We turned back God at the border

I’ve been struggling to respond to the events of the past couple of days. I am compelled to lift up a story that should be fresh to many of us, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew, as in Christian doctrine, Jesus is God.

In Matthew, Jesus is barely out of the womb when an angel of the Lord informs Joseph that Herod is sending soldiers to kill the baby. Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus must flee. They become refugees. Herod’s men kill all the young boys in Bethlehem. The story clearly is meant to resonate with Pharaoh killing the Israelite boys, but it also resonates with anyone who has been a refugee. There is no extra-biblical record that Herod did this. (He was horrible so don’t go giving him a free pass.) Whether or not it is historically true, Matthew writes this story for a reason: it designates God as being a refugee.

God is a refugee.

God is a refugee. The Old Testament command to welcome and care for the aliens in our land gets amplified. We care for refugees because they are God. It’s not that one of them might turn out to be the Messiah; it’s that God is a refugee.

The United States is currently detaining refugees in our international airports. Our 45th President has signed Executive Orders that are quite possibly unconstitutional, but are currently in force, banning refugees fleeing dictators or terrorist groups, banning them solely on the grounds of their religion.

In other words, the United States, my country, is now turning away God at the border. God is detained at international airports. God is being registered and trailed by law enforcement. God is going to be deported.

That’s not me being sensational. That’s me taking seriously the story of the birth of Christ. If you’re a god-worshipping sort, consider attending services this weekend at any one of our makeshift refugee detention centers. Sing hymns of praise to those fleeing terror, those declared illegal. Beg them to forgive us. And then for Christ’s sake, someone let them in.


Two Great Theologians, and Goodwin’s Law

I like to think we can learn something from history. I try to be current, but I have my own historical interests. For example, on the one hand, I wrote a dissertation largely on theologian and biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann, and one cannot do that without at least being aware of his interactions with theologian Karl Barth. Chances are, most folks don’t care too much about either of those gentlemen. On the other hand, I am also a proponent of Goodwin’s Law in social media discussions. This one comes in handy all the time.

Goodwin’s Law is the rule that the one who makes a comparison to Nazis loses the argument, unless the conversation is about actual things Nazis did.

Examples include comparing George W. Bush to Hitler because Bush’s administration ruthlessly ridiculed and silenced opponents and attacked the patriotism of anyone who questioned the Bush claim that we were under constant threat. While Nazis did these sorts of things, politicians everywhere do these sorts of things. Bush simply is not Hitler. Or, one may compare Barack Obama to Hitler because Obama advocated a national health care system, and one of the health services Obama wanted funded was abortion services. While Nazis forced people to have abortions, the notion of providing health care (and abortions only to those who request them) is one shared across the political spectrum in countries around the world. Obama simply is not Hitler. The Nazis didn’t just ridicule you; they killed you. The Nazis didn’t just give you access to abortions; they sterilized you if they found you “defective.”

So I support Goodwin’s Law. You don’t get to compare a politician to Hitler until that politician starts calling for the tagging and monitoring of all practitioners of a particular religion, forcing them to carry and/or wear identification that broadcasts their beliefs and exposes them to public ridicule. You don’t get to compare a politician to Hitler until that politician starts calling for the detention and torture of individuals in brazen violation of the law, on the grounds that those singled out for torture “deserve it.” (NB: Bush Jr was never comfortable with torture, and finally ordered its cessation.) You don’t get to compare a politician to Hitler until that politician publicly dismisses the physically handicapped as incapable of contributing to society and unworthy of his attention

We’ve got someone doing those things now in the USA. And he is leading in his party’s polling, just a few weeks from the first caucuses and primaries.

Now, the comparisons are not perfect one for one correspondences. I have not heard a word in the press about any interest in breeding a race of supermen, for example. And that’s fine. The things he is saying are bad enough in themselves, and the fact that they are resonating with such a large portion of the population is alarming enough in itself.

How is one to oppose this phenomenon?

When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Karl Barth left Germany for Switzerland. Rudolf Bultmann remained at Marburg and opposed Hitler from the inside, welcoming the Allies in 1945 and becoming part of the rebuilding in postwar Germany. Bultmann was disappointed in Barth for leaving when he did. While he understood that Barth was upset, he knew Hitler hadn’t actually done anything to Barth, yet. Barth in Switzerland could not speak from the belly of the beast. He could not oppose Hitler head on. This is not to say that Bultmann somehow single handedly won the war from within Germany. Primarily he shielded the curriculum at Marburg from teaching Nazi propaganda, and he advocated for the Confessing Church (which opposed Hitler) to be more than just a group that didn’t go along with Hitler because of changes Hitler made (kind of a “we’ve never done it that way before”) but rather a church that advocated for radical discipleship in all times.

I cannot help but see a correlation between these two giants of theology on the one hand and those of us who wonder how best to respond to the contemporary political climate in the US. Aside from the threats from members of the losing party that they’re moving to Canada, there’s a more general resignation to things being this way, and a lack of engagement in the process. Assuming voters show up at the polls, this is often the extent of their involvement. And I get it. The last election I voted in was the Maryland 2014, and I really wanted to call over the poll worker and ask him for the real ballot, as the list of candidates for governor was obviously someone’s idea of a joke. And I also see disengagement as running off to Switzerland where I cannot do any good. It is a lot tougher to get involved. You run afoul of the powerful. You wind up banned from statehouses and corporate headquarters. You wind up being harassed whenever identified. You wind up spending a lot of your time fighting the machine and not getting to other things you wanted to do.

