Ramon Casas and Pere Romeu on a Tandem

November 18, 2010

Although I have never ridden tandem, if I were to do so, this is how I would want to look: defiantly elegant, fully engaged with the ride but allowing a condescending sideways glance, dressed in pure white despite the grit and gloom of the day.

I came across a cheap copy of this 1897 painting  (which in its original is approximately seven by eight feet) and liked it so much that I stuck it in a plastic frame. It sits on a bathroom counter as a constant reminder of the archetypal cyclist. The cycling costumes mark Ramon Casas—the pipe-smoking captain—and Pere Romeu as distinctive personages. If I could find classic duds like these, I think that I would toss my black wool-lycra blend and henceforth ride in like array.

Of course, Casas and Romeu had no choice but dress like this. Everyone else did too. And as leaders of the Catalan art movement known as modernisme, with many Paris connections, they had to dress according to their place in society, especially when making their entrance into the city off in the distance. In this attire, it would not be inappropriate for them to appear in Els Quatre Gats, the elegant bar in the center of Barcelona over which they presided. (Their establishment was one of the first to mount a one-man show of the work of Picasso.)

I don’t know anything about their experience as cyclists, but in this picture they are fully in charge of their vehicle, which appears to be a single-speed bicycle. They would have to be in full control in order to ride it well. The absence of brakes could be a way to strip the painting of all but the essential details, or it may be a sign that their tandem is a fixed-gear bike depending upon back pedaling to slow it down or stop. Although the handlebar bag seems bulky and in the way, the saddlebag is sleek and exactly right for people who, like me, believe in traveling light.

Post-Partisan Preaching in a Mainline Church

November 15, 2010

It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).

The Sunday following another troubled American election was a good day to worship at the Castleton United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The sermon that day was a strong declaration of the Christian gospel in a manner that had immediate relevance to  issues at the center of the political debate. Yet, this was done in a manner that transcends partisan politics and prepares the way for serious Christian conversation.

Furthermore, this sermon was set in a straightforward, spiritually alive celebration of Holy Communion. All in all, the forty-five minute service of worship was a health-giving alternative to the deadening, partisan commentary that has dominated the public media during this election season. It demonstrates a form of “prophetic preaching” that avoids confrontation and can lead to the transforming of attitudes and behavior.

Once located in Castleton village far out in the country, this church has successively ridden the demographic waves that have transformed its natural parish. With its historic site now covered by a freeway exchange, the congregation occupies a strategic location with Indiana’s capital city over its left shoulder and one of the city’s richest suburban sprawls over its right. A second worship center provides a focal point in the  more distant population base. On weekends, six services of worship are conducted with four distinct modes of celebration.

The 9:40 service at the main campus follows a format and uses music and ceremonial style that are consistent with long-standing patterns in mainline Protestant churches. It includes primary leadership by the church’s senior pastor, music led by organ and large choir, and a comfortably filled worship space with attendance pushing toward 400 (according to my eyeball estimate). The skillful use of projected images made it possible for congregants to participate fully in singing hymns and responsive portions of the liturgy without the need of hymnals or paper orders of worship (although both were available).

On November 7, following the highly-charged 2010 bi-election, the sermon seemed to ignore the harsh rhetoric of previous weeks and the barrage of political commentary that had dominated all of the news reports. Instead, it focused attention upon an incident that happened at the church in Antioch described in Acts 11. This was, the preacher suggested, the first time that the church had found it advantageous to “rebrand” itself. The reason seemed to be that the disciples felt the need to accent their relationship with Jesus and the way of life that he exemplified, which was to love God, love one another, and care for the world.

Noting that at least 25% of the American people have an unfavorable attitude toward Christians because of their anti-intellectual and narrow ideas, attitudes, and practices, the preacher proposed that we live in a time when we too might consider rebranding so that our Christ-likeness would be more evident. Rather than summarize the sermon (which can be accessed on the church’s website), I want to summarize characteristics that made it effective and that are worthy of emulation.

