Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why I Believe in God and Not in Santa Claus

(also on episcopal cafe)
"MerryOldSanta" by Thomas Nast - Edited version of Image:1881 0101 tnast santa 200.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.



            A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in a recent issue of the Sunday NY Times pointed out that we often clarify our faith commitments by identifying the things that we really don’t  believe.  That is why arguments between “heresies” and “orthodoxies” can be clarifying (so long, I would say, as they don’t involve politics and violence as they so often have in history).   I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately about what it means to be what I consider to be a reasonable person who is also a person of committed Christian faith – something a lot of people around me seem to find anomalous.    Maybe it will help to try to explain a little about what I don’t believe.  Perhaps the best place to start is to say that I believe in God, and I pray regularly and joyfully, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus.  Nor do I believe in a God who is anything like Santa Claus.  Here are some things, following from that, that I don’t believe:
  •  I don't believe that God is always “making a list and checking it twice,” judging us for every mistake and misstep and condemning us for things that our social group would also condemn us for (not being a good person, however that is defined.).  I do believe in a God that in some mysterious way desires our thriving and calls us to be our best selves.  That’s a different kind of relationship than the Big Brother God who is always watching to see if we have slipped up and expects us to be sorry all the time.
  • I don’t believe that God gives us what we want if only we’re good enough, pray the right way, find the right words.  The whole question of why good and bad things happen is, to me, a mystery.  I believe that God is in it but I don’t understand it.  It is at best magical thinking – left over from childhood – to believe that I can somehow by my good behavior force the universe to do things the way I want them to be done.  On the other hand, I do believe that the resources of Scripture and religious traditions and practice give us some clues about how to seek the will of God in some situations, and align ourselves with that – that is behind my own practice of intercessory prayer, a mysterious practice which in my experience does sometimes seem to bear fruit in a powerful way. But I don’t pretend to understand how.
  • I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is because I or someone else has been bad and deserves punishment.  That seems to me like a very magical and limited idea – that I  can control the universe by my behavior.  On the other hand, the religious tradition I have embraced does include many stories of actions that have bad consequences.    Usually the stories wind up being stories about the divine mercy – God ultimately returning and restoring the balance that human beings have upset.   That story gives me hope
  • I don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense the literal, dictated word of God, though I do believe that it is “Scripture’ in the sense of giving us a privileged and genuine record of human experiences of God that still has much to teach us today.  I wish more people knew more about the context and background of the Biblical stories.  In my experience, the more I know, the more the stories speak of the mystery of a God – the God of all the Abrahamic traditions – who keeps trying to get through to us,  who has some kind of stake in human history and human moral life, and keeps on inviting human beings to grow into their fullest and best selves, despite mighty resistance and ugliness that often comes from the human side.  ( The Bible contains poems and histories and, mostly stories.  The stories give shape to something that is beyond story and history, but they are a way into the mystery, for me.
  • I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in Christianity – my version or anyone else’s – are going to hell.  A lot of Scripture comes out of tribal contexts, and there is a lot of “us and them” language running through it, but if you look at the overarching Biblical story,  it is about a God who desires to gather everyone in.  (The best human language we have for this speaks of a God who loves us - an idea that opens up all kinds of invitations to meditation and prayer and joyful, faithful living ).  At least that’s how I read it, and it's how many other wise people in the tradition have read it, in different generations.    “Us v them,”  “Who’s in and who’s out” doesn’t make sense to me as a way of understanding the human relationship to God.  

  Lately I think  the fear of being heard as exclusive or literalistic has sometimes kept people within the Christian tradition from reading the Bible thoughtfully and from embracing the unique and exciting ideas that Christianity brings to the table in the conversation among world religions.   I wish we could reflect more about the particular and positive things that Christian faith has to offer, rather than ceding ground to some of these other ways of thinking about God. I long for a deepening of Christian faith among people who have been drawn to it and raised in it,  and for honest and thoughtful listening across faith traditions.


