Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday (Sheer Thursday)

The pope's getting a lot of press these days (and well he should) because he won't stop washing people's feet. Footwashing is profound, incredibly moving. I remember the first time I participated in a serious foot washing, it was at a YouthWorks mission trip in Lodge Grass, Montana. Having served for a week alongside two other youth groups, we gathered on Thursday evening for prayer, and then we all washed each other's feet.

Some people were so overcome with emotion they couldn't stop crying an hour later. A couple of people, because feet are sensitive to them, had to abstain. But generally speaking, it was one of the most sacramental experiences I've ever had.

This night, Maundy Thursday, our congregation re-enacts the foot washing in miniature. A representative group from our congregation will come forward and wash each other's feet. There are plenty of ways to do this. Some communities everyone participates. In others it is representative. I don't think there's any need to get legalistic... much depends on context and culture.

I do believe the point is the mutuality of it, the reconciliation, the servant posture. Earlier in the Maundy Thursday service, the church conducts a liturgy that is equally counter-cultural. We confess our sins, and receive laying on of hands and individual absolution. the liturgy goes like this:

Friends in Christ, in this Lenten season we have heard our Lord's call to struggle against sin, death, and the devil--all that keeps us from loving God and each other. This is the struggle to which we were called at baptism. We have shared this discipline with new brothers and sisters in Christ who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
Within the community of the church, God never wearies of forgiving sin and giving the peace of reconciliation. On this night let us confession our sin against God and our neighbor, and enter the celebration of the great Three Days with God and with one another.
All kneel or sit for silence and reflection.
Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Then the presider announces: In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
People may come forward for the laying on of hands, to hear these words: In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. Amen.
There is something immensely powerful about hearing someone speak words over you: I forgive you. We need to hear those words on the lips of someone else.

Certainly we can play them as a tape in our own minds and hearts, and Christ hears our confession even if we simply pray it alone in our room. But just like the sentence--I love you--spoken by the beloved hits us more existentially than simply imagining them saying it, so too hearing someone commanded by Christ to announce forgiveness carries great weight.

And the hands. Don't forget the hands. I so look forward this evening to the moment after laying hands on others when I will kneel, and a pastor or assisting minister will stand above me, lay hands on my head, and speak those words. They are powerful words. They do things. They are life. It is why this day is sometimes in some places called Sheer Thursday, because the sheer grace of it all shears off our sins and makes us new again in love.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Liturgy is for life

Liturgy is like maple syrup. It's condensed and boiled down language, drawn from the lifeblood of the trees, but then reduced to the purest sticky thing.

Those of us who lead liturgies with some regularity are almost overwhelmed this week with the beauty and magnitude of it all. Each Sunday is the eighth day, the Lord's day, and hopefully every Sunday liturgy reflects at least in part the glory of the new creation made nimble in Christ.

But this week, Holy Week, the liturgies crackle with symbolism, disturb us with their out-of-orderedness, surprise us with dramatic shifts from deepest lament to profoundest hope.

Right now, for example, I have the Good Friday bulletin draft in front of me. There is the prayer of the day (sometimes called the 'collect' because it collects the theme of the service in a short prayer). It reads:

Almighty God, look with loving mercy on your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, to be given over to the hands of sinners, and to suffer death on the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

This prayer, alone could be enough for an hour, perhaps two, of quiet meditation. It draws into prayer God's family, Christ's suffering, and the hope of his life in the Trinity. It reaches out, grinds down, then points up.

Worshippers could do any number of things with this prayer. They could then compare it later to other aspects of the Good Friday liturgy. It is preparing them to hear Isaiah, and the gospel lesson. By naming us sinners, it prepares us for the Bidding Prayers that will follow the sermon. There are likely echoes of this prayer in the hymns.

And then, if we let the liturgy seep into our bones, the liturgy can also carry us out into the liturgy of the quotidian so that we might experience Christ and his suffering not just in prayer around his Cross on Good Friday, but in other aspects of our lives.

Like my kids, who sometimes chant portions of the liturgy while they play--absentmindedly at times but always still prayerful--the liturgy can be the language we speak not simply in worship, but in our souls at work or play.

Like syrup that sticks to the side of the lips, or so sweet we can remember the echo of the flavor later, there is a richness to this language of prayer that grounds and centers us.

Liturgy isn't just for liturgy. Liturgy is for life.

As all of us prepare to observe the Three Day, and the diverse parts of Christ's final days on which we meditate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter day, I invite us to take some of this language of the liturgy and incorporate it into our lives. Take a chant to work. Pray a psalm at bedtime. Chew on the liturgy like a flavorful candy. Let it energize and enliven your walk.

