Books and Reading

A different perspective…

Most of my activities lately have been devoted to changing my perspective.  I am not always been conscious of that purpose when I start out but as with most things that purpose is always clear in hindsight.  That purpose applies especially to my studies over the last year and to all of my travels too.  There is little that is as perspective-altering as a trip to Israel for a person of professed Christian faith.

So imagine my surprise (or was it frustration?) when I realized that even the things I’m choosing for enjoyment lately fall into the perspective challenging category.  After years of waiting, my old friend, composer Mark Adamo, premiered his new opera, Mary Magdalene, at the prestigious San Francisco Opera.  Mark, who writes his own librettos for his operas, followed the outlier trend in scholarship that Mary M. was, well, more than a disciple, if you catch my drift.  A not unknown perspective, but probably different for a lot of people who hear it.  I was really sorry that my schedule did not allow me to hear the opening in person, but you can read the review from the San Francisco Chronicle if you are interested.

The issue of perspective seems to plague my relax time reading as well.  I just finished the very interesting, if a bit mind-bending Liar’s Gospel by British author Naomi Alderman.  Yes, you are right, even in my relax time I don’t really stop working.  But Alderman’s book is all about perspective — she writes a story for us about what the liarsgospelministry of Jesus might have looked like to the people all around him.  She tells the story of a mother who mourns the loss of a son while trying to rebuild her life after his very public execution, all the while not really understanding just what his life was all about.  She then tells us the story through the eyes of Judas, a Judas who faked his death after the Crucifixion and went on to live in luxury off the tales of his betrayal of Jesus.  We hear perspective of Caiaphas,  who handed Jesus over to the Romans for judgement and execution.  And finally, we hear the perspective of Barrabas, the prisoner saved from execution by the choice of the crowd (Mark 15:6-15, Matthew 27:15-26, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38-19:16), who tells not only that story but a story that continues the tale of the Jewish revolt against Roman domination up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself.

There is so much that I like about this book — I like Alderman’s use of transliterated Hebrew spellings of all the names;  I liked that everything about it reminded us that the roots of our faith are Jewish and linked forever with the theology of the Hebrew Bible; I liked the feeling and sense of real place that comes through each and every page (which was probably heightened for me by the fact that I was just there).  But what I really liked was the perspective of it all.  How she did it, I cannot imaging, but Alderman really succeed at putting the kind of distance into her perspective that is what each of us experiences daily as history of great importance swirls all around us.  We have no more knowledge of the ongoing importance of what we experience than does any character in this book, or in the Gospels themselves, for that matter.  We are human, we cannot possibly understand the story of faith and history in which we live.

And finally, Alderman’s book presents that kind of scholarly skepticism that I hold dear…that statement that despite all the things we can not know, despite our suspicion that not every word of this book we devote our lives to studying is absolute truth, despite the gnawing in the pit of our stomach when we suspect some story or another about the God made Flesh that we call Jesus — that none of this matters in the face of the Great Commandment, to love our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  None of it matters in the face of the power of love.

That’s the thing about perspective — it does not change truth, but it may help us a little bit with our understanding.  And so, as I continue to mull over the many ways in which my perspective on faith and life is stretched and changed daily, I leave you with an excerpt from The Liar’s Gospel. … just in case, you, too, are looking for a little push to the way you look at life:

Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie. Every story could be told in four different ways, or forty or four thousand. Every emphasis or omission is a kind of lie, shaping a moment to make a point. So when, between thirty-five and seventy years after Yehoshuah’s death, Mark and then Matthew and then Luke the complier and then John the theologian came to tell their stories it was as well for them to exonerate the Romans, who ruled the empire they lived in, and to blame the Jews, whose wickedness had clearly caused the destruction of their holy city. It was as well for them to add in perhaps a line here or there in which Yehoshuah had predicted that the Temple would fall, that the city would fall. This made him look wiser, as it made the Jews look worse for not believing, even in the face of such clear evidence. Nothing happened without a reason. …

Once upon a time there was a man, Yehoshuah, whose name the Romans changed to Jesus, for that sat more easily on their tongues. There may well indeed have been such a man, or several men whose sayings are united under that one name. Tales accreted to him, and theories grew up around and over him. He became, like Caesar, the son of a god. Like the god Tammuz, or the god Ba’al, or like Orpheus, also the son of a god, it was said he died and rose again. Like Perseus, he was born of a woman who had never known a man. He was turned into a god and certain things were lost and certain things were added.

