Monday, August 31, 2009

Back to School: or, the Journey of Emily and Paul As They Deal with Road Jerks, Interstates, Ancient Elevators, and Stinky Refrigerators

My daughter has turned 19! On her birth day, my wife’s water broke at about 4:30 AM, and Emily arrived at 11:53 PM. I’m tempted to say “it was a long day,” but the day was obviously longer for my wife than for me, who sat by supportively but in no intense physical pain.

Of course I’m thinking, “How quickly 19 years have gone by!” So many family adventures, times of growing, times of stress, and many moments of sticking together as a little team.

Last weekend Emily and I drove to her college where she’ll start her sophomore year. Last year we lived three hours away, but we’re now fourteen hours away. My wife has helped Emily move before, but this weekend she had to work, so Emily and I made the drive in two days, a large portion on Interstate 70.

The trip had some added costs. On two past occasions, my snoring disturbed Emily, in spite of the noise from the motel air conditioning and a little sound-machine that has pre-recorded, soothing sounds. So I reserved two separate motel rooms for us. Better that, than risk both of us becoming sleepy on the road--and angry in the middle of the night.

We had a safe drive, except for a few “dumb asses” who followed too closely, prevented safe merging, etc. I’m sure there were more dumb asses than a few.

Cell phones added tremendously to our peace of mind. I remember when my parents helped me move to Connecticut in the 70s. Mom and I in one car both wanted to stop for the night, but honking and blinking headlights couldn’t get Dad’s attention in the other car. Emily and I could just ring each other and know where to stop for a meal or gas.

The I-70 trip is quite familiar to me, thanks to years-ago trips between Connecticut (where I did my masters degree) and my parents' home in southern Illinois. I noticed a few places from those student days. East of Columbus, a non-chain motel where I’d spent a night nearly thirty years ago still operated. At another exit, I saw a chain motel where I'd spent a night during another trip home, and had shopped barefoot at the nearby Kroger store.

Both Emily’s car and my van were full of her belongings. She noted with chagrin that guys have so much fewer things to move than girls. I was the exception to that rule, because I always had to lug my favorite books and LPs to school. We were pleased that her dorm room has a huge closet.

Emily lives on the fourth floor of her building. Arriving early on moving day, we commandeered two reserved spaces that were convenient. Do any schools have handy and adequate parking? We worked four hours to get stuff to her room. We and the other families had to go down one first-floor hallway, turn right down another hallway, take the elevator (with doors that you open and close by hand) to the third floor, and then walk down another hallway and carry stuff up to the fourth floor. She stopped carrying and started sorting, while I did the rest of the lugging.

Chatting with other parents was fun. One mother and I talked about the absurd $50 fee that the college had charged last year for dorm-room clean-up. The mother said she’d mopped and dusted her daughter’s room but the college still claimed it was dirty. I recall that my college levied similar, foolish little fees for various reasons; I imagine most schools do.

Emily has a terrific room with a nice view. After we got her stuff into the room, we went off and had lunch, then we went to Wal-Mart for additional supplies. We’d accidentally left a slice of cheesecake (in a plastic container) inside her old refrigerator, and there it had ripened for over three months while the fridge was stored. I’d hoped that a couple days in the van with a bowl of baking soda might kill the horrible smell, but no such luck. So she and I found a new 1.7 cu. ft. model at a good price. I worried about the parents who, I noticed, were trying to lug 4 cu. ft. models up those stairs.

We took a tour of some new facilities at her college and felt great about her program. At the end of the day, she and I went to supper at Denny’s, then returned to her school. We both were sore and tired. We exchanged big hugs and good feelings about a positive sophomore year. I went back to the motel room to shower, rest and sleep before making my solo two-day trip home.

No moral or grand point to this story. Just another small adventure in our family, like similar adventures happening in many families around the country here in late summertime.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bernstein's "Mass"

Recently I purchased an Avanti-brand greeting card and sent it to a friend. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”

The other day I was driving a morning’s distance and listening to the XM classical station. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the station played the new recording, conducted by Marin Alsop, of Bernstein’s “Mass.”

I still have my LP set, conducted by Bernstein, purchased around 1975. I believe I first heard the piece via a production on our area PBS station. I played those records a lot during college. But the set became worse for wear and I never replaced it. So I’d not heard the piece since perhaps the early 1980s.

Listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the Mass. I’ve not heard the other two versions (besides Bernstein’s) but Alsop’s is very fresh, and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed the favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy "In Domine Patris"… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song (in my opinion), “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic (!) “Agnus Dei” … the “mad scene” “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.

The XM host called attention to the Mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I did not think Mass betrayed much of its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz's words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). In other words, Bernstein’s intermingling of musical high- and pop-styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today.

What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. Mass follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies, and ultimately threats of violence. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than upholding it. Amid a protest march (the cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”), the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the last act of Britten’s "Peter Grimes"), the street people return to quiet songs of praises. They bring the Celebrant back into their group (whispering "pax tecum"), and with a benediction, the mass ends.

