Monday, May 23, 2011

Rapture Thoughts

This whole rapture business has been interesting, especially with the aid of social media. Facebook gave me multiple opportunities to laugh and ponder.

Let's divide this up a bit.

The Laughter, the Silliness, the Scorn

It's hard to not enjoy an event that gives us the phrase "rapture prank."

I enjoyed the idea of putting out empty clothing, laid out to look like the former occupant had evaporated (presumably to meet Jesus in the sky in the altogether). I much further enjoyed the idea of putting dry ice in the clothes so they appeared to be smoking.

I sort of dared someone to run a car into a lamppost and leave it running, empty. Found no takers.

I hadn't really read up on the predictions and I asked innocently what time zone were we supposed to be watching for the passing of 6:00 p.m. I was told that it was supposed to happen as each time zone turned 6:00 p.m. The brought to mind an image of Jesus standing stationary somewhere in the sky with a big Hoover, sucking people up as the world turned below him.

Obviously, it was hard for many of us to take this rapture business seriously.

Of course, some people got ugly about it, and maybe I crossed that line a time or two. It's easy to mock, to heap scorn on a belief that we don't share. That it's a grossly misguided belief is beside the point. Some people pointed to the prophets who sometimes made some disparaging remarks towards people who weren't quite clear on the concept of God's expectations. It might be said even Jesus wasn't too verbally gentle with the Pharisees. To me there's a qualitative difference between putting out empty suits of clothes and calling another human being rather mean-spirited names, but then maybe that's because I find one funny and the other less so. Perhaps to the person who held the belief in a rapture, we all look the same.

Which brings me to another reflection.

Sometimes, We Expect the Wrong Thing

Everyone who has had any faith in God has been disappointed. Maybe that's too broad a blanket statement, but I think it's pretty close to the truth.

I'm including here the childish faith I had when, as a kid, I really really wanted to fly. Well, I wanted to be a superhero, but I really wanted to fly. I wanted to believe that if I asked with a sincere heart and truly believed, with no hint of doubting, that God would let me fly. I would go out into our pasture (out of sight from the house) and I would run, expecting that the ground would fall away from my feet. I knew God could make me fly, I promised I would use the ability for good, and and and . . . and I'm really glad I didn't believe enough to go try jumping off the barn.

But I also have to include all the prayers for healing that end in funerals, all the prayers for conception that end in miscarriage or stillbirth, all the trust that God will provide even as you're losing your house because you can't find a job.

Somewhere in this range fall the people who really believed they'd figured out the Second Coming. They really believed. They quit jobs, they sold off possessions and used the money to warn unbelievers. They believed with a belief that I've never really had. They jumped off the barn while I just ran around the pasture.

And there's a part of me that aches for them in their disappointment. There's part of me that even understands the people who are saying "we miscalculated" or who say "no, the rapture happened and now the world is going to shatter in October and we've been left behind to suffer these last days." I doubt I'd have much patience in their presence, but at a distance, I can ache for their disappointment.

Because we've all believed things, wished for things that were simply the wrong thing to wish for. Some people lose faith, stop believing altogether. Some of us would like to except for the pieces of the miraculous that remain, bearing witness in the face of the disappointment. It's a hard thing to let go of something we believed in with our whole heart.

I contend that God is good and, sometimes, in letting go, our hands open up to receive something better. Not always, but sometimes.

Crazy Stories

John Dornheim, a pastor friend, posted on Facebook yesterday (in response to a thread I started about Harold Camping) the following response:

"Stepping outside of the story, I am wondering about the fact that I routinely stand in front of a purportedly like minded people and remind them of an incredible story, one of which they are well familiar, and expect them to respond in a particular manner which includes the financial support of the organization as well as spending significant portions of their time "telling" others. Why do people really respond to a really crazy person like Harold and a moderately crazy person like myself gets a 'are you effing nuts-you want me to do what?' stare?

I mean, is the story I tell more or less credible than his?"

(Another pastor friend immediately "liked" this.)

This struck me as not only true, but a bit of a poignant cry from the mainstream of Christianity.

The thing is, the story of Jesus is an amazing story, or even more precisely, the stories Jesus told are amazing stories. Sure, he had a moment or two of apocalyptic speech, but for the most part, he told these really unbelievable stories about the poor being blessed, the peacemakers being children of God, the naked being clothed, the hungry being fed. He insisted that the Reign of God was right here, at hand.

Think about the context of this insisting. A brutal Empire ruled with an iron fist (however covered in velvet is might be at times). There were all kinds of ways that the world was scary---how many of us would not be terrified in a world lit only with fire? How many of us wouldn't cry out for God's help in a world where a sound in the darkness might be a wild beast or a thief? In a world where people routinely made deals with God in the face of natural disaster and meteorological phenomenon (our responses to flooding rivers and endless tornadoes are tempered some, it seems to me, by a better understanding of the science behind them), Jesus---and the prophets before him---had the temerity to speak of God in terms of loving kindness, of gentleness, in terms of a father's or a mother's care.

