Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hosanna! (Palm Sunday 2015)

Mark 11.9: 

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’  

Mark 15.31: 

In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 

 This morning, as the passion narrative was read, my mind was drawn to the remembrance that "hosanna" has something to do with salvation. There seems to be something lost in translation or vernacular, because the way the crowds used it in welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem doesn't precisely make sense---it doesn't seem to be a cheer of praise or adoration in the way, say, "hallelujah" is---but it does seem these crowds were expecting of Jesus, the healer and teacher and disciple-gatherer, to restore the kingdom of David. Basically, "save us from this Roman occupation!" 

 So, as often happens with my in worship services, I was pondering one specific thing---in this case, salvation and the classic questions like "saved from what, for what?"---and not necessarily paying attention to everything going on. 

But I was jarred back to the service before me as I heard the above verse from Mark 15 read. "He saved others, but he cannot save himself." 

 It jarred me because it was another instance of expecting salvation of a particular kind and not seeing the salvation before us. 

Even more, the second Bible quote reveals something about us and how we expect power to work. If the priests and scribes really believed that Jesus saved others (it's possible, they were mocking Jesus with the first half of the quote), the second half of the sentence reveals their own view on power---what's the point of having it if you don't use it for yourself? 

Except our other reading this morning held this bit (one of my favorite pieces of scripture): 

Philippians 2: 6-7

. . . who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.

What the priests and scribes didn't know---and we much too often forget---is that salvation doesn't come to the one doing the saving, not in the instant. Salvation comes after the one saving, indeed, the one with power to save, is spent, poured out, emptied. 

It may be the hardest lesson to learn, one that the church has failed at both teaching and modeling through the centuries. 

I offer this as a place to begin our Holy Week reflection upon the Passion of Christ. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Faraway -- a book response

Some years ago, a friend who had spent many years being sexually molested by a family member, carefully and haltingly confided in me that part of the shame in being treated like that was that sometimes she liked it. That may be putting it too strongly. She sometimes experienced pleasure. Maybe that's as far as it went. I already feel like I'm putting words in her mouth.

But I carefully and as gently as possible said that made sense to me. Sex is pleasurable, genital stimulation feels good, and even if---maybe especially if---you're being treated like a sex toy, it made sense that you might try to lose yourself in whatever positive thing you could.

I surely don't know. I've been remarkably lucky to not have had that in my childhood.

My friend came to mind, however, as I read Faraway by R.K. Kline and Daniel D. Maurer. Faraway is the story of a summer in the mid-seventies when Kline, a teenager in suburban Missouri, found himself seduced into a life as a gay prostitute, a hustler in public parks and private homes. It starts out as what seems like a sexual adventure, even a burgeoning romance. A gay teenager eager to explore his sexuality would of course find the attentions of an attractive older man exciting and pleasurable. Indeed, part of what made this story compelling was how the authors draw the fine line of expressing the sensuality of the initial experiences while communicating the quick descent into something dangerous and abusive.

Sex feels good and even if it doesn't lead us into prostitution (or keep us in an abusive relationship), I think many adults have had the experience of the promise of pleasure leading to regretful, if less dire, situations.

But this book isn't really about the sex. It's just present, bluntly present, like a baseball bat to your ribs. Terrible things happen in this book, and they happen to minors, and they're heartbreaking, to say the least.

These terrible things happen, however, within the context of friendship and first love---things that most teenagers experience without the terror.

I hesitate to say too much about the story itself. It's something to experience as it unfolds without too much warning about what happens within it.

I will say that it's simply told, without much flash, without much literary pyrotechnics. It's frank. It's clear about what's going on without any attempt to soften the details or turn it into poetry. In current internet jargon, there maybe should be a "trigger warning" on the cover.

I will also say that I read this book in a day. I never do that. I was drawn into this story with the knowledge that the narrator made it out alive and eventually became a Lutheran pastor. I have to say that what kept me engrossed was the wondering how he escaped this circumstance.

