Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts about Sabbath

Here are some random thoughts I have been thinking regarding Sabbath (perhaps notes for a future sermon):

Faith is about service to God, which also means service to the human community. But that service includes ceasing, sabbath.

The new community which is formed by faith is both about work AND rest.

Sabbath means:
  • To cease Production and Consumption
  • To rest
  • To enjoy
  • Re-creation
  • To breathe
  • Too often, it means to be released from a tight or confining place. In the Exodus, Egypt was referred to as "a narrow place." But how many of us have too narrow of lives the rest of the week, seeking openness in worship or in whatever we do on the weekend.
Keeping the sabbath holy, set apart from and set apart for.

2 Chronicles 36:21b - All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfil seventy years. For the chronicler, it is a theological understanding of the reasons for the exile in Babylon as Jeremiah had predicted. But for some reason it sounds a whole lot like times when we work so hard with no time off until our bodies force sabbath upon us through exhaustion, illness or injury.

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath: he healed, fed his disciples and all sorts of other things on the Sabbath which got him in trouble with the Powers that Be. But he also took time away, apart, far from the crowds and the preaching and the healing. He wasn't confined to the set schedule of religion, but he still took sabbath. My concern is that I find in this a justification for workaholism that promises to make up for days off not taken or interrupted or truncated or otherwise missed. There is always a danger of finding what I like in scripture.

Poets understand the Sabbath and the preacher's strange relationship with it better than most preachers do. Etheridge Knight wrote about writing 5,000 words one night about how writing poetry is doing something about the world, but his questioner didn't buy it, and neither did he completely. Robert Bly finishes his poem Things to Think with the lines:

When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about
To give you something large: tell you you're forgiven,
Or that it's not necessary to work all the time, or that it's
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Healing as Revelation

Looking at the relationship between individual and community forms of revelation drew me to look at the healing stories as revelation. I started looking at them as individual revelations. One person receiving the power of God for life, healing, new life, as opposed to the community stories such as manna in the wilderness.

Once again, my assumptions are challenged by the stories. Let us take the story of the healing of the man born lame in Acts 3:1-10 (RSV).

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, "Look at us." And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, "I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

There are plenty of things going on in the story: the disciples continue going out two by two as instructed in Luke 10:1, they go to the Temple for prayers daily, where they meet someone suffering much like the ones Jesus healed, here healed by his followers in his name, an act of the church in the power of the Spirit.

What intrigues me at the moment, however, is how a private and personal event such as healing is the power of God working within the community. Just as the healing stories of Jesus, this healing story impacts the community as much or more than it does the one healed.

  1. It startles people. It introduces wonder and amazement, which are the first openings to faith.
  2. It upsets the Powers That Be, who have a vested interest in the status quo, even if that means leaving the marginalized, the outcast, the sick and the poor as they are.
  3. It reinforces the faith of the faithful.
  4. It allowed a teachable moment, seen in Peter’s speech.
  5. It fills the community of faith with the Holy Spirit so that they can speak the word of God with boldness, regardless of their credentials and authorization by the Powers That Be.

The healing, important and crucial in the life of the one healed, is also an act of new life that ripples out through the community, transforming it as well.

The Burning Bush and Pentecost, pt. 2

There is a problem with the expectation of the lightning bolt or shaking of the world religious experience as normal is that it sets up some difficulties:

1. It is dangerous for the everyday nature of faith. It can make us miss the simple and the unextraordinary ways of grace. It denies more subtle discernment of life’s revelations. Some revelations hit like the right answer to a crossword puzzle clue about a half hour after setting the puzzle aside. Some moments of absolute ordinariness reveal amazing truths without fanfare or thunderclap.

2. Chasing mountaintop moments can become a goal in and of itself, rather than a means of entrance into more or better service or mission or ministry. Adrenaline junkies understand this problem too well.

3. If the lightening strike epiphany is seen as the only way people are moved and touched and sent by God, then without it, people of faith may feel unworthy or uncalled or unsent.

I say this as a person with a high opinion of the Holy Spirit working in life. It can be at work in ways far beyond and far simpler than a mountaintop moment or being struck blind on the road to Damascus.

The Burning Bush and Pentecost

When we think about religious experiences, how do we understand them?

With our recent culture of distrust regarding institutions seen as normal and usual and important just a few years ago, and the growing trends of hyper-individualism, it is no surprise that individual spiritual experiences are not only seen as the epitome of religious occurrences, it is a growth industry.

In the Bible, we find no simple or easy line between singular and individual revelations and community transformations. While some instances seem to simply be the impact of one changed individual upon his or her community, surely a real impact, there is more going on in these instances.

