A couple random, non-cohesive thoughts on books, Jesus, Nazis, and emergent worship

books

I continue in my diabolical effort to catch up on what feels like an entire mountain range of books– those that I was assigned in seminary but only skimmed, or skipped entirely; those that came out or were recommended to me while in seminary which I purchased or noted on my Amazon wishlist for later; and those which have come out or been recommended to me in the past year of trying [only sporadicly successfully] to be a fully functioning adult. It adds up to … well, let’s just say I can’t even bring myself to put them all up on my goodreads “to-read” shelf because you’ll judge me and/or think I’m insane.

Anyhow, I’m actively working on about 10 books right now. Anne Lamott said in an interview once,

“Reading various books at once is sort of like doing an enjoyable Stations of the Cross.”

This struck me as stupidly brilliant and also indelibly true. You put one down and pick another up, entering a different stage, a different scene, in an ostensibly different journey, and after a while of reading all of them together you realize it’s all one big journey, after all… we’re all on our way, together, to Golgatha. To Resurrection. To Christ.

Hmm… what was this post supposed to be about?

Jesus and quarters and collars and priorities

Yesterday I was sitting in a line of cars waiting to be released from a hospital parking garage by an attendant who had her mind firmly set on getting her $3 from each and every person coming through that line. From far ahead, I heard her: “No credit cards. Cash or check only.” As a person with no checks (they’re in the mail, okay?) and no cash (there were some quarters in my cupholder, if push came to shove, but that was it), I was nervous.

Then this thought occurred to me: I’m wearing my clerical collar. She’ll for sure let me off. I was visiting congregants. Win for the clerical collar!

And then that sneaky Jesus sneaked in and sneakily said the sad, sneaking truth: If ever I’m in a position where I am tempted to use my clerical collar to earn me something– a free pass, respect, attention– then that is the time to instantly, without passing go or collecting so much as two quarters from my cupholders, take the collar off.

Conversely, whenever I’m tempted to take my collar off in order to earn me something– protection from mockery or questions, cool factor around friends, gratification of my laziness– then that is the time to instantly put the collar on.

It seems to me that this is the meaning behind the “go into your closet and pray” but also “if you’re embarrassed of Me then I’ma be embarrassed of you” dichotomy I’ve always noticed in the teachings of Jesus. I think if you’re tempted to pray in public (or whatever that metaphorically relates to in your life) to make a big deal out of it, get thyself into a closet. But if you’re tempted to pray in your closet because you’re embarrassed of your faith or otherwise don’t want to be seen engaging with Christ, then get thyself out into the street on your knees. It’s not a one-size-fits-all commandment regarding closets. It’s a one-truth-fits-all commandment about intentions and priorities.

Anyway. Yeah, so that was one thing I wanted to say.

and finally, nazis

Speaking of catch-up books and the “one size fits all” theory (look, I’m making connections a little bit), I’m reading a book on Naziism that was assigned to me in not one but two classes I took, one on Barth and the other on Bonhoeffer. Did I read it in either? Nope. Though I read the introduction at some point, because I underlined something. #modelstudent #IgotanAinboththoseclassesthough #mystery

The book seeks to explain how on earth an entire country could get caught up so utterly (and so rapidly) in the rampant, raging, horrific racism and violence of a party which, less than 5 years before Hitler’s rise, comprised only 6% of the voting public.

There is a quote that strikes me: an intellectual Nazi Party member, Carl Schmitt, spoke early in the Nazi rule of “what Nazi society would look like” when it came to fruition. Here’s the author’s succinct analysis of Schmitt’s vision:

“[Nazi society’s] two constituent qualities were ‘homogeneity’ and ‘authenticity.'”

The reason this struck me is that “authenticity” is a big word for emergent worship. Our service, The Hub, claims an unbelievably clever (friendly sarcasm) acronym within our own name, where the H in “hub” stands for “Honest.” Honesty, authenticity, self-knowledge and self-expression within the presence and the grace of a God who created you unique and expressive– these are central tenets to the emergence, millennial style of church. 

So Schmitt and the rest of the Nazis got it utterly and completely wrong. (This is not news to you, I hope.)

