difficult to take component parts designed around voluptuous and vicious and place them into the same chair.

And so it is with the church--especially when we get into global levels. My local congregation can choose to construct a Chair with a more limited scope--but even then there will be competing understandings of the Word that we're reading. When we multiply that by the various local concerns and the breadth of the Word that we're given (as well as its interpretation!), I wonder if we'll ever come up with a structure that resembles something that the wounded and weary, sin-sick and sore can come upon and find the salvation and healing of God.

We're going to continue arguing over which words are important. Very few of them are unimportant. But which are good focus words for the structure that need to be built?

This is the question for my local congregation. It's also the question I have for the wider general church. What chairs might be brought to the Table of Grace from the four focus areas that we have as a church? Do they work together and allow for us to have the kind of Open Table that we proclaim in spirit (if not always in practice)?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Singing Together

I have attended a lot of meetings over the past couple of weeks. Since my life revolves around the church so much, these meetings have all involved:

1. church folk
2. eating
3. sung grace

Now, I am a singing person. I love the fact that I belong to a denomination with a sung theology. So you would think that when we sing thanksgiving to God for the food we are about to eat, I would be perfectly happy with that.

But lately I have found that I am not only dissatisfied, I'm downright worried.

Typically, when Methodists get together, when we sing the grace before meals it's a version of "The Wesleyan Grace".

Be present at our table, Lord
Be here and everywhere adored
These favors bless, and grant that we
May feast in fellowship with Thee. Amen.

Ignoring the controversy that has come up over whether "favors" in the third line should really be "mercies", this text and tune (OLD 100TH) have been linked together and to my entire history growing up in the United Methodist Church. I love gathering in a circle and singing together because the voices that are not as strong blend in and gain courage from the others. It always sounds like beautiful harmony as well, which is where, in the end, we get into trouble.

What I have noticed lately is that we start off strong with a good tempo. The words mean something and then we're proclaiming them with notes to go along.

But then we get enthralled with the sound of the harmony, self-involved with the sound of our own voices and we begin not proclaiming, but performing. I think it's indicative that by the end of the song, we've slowed down and are singing more for the sound of our voices in harmony than for the God who created the sound and our voices to begin with!

I was made aware of this the first summer I attended what is now the Church Music Summer Seminar at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. Jane Marshall, whose sung theology is some of the best I know, told us to never let the tempo drag because it would drag us down into the idolatry of ourselves.

Even if it doesn't get into idolatry, I do wonder if it isn't an indication that we pay more attention to what's going on in the inside of the church...rather than what God is doing with the whole of God's Creation. Next time you sing thanks to God, it's something to think about.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Getting There

I do a lot of traveling in my car. 315,000+ miles on it--all in the last 10 years. It's showing the kind of wear and tear you get from that many years and that many miles, but it still gets me where I need to go, and I'm either frugal or stubborn enough not to get a new (or new-to-me) car!

But there are many people around me who worry on a pretty regular basis about the "getting me there" part. They worry that I'll break down in a remote location. They worry that something will go out unexpectedly and cause a horrible accident, hurting either me or someone else. They worry that "getting there" might not happen.

I worry about that a lot in the church. I think and dream about where we can go and see so many steps inbetween there and here--steps that are financial, steps that are spiritual, steps that are emotional and steps that are procedural. I wonder if all the steps can take place and in what order they need to come. I tend to think a lot about these dreams, and I sometimes forget that I haven't laid out the maps and the hopes and the possibilities for everyone.

Sometimes that's because my dreaming seems scary to me--I'm willing to entertain ideas that if they were put out on the table I feel might cut of discussion or the ability to dream in other people. Sometimes it's just because I "go with the flow"--and the best ideas occur to me on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I share those thoughts and ideas with only a few people and forget that they need to be more widely shared.

And sometimes it's because I fear rejection. I fear what will happen if I know that an idea is good and it would work, but the back to the past crew invades and insists that it will never work and that I'm just a bad leader, not worthy of the task that I've been given. Intellectually, I know that these crews are sometimes wise in keeping things in check--sometimes allowing the dreamers like me to see something better. As Joseph, the dreamer, tells his brothers--"What you meant for evil, God meant for good." I'm not implying that the back to the past crew means evil, but sometimes the route that we take to God's good need to be a circuitous route that involves the back to the past crew.

And, of course, sometimes the back to the past crews are just that--those who don't want to move forward because they fear where they will be and what kind of place they will have. They fear they will not be powerful enough or that their voice won't be heard. It's those motives that make me less inclined to wait until the back to the past crew is satisfied.

But today I was reminded that I cannot continue to allow myself to only entertain thoughts of having to "get there" despite the ways in which I feel I (and other dreamers in the church!)are being held back. A person from my church who has a lot of wisdom reminded me that sometimes when I feel like the church isn't wanting to go anyplace that the church is simply trying to remind me that they want to go someplace, but they want to get there *together*.

Eventually, we may have to leave a few behind--not all of the Israelites who crossed over the Red Sea got to cross the Jordan into the promised land. Not even Moses (another, though less literal, dreamer-leader)! But they all traveled together, wandered together, listened for a word from God together, argued together and ate together. I want to remember that sometimes I need to make sure others are invited to the ride, fully strapped in, and let in on the panic, thrill and joy of Getting There...

which is when the real magic begins.