Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Spiritual but not religious" lets people off the hook

Many people who are a lot more articulate than I am have made observations about what might be meant when people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and about the rise of those who claim to be "religiously unaffiliated." I hear these terms fairly often, as well, although I can't say whether or not I hear them more or less often than I used to. And, to be fair, I don't actually hear all that many people claim these things with my own ears (maybe because 95% of the people I regularly come into contact with, by virtue of my day job, are so-called "religiously affiliated"? I probably need to work on changing that somehow). Nevertheless, I do read a fair amount about it and pay attention to various discussions on-line, so I thought I'd offer a brief explanation of what I hear when people say they are "spiritual, but not religious":

When people say they are "spiritual, but not religious" what they really mean is, "I'm spiritual, but I am not church-going." Or, perhaps to broaden it a bit, they mean, "I'm spiritual, but I eschew consciously worshiping the same things with other groups of people."

Likewise, when someone describes themselves on a form (or somewhere else) as "religiously unaffiliated," what they really mean is they do not affiliate with an organized, named religious community.

To say it another way, everyone is religious. Everyone has a religion...or, as is often the case (even with church-going folk) more than one. There is no such thing as "not religious" or "religiously unaffiliated." As humans, we do not have a choice about that. It comes with the territory of being a species that, by nature, asks questions, seeks meaning, creates value structures and makes sacrifices of time, energy, and often health, to maintain them. No living, sentient human can avoid this, and to try to deny one's religiosity is to be ignorant about the formalized systems of meaning and values one has already constructed. It is to be ignorant that each person already pins their hopes for a "good life" or the future on something, even if it is only themselves and their own abilities. That, in an of itself, is religious.

Nope. It doesn't really work like this.
I do not believe this is just semantics. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, offers a definition of a god. He says, "A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in times of need." A few sentences later he is even more confrontational: "that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is really your God." I know I have not yet met every single person in the world, but I'm pretty sure that applies to everyone. Everyone, after all, pins their hopes for the future on something by virtue of the fact that they probably expect to be breathing into the future. Note that, in Luke's gospel, when Jesus gives warning about the dangers of worldly affluence, he describes wealth as a master, a god. He does not speak as if there is one God and we should serve Him because God is good or that it is right. He says, rather, "No one can serve two masters." He acknowledges that for many people mammon assumes that role of future-holder. Sundry other things may be substituted in that place, especially in our era. One can easily say, then, that having any one of these gods necessitates having some type of religion, some way of structuring these hopes for the future.

However, thanks to a multitude of cultural influences, the term religion has come to be synonymous with "organized religion," be it Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Scientology, or what have you. But Luther's definition, I believe, is far more descriptive and helpful in pinning down everyone--not just the self-proclaimed religious--when it comes to examining everyone's value systems. In short, to be able to describe one's self as "not religious" is basically to be let off the hook. Besides narrowing the meaning of "religion" to mean only organized and named religious groups or patterns of thought, such a category ("not religious," "religiously unaffiliated") does not focus the same level or depth of critique on everyone's inherent value system. As Luther, and Aquinas before him, observed long ago, everyone is "doing it." Everyone places their heart in something. Everyone, if they know what's good for them, should take the opportunity to examine that with equal emphasis.

Where this thinking takes me, I'm not sure. I know that, on a personal level, when I hear someone describe themselves in those terms I reach a different conclusion about them than they probably want me to reach. The conclusion I reach is that, sure, they have values and are probably very religious and structured about them. They most certainly give worth (read: worship) to something. They just don't want to be identified with a particular sect or denomination or group-think. And that's OK. But I know they're religious. The two of us actually have more in common than they realize. I often wish they could sit down and admit it and really give some deeper thought about those things in which they "find refuge in times of need"...the things they really do worship. Maybe they do give deeper thought to it, but I still don't want either of us to feel that they've been allowed a free pass, as if my step, for example, towards identification with the church is qualitatively different than their step away from it.

But I also think it might open the door for a new kind of evangelism in this post-Christendom age we are encountering in the West. With such a definition in-hand, it allows practitioners of an organized religion to throw the question back to those whom they may be trying to convince of the validity of their faith with an equal challenge, equal footing. No longer should the "religiously-affiliated" feel put in the place to argue the merits of having religion versus not: You say you're not religious? Really? Are you breathing? Tell me, then, about the places you entrust your heart and your future. And I'd love to tell you about mine. Now, let's talk.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sonnet: Luke 13:10-17

Those eighteen years had been for her a prison,
Her posture bent in mean captivity,
Until that Sabbath when she stood up, risen—
The gracious touch of God had set her free.
With face at long last pointed toward the skies
She sang her hallelujahs with thanksgiving:
This man of mercy heard her silent cries!
His word of peace restored her joy of living.
For that, indeed, is Sabbath’s true intent,
Despite the rules that man has put in place:
A time for God to straighten what is bent,
Correct sin’s inward curvature with grace.
            Your word alone true Sabbath rest imparts.
           O Christ, with selfless love unbend our hearts!
© Phillip Martin, 2013

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Katy Perry as Holy Spirit metaphor?