Kline was human trafficked without ever leaving home and the circumstances around that had as much to do with how society treats LGBT people, the overt, negative messages we LGBT people receive on a daily basis. As much as he didn't like being a prostitute, the other boy hustlers were people who knew him and treated him like family. There was love among these boys, an unconditional love that Kevin couldn't be certain he would find from his own family.

I would like to think that a book like this would lead people to compassion for teens who find themselves in these dire situations, but I took a look at the reviews on Amazon and found that two reviewers found it self-serving and disgusting, seeing the 14 year old boy in the story as having enough agency to have known better or done differently. So there are heartless jerks in the world. I suppose this isn't news.

But I would highly recommend this book to someone who has a heart, is open to seeing what some people endure, how a search for friendship and love and acceptance can lead to really horrific places. Set aside your judgments and read what is, essentially, a message of hope and restoration. Don't expect to find easy comfort, but do enter into this story with a heart willing to be broken and with a mind willing to see how easily manipulated simple desire can be.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

We All Fall Down - Ash 2015

True story: I woke up this morning singing "ashes ashes, we all fall down."

I know it's a song about the plague, but it still fits pretty well. If we pause to remember, we have to acknowledge that we are ashes and we all fall under the power of death.

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A clergy friend on Facebook pondered today why, of all days in the church year, so many unchurched people want to receive ashes. Why not some more joyous day? Why turn to the church at the start of a penitent season? What does this say about people's expectations and image of the church? 

I'm sure I can't know all the possible reasons. One thing I've observed is that we, as a species, like rituals and I know people who make up their own rituals. That there are people gravitate towards the imposition of ashes is curious. Of all the established rituals of established religion, it's one that emphasizes our mortality, reminds us we will die. It's a powerful ritual, yes, but it's not what one might call "positive" in our culture of positive thinking.

It's also not a sacrament of the church, so perhaps being powerful without the weight of "salvation" talk, some people find it a safe place to experience solemn ritual.

I honestly don't know. But apparently it's common enough to make a clergy person ponder the phenomenon.

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Today, on my lunch hour, I took the MetroRail down to a grocery store for some lunch. There were a significant number of people with black crosses on their forehead. On the train, I observed, more than heard, a conversation between a blond twenty-something young woman and a Hispanic man of similar age. He had a cross on his forehead. I saw her lean in to him and point to his forehead. He seemed both surprised and a little embarrassed. I could tell his response was "It's Ash Wednesday." I could see her lips form the question, "What's that?" I wish I could have heard his response. It was short and it seemed to satisfy her and she settled back into her seat. 

It struck me how secular some parts of our society are now, how Ash Wednesday has to be explained to an adult. I don't have any real judgment about it, but it's a reminder that for some unchurched, all our rituals are foreign. We can't assume that people know something and just choose to ignore it. Some people really don't know. 

It also struck me that there was a priest or pastor somewhere along the rail line who had a really thick thumb. I saw some mighty bodacious ash crosses, all clearly the work of one thumb.  

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I didn't grow up with this ritual. We observed Ash Wednesday, but we didn't impose ashes. In my small town, predominantly German Texas  environment, that was something the Catholics did. No Lutheran would have thought to go about with ashes on their forehead, much less any Methodists or Baptists or Presbyterians (the other main denominations in town, all dwarfed by the Lutherans). I was an adult before I experienced this ritual. I guess it was in the 1980s when Lutherans started giving in to this piece of liturgical adiaphora. Seems strange, now, that we ever observed Ash Wednesday without it. (In my home town, there were no Episcopalians---something else I didn't experience until I was an adult---so there really weren't any other Christians to receive ashes besides the Catholics.) 

By the time I was in seminary, in the early 1990s, it had become a practice in many Lutheran churches. As a seminarian, I recall helping on Ash Wednesday with the ritual. It was all fine and not terribly profound until I had to mark an infant's forehead and tell her she was dust. I think that was the first time I felt the power of the ritual. 

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What is the power of the ritual? It's a little bit like a dance. If it could be expressed simply with words, we would write an essay. Instead, we have this ritual/dance. There are words, yes, but there is also something deeply nonverbal about it. It's physical, it's dirty, it's threatening, it's humbling, it's a very low common denominator. 