Many important moments of the revealing of the divine are to individuals far removed from culture or society or others. The list is long, and this one is not exhaustive:

Abraham at the covenant moment with God,
Jacob’s dream when his family has gone on to the other side of the river,
Moses at the burning bush and at the top of Mt. Sinai,
both of the Josephs’ dreams,
Elijah in the cleft of the mountain,
the calling visions of Isaiah and Jeremiah,
Jesus at his baptism, in the wilderness, in the garden praying alone,
and Paul’s seemingly emblematic epiphany and conversion.

The paragon of community revelations would be Pentecost, as the whole company of believers is touched by the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of other moments which are evidence of God’s power and presence in the midst of the community: the sea parted, the manna and quail and water in the wilderness, the walls of Jericho.

But such distinctions between singular or communal miss an important point. When an individual has such a moment, such an epiphany or theophany, such a revelation, it is not for their own sake, not a commodity, not a commendation to go in their spiritual file, but for the sake of the community. These moments are a further entrance into greater service, witness, ministry, for the sake of the community.

For Paul, it was transformation and conversion for entrance into a mission to the Gentiles. For Moses, it was empowerment and instruction for leading the people from Egypt into new covenant, new freedom, and new life. For Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets, it is the encouragement and empowerment to prophesy.

I recently heard a quote, “God has touched your life. I am so sorry!” Because when God touches someone’s life in the Bible, their lives are changed in ways they never expected or planned for.

So the purpose of revelation, whether isolated and individual like the Burning Bush, or in the midst of community like Pentecost, is for the sake of the community of faith. And the purpose of the community of faith is not for the putting down of the individual, but for the fulfillment of all people.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Reluctant Obedience

There is a courage born of faith that is irrational, world-changing, unfathomable, and rare enough to stand out in the sea of going along to get along and looking out for number one. But how does such courage happen? I want to start by looking at what would appear to be its opposite, but rather is often its beginning: reluctant obedience.

While Abraham, nee Abram, was not particularly a pinnacle of morality, his obedience to God’s call was immediate.
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. (Genesis 12:1-4, RSV)
Abraham would have many faults, but one cannot say his obedience was reluctant.

What about Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jonah?

Isaiah is famous for many things: the readings of Advent and Lent, called by some “the Gospel of the Old Testament,” speaking peace to Jerusalem, being the best known of the prophets by the Christian church, perhaps as much for the song “Here I Am, Lord,” as for anything actually written.

When Isaiah receives his calling to be a prophet in the vision of the throne of God, he is struck by an immense dread (which may be as outdated a word as awe, but it is still a good one, and we ought to remember it).

He cries out:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

What happens next brings us to that famous agreement to go forth as a prophet:
Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"

Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." (Isaiah 6:5-8, RSV)

Then there is Jeremiah.

First the Lord says,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

But Jeremiah, like Isaiah, is reluctant.
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth."

Isaiah’s concern about not being good enough is echoed by Jeremiah’s fear of not being mature enough.
But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, `I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
Then the LORD put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:5-10, RSV)

Finally there is Jonah, of a much smaller book, but far more reluctant than either of our other examples. Jonah is called and sent, but will not go. It takes fish-belly time before he actually goes to his work. However, not even successfully preaching and seeing Nineveh repent removes Jonah’s reticence.

The difference between Isaiah and Jeremiah on the one hand, and Jonah on the other, is not whether they go and do what god has called them to do. However reluctant they have been, they have each done as God commanded. But where Jeremiah and Isaiah each protested their calling, Jonah ran from his. In Jeremiah and Isaiah’s protests, they are touched by the divine and they become the prophets they are called to be. Even in this becoming, there are differences. Isaiah proclaims, “Here I am, send me!” Jeremiah laments “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

So there is no formula for obedience, reluctant or otherwise. There is, however, an interesting set of examples. We have Jonah, who is reluctant to the end, even to the point of lamenting his success. Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose experiences are both different and yet reminiscent of the other, each protest their calling and in that protest, in their vocal reluctance, there comes a moment of blessing, of burning away the barrier, of making it possible to see a way through.

So when we are reluctant about obedience in general, or more likely in the particulars, rather than running away, or silently lamenting our lot, we find that arguing with God can be far more productive. It may even be a prophetic form of prayer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Unmetered Worship

In the great debates over worship, the words "contemporary" and "praise" get used so often, we may well forget that when Luther wrote it, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" was contemporary, and full of praise.

When I ask people what contemporary and praise mean in reference to music during worship, I receive answers running the gamut from uplifting, face-paced, and lively to simplistic, dumbed-down and shallow. My mother responded, "I guess it means that there are drums." As good a summation as any.

It occurred to me that most hymnals have a few indexes in the back, used only by those who pick hymns for worship. One of these little known resources is an index of meters for the tunes. There is a great and long-lived tradition of hymns being metered poetry set to music.