I know this piece of human interest news (see the video link below) lapsed out of the public consciousness over a year ago, but I was just thinking about it today as my daughter's kindergarten year comes to a close. This song, which I initially deplored, has grown on me ever since it was chosen as the theme song for the year in the elementary school my daughter attends. For better or worse, this song is seared into my memory alongside the conflicting feelings we had as we wandered the halls of the school during that first Open House evening. They played it again during the night of kindergarten orientation (which is really a kindergarten parent orientation). I generally have an aversion to all things cliché, but Perry's "Firework" jived nicely with their goal to "Illuminate the Possibilities." It doesn't hurt that we have nothing but positive things to say about this first year. So, congratulations, Katy Perry.

As I reflected this evening on this song and my recollection of this footage from a benefit concert for children with autism, my mind drifted to the following verses of Scripture:

"[Jesus said] 'I have said these things to you while I am with you, but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.'" John 14:25-26

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." Romans 8:26-27

In so many ways I am still a kindergartner in my journey of faith. Perhaps we are all a bit autistic when it comes to prayer, the most elemental of spiritual practices. Stuck in our minds--always trapped in ourselves to some degree--so often we lack the speech to communicate our deepest needs. How does the song go? What do we mean to say? Nevertheless we are unique and beautiful and valued, and God knows it. When it comes even to prayer, we are not orphaned. The Father sends us the Spirit who gives us even the words we can speak back to him. What grace! Even in our proudest moments when we think we are at our most eloquent, his Advocate stands patiently by the piano with his microphone. We are not alone, and he knows what we're trying to say. What's more, he's ready to join in our song, ready to coax the words and the melody out of us, ready to sustain us when the speech falters...yes, to illuminate the possibilities of our faith.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sonnet: Luke 7:11-17

At Nain's town gate two crowds approach each other:
One driven by disciples' fresh obsession,
One gathered to support a grieving mother
Whose only son is borne in death's procession.
And how her cries reveal a deeper anguish!
This widow mourns much more than loss of life:
Bereft of hope, she now is left to languish
And wander, nameless, as misfortune's wife.
So as these dual pageants then converge
Divine compassion counters human pain
As Jesus's touch disrupts the doleful dirge.
The son is raised, but two their lives regain.
          We march through life by grief and sorrow broken
          Until your words of life to us are spoken.

© Phillip Martin, 2013

Mario Minniti, Miracle of the Widow of Nain (1620)

Thursday, May 09, 2013

What Summer Camp Taught Me: A Retrospective Course Catalogue

This month marks twenty years since I first arrived on-site at Lutheridge in Arden, NC, to serve as a camp counselor. I originally applied for the job in order to fulfill a promise I’d made to my third-grade self. After spending several childhood summers as a camper there, I thought it might be pretty fun to serve on staff one day. As God planned it, one summer as a counselor ended up turning into three more. What seemed at the time to be a whimsical decision ended up charting a significant course for my young adult years.

In the intervening years since that first summer I’ve received two undergraduate degrees and a graduate degree in divinity. I’ve spent two years living abroad in two different countries. Ten years have passed since my ordination, and I’ve started a family. I feel I’ve reached a vantage point from which I can take stock and assess how much, if at all, those years on summer camp staff formed me. The verdict? Quite a lot; in fact, I fear they formed me more than any of my school-based educational experiences did. In retrospect, I can see now where I established some of my basic patterns of living and honed the contours of my fundamental worldview. It was not the nine years I spend in academia, but rather around the campfire and during afternoons of organizing field games. Where did I develop many of my habits and practices that shape me to this very day? Not in the classroom, but on the hiking trail and in the camp dining hall. Initially this “camp thing” was just supposed to be a job, but like other people have pointed out before, it actually ended up being a school for many “life skills.” As a way of marking this anniversary, I offer here a list (in no particular order) of the titles and brief descriptions of each course that serving on camp staff offered me, along with a summary of how they’ve left an impression on me these many years later.

Our first year staff shirt was a color we dubbed "Electric Watermelon"

METEOROLOGY 101: “Weather is never an issue.”

Let’s begin with the basic element of living in a semi-outdoor environment: knowledge of the local climate. In the mid-1990s, no college students carried around smartphones with weather apps. Neither did we have reliable access to television or the internet while we were working in the woods. One major result of this was we never knew what each day’s weather would bring. If it rained, we got wet. If we happened to guess correctly and bring along a rain jacket…we got a little less wet. A hunch that it might turn a little chilly during the evening’s activities meant that we simply tied a sweatshirt around our waist and wore it that way all day long. If a sudden storm cancelled our afternoon outdoor activities, we adapted with sit-down indoor games elsewhere. It seemed to me that no one on staff ever really worried about weather, even after the week one guy got struck by lightning crossing the dam in his automobile (thankfully he was OK). Rather, we assessed it and adjusted to it on an ongoing basis, which is all you really can do in the southern Appalachians anyway. I’m fairly certain this attitude has crossed into other areas of my life. Routine is helpful, but the ability to be flexible about the routine is probably even more so. People who can’t learn to roll with the weather changes are probably not going to succeed in general flexibility, and they’ll struggle in this remedial camp course. I think I did fairly well with it, but it’s had some long-lasting implications: to this day, I still rarely check a weather forecast. And I still get caught unprepared in the rain. My wife just shakes her head.