And when one peels away the gilding and the plaster and the paint that were applied to him, what remains? So much of what he said, he took from the Torah of the Jews. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is an old Jewish ideal. But Yehoshuah was unique, in his time and place, for saying, “Love your enemy.” It is a dreamer’s doctrine. Visionary, astonishing. And a hard road, in times of war and occupation. If all involved had listened to those words, matters would have fallen out quite differently. And if those who claimed to follow him later had dedicated themselves to that one thing—“ Love your enemy”— much bloodshed might have been avoided. But perhaps the idea was too difficult, for it is not much observed, even to this day. Easier to prefer one’s friend to one’s enemy. Easier to destroy than to build or to keep a thing standing. And so the Temple burned. The walls of Jerusalem fell. The people were scattered into exile in ten lands and ten times ten. And they took with them their unusual stubbornness and their distinct ways. And a book walked those same paths, from synagogue to synagogue at first, telling a tale of how miraculous one man had been and how evil those who rejected him were, and therefore bringing good news for some and bad for others. This was how it ended. And all the sorrow that came after followed from this.

Alderman, Naomi (2013-03-12). The Liars’ Gospel: A Novel (p.259- 260). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

 

I was never that good at math…

I was never that good at math, at least not since my high school algebra teacher, Mr. Hoskins, accused me of having my father do my homework for me while I was out sick (he just couldn’t believe that a GIRL would come back from a week away with all her equations completed — and why did he think my mother called every day to get the homework assignment…and clearly, he never ever met my father if he thought that HE had done the homework…and clearly I still have unresolved issues about this episode).    And so imagine my surprise when I realized that my life and even my journey of faith has been limited and in some ways derailed by a series of equations that I held to be truths.

But as I continue to spend my last few days of  quiet considering the meaning and manifestation of God’s call in my life,  I am now ready to add a new understanding to my recent acceptance that the equation call does not equal bliss is true. Another new idea for me:  God’s call does not relate my response to the divine call  in a one-to-one-relationship.That might seem obvious to some, but as I think and pray about it, I realize that it has not been obvious to me.  I am the kind of person who takes a psychological test or fills out a spiritual gifts inventory and wrapping_paper-equationshas a result that is nearly equal in all categories. This has left me tied up in knots, waiting for that one right answer to the intense tug that God exerts on my life, waiting for one gift or ability to shine through the pack and say “This way.”  I have continued to wait when perhaps I was ready to move, simply because I was waiting for one, unified response. 

As a musician, call and response always meant something very specific to me — it means a type of singing, most often used in spirituals or folk music, where the cantor or leader sings a line followed by the congregation singing a response.  This is different from the teaching method often called “lining it out”, where the leader sings a line and then the congregation repeats that line, eventually learning the whole song.  In call and response singing, the relationship between call and response is one-to-one.  An example that most of us will know is the spiritual “Swing Low,  Sweet Chariot“.  In its original form, the line “Comin’ for to carry me home” was most often sung by the assembly, that is, it was the response to the line before.  Today we rarely sing it that way.

Silly me, I thought everything operated that way.  God sings; I sing in response.  As often happens, though,  I was totally wrong. That one to one relationship isn’t even true in the musical form of call and response.  Yes, of course you can see it as one call and one response, but the truth is that the leader issues the call and then the multitude provides the response.  Not a one-to-one relationship after all, really.

Along this journey of discovery, I’ve released a lot of human ideas about a lot of things.  I’ve allowed my understanding of the possibilities of what an answer might be to expand, I’ve worked hard to release human limitations and opinions, I’ve sat for months and years in a place of not-knowing and not-planning — just to allow the call to speak clearly and to minimize the manipulation and influence that can come from my human self.  And through all that, I have believed that I was waiting to hear with clarity the ONE thing that I was supposed to do in answer to that call.

Now I know that  I had another bad equation in my head.  That equation:  God’s call = single, clear response = wholeness. Much of my life has been a quest for wholeness and continuing work of repairing the fracturing of my youth.  But I misunderstood; I misunderstood the equation and I misunderstood the meaning of wholeness.  And once again, it took Parker Palmer to make it clear for me.  In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker stands with Thomas Merton in believing that there is a wholeness hidden in all things and that our intuitive knowledge that such wholeness exists leads many of us to seek the places where we can understand that truth (for Parker, it is the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota).   And then he adds this reminder:

Wholeness does not mean perfection:  it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.  Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours–need not be a Utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

Silly me.  Oh, so silly me.  The real equation looks more like this: many gifts = many responses = one call = wholeness.   I had it all wrong.   God sings, and I sing in response, but I do not sing just one song.   My musical response will be more like that of Bobbie McFerrin — one voice as a lot of different instruments, making one beautiful sound.  One voice, many sounds, one symphony in perfect harmony…that is my hope for today, anyway.

 

Was Santa at the Council of Nicea?

