Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hackberries and Advent

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may already suspect what I'm about to confess: I don't really plan out a blog post very thoroughly. My blogging is the unedited me. For better or for worse, this is all fairly raw writing.

So that last entry about having a hackberry faith . . . I had really some vague intention of tying it into the season of Advent, which (for those of you not observant of the liturgical calendar) began this past Sunday.

Advent is a season of hope and vigilance. We read the "keep watch" kind of passages during this season, reflect on the "you know neither the day nor the hour" kind of things. Yes, it's about watching for Christ, both in preparation for the celebration of the Bethlehem event, but also watching for Christ coming again---and all the ways we can mean that.

And finding myself in this familiar place of having lost faith in the church as institution, I think it's a watchful place to be. I need to pay attention, keep vigilant for when and where the Body of Christ might renew my faith, where it might reveal itself in all it's incarnational wonder and glory.

Tonight was one such event to watch. My congregation gathers on Wednesdays evenings during Advent and sing the Holden Evening Prayer service. It's a lovely, singable (and danceable, I daresay) setting of some of the oldest lyrics known to Christian hymnody. And I was reminded, yes, I do believe in this. This being gathering together and singing. Maybe I don't believe every phrase, but I believe in the singing and praying together.

It's a small and significant thing and I won't belabor it.

Just sit back and smile at the places a new shoot comes up from roots still green.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Hackberry Faith

"Then I say the Lord's Prayer, trying not to recite it, and one morning it occurred to me that a prayer, whether recited or said with concentration, is always an act of faith." ("A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus)

Yesterday, something my pastor said in his sermon made me pull out my pocket notepad and write, "Our faith is a hackberry tree."

For readers who are unfamiliar with the hackberry tree, it is often referred to as a "trash tree." It will "weep" on your car if you park under it. It will send out its roots along the top soil and other trees will sprout up like weeds from one tree. They don't really produce anything of use. No fruit, no useable lumber. They're more a nuisance than anything else.

They're also very hard to kill. Chopping down a hackberry tree is to invite a shrub of sprouts from the routes in the next growing season. I did a web search on "how to kill a hackberry tree," and found the most common suggestions were high powered herbicides (some of them controlled by the government) or kerosene poured on the stump---sometimes a combination of the two was suggested. So you have to poison a small patch of ground to kill a hackberry tree. And because the root system will travel, there's no guarantee that you've absolutely killed it. If it's not in an area that is mowed regularly, it's quite likely that the next growing season will find a sapling (or 3 or 12) a few yards away.

And, of course, when I said "our faith" in my notepad, I was using the first person singular "our," the "royal our," if you will. My faith is a hackberry tree. Of questionable use and hard to kill. A "trash faith."

If you've read the spotty entries in this blog over the last year, you might rightly guess that I'm grumpy, mostly with the institution of the church. It's fair to say that I've lost my faith, really, although where I end up is in this ecclesiastical agnosticism. While I remain a theist (as I did the last time I went through this cycle), believing in God, I'm not sure that I believe in the church. And when you lose faith in the church---a large part of that faith being in the teachings of the church---the theism becomes a little vague.

About twelve years ago, the last time this happened, I would tell people, "I believe in God, I just don't know what I believe about God." That's less true this time, as having gone through this ecclesiastical agnosticism before, I feel somewhat secure that I've rebuilt a theology that is a little more solid than what I had before the first loss of faith. Still, I hear things said with such appalling certainty that I end up wondering if I can say I'm a Christian. I can say I have a "Jesus thing going on," I can even say that I want to follow Jesus---I'm just not sure how much I can say I'm a Christian, given all the things I hear being said about what a Christian is.

This is not terribly unsettling to me. I'm not worried about it, honestly. I puzzle over it, especially when I'm sitting in church, filling a role as "assisting minister" and questioning every third line that I lead the congregation in saying. I puzzle over my integrity, over my hypocrisy in doing this. But it's not worrisome.

I suppose it was more unsettling last time, but having gone through it before, I know there is little bad to come from it and some good to be found. I take comfort in the line above, from Andre Dubus' much-anthologized story. An uncertain faith is still expressed as a faith, even when it's not done with full attention and conviction.