Before, I thought the Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. I think this happens to the Celebrant, but now I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is intended to be vicarious. He takes the people's struggles and doubts into himself. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the "Dona Nobis Pacem," but we have a "secret song," the peace of fellowship and reconciliation.

I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many timess: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi's Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and Faure, John Rutter's music, and numerous others. Hearing the words as I'd first learned them was a jolt.

They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth. Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.

But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … Well, duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still want to slap someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you accuse God. Read Psalm 42, 143, and others, and you know that such feelings aren’t alien to Holy Scripture. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extragant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel--within the context of worship.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

River of Home

Here are two old postcards of the U.S. 40-51 highway bridge over the Kaskaskia River at my hometown, Vandalia, IL. The bridge was replaced in 1962-63 by the present highway bridge. Although I was in kindergarten when this bridge was torn down, I remember crossing it in the family car as we drove to Grandma's.

And below are three views of the railroad bridge, just north of the highway bridge, at Vandalia. These are early 20th century postcards.

In the last picture, the railroad bridge is in the background, the old National Road bridge (replaced in the 1920s by the bridge in the first two postcards) is in the foreground, along with a group of well-dressed boaters.

Vandalia was founded atop a Kaskaskia River bluff in 1819. The river, which is the second longest wholly within Illinois' borders, is a narrow, serpentine waterway. According to legend, early French settlers of Illinois shortened Indian words so that when someone asked "Where are you going, neighbor?" he might respond, "Je vais aux Ka," or "I am going to the Ka." "Aux Ka" became "Okaw," the river's popular nickname. Another legend places a French trading post along the river with an ambiguous designation "Eau carre," or "water square." So we have two French expressions that may have originated the word "Okaw."

The Okaw is part of Vandalians' identity. Throughout Fayette County, streams like the Hurricane Creek, Sand Creek, Hickory Creek, and others wind through timber and hills and finally to the Kaskaskia. During the 1920s my dad and his father hunted rabbits and gathered pecans along its banks. Many local folk have pleasant memories of visiting its banks or boating on the water. Afraid of its rapid currents, I thought of the river as a swirling, pretty, midwestern Moldau, observed from a safe distance.

As Vandalia's eastern boundary, the river also became associated in my mind of journeys I might take in the future, not journeys down the river (although I fancied that sometimes) but journeys with my life. Now, the river is the last landmark for the trip home, like a promise that the trip has gone well and the destination is very near.

Little wonder that the Jordan River--a small, "boundary" river, too--is a powerful metaphor for the spiritual journey!

Friday, August 21, 2009

God's Extreme

This past semester, a student mentioned that Buddhism and other religions provide solutions to the problem of suffering. He wondered if any religion simply accepted suffering as a fact of life, rather than seeking a remedy. I said that I thought Christianity was the closest one. Later on, in my mind, I made a round-about series of connections based on the student's question.

My family and I have several angel figurines around our house. Angels is a collectible for us, but also reassuring figures representing God’s care.

That said, a few years ago I was hired to write studies of selected passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews.(1) While angels are a popular expression of people’s faith, the Hebrews author argues for the superiority of Christ over angels. Many people who love angels (and the Bible) don't realize that a biblical author has taken a lot of time to put angels into a proper perspective.

Verses 1:4-14 is a complex set of arguments providing that, attractive as angels are, they are secondary to God’s son because God’s power and eternity have now been made known in the enthroned Son of God. The author quotes a series of scriptures (Deut. 32:43, Ps. 104:4, Ps. 45:6-7, Ps. 102:25-27, and Ps. 110) in his proof.

In Heb. 2:5-9, the author continues this theme. He quotes Psalm 8:4-6 to show that humans have a special place in creation. The phrase “son of man” in Heb. 2:6 provides a double meaning for human beings in general, and for Christ the messianic son of man.

The author’s congregation seems to have elevated angels to the similar status as Jesus, since angels do not die. But although angels are deathless, they cannot “taste death for everyone.” They cannot identify with our human condition in the same way as Jesus. The angels cannot share the bitterness of death, and thus they cannot be “crowned with glory” (verse 9). Thus the status of Jesus as a suffering human being (and lower-than-the-angels, in the words of Ps. 8) was actually the reason for his superiority and ultimate coronation.

In the next section, 2:10-18, the Hebrews author writes “it was fitting” that God, who is the creator and ruler of the universe, “should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (verse 10). Is it strange that the God through whom all things exist should be involved in suffering? After all, human beings are their welfare are of God‘s intimate concern. But human beings do experience suffering, temptation, and death.

For salvation to be “made perfect” (verse 10), it must be accomplished through full participation in humankind. In the Hebrew author’s argument, Jesus is depicted as the pioneer of salvation. Jesus “blazes a trail,” as it were, to establish a new salvation--because of his suffering!