First, the pastor’s style was personal, conversational (but with push and polish), and extemporaneous (but with a full manuscript as part of his preparation). Second, the sermon was obviously rooted in a biblical text and supported by other biblical references. Third, the preacher used recent studies of American religious ideas and attitudes, intertwining Bible and current culture in a carefully constructed, polished piece of public prose.

Fourth, he framed the religious issues that are at the heart of current electoral politics (without any reference to them), but he left it to his hearers to connect the dots and draw their conclusions. The sermon was declarative rather than hortatory, which means that the hearers were neither condemned nor pressured. Clearly, however, they were paying attention and would leave with much to think about.

Fifth, the sermon was fully integrated into the congregation’s monthly celebration of the eucharist. The other parts of the service, including the eucharistic prayer, were thematically consistent with the ideas in the sermon. This connection was made explicit at the close of the sermon and at the invitation to the table a little later. The pastor-celebrant declared that whatever their politics and cultural convictions, Christians are called to follow Jesus, do the kind of things that he did, and bear the name Christian in ways that honor him. We come to the table because of Christ’s love that transcends and overcomes all that separates us.

On any post-election Sunday, this is a good message for all of us to receive. It would serve us well on pre-election Sundays, too.

Traveling through the open windows of time

November 10, 2010

Since completing the PAC Tour Grand Canyon bicycle trip, I have reshaped the columns first posted on KeithWatkinsHistorian into a more complete travel narrative. It includes a new introduction and material that is not in the original postings. The new introduction and a link to the full essay follow. I hope that you enjoy the read.

The Colorado Plateau is a high, dry, desolate land, with a scattered population that attracts vast numbers of sightseers and scientists year after year. The best known attraction, of course, is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River—a 275-mile long breach in the earth, which from rim to river is more than 5,000 feet deep. From viewpoints along both rims, the canyon displays layer upon layer of rock—as many as forty discernable bands.

Although there are many tones and hues, the dominant color in this iron-oxide world is red. Tourists revel in the rich tapestry of colors and shapes, but geologists exult in the record these layers give of the geological processes that created this plateau, its mountains, and rivers.

Two hundred seventy five miles east of Grand Canyon Village, by roads winding through the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, a second canyon also attracts sightseers and scientists. In comparison with its grander neighbor, Canyon de Chelly is a modest place. Instead of multiple layers of granite and sandstone, it features layers of human habitation, beginning with a hunter-gatherer culture, which anthropologists date from 2500 to 200 BCE.

Then come the Basketmaker culture, the Ancestral Puebloan, the Hopi, and the Navajo. From charred remains of campfires and dwellings, long preserved evidences of ancient agriculture and hunting, complex dwellings high on cliff walls, designs on rock walls, and the stories remembered by the people, a 4,000-year record of human life is on display for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

A phrase used by the National Park Service in a brochure describing Canyon de Chelly can accurately be applied to both of these remarkable gashes in the Colorado Plateau. They are “open windows” into the history of the people who have lived since ancient times and into the even more ancient land that has sustained them.

There was a time when the only way to travel through this land was by walking. When horses came with the Spanish conquistadors, transportation processes and many aspects of cultural interaction were transformed. With railroads and then automobiles ever-greater speed and ever-larger multitudes of visitors came to this high plateau. Some will declare, however, that the best way of all—faster and easier than on foot or horseback, slower and more satisfying than by train or car—is by bicycle. That’s what this essay describes: a bicycle journey through the open windows of time.

To read the rest of this travel narrative, click here:  Open Windows of Time.

Using music to help progressive congregations progress

November 8, 2010

First Christian Church of Portland, Oregon, stands firmly fixed as a progressive Protestant church and for some 130 years has been part of the city’s cultural district. Its longtime minister of music was considered to be a highly skilled interpreter of Bach, and its Sanctuary Choir regularly sang music by the most preeminent classical composers. As far back as people can remember, the traditional Gloria Patri and Doxology, which have been standard elements in traditional Protestant worship, have been part of this congregation’s Sunday service.

