The Concept of Mu

Feeling frustrated and confused, I went for a walk last week. I had spent the morning trying to imagine the next gathering in this adventure in consulting. The last time we were together, we focused on the numbers. They had gone on Neighborhood Walks and then we looked at the numbers. We looked at the statistics for each neighborhood and repeated those questions of discernment over and over again.

They were frustrated. They didn’t trust the numbers before them and I know that it wasn’t a distrust of the numbers, but a question of who this outsider was that had the audacity to make such claims about a community she did not know. It’s something I’ve bumped into in pastoral ministry before. I’m the pastor. I have some authority that no one else in the congregation has and so I must know something that they don’t but all I’m doing is asking these annoying questions. They aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

I’m frustrated too and so I found some comfort on my walk with my earbuds warming my ears with wise words from the poet and community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama. I took comfort in hearing Ó Tuama  reflect upon something he’d read in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like me, he didn’t really like the book but he took away from what he read something I didn’t remember. He told Krista Tippett on OnBeing that he’d held onto the idea of mu. He describes it as a Buddhist concept which acts as a response. When a questions is asked, according to Zen tradition, your response can be mu which Ó Tuama explains to be a way of saying

“‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything.”

Whether church member or consultant, it’s hard not to feel like we should know the answers. We should have some clue to where we are going and what it is that God requires of us and I’ll admit that it feels absurd to repeatedly ask the same questions of the same group of people but I believe in the questions.

Just as we find new hope in words from scripture we’ve heard thousands of times before, when we hear the same questions repeated over and over again, new hope emerges. We hear something we haven’t heard before. Some possibility opens that no one saw before not just because we followed the script and committed to the process but because we changed the script. We said mu to each other when a question didn’t work. We asked different questions, but we needed to ask the wrong questions first so we could find the right questions. We had to make our own edits so that we could put this future dreaming into our own words.

I spend a lot of time wordsmithing the questions that I ask. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these words might lead a group of people to dream about their future ministry and it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated by it. I want the answers as much as those I’m leading, but the truth is that I have more questions than answers.

The next time I meet with this church we’ll dive deeper into the questions. I’ll ask a whole bunch of different questions to encourage their imagination and creativity. I hope the questions build on what we’ve already explored. I hope that these new questions resonate with the yearnings of their hearts but open-ended questions like these are just as likely to paralyze as they are to spark new hope. God’s ways are confusing enough and so I think I might start by introducing the concept of mu so that the questions might not overwhelm us but invite us into deeper discernment of what God is doing with this church.

 

 

What is the Meaning of Life?

I’m working on my first chapter. Or I’m trying to work on this first chapter. I’m trying to stick with it. I’m trying to actually finish it rather than jumping ahead to some other chapter that is not quite so hard. For this is the chapter that frames the entire thing. It’s the bit that explains the focus and I can’t help but feel anything but focused.

Every bit of writing, I know, is at attempt to answer some big question. It’s what every novel does. It is what every story answers. There is some question that was so irritating that the writer had to sit down and try to answer it. The problem, it seems, is that I have too many questions. Way too many questions.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young poet that he should have patience. Instead of wrestling and battling for answers, he told the poet to love the questions. He advised,

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

As I try to focus my thoughts and actually write this stupid chapter so that everything can fall into place (if that is even what might happen), it dawns on me that it’s these questions that I bring into my ministry all of the time. This is not exactly a recipe for ministry but one of those moments where those questions became more than something written on a page. It actually showed up in my ministry.

Two months ago, as the church began to take steps toward imagining its mission, I asked the members of the Consistory to read New Questions for a New Day. In that meeting, we had just articulated the goals for the church moving forward. Before moving onto other business, I asked these leaders to lift up the questions that they are still carrying. With a nod from Jeffrey Jones, I asked them to reframe their questions as new questions. Their list included:

  • How do we spread the love?
  • How do we all reach out in prayer to find inspiration?
  • How do we motivate each other?
  • How do we help people have meaningful and transformational experiences in the church?
  • Where is God in this confusing journey we are on? What does God want?
  • How do we help others expand their family through friendship?
  • What is the meaning of life?

