A Whiff of the Divine: Lent at Tiny Church

Here at Tiny, our focus in worship this Lent has been the last week of Jesus’ life. Using Borg and Crossan’s book, we’ve been look at the stories leading up to the crucifixion. The sermon series is called Journey to the Cross.

The ‘journey’ bit ties into another initiative here at Tiny, the Journey to Jerusalem. We are encouraging folks in our church to walk, run, bike, etc., then submit their mileage each week. We’re trying to make it to Jerusalem before Easter!

So far so good. We set a modest goal of 100 miles a week, which when multiplied by 10, will hopefully get us there. But the initiative has been so popular we are using a factor of 5 instead… and we may still make it to Jerusalem and back. Check it out:


Just a small way we’re trying to encourage health and wholeness here at the church.

And yes… as the map indicates, we walk on water here.

I’m also making an effort to change up the look of worship each week, primarily on the communion table, but also through the kids’ activities in the Upper Room. Of course I haven’t thought to take pictures—sorry, I’ll do better!—but I’ll describe what I’ve done in case others want to adapt:


The first week, we looked at Jesus’ “cursing” of the fig tree (Peter’s word, not Jesus’, which I talk about in the sermon). For that Sunday, I had a black piece of fabric laying flat on the table with a vase with several nice branchy twigs sticking out of it, sort of on the left, with the communion elements towards the right. I had a long piece of purple fabric that I snaked around the table, with one side wrapping around the vase, then curved around the communion chalice/plate and hanging off the  front. (By the way, you need to experiment with levels when you do focal point stuff. You can use books and things underneath the cloth to create some variations in height.)

We invited the kids to do this simple activity (sans leaves) in the Upper Room, which was meant to represent the withered fig tree:

Paper Bag Fall Tree2

The kids took these home to have on their dinner tables during Lent.


This past weekend was the anointing of Jesus. I used a different multi-colored cloth for the table and put a large glass bottle (actually a decanter) on the table, along with a copy of the St. John’s Bible (which I talked about in the sermon), propped open to the gospel of Mark. I also included this figure I got on a trip to Mexico during seminary:

photo copy

We’re fortunate at Tiny that we’re, well, tiny, so people can see what’s on the table pretty well. Also, folks came forward during the prayers of the people and we did an anointing with oil, so they could see the table elements even better.

For the kids in the Upper Room, I gave them a bit of nard (the oil mentioned in the story), which is smelly stuff. They were invited to make cards for each person in the church service, using construction paper, markers, stickers, etc. I asked them to put a little smear of nard on each paper so people would have the scent as a reminder of this story of extravagant love.

The children did a wonderful job of this, and stood with me at the door following the service, handing them out. Most of the notes were small, but Caroline did do an oversized one for Robert and me:


It has been a very good Lent so far.

Friday Link Love: Waves, High-School Heroes, and Embracing Limitations



Wave Photographs by Kenji Croman — Colossal

Obligatory Colossal Link:

Many more at the link…


Cross Country Runner Saves Life, Finishes Race — KnoxNews

The young man is a trained lifeguard. He came upon a fellow runner in medical distress and stopped to help:

In the midst of this, a woman named Jessica Chandler ran up. She’s the mother of another Germantown runner and had known the fallen runner for years.

“Honestly, I was in shock,” she said. “But this guy was taking complete control. He was like, ‘You — call 911. You — go get some ice.’ He turned him on his side. I thought he was a parent or an EMT.”

At this point, the victim was shaking, his body seizing again and again.

“This is normal,” said Goldstein. “I’ve seen this before.”

Note: Goldstein had actually never seen this before. But he didn’t see the point in panicking. He was calm, reassuring everyone involved.

Many parables of non-anxious leadership in that bolded statement.

If you ask him, Goldstein will tell you it’s the slowest race he’s ever run. It’s also his personal best.



Religion, Science and Easy Answers — NPR

Everyone knows that cell-phones work because of radio waves. Sure it’s complicated and, in general, few of us really get it. But we all know that cellphones work because the natural world is built in simultaneously subtle and complicated ways.

What is remarkable about the fundamentalist perspective, however, is an unwillingness to see spiritual life in the same light. Instead of seeing subtlety and complication that require a lifetime of intense dedicated effort — a genuine personal investigation of the world — to understand, everything is reduced to magic-marker outlines with unwavering, absolute answers….

While writing on science and religion, however, I have met lots of really amazing folks who are quite serious about their spiritual lives. They have come from a diversity of faith backgrounds: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and more. Some of these people were highly educated, some where not. What struck an atheist like me about these folks was their dedication to the investigation.

