Sunday, August 24, 2014

Drop-By Authenticity

Enjoying the freedom of vacation on Sundays, I’ve been dropping by churches of different “brands.”  Now, I freely admit that a single visit can’t capture the fullness of any church community.  But I also know that the experience of a single Sunday morning forms the strongest perceptions for any visitor – whether it’s someone doing serious church shopping or someone just curious about what those strange people down the street are up to.  If I were in the visitor’s shoes, I’d be looking for authentic community – people truly connected with God and the people around them.
Three Sundays ago, I worshiped at Christ Community Church in the Crossroads.  This campus of Christ Community (an Evangelical Free church) follows the same pattern of worship as the other two I’ve attended, but the venue and the neighborhood shape the specifics.  In the Crossroads, the venue is The Gallery, an art space with folding chairs and rolling room dividers.  Works by a local artist hang on the walls, and the church participates in the First Fridays art walks through the Crossroads, inviting Sunday-morning visitors to come back for music, food, and art.  The worship feels intentionally simplified: a single musician singing and playing guitar, the pastor in jeans offering a (long) teaching sermon from a music stand, no altar or other liturgical furnishings other than the art that hangs there seven days a week.  There are no worship handouts, just screens on the wall.  In addition to music and preaching, the people share Communion – and it was made very clear the meal was available to those who had already made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ (nonbelievers were invited to use Communion time to ask Jesus to reveal himself).  The pastor engaged me as I left, as did a couple of other people; and I came away feeling that I’d visited not a cool art space but a spiritual home.  It felt real (and cool).
Two Sundays ago, I worshiped at Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield, Mo. – my home parish.  It did, indeed, feel like home; I’d spent 22 years of my life worshiping there (sometimes more faithfully than others).  But I tried to imagine what a visitor might notice.  The building is historic, one of the first churches in Springfield; the original part of the worship space dates from 1870.  So it evokes both the beauty and the baggage of “traditional church” – lovely stained glass, beautiful old wood, fixed pews, long distances between the worshiper and the body and blood of Jesus at the altar.  The liturgy is traditional, too – no smells and bells, but plenty of vestments, candles, crosses, and processions.  A visitor might or might not connect with that, but it’s exactly what the room was designed for.  Interestingly, the sermon compensated for any distance that the liturgy or the room might have imposed between a visitor and God.  It was an ironic shift from the week before:  In the Crossroads, the young pastor in jeans and an untucked shirt stood near the worshipers and tried mightily to make 37 minutes of teaching about the day’s scripture seem cool and casual.  At Christ Episcopal, the seasoned priest (well past retirement age) in vesture and a zucchetto shared his heart in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, speaking from his own experience of clinical depression.  The Anglo-Catholic father absolutely made the experience authentic; and I imagine a visitor that morning would have known, deep down, that he or she could be welcomed in that community, warts and all.  It felt very real.
Today, I worshiped at Jacob’sWell in Kansas City, one of the early success stories of the emerging-church movement in the U.S.  Jacob’s Well has been written up many times, and for good reason:  They’ve created a very vibrant community of mostly young adults in the Westport area.  In fact, this fall Jacob’s Well will celebrate its 15th anniversary – making it basically an “emerged” church, I suppose.  The worship experience strives for the ancient-future feel you often see in emerging churches – an old building, complete with pews and stained glass, playing host to a five-piece rock band and filled with young people in shorts and t-shirts, sipping lattes and singing words from huge projection screens.  The pattern of worship was almost exactly the same as at Christ Community in the Crossroads – and not so different from what we offer in our “old fashioned” liturgical churches, too:  Music, welcome and announcements, more music, a long sermon rooted in scripture (this week including Prayers of the People), quick Communion (whose two-minute prayer of consecration began with the Sursum corda – “The Lord be with you; and also with you; lift up your hearts…”), a benediction, and music to send you on your way.  As intended, it felt old and new simultaneously, and I could imagine a visitor tapping into the “both/and” experience easily.  I also could imagine the visitor delighting, as I did, in watching the people hugging each other before worship began and the parents tossing their babies in the air to the beat of the music, reveling in the joy of that community’s life.  It felt very real – though I do wish someone would have welcomed me by engaging me in a conversation at some point.
This is no great insight, but it’s true:  Authentic community comes in all shapes, sizes, and liturgical flavors.  There is no recipe for creating it, other than taking people seriously – those making up the body of Christ in that place, those sidling up to it on a visit, and those living in the neighborhood the church is supposed to serve.  Like other things less holy, you know authentic community when you see it.  And when you do, you’re blessed to find the Body of Christ feeling that real.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Off to School