You also may wind up keeping the Nazis (or their contemporary equivalents) out of your little corner of the world.

The Time has come to condemn hate

We’ve moved beyond gentle reminders of Bible verses that tell us to care for strangers and refugees.

Today in the United States, the two front-runners for the Republican nomination for President of the United States are calling for totalitarian-style measures towards Muslims. Donald Trump has stated that he would create a national database to track all Muslims, and make Muslims carry identification. Ben Carson has said that Americans should screen Muslim applicants for asylum because some are “rabid dogs.”

Trump’s comments immediately drew comparisons to Nazi Germany, and the requirement that Jews and every other “inferior” group wear identifying badges. Carson’s comments hearken back to Nazi propaganda which characterized Jews and other groups as being dirty or disease ridden.

So we’ve moved beyond gentle reminders of Bible verses that tell us to care for strangers and refugees. We’ve moved on to the stage at which we as Christ’s brothers and sisters must condemn hateful speech.

Christianity as we know it was born under oppression. In 64 CE, Rome burned. No one is sure who started the fire, but the fact that Nero began building himself a palace in the gutted districts roused suspicion. Nero blamed the fire on the Christians of Rome. Christians were rounded up, tortured in an attempt to get them to name other Christians, then fed to wild animals in the Colosseum or dipped in oil and lit as torches. The Roman historian Tacitus records this horror, and then expresses his own horror that Nero acted in such a way as to make Christians seem almost sympathetic. In other words, he, too, wanted us dead. It is all but certain that the four canonical gospels were written after the great trauma of 64. That is to say, most of what we know of Jesus was told only in the wake of us being hunted down, beaten, butchered, or immolated.

With such a history, we have a clear calling to condemn targeting any group because of its religion. Our track record on this is pretty appalling. That does not excuse us from speaking up, today.

I recall the Assembly of the Delaware-Maryland Synod (ELCA) in 2010. The Arian Nation was about to hold a rally up the road. A voting member proposed that we officially distance ourselves from this group. Dr. Erik Gritsch, a great Luther scholar near the end of his life, arose to speak. Gritsch grew up in Nazi Germany. Like all children, he was automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth. In only slightly accented English, Gritsch bluntly told us that the presence of the Arian Nation demanded nothing short of outright condemnation from anyone claiming to be Christian. Gritsch died three years ago, but I will never forget his words, or the many Lutheran theologians who lived under Hitler and whom I have had the privilege of knowing, reading, or researching.

Christ compels us

Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson, your words regarding Muslims in America or seeking refuge in America are in direct contradiction of the will of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. As an ordained minister of the Word and Sacraments in Christ’s Church, I condemn your statements. I pray that the Holy Spirit will change your heart, that you will repent of these positions and retract your statements.

The will of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is that God forgives us, and stirs up in us the Holy Spirit who is herself no less than God and who empowers us to follow where God would lead. No less an oppressor of the religiously-different than Saul of Tarsus was inspired by the Spirit to become St. Paul, so a change of heart is not out of the question. May it come upon you soon.

Two Kinds of Scripture, Two Kinds of Memory

Why does the Lectionary throw the texts at us the way it does?

The Revised Common Lectionary is a way of reading Scripture. Fine. But when we talk about “Scripture,” what do we mean?

For most protestants, when we say “Scripture” we mean the Bible (by which we mean 66 books, 39 OT & 27 NT). We take this for granted. However, Scripture as “authoritative” writing is not so universally understood even within the Church. The contents of the Bible are not a given, as evidenced by Orthodox or Roman Catholic canons which contain more books than our protestant Bibles. Moreover, the use of biblical texts in these traditions is far more tied to Sunday eucharistic reading than most protestants realize. There really are (at least) two kinds of Scripture, each of which remembers Jesus in a certain way.

For most of the Church’s history, the dominant narrative or construction of Scripture was based on the calendar. The most basic calendrical unit was Sunday. Texts read on Sunday in worship were authoritative. As the Church Year developed into something we would recognize today (with festivals and seasons), the sequence of Sundays began making theological claims. Texts were read on certain days because those days told about God’s victory in Christ in a way best illustrated by the texts assigned to them. For example, Christians think of Jesus as a “Good Shepherd,” so there is a Sunday each year that is dedicated to this image. Fritz West, in his awesome little book Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries dubs this the “calendrical narrative.”

The texts of the calendrical narrative are found in a bound collection of books we call the Bible. This canon of texts has a basic shape (things start well, go bad, and slowly get redeemed) and the texts relate, even if only vaguely, through some set terms like “tree” or “city” or “lamb.” This collection is far more familiar to protestants than the calendrical reading. We are inclined to read things from beginning to end. Some, such as Northrop Frye, have gone so far as to argue that this is precisely how the Bible is meant to be read. This great narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, West calls the “canonical narrative.”

