Deconstructing American Christian Worship

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I’ve been tired during church lately.

If you’re someone attempting to deconstruct or decolonize your faith like I am, you might feel it, too.

As a Potawatomi woman, I am suddenly going over every word of every song, every word of every sermon, asking if those words are inclusive of my own culture within the views of the American church.

And so we show up at church, asking all the questions, making all the critiques we can, because these things matter.

And we end up leaving exhausted because the church has not yet understood that Jesus really was a poor, brown carpenter and still has something to say to us today. I’m exhausted that I don’t yet understand that in my own skin.

And we end up leaving exhausted because we have to hold our own culture’s truths and tensions with the gospel, and also hold all these cultural, racial, belief-based tensions with one another.

As a worship leader, I pay attention to the room during worship.

I listen to the voices in unison.

I wonder where people are coming from when they sing words like, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”

And as I am analyzing these things and trying to worship through my own experiences, I come back to this idea of nakedness.

Theresa ofAvila says it like this:

You find God in yourself and yourself in God.

 

To know the true mirror image of God is to know ourselves fully, as we are fully known.

And that means that while we stay tethered to and learn from and engage with our cultural lenses, we also zoom into our souls, into that naked place, to that deepest part of who we are to embrace Mystery, without analyzing any of it.

We embrace Mystery without analyzing any of it. 

This means that we even have to allow ourselves to step out of the mindset that worship should look, feel and seem a certain way.

To embrace Mystery is to recognize that worship is something fully beyond us that we step into and participate in, and not just in a church building full of people.

One of the most worshipful experiences I had recently was while I was staying at an AirBNB in the Blue Ridge mountains. I took an early evening walk, mittens on and a cup of coffee in my hand. As I turned the corner, I watched  a family of deer run across the street and up into the woods on the other side. Before they disappeared, one of them stopped, turned around, and stared at me for a few seconds.

Sometimes worship happens as a rootedness that we do not expect or even think we deserve.

The mirror image of myself in that deer was nothing but worship, a moment to recognize my own sense of belonging in this world. In the space, beyond my culture, beyond the fact that I am a Potawatomi woman, that I am a mother and wife and worship leader and writer and friend, I was simply one soul looking at the soul of another creature.

We were simply acknowledging one another, and in that, acknowledging Mystery, without analyzing any of it. 

So we erase the lines that make rules to tell us when and how to worship. We expand our thinking outside the walls of the church and realize that “occasionally it is not the open air or the church that we desire, but both” (John Philip Newell).

And this is difficult when you’re on church staff, when you’re trying to figure out how to run a church with various cultures, to honor diversity, to honor the life of Jesus. I get that. But leading others in worship means we lead them out of themselves, and we also lead them out of the mindset that worship must look the way the American church thinks it should look.

And soon we find that deconstructing our worship patterns is actually a return back to that nakedness, to that mirror image between us and God, between us and the world, between my own culture and yours.

And then we find that worship has done its work, because the glory of God happens when this created world is fully alive to beauty, to love, to all of those things that we have such a hard time finding because we are so constantly trying to analyze the questions and critiques as they come to us every week in church.

Because of and despite our questions and critiques, the Mystery is still there, still engaging, still asking us to look and respond, to be present with every aspect of ourselves, to the honor and glory of God.

Amen.

 

Day 7: Individual & Communal Belief

{DISCLAIMER: These reflections are solely my reflections from my journey as a Potawatomi woman. They do not reflect the journey or stories of every indigenous person, and it should not be assumed that every indigenous person has the same experiences. Thank you for joining me here. May we grow toward unity together.}

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It is very difficult to separate culture from our internal faith in God.

Our theology, while individual, is also built around the communities we grow up with, the ways we’re taught to view God. I’ve noticed a huge difference between native communities and other American communities with the way life is viewed as individualistic versus communal.

In our Christian faith, we’re called to be communal, aren’t we? We’re called to the table, to share meals together. The Bible itself lives a communal culture of people historically, and it’s something that I think the American church can learn from today.

So where did things go wrong from that time to what we see today? Somehow, American culture was mixed with faith, and we ended up with institutionalized church gatherings, buildings, services that, though they try to reach communal living, are still often full of people living individually because our culture naturally leaves us separated and compartmentalized.

But then I remember that indigenous culture is built around community. It is built around families, clans, people groups, homes, community centers.

Because I don’t live where my tribe is in Oklahoma, I feel the tension of that. As I learn more about my tribe and other tribes’ ways of life historically, it draws me more toward communal living, which, in many ways, runs opposite the way many Americans live. We are a tired, busy, often impatient people who do not always stop to see.