Yesterday, I walked by my neighborhood school as I listened to Morning Prayer on my phone.  It was the first day of classes in the Shawnee Mission district, and I happened by East Antioch school during “the parade”:  Tiny people, kindergartners and first graders, bearing backpacks that seemed big enough to tip them over, strode purposefully with moms and dads and siblings down the sidewalk.  The tiny ones looked confident and strong; I’m not sure what I’d say about the moms and dads.  I remember that strange mix of anxiety, sadness, and joy on the first day of school.
Fifteen years ago, Ann and I walked to our neighborhood school, Robert E. Lee Elementary in Austin, Texas.  It was Kathryn’s first day of kindergarten.  She must have had one of those overwhelming backpacks, but what my memory conflates from hundreds of other walks to school that year is me pushing Kathryn and Daniel in a double stroller – she was small enough she still fit in, while Daniel at 3 just loved the ride.  She was so ready for school, I couldn’t feel sad.  For both kids, the times of these transitions have always just seemed right.
Tomorrow, Ann and I will drive with Kathryn to Kirksville, to move her into her first house and her last year in college.  Granted, it’s a nine-month rental, but it’s still the next good step in breaking away.  This is a different move than the other times we’ve taken her to college:  She’s refinished some furniture for her new bedroom; she’s packed pots and pans, measuring cups, and dishes; the most exciting pre-college purchase this time was a stock pot (“Soup!” she squealed).  She’s nesting.
One week from today, Ann and I will drive with Dan to Manhattan, Kansas, for his first semester at K-State.  Again, the time’s so right for him that I don’t feel sad.  He’s excited about his classes, not to mention his freedom.  He has a good network of friends already in place, and Canterbury House (Episcopal Campus Ministry) will be a second home and great source of free food.  And yet, as we set out on the road next week, I feel sure that, in my mind, I’ll be driving the double stroller instead of the van, running fast up and down the sidewalk’s little hills at each driveway, relishing the kids’ squeals of delight.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Worshiping With the Enemy?

If you’re a Kansas City-area Episcopalian, you may remember our local version of the Great Schism, when Christ Church in Overland Park left the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas and became an “Anglican” church (which it always had been anyway).  That was a terribly painful time for Christ Church members nine years ago – a time of division and loss, a time of focusing on differences among people who had been family for years.
Aug. 3 was my first Sunday of vacation.  On vacation Sundays, I always like to visit churches whose approaches to worship I don't usually get to experience.  From a more crass perspective, it’s also a chance to check out the competition.  So, in the pouring rain, I drove to 91st and Nall to worship in a church I’d never attended, neither in its Episcopal nor its “Anglican” manifestation – Christ Church. 
In several ways, it felt very much like St. Andrew’s on a Sunday morning.  About 200 people were gathered in a beautiful, traditionally designed nave.  In the pew racks in front of me were copies of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer (1979), and the Hymnal 1982.  The crowd was a little younger than ours, but not tremendously.  The liturgy was Holy Eucharist, Rite II, using Eucharistic Prayer A.  The Collect of the Day and the Prayers of the People were straight from the BCP
In other ways, it felt more like St. Andrew’s on a Saturday night.  The feel of the liturgy was a lot like Take5, though a few steps further down the path of informal and accessible worship.  All the music was “contemporary” (whatever that means) praise songs, with the lyrics projected on two screens.  The lighting changed during the music to spotlight the performers.  The congregation trailed in as the small band played a few songs before the welcome and announcements.  The presiding minister wore street clothes, putting on a stole for the Eucharistic Prayer. 
Of course, there were some differences that we might not want to import into Take5 or Sunday morning:  a single scripture reading, a 30-minute sermon, and lots of references to substitutionary atonement (Jesus dying on the cross to make satisfaction to the Father for humanity’s offensive choice of sin).  And then there was the difference I enjoyed least:  Other than formal greetings when I walked into the building and at the Peace, no one engaged me.
But what struck me was the fact of our unity even in our choice for division.  If you'd plunked an Episcopalian down in that liturgy knowing none of the back story, he or she would have sworn it was an Episcopal service of Holy Eucharist.  I had no feeling of worshiping with the enemy.  It felt more like being with family members whose choices you don't understand, like a Union soldier watching his brother practicing Confederate military drills.  We’d been trained in the same traditions; we’d just chosen to focus on what divided us instead.  Civil war – family conflict – is always the hardest.
             So I gratefully received the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist at Christ Church Anglican on Sunday.  Was it Jesus’ body and blood?  Was the sacrament “efficacious”?  I’ll leave it to God to sort that out, but I have to say:  It certainly tasted familiar.  It tasted like unity.  As Jesus prayed for his followers, so he yearns for us:  “Holy Father, protect them … so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).