Fighting back with nuance in a sloganeering world…


Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect — Newsweek

Yes, yes, yes. A worthy follow-up to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent tour de force, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Debora Spar writes:

So what, then, are we to do? One possibility, of course, is simply to give up; to acknowledge women’s destinies as something different from men’s and stop complaining about it. This, however, hardly seems fair, either to the generations who fought so hard for women’s freedoms, or to those who have not yet had the opportunity to give these freedoms a try. A second possibility, trumpeted most recently in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her examination of why women still can’t have it all, is to keep fighting the proverbial fights—for better day care, better family leaves, more flex time at work and co-parenting at home. These are all important goals. Yet they will never be sufficient to address the underlying issues.

This is because many of the problems that plague women now are not due to either government policy or overt discrimination. They cannot be resolved solely by money and they are not caused only by men. Instead, the problems we face are subtler. They come partly from the media, partly from society, partly from biology, and partly from our own vastly unrealistic expectations. To address them, we must go beyond either policy solutions or anger with the patriarchy. We must instead forge partnerships with those around us, and begin to dismantle the myth of solitary perfection.


The Tricky Art of the Children’s Sermon — United Methodist Reporter

A good point/counterpoint on the efficacy of children’s sermons in worship. Most forward-thinking pastors I know have already done away with them or would dearly like to. I get the impulse. But I still do them. I try to avoid interactive questions that set kids up to be entertaining*. My approach is to tell the biblical story so that they’re ready to go upstairs to the Upper Room for the remainder of worship, or to Sunday School, where they engage the story they just read. It’s a way of setting up the rest of the morning’s experience for them.


Videos on the Creative Process — 99U

What a treasure trove of wisdom. I’ve watched a few of the shorter ones, and others I’ve seen before, but I might make it a goal to watch the others during my time away for CREDO. I leave in a week and will spend a few days with my BFF before it starts. Squee.

Here’s a specific vid I liked, about the importance of constraints in fostering creativity:

I’ve had two different people recently ask me to help them think about the process of writing a book. One of their concerns is how to get it done with everything else going on in life. I’ve tried to explain how that busyness can benefit them. Assuming you have enough motivation to start, of course–if you’re lukewarm about doing it, the rest of life will conspire against you. But if you just have to write that book, you will find a way. And the limitations will help you. At the end of the process you will have an imperfect thing on paper, rather than a perfect thing in your brain and nowhere else.


*My favorite children’s sermon story: I was talking about Jesus’ parable of the yeast and I’d brought some yeast from home. I showed it to the kids and said, “What is yeast used to make?” One of them piped up, “BEER!”

Yes, that was my child.

Friday Link Love

Henri, Paw de Deux — YouTube

My friend Jay described this as “the definitive cat video.” I agree. This wins the Internet:



Diary of a Death Diva — Ashley-Anne Masters

Ashley-Anne is a gifted pastor, writer and co-author of Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman. She writes with a great combination of compassion and sass, particularly from her experience as a hospital chaplain. This post is a list of what not to say to someone who has lost a child:

“God needed another angel.” (I don’t even know what that means) Many people who have lost loved ones experience feeling the spirit of said loved one after their death, either at a family gathering, in nature, or in hearing a favorite song. Some even refer to those feelings as feeling like they have an angel with them, which is beautiful and comforting for them. However, again, none of us can speak to what God needs, and if God does in fact need more angels, I’m confident God can make that happen apart from the death of children.



David Foster Wallace on Worship — Aaron Belz

Aaron was a highlight at the Festival of Faith and Writing, and his blog is eclectic and fun. This is an excerpt from Wallace’s famous speech “This Is Water,” which he gave at Kenyon College in 2005.

…In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

Aaron has more at his blog, or read the whole speech here.


The Busy Trap’s Class Problem — Slate

Last week’s Link Love featured “The Busy Trap,” which has been everywhere recently. Slate offers an important counterpoint:

Regardless of Kreider’s own personal financial situation (which I know nothing of), the pleasantly open schedule that he advocates is almost never possible without a healthy stack of family money or generous institutional grant.

I resent the implicit assumption of Kreider’s piece that anyone—from a soybean farmer to a New York blogger—could disappear for a retreat or fizzy drink in the middle of the day if only we wanted to escape our silly self-imposed bonds badly enough. Most of us need a stable income (hello, student loans), and moreover, the ongoing nature of assignments in many jobs means that as much as we might like to dedicate only morning hours to “the work,” we do, in fact, need to be connected for much of the day.

Yes, that.


