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.

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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. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Christmas Day Ten 2015

Earlier this week, a friend emailed me and asked if I had any interest in seeing England's National Theatre broadcast of DV8 Physical Theatre's John, shown here in Houston at the Sundance Cinema. I immediately said yes, knowing nothing about it other than the words "physical theater." The showing was today.

I'm not aware of anyone in Houston producing physical theater currently (and would welcome correction on this matter), but when I was in Chicago, there were a couple of companies practicing it. Resting uncomfortably somewhere between dance theater and, well, theater-theater, I find it a form difficult to define (and I'm sure there are those who would be happy to do it for me). It's a nearly redundant term, as all theater is physical, requiring live bodies doing various things from standing still to crossing a stage, but this takes the physicality beyond what the dance world would call "pedestrian movement." Indeed, physical theater involves pedestrian movement (walking, running, sitting, and natural hand gestures), but it also evokes another layer of meaning or emotion by incorporating movement and physicality that would be unusual to see on a city street.

Best you just google some video about it.

What struck me about watching this production was how they took a man's life and expressed his stories with visuals that he would never have imagined. The comfort of these performers with themselves was remarkable, most of the men being fully nude at different points in the production as well as taking on movement vocabulary both plain and extraordinary.

And I will pause to say that as a gay man, I found most of them, and a couple in particular, to be quite beautiful in the nude.

But this nudity business, it's such an issue for us, isn't it? Apparently more so for us in the United States. I hear it's less of an issue in Europe, but having never lived there, I can't say for sure from personal experience. All I know is that here, naked skin is both treated with shame and used to sell most every kind of product. The Genesis stories make it plain that part of being knowledgeable is to be ashamed of nakedness, and yet we're "cursed" with desire for one another. (One of my seminary professors noted that these are conditions of the fall, not conditions of creation nor, presumably, restoration and redemption.)

But back to taking a man's life---the text spoken by the main character is reportedly verbatim from an interview with a real man---and creating this physical theater piece to display it. It struck me very much as an incarnational act, but a peculiar kind. This flesh and blood person gave inspiration to this hyper-flesh-and-blood performance. His words became performance.

My relationship with myself is awkward. I'm aging for one---and since I've always been attracted to middle aged men, I'm only now beginning to see myself as potentially attractive while also being aware that what a lot of people see is just a middle aged man. I've had a couple of surgeries in the last two years that have left my abdomen scarred---indeed, my navel is gone, my birth scar replaced by a scalpel's scar. I take many pills everyday to keep both diabetes and heart disease in check. I can't do things, physically, that I could do 10 years ago. I spend a little more time thinking about what I eat than I would like.

For starters.

Yet, last night, I was having dinner with a friend and two of her friends, who I met for the first time at this dinner. My friend was saying how amazed she was at my willingness to get in front of an audience and perform. She, on the other hand is very comfortable with engaging with strangers. I said, I would be happy to get on our table and strip down naked for the world to see, but please don't ask me to go talk to strangers at another table.

I feel like these thoughts are connected, but I admit, I was hoping a point would emerge by now . . .

Bodies. Incarnation. We don't know how to relate to the world around us without a body. Plenty of people like to say they are not their body, but I'm pretty sure so much of my identity is shaped and defined by the fact that I have bodily attributes like my pale skin, my blond hair, my genitals.

For starters.

It is the seat of my identity and my pain and my beauty and my limitations.

And in this season, we celebrate it, but I think we celebrate is in ways that don't penetrate very deeply. We like to, both, think about and avoid talking about sexual characteristics---so much of it bound up in shame, humor, or power. We definitely don't like to think about what happens after we swallow our food, but I can say with some personal certainty that being able to pass gas or have a bowel movement after a surgery (or perhaps just for those people who experience chronic constipation) is a moment of great celebration and gratitude.

More than our celebrating our personal fleshiness, we Christians teach that God, the creator of all creation, became one of us. The Dei, took on the Imago and dwelt among us other created images.

It's mysterious and wonderful and kind of gross.

Beautiful. It's also beautiful.

This is a bit of a journey from seeing a performance by a physical theater company, but there it is. The wonder of a body articulating in creative ways, both fully clothed and fully nude, spoke to me of incarnation and Jesus and pain and pleasure and life and death.

Make of it what you will.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas Day Nine 2015

This blog post is a total cheat. I forgot about it and realized I won't have time to write anything even semi-thoughful later.

It's January 2, 2015, and I'm about to go engage in my most favorite incarnational experience: dancing.

It's a worthy way to meditate on our flesh-ness. Some call it carnal, and it can be that, too, but I seldom have more joy when I engage my muscle and bone and breath in the simple act of movement with other people.

I highly recommend it.