Jesus shared our humanity and experiences, including death, so that he could defeat the power of death (verse 14-15). He breaks the devil’s power. Alluding to his earlier argument, the Hebrews author interjects that Jesus came not to save the angels but the descendants of Abraham (verse 16). Jesus’ humanity means that he fully empathizes and sympathizes with our weaknesses (verses 17-18). We can call on him knowing that he will understand.

Jesus is also our high priest, a key theme developed further in subsequent passages of Hebrews. Jesus’ sufferings qualify him to intercede for us as well as to help us. But his intercession as high priest was different: he himself was the sacrifice.

Back to my student’s question: in Christianity, God in Christ fully embraces suffering and experiences the extremes of suffering in violent death. You can say that Christianity offers a remedy for suffering, not a conquest of suffering through our own special efforts but through the salvation accomplished in Jesus.

Other scriptures approach suffering in a related way. For instance, the well-known Romans 5:3-5 upholds suffering as a means of personal and spiritual growth. Romans 8:18-25 indicates that suffering is inevitable and yet cannot compare with our future glory. 1 Peter contains several passages---1:6-9, 3:14-17, 4:12-13--which describes suffering as a potentially positive thing. Indeed, by suffering, we share in Christ's divine life!

The problem is, of course, that when we're in the midst of suffering, it's hard to feel spiritually and emotionally positive about the experience! It's hard for us to focus on the reality of Christ's power and salvation--unless that power can actually eliminate our suffering. Little wonder that, honestly, we prefer angels as ways to protect us from adverse circumstances.

1. "Hold Fast to the Faith," Daily Bible Study series, June, July, August 2004. Abingdon Press.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Turn Left at the Remembered Schoolhouse

Following our move to St. Louis this summer, we found a church we enjoyed. I had lunch with the pastor of the church the other day. He took me to a place in nearby Kirkwood, MO. He mentioned that the building had once been a furniture store, and although the restaurant went by a different name, people still referred to the place as “the furniture store.”

I said that my family and I used to live in a community where a local landmark was “the old Sears store.” The building now contained several different shops and businesses. Nothing identified it as a former Sears place. But folks still said things like “Turn left a block past the old Sears store.” Newbies to the community, as we had been, were very confused by such directions!

The pastor said that he served a rural community and was told to turn at the Old Schoolhouse intersection. He got completely lost and asked for directions. The person chuckled, “That schoolhouse was torn down twenty years ago!”

In the place we previously lived, I asked a church friend the location of a store, and she said, "Just to the left of old Route 21." I figured out that she meant a certain street which had once been U.S. 21, but that highway had long since been rerouted, and nothing on the street today indicates its earlier designation.

When you move to a new community, you have to learn aspects of the place: locations of good restaurants, the nearest post office, good places to service your car, and other things. You have to learn local perception of things: which beloved sports teams are rivals, for instance. New to St. Louis, we learned that folks are interested in which high school you attended; it’s a way of connecting with people, in a way. In some communities, unfortunately, you never quite catch what makes folks tick, and you come away regretful that your life there was less positive than it could’ve been. But usually, if a community is friendly, and if you have an interest in people, you can ascertain local interests and make enjoyable connections.

One thing that I love about “local knowledge,” though, is discovering those beloved places which people hold in memory. Folks were accustomed to the furniture store, the schoolhouse, or whatever the place was. Now, the store is something else, or the place is torn down, but the places remain landmarks: landmarks of the hearts, I’m tempted to say.

I found this quote from Katherine Mansfield. “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you---you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences---like rags and shreds of your very life.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sharp Dressed Man

My first teaching job, other than grad student gigs, was a course in world religions at Northern Arizona University in 1987, when I was thirty. At the time, Bill Cosby’s show was popular--a cute family in designer clothes having heartwarming encounters each episode. I liked Cosby’s striking sweaters and adopted that look for my teaching. How funny when my first student evaluations included comments like “Love his sweaters!” and “He’s a great dresser!” I joked that thankfully no one wrote, He can't teach worth a damn but he dresses sharp!

Old clothes finally get pitched or go to GoodWill, but I recall a couple of favorite outfits. I had a striking black, white, and purple sweater that I found at an Amarillo mall during a cross-country drive, and also an expensive, hand-wash-only sweater with Native designs, a spurge at the Flagstaff mall thanks to some holiday money. My infant daughter puked down the back of that one.

I felt good about myself, for the most part. At the time I was ABD, “all but dissertation.” My doctoral program had painful moments common to many. I’d worked in a satisfying job between my masters and doctoral programs, and I disliked returning to the indignities of being a student. My new wife, also pursuing her Ph.D., was even more professionally established. I felt upset at her similar experiences on campus, although she herself shrugs off such things well. When we moved West in 1987, I loved the chance to start fresh. Not only did I feel treated more positively but I was also helping students and encouraging them in their careers.

