Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day musings

Today is the 39th Earth Day. Earth Day is an observance that was thought up back in the late '60s by movers and shakers in the modern environmental movement to draw the public's attention to issues affecting the planet's health as an organism...issues like air and water quality, preservation of biodiversity, recycling, and global warming. I didn't see too much evidence of people making a big deal of it this year, but perhaps that's because I live in Pennsylvania and the huge presidential primary here today kind of overshadowed everything. Otherwise, I have noticed that Earth Day is steadily growing in popularity. Each year I hear more and more about Earth Day rallies and other events. Last year all rostered leaders in my church, the ELCA, received a fancy, formal letter (through email) from our presiding bishop calling attention to Earth Day nd encouraging us to recognize it in some way.

To be completely honest, I was (and still am) a little perturbed that I received an email about Earth Day from my presiding bishop. I have nothing against Earth Day, per se, but Earth Day is not a church observance. I can't figure out why my highest church authority would urge me to celebrate or observe this occasion since it does not purport to venerate a Being higher than the earth, not to mention that it doesn't proclaim Christ at all. I would assume that some Christians celebrate Earth Day wholeheartedly, "baptizing" its message in some way by saying that God urges us to be good stewards of creation. The concept of Earth Day certainly seems to create space enough to do that, although the tone of most Earth Day observances come close to the line of creation spirituality, making an idol of the planet and equating being a good person with being appropriately environmentally-minded.

My problem, though, is that Christians already have/had a type of Earth Day observance that is much more theologically grounded and spiritually robust. Have we completely forgotten them? They are the Rogation Days, which also fall at this time of the year. The Rogation Days fall each year on the four days preceding Ascension. Ascension always falls in spring, and traditionally the Church chose this time of the year to pray for the year's crops. Rogation Days get their name from the Latin word "Rogare," which means "to ask," a phrase which appears in the gospel text on the preceding Sunday (which happens to be this coming Sunday). During the Rogation days, the Church asks God to bless and renew the face of the earth, specifically in the ways in which humans typically use the earth--farming, logging, herding, harvesting. I have heard of some rural Lutheran congregations in this country that bring seeds to church on Rogation Sunday and pray over them just before they are planted. In Anglican tradition, the priest and members of the parish would actually form a procession outside and "beat the bounds," walking around the perimeter of the parish and praying for its protection in the upcoming year.

We may look on these medieval traditions as arcane and outdated, but, really, how different are they from attending an Earth Day parade or highlighting the benefits of recycling on the nightly news? In fact, I think these church traditions actually put us more directly in contact with the earth that God has given for us to use and care for. Imagine an urban congregation going outside on Sunday and playing in the dirt! I think that might make us more aware of the environment right around our building and how we're impacting it.

It's such a good idea! Why, I might have actually thought of it last year had my bishop sent me a letter reminding me to mine our own Great Tradition for ways to remember the needs of creation.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

assorted thoughts during the octave of Easter

Traditionally, as far as the church calendar goes, this week is actually a day. To denote the profound change that Christ's resurrection has wrought in our lives, the first week after Easter Sunday comprises one metaphorical day. Time itself is altered by this news. In the early Church, those baptized on Easter wore their baptismal robes in public this whole week to signify this. They didn't take off this sign of their new life until the second Sunday of Easter--Quasimodo Sunday, or White Sunday--when the "day" had come to an end. The setting for the gospel text for the second Sunday of Easter (John 20) underscores this passage of time. All of this, of course, is not law. One must not follow it to celebrate the resurrection (and I know of blessed few congregations who still do); it shows that over the years, however, church tradition has thought of creative ways of showing how significant this change from death to life is. It shows how the Church has invented thoughtful methods for indicating that the life of faith is altogether different from the life without it.

