Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bread Thoughts

Today marked the beginning of a series of readings from the Gospel According to John about Jesus and bread. "I am the bread of life."

For those who do not know, nearly 3 years ago, I spent 6 nights in the hospital, due to a clogged artery. Long story short, no surgery was required, but I have a stint in a vessel on my heart. And my GP has me on a diet to help keep my body from producing cholesterol. In short, low-carb. In his words, "You need to treat bread as toxic."

It was the first thing I thought of today as we're hearing the story of the multiplication of the bread loaves (and fishes---good for the heart, so maybe it balances out).

I wish I had something deep and meaningful to say about that. Seems like there's some theological comment to be made, some way to say, "Yes, but Jesus is the Bread of Life. Not toxic like your dinner roll." Sort of how people insist that God is absolutely Father, even if people had terrible abusive fathers. "But God is the Good Father."

I guess mostly, it's a reminder that not all analogies work for everyone. And I've never been a huge fan of bread anyway.

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Alarmingly, at least to me, it's not all about me.

My pastor had a good sermon on the text, pointing out that the multiplication of loaves is the only story in each of the 4 canonical gospels (makes you think this story really caught the first century imagination) and that explanations for the miracle (such as people started sharing what they had and revealed that among them, they had more than enough even though it first looked like they had nothing) are irrelevent because in the end, there were still plenty of leftovers.

Abundance is there. A small gift is multiplied and abundance, to paraphrase a common phrase, happens.

It was a good reminder for me today. Ever since my trip to Durham, I've been in a funk, feeling rather discouraged. I heard stories from people at the top of their field eking out an existence and people who have given their lives to art looking at their twilight years with less security than most people who lost millions on Wall Street last year. Even though all of these people spoke of not trading their lives for anything, I've been angry and depressed (seldom at the same time because it's a little difficult to pull off) that this is how our culture treats people who sacrifice their lives to create beauty and/or mirrors to the world though their art.

More to the point (because even though it's not all about me, I'm shockingly gifted at making it all about me), I felt like there was little point to the effort. I've been writing for years, doing some performing, and (outside a few people who seem to have been truly affected by a couple of things I've done) it all seems like useless energy. Millions of dollars are going to be spent on making another explosion movie and millions of dollars are going to be spent going to see it, and people with deeper, more subtle messages are going to be ignored.

Why bother with my meager gifts? Why pretend all the energy expended is worth it?

Because, I'm reminded today, God takes the outrageous scarcity of our lives and multiplies. In the illogical arithmetic of grace, the scarcity, the poverty of our lives becomes abundant life.
I've experienced it over and over. So why do I let these things get me down? Call it my personal sin. My sin of discouragement. Which in turn becomes a sin of stinginess. My loaf of bread isn't appreciated anyway, so why give it? What I have to give isn't appreciated anyway, why offer it?
I'm reminded that however poorly my loaf is received, I still need to present it, put it out there, let it go. God does the multiplication. God holds the calculator here, and I don't know how the miracle happens, but the knowing how is irrelevent. To mix metaphors (and parables), I can only sow the seed I have, however poor. I won't know or maybe even see who gets to reap the harvest.

Sisters and brothers, let us re-dedicate ourselves to putting in our loaves. Let us re-dedicate ourselves to planting.

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Silliness: Sometime ago, and I believe this was a true story although I can't footnote it, I read a story about a group of Bible translators working with some culture that didn't have a grain-based diet and hence, no bread. Without bread a staple, phrases like "I am the bread of life" make little sense. Turns out that this culture did have a starchy staple, however: the sweet potato. So the translators translated Jesus' words into: "I am the sweet potato of life."

It kind of sheds new light (here comes the silliness) on all of the "I Yam" sayings . . .

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Network and Community

Still in Durham and pondering a question. Maybe someone here has some ideas. Ponder with me, if you will.

I've been here two weeks and meeting wonderful people, people I hope will remain in my circle for years to come. They're from all across the U.S. and all have really interesting lives.