You're going to die. You're going to die. You're going to die. You, too. Me, too. 

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Is there some implication of redemption in it? "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Ashes placed on our moist, blood-filled forehead, marking us with the form of a torturous method of execution, claiming that death device as some kind of identifier . . . It's not coming to me. It's not in the text or even really in the action. Maybe it's all the baggage around it, all the history and theology and larger ritual around it that we somehow find it meaningful and, ultimately, redemptive.

The more I type tonight, the more questions I have.

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We're going to die and it's somehow going to be okay. We're going to die and somehow God is in it. We're going to die and we forget this often enough that it's good to have a ritual to remind us, if only once a year, that it's our reality, and it's somehow okay and full of God. 

Maybe that's some small part of the nonverbal content of this ritual. 

I don't know. I'm grateful for the ritual. That is all.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

NES: Ineffinitions

In the world of theater lighting, there is the phenomenon known as "spill." When hanging or focusing lights, the technicians (or techies as they're more familiarly known) work to have the light defining space on stage. The most recognizable example, I suppose, would be the spotlight, and the round pool of light it creates.

It's not uncommon to hear in the theater, in the course of setting the lights, someone say something like, "We have some spill on the edge of the playing area, downstage right." What they mean is that there is light falling where they don't want it to go. It's often faint, diffuse light, bu nonetheless not the effect desired. The techies will employ one instrument or another to get a sharper edge to the light.

(That I am using this analogy has some irony, as I just barely passed my lighting course in college, 30 years ago. I hope that what I've written above is clear enough to the non-theater person and doesn't embarrass myself too badly in front of my techie friends.)

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Theologians are a little bit the lighting designers of the religious world.

This thought came to me as I was reading  The Holy Spirit by Alasdair I.C. Heron. In this book Heron surveys the many ways the Holy Spirit has been portrayed or defined, both in scripture and in the history and doctrines of the church.

Associated with creation, ecstatic praise, prophetic utterances, conversion, and healing---among other things---the Holy Spirit has a history of not being up to any one thing. As the church wrestled with the Trinitarian language we used---particularly in the baptismal formula of "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"---questions arose. Wrangling with how Jesus was the "Son of God" was difficult enough, given our roots in Hebrew religion, but the Holy Spirit, with vague references in Hebrew scripture (usually just "Spirit of God," very seldom "Holy Spirit") seemed simultaneously like a given and an afterthought. We've always thought of God as Spirit, what's to discuss? But, ugh, we've made a deal about the Son being fully human and fully divine. Shouldn't we also say something about this Holy Spirit thing? How do we speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but only define two of them? And so the wrangling and wrestling continued.

A skilled lighting designer can help a team of theater artists direct our eyes to what they want us to see on stage, but it's slippery business. Particles and/or waves don't care much about our defined playing area.

However I go about talking about the Holy Spirit, there's going to be "spill" beyond what I say here. The word "ineffable" comes to mind, quickly followed by the old joke, "don't eff with the Ineffable." The joke seems like good advice, but still here I am.

+ + + + +

I've struggled with this first entry into the Not Exactly Systematic series. I've a notebook with no less than half a dozen false starts and her I have this, still mostly an introduction. 

So I'll close out with a little more introductory verbage. I want to be plain about my biases in my focus going forward, also about my reasons for starting this series with the Holy Spirit, rather than more traditionally with the Father. 

Bias---I believe there is Good News in the Christian faith. I believe the Gospel has the power to transform and enliven our existence. In reading Heron's book, I was struck by the absence of Gospel language. It wasn't absent, but it was not the focus---it was mostly spill. If a theology of the Holy Spirit---pneumatology for us theology geeks---is to have meaning for me, it is in proclamation of Good News. So my attempts in writing about the Holy Spirit will be looking there. Spill will undoubtedly occur. 