Okay, maybe that is a silly title, but it got your attention.  You see, just before Thanksgiving, I received an early Christmas present in the mail — an intriguing copy of The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus by Adam C. English of Campbell University.

English does a masterful job of  weaving together the stories that make up the life of St. Nicholas of Myra.  His goal is to separate what we know about the lives of  St. Nicholas of Myra and St. Nicholas of Symeon, two very separate early Christians who over the years have been joined into a legendary third St. Nicholas, the saint who ultimately became known as the source for our modern,  Coca-Cola created jolly old elf known as Santa Claus.

While this is where his journey begins, English quickly turns to the primary sources, untangling the lives and the legends of the two saints.  He masterfully reassembles them within the context of place and time, and in the process writes a fascinating tale of the early Christianity of the great Persecutions and the Christianity that just preceded and was contemporary with the apparent conversion of  the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.

Some readers and some scholars might be uncomfortable with English’s story telling style, but I could not help but be drawn in the possibility of the tale he tells, particularly his imaginative placing of Nicholas at the first Council of Nicaea (despite the fact that the evidence of his actual participation is far from clear):

Nicholas broke open his letter, prepared for anything.  To his surprise  it was a request that all bishops assemble at the emperor’s personal residence in Nicaea in order to convene a council.  … Nicholas might have looked at the piles of brick and stone of his new church and sighed.  Everything would have to wait   In May of 325, he obeyed the emperor’s summons, packed his bags, and headed north toward the small town of Nicaea, present day Iznik, Turkey, more than 400 miles away. (pg. 97)

We have the letter summoning the bishops to Nicaea   We do not have the personal copy summoning Nicholas to join that meeting.  But frankly, I do not care that English stretches the evidence in that way.  For in this moment, and throughout the book, he invites me to stand with the saints that came before and to try for just a moment to feel the excitement and the risk and the calling that must have been true for those who struggled to protect and grow the fledgling faith that I now share with them.  It is a feeling that we all need to remember, as we ourselves live in a time when the church is battered and assaulted from both the inside and the outside.

The remainder of the book is devoted to an account of the ways in which Nicholas was venerated by later generations and his general importance as a saint of the faith.  In the end, this is a book that is less about Nicholas of Myra and Santa Claus than it is a book about the world into which he was born and in which he lived the life that caused us to remember him.  And for someone like me who has lived a faith life in traditions that do not encourage the veneration of saints, this wonderful book nudged me to open my mind and understand the importance of stories such as this and other Hagiographa in the communication of our faith.  After all, what is more Baptist than to testify?

 

A travelling exegesis…

I am probably the only person you know who would choose to procrastinate about a writing project by writing something else.  But here I am.  And even though the rest of my time today will be devoted to finishing my first ever exegetical essay, part of my mind is thinking about travelling.

Everyday when I sit down at my desk, I have in front of me souvenirs from some of my most memorable and formative trips…my bear who stands on his head acquired on a Thanksgiving trip to Berlin, my bear with tree from Madrid (the symbol of that amazing city…I think a theme is developing), my miniature Arena from my summers in Verona, a commemorative tile of the many Aidas I saw there, and my two favorites — a beautiful single blue and white tile decorated with images of dancing whirling dervishes and a small replica of Christus Pancrator from the Chora Monastery, both remembrances of my trip to Istanbul two years ago this Thanksgiving.  A lot of my most memorable trips happen over the Thanksgiving holidays, and I’m about to set sail (so to speak) on another one in just a few days.

I am, after 30 years of waiting, going to Israel.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about this trip.  The timing is inconvenient, I have a lot going on and a lot of obligations to complete.  I don’t really feel like travelling…I have a lot of work over the next month…I like to have the holidays at home…I’m going to miss my dog…I’m going to miss two weeks in a row at church…the list goes on and on and on.

And then, I look at my whirling dervishes and my fake piece of fresco…and suddenly I am standing in the middle of the Hagia Sophia with the bright lights and the smells and that feeling of eternity that comes to me when I stand where so many before me have stood in worship.

On my worst days, those days like today when I don’t know why I am doing what I am doing and when my sense of faith and connection seems a distant memory, I remember those moments and I hold on because I have stood where other Christians have stood in faith and I have felt their presence.  I have worshiped alongside the memory and spirit of the saints who have come before me.  And remembering that history and those traditions is a large part of my living faith.  As quoted in the introduction to the book Walking Where Jesus Walked:  Worship in the Fourth Century Jerusalem (by John D. Witvliet and published by the Calvin Institute), former Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams once wrote:  “…there is a sameness in the work of God….We are not the first to walk this way; run your hand down the wood and the grain is still the same.”  I find great comfort in that thought.