Now the books of the Bible would not be in the Bible if they weren’t being used in worship, so the calendrical narrative plays a huge role in the formation of the Bible. On the flip side of the coin, the Bible takes on a definite narrative shape (influenced in no small part by the Old Testament as adopted by the Church) and becomes the sole source of any new readings in the calendrical narrative. The two readings, calendrical and canonical, are probably best treated as inseparable.

The Revised Common Lectionary has attempted to balance the inseparable, and those of us using it are now living into that balance.

We’ve entered that “Season after Pentecost,” where the Sundays are numbered and the altar remains draped in green until Thanksgiving. If you use the Revised Common Lectionary, you notice that the first readings start to run in narrative sequence. (If you’re Lutheran, like I am, you may not see this, but a close look at your calendar or in the front of your hymnal reveals that you’ve suddenly been given more text options.) We are at the point in the year when the Lectionary changes the way in which it remembers Jesus. We start remembering Jesus along the lines of the Bible, rather than through the Sundays of the Church Year.

The First Readings no longer relate directly to the Gospel. There’s no longer a theme for the Sunday. Rather, we get the key points of major narratives. This summer (Year B), we will get major portions of the story of Saul and David. We’ll continue having multiple readings (that’s another story for another blog entry), and they’ll move in sequence, too. We pick up Mark at chapter three and just keep going. It is the lectionary’s way of remembering God’s work the way the Bible does (creation, fall, redemption), after having spent the first half of the year remembering God’s work wholly centered on the resurrection (each Sunday God triumphs again).

We Lutherans screw with this, a little. Despite the largely Lutheran movement to embrace the Narrative Lectionary, it was the Lutherans (trying to please the Roman Catholics) who insisted on being given the option to keep reading the Old Testament as related thematically to the Gospel. Therefore, Lutheran hymnals will list options as “complementary” or “semi-continuous,” in which the former picks OT readings as being of a similar “type” as the Gospel, while the latter just picks up the story and starts going.

It is important that we recognize these two scriptural narratives and allow them to speak. A church that embraces solely the canon risks not seeing Christ rising from the dead and bursting out of the pages of the book. A church that ties itself completely to triumph each Sunday risks not acknowledging the fall and redemption that make up so much of life.

This is (one of the reasons) why I don’t use the Narrative Lectionary. (Those who know me or follow this blog with any consistency know that I hate the Narrative Lectionary, yes, hate it with a perfect hatred.) While the Narrative Lectionary focuses readings on texts read in narrative sequence, it fails to acknowledge the celebration of resurrection that comes with each Sunday, or to celebrate the major doctrinal points that come with each Sunday. In other words, it only has half of the memory of the Church! We need both calendrical and canonical if we want to call ourselves Christian.

The Church Year now enters a time of lifting up the canon, and reading the stories continuously. We can lose ourselves in David’s amazing rise to power and failure to exercise it appropriately, and immerse ourselves in Mark’s carefully crafted story. We’ll be back to thematic readings just in time for Christmas, but for now the canon has the lead.

Happy Un-Birthday to the Church, or, Pentecost is a Welcome to Uncertainty

It is almost Pentecost. Some of you will hear this Sunday that it is the Church’s birthday. Some of you may even say that as an announcement or part of the sermon. Now, this is not necessarily a cancerous evil that must be eradicated; it is, however, not exactly accurate, nor is it in keeping with the spirit of the festival as it has been given to us. (You caught the pun in there, yes?)

Pentecost was and still is a Hebrew festival (the Festival of Weeks), fifty days after Passover. The name “pentecost” comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth,” and is used in Greek versions of the Hebrew scriptures. It is mentioned twice in the New Testament. Paul tells the Church in Corinth that he is staying in Ephesus until Pentecost (1 Co 16:8), and Luke tells us that a terrible noise led to tongues of fire led to speaking every language on Earth (Acts 2) on the Pentecost following Christ’s ascension.

In Acts, this Sunday serves as the introduction of the book’s chief character. Jesus was the protagonist in the Gospel According to Luke; the Holy Spirit is the protagonist in the Acts of the Apostles.

Outside of Acts, there is no indication that Pentecost mattered much to anyone except as a Jewish holiday until the late second century. While worship practice differed from place to place, there slowly arose a tradition of marking the entire fifty days from Easter to Pentecost as a festive season, and Pentecost itself as a big deal. The first indications of this arise only about 150 years after the events depicted in Acts 2. That doesn’t mean people weren’t celebrating this way, but it does mean they didn’t think it was important enough to mention it.

Every day from Easter to Pentecost was treated as a Sunday: celebrate Christ’s resurrection, don’t kneel to pray, & don’t fast. Even this did not hold true everywhere. Some Christians were eager to get back to fasting as soon as Ascension or even before. But the idea was finally out there, and eventually it became the norm.

You’ll have noted that there is zero indication that anyone was baking a cake, lighting candles, and singing, “Happy Birthday, Dear Church!” This is true not only in the early church but even in the “official” theology prior to major liturgical reform. Check out the hymnals of the mid 20th Century, before Vatican II and its protestant counterparts, and you’ll note thanksgivings for the Spirit and requests that God continue to inspire. That’s the focus.