I wouldn’t exactly credit Bill Cosby with my new-found confidence, and I’m hardly the type who dresses up to go to the grocery. But I did dress pretty well thereafter in professional contexts. If I don’t wear a suit I’ll wear a nice sweater or blazer, usually with a nice tie. A friend got into the habit of suit-wearing when he worked for a software company, and when he went to grad school he still wore suits because of the way people treated him. He became accustomed to the respect.

Looking nice requires the ongoing replacement of one’s wardrobe. We gain weight (surely not me!) and can't fit into previous suits. Styles become outdated. The things I wore in 1987 would probably look, well, very Eighties-ish. Just the other day I bought two new suits, on sale at Macy's, so I can look my best for new adventures in our new location. Hopefully I'll still work toward the same goals as 1987: to teach and encourage students.
As an aside, this picture of my parents and me represents good fashion taste circa 1977.

We Will Always Be the Knights Who Say Ni

The other day, I realized that I need to send my new phone number to a certain East Coast friend. We’ve known each other nearly thirty years. He calls me when he needs help with doing devotionals at his church. Since I write Sunday school material, I’m happy to brainstorm ideas.

I discovered Monty Python during the late 1970s, when episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were broadcast on our area PBS station. I had not seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, however, until my friend took me to a campus showing, around 1981.

A wonderfully life-changing experience! I didn’t realize it then, but I was thereby initiated into a kind of brother- and sisterhood of people connected by memorized references to this silly movie. How nice when, as I teach Medieval history to a classroom of bored undergrads, I can slip into a falsetto, We found a witch, may we burn 'er? and regain their attention. (One time a student responded, I want a shrubbery.) You can facilitate a meeting concerning department policies by noting, Well, I didn't vote for you, and someone else may pipe in, Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. A while back a colleague e-mailed me about something, and I told him, Go away or I shall taunt you a second time. Of course, he informed me that my mother is a hamster.

I’m told that Caddyshack and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are similarly loved by fans. For a while, when Napoleon Dynamite came out, I could warm up a class simply by saying sweet! with conviction. But Holy Grail will always be my favorite among cult movies. I saw it during my masters degree studies, a positive time of great friendships. In the years since, I’ve made many connections with good people over the years with little more than a reassuring It’s only a flesh wound or a faux-panicked Run away!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Unto the Hills

When I was a college freshman in the 1970s, I taped a religious poster on my dorm room wall. I must’ve purchased it at our local Christian bookstore. The poster became torn and beat-up from being removed, rolled-up, and transported during moves from dorm rooms to my home, so I didn’t keep the poster more than a few years. But I remember that it depicted a white country church against a green, timbered hill and the caption read, “I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.”

The poster gave me comfort. The scene was pretty and also gave me a peaceful sense of my rural home places in southern Illinois, although the poster was surely intended as a generic place. Not only the peaceful-looking church but also the hills in the distance: because we perceive distant things as smaller and paler, they are visible but not present; we must travel to them to perceive them in a more accurate way.

A friend more knowledgeable in scriptures than I thought the poster was theologically incorrect! The caption lacked the question mark after “help,” so the help seems to come from the hills—from the peace and beauty of nature—rather than from the Lord, who made not only the hills but heaven and earth.

A fine distinction, I suppose, since the poster did include a church and not simply a view of landscape. But even a landscape would not be a farfetched way of symbolizing, if not God, then our longing for God, our longing for a location where we feel close to God. A country church captures a sense of nostalgia: perhaps, when times were simpler, we felt more close to God than before. Similarly a country scene (and I’ve seen other devotional wall hangings and plaques captioned with Psalm 121:1). Here is a place of peace, where the pace of life seems less hurried than our own. A rural road, a field, a barn; a bright sky with peaceful clouds, and hills.

But maybe I’m being too sentimental. Any kind of place may fill us with a sense of peace, but the important thing is to have the peace of knowing God, which includes but transcends beloved places.

Years ago, someone pointed out to me that the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner--the one we always sing--ends with a question mark: the poet does not yet know if the battle is over and the American flag is safe! We stop singing before we know (from the poem's standpoint) the important news. Similarly Psalm 121:1: if you end the poem there, you don’t yet know if help will come. But the next line (partially quoted in the Apostle’s Creed) answers: “My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.”

The psalm affirms God’s protection:
God guides our steps, morally and spiritually, but also through power and attention.
God never sleeps. Some people like to think of God‘s angels watching over us.
God’s constant vigilance is proved by his protection of his people, Israel.

What is the image, “He will not let your foot be moved”? The psalmist is on a journey toward Jerusalem, but more generally, the psalmist is on a journey from a lower place to a higher place. Have you ever walked on a hillside where the footing is precarious? Or have you driven along a mountain road where you wish the guardrail were a little more safe looking? (I always think of Route 89A north of Prescott, AZ.) What a great image of God’s protection: God is like a mountain traveler who knows where the hazardous places are.