You remember metered poetry, don't you? It was the iambic pentameter that bored you to tears while studying Shakespeare. It is also the reason that most all of Emily Dickinson's poetry can be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and "Amazing Grace" can be sung to such tunes as House of the Rising Sun, Gilligan's Island, and Hernando's Hideaway. They share the same meter, and so they will fit the same tunes.

Protestant hymnody has developed such a library of metered hymns that those in the know can speak of Finlandia, Ash Grove, and Cwm Rhondda and know that these are not locations (as the names might suggest) but are rather the tunes we usually sing "Be Still My Soul," "Let All Things Now Living," and "God of Grace and God of Glory."

Other tune names derive from Latin texts from which they were translated, or they are named after the composer's favorite musician, or even after the psalm that was originally sung to the tune.

In the index of meters, we find such arcana as S.M., C.M., L.M, perhaps with a D. or a Ref, or a string of numbers. These are short-hand for Short Meter, Common Meter, Long Meter, perhaps Doubled, so the meter in question is repeated, or with a Refrain.

Of course there have always been songs listed as Irr. Pushed to the back of the index, if they are listed at all, these are the Irregulars. Some of them are well loved and oft-sung, such as "Adeste Fidelis," the tune of O Come All Ye Faithful. But they don't fit the metered poetry of proper hymnody. The name lets us know what is normal and what isn't.

Along come the guitar masses of the Roman Catholic 60's and 70's, the introduction in Protestant churches of such (then favorites, now unfortunately somewhat passe) songs as Morning Has Broken and Lord of the Dance, the second adapted from the Shaker Tune "Simple Gifts." Meter was replaced for the sake of singability and a new sensibility.

More recently came pop inspired music that followed the influences of the radio more than the chancel and the modern revival concert more than the staid and stolid sanctuary.

We still haven't found a good definition for contemporary or praise music or worship. Perhaps it simply means that both the liturgy and the music are unmetered.

So what will we do when the tunes and the worship become unmetered? How do we start to learn a new set of rhythms, a new set of music, a new way of doing things which are so different than all that we have trained so long to do?

Two answers.

1. The new stuff can be awfully fun.

2. With God, all things are possible.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Narrative and Defragmentation

At the end of the first week of my sabbatical, I attended the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the biennial gathering of delegates and visitors from the whole of the denomination, as well as guests from others. There were plenary sessions, amazing worship, as well as speakers and workshops and, of course, cookies.

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of our nation's most notable preachers and an Episcopal priest who now teaches at a small college in Georgia, spoke on "The Fate of Narrative in the Age of Twitter." No surprise, it was engaging, evocative, and thought-provoking. She listed three basic rules (from among a much longer list) regarding what stories she will allow to shape or influence her story, her narrative, her life.

1. Any story which she would allow to influence her story must honor and defend people not like her.

2. Any story which she will take to help make her story must allow her to argue with it. Those with prepackaged answers allowing for no deviation are unworthy of the task.

3. Any story worth being a part of her own story must level with her about the cost of love. It is not allowed to lie to her about the messiness of life.

As she related her take on narrative and the life-changing, life-giving and life-saving potential of narrative, including and especially Biblical narratives, she also related her forays into the world of e-mail, text, social networking and other new technologies. Through discussions with her students, she discovered the powerful connections they maintained with friends and loved ones through their cellphones. She soon discovered, whether a product of such technologies or her own "adult ADD," that so many technologies resulted in feeling personally fragmented, in addition to whatever benefit the connections provided.

As I was listening and taking notes, I jotted down in the margin of my paper, "Sabbath = defragmenting." If you are reading a blog, then you probably need no definition for defragmentation. It has come into our vocabulary through the ubiquitousness of the computer. We store our little bits of data, little parts of our programs, little pieces of our stories and our selves all over the place, and fairly soon we cannot retrieve all of them easily. Defragmenting is the computer's way of rightly ordering all of those bits, putting together those things which ought to be together, and gathering up the scattered.

Sabbath, resting, taking time apart from production and consumption, focusing on God, "sitting at the feet of the Lord like a cabbage" (as Julien of Norwich is credited as saying), playing, re-creating, these are ways of drawing the scattered and fragmented parts of ourselves back into who we are, so that we might be once again whole, and wholy present.

I then wrote the letters, "WCS" and an arrow to the words "Sabbath = Defragmenting." WCS is my own shorthand for "World Communion Sunday." Not that we need to, or can afford to, wait until the first Sunday in October to defrag ourselves, or even that communion is necessary for it to happen. But I will be back in the pulpit then, and one can never start too soon on a sermon idea.