The time will never be right. There will never be a clear enough space in my schedule; there will probably not in my life time be peace in that part of the world.  And something deep in my soul says that no matter how tired I am now or how much I have to do, I can no longer wait to make this pilgrimage.

The time is now.  It is also time to finish my paper.

It is never about the high note…

Music is, in so many ways, all about the phrasing.  When you experience someone as a “very musical” performer, the technical musical thing that is happening is phrasing–phrasing that best showcases the emotion or meaning of the music being presented.  For the best musicians, phrasing becomes like breathing and requires little thought.  Most of the rest of us work at it most of the time.

But one of the most important things we learn, as we learn to phrase, is this rule:  the high note is hardly ever the point of the phrase.  This rule applies to singers and to instrumentalists;  the most important thing about a phrase is its destination…and it is usually not the highest or most exciting note.  Phrasing is a journey, a conversation, something organic.

So when I picked up my devotional book this morning (The Song Forever New:  Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley) I was excited to see that the readings continue through this week, a week referred to in the liturgical calendar as the octave of Easter (octave here referring to the 8 days after Resurrection; in music, referring to an interval  of a perfect 8 steps).  I couldn’t help draw the analogy with what I know musically:  the high note (Easter) is definitely not the destination of the phrase that we call the Gospel narrative.

Why “the octave of Easter”?  Well, an 8-day feast of celebration has been common in liturgical practice since the earliest days of Judaism (Lev. 23:36); 8 was considered a sacred number, a number of completion.  There is an entire system of greater and lesser octaves in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic church.  This particular liturgical octave provides us with is the same as the gift of the liturgical calendar itself:  a framework for remembering and meditation, a framework to help us navigate our way from the high note (Easter) through the rest of the phrase (life). The octave of Easter let’s us take a breath (literally, for those of involved in leading worship during Holy Week) and remember the personal encounters of those who met the Risen Christ in those first chaotic days, and to think about the power of the Resurrection in our own lives and just how we can participate in and bear witness to its transformative power.  The greatest part of the phrase is yet to be sung, sung when we live into the promise of Easter.

And so, for the next eight days, we practice the discipline of remembrance once again. Paul Wesley Chilcote, the author of The Song Forever New, takes as his text for the day John 20:11-18…for today is the day that we remember the women who found the empty tomb and offers this hymn written by Charles Wesley (remember, a hymn is the text, not the song…but if you want to sing this after you read through it, the best tune is that used for  Come, Ye Thankful People, Come, a hymn tune known as St. George’s Windsor):

Happy Magdalene, to whom
Christ the Lord vouchsafed t’appear!
Newly risen from the tomb,
Would he first be seen by her?
Yes, to her the Master came,
First his welcome voice she hears:
Jesus calls her by her name,
He the weeping sinner cheers.

Highly favored soul! To her
Farther still his grace extends,
Raises the glad messenger,
Sends her to his drooping friends:
Tidings of their living Lord
First in her report they find:
She mus spread the gospel word,
Teach the teachers of mankind.

Who can now presume to fear?
Who despair his Lord to see?
Jesus, wilt thou not appear,
Show thyself alive to me?
Yes, my God, I dare not doubt,
Thou shalt all my sins remove;
Thou has cast a legion out,
Thow wilt perfect me in love.

Surely thou has called me now!
Now I hear the voice divine,
At they wounded feet I bow,
Wounded for whose sins but mine!
I have nailed him to the tree,
I have sent him to the grave:
But the Lord is risen for me.
Hold of him by faith I have.

Hear, dear followers of the Lord,
(Such he you vouchsafes to call)
O believe the gospel word,
Christ hath died and rose for all:
Turn you from your sins to God,
Haste to Galilee, and see
Him, who bought thee with his blood,
Him, who rose to live in thee.

May we, too, like the Magdalene and the women at the tomb, hear the call and believe.  Blessed Easter Monday to you all.

A turn of the season…

I must admit that I have not been as engaged this Lenten season as usual.  In fact, I have been struggling with Lent in a very different way and that has been unsettling for me.  I was concerned that the rituals had become too ritualized, that the newness of walking through the liturgical calendar had worn off, that maybe the deep richness of the past few seasons of Lenten observance had been manufactured on my part and this nothingness and discomfort was what really happened for me in the spring.  Oh yes, I’ve been applying myself to my study, turning my thoughts to repentance, etc. and etc., but I have clearly been struggling.   Not to be too colloquial about it, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

But I kept going.  I kept reading.  I kept praying.  And about a week ago, on the edges of my consciousness, a new idea occurred — that the reason Lent feels different this year is, well, because I am approaching it differently.  And that difference is very, very uncomfortable for me.  I have been studying in detail, the account of  Holy Week in the Gospel of Mark, preparing to write on the text for our Good Friday concert this year, in which we will perform a famous setting of a German text about the events of the Passion.  Uncomfortable topics–betrayal, judgement, torture, crucifixion.