The psalmist promises that the Lord protects us from hazards associated with both the day and the night, and all our comings and goings. If God is like a mountain guide, then we can trust that God is not aloof and far-removed from human circumstances but rather is close by.

Perhaps the hardest part of the psalm is the affirmation that God protects us from all evil. All evil? Plenty of wonderful people suffer at the hands of evil people and circumstances.

A good connection-verse is Col. 3:3: “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” From an everyday aspects we may have as many problems and terrible situations as anyone else, but God’s power surrounds us so that God rescues us from the ultimate power of sin and death. Compare that promise to the lovely repetition in the psalm's verses: keep, keep, keep, keep. God keeps us not only in the sense of protection but of ownership: he's not going to give us up!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sh***y Christian, part 3

From Haubner’s article, I made one more connection. In Philippians, Paul recites his heritage: a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, a blameless observer of the Torah. But the gain that he had before, and indeed everything, is counted as loss

because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death ,if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:8-11).

The Greek word translated “rubbish” carries the connotation of “refuse“ or “excrement.” “Sh***y,” indeed!

To those of us who appreciate Jewish-Christian dialogue, Paul’s image is very lamentable. In his historical context, Paul considers himself a Jew and upholds Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises to the Jews. He is not "dissing" his Jewish heritage but conveying how wonderful is God's continuation of that heritage in Christ. The broader meaning of Paul’s image is: whatever we hold most dear to us, nothing is valuable compared to having Christ and his power in our lives.

But what about Christ’s power makes it so valuable, that nothing else matters as much? Several things.

The powers of evil and death have no ultimate control of us (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
We receive mercy and grace from God (Rom. 6: 23, Heb. 4:16).
We’ve confidence in approaching God (Heb. 4:15-16).
God is gentle with us (Heb. 5:2)
We know that God will never forsake us (Rom. 8:31-39)
We’ve freedom from being “good enough to please God” (Rom. 3:21-26).
We need not erect barriers between us and other people, because God has already removed them
(Eph. 2:11-22)
God does not expect us to grow on our own, by our own effects, but gives us plenty of help (Gal. 5:22-23)
... and the Gospel has other aspects, too.

What will we have to abandon in order to gain these things? This is a difficult subject, and different for each Christian. Repentance is an important part of spiritual beginnings and journeys. We may have to abandon cherished attitudes, ideals, and ways of perceiving the world.

We may have to abandon or modify certain religious ideas! As I understand Buddhism, doctrines and dogmas may be a source of unhealthy attachment in so far as we try to possess them in order to find security and validate ourselves. I’m not a Buddhist, but I can certainly see how this would happen. Circumstances can test your religious assumptions:

You try to forgive someone and reconcile with them (Matt. 5:23-24), and the person treats you worse than before.
You believe that God cares for you, but then something terrible happens to you that makes you question God.
You look up to a certain Christian, and then he or she does something bad or hurtful, and consequently your faith in God is shattered.
You turn your troubles over to God, and sometimes God provides, but other times nothing happens, so you're not sure how to proceed. You feel frustrated with God.
You turn to a congregation for help, and you feel like all they really want is your money and your volunteer time.
You’re a pastor who has served faithfully, but a congregation does not respond to your leadership, or the denominational system rewards someone else instead of you.
You’ve affirmed God’s power to change lives, and have done so all your life, and now after years of witnessing to God’s power, you’ve “stumbled” in your life in a manner which surprises even you.

Although one hates to think of religious faith as “personal stuff” (that is, inner struggles, personality traits, and falseness), we do carry attitudes and expectations that are mixed with and connected to our religious beliefs. The process of personal growth and sanctification may entail disappointments and betrayals that will prompt a reassessment of beliefs (and hopefully not a discouraged faith or a discouraged agnosticism).

You sometimes hear the saying, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” That’s a little simplistic but still true: Christianity contains plenty of things to do, doctrines in which to believe, and rules to follow, but it is not primarily a set of rules. (Many people go around, perhaps for years, thinking that being a Christian is a matter of being a respectable, Ten-Commandments-following person.) Christianity points us to the accomplished work of Christ for our salvation, the power that he gives us for living, and a guaranteed companionship with Christ, the living person.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Sh***y Christian, part 2

In the previous post, I reflected upon a Buddhist article, “The Shitty Monk,” by Shozan Jack Haubner. He commented that, in his path toward enlightenment, “I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes--in my own bullshit--and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (Shambhala Sun, Sept. 2009, p. 70).

The image of the “cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes” made me think of this verse: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). What does it mean to be “clothed with Christ”?

Taking a cue from Genesis 3, you could say that “Christ clothing” covers the nakedness of sin. Just as God helped the fallen Adam and Eve make clothing for themselves, once they had sinned and experienced shame, so now God clothes us with the Christ who saves us from sin. Recall the Reformation doctrine of “imputed righteousness” where the righteousness of Christ becomes ours, since we’ve no righteousness or worthiness of our own. In other words, God gives something that we did not have before--righteousness, or the absence of guilt from sin--and now God perceives us favorably because God’s gift of righteousness “covers” our sin like clothing, and God forgets our sin.

Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be?” ends:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine !
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

That’s a precious gift! In fact, that gift pretty much affirms crucial things about your identity and destiny. We do not experience a “negation of self” but rather an amazing acceptance, sins and all, which in turn gives us mercy from and access to God, in this life and the next.

So the answer to the question, “How do we deal with our s***?” is: God has already dealt with it decisively in the death and resurrection of Jesus!

But--to think again of Haubner’s dilemma that I discussed in the previous post--what about our false, immature, and sinful attitudes in which we get stuck because we do not perceive them clearly?

Ideally, the gift of a new identity in Christ leads to a process of honest self-assessment, like the people who were “cut to the heart” when they heard Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:37). But (as Hauber would put it), our inner BS runs very deep.

That’s where the Wesleyan doctrine of imparted righteousness comes in. The Holy Spirit begins working in our lives in order to deal with our falsehood, sin, improper attitudes, and other things (our “personal stuff,” to use the image from my previous reflections). Wesley considers the Spirit’s work in sermons like “Scriptural Christianity,” The Circumcision of the Heart,” “The Lord Our Righteousness,” “The New Birth,” and others. For Wesley, to be “clothed in Christ” is not simply to enjoy the beauty and blessing of the garment but also to become beautiful ourselves, through a process of growth.

The Spirit’s work can be difficult and painful, though. As a 50+ year old person I look back and see numerous times when, I believe, God was bringing clarity and assistance in my life, and God continues this process in all of us as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s power.

We should not imply that this process is quick and neat; it is potentially very slow and by no means linear. Sometimes, as with Haubner if not so graphically, we might have to smell pretty bad to ourselves and others as we proceed. We can take comfort, though, that God's own benevolent Spirit is doing the work.

The Sh***y Christian, part 1

Once in a while I like to buy the magazine “Shambhala Sun.” The Buddhist idea of attachment is a great source of interest to me, and the magazine’s articles explain that idea in ways that, oftentimes, is helpful in my own Christian faith.

The new issue (September 2009) appeared at the local Barnes and Noble. I leafed through and noticed the article by Shozan Jack Haubner, “The Shitty Monk.” I gotta read this, I thought.

Haubner reflects on the time he prepared for the role of jikijitsu, the teacher who supervises Rinzai Zen meditation. Thinking he’d prepared well for this authoritative role, his mentor told him, “You’re a train wreck of overzealousness… The primary ass you should be whipping in the zendo is … [y]our own. Don’t bring your personal shit into it” (p. 64). As it happened, Haubner became sick with diarrhea and soiled himself immediately prior to performing his jikijitsu duties, prompting his amused self-examination.

He commented that, earlier in his Zen training, he resisted the authoritarian aspects of meditation. “What I failed to realize was that my resistance was in itself a pose, a stance--a result of my conditioning as a free-spirited, individualistic American prone to respecting all paths and choosing none. I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes--in my own bullshit--and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (p. 70).

This article prompted several ruminations on my part. To start with, I thought of the difficulties of the pastoral call in Christian ministry. We pastors do become “outfitted in attitudes” which can become a substitute for the “deepest self.” Egotism, overzealousness, inflexibility, a hypercritical spirit, the need to be loved, a hunger for success, a neglect of family, an inability to say “no”: all these can dressed in a “cleverly embroidered outfit” of corresponding scriptures and slogans. “God called me to preach,” we affirm with gratitude, but we too easily think, thereby, that God validates every aspect of our personalities, and so our admirable, ignoble, mature, immature and sinful qualities become all mixed up with our theological identity. We may not be “posers” exactly, but we may very well be “posing,” and thus stalled in our personal growth.

Pastors aren’t the only Christians who become trapped in “personal stuff,” of course. Laity also combine mature, immature, caring, hateful, and sinful qualities within ourselves, and become stalled in personal insight and growth. Unfortunately, in an analogous way as pastors, Christian faith and churchgoing can form a veneer of respectability that we place over our lives, rather than primarily a way by which we draw closer to God and open ourselves to God’s sometimes-painful work of sanctification.

It’s important to remember that Christian sanctification, unlike zazen (meditation toward enlightenment), is not supposed to be primarily a matter of personal effort. Although activities like spiritual disciplines and Bible reading are very helpful, Paul understands the work of sanctification as that of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in us because we have accepted the saving work of Christ which is already accomplished on our behalf.

That being said, how do we deal with our “s***”?  See the next post....

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Don't Snore/On I-64

Interstate 64 is a 950 mile highway from St. Louis, MO to Chesapeake, VA. I’ve lived near the highway in three different states. The first was in the 1980s when my wife and I lived in Charlottesville, VA. The first time we drove to Virginia from Illinois, the highway was not finished through the mountains of West Virginia. Instead of making the long trip on I-79 south of Charleston, WV then up I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, we opted to take US 60 through WV, which on a map doesn’t look so long… Oh man, what a winding, mountain road! I think we spent over three hours going 90 miles.

