Theme Introduction

An Introduction to the 2017 Congregations Project Conference

Dorothy C. Bass

This is a conference on the worship, music, and art of the church—especially as they come to life in parishes and congregations, in concrete communities like the ones where you, or I, or brothers and sisters all over the world, gather regularly to worship God, to share a meal with the Crucified and Risen One, and to be sent out, sustained by the Holy Spirit, to love and serve. Here we will lift up beloved practices of song, prayer, and proclamation embodied in these ordinary, holy places.

And at the same time: we will name and ponder a dimension of human experience that complicates every effort to voice praise and bow in reverence, a dimension of experience that challenges every effort to hear, repeat, and trust the promises of God. 

Exposer of human vulnerability and mortality.

Evidence of human tyranny and apathy. 

Imposer of order, avenger of wrong, shield for the weak.

Evoker of humiliation, rage, and grief. 

Violence.  Definitions are difficult, but I’ll attempt one: Violence is force, or the threat of force, that causes physical, psychological, or moral damage or coercion. 

Any definition is too simple; damaging force and harmful coercion appear in countless forms and settings, from the ancient stories of humankind to the constant streams of images and reporting that fill 21st century screens. Cain murdered Abel, David slaughtered Philistines and arranged the death of Uriah. In our own time policemen kill Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a state executes Kelly Gissendaner, authorities send soldiers to kill and be killed. Meanwhile, violence festers in secret—corrupting families and economic systems, destroying the lives of children, imposing hunger on those who are poor and shame on those who are powerless. And it doesn’t just happen and go away. Violence leaves many individuals and communities traumatized—frozen in the unspeakable, numbing, disabling residue of overwhelming events, scarred by memories that threaten identity, marked by enduring wounds.

Those who have so far been fortunate (me?) may think these many-layered stories and situations point to other people’s problems. And there’s a piece of truth here:  all are vulnerable, but race, gender, poverty, displacement, and other factors heighten the exposure of some.  But facing a different layer of the truth, I realize that sometimes, in my heart, I am Cain; I am Abel; I am Eve, the mother of them both. Perpetrator, victimized, bereaved, all mixed together.

A horrific act of violence stands at the crux of Christian faith. When we gather to worship God, we gather in the name of one who was tortured by the authorities, abandoned by his friends, hung on a cross, and laid in a tomb.  We have called him Lord, but there we are: lacking courage in the face of violence, like Peter; feeling left out and skeptical, like Thomas; clueless, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus; our eyes blinded by tears, like Mary Magdalene. We huddle in fear, but he appears, risen from death. “Peace be with you,” he says.

When people suffer traumatic injury and loss, congregations are usually on the front line of response. They respond through outreach, work for justice, pastoral care, and other ministries. And they also respond directly to God, on behalf of all who are injured or in fear—in prayer and song, in confession and lament, in music and silence, in embodied trust and vocal praise. Here, assemblies make public witness to the human pain violence brings and to God’s presence with those who suffer in its wake. 

Most of you are called to lead communities of faith in these acts of witness and affirmation. This is a blessed and terrible calling. This vocation means speaking of things many in society prefer to hide under a mantle of denial and secrecy. It means remembering the faithfulness of God when many around you doubt. It means giving voice to the truth of human experience, and to the truth of God’s enduring presence.

Where shall we find the words? What language shall we borrow? Often, we find words in the Psalms. In just a few minutes Don Saliers will lead us in considering how the Psalms cry out, in witness, in lament. 

Our time together has begun, this morning, with GATHERING. Our time together will end on Thursday afternoon with SENDING, as we head back to our places of ministry, there to help our own communities to worship God, even in the face of violence. Between the gathering and the sending, we will ask how the church sings in the face of violence, how the church prays in the face of violence, and how the church proclaims the gospel in the face of violence.

Taken together, two sessions this afternoon will lean into one of the tensions in our theme: the tension between faithful response in times of sudden crisis and the long-term formation in faith, endurance, and hope that prepares us for such times. In the first session after lunch, teams from two congregations will reflect on worship in the context of crisis—a terrorist attack, a mass shooting. In the second session, we’ll hear from gifted musicians immersed in communities of faith whose ways of singing have fostered resistance and hope across the years. And this evening we will sing and pray together in this place, in a grand festival of hymns.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider language—and its inadequacy to the deep needs we bring to prayer and to life.  Composer Tony Alonso will ponder the weightiness that rightly accompanies worship leaders’ choice of music and texts.  Biblical scholar John Collins will lead us into the words and stories of scripture—challenging our ideas about the place of violence in this challenging set of ancient texts. And the artists of Grace Farms will welcome us into their creative process as they seek to express the power and meaning of silence in the midst of the world’s suffering. 