I will confess that, like many educated people of faith, I am uncomfortable talking about sin and repentance — and actually using the words sin and repentance.  To read words like “we are called to take up the Cross,” and accept them seems wrong —  such words smack of tent revival meetings and the days when women everywhere (not just some places) were relegated to the back pew of the church and serving tea and cookies at the coffee hour.  There simply had to be a more modern, more inclusive, less hurtful way to talk about these fundamental concepts of our faith, right?

Wrong.   After the past few days, I have come to realize that we as progressive Christians–Evangelical progressives or mainline progressives or “none of the above” individualist progressives — we must embrace the very terminology that frightens us, that repels us, that reminds us of all the hurt done in the name of “church”, and of all the hurt and failure of our own actions.   We must embrace the sins of our nature and our failings, and the love and the possibility of the repentance that is ours in faith, every day, every minute of our lives.

Maybe it was  the act of spending yesterday trying to fit a non-conformist life lived on the edges into a six-page application form designed for those in their 20’s, not those of us with more (considerably more) life and experience and considerably more mistakes to list than someone that age; maybe it was sitting next to someone I love and respect and having them look at me and label my spiritual gift as that of mercy and compassion, while thinking of all the times that I was not those things and all the times I was not reliable or faithful or loving.

And maybe, just maybe, it was all of those things, followed by the words of the 19th century evangelist, Henry Drummond, in his essay “Turning“.   Drummond begins with the text from Luke 22:61-62: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter…and Peter went outside and wept bitterly.”  Drummond goes on to say:

What then can we learn from Peter’s turning around?  First it was not Peter who turned.  It was the Lord who turned and looked at Peter.  When the cock crew, that might have kept Peter from falling further.  But he was just in the very act of sin.  And when a person is in the thick of his sin his last thought is to throw down his arms and repent.  So Peter never thought of turning, but the Lord turned.  And when Peter would rather have looked anywhere else than at the Lord, the Lord looked at Peter.  This scarce-noticed fact is the only sermon needed to anyone who sins — that the Lord turns first. (Bread and Wine, pg. 126)

I sit here, humbled by the depth and breadth of my sin.  But I do not feel evil, I do not feel without hope, I do not feel afraid.  Because the Lord turns first.    When Peter would have looked anywhere to escape, the Lord turned and looked at Peter.  And when I would run, the Lord turns and looks at me, too.

This year, for me, it is a new kind of Lenten feeling…one without shame and with more and more acceptance.  I am a sinner;  I repent with every breath.  And there is peace in being able to say those words…

Playing catch-up…

I would be the first to admit that I feel like I spend most of my days playing catch-up to those around me:  especially in terms of my reading and thinking about my faith and my calling.  I have, for most of life, done things in reverse order…I was an adult before I was a child, I had my old age before my youth (although I’m guessing I’ll get a second run at the old age thing), I worked as a librarian before I studied library science, I sang professionally before I studied singing, etc. etc. and so forth and so on.  And now, I am coming to see that I have lived a life with a fairly low-key, lay-minister orientation, long before I ever confronted and accepted my need to study and deepen my faith and my ability to share that faith in a more formal setting (yes, that means a seminary).

Yes, I have spent much of my life playing catch-up; looking over my shoulder at what I don’t know to support what I am already doing; worrying that the bright and penetrating light I see at any given moment was seen long ago by those around me and that they are simply being polite as they listen when the words of my discovery come tumbling out of my mouth in torrent of revelation.

So, now you know why I am always reading something (or several somethings)…looking for language, looking for the tools and the education that I think that I don’t have but desperately need so that I don’t make some naive mistake, as I did once at a dinner party in from of some very smart people.

It is important to know what you don’t know.

One of my favorite choices of reading material to help me in this quest is the spiritual biography of others…these works are generally very helpful for me, giving me language and process and and well, leaving me feeling not quite so alone in some of the things that are happening to me and around me and within me.    I seem to be drawn right now, in particular, to the works and lives of a group of female Episcopal lay-ministers who over the years have written and taught and served their communities of faith and the wider community of the world of faith without the benefit of ordination.

First and foremost in this group for me right now is the teacher, writer, and church historian Diana Butler Bass.  It was with one of her books that my friend and I began our morning reading program; it was one of her books that I was reading when I decided to join the Calvary Baptist Church; it was one of her books that I was reading as I started to really feel this strong pull of faith on my life.  And so it only seems fitting that it would be one of her books that right now provides the fodder that fuels my thinking, at a moment that I suspect is equally pivotal for me.