The end of a particularly grueling week?
BIOLOGY 201: “Bugs are no reason to freak out.”

Like abrupt changes in the weather, summer camp and creepy-crawlies go hand-in-hand. I had always been OK with spiders, bugs, and various woodland varmints, but I happen to remember the precise moment when I realized I had crossed into a new territory of tolerance for them. I was sleeping one afternoon on my bunk bed, exhausted from the morning’s adventures. I awoke to what felt like a small hair stroking my lip and nose. It was a daddy-long-legs, perched over my right eye. Who knows where it had come from or how long it had been feeling out my facial contours. My reaction was not one of fear or even surprise. Neither did I bolt out of bed in disgust. Lying exactly how I was, I simply picked him up, dropped him on the floor beside the bed, and went immediately back to sleep. I remember another occasion when I got a little unnerved by a mouse that wouldn’t leave my living quarters in the dank basement of one lodge. I eventually gave in to a peaceable coexistence. Camp life teaches nonchalance about the presence of creatures that most of civilization views as pests. Nowadays members of my family call me in panic whenever a bug is so rude as to venture inside our house and threaten our pristine living environment. I begrudgingly do my exterminator duty, but always with plenty of exaggerated eye-rolling. To be honest, I’m usually content to just let them be, just like I did back in camp days. That really drives my wife crazy.

ECONOMICS OF ABUNDANCE: “Make-do with what you have.”

Almost as familiar to summer camp as bugs are tight budgets. Lutheridge was no exception. We always  began the summer with a set number of craft items, sports equipment, maintenance tools, worship materials, etc. and had to make them last for nine (or was it ten?) whole weeks of hard livin’. If you went through too many of the bright colors of construction paper in the first week or so, all you had left at the end was brown, purple, and gray (I once suggested we do a Lent-in-August Week to use up all the ugly, boring colors, but strangely the idea never caught on). If something broke or went flat, you either learned how to jerry-rig it so it would work again, or you just came up with a different activity altogether. One time a guest Bible study leader was a little dissatisfied with the materials our area director had provided for her to use that morning in her session. “I needed two large pieces of posterboard,” she complained politely, “not one.” Knowing how tight the craft budget was, and how difficult it would be able to procure another whole sheet of the stuff, the area director held up the one she had, ripped it cleanly in two, and said, “Here. Now you have two.” The particular feature of Lutheridge that best exemplified this principle was the dilapidated yet just-functional-enough pick-up truck we used for general duty assignments around camp. Its deep electric blue paint color leant a certain energetic look that belied its engine tremor. It wasn’t technically road-worthy, and I swear parts of that tin bucket were held together with duct tape, but it got the job done. A hundred-fold. (And I would like to point out that I once "fixed" a friend's car with duct tape).

Care for a ride in my G.D. truck?
This type of frugality has influenced so much of my life that it is difficult to describe all the ways adequately. I suspect that in the corporate work world, supplies and equipment are generally easier to come by. Budgets in most businesses, by and large, have more wiggle room. If an employee needs something to help him function at a higher or more efficient level, it can be provided. In the non-profit world of summer camp, one learns to work with what little they have, and that has served me well (most of the time) in our family budget. Tinkering and fiddling with broken parts often must suffice for an all-out replacement. It breeds a healthy form of stewardship—and it does cause one to tap into their inner MacGuyver—but it also makes life a little more difficult sometimes. But you know what? At camp you learn that hours of fun can be had with a partially-inflated volleyball and a clothesline tied between two tree trunks. Or with just a partially-inflated volleyball, for that matter.

Family-style dining for every meal. That's a gilbert there at my left elbow.
NUTRITION FOR DUMMIES: “Eat whatever’s served you.”

The joke among the staff at Lutheridge was that guys lost weight while they worked there and the girls gained weight. Actually, there was a lot of truth to it. There is no greater contrast to the eating habits of a college student while they’re at college than when they’re at camp and have to eat three square meals a day after they’ve spent the day chasing kids across hilly terrain. I know I was rail-thin in those days, and I appreciated the way camp life kept me in shape, but the biggest lesson I learned was to be thankful for whatever food was placed in front of me. Prior to camp employment I was a fairly picky eater, but, as Garrison Keillor says, “Hunger makes the beans taste better.” I developed a taste for foods I never would have tried had I been somewhere else: Chicken a la King (it was served at least once on our ten-day menu rotation); mealy red apples (they were the fruit component in every single sack lunch for off-site field trips);  corndogs (hey, calories have to come from somewhere, right?). All of this was a lesson related to the economics class above. A life of true gratitude will never be borne of greed or condescension. You eventually learn to receive whatever cup is given to you, to pass it around the table so all can have a fair share, and to hope that when you come back to the next meal there might be something you really love, like maybe Boston Crème Pie. The ironic thing is that at Lutheridge I finally learned to like Chicken a la King and yet I’ve never encountered it anywhere since. But I bet I’d still be thankful if I did.

