Saturday, May 15, 2010

So, The Backs of Heads or Faces?

Rows and aisles.

As the people enter, they walk up the center aisle and find their seats. When the clock strikes the hour, the musicians come on stage and start playing. Everyone’s attention is drawn to watching the musicians play.

Is it a concert? No, it’s church.

So it’s no wonder, since the place is set up like a theater or concert hall, that the band’s performance is critically judged. And the preacher’s, too. It’s all about what goes on, on stage.

The church I attend now gets away from this “entertain me” expectation by having the musicians along the side up front, not facing the congregation, but worshipping with them. The physical set-up makes such a difference.

When I worked as a religion reporter at the newspaper, I often interviewed pastors who came into town to start a new church. It was going to be different than any other church already here. Walking in to the meeting space — whether it was a church building, an old storefront, a school or restaurant — there, as usual, were the aisles and rows of seats. Looked like any other church to me.

At their meeting place, the people at Solomon’s Porch, a church in Minnesota, sit on couches. The couches are not facing a front, but arranged in groupings. From the way Doug Paggitt, the pastor, describes it in the book, “Reimagining Spiritual Formation,” I picture it like a lobby, like the hotels at Massanetta Springs, Orkney Springs and Hot Springs. When I go into such a place, I love the idea of sitting down in one of those cozy groupings for intimate conversation. So inviting.

House churches are like this, too, where people meet in living rooms. So is Ikon, a community of believers in Northern Ireland that meets in public places, like caf├ęs and pubs. Ikon does not rent a room and set chair in rows. Rather, the people sit around the tables in small groups.

In all these situations, there is no physical place of power in the room. The physical set-up matters in how they do church: the “ministry” comes from the people, from among themselves to each other. They see each other’s faces, not the backs of heads.

That’s not to say there’s no preaching or teaching. There is. Solomon’s Porch, Ikon and the house churches I know all have pastors, although their title may not be pastor, but the gift is there. The gifts are there to teach, to heal, to extend hospitality, to make music.

The difference is there’s no prefabricated form imposed on the people. Rather, the “ministry” comes from the people’s gifts, talents and abilities. The question is not, who is going to teach the women’s Bible study or play music or lead the Sunday school. The question is, what do we as individuals and as a group have to offer to each other, our community and the world?

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit,” wrote Paul, the apostle, to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 12:4-6). “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in everyone.”

Paul then goes on to list numerous gifts of the Spirit that people have: faith, words of knowledge or wisdom, gifts of healing or miracles, discernment. In other places he lists other gifts, of charity, hospitality, help, and the leadership gifts, like pastoring, teaching, preaching, mission, evangelism.

Further on in 1 Cor. 12, Paul talks about how the body of Christ needs each other, that no one person is any more important or less necessary than another. Yet our churches are physically set up to honor the people up front.

So, none of these afore-mentioned groups meets on Sunday morning, either. Does it matter? When I think of Sunday morning, I think, “supposed to” go to church. When I think of Wednesday night or Friday night or Sunday night, I think “want to” be with these people.

Let me clarify: I am not saying that traditional church is not valid. It is. It has its place. But it’s not for everyone, and other forms are equally as valid, equally church. I believe far more believers would be part of a faith community if they did not have to reshape themselves (thus being dishonest to who God made them to be) into a prefabricated traditional structure.

Some of us are not made for aisles and rows.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Are We Two People In One Body?

Have you heard of Jill Bolte Taylor? She’s a Boston neuroanatomist who has been speaking to groups about her experience of having a stroke.

The morning she had her stroke, she lost the use of the left hemisphere of her brain. In the YouTube video, she holds a real brain. The left and right brain are two distinct organs. They communicate with each other, but they process information differently. They think about different things, care about different things, and have very different personalities, she said.

The right brain is concerned with the here and now. It thinks in pictures. It learns through the movement of our body. Information comes in through the senses, she said. It understands what the present moment feels like, looks like, sounds like, smells like. We are energy beings and our right brain connects us to each other.

“In this moment, we are perfect, we are whole, and we are beautiful,” she said.

The left brain is focused on the past, on the information and experience it has stored. It takes the information of the present and connects it with the past and projects it to the future. It thinks in language. It organizes. “It’s that little voice that says, ‘I am,’ ” said Taylor. It makes us an individual, separate from the energy flow around us and separate from each other.

When she had the stroke, Taylor’s “brain chatter” went totally silent. Her mind was silent. Her left brain was hemorrhaging and her right brain was in charge. She felt at one with all the energy in the world. She calls it Lalaland, where she was totally connected to the external world. She felt light, euphoric.

So my friend and I talked about moments when we have achieved this state, sans stroke, in meditation. Later, I thought of other times. It happens a lot when I’m outdoors. Like, when lying on the ground in the woods, gazing up through the canopy of trees to the sky. Or while watching a sunset or moonrise.

It happens in the creative act. In the act of creation, we tap into our other self, surrender to it.

The Port Republic, Va., artist, Jeffery Stockberger, makes a living by painting interiors of homes and businesses. When he goes away to paint murals for a client, he uses the left side of his brain. The customer tells him what to paint, and Stockberger paints it.

Then there is Stockberger’s “real” art, and when he returns home to his studio, he has no confidence in his ability to create something. He diddles around in the studio, then picks up the brush and starts to “wash” the canvas. As he does this, something begins to emerge. And he moves into that creative state.

I experience this in writing. As an article writer, I conduct interviews and gather facts. Then I write an article using the information. It’s so left brain. But when I write a column — a good column, that is — I wake up early and just start writing. Anything. Stroking on the wash. Then, from those random words, something emerges. I have connected with my right brain. Those are the times when it works. Sometimes I cannot make the connection to my right brain, and I write a rational, uninspired dud. Sorry.

“When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist,” writes Madeleine L’Engle. “Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write.”

Just starting — to write, paint, compose — is an act of faith. Taylor spoke of surrender. We surrender in the creative act, in meditation, when we make love, behold beauty, worship.

Too often, church worship is a left brain, rational activity. All the songs are planned, coordinated with the sermon theme. Yet it is our right brain that connects our energy with the pure energy that is God and each other. Jesus said that the true worshippers “worship in spirit and in truth.” That speaks of both left and right brain, of all that we are.

Some years ago, Ken Nafziger interviewed over 100 people across the country about what they experience while singing. People told him they are open to emotions, memories and thoughts they wouldn’t be open to any other way.

“Because of music’s intangible quality you can’t trap it in any way,” Nafziger says. “Music has the ability to take you where you can’t be.”

When we truly worship, we are in that place, like Taylor during her stroke, where we are perfect, we are whole, we are beautiful, and, as the old hymn says, “it is well with my soul.”