The church is working on writing their mission. I’m trying to write my first chapter but we’re both trying to answer that last question. It’s the question and I don’t know the answer. It’s way too big for any one book or the mission of any local church. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to write it. It’s what both the church and I are trying to do. God bless us.

More Questions Than Answers

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It wasn’t that long ago that started serving as an interim pastor at a small church celebrating 200 years amid questions of whether or not there will be a future beyond this anniversary. This morning, before worship began, one of the members called our attention to a news story about a church in a neighboring community that at least to him sounded so much like his own church. He really thought we should read it because after 170 fabulous years of ministry, all of a sudden that church is closing. In fact, today was their last Sunday.

These concerned church members want me to give them the solution. I’m the interim pastor. I must know. They want me to give them the answer. They want me to tell them  what the future looks like. They want so much to know what they need to do before they meet that same fate, but I don’t have the answer to their questions. I do not know what the church will be like. I only know that it is changing and it might not look the same in five or ten years. Or maybe it will. I don’t know. I wish that there was a divine checklist that would mark our way into that future, but there is no such thing. So it seems we really do walk by faith, not by sight.

It seems that my faith comes with a whole lot of questions. It is these questions that seem to define my ministry. It’s all I do. It’s what defines my ministry. I’m shouting into the abyss and questions I’m hurling at the people around me hoping that God might reveal some clarity.

Because I do not know the future of the church. I cannot know the future of the church so I have nothing but questions. I have no set answers. I have no vision of what the church will be. I only know that it will continue. God’s awesome redemptive work in the world isn’t over yet but I don’t know what that will look like. And because I don’t know this, because I don’t have this awesome divine checklist in my back pocket, most of my ministry feels right now feels like a failure. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m leading these poor blessed people into some sort of quagmire that none of us understand.

That’s the feeling I couldn’t shake when I got in the car. But, I turned on my podcasts and turned my attention to This American Life in which I got to hear the story of a San Francisco-based writer and father who sat in shock and dismay through his daughter’s the end of the year musical in her after-school program. Seems innocent enough but most musicals featuring grade-school aged children are not about corporate greed. Little kids pretended to be a bunch of power-hungry tech-mongers plotting the eviction of innocent people that got in the way of their dream. It upset some people. Obviously, it upset the parents in the tech industry. One parent tried to express his concern. To which the director of this after-school program wrote back to say it was fictional. In that letter, written to all of the parents, she added this further explanation: we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

We might not have any idea what the future holds. We might not know what the church will look like but this sure felt like an answered prayer. I turned off the podcast for a moment. It wasn’t very long but I wanted those words to sink in so that I just might hear them as a blessing and an affirmation. Before I ever dreamed of leading churches, I dreamed of creating art. My ministry has become my art. I do not intend to answer God with my ministry, but rather to ask questions. It is this art that is my life work and it is good.

Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 29, 2015

J A S M I N EThis Sunday brings the palms.

Call it a parade.
Call it a procession.
Call it a protest.

Our church people expect to wave palms happily in the air before the resurrection is proclaimed next week. Pastors struggle with this. This is the week that they are busy cranking out bulletins for Holy Week. They are trying to figure out an interesting way to tell this story — the whole story — so that we can rise with Christ the following week. Pastors (like myself) tend to want more of the Passion than the Palms. They want to be sure that the whole story is told before Easter morning. Today, I got tapped by a colleague in my denomination to provide some tweaking to a liturgy that I wrote for the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways three years ago. (Click on March 29-Palm-Passion Sunday and the file will automatically download.)