I don’t remember much else about I-64 in Virginia, other than occasional trips to Richmond and other towns. Beth and I were doctoral students and we stayed pretty close to home, with noses firmly to grindstones. But later, during the 1990s, we lived in Louisville, KY. For several years, I-64 was my preferred route when I drove to see my elderly parents in Illinois. Throughout the decade, I went to see them every two or three months. They lived 260 miles away, and about 200 of that was the interstate through pretty, flat, rural countryside in southern Indiana and southeastern Illinois. Long stretches of the highway--for instance, the forty miles between Corydon and Ferdinand, IN, and the ninety miles between Mt. Vernon, IL and the US 41 exits near Evansville, IN--had few services.

I liked the countryside, though. I certainly became familiar to the scenery: the billboards, the fields, the small country neighborhoods, the rivers and streams. I took along tapes and CDs, mostly classical music, and some of this music still reminds me of southern Illinois and Indiana. Radio reception wasn’t great through those parts. If I liked country music better, I’d have had more choices. Evansville has a dandy classical NPR station that I could pick up for about sixty miles. During their pledge ride I sent them $20 out of gratitude.

Funny things can happen on the road. Once, as I gassed up at a BP station, a DeLorean pulled up. That’s unusual, I thought. Then shortly another pulled up. That’s very strange. Then a third. Okay, what's going on? It was a DeLorean car club, heading across southern Illinois.

Now, during the late 00s, we live in St. Louis, where I-64 is being upgraded and extended west to Wentzville, MO. Once a significant part of the highway is opened in late 2009, we’ll easily be able to drive to downtown St. Louis; at the moment, we must do a bit of winding around through the city.

I still think of all those years I drove to see my parents. I figured, conservatively, that in those years I traveled the circumference of the world on I-64. Among interstates I tend to love I-70 the best, because it passes through my hometown and I remember when it was constructed. But I-64 has, by default, become one of my life's major highways.

A Brief Return to Spoon River

In my July 29th thoughts, I quoted Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River poem, “Fiddler Jones.”

The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you…
I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

When I was a teenager, I didn't delve deeply into alternative meanings of the poem, or stopped to wonder if Jones was white or black, or put the poem into context with the other "epitaphs." I simply liked the idea of embracing your gifts. I thought, how lovely to have a life that is satisfying, both at the time and in retrospect.

I now know that we often realize our most precious gifts in just that way: people affirm and validate them for us. As a teenager and then as a young adult in school, I saw a variety of life-possibilities for myself, tried to get a good over-all preparation, and see where God led me.

A few years ago, I chatted with a long-time ol’ friend at a professional meeting. We chuckled at the differences between the work we each now do, and the professional goals we had during our school days. Our goals weren't utterly different from our present work, but we'd ended up in unexpected places. We agreed that we each had felt validated in some areas of work but not in others, and that validation was an important part of our respective “journeys.”

I also think about all this because my daughter is in college. She has several talents and goals; she has activities at which she likes to spend time, and other activities she'd like to try that are still on the horizon. Who will nurture her talents? Who will be sources of discouragement? What will be her own journey of discovery and fulfillment?

Sometimes discouragement can make that “vibration going there in your heart” all the stronger. You realize in yourself what your dreams and motivations are. William Least Heat Moon was not particularly encouraged in his efforts to write Blue Highways. He persevered and later chided prospective authors who believe they would write more if they received the impetus of grant money. He responds that if we really want to write, we will. The broader lesson is: if we aren’t doing a particular activity for which we long, perhaps we don’t really want to do it, after all.

But is that too simple? Plenty of people look back on their lives and see unfulfilled dreams, undeveloped talents, and desires for themselves for which they had no favorable opportunities. Masters’ “cemetery" is crowded with people of dashed aspirations.

The fictional Jones is one kind of life from among many possible examples. He did not regret that he was a middling success at farming, or that he didn’t try hard enough to farm and then time slipped by. Instead of a thousand acres (the achievement of the character immediately before this poem), Jones' wealth consisted of memories of people, memories of times, and a peaceful conscience. He might’ve agreed with this challenging quote from philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"I Paid Good Taxes!"

I’ve been reading information about health care reform, not only aspects of the proposed reform but also ideas on how to pay for such a program. Levying taxes on the income of the very rich seems a typical idea, although projected federal budget gaps and the challenge of funding Medicare and Medicaid may require taxes for the less wealthy, as well. Here, for instance, is a New York Times discussion:

A short John Updike piece haunts me. In “The Tarbox Police,” a crazy man was hold up in the upper story of a house. Although he shot at a hydrant, he did not seem sufficiently threatening to deter a small crowd that formed near the scene.