On Pentecost, whether we’re talking the introduction of the protagonist in Acts 2 or the Sunday in the Church’s worship, we’re talking about the Spirit. The thing about the Spirit, perhaps even more so than either of the other trinitarian persons, is that she is incredibly hard to describe, pin down, or make do what we want.

God the Father is of course invisible and unknowable (right? you do know that, right?) but that allows us to cordon him off in heaven, which we still think of as the sky even though we know he’s not literally in the sky (right?). The distance which the Father maintains at least in part as a way of keeping us from thinking we know God’s mind is easily transformed into distance God cannot traverse.

God the Son is describable. This is great! We can put him in whatever poses we want. He can be our color and have our values and hate who we hate. Or he can just be a really nice, sweet guy.

God the Spirit is invisible but really loud, according to Acts 2. She sounds like wind, but makes tongues of fire appear, and then screws with everyone’s language skills. And that’s just how she makes her entrance. In the Church’s memory (embodied in our prayers on Pentecost), the Spirit moves and by her movement creation has life. She’s like the breath of life in all things. Again, invisible, and again indispensable and close at hand.

When we turn Pentecost into a birthday party for the Church, we ignore the Spirit’s constant disturbing presence. We tame her into something that can be remembered and celebrated and then set aside until next year. But Pentecost is something we live and do. We let the Spirit blow, and she sends us to weird places and makes us do things we didn’t think we could (and maybe didn’t want to do).

So, if you just have to have a birthday party for the Church (you know, someone really important in the congregation [everyone is important but you know what I mean] started this tradition eons ago and if it is canceled everyone will be so pissed off that it is canceled that you’ll never be able to do ministry again) this is likely not the time to call it off. However, your work is cut out for you to get folks to live the uncertainty. Heck, it’s cut out for you even if you’ve got the idea of Pentecost down pat. The Spirit does what she wants.

I’m Tired and Not Paying Attention. Did Jesus Show Up?

I guarantee you God shows up.

I say this to people about worship, usually to people who are about to assist with worship leadership, often for the first time or in a situation in which something has gone wrong. “I guarantee God shows up and it has nothing to do with how well we did this.”

I also tell people, though usually after they’ve calmed down, “It matters that we take this seriously.”

It may seem that the two statements are contradictory. Indeed, many worshiping communities identify as “laid back” (meh, whatever happens, happens) or “formal” (the book describes in easy-to-understand detail what we’re doing and you can and should execute the plan as it is described). This further feeds the notion that we can say either “God shows up no matter what,” or, “It matters that we take this seriously,” but not both.

Perhaps the story of my last couple of weeks can help illuminate this.

I have not felt much like blogging. I turned on the news at my parents house while vacationing on April 27 and saw images of Baltimore being looted and burned. I knew that it was bad, and I also knew people on the ground who could describe precisely what had happened in terms that no one on the news seemed interested in using. I knew that when I got back from my short two days off I was going to have a short week in which to compose a sermon that responded to Baltimore. I had to talk about the systemic issues, and not just the images on CNN. I had to join my brothers and sisters in the faith who were demanding justice and managed to do so without looting. And somewhere in there I had to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ.

I pretty much preached myself out that Sunday.

I was running on empty, getting sermon responses (which ranged widely), and trying to think about the coming Sunday when I learned of the death of a friend and colleague in ministry. That pretty much did it for my sense of loving my vocation last week. I didn’t work any less hard on the sermon, or skimp on any other tasks that I had lined up, but when Sunday rolled around I basically was ready to preach and glad that the rest of the liturgy is spelled out word for word in a big book on the Table, because I had no time to think about what was going to happen, and wasn’t prepared to lead in any sort of big way.

Then. Oh! Then while I am praying the Eucharistic Prayer, I pick up the bread as I do when saying “This is my body,” and there is a piece of clear tape on the loaf. I mean, some tape (I have no idea whose, because there’s none in our church kitchen where the bread is stored) got rolled up—sticky-side-out—and attached to the loaf of bread that I am declaring is the body of the one who gives himself away for the world. I’m empty, disengaged, and trying to get this thing off of the bread and see if the bread can be served (without letting anyone know that is what I am doing.)

I was basically in dire personal need of the boundless grace and love of Jesus Christ, because I was not doing a very good job of communicating said boundless grace and love through my leadership. I was going to have to trust that God shows up, even when the pastor is fried and the meal is a mess.

What I was not going to have to do was accept that this was an ideal situation!

The Church has long held a couple of theological truths, which apply here. One, debated in the Reformations but ancient in its origins, is that God does not simply show up because we do things by the book. The Words of Institution aren’t a magic formula that conjures Jesus whenever they are spoken in the proper context. This is bad news for anyone who wants to claim that the most important thing is doing worship by the book. It is good news for anyone who flubs their lines. Applied to my example above, I cannot simply trust that because I said all the words on my page Jesus arrived, but I also need not fear that since things went awry Jesus decided to skip my little corner of the vineyard. Jesus’ arrival is up to Jesus.

The other truth, related but arising in a different context, says that the presence of Jesus and the efficacy of the worship ritual have nothing to do with the righteousness of the people presiding at the ritual. This doctrine arose in response to church leaders who left the church during persecution, as some, who had remained despite the difficulty, wanted those who had fled and even their students and parishioners to be declared outsiders. The Church eventually wound up saying that Jesus was in charge and could work through anyone. My Sunday week before last was hardly a case of backsliding in the face of persecution, but if the sacraments depended upon my faithfulness and conviction that God was present, well, my parishioners would be in serious trouble: I was exhausted and thinking about how the hell is there #*$^&(* tape on the bread!?!?