Because more than anything else, the liturgy is itself participation in the life of Christ. Christ, as the living Word, imbues all other prayer with his very self. That hymn you sing with others--that is Christ. That cross around which you gather--it is the suffering Christ present with us. Liturgy is a glimpse of heaven on earth. And this is true not because it is done particularly well (although we hope it is) but because heaven has promised to show up there in Christ. Wherever two or three are gathered...

Holy Week blessings to all.

Friday, April 11, 2014

One Week to a More Meaningful Life: A Meditation on Depth

There is irony even in blogging this topic, because the screen in front of me as I type this is an early 2009 24" iMac (still going strong). We purchased it kind of early in the advent of our now-ubiquitious flat screens. The iMac spreads out in front of my eyes offering Rothko-like breadth, encompassing a majority of my visual space if I look straight ahead.

Nevertheless, there's no depth. If I stand up and look behind the iMac, there's just about an inch of computer embedded there behind the screen, nothing more, and behind that screen is a wall, with about four inches of air between the computer and the wall.

Presumably if you are reading this post on an iPhone or laptop computer, you also are reading on a device that offers the illusion of depth while physically enacting the lack of it. Many of us quite a lot of the time are now peering out into the world by staring at thin strips of almost nothing.

We are confronted with the paradox that the very device that seems to offer greater physical extension into the world than ever before itself narrows that extension to a physical sliver.

As antidote to this, I have been attempting this past week to experience the world through the eyes of my son. He naturally discovers a depth to the universe I overlook. Earlier this week, we walked the watershed next to our church. Whereas I have seen the watershed primarily as a small barrier between our parking lot and the property adjacent, he discovered worlds in it--living creatures, abandoned mattresses, sharp glass and gurgling stream.

Today, this time at a real park, he heard the distant shrill of a train, and decided to walk to wherever the tracks might be. Forget about wifi. To see a train you have to find the tracks. You can't google it. While chasing a train, you might get distracted by an ant. At three, you're still that close to the ground.

When we are at a park, there is a screen in my back pocket. Increasingly, I avoid using it. It gives me the illusion I am extended to a wider public, a wider world, but when I attend to it, I stop perceiving the actual depth of world and relationship right in front of me.

I lift these observations not as a neo-Luddite commentary on technology, but rather as a call to balance in my own life and the lives of others. Screens do offer extensions of ourselves into all kinds of worlds, many of them beautiful. But they are best used as extensions rather than distractions.

I have been experiencing something similar as we prepare for Holy Week. It occurs to me that most of us keep time differently than we used to. A calendar based on holy days has become foreign and strange to us. Our new calendars are booked, always, busy to the point of breaking. Practice is every Thursday, without exception. There are no special Thursdays. Even Sundays as worship, or Saturdays as rest, have stolen themselves away and been replaced by an eternal Now! a demanding Go! and a tiresome Strive!

What might it mean to give a whole week over to God, to worship, to prayer? In a world with no depth, in times with no pause, prayer becomes a waste of time. Monks are neither wrong or ridiculous. They're simply beyond our ken.

I spent part of last week reading Terry Eagleton's remarkable Culture and the Death of God. Here's a passage from it screen-captured from Google books:
Excerpted from Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God, 2014
Eagleton believes the postmodern condition is best defined, at least in part, as a loss of depth. This is a loss of every kind of depth. Postmodernism shifts away from the metaphysical depths of pre-modernity not through the death of God, but rather through the experience of no depth at all. Similarly, the depth of subjectivity and interiority are lost, part of a "clapped-out metaphysics."

Eagleton makes these observations not to dismiss postmodernism or modernism per se--we are all, after all, inextricably caught up in modernist and postmodernist movements even when we would like to think we transcend them. The more you criticize postmodernism, the more you are postmodernist.

Instead, Eagleton's goal is to illustrate how the rise of culture as a category and the death of God proclaimed theologically in the mid-20th century and again in new ways now, are part and parcel one of the other.

This is why so many postmodern people are completely perplexed why a person might experience a call to join a monastery that devotes itself to the life of prayer. It isn't that they don't believe in God, exactly. It's more like they don't even know there are inner places one could go to which you can only travel through the depth of prayer.

Similarly, those who give up material comforts, divest themselves of aspirational careers, spend their energy going lower, lesser, into a self-less self that makes meaning along measures the measurelessness of postmodernism cannot imagine. What are they up to? They aren't wrong, exactly. They're simply incomprehensible, off the horizon into some foolhardy zone, another country.

I think the greatest danger of staring at this screen is precisely this. I will type this blog, and submit it to the world, and hang my existential hopes on the possibility that many of you will read it (how many is enough?), and I will get my meaning, my sense of purpose, through the illusion of depth that is actually no depth at all. In the meantime, just on the other side of the wall, behind my screen, another world awaits. It's one all of us will be prone to romanticize, now that I've raised our awareness. Some of us will drift off to gardening catalogs, or try to listen to the birds better, or go out and look at the stars tonight instead of browsing Facebook status updates. And that might not be a bad thing.