I often say to my seminary classes “If there’s anything to what we say we believe, none of us has got it right. “   If there is a God, especially if there is a God who entered history as a human being to show us the way to a greater wholeness, as Christianity claims,  then the whole story is ‘way bigger than anything we can grasp or control or understand.  But the invitation to live into the story is there. As are the resources of Scripture and tradition.  I am grateful for this.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Street Theater and Gospel Presence

  also on episcopal cafe    
My Lenten season this year began and ended with participation in displays of religion out in the streets.  This is not my usual mode:  I tend to be introverted, to value careful, one-on-one or small group conversations about faith as well as prayer and public worship .  But when my parish decided to participate in the “Ashes to Go” movement to begin Lent, I decided to take a shift as a lay minister, offering “Drive –through Ashes” in front of our parish church which stands at the edge of a busy intersection.  It seemed hokey – we held our “Ashes to Go” sign and waved it and to my amazement people pulled up to receive ashes.    Mothers driving carpools (one came back three times so that each of her kids could receive ashes), people on cell phones, interrupting their calls just long enough to “receive a blessing.”  People parking, getting out of their cars, and bowing their heads so that I could say the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,”  and adding a prayer of blessing Why would people pull over to hear those apparently grim words?  And yet over 150 people did that day.  I’ve been mulling it over the whole 40 days – remembering the quiet, calm radiance on people’s faces as they heard those words about their mortality.    But then I heard one of the people say into a cell phone.” Wait a minute:  I have to stop and get my blessing.”   And I realized that was what it was:  people were experiencing our presence on that street corner as in some way a blessing – they may have been former churchgoers or unchurched, though probably with some kind of tradition of Ash Wednesday in their lives.  Perhaps it was heard as blessing to have another human being say to you , “remember you are dust” – as we all are.  And that’s OK: we don’t have to be more than human.  We are who we are.  And we are blessed.
            Now I realize that for those of us committed to the life of the church Ash Wednesday means much more:  that commitment to a season of penitence and self-examination is also profoundly an “insider” experience – perhaps not the first service you would take a seeker to visit.  If we are already committed to the church, we are probably embracing the Lenten season as in some sense a blessing, if a hard one – as we do the rounds and cycles of the seasons that are the gift of the church year, and we each have our own ongoing struggles on the journey of faith.    But for those outside, there was something about our presence, our availability to them,  on Ash Wednesday, as Lent began, that seemed to speak.   Somehow our presence communicated that they were welcome as they are.  That we didn’t expect them to sign up or join. That God’s blessing is available,  and that we were hoping it could come to them through us.

            I ended Lent in Paris, where we happened to be traveling on  Palm Sunday weekend, and I was delighted to join the procession of the American Episcopal Cathedral up the Avenue Georges V, near the Champs Elysees and in sight of the Eiffel tower.  It was a lively, vibrant congregation from what I could observe – a number of younger adults, young families – most of them American or British expats. I felt thoroughly at home.  We went up the street with red-veiled crosses,  vestments and palms to the accompaniment of African drums.  This was in Paris, where people are mostly pretty amazed that anyone practices any religion any more – probably we were seen as an American expat curiosity, but there were cameras, and delight, and a sense of holiday as we went by – again, in our way, we were a blessing to people’s Sunday morning in Paris, as we moved into our own more serious observance of Passiontide. 

            As I watched people in cafes snapping pictures of us I thought about what these public ceremonies might say about our continuing presence as Christians in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture.    Is there a call to be in the midst of a world that is no longer culturally Christian, and claim that original call to Abraham, the call to “be a blessing” to the world, by our presence and our practice, and to cultivate a way of living that might “preach” in its own way?  For us on Ash Wednesday, and on Palm Sunday, it was theater, and it wasn’t:  we were out in the streets because of the importance of the season and the observance to us, and because of a desire to share, not so much the doctrine of it, as the blessing of it  (One friend with whom I talked this over recalled the Celtic priests whose practice was to simply bless everything that they encountered in the pagan cultures they encountered: blessing wells and fountains, animals and families – whoever asked for a blessing – because that was what they did, as Christians). 


            As we walked up the Avenue Georges VI I also had a flashback to an earlier  “street theater” experience from my young adulthood – the All Saints Day processions around the Yale campus in the late 1970s, when Rick Fabian and Don Schell, well known now for such fresh liturgical expressions, were chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale.  On Halloween night the community would process around campus blessing various buildings and spots, following ancient liturgical forms, chanting, with incense and vestments.  Members of the Yale community were following in our train, in Halloween costumes and to the tune of bagpipes, and it all had very much the feel of a medieval street festival in the heart of Christendom and yet this was a very decidedly post-Christian campus community, and I expect very few of those following thought that we were anything but part of the show.  But at one point in the procession, as we paused for prayer,  I overheard one onlooker, observing us at prayer, say to his friend in some amazement:  “You know, I think these people are serious!”   