On Reformation Sunday, 2010, however, First Christian Church followed Luther’s example and broke tradition, not by nailing theological propositions to the door but by celebrating Gospel Music Sunday. The hoped-for consequence will be a fruitful conversation within the congregation about music in worship. Most people know that churches today cannot continue as Bach-Beethoven-Brahms congregations, nor will churches in the progressive tradition adopt Black Gospel as their sound. Experiencing a significantly different kind of music, however, can foster transformation.

Sundays like this stimulate comments that can help the worship team understand the attitudes and ideas of congregants. Consider these comments that I heard in the days following Gospel Music Sunday: “I like the energy the music brought to the service. People in the choir really seemed to be rocking. Clapping doesn’t seem right on most Sundays but today it fit right into things. The choir director (a music professor in nearby Portland State University) made really good moves.  I wish they had included Fanny Crosby. I stayed home. If I wanted that kind of music, I’d go to a church where that’s what they sing. I love to sing, but I couldn’t do it in this service because even the congregational hymns were done by the choir. When the combo started the communion music, the style reminded me of bar music. The combo (keyboard, bass, and percussion) added a lot to the service.” By listening to what the people say, worship leaders have a better idea of how to move forward in the process of transforming worship.

Occasional use of other significant musical styles generates more understanding and broadens the congregation’s religious repertoire of music for worship. Historic genres such as Anglican Chant or the Shaped-Note tradition could be included. (First Christian recently hosted a Saturday Shaped-Note sing, but a full Sunday service of this music would be quite an experience.) Contemporary musical genres, across a wide range, could be explored. Cross-over music that begins with classical motifs and morphs into an entirely new sound would be especially interesting and useful. Serious electronic music would be a challenging sound! Gradually, the congregation is abled to develop an enriched and more diverse sound in its own regular way of worshiping God.

Careful use of differing musical styles highlights the various ways that music and spirituality are intertwined. Music shapes our experience of time, intensifies the emotional aspects of our words and actions, and connects us to one another in subtle but very strong ways. Even more important is its capacity to lead us into a kind of altered consciousness in which we sense the presence of the spiritual depths of life. Most congregants are tuned to experience a fairly limited range of spiritual modalities. A broader range of music can expand the broad band of our connection with God

Special music Sundays can help worship leaders understand and improve factors that are important in all services, including those in which everything is familiar to congregants. At its best, worship music, whatever its genre, incorporates the congregation in the performance. In churches where worship is alive, the congregation is the most important musical component. Furthermore, on special music Sundays, musicians and congregants have to make special preparations in order to perform the music in an authentic and skilled manner. Similar attention to how the music is performed on ordinary Sundays can strengthen worship at all times.

Experiences with various forms of worship can open the door to other changes in the way that worship is done. Whatever the liturgical form and style, however, the objective is always the same: to worship God in ways that are rooted in the culture, vital in the hearts of the people, and consistent with the deeply ingrained character of the congregation. Congregations that have been shaped by progressive patterns of thought and life will continue to interact with popular culture in ways similar to how they have done for generations past.

The goal for special music Sundays is to help these progressive congregations continue to progress.

Spiritual journey of a recumbent rider

November 4, 2010

In the winter of 2009, I spent a week bicycling through the warm sunshine of southeastern Arizona. One of the other cyclists on this PAC Tour event was Susan Reed riding a short wheelbase recumbent bicycle. The following summer, I met Susan at the beginning of PAC Tour’s transcontinental ride—from Portland to Savannah, Georgia, in exactly one month’s time. Susan is a powerful cyclist!

What I have learned only recently is that she took up cycling despite a series of traumas to her back. Furthermore, she uses cycling as a way of understanding life’s challenges and responding to them creatively. She is also a blogger, and her ideas are marked by a strong spirit and wisdom. Last month, Susan posted a movie that describes her transcontinental ride. It is a good introduction to the deeply satisfying character of cycling.

Susan’s blog has other descriptions and resources. I hope that you will check it out!

Portland Transcontinental–The Movie

Portland Transcon: The Movie

Click on the link to view the movie.

My first back injury occurred in the early 1960‘s as a young teenager. My back disease seemed to be a debilitating combination of genetics, running for 13 years, complicated child births, a major auto accident, and the Western World life style characterized by a lot of sitting.