Homogeneity and authenticity are mutually exclusive concepts. Homogeneity is where authenticity goes to die. One cannot be authentic to one’s individual and unique self if one is forced into a box with everyone else.  One size fits all is a cultural illusion, whether in the ethnicity of a nation or in our worship styles or the ways we seek and find God.  Though our essence– having been made in the imago Dei– is identical, and our calling– to resemble as perfectly as possible Jesus Christ– is identical, nevertheless in all of our particulars and aesthetics and likes and dislikes and personality types this statement must be true: We were not created by factory molds. Homogeneity is nowhere in the creation plan as we have received it.
At the Hub, we seek a community wherein your truest self is welcome– even if that truest self is weird, or a bad singer, or mentally ill, or terribly broken. We seek a worship space wherein you can lift your hands if you want or you can sit quietly and journal; you can sing or you can pray; you can participate or you can let us participate for you. Whatever you need, whatever is authentic to you– because we know you’re not like us, and that’s why we love you.

so, in conclusion:

Screw the Nazis.

A Word from Christ

I woke up this morning with a rotten feeling in my heart.

You know when you have a fresh beautiful tomato in your kitchen, and you’re waiting for just the right time that you can savor it in all its God-praising glory, and you reach for it only to notice a cavernous, white-black abscess somewhere on a round red side, a cavity that ruins your appetite and your hopes for any kind of enjoyment-based worship? That’s what my heart felt like this morning.

My heart is rent in two and rent in four and rent in seven times seven by a broken relationship in my life.

A woman I once called sister, a woman I hope to call sister again.
A woman for whom I cry out in prayer as often as I think of her.
A woman whom I have wronged.
A woman by whom I have been wronged.
A woman whom I love desperately,
understand not at all,
and with whom I am broken by frustration.
A woman who I fear–
in my secret hear–
has no feelings left toward me but
pity,
and anger,
and quite possibly hate.

I was near tears this morning thinking of her, looking at pictures of her, and thinking of the white-black abscess eating into our once robust love for one another.  Thinking that it is entirely my fault. Thinking it is entirely too late for anything, even hope. Thinking I should toss myself on my mattress like the Psalmist and cry out in his broken words,

“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror, while You, O LORD– how long?” (Ps 6.2-3 NRSV)

***

As I sat in my windowless office on this beautiful Sabbath morning (the windowlessness a mirror to my sinful inability to look beyond myself, to be sure), miserable and tweeting (for twitter is somehow a place for small verses and mini-psalms for my ADD brain), the breath of God breathed. The Word of God spoke. The heart of God beat for a second in line with my own and I caught a whisper.

***

There was a poet I heard of once who said that she would be out working in her yard and she would hear a poem coming to her. She would see it on the wind, and she would break into a run, racing and racing to the house, to the pen and paper, hoping against hope she could catch it before it swept past her in search of another poet, a more ready poet. She said sometimes she’d catch it by the tail and force it down onto paper, and the poem would come out backwards, but she’d have gotten it down.

Blessed be the woman who has her thumbs on the iPhone keyboard when the Spirit moves, for this is what the Word said:

“Only Christ redeems, and only well.”

***

My languishing is not for nothing. My terror will not be spilled out for nothing. When my bones shake and my spirit trembles, Christ is with me, and with the woman for whom I shake and tremble.

And Christ is not still, or small, or quiet, though His voice is still and small and comes quietly at 8 AM with no fanfare but my tears quietly rolling and the notification that a Tweet was successfully posted. He says,

“For a long time I have held My peace,
I have kept still and restrained Myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant….
I will lead the blind by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.” (Is 42.14,16 NRSV)

Christ comes with His redeeming arms ready, His womb fit to burst, His hands poised to create new suns and new paths for me, so terribly blind, to see and walk by. The abscesses will be healed, the cavities filled, the broken things healed up and sealed up once more.

Only Christ redeems, and only well. He needs no superglue, or knives, or antibacterial disinfectant to restore, to heal, to purify. He will not be silent any longer, but He will do the things He has promised. And He will not forsake us. Amen.

Jesus Fan-Fiction

“The grace of the Gospel… says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you– a sacrifice, a good deed– but rather desiring you alone….

God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 108.

This summer at The Hub (our alternative worship service– 7 pm Sundays @ FUMC Charlotte!) we are starting a new sermon series on the B-list characters in the Bible. The second stringers, the gals and guys who don’t get much airtime. I wanted to call them the Best Supporting Actors and Actresses and do a big grand Oscars theme, but this idea didn’t get much traction, especially from the males in the room.

We talked a little bit at our most recent leadership team meeting about midrash– which one gentlemen aptly and hilariously described as “Bible fan-fiction”– how the Jewish rabbis had no hangups about adding to the text, about imagining and dreaming in communion with what’s written explicitly in the Scriptures.