And I can't help but think of these rich traditions that have gone by the wayside in light of our own congregation's struggles, for example, to keep lightbulbs changed in the sanctuary and a full roster of committed Sunday school teachers. For a long time I've thought that, in order to function fairly well, a congregation needed a substantial number of its members to make it a priority in their life, ranked above sports and making money, to name a couple of competitors. Church needed to be the Primary Community. Rather than being another organization to "belong to," the congregation needed to be the main gathering place, the chief social group.

Now I'm amending that approach just a little. In order for a congregation take up God's mission and embody his incarnate love robustly and most faithfully, I believe its members really need to think of the Church as their way of life. If that sounds drastic, it's because it is. In a sense, it is cultic (in that it is something that must be cultivated). I'm not suggesting that we re-institute, for example, celebrating the octave of Easter with baptizands' wearing of their white robes in public, but perhaps we should challenge our people to think of church as a way of life, rather than a hobby or a membership. The church constantly needs to remind itself that it is a Way, it is a way of living that permeates all other aspects of one's life. Church is not merely a way we should spend our every Sunday morning (although, at the very least, it should be this), but it is where an individual's life is rooted. The Church is new clothing, in a sense: we receive Christ's robe of grace and love and thanksgiving and we are bid to wear it all the time.

I know I'm not saying anything new here, but as a pastor, I constantly feel guilty for asking members to contribute their time and resources to church, whether or not I do it directly (by asking them outright) or just by providing them myriad opportunities to "get involved." This sense of guilt comes from my own deep-seated belief that Church is still an "extra" for so many people. I fear they will be turned off by this strange modern-day affliction known as "burnout." How can church leaders effectively convey to the congregations they serve that church shouldn't just be a priority, but a complete way of life---and do it in a loving, graceful manner? To be sure, holding onto the traditions is one way, because I think they evoke emotions and communicate the nature of faith in ways that mere words often can't. But in what ways can we reclaim this sense of church as way of life?

(image: Russian icon of the resurrection of Christ, 16th cent.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

all creation groans for its redemption...and I mean all of it

Yesterday during worship as people were taking communion and returning to their seats, some of them encountered the acolyte coming back into church through the side door, in his robe and everything. The acolyte is supposed to stand "at attention" at the head of the aisle in the nave in order to make sure that everyone gets a communion glass for communion. Why was he coming in from the outside in the middle of worship?

Once we had concluded the service and he could be questioned about this peculiar activity, it was discovered that he was outside because he had found a large spider in the rack of communion glasses and wanted to get rid of it by releasing it in the yard. So as not to disturb anyone by his discovery, he stuck it in his pocket--without squishing it, I assume--and snuck outside. Upon arriving there, he determined that it was too cold and snowy to release a spider into a natural environment, so he placed the spider back in his pocket and brought it back inside. Unwilling to deposit the friendly intruder where other people might see it, he then released the spider up at the altar after communion was over. It was there, I suppose he figured, that the spider could live in reconciliation with its surroundings.

I'm fairly certain that the acolyte did not choose the altar on purpose (rather, it just happened to be a convenient, less-traveled area), but the symbolism of his gesture of freedom and release is still potent. We speak of the resurrected Jesus as the consummations of God's new creation. We speak of the foretaste of his feast as the time toward which we look when all of creation will be gathered, reconciled, and released in the freedom of the Spirit so that we may be that which we were fashioned to be. Sometimes, I fear, Holy Communion becomes "just another part of worship," so it's nice to have concrete reminders of what we are proclaiming at the meal every Sunday at this meal, even if they comes from an unlikely arachnid.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Names and Images

I have to admit that I'm partially blogging today just so I can blog on Leap Day. We get this opportunity only every four years.

In any case, last night as I was going to bed I was reading through a name book, considering names for our soon-to-be-born second child. Melinda and I are rather undecided on names at this point, but we still have three more months (we hope). As I was looking through the list of names, I realized something I'd never noticed before. Mohammed is the most common given name in the world. I knew that. At least half of the Muslim Egyptians I met when I lived in Cairo were named Mohammed, which is the name of their prophet. Apparently, a way to honor the prophet is to name a son after him. Yet, images of Mohammed are nowhere to be found. In fact, forming any kind of image of Mohammed at all is strictly verboten. No stained glass, no icons, no paintings, even. We can remember the flap that a few cartoons of Mohammed created a few years ago. The issue wasn't so much that the prophet was depicted in a negative way; it was that he was depicted visually at all.