What these two theological truths, or doctrines (which have fancy names I won’t bother with right now) do not say, notably, is that, therefore, doing worship well does not matter at all. They have a fellow-doctrine, if you will, expressed in my own Lutheran tradition as the notion that in order that we people may know that God is in fact so grace-filled as to be able to overcome our sinfulness and that God is in fact not bound to the pastor’s magic words but rather shows up because God wants to—in order that we may know that, God instituted the Word and the Sacraments. In other words, it is important that we do this well, take it seriously, make sure it is clear, reverent, communicates God’s grace to those present, embodies God’s generosity in the midst of the assembly, and so on.

When we screw up, it is simply an opportunity to proclaim all the more fervently that God overcomes our failings. I guarantee you that God shows up, and it matters that I do a good job of guaranteeing that–not because God won’t show up if I do poorly, but because God has chosen to use worship and preaching to let us know God is present.

A Moment of Silence, and Other Necessary Interruptions

Dying in Police Custody or in an altercation with Police has become an obsession since Ferguson. Frustration over generations of difficult relations, especially those of blacks, with law enforcement boiled over, and now we cannot seem to get our minds off of the issue. I suppose if we had paid serious attention to it at some point in the last, oh, four centuries, we might not be here, but I cannot do anything about that. The nationwide issue became a local issue for me when Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore brought the protest wagons to town. (Note: the local protests had been going for a while when national actors decided this was the next location for their work. That whole local vs. national thing is another issue, and I am not going into it here.)

Multiple faith traditions in Baltimore “invite the faith community before or after worship services this weekend, as a group, to step outside their buildings and assemble in front of the entrance to their houses of worship as a visible sign of solidarity  with the surrounding community and to observe a minute of silence and reflection.” My own ELCA is one of those participating.

The “minute of silence” or “moment of silence” is a ritual the genesis of which I confess I do not know. It is nice in that it allows the faithful to pray however they want and not have to listen to someone else inflict their prayers upon them, and allows those who have no faith to deal with difficulty without having to explain that with all due respect they don’t really think a dead carpenter has much to do with this. (It also prevents my having to respond that he’s alive, since what we’re trying to do here is honor or remember someone.)

The question always arises when we’re asked to do something like this: “Where should we do it?”

Now, the religious leaders of metropolitan Baltimore handled that one for us, telling us to do this before or after worship. This is welcome, as it eliminates the excuse of “I couldn’t figure out when to do it so we just didn’t.” It is also welcome from the point of view of someone who studies and advocates for Christian ritual, in that it allows for something important to happen without infringing upon something else important. By placing this outside of the regular order but so close to it that everyone is doing it, we place the needs of our world in a powerful tension with the grace of God.

The order of worship matters. Even if your tradition does not identify itself as liturgical, you have a ritual. Try moving the offering collection to a different time, observe the vicious and confused reaction, and accept that you have a liturgy and that the timing of its parts matters. God’s presence is not contingent upon your timing, but often your ability to notice God’s presence is.

The historical pattern of worship, described in Luke 24 and Jesus’ encounter with the disciples, consists of four basic parts. The disciples are gathered, they hear the word proclaimed, they share a meal, and they are sent. This gathering, word, meal, sending order of events is called the ordo, which is just a fancy latin word for order, but in liturgical usage is technical: it refers to this specific order of events. There are sub-units to each of these four parts, and a great deal of room for improvisation and creativity, though most worshiping assemblies settle on a predictable pattern for each part.

For example, in my own congregation we will have confession and forgiveness, sing a gathering song, sing one or two other songs depending on the season, receive a report from the Sunday school children regarding their lesson (which is one of our readings for the day, so no one can complain they didn’t understand it since obviously this five year old did), and then pray the Prayer of the Day for whatever occasion it is. These constitute the “gathering” part of the ordo in my location.

The ordo says much. Most people don’t receive a meal after they have heard a presentation (unless you’re getting a buffet in exchange for a sales pitch on time shares). Most organizations don’t make you listen to four loosely related yet disjointed readings, but rather try to keep things focused on message. Yet in the church we do things like this.

In my own lifetime, probably the biggest change (aside from slowly convincing people to commune every Sunday) was the shuffling of the order of song of the day, creed, and sermon. In the Service Book and Hymnal of 1958 (still regarded in some circles as at least as authoritative as the Bible), after the pastor read the Gospel, the congregation said the Creed, sang the Song of the Day, and then heard the sermon. In the Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978, after the Gospel we all sat down for the sermon, then got up to sing the Song of the Day, and then said the Creed.

If this all sounds pointless to you, you never worshipped in a congregation during the time of transition. The “old” way embodied and enacted an understanding that we had heard multiple scriptures and now could confess our faith, sing a song about it, and then sit down to hear what the pastor had to say. The “new” way tied the proclamation of the pastor much more closely to the texts that had been read. The gospel reading was still reverberating in the space when the preacher opened her mouth to preach. The congregation’s song and eventual confession of faith became responses to the entire act of reading and preaching. The scholars of multiple traditions spent a great deal of time researching and arguing and pondering and praying, and jointly decided that this “new” way was a) probably older, and b) better enacted what we were trying to do (see preaching and scripture as connected).