And some people believed him, as I imagine some people believe John (and the pastor who "liked" his post).

But too many people are fascinated by wrath. Too many people are ready to see God in the storm than in the stillness.

And there you have the rapture folk. They can't quite believe the more incredible story of being blessed by mourning, by being naked, by making peace, by being hungry for righteousness. There's too much evidence for them that God is wrathful and they miss the truly prophetic notion that, in the words of another friend, we are awesome and we are loved---loved by a God of mercy, grace, kindness. All of us, not just select few who are going to get Hoovered into the sky.

(I don't know if I really need to, but I pause to point out that this whole rapture business is a rather late addition to Christian thought and, to be blunt, comes from a group of barely literate, superstitious folk in the 19th century. Superstitious folk like the wrath, it seems. And since then, lots of people have made a lot of money off this notion. I also pause to admit---going back to the second section above---that I was a teenaged Hal Lindsey fan.)

Love is a hard sell. It doesn't make for great special effects in the movie adaptation.

And it is apparently much harder to believe in than wrath.

But people---my friend John isn't effing nuts.

Turn around. The Reign of God is at hand. Believe the Good News.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chance Operations and Improvisation

The way Merce Cunningham and John Cage worked together would have, once upon a time, terrified me. Cunningham would make his movement, Cage would make his sound, and then put it together for the first time on opening night, before a live, paying audience. Cage and Cunningham said dance and music were two separate things that happened to be occurring at the same time.

I had to do this recently with a few young people at my congregation. For Easter Vigil, for the assigned Isaiah reading, I turned the reading into something of a choral reading for three willing kids, ages 13 and under. I asked a high school student who is studying dance to choreograph something to go with the reading. They four were in the same room at the same time only briefly. I worked with the readers, I worked with the dancer to help her set her choreography. They never had so much as a run through together before the Vigil.

It's not how I prefer to work and maybe the kids were a little nervous about it, too. Somehow, it worked, and it worked amazingly well. I could not have predicted how well it would have worked. It was beautiful in ways I never expected.

Cunningham and Cage spoke of "chance operations" (which really means something much bigger and broader than what I describe here, but I'll leave it here for now). I prefer to rehearse all elements of something, rehearse it all together, make sure it's all together where I want it to be, leaving very little to chance. But I can't deny that Cunningham and Cage's way of working works.

+ + +

This morning (Sunday), during the offering, I noticed some slight misstep in rhythm. I guess we were short an usher or something and I think one usher enlisted his granddaughter, who was an acolyte, to help him with the offering. It's not how it's supposed to go, but as I watched it, the grandfather smiling and making a quick step to get someone who was missed, I thought, "It works. It's improvised and not according to guidelines, but it works and there are smiles and we remain church even when an acolyte plays usher."

In grad school, one of my classmates, Kelly, had been in an improvisation performance group. She gave our cohort a workshop in improvisation. As a theater major, I had always been terrified of improvisations and just accepted that I was bad at it. Well, I'm still not great at it, but for the first time, Kelly gave me a framework for at least understanding how improvisation works. The one big piece she gave me that I'd never heard before was that improvisation wasn't about being clever and especially quick on your feet (although that no doubt helps), but it was about approaching your cast mate with the attitude of "yes, and." Instead of derailing each other with new and weirder pieces, a good improvisation practitioner goes along with each other, never contradicts, never says "no" to the direction they're heading, but always says, "yes, and." (It can get plenty weird with that.)

I think that happened this morning. The acolyte said, "yes, and" to her grandfather and if it wasn't what was planned, we remained the church.

+ + +

Sometimes, things that hit me as a big lesson look dumb on the screen. Yes, of course, the church goes on and won't be brought down because an acolyte plays usher one Sunday. What I'm getting at, is that these little thing remind me of larger things. It reminded me of Kelly and it reminded me of "yes, and."

Life is full of unexpected . . . things. Loss of jobs, loss of health, loss of loved ones. New jobs, healing, new loved ones also come unexpected. Each, in their own way, can traumatize, paralyze, make you shift gears because you can't take this curve at that speed.

But, as I like to say, we can't control everything. Or much of anything, really.

So we work on our movement and have to hope someone else's sound will work with it. We can make our plans (and to be clear---sometimes a well-placed "no" is needed before the "yes, and" but that's another blog post), but in the moment we sometimes have to grab some help or make a quick step or two.

Maybe it won't always work, but sometimes something amazingly beautiful happens and we move forward into Eucharist despite it all.