One cabin of middle school boys. Can you hang?
PHYSICS OF MOTION: “Objects are almost never at rest.”

For most people, college and graduate school require some familiarity with a transient lifestyle, but neither of them can compare to the constant motion of working at a summer camp. Every week you get marching orders to a new cabin, a new assignment. Sometimes you live on a trail or out of a canoe. Personal items are schlepped back and forth between car and bunk bed and shower-house on a near daily basis. Cleaning laundry is squeezed between camper bedtime and your own, or perhaps in the all-too-brief window of free-time on the weekends. Your automobile—if you have one—becomes the only permanent living space of the summer. As a result, things accumulate there and never really disappear. I’d like to think I learned at camp to live with fewer possessions and to keep better track of the ones I do have.  It certainly presented this opportunity. This is a good life lesson, and one that camp living is certainly not alone in teaching. Before I purchase something, a little voice in the back of my head asks, “Do you want to be carrying this around all the time?” Unfortunately, this lifestyle burned a bad mark on me, too. In so many ways I am still partially living out of my car. This has been somewhat problematic, especially when I need to transport passengers. I end up having to shift the clutter to the trunk or the floorboard while they wait patiently by the car door. One bright side: I think at any given time during the past twenty years I have been able to locate a complete change of clothes somewhere in the confines of my car.

You will never forget a week with mentally-challenged campers.
TIME MANAGEMENT BASICS: “Every minute counts”

During my first summer orientation twenty years ago, the acting director pressed this notion into our heads like a red-hot brand: these campers do not pay to come here and sit around. This director emphasized over and over that we, the counselors, were the key to their having a good time, the catalysts to the deepening of their faith, their tour guides to the great outdoors. Every minute, therefore, was to be filled with some kind of activity, even it was mindless, silly singing ("When days are hot, when days are cold, in the swimming pool!"). Waiting for the dining hall to open or the lifeguard to summon the kids to the water were no excuses for taking a break and ignoring our charges. Not all camps, I now realize, were that high-energy. There is something to be said for down-time (which Lutheridge had, too). However, too much unstructured time also allowed homesickness or mischief to take root in some kids. I learned pretty quickly that those things were worth avoiding at almost any cost. What rubbed off on me in this time management course was the habit of seizing every opportunity to point out something interesting in the surroundings, to make small-talk, to exercise the brain or the body however possible. This can be applied to life in general. I still appreciate the occasional chance to sit around and do nothing, but overall I’ve really been thankful for the ways those camp supervisors taught me to squeeze as much fun or work into a day as possible. After all, it is a day that the LORD has made. We are to rejoice and be glad in it. There’s really nothing passive about that at all.

Cabin signs were supposed to be as welcoming as possible
INTRO TO PSYCHOLOGY: “A crash course in human nature.”

Every week in a summer camp environment is like the beginning of a whole new world. Staff members are switched around to work different areas. People assume fresh duties. New campers arrive. Cabin communities are formed. Bonding occurs. And so does fighting and miscommunication, jealousy and betrayal. The stereotype of summer camps, I suspect, is that everyone is having a great time making new friends, developing summer romances and the like, all in the serene outdoors. The reality is that an awful lot of conflict, clannishness, and claustrophobia can occur. I keenly remember one cabin of middle school boys who ganged up on one of their own. One night while I was fast asleep, they passed around a cup, urinated in it, and then poured it on his sleeping bag. As their counselor, I was mortified and extremely angry. I tried and tried to get them to get along that week, to apologize to the poor victim and treat him better, but no matter what approach I tried, they resisted and rebelled. I eventually learned that sometimes humans just don’t naturally mesh with each other. Healthy community cannot be summarily imposed from above with an iron fist or even by pleading. All an effective leader knows she or he can do is to nurture or cultivate a sense of community by modeling kind behavior and rewarding positive actions. We can point the way in speech and gentle discipline and set up some basic boundaries. We can listen attentively and practice compassion. We can be on guard against gossip, which, I learned several times, does immeasurable harm. The rest—the real congealing of human relationships—must be left up to what we religious folks call the Holy Spirit. And loads of grace.