I'm also meeting people who travel so much for their work that they are only home for maybe 3 months of the year. One even spoke of having a home in one city, but his life wasn't really there anymore. He made it sound exciting and enviable.

It hit upon something I've been wondering about myself lately. Now, I'm an introvert and I can be content to sit in my apartment alone for a fairly extended amount of time. No one has ever used the word "gregarious" to describe me (so far as I know). So maybe this is idiosyncratic to me and my personality and more extroverted people feel differently.

But I wonder . . . sometimes, as little as I travel, I have still felt like I have more of a network than a community. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by that, at least insofar as I don't know that how I'd define the two words with great precision. I simply throw it out there, wondering if anyone else feels that way, especially in this world where we have a million ways to be connected but are so seldom present to one another.

Anyone else feel this way? What are you doing about it---that is, if you feel like there's something to be done.

Just thinking at the keyboard tonight . . .

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Theology and the Body

I'm writing this from the campus of Duke University, where I am participating in the Institute for Dance Criticism as an NEA fellow at the American Dance Festival.

Watching all these moving bodies (I've so far seen 4 different dance companies and will see 2 more before I leave) leads me to some contemplation on Christian language. Jesus is the incarnation of God. We believe in the resurrection of the body. Collectively, we are the Body of Christ. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. And at the risk of taking some literal liberties, we also speak of being made in the image of God. This might mean many things to many people, but is often illustrated with human faces (not, I'm quick to point out, human feet or hands or torsos---and I wonder if only our eyes are made in the image of God or could possibly our knees tell us something of God's image, or, for that matter our large intestines as well as our hearts).

In the room full of dance critics, there was a brief discussion of the dominant western performance dance form---ballet---and how it reflected the rigid and restrictive philosophy of the west, i.e. Christian theology. There was some contrasting discussion about, say, African dance forms, which are considered more "earthy," perhaps in part because there is a belief that the gods are in the earth, not up in heaven. Ballet is all about lifting the body upward in space, the torso rigid and all expression taking place in perfectly placed arms and legs. Beautiful, perhaps, but hardly earthy.

I listened carefully to the conversation, not really knowing what to say. I could theologically counter most of the assertions about Christianity, but I also couldn't deny the history of ballet. I simply said that this was, in part, why I preferred the 20th Century invention of Modern Dance. I love the weight of the body. I love how gravity can be played with in physical expression. Any further discussion would have led to a discussion about theology in particular and I recognized this as a slight diversion from our more focused discussion on dance, so I left it at that.

Talking about dance leads to talking about bodies. One woman reveals she wanted to be a ballerina, but was too tall. Someone mentions how beautiful another woman looked on stage, but appeared frighteningly thin close up. I don't need to detail the discussions of men in tights. None of these things have anything to do with the art of dancing and yet it is all inescapable. These are the bodies that incarnate the ideas of choreographers. These ideas, however abstract or literal, are expressed with these masses of muscle, blood, bone, and nerve. These are the bodies that entertain, challenge, entice, and repulse us.

We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, dancers remind us of the beauty we embody. At other times, we are reminded that our beautiful bodies expectorate, defecate, copulate, ejaculate . . . stop me before I rhyme again, but you get the idea. Some of the work I've seen here in Durham has reminded me of the beauty and the disgust of the body, nearly all at once. What a mixed up piece of work we are! And yet, we hold the image of God. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe this says something more about God than we usually like to think about.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (I amused myself by scribbling on my notebook the other day: "The dance critics motto: And the flesh became word.") I think a lot about dance in relation to incarnation. More and more, I think this has less to do with extreme flexibility and highly developed virtuosity (I appreciate both), and more to do with the deep expression of the spirit moving the muscle, blood, bone, and nerve. Spirit moves a body, taking pleasure in the moving---moving itself and moving others, in all the ways we can be moved. We find physical ways to express the inexpressible, from exuberant alleluias to groans too deep for understanding and every shade of life in between.

And that's as close to a conclusion as I can come to tonight. More fervently than usual, I invite ruminations on this topic.