I’ve been changing that slowly in my life over the past few years, and it’s hard. But I know it’s right because my ancestors did it. They lived for and with one another. They belonged to their clans, to their families, and they made a point of living communally.

So how do we do that today? How do we run against so much of American culture? 

I’ve found that when I live communally, inviting others into my home, making space for conversations, we become addicted to it. We realize our need to be with others, to clean our house for that meal so that others can be comfortable with us. And hopefully it encourages others to do the same.

Then we can think of the possibility of really going to the neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar. Then maybe it’s possible to rake someone’s yard or take them flowers or ask how their father’s cancer treatments are going.

Somehow, when we begin to live communally, we begin to look more like people who love. And when we look like people who love, we become people who love. Then the world starts to change. Then America starts to change.

Indigenous cultures have a lot to teach about this. And instead of believing that it’s silly or impossible, we believe that it’s possible and necessary.

Today, my book, Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places comes out! I’m so excited to tell you that you can buy it online, but it’s ALSO going to be in Barnes & Noble, so if you’re like me and you enjoy walking through a bookstore with real-life books lining shelves in front of you, my book will be on those shelves with a host of my heroes next to me.

I’m sharing a snippet of the book with you today, because there’s an entire chapter of the book dedicated to community, to what it means to live a life connected to others. I hope you enjoy this story from my life, and as you read it, challenge yourself to consider the ways in which you can begin to break down the habits of individualistic living to pick up the habits of communal living.


 

The Early Church

You think because you understand one you must understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and. —Sufi saying

In our early married church-going days, we attended a little nondenominational congregation, grace-based in belief and charismatic in worship. For community group, we spent the evenings in Justin and Kari’s home with their four kids.

I’d sit in the kitchen and watch Kari do what she does—scrub the sink clean, speak to me about what it means to walk in the Spirit while making dinner for all of us and cleaning out the coffee grinder. She taught me how to eat dark chocolate and sprout raw almonds, how to drink wine and laugh.

We could hear Justin playing guitar in the living room, and worship permeated our air, blending with the smell of that ground coffee.

I learned a new language of community with these people. I learned family and meal-sharing—how to speak about being a parent without actually being one.

I just watched them most of the time, and it was a blessing to be brought into their kind reality. I didn’t take it lightly. Kari showed me what the all-encompassing role of mother and wife and church leader and friend and psychologist and rock climber looks like.

It’s been years since we’ve been with that community, in that particular home, but I can picture it still. I can see the blue and gray hues in the front room and see Uriah and Avery playing chess with Travis at the kitchen table. I can smell the brewed cup of coffee that Justin just poured and hear Rhoen screaming as he runs through the house, laughing. Cana is hanging off her dad’s arms, gymnast that she’s always been.

And I see our little church, hands lifted in worship, bodies swaying to the rhythm of music and Spirit.

I remember the way we prayed together, the way we sought God together, the way we screwed up together and tried our best to take grace anyway.

On Sunday mornings long before church started, I worked in the kitchen with and Bailey, the breakfast crew that would bake cinnamon rolls and rearrange messy drawers and brew the coffee for everyone to drink throughout the service.

That community was where Travis and I learned to lead small groups, with our whole selves thrown in, just like our friends Justin and Kari before us. They live in a new place now, and I try to picture their family space, the adventures they go on every day, the way they face life and work and worship as a family.

And when I scrub my kitchen sink, every single time, I think of Kari and that church, that community that birthed us into our marriage and carried us for a few short years before we moved on to a new season in a new town.

That early church and those early people poured life into us, helped us shape the soil we would let ourselves grow out of, letting our roots reach down past the mud to get to the water-source.

One season, years and years ago, long before us, the earliest church shaped another group of people, people who learned to care for each other and share their possessions and speak of soul-things. Maybe they ate almonds and dark chocolate and drank coffee, too.

Maybe they cultivated their soil the same way we did, tending to the roots that would one day be fruitful and grow a world that longs to know and belong to God.

Hallelujah for that early church and the many generations of community that have come after her.

 

Holy Spirit,

I wonder how it felt for you to blow through

that place all those years ago,

like a caged bird suddenly sweeping its wings

freely across the world outside.

You were already around,

already present,

but something new happened there

and something steady and good

took place from that day on.

You became a kind of tangible thing

that they’d always longed for

and were probably afraid to know.

But there you were,

and today you’re still sweeping by,

still invading and speaking

and bringing so much

good that we could

never understand it all

with our human hearts.

Still, sweep by us

and into us

and make us

wholly yours.

Amen.