Tuesday, July 26, 2011

For What It's Worth

What the chirp of cicadas is to the Midwest, the topping out of the Fireweed plant is to Alaska: a harbinger of the end of summer.

I love these God-made signs of the inevitabile cycle of time and change.  They bring to mind promises of God's providence and presence.  They are God's ways of saying "gather ye rosebuds (or Fireweed) while ye may..."  This God-authored drama of life and death is one in which we're privileged to have a front row seat.

But, human-made signs of inevitability have a different message and effect entirely.  They bring to mind threats of "my way or the highway," instead of promises of abiding presence.  They speak not of a cycle of time, but of the end of time.  We in the United States have a front row seat to such a human-authored drama.  This drama whose main characters are Revenue and Spending seems to awaken the less-than-better angels of our nature.  Regardless of which side one takes, it seems the financial well-being of our children and grandchildren demands a higher sense of self-sacrifice and service than we are currently witnessing and expressing at the current time.

I am a fan of old time radio programs which, thanks to Internet radio stations, I listen to on a regular basis.  I am especially fascinated by listening to the programs from the early years of World War II in which pleas for saving aluminum foil, eating less meat, rationing gas, collecting cooking fat, purchasing war bonds and sacrificing many creature comforts were woven into the plots of every show and their advertisements. I can't even imagine how such pleas would be heard today, nor can I feature any politician who still cherished her/his future uttering one.  Of what is this a harbinger?

Brothers and Sisters, may we turn to the gospel according to Buffalo Springfield?
There's something happening here 
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there 
Telling me I got to beware...

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong 
Young people speaking their minds 
Getting so much resistance from behind...
 For what it's worth...there may be better ways...more difficult ways...ways of denial and sacrifice...but better, nonetheless.  Didn't I hear of One who said something about gaining life comes in giving it up...the first being last?  But, then again, He never had to be concerned about the next election cycle.

For what it's worth...

P.S.  For the benefit of those not as chronologically blessed as this writer, here's the entire musical reference: 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Other Caffeinated Blogs

When I began writing this blog, I wanted to offer ideas that, like a great cup of caffeinated coffee (which, in my opinion, is a redundant expression; decaf ain’t coffee), would sometimes energize and sometimes keep one up at night.  I have since discovered several folks whose words and ideas  both energize and keep me awake to the ways in which God is at work in this crazy world.  So, let me introduce you to some I’ve discovered so far…

With a title like “49 and holding…” how can you walk by this one?  I couldn’t.  Deborah Coble Wise is a United Methodist Pastor in Iowa whose blog uses the same pre-fab template as mine.  She recently wrote a love letter to the state of Iowa that made this Iowan in diaspora homesick even for 90 degrees and 90% humidity.  You can find it here.

While we’re in that neck of the woods, another Iowa United Methodist Pastor, Katie Z. Dawson, has a blog with a title I wish I’d thought of (“salvaged faith”).  Her reflection on postmodern holiness is a good read and includes one of the greatest funeral stories I’ve heard.  Here it is.

A common interest in the writings of Leonard Sweet somehow led me to  Howard Carter’s “How in the World!!”  Howard is a Presbyterian pastor in New Zealand whom I’ve never met, but I feel I know well because his writing is so open, honest and inspiring.  I don’t have a single favorite blog post of his…I recommend you browse and enjoy the reflections, the studies, the prayers…  This Kiwi can write and the fruits of his faith and wisdom can be found here.

Years ago, someone offered me the advice that you actually learn more by reading folks with whom you sometime disagree than you can by reading only those who will stroke your current beliefs.  Dan R. Dick, currently the Director of Connectional Ministry in Wisconsin, falls under that category for me.  We share a passion for the church’s renewal, revitalization, reform, and any other “re”-words…  “United Methodeviations” can be found here. 

Allan R. Bevere is an erudite U.M. preacher/teacher/author living in Ohio whose blog is “dedicated to the discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century life” and does not fail to deliver.  It’s here.