Amber Waves of Green — GQ

I linked to this article already this week, but here it is again—a fascinating profile of six people at varying income levels. Says a self-made billionaire:

“Politically I’m on the enemy list. I’ve lived my whole life doing what I thought was right, and now I’m an enemy of the state.”

…But the reality is that rarely are enemies of the state treated so well. Except for a brief stint in the late ’80s and early ’90s, their tax rate is at an eighty-year low. In the 1940s and 1950s, the top tax bracket paid more than 80 percent. It was 70 percent when Reagan took offlce, 40 percent under Clinton, and now, under Obama, it’s 35 percent. But the very, very rich don’t pay even that. By taking full advantage of an investor-friendly tax code, which takes a much smaller bite out of capital gains and dividends than it does for salaried income, the 400 richest Americans pay, on average, 18 percent tax.


Lean with It — Colossal

Pictures of people leaning at impossible angles with trees:

In addition to being amusing and visually arresting, there is something about these photos that inspires me. How much of the good stuff in life involves leaning into the newness, the fear, the possible? Then there’s this: to achieve these crazy angles, these people must have had to fall. Are there times when we need to actually fall, to “fail,” in order for something great to happen?

Let’s Get the Guy Out of the Tomb Already

Well Palm Sunday was a big success… clown noses and funny hats, shower heads and white carnations. I’m so thankful for folks ages 6 to 70 who were willing to dramatize some holy foolishness, and for a congregation that got it.

On to Holy Week.

If you’re not following Colossal, why on earth not? It’s an incredible collection of artistic goodness. Oh, if I had a projector and screen in the Tiny Church sanctuary… We are applying for a grant from the presbytery’s transformation project for exactly that, and boy, it cannot come fast enough.

Actually, that’s right. It can’t come fast enough because, if I had a projector this Sunday for Easter, I know what I would do.

Disclaimer: Even as I feel drawn to these images, I know they are not enough. The springing of spring is not deep enough. Easter is several orders of magnitude beyond that. But how does one preach resurrection? One leans heavily on the simile and prays it is enough, but we all know good and well that preaching resurrection is something like rendering the Sistine Chapel with stick figures. In crayon with stick figures.


Several years ago the Massachusetts Mental Health Center was slated for demolition. The MMHC had been in operation for something like 90 years and the building… well, it was old and rundown but also full of memory, sadness and hope. How to commemorate it? Artist Anna Schuleit decided to fill it with 28,000 potted plants. The photos are tender and touching. Here are just a few:

That is something like resurrection, no? Especially in Mark’s eerie, unsettling gospel account. Resurrection is incongruous in that landscape. It sprouts up out of our own dingy existence, making it new, but not unrecognizably new. We are still in this world, yes? Just transformed somehow. There’s a “blank, unholy surprise” to it, to quote Macaulay Connor.

I’m also loving the Wooly Bear Caterpillar, whose acquaintance I’ve made while watching Frozen Planet these last couple of weeks:

The wooly bear caterpillar lives in the arctic and when spring begins, it eats like crazy, trying to amass enough weight to be able to spin its cocoon and become a moth. It takes 14 years to complete that process. Each winter in the meantime it hibernates, sort of. Unlike some animals, whose metabolisms simply slow way down, the wooly bear caterpillar freezes solid. Its heart stops beating. Its gut freezes, then its blood. It is not, in fact, dead; but one couldn’t be blamed for writing it off as such: motionless, crusted over with ice.

But then in the spring, it wiggles into existence once more, and that relentless lurch toward change begins again. I love this. As someone who seems destined to learn the same lessons again and again, whose growth is slow, whose need for transformation doesn’t coincide with a nice, pat, yearly CLANG! of Easter, I am heartened that God’s new and renewing world has space for a caterpillar whose heart thuds to life again and again and again.

Two years ago on Easter I compared Jesus to a gopher. Maybe this year it’ll be the wooly bear.

A Pastor’s Kind of Creativity

The tagline for the Blue Room is “a space for beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit.” I tagged it thusly because that’s the purpose of the Blue Room in our house. It’s my home study, the homework place, the kid arts and crafts room. But it feels high-falutin’ to have that tagline. I don’t feel worthy of it.

Then yesterday I listened to Creativity and the Everyday Brain, an interview with neuroscientist Rex Jung on Being. And it encouraged me.

You can read the whole transcript, but here’s the pertinent bit for me, and I suspect, for many of you who plan worship, education and mission in the church. Prior to this, Krista Tippett and Rex Jung had been talking about Einstein’s term, “spiritual genius,” and what it meant:

Ms. Tippett: One of the people I’ve interviewed is Jean Vanier. Are you familiar with him? He started the L’Arche Movement, which is a global movement of communities centered around people with mental disabilities, especially Down syndrome. I think, if Einstein had known him, he might have said ‘there’s a spiritual genius.’ But even if you put that language to one side, I think that’s a form of creativity — there’s socially useful, novel and useful, creativity.