Of course, then, we interrupt all of this if we baptize someone. In my tradition, the baptism would come after the song of the day, but the creed would be held off until during the baptism. The prayers, which follow the creed normally, have to wait until after the baptizing is all done. We interrupt our regularly scheduled worship for something special.

We get requests to do special things. Some of us get a lot of these. Someone wants to speak to the congregation. Someone wants to share something about their life or their work. Someone wants to visit the congregation and have five minutes to tell everyone what they do. A denomination or local jurisdiction names this Sunday Something-or-other Awareness Sunday. A man dies in police custody under suspicious circumstances and it turns out this sort of thing happens a lot here, and your bishop asks you to acknowledge this and stand in solidarity with the whole community.

Where you decide to put this special piece of the liturgy matters. It communicates something. This Sunday in Baltimore, this special piece of the liturgy stands in powerful tension with God’s overwhelming grace.

Worship, Earth Day, and the Second Axial Age

If I took the “Mona Lisa” off the wall at the Louvre, and said I was going to burn it, chances are someone would say, “Stop!” If someone said, “Let him go ahead; it is more important that we honor DaVinci than honor his paintings,” chances are this would seem at the least a waste of words given the gravity of the situation.

Yet this is often the situation we face in worship when we talk about creation. We worship in a world that is in peril because of a host of complex, systemic issues tied to economy and technology. These issues often fall under a heading something along the lines of Environmental Crisis.

Not everyone agrees that there is such a thing. During the blizzards in Boston in the winter of 2015, FOXNEWS personality Bill O’Reilly sent people onto the Beantown streets to throw snowballs as a means of debunking global climate change. This was not done tongue in cheek, and many agree with the position that there is no evidence tying human beings to climate change.

So we can imagine that should we mention the environment in a church setting that some of our brothers and sisters in Christ believe the preponderance of scientific evidence, and that some reject it, and that some are not sure. And should we say that God wants us to care for creation, we encounter some form of the burning Mona Lisa I cite above: we are told that we should be honoring the creator, not the creation.

I mentioned in a previous blog post (What an Age We Live In!) that our religious practices all derive from a major shift in human consciousness called the “Axial Age.” Humans became more analytical, self-reflective, and concerned with the spiritual journey into the divine. This produced a lot that we would call good, and also produced a severance from nature and community. The great religions of the world come out of this shift.

It is likely that a new shift is on. We are, Catherine Vincie argues, on the verge of a Second Axial Age, in which the shift toward global consciousness will demand a complete change in the way we think. This is, Vincie feels (and I agree), coming along none too soon. We desperately need to figure out how to sustain ourselves ecologically, and how to ensure justice and peace in an era of global awareness and an era with the potential for global violence. (Vincie. Worship and the New Cosmology, 5.) (NB, we’ve had a fair bit of global violence in the past. The severity just keeps increasing, though. I believe it was Einstein who said “I don’t know what weapons we’ll use in World War Three, but in World War Four we’ll use sticks and stones.”)

What Vincie suggests, and what I think is a tantalizing proposal, is grounding the new ecological awareness of the burgeoning Second Axial Age in the worship of the Church. Vincie sketches out some examples of prayers, dialogues, and ritual texts that embody this new awareness of our ecological embedded-ness.

Previous theologians have also suggested, though perhaps not on such a scientific standing as Vincie, that worship use locally obtained or produced elements not just as a way of making worship contextual, but also as a way of tying worship to the location. What do I mean by that? Well, for example, if bread for communion is baked locally, perhaps by members of the congregation who obtain the ingredients locally, then the Meal at worship becomes tied to the local economy in such a way that worshippers really have to struggle to ignore local issues.

If we take that sort of practical advice and tie it to a proposal like Vincie’s, we might get somewhere with worship in a Second Axial Age. Maybe we don’t just use locally harvested honey in our communion bread, but we have worship at the apiary once a year, and we make a big deal of thanking our honey-growers every Easter Vigil (the night that someone stands before the congregation and sings that the bees labored to make wax for our candle to burn so we can mark the resurrection.)

These activities, and others like them, may not settle the dispute over how much of a role human beings play in climate change. (Frankly, the fact that there is a dispute is alarming to those of us who accept scientific methods as valid.) But it may unite a worshipping community in an understanding of just how much the community is tied to its local environment. It may just help us see the false dilemma of choosing between honoring DaVinci OR the Mona Lisa, of honoring creator OR creation. And it may just be where the Spirit is calling the Church to act in the shifting mindset of our times.

Points to Ponder

  1. How far do the ingredients in your communion bread travel before the bread finally gets eaten?
  2. Should worship be a place to honor creation through words or rituals?
  3. Does your congregation do anything for Earth Day? Or maybe celebrate creation in some other way?

Seasons and the Bible

It is a Friday in Easter. How did that happen?

It’s been six weeks since an entry. Illness in the family and obligations in my congregation’s Lenten worship meant something had to fall by the wayside. Just now am I picking this up. That’s one way to answer, “How did that happen?”