            And what if we are serious?  A serious blessing.  In all three of these examples, there was a sense of tremendous joy, presence and simple blessing.   The church succeeded in simply being present in the world, and visible to those who might wonder what it might be like to be as “serious’ and joyful as we were about the blessing we carried.    I believe that in our post-Christian era we’re likely to see more of these public liturgical expressions of faithfulness in community – and maybe it will invite folks to seek a blessing, and to wonder what it would be like to part of a community so joyful and so “serious” about our public presence and prayers   It’s a hope, at least:  appropriate for us in this season as in the one just past, as we aspire to be an “Easter people”.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mainline Spirituality: The hymns I have "by heart"


A passage from Scripture I’ve come back to a lot is from Matthew 13:52  “Therefore  every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who takes out of his treasure what is old and what is new.”  Having been raised in a United Presbyterian congregation and having chosen the Episcopal Church as a young adult, I recognize that I have been formed in what social scientists are calling the “mainline” Protestant tradition., and that despite the mainline’s unfortunate and false image of being “God’s frozen people” (Harvey Cox’s phrase, in the 1970s), now in decline,  this tradition does have a strong heritage of faith that blends a respect for reason and individuality with a recognition of communal tradition, a sense of mystery and an image of a loving, sustaining God whose purpose for humankind is good, and who calls us to be our very best selves.  An important part of my formation was the hymnody of this tradition, and the many hymns I know “by heart” are often the deepest foundation of my prayers and meditations. 


  I was reminded of this by a recent adult forum teaching assignment that put me back in touch with the poetry of  Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.    These voices are arguably from the beginning of the “mainline” Protestant tradition that we have come to know in the US.  Watts has been called the “Father of Protestant Hymnody” because he was the first to produce metric psalm settings in English that were actually beautiful and singable – and also among the first to write hymns about personal faith experience. Writing in the 18th century, Watts was a learned man,  a man of the both science and faith – in an era before these were considered somehow mutually exclusive choices.  Author of a popular textbook entitled Logic, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth with a variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and of Human Life, as well as in the Sciences.  He was also a Nonconformist pastor, a man of deep faith, and a genius at rhyme.   (As a poet, I find myself in awe of the man’s ability to turn a line, to write rhymes that actually work without seeming forced – this is really hard to do in English,  as most poets know!) .    

Isaac Watts’s hymn Our God, Our Help in Ages Past provides us with a God-image, not gendered or culturally limited, that sings down the ages, and certainly speaks to me.  God is, for me, “our help. . . our hope. . . our shelter. . . our guide. . . our eternal home.  And the poetry of that hymn, recognizing the fleetingness of our lives and the eternity of God, has provided deep reassurance in times of loss and change – including now;  (“A thousand ages in thy sight/ are like an evening gone. . . .”) I hope what this hymn assumes is true:  that there is a God, who has been carried and known in tradition and who abides with us now – even when language, culture and practice shift.     Watts wrote over 600 hymns, some of them  a bit baroque and pietistic for modern tastes (“Alas, and Did my Saviour Bleed,” for example, which is in the LEVAS hymnal) – but they continue to speak.   I am helped each Lenten season by the invitation to contemplate the Cross as a mystery having to do with love. Watts explores in his hymn “When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” which ends in a beautiful poem of self dedication:  “Were the whole realm of nature mine/that were an offering far too small. /Love so amazing, so divine/demands my soul, my life, my all.”  It is a gift of grace to come to those moments in life when we really want to offer our whole selves to the Good Thing we hope God is doing in our broken world.  Watts’s hymn, which I know by heart now,  after so many years, gives me words for those moments.

A generation after Watts comes Charles Wesley, whose hymns come out of a profound “religion of the heart” that has been the strength of evangelical Christianity – a part of the mainline tradition, we often forget.   Evangelical in the sense of being a religion of the converted heart, that makes us want to share good news with the world.   Wesley wrote over 6000 hymns and many of them just don’t work in modern worship, being too embedded in imperialist ideas of mission from his era, or language that is sexist or militaristic (for example, his Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen today/ Sons of men and angels say.  . . . Love’s redeeming work is done/ fought the fight, the victory won” has been excluded from most of our Protestant hymnals and replaced by the more inclusive poetry of “Jesus Christ is risen today/ Our triumphant holy day”).  But Wesley too is the author of some of our deepest prayers.  Henry Ward Beecher wrote that he would rather have composed Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” than to be the richest man in New York or to have all the kingdoms of the world.   It is a “heart hymn” that speaks to certain times of life: “Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, til the storm of life be past/ safe into the haven guide. . . . “All my hope in thee I’ve found. All my trust to thee I bring.   Cover my defenseless head/in the shadow of thy wing. “   