But that still won't be depth. We are inescapably in the position of thinking, because our technologies have permanently changed our apperceptions, that the night sky is actually an app on our iPhone and if we just squint we'll see the outlines and labels for the constellations; that the party we attend this evening is almost like a movie; that this one flower I saw today would look best through an Instagram filter.

There's no going back, in other words. A flat world is all we have left. It will take a miracle to re-discover depth on the other side of the flat screen that is now our world. But miracles do happen. We walk with Christ towards one this Holy Week. Even time is flat now, so we'll have to see what Christ does with that.



Saturday, April 05, 2014

Political Church

This week I was summoned for jury duty. I arrived Tuesday at the Washington County Courthouse ready to perform my civic duty. I figured I might be sitting in a room for a while with little to do, so I also brought along my Holy Week planning resources, and ended up with ample time to select hymns for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. It was a good morning, with a chance to chat with a Quaker jurist who likes literature as much as I do, and a young woman who used to work for the Springdale police department. 
Many conversations with fellow clergy around the country had left me skeptical as to whether I would make the cut and actually serve on the jury. Theories on why clergy are not selected abound. Perhaps prosecuting attorneys believe pastors will be too lenient, acquitting too many offenders. Perhaps defense attorneys believe pastors are too moralistic, and will not be able to presume innocent until proven guilty. Or perhaps juries will defer to pastors. One attorney in particular who also now works in the church said both sides of lawyers would worry a clergy person would dominate a jury. One pastor, the only pastor who reported serving on a jury, reported he had served on two juries, and in both instances was selected as the foreperson of the jury. So there you go.

That, all by itself, is interesting. Apparently in the eyes of the court, a religious leader on the court tips the scales in the jury room enough that it is better to dismiss the pastor.

All of this raises the larger question of the relationship between the political system and the church. We are a nation that has enshrined as its first amendment a commitment neither to establish a religion nor to prohibit the free exercise of it. Those protections, neither to establish nor to prohibit, are embedded in a larger amendment protecting a wide range of forms of free speech.

Transport these commitments back into the life of the church itself, and you have individual people of faith interpreting their right to the free exercise of religion in diverse ways. I think the majority of Christians prefer that politics not be established in the church in about the same way religion is not supposed to be established in the state. There are exceptions to this, I am sure. Some clergy use the pulpit, and some churches use their voice, to align directly behind specific partisan political positions.

Perhaps the way to think about this is to say that the church lives in a strange tension. It is not supposed to be caught up in partisan politics, taking one side or the other in a bicameral system of government. Yet on the other hand, the church is itself a politics. Church is inherently political. John Milbank, one of my favorite theologians on this topic, says that what political theory is to human history in a veiled way, theology is to the understanding of reality and metaphysics as a whole.

In this sense, it is impossible for the church not to be political. It has something to say to the polis, the city, either through its voice, what it says in its confessions, proclamations, sermons, newsletters, and more—and it automatically speaks its commitments through its actions in the world. The moment the church opens its doors to feed those who are hungry, or opens a health clinic or offers English as a Second Language classes for immigrants, its comportment towards the world and actions in it speaks a politics.

From my perspective as a pastor, I hope this kind of church politics would transcend the more typical partisan politics that gets us stuck. I’m not against partisan politics either, per se. There is a nitty-gritty aspect to politics that is unavoidable. We are always working out how to live together as a community and as a nation through the systems that have been given to us, and the cultures that form us. In the end, as much as a Christian would like to transcend partisan politics, they are going to have to go to the polling place and vote for candidates of a specific party.

The church, on the other hand, or any religious community, for that matter, is called to practice a kind of politics that points away from the political theory that applies only to human history, and instead guide our eyes and our hearts towards the fusion of the metaphysical and political understandings that is sometimes called political theology. Religious communities are free to transcend partisan politics because only through the politics they themselves practice can the partisan political landscape actually be transformed. This will seem paradoxical, but perhaps faith communities matter to the political not because they are apolitical, but because they are a different kind of political.

What I love about this when it is done well, at least in the Lutheran congregations I have known, is that Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Green party people all can share a common life together, and confess a common faith together, and then make commitments to change the world in very specific ways that will, in the end and to the world, look like a politics. But it will be, if led by prayer, a kind of divine politics, or an echo of divine government, small and edgy and never as powerful as the systems of the world, but always hinting at another kingdom, another realm, that is sneaking its way into this one.

Which is probably why after sitting for two hours of really fascinating questions for the jury from the prosecuting and defense teams, the prosecuting attorney, when asked if juror #38 could remain, said politely and thoughtfully, "We thank that juror and excuse him." At which point, I left the building, got in the car, and went to the elementary school to have lunch with the kids.


Published simultaneously in today's Northwest Arkansas Times.