The book of this particular moment is her Strength for the Journey:  A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community.  I expected the book to move me; I did not realize it would fill in so many blanks for me (if you don’t understand what I mean you need to read Pastor Amy’s sermon from our current series, The Rules of Improv, by clicking here).  So far, it has been almost an academic year’s education in itself, in terms of the language of faith it has taught me and the opportunity it has given me to see my own faith experience played out in someone else’s life.

In this book, Dr. Bass tells the story of her own faith journey from childhood Methodism through evangelical fundamentalism to a life of faith within the  Episcopal denomination, and…well, the end of the story hasn’t been written yet.  And she tells the story within the framework of the life of the various congregations in which she has worshipped and served as a lay leader along the way.  It is an amazing portrait of a faith journey that is contemporary with my own…and it speaks to me in ways that I understand.

There are some very important things I discovered in this book, most of which I will write about later (such as what it means to be an evangelical vs. what it means to follow what she refers to as the via media, the middle way), but today I am pondering the similarities in her experience recovering from the pain and doubt that came from being involved in the kind of power struggle and chaos that comes from a church struggling to find a new voice (particularly when there are those who don’t want that new voice or any new voice), with my own after a similar situation.  She, like I, took some time off from “church” (although I think I took far longer as a respite), and she, like I, in the most unexpected place, found a healing and a spiritual home.   She explains the experience much better than I ever could:

At the beginning I felt drained and confused.  Not quite knowing what path to take, I simply put one foot in front of the other, attending to my spiritual life through the practices of faith.  Slowly, by reading the Bible, worshiping every Sunday, and working at homey parish tasks, I began to understand the Christian life in new ways.  I think that was true for all of us.  By practicing faith together, the good folks of the Church of the Holy Family (substitute Calvary Baptist Church here if we are telling my story) became brother- and sister-pilgrims, an intentional family of faith on the verge of birthing a new congregation.  We were only vaguely aware that this was happening or that we stood so close the Spirit’s tremors of re-creation.  But we were profoundly aware that we needed one another in the order to get to wherever God was taking us. (pg. 124)

Bass has mirrored my own experience and taught me about a trend in church life all at the same time…the change from congregations made up of establishment churchgoers — those who are Presbyterian because their family has always been Presbyterian and who attend the same church in the same neighborhood where they have always lived and that believe in denominational loyalty — and congregations made up of intentional churchgoers, those for whom every thing about their lives from their personal identity to their worship choices to their family structure has been researched tested and chosen.  For the intentional churchgoer, denominational loyalty and physical location mean little — they seek a gathered community of disciples, not an extension of their neighborhood or country club.

See, I’m always doing things backwards…I was living a trend and I didn’t know it.  But now I have language.  Thank you Dr. Bass, you’ve helped me catch up just a bit more.

A Holiday Book Review

I am always struggling to make sure that each day includes some time devoted to something that most people would call a “spiritual practice”.  In the course of my life, I have tried yoga, transcendental meditation, walking meditation, journalling, praying the hours– if there is an activity recommended by my old compatriots in the New Age movement, I have tried it to a greater or lesser degree of success and discipline.

The one thing that works for me, however, no matter what the current state of my theology, is reading a daily devotion of some type.  The older I get, the more I see how the practices of my childhood carry forward in my life, almost as if imprinted on my DNA, and reading a daily devotion is one of those activities.  My memory is flooded with the picture of my childhood morning ritual:  read that day’s entry from the Daily Word, take my vitamins, pick up my book bag and out the door.

And so, as an adult, whose theology has roamed and grown and changed many times, I do still continue this practice.  I must admit that I miss the devotional books written by our congregation, but there are plenty of others out there to read. This year, in particular I have sampled a variety of devotional books for the season, and, while this little review won’t do anyone any good in 2011, perhaps it will give you some ideas for 2012…here are some of the devotionals I’ve been reading this Advent season.

Since we spent the fall reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in our small group, I was interested to read so more of his work and therefore picked up a devotional created from his writings:  God is in the Manger.  The volume is a compilation of references from Bonhoeffer’s sermons and letters and writings in prison, sharing his thoughts and theology of Advent and Christmas, and includes additional comments from contemporary theologians about his work.   It is thought-provoking and moving, and often heartbreaking when you understand the context of some of the writing.  This is definitely not a volume that will make you “feel good” about the season, but it will provoke you to thought and it will lift you out of our contemporary cultural sweet interpretation of the season.