THEOLOGY MASTER CLASS: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10

The best “life skills” offered through a job at summer camp end up being the very ones that most people apply to the job to experience in the first place. They want to serve God and grow in faith by living in community in an outdoor setting that is intentionally centered on Christ’s teachings. This certainly occurs, of course. But the extent to which it occurs is humbling and mind-boggling. As long as you leave yourself open to it, working as a camp counselor teaches you that God is far more active in the lives of his people than you’d ever imagine. I think the lessons in this particular course go deeper and reach farther than any of the others I’ve already mentioned. Each week, each day is crammed with chances to admire God’s creation up close. And to begin and end the day with Scripture. Or watch people overcome their fears. Broker peace between warring cabin-mates. Muster sympathy for the ostracized bully. Nurture the homesick camper.  Recite a prayer in unison with one hundred muddy-faced creek-walkers. Sing a capella. Witness the Spirit miraculously pull together a Vespers service when you’ve spent all your planning time at the nurse’s station. Observe first-hand that confirmation pastors are people, too. Wrestle with your vocation. Open someone’s eyes to Jesus’ presence. Have your own eyes opened to Jesus’ presence in them. Slog through a whole week of Good Fridays with a troubled camper but then glimpse an Easter in him before it ends. Learn your limitations. Discover new gifts. Let people down. Be forgiven. Fall into bed. Say prayers. Go to sleep. And by the grace of God—always, by the grace of God—get up and try it all again for another full day.

Staff rejoice on Friday nights at their next week's assignments
Is there a better way to gain perspective on this whole life we’re given and learn to value God’s many mercies? I’m sure there is. In fact, I’m sure there are many. But this setting was the one afforded to me, thanks to the commitment of a very forward-thinking third-grader. Now I can see how these summer camp lessons formed and shaped me more than I realized at the time. I may wish every now and then that I paid a little more attention to the weather forecast, and I know I owe it to my family to go ahead and outright fix things around the house, but on the whole I still believe that the outcomes of these lessons have been more good than bad. The education I received among those forested hills eventually prepared me to be a pastor and to have a family. For that, and so much more, I give God thanks...when days are hot and when days are cold.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

On being church in suburbia

I recently finished the novel Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, and my first reaction to it was that I wanted to go visit an old-growth forest as quickly as possible. These treasures are hard to find. Those who have read the book will understand why; one particular plot of virgin forest known as the Nest Egg plays a crucial role in the plot of the story, and it a place that is described beautifully. In fact, Berry uses the Nest Egg as a type of metaphor for several ideas in the book. This rare patch of woods that has never felt the saw of a lumberjack turns out to serve as a microcosm of the entire countryside. The gift and fate of the Nest Egg mirrors the bonds that characters throughout the book have with their whole community.  The Nest Egg is also a true utopia that, in the course of the storyline, provides the area for human relationship to deepen and flourish. Certain characters treasure their walks beneath the towering canopy. Anyway, Berry’s description of this Eden-like preserve is so rich and enchanting that I immediately wanted to lose myself among a vast stand of trees so thick two or three people couldn’t reach their arms around them together. It’s sad that there are so few of these old-growth forests left in the United States, and the closest ones we do have are located several hours’ drive from my house.


My second reaction to the book was that I realized it was helping me think a little deeper about of some things I’d been contemplating for a while before I ever read the book; namely, the challenges in doing parish ministry in the suburbs and the growing disconnect between the language of the Bible—which is largely agrarian in metaphor and imagery—and the reality of most of today’s Christians, at least in the West. Among many things, Jayber Crow is a statement about the importance of place to human identity and to the bonding of human relationships.  I don’t know many details about Wendell Berry’s opinions and viewpoints, but what little I have managed to gather is explained in narrative form through Jayber Crow and his other novels about life in the fictitious Port William. Berry’s noted environmentalist views come through in the book, but more through characters and the choices they make than through outright exposition of ideals.


As a farmer himself, Berry knows something about the ways that geography and human community are deeply connected. In the novel, we see how the welfare of the people in Port William is intimately, inextricably woven together with the welfare of their town and land, woven even more tightly than even the residents themselves seem to realize. Farmers, merchants, tradesmen, housekeepers, even local schoolchildren—each of them is an important strand of a delicate fabric and each is affected by the overall function of the town. The title character is the most aware of this vital connection, but there is little he can do to change its destiny other than listen to the stories of the people (which is easy to do because he is the town barber) and participate as much as he can in the town’s economy. Through the plot it becomes clear that Berry laments the arrivals of agribusiness, industrial farming, and human settlement of the land in the entire country. People are slowly and disastrously becoming less linked to the land they must live on and, more importantly, live from. As people move into larger cities and away from towns like Port William, the nature of human community inevitably changes. Berry does not think it changes for the better.


This brings me to my position as one who, too, primarily spends a good amount of time listening to people tell their stories. I am embedded in a community, of sorts. But for some time now I have begun to notice that ministry in a suburban context lacks that intimate tie to land and space that rural parishes typically have, that the residents of Port William have. At some point over the last ten years of ordained ministry I started to notice that I spend another good portion of my time trying to build and foster community; that is, I try to get people to make connections with one another…essentially trying to forge a small town where there really isn’t one. Unlike Port William in Jayber Crow, and unlike almost every small town and rural setting still out there, none of the people in the parishes I’ve served is in the business of providing any direct economy to anyone else in the parish. By day, they work in different office buildings. They earn bread for their families almost completely independently from one another. By night, they rest in neighborhoods and subdivisions scattered throughout a wide geographic area. How are we tied together then? How does our care for each other feel important? These are the questions I have been drawn to ponder. One of the most effective metaphors Paul uses for the church is a body, a la Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians. I imagine that metaphor gets a lot more mileage in communities where everyone, day in and day out, fully realizes the myriad ways they are tied together.