In 1990 I re-injured my back and began an eleven-year recovery process including multiple back surgeries and complicated physical rehabilitation.


Progressive church goes gospel

November 1, 2010

Since its founding in 1878, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been located at the corner of Park Avenue and Columbia Street in downtown Portland, Oregon. Once a community of prestigious homes, the immediate surroundings now are described by city-posted street signs as Portland’s “cultural neighborhood.” Portland State University, founded in the late 1940s by a member of the church, is a couple of blocks to the south. The Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society are across the street to the north and within easy walking distance are theatres for the performing arts, including the Oregon Symphony.

For at least sixty years, First Christian Church has followed the trajectory of many downtown Protestant churches: pastors whose message was shaped by liberal theology, active engagement in community service, music led by disciplined choirs and pipe organ, and worship in which all things were done “decently and in order,” to use the biblical admonition (1 Corinthians 14:40).

At the time when many mainline Protestant churches were developing what was called “a contemporary service,” First Christian in Portland developed its own version of what might now be called “a something other service.” A weekly planning session of laity and pastor, no organ, an informal choir called “The Joyful Noise,” child-friendly ceremonial, informal singing rather than the stolid hymns from the standard hymnal.

In these later years, the two services have continued, although the “something otherness” of the earlier service has gradually slipped away. While the 9:00 and 11:00 services still have clearly recognizable differences, the general tone is much the same and the two assemblies are more alike than different. As in many other mainline churches, “contemporary” and “traditional” no longer serve as useful ways of distinguishing between the two liturgical gatherings. One service represents how worship has been conducted for a very long time, and the other is worship the way it has been done for a good many years.

Despite the vibrancy of the church’s setting and its modest growth in recent years, many people in the congregation recognize that the time has come to renew its liturgical life. A recent forum on worship brought more than a hundred congregants together for a vigorous discussion of worship at First Christian Church. The pastoral staff, music team, and worship committee now have some of the data that can be used to develop ways of worship that are connected to the past and at the same time embrace the future.

But old habits are hard to change, which brings us to Sunday, October 31, 2010. Because it was the fifth Sunday of the month, this was one of those days when the two congregations worshiped in one service. In the past, both the Joyful Noise and the Sanctuary Choir participated, but the pattern of the 11:00 o’clock service was followed. People liked the energy of the larger assembly, but the questions concerning worship renewal were left unaddressed.

This first combined service since the worship forum was advertised as “Gospel Music Sunday.” All of the music in the service, beginning with the prelude (“Going Up Yonder”), continuing with the introit (“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”), hymns (including “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”), anthem (“Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory”), communion music (“Calvary”), and concluding with the postlude (“What a Fellowship”), was chosen from contemporary Gospel music. Even traditional liturgical music such as the Doxology was performed with “soul.”

The director of the sanctuary choir, who is a member of the music faculty of Portland State University, directed the church’s combined choirs. He enlisted the instrumental combo (bass, keyboard, and drums) who played for the service and had invited musicians from an African American congregation to coach the choir and its director in performance style. Their goal was to help the First Christian musicians sing and play with “soul,” and on Sunday morning that coaching showed through in spirited performances. The congregants participated with a warmth and energy that seemed consistent with the energizing music led by choir and combo.

Next Sunday, however, the two services will revert to their default mode. Some may say that everything will stay the same despite the energy and interesting properties of the music used on this one Sunday. Then again, Gospel Music Sunday may be a day when this progressive congregation begins the conversation that leads to worship at 9:00 and 11:00 that is genuinely “something other,” something that breaks through conventional worship and conventional Christianity.

The conversation that can lead to transformation is one that congregants have with themselves as they compare what they ordinarily do in worship with what they experience on special occasions like “Gospel Music Sunday.” As someone who regularly participates in worship at First Christian Church in Portland, I have some ideas about how that conversation might go. As someone interested in developing alternative ways of worship in progressive churches everywhere. I hope that this conversation will stimulate similar discussion in many places.

More about that next time.