“The siege lasted an hour. The crazy man, a skinny fellow in a tie-dyed undershirt, was in plain sight in the widow above the porch roof, making a speech you couldn’t understand and alternately reloading the two rifles he had. One of the old folks hobbled out across the asphalt to the police car and screamed, ‘Kill him! I paid good taxes for fifty years. What’s the problem, he’s right up there, kill him!’ Even the crazy man went quiet to hear the old man carry on: the old guy was trembling; his face shone with tears; he kept yelling the word ‘taxes.’ Dan shielded him with his body and hustled him back to the crowd, where a nurse from the home wrestled him quiet” (Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 28).

I think of this piece every time I hear a story of, for instance, someone who hanged himself in a jail cell, and someone else comments, “Well, that saved taxpayers a lot of dollars!” I also think of my experiences as a pastor; our denomination collects funds from churches each year for the funding of missions, ministry efforts, and denominational administration, but inevitably a parishioner resents such fund-sharing as a “tax." Several questions come to mind. At what point does our resentment of taxes become such that we diminish the value of other persons who might benefit from those dollars? If we had no taxes (or analogous ways of raising money), how would we house prisoners, or secure adequate health care for the needy, or fund programs? At what point do we ourselves feel too diminished and cheated by taxes to worry about the plight of someone else, because our own sense of dignity has been hurt?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

An Interfaith Comparison

Or, a theological reverie on a summer afternoon...

I’m not in the habit of rereading my own works, but the other day I looked through my doctoral dissertation, The Social Ontology of Karl Barth (International Scholars Publications, 1994). One chapter of this “light classic” concerns Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity.

Since the post-Nicene fathers, the divine nature is said to subsist in the three personae (prosopa): the Father who is the incriminate origin of the Son and the Spirit, the Son who is the Logos made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Barth prefers the Patristic idea of tropos huparxeos (or modus entitativus, or Seinsweise), rather than prosopon, in order to preserve both the unity and tri-unity of God. He stresses that God’s tri-unity (Dreieinigkeit) points to God’s essential relational being, “in which the being of God for us is not something foreign to God’s essence but is grounded in his very being”(Church Dogmatics, I/I, p. 359f).

Because God’s essential (not accidental) nature is relational, God’s self-revelation to human beings takes us into a union with God. Any knowledge of God is also a sharing of the life and being of God in that God’s self-revelation is the nature of God in God’s tri-unity. This is not supposed to be a theopoiesis of human being but rather a gathering of humans into a saving relationship. Nor is it a mystical union, because God’s self-revelation is a wholly free act of God and never a miracle that we can objectify or claim, even in prayerful mysticism.

Jesus Christ is God’s “being in act.” The Trinitarian doctrine of “perichoresis” (the natures of the persons of the Trinity mutually permeate and condition one another) grounds the nature of God in his three ways of being and in his being for us (pro nobis). Knowledge of God is inseparable from God’s Lordship in Christ. But not only do we know who God is because of Christ, we also thereby know one another as fellow human beings whom we can serve gladly. That is because Christ’s human nature is not something foreign to his divine nature, but it, too, is essential to the being of God. So Christ not only reveals God but also essential, social human beings.

Now, just to make a very quick comparison of two kinds of faith, I pulled another of my books off the shelf, What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Abingdon, 2003). My interviewee for Sikhism explained his faith:

“Our scripture starts with a word, Ik Onkar... If you miss the meaning of that word, you’re going to be following the rituals but not the sense of the faith. If you followed and understood the meaning of that word, the rest of it falls into place. Ik Onkar means, ‘there is only one.’ There are not two. That one, is God. Once I understand that, you and I are not two. Just like I have two hands and two legs, my leg is not the same as my hand but they are one, a part of this body. If someone cuts off my hand, it is no longer part of the body; it cannot function. If we are an extension of that ultimate God, and that’s all we are, so our purpose in life becomes very clear to us: to serve that greater body” (pp. 72-73).

He explained that when we misunderstand our true identity, we think of ourselves as an “I,” something separate. But that is a very basic and serious error. Our true identity is as part of a whole, which is God, and thus our purpose in life is to serve one another. My interviewee said that, when we serve ourselves, we become analogous to a cancer cell. He noted that our goal is to add value to the universe. For instance, “If you are serving a customer, rather thinking, ‘How can I sell him something?’ now you can ask, ‘How can I add value to him?’ I am in the listening mode and try to find out ‘What does he need?’ Then I come around and serve that. Everywhere you see success happening, it has this ingredient present" (pp. 74-75).

Here are two different religions that affirm the ontological sociality of human beings, rooted in the being of God. In Sikhism, God is understood as the one God with whom we share our being. In Trinitarian Christianity, our sociality is grounded in the being of God pro nobis. One is a matter of understanding the true nature of our relation, the other is a matter of our being brought into a saving relationship. One is an impersonal God of infinite qualities, the other is a personal God whose very being is in relationship. In both cases, we do wrong, and fundamentally betray our human nature, when we serve only ourselves.