When they encountered one of these characters who only gets a couple of lines of dialogue or are only mentioned in passing, the rabbis sometimes imagined a back-story for them, and a future, and motives, and emotions. If the Bible didn’t say whatever became of them, they dreamed up a long and happy life… or a horrible violent death, depending on their interpretation of the character.

We Christians today tend to have hangups about this sort of thing, but it didn’t bother the authors of the Midrash to imagine for Biblical characters various and diverse ways that the hand of God would shape the rest of their lives.

***

Bonhoeffer’s words above are a part of his chapter on the importance of confession in Christian community. He is telling his readers that the Christian community is a place to drop the act— it’s a place to say, “Hi, my name is Erin and I’m a sinner.” You drop the pretense, you take away the veil, and you expose your festering wounds to the holy air that swirls around the altar, around the body and blood of Christ.

It is there, in that place of deep vulnerability and trust, in community with fellow believers, that you can dare to dream up a healing.

It is in Christian community that your own midrash can begin to form: you can let your community’s hands bind up your wounds and let their prayers wash you clean, and you can also let their imaginations build for you a new future. They can, in the midrash tradition, dream for you a new life in God’s hands. A new future on Christ’s way, carrying Christ’s cross, covered in Christ’s blood. And this imagining is grace.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christ made the other Christian to be grace for us.”

 

We enter into the true Christian community in the hopes that it will be the sort of place where we can pour ourselves out in vulnerability and be offered grace in return. We say, “Hi, my name is Erin and I’m a sinner, a great, unholy sinner.” And we read together of a God who wants us as we are, who loves us despite hating our sin. And we dare to dream together of what a future with that God just might look like.

In Your Light We See Light

Psalm 36 has a line that says, “In Your light we see light.”

I even like the Latin translation of it, though I generally understand about 1% of Latin: “In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.” Isn’t that pretty?

I think what I like about this line is that it doesn’t make any sense.  It is nonsense. In light, light is seen? That’s like saying, when you look at the color blue, you see the color blue. When it’s hot out, we feel hot. When the wind blows, we feel the wind blowing.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

If I were sitting in a dark room (not a cave… I don’t feel like dealing with Plato this early in the morning), and someone turned a flashlight on me, what would I see?
I would see everything the light is illuminating– the floor, my hands, the dust swirling in the air as the beam illumines it, possibly the white-hot bulb in the center of the flashlight, if I squinted really hard.

Would I be seeing light? I think I would just be seeing the things the light allowed me to see. Things that were always around me, it’s just that now I can see them, thanks to the light.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

We think about God illuminating our lives a lot. God comes in and illumines your heart: You see what a screw-up you are. You see how filthy your soul is. You see how desperate the world around you has become. God’s light has the purpose, in the common mythology of modern American Christianity, of making us see us.

If that were the whole story, the Psalmist should have written, “In Your light, we see ourselves.”

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

If I were back in that dark room, with that flashlight turned on me, I would see myself, yes. I would see my knees and my dirty hands and the great distance that divides me from the one holding the light. The light certainly has that self-sight as one of its tasks.

But what if we changed the vantage point?

If you were also in that dark room, in another corner, and you were looking at this scene– a light being shone upon me– what would you see? A beam of light. A long cone of light traveling from the mouth of the flashlight to engulf me in a shimmering pool of gold.  You would be able to see the light itself, as an entity itself, as a thing to be seen, if only you look at it from another perspective.

You know how when you’re on the beach or in the mountains and there are clouds all around but the sun is peaking through… and every so often there will be that perfect situation where you can actually see sunbeams cascading to earth? Isn’t that magical? You can see the rays of the sun. It’s captivating. It’s probably my favorite thing in nature. Watching the long fingers of the sun drip lazily to the surface of the planet somewhere in the distance, caressing it, warming it, tickling it.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

The light of God does not exist to show us ourselves. It does not fall upon us for the sole purpose of convicting, or accusing, or even inspiring. The light of God falls on us because otherwise we would have no way of knowing what light is.

Sometimes I wonder about people who were born completely deaf– they have never heard anything in their lives. I wonder how sound is explained to them. How would you explain sound to someone who could not, had not, never would hear it? Or colors, shapes, trees, the incredible way water ripples, to someone who was blind?