Dr. Jung: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Right, that — that fits your definition, but it’s not immediately what comes to mind. We think of artists, we think of scientists.

Dr. Jung: It’s not, but I totally agree that that is a form of creativity and a very valuable form of creativity and perhaps something that we’re moving towards in our increasingly complex society. It’s not just going to be a product. It’s not just going to be an artifact like a painting or a dance number. It’s going to be moving groups of people together and motivating groups of people in certain ways, and that’s a creative endeavor in this L’Arche Movement that you’re talking about. This is a kind of — sounds like a new creative endeavor that we should start to recognize.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I mean, people think differently and live differently as a result of this.

That’s the goal, isn’t it, of that kind of creative endeavor? That people think and live differently. That’s why we worship leaders pore over books to find just the right prayer of confession. Or comb our archives looking for a quote for the bulletin cover that will set the right tone. That’s why groups of pastors fly off for a week of lectionary study with other trusted colleagues every year. (OK, one of the reasons.)

The transformed life is the artifact we’re looking for.

But works of spiritual genius also happen on a level that’s beyond us and our efforts. During Sunday’s service I saw at least three people with tears in their eyes. That’s not all that unusual, in my experience. Church is a place where people can tap deep wells of emotion. You don’t force it or manipulate it. You just create a space where it can happen.

What was a bit unusual is that all three of these people were big strong men. It was holy ground.

In my work with NEXT Church, I’ve sometimes felt an insecurity among pastors of mainline churches. Are we dinosaurs because we offer a more traditional worship experience? Sometimes, yes, if it’s not indigenous to the people we serve. But it’s like we equate spiritual genius with tattoos and funky glasses. I feel this sometimes myself. I am in awe of the way some people think. I am creative, but within a form. I’m not nuking the Presbyterian order of worship, as many have (faithfully). It’s the sandbox I’m playing in.

For others, there is no box.

But artistry comes in many shapes and sizes. During the NEXT conference, we sang a setting of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that was utterly fresh and new, with guitar and percussion. And the music we made was like a wall of sound—I’ve never heard a congregated people sing that song like that. And at the end of the conference, the organist played the Widor Toccata, and dozens of people stood and soaked it in… even came up into the chancel to behold an artist at work.

Both experiences were traditional. And both were of the moment. Both were moments of spiritual genius.

Be of good cheer, friends who work in the church. There is an artistry to what you do.


Image: from the New Yorker article referenced in the On Being program, about how brainstorming doesn’t work. Off topic for this post but worth a read.

Holy Week Helps: Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday

From the forthcoming book White Flour by David LaMotte. Illustration by Jenn Hales.

First, do you know about Liturgy Link? It’s a place for open-source liturgy creation. The folks there recently asked about Palm Sunday and my answer was longer than a comment, so I’m sharing my plans here. Feel free to borrow or use anything I post. I don’t need attribution. Although, if someone leaves worship and tells you, “That was awesome,” I’d love for you to tell them about The Blue Room and my work.

If they hated it, blame it on some random person on the Internet.

So… Palm Sunday is also April Fool’s Day, which is an amazing opportunity to work with some of that Pauline stuff about God choosing the foolishness of the world to bring down the wise. Also the deep paradoxes that are present in Jesus’ teachings: to save your life you must lose it, and so forth. Reign of God as a series of topsy-turvy reversals. That sort of thing.

I am thinking about doing the service in reverse. I will start with the benediction—a blessing to the community. It’s communion Sunday, and since we usually have that near the end, we will move it towards the beginning. At its best, when communion is at the end, it’s the climax of the service (rather than the afterthought). But if it’s near the beginning we can hit themes of the grace of God that is a free gift for the asking, without even having to sit through the sermon as payment first. Heh.

For the message, I will read the poem “White Flour” by David Lamotte. Read the poem here, or hear more on Kickstarter about David’s plans to publish a children’s book—it’s due out in May. The poem is a true story about a Klan parade in Knoxville five years ago. A troupe of clowns called the Coup Clutz Clowns mounted a counter-protest that exposed the ugliness of the Klansmen. From the Kickstarter page:

Rather than shouting down the shouters, meeting rage with rage, they simply refused to take such foolishness seriously. Fight and flight are not our only two options, and humor, it turns out, beats hatred.  At least it did on that day.