I would echo Beecher’s admiration when I think of Wesley’s great hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”  which celebrates the deepest good news, that God’s love  is never finished with us – that there is always a better way to be for humanity, drawing us toward a “perfect love” that we can hardly imagine and that God is helping us with that, “perfecting” us in ways we cannot do for ourselves.   There is more to learn, more to celebrate, as we become God’s “new Creation.”   The life eternal begins now and carries forward – changing us as we are called to be transformative agents in the world around us   And so for me the last verse of Wesley’s hymn sums up with some meditative depth the spirituality that has formed me – a spirituality I hope we as a church can continue to claim even as our language and liturgy and cultural expressions shift. Wesley’s words bring together a vision for our best selves and for the reign of God:
“Finish then thy new creation. Pure and spotless let us be
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee
Changed from glory into glory, til in Heaven we take our place
Til we cast  our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.

I am very aware that our hymns are one of the things that feel like obstacles to seekers not raised in the church – we hear a lot about the problem of “classical music” just not being accessible to modern seekers.  A challenge for me, and for those like me who have been formed in this hymnody, is to stay in touch with the deeper spirituality that is carried in the best of our hymn tradition, both in the music and the poetry – and perhaps to find new expressions of that spirituality. Our best hymns remind us of a basic and healthy spirituality:  We believe in a God who ”has us”,  in the mystery of Incarnation and the love of Christ as there for us, even in the hardest moments of human suffering and despair.  We experience the Holy Spirit at work in the world, past, present and future, to heal, shape and transform.  We see a continuity between this life and the world to come.  These are spiritual values to  continue discerning and carrying forward.  We can fiddle with words that simply don’t work for contemporary public worship, but we need to keep track of the deeper spirituality that we come to “know by heart” in this tradition, and find ways to carry it forward.  Another invitation to “take from our treasure what is old and what is new. “ 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Seeing Deeper" - "Come and See"

Also on the edow blog

In a frequently-broadcast “Christmas at St. Olaf’s” special from some years ago now, a chorus member recalls what the conductor told the chorus as they began rehearsals of Randall Thompson’s haunting choral work, Alleluia.  The conductor said something like, “Imagine that there is a chorus being sung all the time, just beyond our hearing, and when you sing this piece, you are joining that invisible chorus.”
           
I thought of this on the two nights last week when I was able to visit the Washington National Cathedral, during their week of experiential prayer opportunities that they called “Seeing Deeper.”    I tend to be a choral geek, so I chose the evenings when I could hear the virtuoso  Cathedra chorus as part of this event.  Others may have chosen tai chi or yoga or simply sitting and reading or praying in this beautiful shared holy space.  For me  it was wonderful being in the nave with no chairs – seeing the marble work and observing people being present to the place and the music in various ways – and with a sense that everyone’s way of being there was deeply “right,” whatever form it took.

 I really enjoyed moving around the nave –as the singing was going on -just walking up and down, around the great pillars and in the galleries, as this rich polyphonic music was being offered.  As I listened to the treble notes, gorgeously carried by the acoustics of the place, I let my eyes follow the upward reach of the gothic arches, and observe the visual rhythms of the vaults, and notice the fine, lacy stonework of some of the side chapels.  I’ve been in the Cathedral many times for many events, but moving, rather than sitting, in this prayed-in space, was a new experience.

            By Friday evening, when the place had been open all week, I really sensed a deepened spirit of prayer among those gathered. The labyrinths were laid out, and as  I listened to the music,of the Allegri Miserere,  the people who were walking and praying in the labyrinth seemed to be joining in a dance;  those who were sitting or lying on yoga mats, simply meditating and listening, were also tuned into something holy that the music and the space were carrying.  People were lighting candles, praying in the chapels,  sitting on the floor in the Great Choir as well as in the pews, some even crossing themselves with water as they passed the Baptismal font .

            This was truly an experience of corporate prayer  There were no words of instruction being offered about how to pray.  We knew how ; we were joining the chorus of prayer that goes on always, each in our own way. But in that place, together.   We were responding to the invitation that is always there – expressed in the words of Sunday’s gospel (John 1:39) , and offered to the world:  “come and see” what it is like, to dwell together in holy presence:  come, and see.