Reasons---As I began thinking about this project of writing about the Trinity (or in a broad way, the Creed), it occurred to me that the Holy Spirit is really the "person" that we experience most often or most directly if we experience something at all of God. God the Father is often painted as distant, needing intermediaries (like the Son or Spirit) for us to approach and experience God as Father. Jesus is the Incarnation of God, and we talk of him as being the person of the Trinity that comes near to us (Immanuel) in that this is God experiencing our pains and joys, sufferings and delights. Still, despite knowing an awful lot of Christians, I don't know anyone, personally, who has met the resurrected Christ in the same way that Thomas did, touching the wounds on the Body. I realized that anything I would call an encounter with Jesus was the work of the Holy Spirit revealing it as such. 

So: Good News focus, beginning with the Holy Spirit as the "Person" we're most like to meet first. 

Hopefully, next time, I'll move on beyond introductory material. 

[Moreso than usual, I welcome comments on the NES series. Questions and reactions will help me focus and shape future installments. Thank you for engaging.]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Not Exactly Systematic

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them. [Acts 19:1-7]

This was the second lesson on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, January 11, 2015. After the reader concluded with, "the Word of the Lord" and we responded, "Thanks be to God," I turned to the friend next to me and said, "I dare Lisa (our rector and preacher for the day) to preach on that."

Lisa did not preach on that, working the Mark story of Jesus' baptism. Her sermon was complete with the Marcan ripping open of the heavens, the violent escape of God into the world. It's a good text. It preaches. Lisa did well, as she does regularly. Still, the above text was there in my bulletin and it stood out to me.

"Did you receive the Holy Spirit?"

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The Holy Spirit has been on my mind lately, and I'd just pulled from my shelf a book from my seminary days, The Holy Spirit by Alasdair I. C. Heron. I remembered next to nothing about it but thought it would be a good place to start for---well, I'll get to that. 

Heron's book is basically a commentary on mentions of "Spirit" in the Bible and church history. Sunday evening, I looked in it to see if it had, and it does, an index for Bible passages. I turned to the page that commented upon Acts 19. Heron's concern was less with the question of receiving the Holy Spirit and more with the inconsistent ways "Luke" (the writer of Acts) portrayed the Spirit and the manifestations of this receiving.

This made me rather happy, really, and sort of serves my purposes better than I could have hoped for. 

My purposes being this: My blogging, I often say, is my un-edited writing. It's rough draft writing, rambling and informal. It's not "tight" writing. 

Well, that's a little bit how I am, really, but when I submit to journals and whatnot, the writing is tightened up a bit, brought into better focus. I've been wanting to do this with my blog more. More specifically, I want to do a series of entries that explores some basic doctrines of the Christian faith, my relationship with them, how they've shaped my life---for good and ill. 
Note the faint, pencil middle school signature

As a starting point, I found my Catechism, the one I used in confirmation class at Martin Luther Lutheran Church in the 1970s. Flipping through its pages, I didn't feel any particular pull to explore the Ten Commandments or the Lord's Prayer. The Sacraments? Those have a hold on me, but then there's the Creed . . . 

Well, there it is, isn't it? Credo. I believe. 

So over the next year, I'm going to be reflecting upon the Creed. The Catechism only covers the Apostles' Creed, but I'll be referencing the Nicene Creed just as much, as it has superseded the Apostles' in my consciousness and imagination. (I doubt I'll be moved to look at the Athanasian Creed, but never say never.) I'll be going through the creeds and relating memories and experiences and maybe referencing books like Heron's. 

This may begin to take on a superficial appearance of a "systematic theology." Let's not get crazy. Nothing I do is exactly "systematic." I'm really using the Creed as a way to give my roaming mind some containment. 

Furthermore, I see this exploration as a way to explore my own biography, not an attempt at scholarship. I may consult and reference academic sources---I have a few on my bookshelves---but that consulting will be fairly random, mostly relegated to books already in my apartment (although I've never needed much of a reason to go book shopping). I'm approaching this with the intent of doing serious reading, but again the main point is to explore some of my life in the context of these doctrines. I've said before that I think of myself as an experiential theologian, and experience is more about story and anecdote than scholarship. Another way to put it is that this is theology as memoir. Or memoir as theology. One of those. 