But think for a moment about that first line: It is a Friday in Easter. How can one have a Friday that is in Easter?

Many know (or at least will find the statement familiar) that Easter is a season. (It’s not even called Easter outside of the English-speaking world, where we’ve chosen to name it after a pagan goddess of spring, but that’s a whole other question.) We mark fifty days from the Resurrection of Our Lord to Pentecost. This is an ancient practice, but uniformity was not original. It grew up over time. Nonetheless, those who complain that “The Bible” does not call Easter a season are correct. I’m not sure they grasp the point, though.

Scholars have to the best of their ability ascertained that the earliest days of the Church consisted of widely divergent practices. This is neither a pristine, Edenic period before true Christianity was ruined, nor a dark time before unity finally gave us the Church. Rather, it was a time of intense changes.

Consider what we think we know of the average friend of the earthly Jesus. This person lived as a Hebrew. Union with God was accomplished at the Temple through rituals and the slaughter of animals, or through the ritual reading and interpretation of Scripture in a synagogue, or (if they weren’t particularly devout) through one of many “supper clubs” that existed seemingly everywhere in the Roman Empire. (These clubs were pagan, and very popular.)

After the death of Jesus, this person experienced something they called “Resurrection.” In some manner, the description of which is lost to us, they encountered the man who had been murdered by Rome as living and authoritative. Very soon after this initial encounter, the follower began, with her friends, calling Jesus “Lord,” the same title properly given to God. Over decades, this follower and her fellow followers (and their descendants) had to come to terms with whether or not they were still Hebrew, or, if they were gentiles, whether or not they were going to become Hebrew. Meanwhile, for many complex reasons (some of them fairly obvious), the synagogues spent the following decades trying to figure out what to do with these followers. Are they still Hebrews? Or is calling Jesus “Lord” a violation of basic Hebrew rules.

All the while, Rome is oppressing Hebrews and Christians, eventually destroying the Temple (twice, cuz, you know, they’re thorough) and periodically becomes alarmed at how Christians behave.

This is just some of the context in which everything we know as the New Testament comes to be written. Those texts, be they gospels or short letters, both reflect and attempt to shape that context. They tell us a lot about what was going on in the early church, and a lot about what their authors felt should be going on in the early church.

In our postmodern church world, shaped as it is by an approach to the Bible as the final authority on things (and the inevitable backlash as the Bible fails to explain things like spacetime or evolution), we tend to pick the Bible as that which determines what God is doing. What does that mean? Well, for example, we are faced with some Christians who just insist that it is still Easter. In fact, some of us are insisting that it is going to go on for another 37 days. This cannot be correct, we say, because the Bible clearly indicates that Jesus was raised on a Sunday, so that is Easter. Boom. End of conversation.

Now, this is a bit too simple, as anyone who has read the Bible closely (and there are approximately seventeen mainline protestants in the world who have done this) knows that Luke says Jesus was with the disciples for forty days after his resurrection, and then ascended into heaven, and then ten days later Pentecost happened, so there’s some justification for the notion of fifty days as a “thing”. Yet nowhere does Luke say that there were specific Sundays like Good Shepherd Sunday, or that we could observe the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday if no one really wanted to come to worship on Thursday. It certainly does not call it a fifty day season of resurrection.

Note, however, that Luke could be said to reflect something of the early church. His insistence on a forty day period of resurrection appearances may be historical in that it reflects Jesus’ special timeframe of hanging out before going home. It also may reflect something of what early Christians were doing. That is, it may indicate that at least in Luke’s circles, Christians were observing a fifty day period from resurrection to Pentecost.

The point is not that the liturgical year as it currently exists popped into existence in the year 33 CE. Jesus did not come out of the tomb with a list of readings and liturgical colors and hand those to the angel for later distribution. Rather, the point is that during this time of intense change some Christians began carving fifty days out of the year for celebrating. Other Christians began carving out time every Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection. Easter itself became an annual observance. Over time, congregations began seeking unity in core practices. This is the world that produced the document (the Bible) which some of us are so quick to point to as proof that anything the Church does is wrong.

The community continues to reflect and create the faith conversation. My own community marks this whole period from Easter to Pentecost as the Season of Easter. We play the most festive music we have, adorn our worship space with the most festive decorations we have, and focus our conversation on the living Christ and his presence. We could not do that (at least not the way we do) if we did not value the entire tradition, or acknowledge the fact that Scripture was shaped by people trying to understand how the risen Jesus was at work around them. And not only that, but we acknowledge the fact that the same people who shaped Scripture shaped a whole host of beliefs and practices which may be spelled out in The Book, but are nonetheless part of how we got here and enable us to talk about God being present to the extent we can.

Points to Ponder

  1. Have you ever gone back and looked at things you wrote as a younger person, perhaps in a journal or for a school assignment? How are you the same? How have you changed? What about your world at the time shaped what you wrote?
  2. Is there a specific point in time at which all important Church festivals were established and all other subsequent developments can be called superfluous if not dangerous? What is that time? If you don’t know a date, can you at least state what factors into the decision? (E.g. I know we have to have Christmas, so once it is there all the rest is extra.)
  3. Does it matter at all that there is a “Friday before the Third Sunday of Easter.”