I must confess, then, that the endeavor of creating and facilitating a sense of community is sometimes exhausting. And I doubt pastors in rural settings—and, add to that, most parish workers over the past 2000 years—have really had to do much of the same type of community-building. Sometimes I feel I have to devote a good bit of time convincing members of the parishes we serve that they are a body, when in earlier times that probably would have been intuitive for most of them.  I presume that these are challenges fairly new to pastors and their parishioners. How do you get people deeply connected to each other, especially over the long haul? How do you get people invested in the place where the parish is naturally rooted when the people who make up the parish are not terribly rooted there, themselves? One writer on this subject has noted that people in suburbia are presented with a new situation that most people over the course of time have never had to deal with: suburbanites can choose to meet and interact with only the people they want to know.


Add to that the fact that Scripture itself ninety-five percent of the time speaks right from the farming and herding communities of a time long gone by. Both Old and New Testament give us agrarian metaphors galore. They mention place names and etymologies as if they mean they are more than just a simple landmark. By contrast, most people in the suburbs and in the inner cities, myself included, are not physically tied to land other than the occasional lawn-mowing and vegetable gardening. The nature of suburban life for many who live there is that they may be uprooted at any minute because they could be transferred to another location. People may feel sentimental ties to a childhood tramping ground, perhaps, but few people actually live off the land…or from it.


This all amounts, in my opinion, to a considerable mission challenge. It takes time and energy to embody the cohesive community that Scripture imagines us to be. It takes concerted effort to be creative in reminding the whole assembly that they are, in fact, a body…that they are each other’s primary community, especially when those pre-existing connections of economy and shared story are not automatically there. And especially when Scripture is laden with language and phrases that people like Berry might enjoy and appreciate, but which seem ever more foreign to a city-dwelling world.


I am thankful to be reminded that the accomplishment of this challenge is not left solely up to the pastor and his or her parishioners to weave that community and preach that reality. Whether we recognize it or not, the Holy Spirit is actually there leading the way in this regard, constantly bringing new, landless people into their midst and weaving a new tapestry for God’s glory out of their gifts and unique stories.  Come to think of it, it’s been happening in spite of my worry all along. Much of the early church took root in ancient urban areas (although it could be argued that urban centers back then were still more physically tied to land and place than modern suburbs are).  Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed playing a part in this weaving, despite the energy and creativity it demands. Furthermore, there is some truth to the fact, I bet, that the transient lives we lead in the suburbs can help us remember that disciples are, in in fact, called to a nomadic life. We are, in many ways, not to be too tied to this present form of the earth because it is passing away—not too unlike those majestic old-growth forests—and giving away to something even more utopian and, thank God, permanent:  a brand new heaven and brand new earth. There we will fully realize just how deep and nourishing our relationships with each other are created to be.


Monday, March 04, 2013

Sonnet: John 12:1-8

When last they'd met, death's stench had filled the air--
Great weeping, shock, the mood at Lazarus' tomb;
So now they host a joyful dinner where
Perfume's aroma permeates the room.
But soon this scene is one of rank commotion
For Mary's gift of pouring costly oil
Is seen by Judas not as pure devotion
But rather as a waste of time and toil.
What Judas, blind by greed, can never treasure
Is value in a Lord who dies to save.
God's grace in Jesus knows no human measure;
Her act foreshadows Easter's empty grave.
             O precious Christ, we strain to give what's due:
             The sum of all our days poured out for you.

© Phillip Martin, 2013

Monday, January 14, 2013

Jesus' "first 100 days"

icon: the adoration of the magi
In the religious tradition in which I grew up and now serve, worship during the weeks and Sundays after the Epiphany (January 6) is dedicated to the reading of certain stories in the life of Jesus that reveal in some special and often symbolic way the nature and purpose of his ministry. To be sure, each and every act of Jesus recorded in the gospels reveals something about Jesus' identity and mission, but the church for years has seen a few particular stories that occur at the beginning of his life as especially informative about who he is and what he is going to do now that he is, so to speak, on the scene. Specifically, Jesus is God made manifest. In Jesus, God is revealing (the main meaning of "epiphany," after all) something critically important about God's plan for humankind and all of creation. You may think of it this way: a lot of people focus on a newly-elected President's first 100 days as a sign for what's to come--what his or her priorities are--for the remainder of the term. That's kind of how the season after the Epiphany functions.