Go on, try this in your mind: Describe the color blue to someone who can’t see anything. It’s impossible. I seriously spend a lot of time thinking about this and am inexplicably very concerned by it.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

We are blind. We sit in that room, on the couch or behind the desk, taking calls and marking endless appointments in our calendars, completely in the dark, and we think that we are experiencing all that life has to offer. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We don’t even know that we’re missing something. We have to be told that there’s something called blue out there. We have to be told that there’s something amazing called water ripples that are a glory and a wonder to behold.

God’s light is that thing that tells us. God’s light comes upon us to show us another way of living. To show us that we’re missing a sense. That we, ourselves, our lives, are sans-sense, perhaps even nonsense. God’s light shows us what light is, that light even exists.

 

How precious is Your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.
They feast on the abundance of Your house,
and You give them drink from the river of Your delights.
For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.
In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

The Abbey: In Which a Bishop & an Abbot Struggle to Put Up with Me

The following are 3 (the first 3 of at least a few more, I expect) excerpts from my journal over my long weekend at Mepkin Abbey, which I have written about previously here.

*****

Friday, February 8th, 7:00 pm

My stay at the Abbey this time is very different from last time. For one thing, they’ve instituted semi-mandatory orientation tours so that you don’t go around confused and anxious the whole time… like I did last time. Father Stan, the Abbot, lead us around paths and roads he knew so well that he walked backwards the entire time, looking at us kindly, and never once had to glance behind him to see where he was going.

He told us that the monastery was designed and built around these enormous live oaks, that in the process of building, they only had to take down one tree. “God took down a few others,” he added in an offhand sort of way.

I suppose I half-expected that I had romanticized the whole monastery experience in my head and that it really wouldn’t be that great in reality, or the second time around.  Well, I certainly romanticized it and it is slightly different, but that does not lessen its greatness.  Brother Paul has put on a few pounds (but then so have I!) and Brother Theophilus has exited the novitiate and is now a full monk with a very full beard, but Father Christian could still outrun and outthink me, at age 98.  The monk with the perfect pitch who serves most often as cantor smiles at me broad as ever. The African American gentleman always raises a playful(?) eyebrow at me, and Brother Robert helps me with the pages of my Psalmbook and hymnbooks, which are indecipherable without aid.

*****

8:12 pm

My accommodations are different this time.  I essentially have a whole house to myself, complete with 4 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and two tiny but full baths, where last time I had roughly 20 square feet total.  It’s nice, but I am terribly far away from the rest of the monastery.  You don’t have to make any turns to get from the house to church, just follow the main road.  But it’s a long way off, about a five minute’s walk from the last cottage on the road, and so too from the last lights.

Of course there must be no lights along this remote part of the road, lest the stars be obscured.  I appreciate this in abstract theory, but in the distilled reality of stepping out into the void alone in the night, I find my appreciation dissolving rather rapidly.

The monks are kind enough to provide flashlights in each guest room, though mine was all but dead.  On the dark asphalt, it gave a glow so feeble, it looked like a shallow puddle of melted butter in a deep black pot. Not going to cut into the heavy veil of this darkness. As I am occupying this whole house alone, I went from room to room in search of brighter light (this, I imagine, is something like a metaphor for church, but I will leave that to you to parse out, dear reader).  My first and second tries were as pitiful as my given flashlight had been, but the third glowed bright as a handheld lighthouse.

So, off we trekked, my new flashlight and me, finding the night to be darker than I have ever known it to be. This little halo bobbed along on the cracked asphalt in front of me; I followed nervously, tossing my head back and forth like horses do when they get uneasy.

It occurred to me that I might be less uneasy if I could see a bit more of what was around me.  So, I swung the beam of the flashlight to my right and followed up and out along the trunk and limbs of a Mother Willow-style oak.  What was revealed was rather less heartening than I had hoped: mere feet above my head, even inches in some places, long fingery branches dripping with spidery Spanish moss hung eerily, reaching toward me.  Take it from me, if you ever have cause to wander around coastal South Carolina after dark, don’t shine a light up from the underside of one of these mossy oaks. Even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t recreate the terror I had in that moment.

I tripped and galloped my way toward the nearest cottage, where two more puddles of light were just flickering on, signaling that fellow travelers were entering the road.  I was flooded with relief and tried not to feel silly, a child afraid of the dark.

Jesus 101: Church is that place where one frightened person can be comforted by nestling up close with other frightened people– even strangers– and all their little flickering lights join together to show the way.

So here’s the interesting part: At Compline, the 7th and final worship service of the day, the thing which I was braving darkness and coyotes (or, as it turned out, owls that sound like coyotes) to get to, the monks prayed Psalm 91, which proclaims that she who trusts in the LORD “will not fear the terror of the night.”