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And the Holy Spirit. 

In the story of the Bible and the articles of the Creed, the Holy Spirit always comes third. The Third Person of the Trinity, yes? In my creedal explorations, I'm starting with the last (almost has a scriptural echo, no?). The Holy Spirit seems to be the active, present "person" of the Creed, the one who keeps me involved in a church, connected to the Body of Christ. 

If I'm going to have even the slightest appearance of systematic theology, it's going to be backward.

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Finally, for tonight, I expect to add to this project at least monthly throughout 2015. I expect to also do the occasional rambly post, probably about something in the news or otherwise immediate. To differentiate the posts that are part of this project, I'll mark them NES---Not Exactly Systematic. It's a working title. It'll work for now.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Christmas Day Twelve 2015

I started this 12 day journey with reflections on sound and how our stories say we are products of God's own Breath.

To be honest, my first inclination for starting the season was with some sort of riff on "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," a Eucharistic hymn that I probably associate with Christmas because it was on John Michael Talbot's Christmas album years ago. It's fitting for a Christmas setting, of course. The nativity is referenced, and it is all about incarnation, both in the person of Jesus and in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

I would refer you to the Wikipedia page for this hymn. I did not know how ancient it is. Interesting stuff. 

Twelfth Night is usually a time for festivities and merriment and here I am wanting to keep silence. Well, I'm often contrary, and I don't have a party to go to, anyway.

But find a recording or 3 of this hymn (JMT's is lovely, but he leaves off the last verse, keeping only the alleluias) or just read the words on the Wikipedia page. It is full of so much of Christian teaching about the incaranation, how it is not only in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but also in the sacrament offered every Sunday (your experience may vary depending upon the denomination and congregation). It even has something for me to argue with in the first verse---or perhaps a tension to resolve. "Ponder nothing earthly minded" even as it tells us "God to earth desendeth." Seems like descending to our estate is precisely the earthly-minded thing to ponder.

But I digress, like I do.

Mortals keep silence, heavenly host cover their faces, God-With-Us is with us!

I think I shall close this year's Christmastide with a moment of silence, save for some alleluias.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christmas Day Eleven 2015

On this eleventh day of Christmas, I'm thinking about our frailty.

I think that when we think about incarnation and the beauty of it, we tend to think in terms of the sorts of bodies we see on the covers of health magazines, or whatever our personal image of the ideal body might be for us.

I do it, too.

But there's no getting around how frail we are and all the ways this fleshiness can be other than ideal.

I thought of it today as I looked at a cake after church and wondered if I wanted the head rush that I now get (not a pleasant experience) as much as I wanted a piece of cake. I decided I did not (but I did have a tiny taste). My diabetes is a reminder that I simply can't enjoy these things like I once could.

Still, that's a small reminder of frailty. I see it other bodies, the aging body, the wheelchair bound body, the medically-tested-and-diagnosed-and-awaiting-surgery-or-worse bodies.

I'm thinking about mortality.

Jesus died at the hands of a harsh system that couldn't let him give people hope. We're going to die, too, maybe not as violently but just as dead.

Jesus, from what we can know of him, seemed to have a fully functioning body up until his arrest and up until his arrest, he was a healer. I feel certain not everyone in Palestine was healed by Jesus, and that seems a little unfair, but whatever the situation, we know Jesus, presumably a healthy man in the prime of his life, was able to offer compassion.

If Jesus did not experience crutches or being bedridden, it appears he did not count his able-bodied status as something to exploited, but reached out to those who were not as well off.

This may be some small part of why we began to revere him as a God who emptied out, gave up all godhood and took on human form. Maybe I'm reaching. I offer it as a point for reflection.

I believe that the Fully Divine Fully Human Jesus, who we call the Son of God, saw in our frail nature the Image of God, the God who hurts, who is sometimes crippled and made unable by circumstances not of God's making.

Young, old, healthy, infirm . . . Jesus saw himself in us and loved us all as children of God.