Thursday, July 31, 2008

We're STILL settling for too little, even in Worship

I spent last week as chaplain at our Episcopal Church camp, Camp Washington, with children age 9-12. I returned wonderfully exhausted. The campers for whom I was chaplain were there for a week of the arts - writing, drawing and painting, and dance. I participated in all these areas - dance, at age 63, with my knees already shot from years of dance in my youth, was the most challenging, since even now I can't keep from dancing but it wreaks havoc with my legs. I learned to salsa, which puts more strain on the knees than the dance the young people were learning over the week, but it was worth it!

I learned excellent techniques for jump-starting my writing when writer's block hits. I even started a young people's "chapter book" on Billy the Spacegoat ( the class decided on the theme!).

I drew, painted, charcoaled, pasteled. It was a very fruitful week.

The highlight, however, was of course the kids. Challenging, broad spectrum of behaviors, gifted. Reminds me of how tired I get when people say "Children are the future..." of whatever. They are not the future. They are not our future. They are not the future of the church. They are, here and now.

They are themselves. They are the church. They are the world. To say they are the future gives us unwarranted permission to set them aside until they grow up and take over. To put them in Sunday School classrooms, often in the basement, during church because they cannot "behave" properly in church - to which I am tempted to use a British epithet, "bollocks".

And so, off I go again, dreaming of the church that could be, if only I could figure out how to break through the decades of conditioning of church people who see Sunday worship as their quiet time, as personal time, private time with God.

I blame the years of Morning Prayer as the primary worship in the days of my youth! When I was in elementary school, we worshiped at All Saints in Millington, New Jersey. George Rath - Mr. Rath we called him - was the minister - we did not use the word priest in those days. Morning Prayer was the norm on Sunday. Holy Communion, we called it, was once a month. Morning Prayer is appropriate "private time" with God, private in community.

Holy Communion, Eucharist, is not private time. This is the big Thanksgiving Dinner, the feast, the party. The whole family is there. It is noisy and even raucous. Children are appropriately present in all their messiness and frankness and antsiness and spontaniety.

Now that Eucharist is the norm for the principal worship of the week, there is no service, at least in the churches which I have attended since 1981, for that private worship time. And the people of my generation and earlier have been conditioned by Morning Prayer services to view all church attendance as private time with God, sedate, proper, well behaved, orderly.

And so, I'll be frank with you - children really are not welcome at Episcopal Church services of worship - unless of course they can behave themselves.

The service of Eucharist is the primary formational instrument for shaping Episcopalian Christians in the church. It needs to start with infancy and baptism. The child needs to experience being at the Thanksgiving Table every week. They need to experience the joy of being part of the family of Jesus, who ordered that the children be allowed to come to him in the midst of the adults and put no restrictions on their behavior in doing so.

Well, this is another of those things, like in the previous post, which I would like to be part of before I retire or die - the primary worship (not relegated to "The Family Service" or "The Children's Chapel" but the primary service of worship) as the entire family gathered around the table - not in polite, school-like rows of pews but around the table - singing, dancing, telling stories to one another about Jesus and the prophets and Jacob the Trickster, sharing what their week has been like, where they have seen Jesus and crying together over the parts where Jesus has been absent, and then, all together, shouting, yes shouting, the Great Thanksgiving, lifting up the gifts of God, the bread and wine, and dividing it among themselves and feasting. Children might pay attention, they might be playing or running or dancing over in some other part of the room, they might all of a sudden hear what the priest is saying and ask the crucial question, "You mean, he DIED?!!!!" for which everything would stop and we could have a teaching moment - all of it is still part of the celebration.

And trust me, you have no idea how much children absorb when you think they are not paying attention.

Is there anyone out there, reading this, who also hungers for worship like this? How do I find you? How do we get together?

And as for that private time with God, well, this fall I'm initiating "Practicing Prayer", 45 minutes after Eucharist, once a month, for that very thing - private time, in a group, with God, practicing prayer, learning ways to pray, on an adventure together toward God.

As a priest I'm supposed to take people as they are, care for them, not rock the boat, because church people have become what they are honestly; they are what they have been taught and conditioned to be. I get that.

At the same time, I have this hunger, this dream, this vision, and I cannot believe that such a dream will have to die with me without my ever living it out in a community that will embrace it, mess and noise and all.


Barbara said...

It WILL be rocking the boat. And maybe that has to happen. Some of this will be a hard adjustment for me. On the other hand, I hunger and thirst for more meaningful worship. And as I remember, last Sunday dancing felt like the right thing to be doing. SO, where do we start?

revLois Keen said...

We start with moving the Table down to the floor when I return in September.

(Unless John wants to do it while I'm away!)

Bude VanDyke said...

As a middle and upper Episcopal Boarding and Day school chaplain, I have to say...Amen!!! But, I do like the idea of providing that quiet, still space for those who aren't at the same place. I am teaching a summer continuing ed. course for retired folks at a western University this summer...there are those in the group who do not like others asking questions or making comments as the class proceeds. There must be a large sense of being overwhelmed by all the world is throwing at some of us that causes us to need to control the spontenaity of others.

revLois Keen said...

Well done, Bude. Exactly. I was schooled in finding that quiet place for myself, through the discipline of contemplation. But most of my fellows are not accustomed to making that place for themselves.

So for me it's a twofold work: to provide that place, and to teach how to make that place for oneself. Typical Anglican - both/and!

Thank you for the comment.

suzanne said...

In my church, we recently had a priest (an interim) who 'rocked the boat' during worship so many times, I went to church just to see what was going to happen. It was so refreshing to step out of the box. The congregation is very mixed in age groups, so some loved it and others, well.. maybe not so much. the kids would go off to childrens chapel, but they still occasionally participated in the worship.

Now, our priest is a good preacher, with a good delivery and sense of humor, but is strictly a prayer book kind of guy, and worship has gone back to being very staid.

Just do it, I don't think you or they will be disappointed.

FranIAm said...

Hi Rev Lois! As you know, I am from across the Tiber, but in our wonderfully progressive diocese.

Our pastor came to us about 18 months ago. One of his things is that he actually asks people with crying kids to keep them in the church when they start to walk out.

Then he will say something like "that's what we sound like to God!"

Everyone laughs, but many are uncomfortable and I often hear folks say the old "when I was a kid that screaming wouldn't be tolerated in church!"

Which of course may be that person's problem, on the days I can find some compassion for them.

I focused on the noisy kid part, but this was a truly great post. And that camp- wow, it sounded great.

So as St Teresa of Avila said, there is a time for porridge and a time for partridge.

And the same goes for worship - there is a time for silence but there is too a time for joyful and unbridled noise.