And so, barring someone coming along with kerosene and herbicide, I trust my trash faith will sprout again. And I shouldn't be so hard on the hackberry tree. It will provide shade, no small thing in a place like Texas. In fact, I hope this open expression of doubt will offer some comfort. If I have experienced one recurring theme among the unchurched, it's their discomfort with certainty. Well, here's my uncertainty. It's an expression of faith, actually, and by some accounts, it's not a very useful faith. But settle here for a bit. Find some cooling comfort here, especially if you've been burned by certainty. Even if it's a severely pruned faith, it'll bush out again soon enough.

‘For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.

Job 14:7

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Equus / Worship

From Equus by Peter Shaffer, Act II, Scene 25:

HESTER: Worship isn't destructive, Martin. I know that.
DYSART: I don't.

As of this writing, I'm halfway through a two-weekend run of Equus at the University of Houston-Downtown (where I currently work). I play the father of the young man who is central to the story.

The young man in question, Alan, has taken a religious impulse and focused it on horses, building a rather complex theology around his "god-slave," Equus. In the end, the theology results in a violent attempt to destroy the god. Still, the psychiatrist treating Alan, Martin Dysart, recognizes that what's at the center of Alan's religious impulse is a need to worship. Something.

The above exchange smacks me against my head every performance. "Worship isn't destructive, Martin. I know that."

"I don't."

As someone who has had a lifelong impulse toward worship---one that I've embraced and fought at different times in my life.---I'm left to ponder how destructive it may or may not be. In the context of the play, we have Dysart dreaming of being a priest in ancient Greece, sacrificing children. The dream doubles as an expression of question his own profession as a child psychiatrist and as a yearning to have some powerful way to respond to something larger than himself, something that he feels but doesn't allow himself to express.

In my own tradition of Christianity, we have remnants of this bent towards destructive worship. Rooted in the Hebrew tradition of slaughtering lambs, goats, or doves in worship of God, we have references to the Lamb of God, Jesus, who we celebrate as having died for our sake. We even have a ritual meal that, no matter how you deconstruct it, has the surface appearance of ritual cannibalism.

Of course, the Eucharist is hardly a wild ceremony, nothing compared to Alan's midnight rides on his horse-god. People do not approach the communion rail with anything like the abandon of Alan howling in the mist, riding naked on the back of Equus.

I don't even know what to say about that. I mostly just lift it up as something to consider. It may be that worship can be destructive and it may be that taming it down to our slow line toward the communion rail is a reasonable maturing of the sacrificial language of ancient religion. Or not.

Again, the context of the play: Alan, the son of a very religious mother and an atheist father, finds no way to please either. He gravitates toward the bloodier aspects of Christianity, and when his father rips a particularly gruesome picture of Christ's approach to Calvary off Alan's bedroom wall, Alan replaces it with a photo of a horse his father brings home from his printing business. And so Alan's religious focus shifts, or rather the shift is completed, a shift that started years earlier with a childhood encounter with a horse. His mother gave him a religious impulse, his father gave him a new focus for it.

I've seen people describe Equus as a play about a boy who falls in love with a horse. Alan falls in love with a horse in the same way Teresa of Avila fell in love with Jesus---which is to say, horses became the medium for Alan's mystical experience. The "love" is sensual only in the sense that ecstatic experience is sensual---which it is and it certainly can feel sexual. Teresa didn't shy away from that and neither does Alan.

So is what Dysart calls "worship" really mystical experience? And is it destructive? Hester knows it isn't. Dysart doesn't.

I don't know that I could clear it up for them.

Later in the same scene, Dysart says, " . . . Without worship you shrink, it's as brutal as that . . . I shrank my own life." This also smacks me against my head. Worship . . . Awe . . . Wonder . . . Fear . . . Reverence . . . These are the words that come to mind, and if I'm reading Shaffer something like right, these are the things that make our lives expansive. One might even say, abundant. I think I can say that when I've tried to stay away from worship, something was missing. I might not have said I shrunk from the absence, but perhaps absence is a kind of shrinking.

I'm devolving into word play.

Devolved as I am, I am left with these words and they worry me like a pebble in my shoe, even as my big toe worries the pebble. What is worship? Is it destructive or expansive? Are those words mutually exclusive?

If we can choose, how do we care for our worship life, nurture it, so that it is a vital and compelling as Alan's wild midnight rides and as expansive and fulfilling as Dysart hopes it is?