And do you know, I didn’t, after that? On my way back to my little house, though alone and cold, I found that I didn’t even have to use my flashlight for most of the journey. What before had been black as coal now had a blue tint, lit somehow by those cloud-veiled stars.

My eyes had adjusted in the dim church, and what before had been suffocating blackness was now navigable, even beautiful.  What’s more, my heart had adjusted in that prayer-soaked pace: what before held terror and isolation now invited wonder and deep, mystical communion with God.

*****

Saturday, February 9th, 4:14 am

I continue to fail miserably at keeping up with the monks.  What page they’re on, what book they’re in… I grin sheepishly down until a brother (most embarrassingly, it’s usually the Abbot, Father Stan, or the retired bishop, Father Victor) steps over to flip pages, points, and return to his stall.

Yesterday I discovered that there are very faint vertical lines to the left of stanzas that call for evil, cursing, or judgment upon enemies (of which there are a distressing number in the Psalms), indicating that they not be sung. I appreciate this, from a theological perspective.  I do not, however, appreciate how fine and faint the lines are, such that I generally don’t see them in the dim church light, and carry on alone asking God to hate someone until a brother (again, usually the Abbot or the Bishop!) rushes over and stops me, as kindly as he can.

All told, it rather gives me reason to want to pray those hateful prayers over the editors of the books….. This, I assume, is not great Christian love.

 

More to come…….. and if you’re interested, I’ll be putting some of the poetry I wrote during my visit on my “Arts” page.

Things I Learned from Les Miserables

Top 6 things I gleaned (from a theological/pastoral care perspective) from Les Miserables:

ALL THE SPOILER ALERTS. Also, you should know that I had 0.00 concept of the plot of this movie/play/book before I saw it in theaters with my mother last week. I knew two things: 1. Anne Hathaway plays a prostitute (this turned out to be not necessarily the truest fact in the world, in my humble little opinion) and 2. It’s set after the French Revolution.  So I went in with about zero in knowledge RE: the plot, characters, music, or ending.

6. There’s a lot to be learned about being a pastor from the Bishop. If someone stole from, desecrated, or otherwise negatively affected your church (or the institution as a whole….), would you offer them yet more? Our M.O. lately suggests not, organized mainline religion. Just saying.

…That being said, don’t ever say to anyone, “I have saved your soul for God.” Did you do the saving, Bish, or did God? GET IT TOGETHER.

5. I recently read an article on how the average person hates Anne Hathaway’s guts. I loved her unconditionally from the moment she did the robot in The Princess Diaries, but I will admit to being frustrated with her lately.  Too much nudity, girlfriend. Cover those things up (insert other things a grandmother would say). But anyone who could watch the raw emotion and unabashed passion of her “I Dreamed a Dream” and the song she sang before she died…… There’s nothing about pastoral care or theology in this one. Just stop hating on her. Because that performance was pure truth and beauty. (Also, pixie cuts unite!)

4. I was so terribly disappointed with the death of Javert. That was the only thing about the movie that I didn’t like. He had terribly flawed theology, but then so do most (yes, I said most) Americans today. Is there no redemption for those who can’t grasp the full concept of redemption? No grace for those who misunderstand grace…?

Could we as clergy do more for the spiritual and mental health of those wounded by fallacious theology? The rehabilitative power in the United Methodist’s doctrine of grace has saved more than one life I know of…

3. Jean Valjean– why have I never known this character?  What a vision of a saint. And also, how did they make Hugh Jackman look SO BAD? In SO many different ways?!

2. Anybody else think young Cosette’s song about her “Castle on a Cloud” was a beautiful vision of the already-but-not-yet Kingdom?

How could we make little girls’ dreams like that one come true? When was the last time you told that (those) lonely or sad person (people) in your life that you love them very much?

1. Speaking of that, the best line in the whole thing is clearly: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Truth. Gospel truth.

It’s so easy to see ministry as a job.  It’s hard to not think of it in terms of conventional scheduling– i.e, when you think about doing hospital visitations, you hate it but you start thinking, “Alright, 4 people in 3 different hospitals. If I can get Ms. So-and-So to not be so chatty, I can be in and out in 15 minutes each…….”

But I don’t think that Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb with the thought, “Ughhhhhh how long is this going to take?”

Nope.

He wept, out of love.

Lessonsssssssssssssssss.