“Happy Last Supper”
That was the closing remark from a songwriter as he finished his original song about the loss of a recent relationship.
I decided this year to observe Maundy Thursday in the community and Good Friday in a church. The experience was eye-opening. It gave me more to ponder and wrestle with than I had imagined. I bought a ticket to the Songwriter’s Soiree in Portland. This is a community of nearly 300 people that has grown over the past fifteen years around the commitment to create “a culture of appreciation for vulnerability,” as one member framed it. The vulnerability is getting up in front of an audience to perform an original song, often for the first time.
While I was sitting in my chair pondering the liturgy of Maundy Thursday services in our churches I was also aware of how much the themes of Maundy Thursday kept showing up in these original songs. In many ways, I think it was coincidence. Songwriters tend to write what is on their hearts at the time and the songs that were showing up kept going back to themes of death, grief, loss, longing and heartache. It is not difficult to imagine that those same emotions were playing out during the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples. In this time of pandemic and war, death, loss and grief is pretty much what all of us are thinking about.
But, back to that one offhand comment, “Happy Last Supper.” First, the comment did elicit a knowing and polite laugh from some in the audience. It was clear that at least some knew that they were holding this Songwriter Soiree on the same night other family members, friends and neighbors were in churches observing Maundy Thursday.
But it was the tone of the comment and the ensuing chuckles that struck me. This was not the comment of some rebellious child giving the proverbial middle-finger to an older generation of parents and grandparents. There was a maturity to the comment as if his experience had been polished over time. The comment sounded less like, “Screw you,” and more like, “We are aware that we know something that you don’t.”
It was as if the comment was a way of saying, “Look, mom and dad, we respect your tradition, but we think we have outdone you on this one.” It wasn’t arrogance speaking, just honest self-reflection.
It was a marvelous evening of vulnerability, creativity, and reflection. Even a little “Passing of the Peace” and “sharing around the table” was observed and spiritually reflected upon.
There are two things I am taking from the evening that are worth sharing with you:
First, they take the Da Vinci Last Supper painting seriously, if not literally. The positioning of the disciples in that Da Vinci painting show the disciples basically reclining against each other. This is not the table where elbows are not allowed to touch and everyone is equally spaced apart. No, live bodies are actively touching in this painting.
At the Songwriter’s Soiree, the front of the room closest to the stage was set up with loads of large pillows and cushions. They called this area the “Cuddle Cushions.” It was for anyone who wanted to enjoy the evening nestled up against another human being. Anyone was welcome but all needed to comply with the rule that all touching had to come by mutual consent. Look at the Da Vinci painting. The disciples were cuddlers.
Secondly, one of the things that we keep hearing about what younger generations want from religious services is more participation. They don’t want to be preached at by one credentialed person; they want to interact with stories and themes.
We were settled into this night of singing for nearly five hours. Over that time, about 125 people enjoyed the program and about fifty of those people WERE the program. Each of them had original songs to share with the audience. Here is what I think they got right with regard to the culture of younger people. The organizers of the Songwriter Soiree didn’t provide a program for the audience to consume; they simply provided the container for the audience to participate in.
What would happen if the role of the clergy was simply to create a “culture of appreciation for vulnerability” and leave the preaching to the people?
I know, I know! This is a dangerous question to ask a group of Reformed Presbyterians who pride themselves on an educated, scholarly clergy. But I want us to be honest with ourselves. If you had a choice between hearing one charismatic, compassionate and amazing preacher preach on Maundy Thursday themes or hearing fifty of your friends share their original songs or poems or art on death, loss and grief, which would you choose?
We have some good preachers. But that’s hard to compete with—especially if cuddling is also thrown in.
By Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
I went to the Soiree several times years ago when I was writing songs and it was held once a month in Robin’s house with everyone reclining together on the floor and original songs until long after midnight. A magical and worthwhile time.
VERY thought provoking!
For almost any other worship/event I think I may pick the cuddle group, but Maundy Thursday ritual (Seder meal) is so very special for me that I don’t think I would choose it there.