Yet, I realized last night that Christianity is almost the complete reverse. We have no problem at all with images of Christ. We draw and depict him any way we want to, the more, the merrier. I've even seen images of Christ in China that make Jesus look Asian. My mother gave me a Peruvian nativity scene that feature Jesus as a Qera papoose. He abounds in things from church art to children's books. Yet, we would almost never consider naming a child Jesus. I know that in certain cultures it happens, but, by and large, it is a no-no. When you look at the grand scope of Christian history, there are relatively few people named Jesus. Its popularity is nowhere near that of Mohammed for the Muslims.

Is this contrast on purpose? I know that Muslims forbade images of Mohammed in part as a way to distinguish their faith from the icon-venerating Christians (which also explains why the icon-loving Christians more firmly held their ground in the East during the icon controversies in the early centuries of Christianity). I'd like to know more, like when did the name Mohammed rise in popularity? Immediately after his lifetime? What is the incidence of the name "Jesus" among Christians in the East (meaning the middle east)?

Safe to say, we will not be choosing either name if we have a boy, but these are the thoughts that ran through my head as I fell asleep on the night before Leap Day.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"...and immediately, something like scales fell from his eyes." (Acts 9:18)

Today is the church's commemoration of the conversion of St. Paul, one of the more peculiar commemorations, if you ask me. This is not the day we set aside to remember the life of St. Paul (that occasion falls on June 29, along with St. Peter); today we mark specifically his conversion experience. It makes sense, I suppose, since one could argue, given the amount of the New Testament that comes from his pen or one imitating it, that Paul's was the most famous conversion of all time. It has become more than a turning event in world history. It is held up as the model conversion. When people talk about a "Damascus Road" experience, they are borrowing a metaphor from this event. When people say they've "seen the light," they are making reference to Paul's blinding vision of Christ, when, ironically, everything began to become clear to him. I've even heard people use the image of "scales falling from their eyes" to explain suddenly understanding something for the first time. Again, thanks to Paul.

Conversions are usually thought of in terms of changing directions, changing beliefs. Old Saul was a fierce persecutor of the church; after his conversion, he is Paul, its biggest champion. Churches and missionary outposts have typically measured their growth by number of converts: people who have left off with an old belief system and grabbed hold of the gospel. This can often make conversion sound like something we do, as if converting is a point we reach when we have considered all the facts or have beaten our heads against the wall too many times. Conversion sounds like a moment of strength, of purpose, of power: "I figured it out. I changed. I finally made the jump."

Wasn't Paul's conversion, however, a moment of intense weakness, powerlessness? Didn't he fall to the ground in a heap of fear, not wrestle his way to a new point of view? Afterwards he spent many days convalescing at the home of Ananias. It wasn't until this encounter with a relative nobody that Paul came back to his senses and started regaining his strength. Think on this: we're commemorating not simply Paul's glorious turnaround. We're mainly commemorating his crouching in fear! We're commemorating his moment of humiliation, the point at when God's grace makes his power look ridiculously small and stupid.

So, here on this commemoration of Paul's conversion, I'd like to suggest we think about our own weaknesses, our own moments of despair and frustration that, like Paul's stop on the Damascus Road, seem like dead ends. I'd like to suggest that we give thanks not only our own renewed purpose upon these encounters with God, but primarily for God's ability to do something with our weaknesses in the first place. Because that is what will help the scales fall from our prideful eyes time and time again. We really can do nothing to thwart God's love for creation in Jesus. At the same time, even when we feel most impotent, God sees infinite ways to work through us.

(image: "The Conversion on the Way to Damascus" by Carravagio)