So, after starting these Liturgical Lights a few weeks ago, I’m going to continue to play with that worship service that features a series of adapted Scripture Readings through the Gospel of Mark’s version of the Palm and Passion. Each reading is followed by an extended silence or a congregational hymn. It is not a joyful service. It is a worship experience that searches the heart and mind of God. It begs for answers and never really gets them. The Narrative Lectionary on March 29, 2015 is Matthew’s version of the Palm Parade. In Matthew 21:1-17, we move from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem into the Temple where Jesus has a little fit before going to Bethany to rest. There are so many unanswered questions in this text that only intensify our concern for the world. So, I offer these adapted prayers searching for answers.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

Come. Come seeking words.
Come to let your tongue give praise.
Come. Come to find your voice.
Come to hear the response.
Come. Come to open your ears.
Come to listen.
Come. Come to be healed by the silence.
Come to stand together.
Come. Come to approach what words cannot describe.
Come to find God.

Invocation (Responsive)

Let us pray:

Come. Come O Holy One.
Come through the streets.
Come into the house.
Come to find a space beside us at the table.
Come to challenge our answers about

Why tragedy comes
Why poverty increases
Why we are afraid.

Come O Holy One.
Speak to us in the silence

With wisdom greater than ours
With love deeper than ours
With change wider than ours.

Shared Silence

Come O Holy One.
Fill in these stories
with your wisdom
with your love
with your change
so that we might rely on your answers.
Here and now. Amen.

Prayer of Confession (Responsive)

O Holy One, your house shall be called a house of prayer.
Your house shall be a place for healing.
Your house is where we praise Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,
but our lips have no praise. We have made your house a den of robbers
so we can’t see you in the parade. We are too busy talking.
We think we know why bad things happen,
about why the rich get richer, about why the world feels so broken.
But, this is your house where the blind can see and the lame can walk.
This is your house where we come to pray.

O Holy One, speak to us.
Fill our silences.
Comfort us with your love
so that we may find your understanding.
Trust us to find your answers
when we finally tire from our own.
Save us, O Holy One, with your steadfast love. Amen.

Assurance of God’s Grace

God opens your ears.
God speaks when you are silent.
God approaches you
in the parade and at table
in your denial and your praise
to be your help.
Now and always. Amen.

Telling the Story

As I shared with my colleague in ministry on Facebook today, what I have found to be most powerful about this worship experience both times I’ve led it is the silences. In the original liturgy, the congregation hears a huge chunk of Scripture from the Gospel of Mark. In the Narrative Lectionary, it is only 17 verses. Still, I would break up this reading and intersperse the readings with silence and congregational singing. If I were so lucky to lead this service, here’s how I would break up and tweak the readings.

Entering Into Jerusalem

They were looking for answers. So, they went to Jerusalem. They gathered in the streets to make a way for peace. On the other side of the city, there was another procession. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, rode into Jerusalem with an army of horses, armored soldiers and waving banners.

On the other side of the city, when they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

They wanted to understand why this must happen in this way. But, it was only said: this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Come. Join in the parade, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn: Mantos y Ramos

The Palm Parade

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
 Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Come. Lose your voice in the shouting crowd, you who are weary, you who don’t have any answers.

Shared Silence

Who Is This?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil. No one understood what was happening. No one knew what would happen next. They had thought they knew how the world worked. They had thought they knew. But, they didn’t understand. So they could only ask: “Who is this?”

The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Come. Listen to what God might be saying. Listen to what God might be doing that doesn’t fit with everything that you have been taught about this world. Listen for God to speak. 

Shared Silence

The Cleansing of the Temple

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Come. Join those who wander through temples, churches, ashrams and mosques. Join the crowds who have come looking for answers, looking for peace. 

Hymn: Inspired by Love and Anger or Lord, Hear My Praying, Listen to Me

What Is He Saying?

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and Jesus cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry. The chief priests, the elders and the scribes knew their answer. They thought they knew the ways of God. They thought they knew all that God could do. There was nothing that could convince them otherwise. So, they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?”

Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

They had come looking for answers. They had come looking for peace, but they didn’t understand his way. So, he left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Come. Follow outside the bounds of your understanding, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn: I Want Jesus To Walk With Me

Benediction (Responsive)

Go into the world to find your voice.
Listening to what God will do.
Go into the world to find each other.
Reaching out when we need support.
Go into the world be amazed.
Knowing that God is always with us.

If you use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 29, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at https://elsaacook.wordpress.com.

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