If you prefer something a little more mystical for the season, but also from the heart of a well known light of the faith, I would highly recommend Christopher Webber’s Advent with Evelyn Underhill.  I’ve already written about this book,  and it has been my primary study guide, but I wanted to mention it again.  I am personnaly drawn right now to the works of Evelyn Underhill:  herself, not an ordained anything, but known as one of the great teachers and seminar leaders and spiritual directors of her day; someone who has left us a wealth of writings to guide us in these later days as well.   One of the problems, however, with a book such as this is that the book is someone else’s vision of what Ms. Underhill might want to say about the season.  Sometimes the editor is on the bull’s eye; sometimes there just isn’t good material to be found for a devotional topic; sometimes the intent of the editor is not clear.  But the entries that are on the mark make the book a worthwhile exercise.  One such entry that is still working its way through my soul is:

When we lift our eyes from the crowded by-pass to the eternal hills; then, how much the personal and practical things we have to deal with are enriched.  What meaning and coherence come into our scattered lives.  We mostly spend those lives conjugating three verbs:  to Want, to Have, and to Do.   Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual–even on the religious–plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest:  forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be:  and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life. (pg. 43)

Perhaps next year I’ll be a bit more disciplined and actually read the commentaries on the Scripture for the season as they are so beautifully presented in the series Feasting on the Word, but just in case I have another in my pocket for next year, one I didn’t get a chance to read this year just because I didn’t find it until a couple of days ago.  That is Advent and Christmas with Thomas Merton.  I’ll let you know how it moves me next Advent.

A pilgrimage…of sorts

Lately, I have been very interested in a way of thinking that is often referred to as the “ancient-future” view of Christianity, one that seeks to recover what we know and can know of the ways of those first Christians, struggling in faith, struggling to live together before the creation of the institution that we know as “church”, and to take that knowledge and use it to forge a way of Christian living in the 21st century.  It is this view of faith that has led to such movements as the New Monasticism, among others.

I however, have been approaching this interest, not by moving into a big house with several others, but by research (is anyone surprised?), and I have begun to read a series called The Ancient Practices Series, that includes books by well-known expositors of our time on the Abrahamic ancient practices:  fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, giving, the observance of sacred seasons, and…pilgrimage.

It is only because of all this thinking and reading that I was able to recognize that I was practicing the act of pilgrimage this weekend.  And I only realized it after the pilgrimage had begun, of course.

You see, for the past couple of days I have been in the city of Chicago.  My original reasons for planning this trip were secular and silly, really:  to visit the Christkindlmarkt in Daley Plaza (because there was just no way to go to Germany this  year),  to eat at the Frontera Grill (after a couple of years of watching Rick Bayless re-runs on Public Television), and to finally stay at a Kimpton Hotel.  Oh yes, and to add to my frequent flyer miles total in my annual quest to maintain my Premier status.

But as the plane took off Thursday morning from Reagan National, my mind was flooded with memories…memories of all the times I had been to Chicago…all the times I had thought about living in Chicago…and all the times that life took a completely different turn.

As I find myself at another decision point in my life, a critical one, I was receptive to understanding my real reason for going to Chicago this December:  I was going on a pilgrimage.

Now, don’t misunderstand, I have done everything on that list I gave you above, and I have more than enjoyed my stay at the fabulous Hotel Monaco in Chicago (in fact, I will, after this experience, always choose a Kimpton Hotel if it is available when I travel, as it is the first U.S.–based hotel group I have ever found to satisfy completely my pseudo-European tastes)…but as I have walked these streets (in the freezing cold) I have also remembered.

I remember the anticipation of my very first trip to Chicago, when I was moving to next door South Bend, Indiana, to attent the University of Notre Dame.  We drove, and we stopped here to visit the Tutankhamen Exhibition at the Field Museum, on its first-ever tour of the the United States.  I was so frightened of the big city that I wouldn’t park my car in a garage where I had to hand over my keys (no one had ever asked for my keys in Kansas City, after all).  And there was that first big-city dinner at a french restaurant, where I had my first white wine ever (a nice Vouvray, as I recall, but what did I know about wine at age 19?).  And then, there were the weekend drives from South Bend to Chicago, weekends spent in museums and roaming the ethnic stores and restaurants of Devon Street.

And after failure in Indiana and a return to Kansas City, I remember the anticipation of the train ride from Kansas City to Chicago on my return to the big city, when I came to present my first academic paper as a student member of the Schools of Oriental Research; I remember the desperate desire to study archaeology at the University of Chicago.  The study that just wouldn’t happen.

A lot of life transpired between that moment and now, a lot of changes in how I live, what I am called to do and, well, who I understand myself to be.  And it was really only possible to see this and feel it through the practice of pilgrimage.  Brian McLaren describes pilgrimage as the act of leaving your daily life and seeking a new, unknown place where God will show us something that we need to learn.  Well, Chicago may not be a new and unknown place, but it has definited provided me with a pilgramage experience.