How to avoid (becoming) the worship police

Most of us in the church have had a run-in with the worship police. Some call them the liturgy police, others the rubrics police. They are, as Mark Oldenburg writes, “a mean-spirited squad of folks who delight in finding and squashing minor infractions.” (“Liturgical Year,” in Inside Out.) Hang around long enough, you’ll run into them. Hang around long enough, you might become them.

One of the problems facing liturgical studies is that liturgical scholars are often assumed to be the worship police. While I have of course encountered my share of liturgical scholars who are, shall we say, highly confident that their preferred way is correct, the same can be said for any group of Christians. You are just as likely to find a random parishioner convinced that the rite of Confirmation must occur on Pentecost as you are to find a liturgical scholar with the same opinion. Nonetheless, there seems to be an assumption, a predisposition, among churchly folks (and us ordained pastors chief among them) that the scholars are the core if not the majority of the “mean-spirited squad” that Oldenburg describes.

A big part of this predisposition is that we who lead, of course, take the flak. Try instituting a Vigil of Easter in a congregation where the most important part of Easter is that on Sunday morning everyone sees how well the altar guild arranged the flowers, and you will face the combined firepower of the altar guild. That doesn’t mean you give up, but it does sometimes mean you compromise. You pick which things you must do, and which things you’re willing to let go.

The worship police, in this scenario, might take the form of two groups. The first is the hypothetical altar guild, who “know” that Easter is all about their flower-arranging. The second is the “experts” who, apparently, have nothing better to do than come to your congregation and nitpick over the decisions you made. They hear that you won over the crowd by reading the story of Noah at the Vigil, but that for the sake of time you omitted Isaiah 55 (a required reading), and you are now charged with high crimes against the body of Christ.

The second group most certainly does exist. It might consist of laypeople or ordained clergy. But I would wager that roughly the same percentage of “scholars” would join the death squad as would the percentage of “non scholars.” Seriously, when is the last time your worship professor came by your parish and chided you?

In her brilliant little essay, “Put Away Your Sword!”, Anna Carter Florence describes her work as a preaching professor. Students come to her primed for preaching with exegetical methods and systematic theology practically flowing from them, and then, “It is almost as if tiny, invisible preacher people—all those who have shaped their ideas about what a ‘real preacher’ and a ‘real sermon’ are—set up camp right in the forefront of their minds, and start shrieking, ‘Enough playing around! You don’t have time to live in the tension when you have a sermon to write; you have to find out what this passage means!” (In What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? page 94).

I wonder if something similar happens to us when we are tasked with planning and leading worship. Do we, perhaps, design a worship service and then hear the voices of all those we admire, only instead of hearing their wisdom, we put in their mouths our own, private, “You’re doing it wrong!”

I don’t know that I have a solution to this problem. On the one hand, there are some highly-motivated well-meaning people who consider it their mission to enforce their own version of what they remember a beloved professor telling them. On the other hand, we are all unleashed on the world with (allegedly) the basic competency to plan and lead a worship service, and will ourselves occasionally spot things that make us say, “Sorry, not right.”

Perhaps the best approach is to remember the three basic components of liturgical study: history, theology, and ritual.

Generally speaking, if you have strong historical, theological, and ritual (practical) reasons for doing something, the arguments of your opponents are reduced to opinions. Of course, there’s the flip side that if your opponent has strong historical, theological, and ritual reasons behind their position you might have to readdress yours, but this is not about proving yourself right. Right?

In the hypothetical confrontation between pastor and altar guild regarding the Easter Vigil, the decision to go ahead with the Vigil but sell it on the strength of some of the stories could be made simply by a savvy and determined leader. But that will not successfully explain what you’re doing and why, and it does kinda make you a member of the worship police, determined to squash the infraction of decorating the sanctuary before Christ has popped out of the grave.

However, the pastor might ask to hear about the history of flower arranging at the congregation, and attempt to grasp what the theology of the altar guild is, and how the arrangement means a great deal to them as something they all do the Saturday before Easter. Then the pastor might suggest ways to incorporate the ritual decorating of the congregation into the Vigil itself, or to make the Vigil the unveiling of the flowers to those who can come out the night before Easter. This can provide opportunity to talk about how that night before Easter Sunday really is incredibly special, and that the flower-arranging was a way in which the altar guild was participating in the ancient understanding that “this is the night” in which God makes life out of death. The pastor may understand that her congregation grumbles about not hearing the famous stories of scripture like creation, flood, crossing the Red Sea, etc., and can play up the fact that these will be read and acted out.

There’s more to pulling off a Vigil for the first time, of course, and there are countless variables that cannot be expressed here. I am not saying that the above will automatically work for you. But in this case, the leader has successfully eschewed the ranks of the “mean-spirited squad.” And if members of the squad locate her, she has reasons for what she has done.

Points to Ponder:

What’s your favorite part of worship? Do you know the history, theology, and ritual behind it? Really?

Think of a time you’ve had a run-in with the worship police. Did (or could) your grasp of history, theology, and ritual have made a difference in the outcome?

Think of a time you’ve spotted an “infraction.” What did you do? How well did you know your history, theology, and ritual?