On Thursday we will give special attention to systemic forces that stir up violence in our society—and to faithful practices that resist these forces. Trauma takes root not only in individual psyches but also in whole communities, persisting across time to shape persons and institutions.  Donyelle McCray, a professor of preaching at YDS, will explore memory and trauma—focusing on the Middle Passage. Sarah Farmer, a practical theologian, will look at the many layers of violence in the lives of some African-American youth, and also at practices of resistance and repair. Cheryl Cornish, a pastor in Memphis, will reflect on how her congregation shapes a culture of peace by enacting small, strong patterns of life in community. And then we’ll all ponder the problems, hopes, and patterns of our own congregations, as we prepare to return to them. 

I look forward to hearing the presentations—each of which will allow time for questions and discussion. But I also want you to know that some of the best resources on offer here have arrived with you, the participants.  Opportunities to tap these resources will come in breakout groups, over meals, during breaks, and while walking or riding from one venue to another.

Because you have been immersed in worship and service in your own communities, you bring profound experience. You bring what I call practical wisdom. Look for it among those gathered here. Let me get you started.

  • One of you has worked with women who are incarcerated to nurture creativity and healing through the arts.
  • One of you comes from a large congregation in NYC that has been instrumental in gathering faith leaders against gun violence and in insisting that Black Lives Matter.
  • Some of you, from a predominantly white congregation, are actively engaged in building a relationship with a nearby congregation that is predominantly African-American, under the rubric “Two Houses, One Home.” One of the pressing issues is how to address the ongoing shootings by police.
  • Some of you are disheartened that your parishes barely mention the griefs and conflicts of your city, nation, and world. Help us to acknowledge the existence of violence; help us to speak the truth, you say. A pastor from another congregation says, “Our work is not a specific thing. It is just ‘not ignoring it,’ and addressing acts of violence during prayers of the people, in sermons, and so on”
  • One parish represented here sponsors honesty, accountability, and healing around issues of abuse, especially reaching out to those abused by priests. 
  • Some of you share the life of faith with persons who embrace violence as “necessary” or “right”—and you struggle to square this view with the bias toward peacemaking and neighbor love that seems evident in the Gospels, in your denomination’s stance, and, frankly, in the call to this conference. This concern—what about when violence is defended, even embraced—has come from quite disparate places—from a congregation in a Connecticut town, and from a chaplain in a psychiatric forensic hospital, to which many patients have come from a world where violence has always been accepted. 
  • A woman who is not with us reached out over the internet to urge us to include attention to domestic violence. “As a pastor and long-time advocate for victims of DV, I know how disruptive it can be, not just to families, but also to congregations, as questions about who’s really to blame surface–or don’t surface.”

And surely there are other gifts, other concerns, other initiatives represented here as well.

We cannot answer all the questions, explore all the issues, or cultivate all the pastoral responses for which each situation cries out. Within the limits of the formal program, we cannot even attempt these things. But we can and will acknowledge that woundedness exists in our congregations, our neighborhoods, our nation, our world. And we can and will ponder the gift and the task entailed in doing the hard, indispensable work of holding these things, honestly and tenderly, before God, in song, proclamation, and prayer. And we can and will trust that God will be present with us here, and when we return to our places of ministry.

In this conference, we will not only talk about worship. We will worship, as we have already begun to do—not as an object lesson, but because we need to bring the matters that concern us, and we need to bring our very selves, into the challenging, merciful, empowering presence of God. We will share readings, songs, and prayers that have come to us from forebears who have struggled and endured, as well as sounds and texts that are just emerging. We will remember God’s faithfulness. We will lift the needs of those who suffer and those who serve to God in prayer. And we will offer to God our praise and thanksgiving—for the God-given life of all creation; for the reconciling life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and for the new life the Spirit continues to blow into the communities represented at this conference and also into other communities all over this blessed, beautiful earth. May God bless our conversations here, and may God bless the congregations from which we have come and to which we shall return.