And some nifty new ornaments for the tree.

Advent: Reminder of the Perpetual Coming

I must admit to having a fair amount of writer’s block lately.  I have started any number of texts for various purposes and discarded them.  In one case, I even pulled back something that was about to be published.  I can’t even find enough inspiration wordsmithing to finish the personnel handbook revision that is more than overdue.

Perhaps it is just the hustle and bustle of seasonal preparations and concert preparations; I am not sure.   Maybe my eyes have been closed for other reasons (for it is with the eyes and and ears and the heart that we write, I believe); maybe my ears have been resting.   Maybe my thoughts have been just too internal to commit to words. Maybe I haven’t read enough to feed my creativity. Maybe I just haven’t had anything to say.

But Advent is a very special time to me, and writing is an important part of my journey, and so over this past week since the lighting of that first candle, the candle of hope, I have been trying again.  This, if you see it, is my fourth attempt to set pen to paper, in a blog-o-sphere kind of way.

In light of the season and the new liturgical year (Year B, for those keeping track),  it may not be surprising, but I’m thinking a lot about ritual.  Maybe it is all the talk of the changes to the Catholic Mass  that began last Sunday, maybe it is just that it is the season of accepted ritual, both personal and corporate — gatherings, trees, shopping, and, well, Advent and Christmas and New Years.  With everything that is going on around us, it is easy to forget to be in the moment that you are living right now.

And so, in order to prevent that from happening, I always have a private seasonal ritual for myself…something that I can do day-by-day in a quiet moment, to center and sustain me through the busy-ness.  This Advent, as in the Lenten season past, I have chosen a compilation of the writings of Evelyn Underhill to guide me (Advent with Evelyn Underhill, ed. by Christopher L. Webber).

For the past few weeks,  I was spending a substantial time working with the Lectionary texts for the first Sunday Advent  (because of something else I was trying to write), and well, I just couldn’t really get them clear in my mind. I must admit, hope was the last thing I was feeling as I read them, and as I moved through the days of my weeks.

Until the words of Ms. Underhill, that is.

Last week, our texts were: Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 17-191 Corinthians 1:3-9., and Mark 13:24-37 (Yes, for those of you at Calvary who were paying attention, we did use an alternate Psalm text, Psalm 42).

The sum of these texts is, for me, so much more complex than the concept of hope, and in their complexity, so very human.  When taken as whole,  they emphasize not just the hope and anticipation of the season, but the state of despair that makes it possible for us to see that hope.  If you have ever participated in a “Blue Service”, you will understand what I mean.  Frankly, if you are human and have suffered the disappointments and losses that are the human condition, you understand what I mean.  Hope never looks more precious than when you feel that you have none.

There is nothing that points up the presence of pain and loss like finding yourself in the midst of manic and unbridled celebration such as that which is the cultural norm for the Christmas season in secular American culture.  Just trying to keep up with the round of obligations, trying to keep that smile on your face through exhaustion or loss or financial problems…I think we all understand.  Hope almost never feels so far from our grasp.

These texts echo our own complex relationship with hope in our lives; they point out that it is easier to embrace the all-too-human hopelessness that pervades everything around us than it is to hold on to the hope and the promise born of our relationship with God.

And so, enter Ms. Underhill, to remind us that whether or not we know it, hope is always there for us:

We should think of the whole power and splendour of God as always pressing in upon our small souls. ‘In Him we live and move and have our being.’ But that power and splendour mostly reach us in homely and inconspicuous ways; in the sacraments, and in our prayers, joys and sorrows and in all our opportunities of loving service. This means that one of the most important things in our prayers is the eagerness and confidence with which we throw ourselves open to His perpetual coming. …If our lives are ruled by this spirit of Advent, this loving expectation of God, they will have a quality quite different from that of conventional piety.  For they will be centered on an entire andconscious dependence upon the supernatural love which supports us; hence all self-confidence will be destroyed in them and replaced by perfect confidence in God. (pg. 3-4)

It was there in the Lectionary and I just didn’t see it:  the despair of the Hebrew text and the Psalm, tinged with the remembrance that once upon a time in Israel there was a special relationship with God that offerred protection and safety; Paul’s reminders of the spiritual gifts that the Corinthians always had among them and in them; and the Gospel of Mark’s statement of the glory of the coming grace that, as Ms. Underhill so beautifully states, comes when all self-confidence will be destroyed in them and replaced by perfect confidence in God.

God is not Emmanual (God with us) only during Advent.  We no longer wait for the birth of an actual child.  We, my friends, are called to live in a state of perpetual coming.

Ah, hope…I see your candle now.