worship under pressure
Last weekend was the spring retreat for the high school youth group at the parish where I work, and Saturday night was the traditional (well, traditional since I came on staff -- nobody else had ever done this sort of thing at the parish) multi-sensory worship experience.
The theme for the weekend was "Under Pressure," so the liturgy was designed to give the group opportunity to dig deep into the pressures they experienced so they could offer those to God, and to go wild in imagining what total freedom, freedom in Christ, might be and feel like.
The service took place in a chapel, with a cross set into the wall at the front. Projected on that wall was a slideshow of images (props to Google's advanced image search, iPhoto and its fabulous "Ken Burns effect" for slideshows) evoking pressure, release, tranquility, struggle, and God -- Byzantine icons, traffic signs, and images of technology and nature all figured prominently (I was going for a Koyaanisqatsi feel) -- and the real, physical cross on the wall was at the center and casting its shadow on it. A soundtrack, selected by a very gifted high schooler from my iTunes library after a brief orientation to what effects we were going for in the liturgy, played over my totally indispensible, excellent-sounding, and very portable Creature II speakers. Our DJ chose excellently, including Rachmoninov's Vespers with the Robert Shaw Singers, some great Asian dub music, and (of course), highlights from U2's catalog.
There were also banners, paper, modelling clay in many colors, fingerpaint and fabric paint, and lots of markers around, and the group was free to interact with one another, with the space, and with the materials to express what they were experiencing -- what pressures they felt, and what freedom is like. After about an hour and a half, we gathered in a circle to look at what the group had created and offer the concerns and dreams expressed to God. It was very powerful, and fun, and cool. The clay sculptures in the photo you see are a sample of what the group did in the liturgy.
I can't wait for Youth Sunday, when the whole congregation is going to see some of what came out of that service, as well as an excellent sermon (including liturgical dance) from the graduating seniors, and a service in which just about all of the liturgical roles for layfolk are filled by young people.
fingerpainting and forgiveness
Sparked by discussion about the (not unusual) use of the general confession in the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, folks like Kathryn of Good In Parts and Maggi Dawn have been blogging about confession, repentance, and forgiveness. That conversation got me thinking about something I did while I was being interviewed and auditioned for the parish post I have now (for the moment, anyway). As part of that process, I was asked to do a retreat for the high school youth group on sexuality.
In situations like that, most of the youth pastors I knew did “object lessons” like this one: you give each of two or more teams a tube of toothpaste, and you tell them that the object of the game is to get all of the toothpaste out of the tube. Once the tubes are empty, you give them all toothpicks, and tell them that the first team to get the toothpaste back in the tube wins. They try for a while, and eventually concede that it's impossible. And then the youth pastor says, “Aha! And that's what losing your virginity is like; once you lose it, you can never, ever put all of that mess back in the tube.”
This made me want to retch. Come on ... you think that the God who created the universe, that the Christ at whose name every knee -- in heaven and on earth and under the earth -- is powerless to bring healing if a fifteen-year-old does something foolish on Prom night? I came up with a different activity.
As part of the liturgy of the Eucharist, I invited the group to write on little scraps of paper things for which they sought God's transformation, and to fold up the pieces of paper; I told them that nobody would look at what they had written. I collected the scraps in a large metal bowl and burned them, and then I mixed the ashes in with a pot of white finger paint that was on the altar, at which everyone said, “gross!”
There were other pots of finger paints of various colors on the altar, and the group was then invited to use all of them to make a large mural. At first, everyone said, “Do we have to use the gross one?” but then they got into it, and it was really something. The ashes were in there, and so were all of the colors. People painted their own stories, but also started connecting what they were doing with what others were doing.
So the things they were embarrassed about and sought God's transformation for were in there. You could see the lumpy grey paints in the mix. But they were there in a much larger context, and it was really, really beautiful. The group found the experience so meaningful that they decided to put the painting up on the sanctuary wall behind the altar for Youth Sunday that spring.
To me, that's a lot more like life. Things that we do, whether helpful and healing or foolish and destructive, are out there. It will never be like those things never happened; they are a part of who we are. But it's not like the toothpaste “object lesson,” which suggests that there's no such thing as healing after a mistake.
It's true that we can't erase the past. Forgiveness is not erasure, but REDEMPTION. There's nothing that's so ugly, awful, or toxic that God can't being transformation, building a larger context, a bigger picture which is fundamentally a testament to what's beautiful and just about the world, and the beauty and justice of the God who made it. In the end, our lives -- foolishness, wounds, and all -- are a part of the story of God's love and redemption of the world.