Several years ago I was in a choir that sang a hymn that mentioned some of these key "epiphany" stories. I really liked the words, and so I jotted them down for future Epiphany devotions. It was written by a lesser-known poet from the 5th century who went by the name Coelius Sedulius. Often known by its first lines in Latin, "Hostis Herodes Impie," the hymn has been set to music several times.

icon: the baptism of Jesus
Thanks to a the way the calendar falls in 2013, the first four verses of the five-verse hymn all correspond nicely to the gospel readings of the first three Epiphany Sundays this year. This suggests that assigned lectionary readings for this liturgical season have been remarkably consistent throughout the centuries.  In the season after we've prepared for and celebrated his birth (Advent and Christmas) and before we delve into the season that prepares us for his suffering, death and resurrection (Lent, Holy Week, and Easter), Christians have long thought it helpful to concentrate, if for only a brief few Sundays, on the adult Jesus as he begins his ministry and begins announcing the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. If one is still struggling with what the "season after Epiphany" is all about and why the church continues to celebrate it, this hymn might help spell it out.

"Why, impious Herod, shouldst thou fear
Because the Christ is come so near?
He Who doth heav'nly kingdoms grant
Thine earthly realm can never want.

Lo, sages from the East are gone
To where the star hath newly shone:
Led on by light to Light they press
And by their gifts their God confess.

The Lamb of God is manifest
Again in Jordan's water blest,

And He who sin had never known
By washing hath our sins undone.

Yet He that ruleth everything
Can change the nature of the spring
And gives at Cana this for sign--
That water reddens into wine.

Then glory, Lord, to Thee we pray
For Thine Epiphany today;
All glory through eternity
To Father, Son, and Spirit be.

There you have them: the journey of the wise men and Herod's resultant fear, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. Three main stories that have been read between Christmas and Lent for what appears to be a very long time. Three stories that set the stage for what type of king and leader Jesus will be and how Jesus, in turn, reveals God's true nature. It just so happens that in 2013 we will hear all three of these stories three Sundays in a row: January 6, January 13, and January 20. We know what Coelius Sedulius thinks of Jesus' first 100 days. What do you think Jesus' priorities are? What's on his agenda? What do you expect to see from him as the rest of his "term" plays out? Lastly, how might these three stories---the adoration of the magi, the baptism by John in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana where "water reddens into wine"---also contain elements of foreshadowing for the rest of Jesus' mission?

icon: the wedding at Cana of Galilee

Monday, January 07, 2013

My Big Year

I bought a camera from my sister in late 2011 after she upgraded and moved on to a more complicated model.  Cameras are typically not difficult to operate, but I quickly figured out that her cast-off had more bells and whistles than I’d ever be able to learn how to use. I tried to sit down with the owner’s manual (and the corresponding “book for Dummies”) a few times, but after my eyes glazed over after a couple of pages, I knew I needed a discipline in order to make it more of a “hands on” learning experience. Enter the backyard birds. I thought that if I forced myself to take at least one photograph of a bird a day, I would slowly pick up the skills I was looking for—quick, manual focusing with the lens; deeper understanding of good lighting; exposure; framing a photo; better grasp of photo editing; and so on. With such a ready cast of subjects, it seemed like a simple undertaking. I mean, seriously… can you think of a day when you haven’t seen at least one bird either flying overhead or pecking through your yard? That, I figured, is all I’d need, and I began on January 2, 2012.

Cooper's Hawk, January 14
However, as the weeks wore on, I realized it was going to take a slightly bigger sacrifice of time than I had initially calculated. When in a pinch, I tried to snap a few with my cell-phone camera, but the quality of those photos was very disappointing. I found that if I made myself grab the new camera and head either to the backyard or, if I had enough time, to one of two nearby parks, I could get into a rhythm each day. I posted the day’s best photo on a tumblr I set up, which I simply named “A Bird a Day.”  Looking at it you’ll see there are a few gaps—a trip for church in New Orleans in July sidelined the project for a week or so (and, come to find out, there really aren’t any birds in downtown New Orleans, anyway), and the days leading up to Christmas were particularly busy—but overall I consider my consistency a success. A desire to mix-up the species for some day-to-day variety became a little tricky, especially in the shorter winter days when I got home from work as the sun was going down. I didn’t want to post five days of chickadees in a row. Having a bird feeder helped, even if it kind of felt like cheating.
Pileated Woodpecker, February 4
The year is now over, and I don’t think I learned my camera’s ins and outs nearly as much as I’d hoped. I’d like to think that my photos got better over time, and that if you were to compare the shots taken last January and February to the ones taken in November and December you’d see a marked improvement. Most of that was probably due to the telephoto lens that my generous sister leant me at the beginning of June which allowed me to get a lot ‘closer’ with the camera. I also know that I didn’t crack the cover of the camera manual past March.
Eastern Phoebe, August 20

I did, however, crack the cover of my bird book very often. Over the course of the project, I began to notice that my eyes were being opened to other things than just learning a piece of technology. Other than the sense of accomplishment one typically feels when they finish out a whole year of some type of discipline, I also have a much, much greater appreciation of—you guessed it—the birds that live around me and their habitats. I’ve been a self-confessed “bird freak” since my early years of elementary school when I wrote to the Governor of North Carolina (Jim Hunt at the time) and requested him to declare a holiday for birds (He graciously consented, and May 24 is Bird Day in my home state, whether or not my family members choose to believe it). I’ve also memorized countless bird guides and participated in a few Audubon Society bird counts, but this year provided the opportunity to expand and hone my bird identification skills like never before.
Red-winged Blackbird, July 9