Benidiciones y paz, Marcia
Marcia, that sort of personal clarity is so important. As our churches wrestle with how to connect in the community one of the greatest gifts if to know what is important to hold onto and what is open to change, innovation and adaptation. This may be one of the areas for you, or for your church, or for church in general where we say, “Let the Millenials observe Maundy Thursday in their style and we will observe in our style.”
Interesting observations. I confess I rankle at characterizing these preferences as generational. That said, how does it inform your vision for how Cascades Presbyterians get on with loving one another and our neighbors?
Oh yeah…the generational references probably weren’t very PC, but reflected the general population of this crowd with the general population of a church crowd
Some salient generational and socio-cultural thoughts have come to mind in response and on the eve of our NE Region workshop on creative collaborations…
• The region of “Nones and Dones” will continue to expand from the PNW toward the east and south of this country – this is in reverse of the original colonial missionary model that pushed its way from the Eastern seaboard to the west and south with the founding of America.
• We are seeing young people flee from all institutions built by their great-grandparents – and this includes the institution of the church – hence the term “organized religion” or “institutionalized religion” becoming more like a derogatory term in some circles. Shrinking main-line protestant churches are the norm, not growing vibrant communities of faith (or songwriter – cuddles). Why?
• Think service organization as opposed to propagation of the Gospel. This is very different than American cultural assimilation of Christendom – which I believe is no longer happening in our time. As M. Scott Peck once wrote in an illustrative story called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” “The spirit has gone out of the people.” [The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York, NY: Touchstone Simon & Schuster, 1998)].
• One of my opinions rests in the challenge of shifting leadership models and cultures – in this case the DNA of corporate main-line Protestantism from the 1950s to something else resembling authentic communities of practice. That means it is imperative to find ways for churches to become intergenerational communities focused on making real-life authentic, genuine differences in and for the communities in which they sit.
• If the determination and intent is to continue moving away from intergenerationality and back to “the way it was,” or to put in place age-segregated learning, absence of children in worship, and “traditional bible story curricula” as opposed to family-based passing on of our faith stories and the more messy/”noisy” intergenerationally collaborative worship models where all are welcome and have a place, I would hazard a guess that church can expect a 50% reduction in membership in the not-to distant future (possibly even two to three years from now, certainly by ten to fifteen years from now). 64% if that church is closer to the PNW than the S/SE. Community, by definition, includes all peoples regardless of age, stage, gender or persuasion.
The last two points you might take with a grain of salt, I suppose. Here’s why: I’m deep in the heart of the PNW, and I have a certain “GenX angst” perspective as I’ve watched all our young people flee just about every main-line protestant church in our presbytery, leaving all but the Silents and the Boomers in the pews (or on Session, or in the pulpit for that matter). It doesn’t give me much hope for long-term job security, unless I can form creative collaborations and/or change myself and the church I work for to fit/serve contemporary spiritual needs. That’s a tall order, but I might suggest it is survival for any pastor of today’s average traditional main line denominational church.
Culturally, at least here in the PNW, the metamorphosis that has been and continues to take place is this: from the point of the church being to, “Spread the Gospel” (equated with Evangelical-In-Your-Face-My-Way-Or-The-Highway Bible-Thumping Religion – Bad) to the point of, “Authentic communities of practice to address real needs in the community.”
It’s almost like: “If you aren’t a community of practice doing real-life-tangible things, then it isn’t authentic. Gospel of Salvation? Who cares, we can’t see the spiritual realm or the state of anyone’s soul, so it doesn’t matter. We can see how people behave towards one another and if others’ compassion – no matter what faith – is reflected in real-life, showing love and justice for all people and the earth. That’s what matters.”
It causes me to wonder if we, or at least society, are (is) in the throws of (or on the cusp of) craving a revivalist need similar to the time and perspective of Paul Tillich and Karl Barth. They were trying to re-embed Christianity in the social justice movement (and all that would mean). Many of the secular issues then are also found and discussed today in the “Millennial Blueprint for America,” which is very cleverly crafted but leaves out almost entirely a sense of the centrality of spiritual grounding. (Phase 1 report from the Think 2040 data collected by the Roosevelt Institute).
Well . . . deep thoughts. May God guide us all into the future of faith and what it is that is required of us – as long as it is to love mercy, act justly, and to walk humbly, I’m in.