I find this a powerful story to connect to the Palm Sunday narrative. Jesus, too participates in a parade, and while he doesn’t don a clown nose, he rides in on a donkey. He confronts power with humility.

We will move the confession to the latter part of the service, as we start to shift from Palm to Passion… and then we will close with the call to worship—the idea being that as we move into Holy Week, our lives are an act of worship.


For Maundy Thursday, the message will borrow from a story I heard on The Moth podcast a few years back. You can read about it here and listen to it here. In this story, writer Andrew Solomon talks about researching his book on depression, which took him to Cambodia to see the impact of the Khmer Rouge on the people there. He met a woman who works with other women to help them recover, and the recovery involved three basic components.

First, she teaches the women to forget—to have something in their mind besides the trauma. This will be an interesting twist as we have communion that night—because communion is all about memory. But what kind of memory we cling to is important. Jesus says, “do this in remembrance of me.” In communion we are called to remember not just the trauma of the cross, but the totality of Jesus’ life and ministry, and of course, the story of his resurrection.

Second, this Cambodian woman gave the other women meaningful work. Here I will talk about the life we are called to lead as followers of Jesus.

Third and most surprising—and specific—she taught the women to do manicures and pedicures. Wait, what? But listen to what she says:

You know, the worst atrocity of all that was brought by the Khmer Rouge was that half the country turned against the other half of the country. And people who lived through that period knew that they couldn’t put anything in anyone else, and they completely lost the habit of looking anyone else in half in the eye.

All of these women had been deprived for a long time of any occasion to indulge in the least bit of personal vanity. I brought them to my hut, and I built a special room that I would fill with steam. And it was a pleasure for them to feel beautiful. But what was really amazing for them was that, in this context, it was something that was at once very intimate and very impersonal. And they would start, because I was telling them how to do it and giving them some instruction, to handle each others’ fingers and each others’ toes. And it meant they were touching each other. And if I had told them to begin to hold each others’ hands or to have some kind of physical contact with other people, they would’ve shied away and they would have pulled back. They weren’t ready to do anything with anyone. But, in this context, they would touch each others’ fingers, touch each others’ toes, and then, because it was such a funny context, and because they felt so happy about the fact that they were, for a moment, feeling a little bit beautiful again, they would begin to laugh together. And they would begin to tell each other little bits of stories and things and that was the way that I taught them to trust again.

This, of course, leads right into the washing of feet. We will actually wash hands, because feet are a barrier for folks. Hands are vulnerable enough; in fact more vulnerable, in a way, because you can look someone in the eye. I will probably not shy away from the beauty aspects of this story, because I think that’s important. Not in a vain way, but in the sense that our physical selves are more than just a utilitarian container for our brains. Our bodies are precious to God.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that we are going to close Maundy with a pivot to Good Friday, since we alternate MT and GF each year. I’m going to borrow an idea from my friend Jan, who used to have people bring thirty “pieces of silver” (i.e. coins) as an offering. People dropped the coins into the empty (?) baptismal font. Since the thirty pieces of silver are symbolic of Judas’s betrayal, the money collected goes to an organization that works with individuals who have been betrayed in some way (e.g. domestic violence, child abuse).


So, them’s the plans. I am excited about all of this… my only anxiety is that for Easter, I got nothin’.

What are you doing Holy Week?

The Wonderful Wooden Board

Tiny Church has a large sheet of plywood on a base, which makes it a movable wall with great flexibility of use. One side is covered in cork… actually, it’s partially covered in cork. Someone ran out of cork sheets, so the bottom has a ragged look to it.

But the other side is painted a pale yellow. When I first arrived I thought This is a little weird but I’ve used it in worship as a prayer wall, and for other random things.

Right now it’s our CROP Hunger Walk commitment board. Our CROP walk coordinator and I were talking about how hard it is to come up with new ways to inspire participation. It tends to be the same folks every year. But realistically, the number of folks who can do the walk is pretty limited.

So this year we’re using the board as a place to encourage alternate means of support. We’re posting one flyer for each walker with the person’s name at the top. On that sheet are places for people to sign up to do other tasks to support that person. Of course people can sponsor a walker with $$, but we’ve also added the opportunity to be a prayer partner for a walker, or to provide lunch for a walker on the day of the walk. (We’ve always found it a challenge to get ourselves fed between church and the walk.) I’m hoping this means that everyone from the homebound nonagenarian to the busy mother of twins plus an infant can be involved in some way.

Wooden board =  tool for ministry.

At any rate… a friend posted the following image on Facebook last night. Something like this will definitely make an appearance on the board:

What do you need today?

By the way, you can sponsor our family for the CROP walk here.