The blog associated with a ministry I mentioned last week, Darkwood Brew, can be found here.  This blog has various contributors who seem to be able to balance the academic examination of the faith with its practical, real-world applications.

OK, just a few more…  My wife, Leila, who is also Director of Connectional Ministries here in Alaska, shares her glimpses of God at work here.  Here’s one written by a Methodist (not “united”) from the U.K.  My colleague and associate, Jenny Smith, shares her reflections on her first year of ministry here. 

So…my apologies to friends and colleagues whose blogs I didn’t mention, but nevertheless read.  I would cherish hearing about other blogs read by any of you. 

Peace, Jon

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Worship as Jazz: Fake It ‘till You Make It

Teaching the art of jazz improvisation is a skill that I do not have but can admire and appreciate because I know how difficult the art of improvisation is and because teaching such an art to another is just as difficult.    

When a young musician begins to learn jazz and, especially, improvisation, there is a certain amount of “un-learning” that needs to happen.  Perfection in tonal and rhythmic accuracy has been the standard since the first day of band lessons.  But, when learning jazz and solo improvisation, some of those expectations are modified.  Sometimes a player is urged to “play behind the beat” not on it.  Attacking notes with a “scoop” or ending them with a “doit” or “fall” were embellishments shunned in band lessons but encouraged in jazz.  Accurate intonation perfected by hours of practice is replaced by an invitation to occasionally “play in the cracks” or to find the “blue note.”  

One of my daughters had the privilege of playing sax in one of the leading jazz programs in the Midwest. She had one great obstacle to overcome: she was/is a perfectionist. Breaking these rules, which had, heretofore, brought her recognition as an excellent band musician, did not come easily.  Her instructor had a mantra that was offered to fledgling jazz musicians who struggled with this relationship between improvisation and perfectionism: “Fake it ‘till you make it.” 

In that one phrase was contained a plethora of wisdom.  For the young musician fearful of a “wrong” note in the midst of an improvised riff, it was permission to keep going and not try to fix or even think about that “wrong” note.  For the musician handcuffed by an addiction to perfect intonation and/or rhythmic alignment, it was permission to understand “imperfection” as musical expression.  For all, it was an invitation to experience the instantaneous combination of musical creation and musical performance  that is improvisation.

As a parent and perennial audience member, it was rewarding to watch the young jazz musicians learn to let go and experience the music in the moment as they simultaneously experienced and expressed a musicality that inspired both other players and the audience.  And though the best of these growing jazz musicians still retained the passion for and ability to perform with “perfection,” after months and years of hearing, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” they knew the perfection of “imperfection.”

This past Sunday, the two congregations I serve with my colleague Jenny Smith, experienced, in a small way, what it was like to “fake it ‘till you make it.”  We had no printed worship bulletin.  As pastors, we had no pre-set order of worship in our minds.  I purposely limited our pre-worship conversations concerning the flow of the service so that there would be little opportunity for a subliminal order to the service to be implanted through conversation.

There were several moments in the service in which I felt like a musician standing up to play a solo…I had an outline of the general “melody” and “chord progression” appropriate to the moment, but the exact way in which they would be expressed at that exact moment, was about to be experienced by all of us together.  Here are some reflections/observations from our “worship as jazz” experience:
·         There are some for whom a bulletin and the planning/control it represents is very important and "un-learning" the security of control is difficult.
·         When a leader asks the congregation, with no warning, “Is there someone who would feel led to offer an opening prayer this morning?” someone will actually pray;  and, be prepared for an awesome prayer!
·         Contrary to what one worship professor told me years ago – “The phrase ‘creative liturgy’ is an oxymoronic phrase.” – creative improvisation in worship, as in jazz, is a collective experience that calls us all to a level of alertness rarely achieved when every “note” of worship is scripted and posted ahead of time.
·         It is absolutely essential for the leaders of such a worship experience to listen to each other.  Like jazz musicians “trading fours” in a joint solo while building and expanding upon the ideas of the previous player, worship as jazz is best when the melody and rhythm of the previous “player” become the basis for the next solo.
·         This final observation may, in the minds of some, undermine my whole argument…but hang with me.  In good jazz, the solo is an expression of the “head” (the main melody).  In other words, the improvisation never leaves the overall melodic/harmonic structure of the tune itself.  A knowledge of and appreciation for the original un-improvised melody only heightens the meaning of the improvisation.  The meaning of worship as jazz improvisation is heightened by a certain knowledge of and appreciation for the original un-improvised elements of worship.  Simply put, I believe doing this weekly will transform worship from the creative interaction around an agreed key, melody and chord progression into a chaotic “jam session” where players rarely listen to or interact with one another, but merely do their own thing.