Gray Catbird, June 5

Painted Bunting, July14
American Redstart, September 18
For example, I can now identify many species by vocalization, which is a tricky skill to master. I still have a long way to go, but knowing birds by their songs or calls is by far the most accurate way to identify them in the field, not to mention the best way to locate them. In fact, that’s how I found the Hooded Warblers in my backyard in early May (“Do you see Sir William FITZ-hew” is the mnemonic device I came up with for them) and the Painted Bunting at the beach in July, a species which has actually been declining on the east coast for decades. Brown-headed Nuthatches sound exactly like a squeaky bath toy. I also pretty much learned how to tell the difference between a Red-shouldered Hawk and a Blue Jay imitating a Red-shouldered Hawk…most of the time.

I also picked up the knack of knowing where certain species liked to hang out. This is a biggie in the world of birding. Look up high—very high!—for the vireos and tanagers. Look down low for most of the sparrows. Venture around the edge of a pond in the summer or fall and you will probably run across a Yellowthroat. Eastern Bluebirds love suburbia. On some level I already knew most of these “rules,” but the knowledge gained after repeated, daily practice is so much more useful than what is gained from reading a book. It’s like my semesters of field education in seminary…except this time I was in a real field.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, August 26
I also noticed that I haven’t lost that childhood excitement when I see a species for the first time, which is, happily, something that occurred a lot this year. One afternoon I was at the garden in the backyard and something small about twenty yards away flickered and caught my eye. It was a Black-throated Blue Warbler, a species I’ve seen in books for years but never happened to spot in nature. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was. I was lucky to have my camera with me, so I got a photo. I saw my first Golden-crowned Kinglet this year. Palm Warbler. Tri-colored Heron. Orchard Oriole. Each time I saw a species for the first time—and I know this is going to sound ridiculous and super-nerdy—but it felt like I was seeing a celebrity, or maybe even meeting a pen pal for the first time. After all, I grew up reading about these guys in my books. I studied them for hours, read about their eating habits, pored over their migration routes, breeding and nesting behaviors in the way the most normal schoolboys memorize baseball stats. I don’t care if other people think it’s stupid or silly. When I see them in person for the first time it’s fascinating, and I’m glad at 39 I still get that thrill.
Common Yellowthroat, September 28
The total tally for the dailyvogel project was 90 different species, and I know I saw even more than that. I never even got a photograph, for example, of the species I probably saw more than any else: the ubiquitous pigeon (or Rock Dove, Columba livia). What amazed me was the sheer diversity right around me. Of those 90, 57 were spotted either in my own backyard or were readily visible from it (Canada Geese, to my knowledge, never actually landed in my yard, but they did fly high overhead, and so they still count!). An additional fifteen or so species were seen in one of the parks within two miles from my house.  If someone had told me at the start of this project that I would see almost sixty species of birds from my own backyard, I wouldn’t have believed them. But my photographs are proof. They’ve been right here the whole time—hidden in plain view, as they say.
Wood Stork, July 13
Red-shouldered Hawk, November 9
Psalm 40:5 says, “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; no one can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.” The psalmist is responding to an occasion of the Lord’s deliverance, the details of which are not fully clear. We do know that he is deeply thankful for how the Lord has provided for him. In the hectic rush of his day-to-day, something pulls the psalmist outside of himself to “wait patiently” (v. 1) and pause to notice the many ways in which the Lord his God has been present for and gracious to him. He finds it overwhelming.  It fills him with joy, and in his gratitude he becomes “all ears” to the ways God calls him to service and a life of fullness. The current religious systems of sacrifice and burnt offerings have effectively obscured his thinking regarding the ways in which God actually operates: that is, through grace...more grace than he could ever know. Struggling with a failing heart, the psalmist goes on to hope for God’s deliverance once more, but he is always sustained by knowledge of the Lord’s steadfast love.
I suppose that is essentially what I take from this dailyvogel project. I picked up a lot of interesting things, but now that it's over I find myself mainly reflecting on how it took a year of daily discipline (and patience, too, especially from my wife) for me to appreciate the offerings of avian life on display in my own immediate surroundings, as ordinary as those surroundings may be. Is it not so with all of God’s blessings and acts of deliverance, the memories of which often just flicker in the distance as we obsess over the latest thing directly in front of us? If we were to pause through things like regular worship, prayer, and Bible study and take the time to be aware to the ways in which God can—and does—pop up here, there and everywhere, providing for us each and every moment, might we be amazed at how many we could identify? And how might these recollections—these rolling tumblr posts of grace, if you will—buoy us in times of sadness? Surprise and giddy joy are not my only reactions to the results of my big bird year; like in the case of the psalmist, thankfulness abounds. As I put down my camera from this daily discipline, I pray I can then dust off the inner eyes of my heart to see the activity of a loving Creator who grants us all quite an abundant and big life.
White-throated Sparrow, December 6

Carolina Wren, December 31
Eastern Kingbird, July 11
Hermit Thrush, November 6