It was a busy weekend on the eve of Lent for fans of spirited singer and spiritually-minded musician Michael Gungor. If you were not on the Gungor or Michael Gungor Twitter feed over the first two days of March, you might have missed the news about a new band, a new record, and a new mini-tour.
As the band called Gungor takes a short break from touring in support of its sonically and lyrically adventurous album I Am Mountain, the family business has reinvented itself with the proverbial “side project” so common with musical visionaries who cannot contain their creative output to just one brand name or band name.
But The Liturgists — a collective that includes Michael’s wife Lisa, brother David, and a host of other supporting musicians and collaborators — are not just another band, and the brand is “the work of the people.” The band’s Vapor EP is a warm and experimental worship text that includes a song, a spoken-word invocation and incantation, and a guided centering prayer meditation. On the group’s Ash Wednesday-week mini-tour, all the shows are free by RSVP and are not really shows as at all — not as indie-consumers even in the contemporary Christian scene have come to expect.
Tuesday was a big day here in Washington, D.C. The president of the United States addressed both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, laying out his State of the Union. In this annual speech, the President lays out his vision of where the country is at, and where we are headed. With great pomp and circumstance, the Commander-in-Chief delivers a message for the whole nation.
Tuesday night was a big moment for my community, too. The D.C. small group of Friends of Jesus gathered for our first small group meeting of 2014. We caught up with one another after many weeks apart. We experienced the story of Acts 2 in the form of a bibliodrama that we acted out together. We shared a time of deep worship and prayer.
In the perfection of hindsight, I see that I was clueless when I knelt before the Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis on a snowy December night 36 years ago and claimed my prize: ordination as a priest.
I had no clue how to serve a congregation. Other than planning Sunday worship — the easiest of all clergy tasks — I was unprepared.
How to make a hospital visit; how to lead a council whose only instinct was not to spend money; how to grow a church; how to comfort the lost and to humble the found; how to hear what the world needed from us — I knew none of it.
Catholic Coalition on Climate Change
This site has education and worship resources tailored to different ages and settings. The “St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor” can be made by individuals or institutions to formalize their intent to change lifestyles and habits to counter climate change.
I’m often asked about what trends I see within Christianity, both good and bad. So in my ongoing effort to help name trends and offer an alternative way of thinking about our faith, here are the five biggest things I’ve seen that tend to keep us from doing our best work as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world today.
1. Church Buildings — Many of our church buildings were established in a time when Christianity was booming numerically in the United States. We could hardly keep up with the growth happening all around us. Understandably, churches popped up where the people were too, drawing many away from their old downtown churches to a more convenient suburban community. But as our numbers have dwindled – combined with the fact the we’re a much more mobile society now that ever before – many churches are becoming monuments to what has long since passed. They have become an albatross rather than an asset.
Mumford and Sons opened with a little introit called "Sigh No More" then a call to worship, "Roll Away Your Stone" and so we did. Understated and, dare I say it, reverent. Polished and yet still "honest" (this is a hipster liturgy, after all), the boys did a great job offering their work to us. They spoke with the audience. Marcus jumped off stage to give a beer to a woman celebrating her 21st birthday and then led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to her. Welcome to a living room that seats 8,500.
The band played most of their published stuff, took a bow, and walked off stage. The encore set is what took it home for me. The stepped away from their usual set-up, unplugged their instruments, stood around a condenser mic and then sang. They dragged us back into devotion. Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" followed by "Sister" sung a cappella did me in. A benediction? Perhaps I'm reaching.
They closed the night with "The Cave" which had people jumping and singing along. You can find a set list here.
After the concert, my Facebook feed lit up with "it was just like church" or "that was church" by several people including some ordained church types in attendance last night. The Vineyard background has not been wasted, not by any stretch. It has been given a new venue, a new form, a venue where the truth can be sung in quiet tones, where no name is taken in vain or otherwise, where wild passion is replaced with festal devotion.
Life is difficult. It can knock you down. Sometimes, an entire nation gets knocked down.
First it was Boston. Some mad man (or men) lays waste to one of America’s most hallowed sporting events — the Boston Marathon. Sidewalks that should have been covered with confetti were covered in blood.
Then it was the quintessential small Texas town of West. Populated by hearty Czech immigrants, folks in West worked hard in their shops, bakeries, and fertilizer plant until the plant exploded. A magnitude-2.1 on the Richter scale, witnesses compared it to a nuclear bomb. Dozens are feared dead.
In the nation’s capital, we had the bitter realization that something is broken that will not be easily repaired. A commonsense proposal that emerged from the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, background checks to prevent convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, fell prey to Washington gridlock. None of the Newtown proposals — the ban on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets a gun can hold or expanded background checks — could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.
Finally, there were the ricin-laced letters sent to a Republican senator and the president.
I’ll preface this piece my saying I know I am making some broad generalizations based on gender, and that there are always exceptions to every trend. But despite that, I do think there are some cultural trends that can offer us some useful insight.
Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed that, of those left within the walls of most churches, the majority still hanging in there are women. Some, like the advocates of so-called Masculine Christianity, see this as a crisis. The Christian faith and its symbols are becoming softened, feminized, compromised into being something other than what they were meant to be.
Granted, when you take a faith whose principal authors historically have been men and then place that same faith in the hands of women, some things will inevitably change. Personally, I welcome the exploration of other, feminine expressions of the divine and values such as embodied spirituality that many female Christian leaders value. But aside from these assets, I think that women bring something far more critical to institutional religion.