This may say more about me than it does about the reality of God…but, outside of worship, rarely do I encounter God working in the world with perfect intonation and rhythm.  In fact, God seems to play “behind the beat” a lot…allowing me a chance to step out in faith.  God seems to be in the “blue notes” as well…those notes, when sounded by themselves seem out of tune, but when taken in a larger context, bend a moment in such a way that speaks right to my soul.  Perhaps, once in awhile, our worship should reflect a God with such great improvisational skills.


P.S. I can’t close without giving a tip of my porkpie hat to Darkwood Brew…jazz, theology and coffee are found here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Holy Boldness

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.  – Acts 4:31 (NRSV)

How often has the Christian community of which you are a member prayed for boldness to declare the Gospel?  Probably not very often since we don’t place great value in boldness to declare the Gospel.  But what if we did?  What difference would it make in our lives, our congregations, and the communities in which we live?  The early disciples found that praying for boldness gave them the wisdom, the faith, and the power to live faithful and effective lives.  What are we praying for today?  - Rueben P. Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 270.
 The voice and words of Bishop Rueben Job have been a source for both comfort and challenge in my ministry for the past 28 years.  This quiet and gentle man with a voice that was rarely above a loud whisper could silence a room of shouting Methodists not with volume, but with the sheer power of his words.  I had the privilege of calling him my bishop for 8 years.  He ordained me…twice (that’s how we United Methodists did it back then; evidence to the contrary, it was not an act to remediate my ministry).  I saw him silence an arena with nearly 2,000 fussin’ and fightin’ Annual Conference members; not only that, he got these 2,000 members to actually kneel and pray.  Understand, we UM’s sing and talk about praying on our knees; but we rarely do it.

For these reasons and more, I am always keen to hear/read and consider his words.  The quote above has challenged me over the past few days.  I feel convicted by the questions he asks…
·         How often do we pray for boldness?
·         What would happen if we did?
·         If we’re not praying for boldness to proclaim good news, what are we praying for?

I think back on years worth of “celebrations and concerns” shared by my church families before the pastoral prayer.  I’ve never – that I can remember – been asked to pray for boldness on behalf of the congregation’s ability to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and deed.  Mostly, we pray for people we know with problems and conditions that concern us (national and international tragedies/disasters being the exceptions).  Mostly, we really are expressing our feelings of helplessness in light of those problems and conditions and camouflaging them in expressions of concern.  I’m not saying this isn’t important. But, to limit our communal prayer time to individual requests and concerns robs us of an opportunity to pray, as a community, for a boldness of witness that can only be accomplished when Christians function as community.

I think Bishop Job is correct in his observation that we place little value in boldness for the purpose of declaring the Gospel.  We value boldness in declaring support at athletic events, political rallies and concerts, among others.  But, expressing ourselves with boldness for the purpose of declaring unconditional love, immeasurable grace and the continual opportunity for transformation???  Not so much.

I dare you.  This week, if you’re in a worship service and the person up front asks for prayer requests, ask that God bless that church with holy boldness in proclaiming Good News in word and action.  If you’re the person who is up front asking for the prayer requests, then add your own petition for boldness (if no one else beats you to it).

Seriously…I dare you.  I’ll double-dog dare you if that’s what it takes.  Let me know what happens…