Without them, it may cease to exist.
I empathize with people fleeing the local church. Churches can be battlefields instead of harbors, pits of condemnation or politics rather than wells of living water.
But the endless search for something “new” has trumped the life-changing story the body of Christ has nurtured and passed on for 2,000 years. This transforming story is the story the churches enacted weekly in Word and Sacrament before they forgot their original vocation as shelters of truth, life, and light amidst lies, death, and darkness. There were four revealed ways Jesus was present at the center of their public gatherings. These ways have been lost in too many places but are waiting to be rediscovered. More on that in a moment.
A young woman, a house church attendee, told me she longs for solid pastoral guidance, a message prepared weekly by an authoritative teacher, for worship that places Jesus Christ at the exact center of a public space where everyone is welcome, a place where she can bring her disbelieving friends whose lives are not yet transformed by self-sacrificial Love, a place where they can speak openly and honestly about where their lives still remain isolated from a holy God, a place of worship that does not lean on any one person's (or her personal) understanding and articulation of the Gospel but on the collective wisdom of the body of Christ.
It's been a very musical weekend.
Pictured at left is a Foster 7-string guitar. It's just like a traditional 6-string acoustic, but with the added rumble of a low-b string. It's an interesting beast to play. Lovely, really. I like that extra resonance in the low end, plus, if truth be told, I like singing with it. Here is a little recording from Soundcloud. I recorded the file below on my phone. Any tinnyness is purely because of the phone.
I used to be in a fantasy league, but the fanaticism of the whole thing wore me out. The guys would gather online for an evening-long draft event, debate rules ad nauseam, and haggle over trades through the wee hours. I considered myself to be a fan, but these guys had practically made, well, a religion out of fantasy sports.
I was reading a piece today by Bruce Reyes Chow about what we Christians might learn from fantasy sports, and it got me thinking. One of the most interesting things being in the fantasy league did for me was that it totally changed how I watched the games. I would turn on games I never would have had interest in before, just to see how my selected running back performed. I even found myself rooting against my own favorite teams once in a blue moon when it served my fantasy team and didn’t affect the outcome of the actual game.
The whole experience drove my wife crazy, partly because of all the time it took, but also because the way I engaged sports was so different that, even if we were watching the same game, it was as if we saw two completely different things.
We’re in the middle of a similar kind of shift in the west with respect to organized religion. While folks within the walls of church may be intent primarily on keeping the institutions placed under their care alive, a growing majority of people outside the doors don’t really care about the denominational logo over the entryway, the name inscribed on the stone sign by the street or the long, rich history of all the congregation has meant to the community.
Maybe religion really is the opiate of the masses – just not the way Karl Marx imagined.
A University of Washington study posits that worship services at megachurches can trigger feelings of transcendence and changes in brain chemistry – a spiritual “high” that keeps congregants coming back for more.
“We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That’s why we say it’s like a drug,” said James Wellman, an associate professor of American religion who co-authored the study.
The study, “‘God is like a drug’: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches” was presented on Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver.
The second Wild Goose Festival has just ended. I left a piece of my heart in the hills of North Carolina. Ahead is the third WG fest at the end of August in Portland OR. And then there will be next year and the next... The White House sent the Rev. Derrick Harkins (faith outreach director for the Democratic National Committee) to observe and talk with some of us this year. So I guess WG got noticed.
Last year's WG was the first and there were about 1,300 of us there. This year we were closing in on 2000-plus. And now WG is West Coast bound too. The names of the speakers Jim Wallis and all the rest (I spoke 3 times) added up to a "draw" along with the big name musical performers. But the heart of the festival wasn't in the events but in the conversations.
For me the highlight of the festival was the fact that there was no wall of separation between us speakers and performers and everyone there. I spent 4 days talking with lots of people from all over America and other places too, about ideas but also about very personal subjects. I met Ramona who was the cook at the Indian food stand and found she is ill and has no health insurance and I was able to connect her with a friend who knew a friend at the WG fest locally to help her get the full checkup she needs. I could do that because the festival was full of the sort of people who help, love and care so for once there was someone to call.
And I watched the sneak preview of the movie Hellbound that will be released this fall. It happens that I'm one of the people interviewed in the movie but that's not why I say it is one of the best films I've ever seen. We watched it at 11 PM and talked until 2 AM. People were just stunned.
I talk to folks a lot about what role the church should have in contemporary life in serving people. There’s the trend of “third space” ministry, getting out of the four walls of the church building and meeting people in different, typically “secular” contexts.
One defining trait of postmodern life is the blurring of previous boundaries. Just like work now can go with us beyond the cubicle, people think about faith in different terms than just sitting in a sanctuary on Sunday morning. There are entire ministries that do all of their work online, broadcasting services, or recording them for people to view on demand. There are blogs (like mine) whose authors consider what they do to be a ministry, though not in the typical sense of the word.
Holy Week and Jesus’ Ways for Peace
Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday and the week that follows — Holy Week — are times for Christians to remember and share the biblical stories of Jesus’ teachings and actions for peace. These stories encourage us to pray and work for peace, especially in light of those who are now threatening a new war with Iran. “Nine Years of War in Iraq: A Sojourners Retrospective” is a powerful reminder that churches need to do more.
Last year Sojourners posted a new hymn for Palm Sunday with peace themes, “Lord, What a Parade!” by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.
This year the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in North Carolina commissioned Carolyn to write a new hymn about Jesus’ nonviolent actions and compassion at the time of his arrest.