Mumblings…


My friend Marc announced on his blog that his church in Maine is retiring VCW version 1.0 in order to dedicate his efforts to design, develop, and implement version 2.0 in the (hopefully) near future. There’s a lot I could talk about with that, since the idea fascinates me, but towards the end of his entry, he admits that he also needs a rest. And Americans don’t like to rest. It’s not something we value; we see it as a waste of potentially productive time. Simply stopping is decried as being lazy, or, if we are feeling more generous, we express our sympathy for someone who’s “burnt out.” Our idea of vacation is to go somewhere different, cram in as much new stuff to do while we’re there, and then come back to do our normal routine.

Maybe it’s just me, but can’t relate to this. I never have. The modern American “vacation” does nothing for me, and so I try to resist. But some people can’t enjoy their vacation unless they load the calendar with activities (and, I might add, spend more money in a week than they might normally spend in a month or two). My idea of rest is quiet and stillness, to walk the Garden with God in the cool of the day during the evening breezes. My idea of vacation is this exact same thing, only for a more extended period of time than what I can manage normally.

We annually make the trip from CNY to NH to go “home.” In Christian spirituality, “home” is often a metaphor for “place of rest.” In our society, though, it is anything but; some “vacation” at home in order to get more done; others use their “vacation” to work on/around the house for their entire vacation period. When I go to NH, I want to rest, even as I know that I must continue to work in other ways. I do not desire to have my calendar filled up with either my own work or with dozens of activities and excursions that we are not normally able to do. During my rest periods of the day, and on my weekly Shabbat, I desire to sit, perhaps read something light and unrelated to my work, or fish, or walk in my woods. Not everybody understands this or, if they do, they reject it in good American fashion. When I’m “caught” just sitting and enjoying the breeze over the water, I am likely to over hear “go ask your father, he’s not doing anything right now.” I am likely to be accosted with a request for a project that, since I’m not doing anything, I’m able to give a hand to (or be told to do outright by myself). Ironically, in order to rest from my labors, of which there are many, I have to pretend to work, to look like I’m working.

Shabbat is good for the soul. It is good for the mind, and it is good also for the body. It is a lost art. We drive ourselves, our workers, and our students very hard in our society. I wonder how much our work, and the work of our students etc., would improve by allowing them rest, and I wonder what it would take to cultivate a climate that values rest as much as it values productivity.

Jon LesterI am a sports fan. Not simply a fan of my hometown Boston teams, which I am, but of the sports that these teams play. I love the games of baseball and football, and I’ve watched my fair share of the Celtics and Bruins in basketball and hockey while I was growing up. Sport inspires me, and occasionally you hear great stories of athletes who overcome incredible odds to do something they love. One of the most powerful moments for me last baseball season, for example, was the return of Jon Lester to the mound after beating cancer (at least for the time being). I remember Mario Lemieux’s triumphant return to the ice after his own battle with cancer. Josh Hamilton’s story is one of an all-world talent, drafted out of high school, who was led to the depths of potential suicide, only to make his major league debut on the baseball diamond for the Cincinnati Reds last season after battling demons of drugs and depression. This past football season, I watched on TV as Kevin Everett nearly lost his life on the football field and who was supposedly not ever going to be able to walk again, let alone play football. And it was only a few months later, in the same season, that Everett was able to walk onto the field at Giants Stadium, inspiring the Bills, the Gians, and football fans nationwide.

I am not alone here, of course. Millions of sports fans worldwide likely feel the same way. But here in America, our passion for sport has created a monster of idolatrous proportions. Here, right in our midst, is our very own golden statue, one that Nebuchadnezzar himself would have been proud of. And the ramifications of that statue’s presence is on full display today on Capitol Hill. One of my childhood idols, Roger Clemens, will almost certainly face perjury charges for lying under oath in a Congressional hearing over his reported use of performance enhancing drugs. Not far from this, Sen. Arlen Specter is grilling the commissioner of the National Football League over its handling of the now-notorious “Spygate” incident that involves my hometown New England Patriots. All this while the same government is passing new surveillance laws, is unable to do anything about healthcare, and is unable or unwilling to stand up against the Iraq war. But against cheating in professional sports? Call in the bastards! This is America! There’s no cheating or blackmarking our great pasttimes! They’re not going to get away with this!

The golden statue of American Sport is casting a very, very long shadow. For years, I have looked forward to spring training. It is a sign of hope, of forgiveness of the past, of looking to the future. But I’m finding it awfully hard to embrace the upcoming season. I wish that Roger Clemens would have just come clean, as so many other athletes are doing when caught using PEDs. His career would still be over. His reputation would still have taken a massive hit. Now, however, Clemens is adding his own shadow to that of the Golden Statue. Between the two of them, its getting hard to see the light from a game that many of us have loved our whole lives. A GAME.

Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that he thinks this is bigger than Watergate, of Oliver North, even of McCarthy hearings. Over GAMES.

The darkest shadow of all is that he may very well be right.

crows.jpgCity living doesn’t often provide the opportunity to sit in quiet and try to hear the sounds of nature in the stillness. This morning afforded me the rare opportunity, though. After getting ready for my day, I was able to sit in silence and enjoy some lectio before heading to the university to teach.

I read a short passage from the Psalter (Ps. 137). It’s an exilic Psalm, written by someone despairing of being away from home in a strange land, someone who wondered how to make the best of their new environment. I kept returning, over and over, to the first four verses:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I have been thinking lately of New Hampshire, reflecting on the White Mountains, the former years of deep snows, the seacoast, the lake behind my house, the woodlot and swamp on the other side, and have been hearing songbirds perched in the giant white pines. This time of year the lake will, of course, be frozen over, and fathers will be taking their sons out to the ice to build a little campfire and try to reel up some perch, bass, bluegill, and crappies. I wish I could be out in my woods, trudging along the paths in the snow with my snowshoes, rather than holed up in a tiny apartment in the city, with nothing but the sounds of trucks, jet planes, snowplows, and arguments.

After I closed my text, I sat back in my chair, and suddenly noticed the silence. There were no trucks, no planes, no human voices, music. But it wasn’t silence. Instead, I heard what I have not noticed in my three years here. Outside my window, the clear call of a half-dozen black crows mingled with the chirping of house finches and sparrows.

I do not know where the crows live, but they are an ubiquitous presence here, often doing a better job of keeping our street clean than than property management or city workers. I do know where the sparrows and finches live, though; they live in the bushes surrounding my building and in the attic.

While I was sitting, enjoying the caw! caw! caw! of the crows and the unmistakable chirping and peeping of the smaller birds, I felt as if they were answering the question posed by the Psalmist. My feathered friends were singing the Lord’s song in an alien place. Crows and birds are not native to city apartment buildings. But they have learned to call this place their home, much better than I am these days. And so the two of us live in exile, one longing to return home, the other building sukkot, knowing that however long they stay here, they will be provided for and carry out their existence in the best way they can, in this place.

Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.

and:

I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

Grinch in the Aedificium!I’m home from church, listening to a random selection of some of my Christmas music and thinking about various aspects of Christmas and Advent, Church, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, and so on. Coffee with cinnamon with a nip of butterscotch schnapps.

Random thought #1. Second week of Advent lights a candle representing Hope. Like last week, the question has to be “What are we hoping for?” Can it be the same thing as waiting? Is it the same thing as expecting? I’m hoping that the Church may experience the Gospel anew. But do I expect it? Not especially. I expect more of the same, but I certainly am not hoping for it. Hope is the audacity to dream of and perhaps even prophesy the unexpected, the utterly new, the totally absurd. Hope is holding a newborn in your hands today and just dreaming the dream that the child lives and that you can leave him or her a world that is a little more like the Kingdom of God than it was when you found it.

Random thought #2. One can’t be faulted for thinking from time to time that graduate education is a Faustian bargain that may very well cost you your religious soul.

Random thought #3. Christmas is easily the most icon-saturated period of time in the entire year. There are more festivals and rituals that go with this season in America than any other American holiday. Most of these do not occur in the churches, but on civic spaces like malls, buildings, family dining rooms, state houses, and public squares and parks.

Random thought #4. What does transpire in the specific sphere of religion is always the happy, feel-good story of the Christ-child’s Nativity. The story itself, should we actually care to look at it carefully, is anything but. Indeed, the birth of the Savior is something worth celebrating and should be celebrated with joy and revelry, as the Romans celebrated the birthday of their own savior Caesar. But the story cannot lose any more context for its meaning than it already has. The Christ was born under empire, and the Gospels describe the Nativity in counter-imperial terms. His birth challenged the Empire of the World; considering America’s position as a 21st century Rome, we need to hear this story challenge us and unsettle us, lest a new Caesar or Herod order another massacre of innocents. Again. And again.

Random thought #5. Many of us know that the songs, images, icons, and general “folkloric” celebrations of Christmas have little or nothing to do with Christianity and the churches over the last 1800 years or so. We also know that much of our Christmas symbolism are “baptized” forms of ancient European and Mediterranean popular culture, and for this reason many Christians of more fundamentalist stripes, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and independent fundamentalist baptists, refuse to observe the holiday because it’s a pagan and Catholic thing, not a Biblical one. There’s a long history of this in the US, particularly from the Colonial Era and into the nineteenth century. But there have always been those who, even while recognizing the ancient pagan provenance of so much Christmas practice and symbolism, have baptized and re-christened the symbols into all Christian icons. Example: the candy cane, simply a confectionary convenience in shape, became a shepherd’s crook. Holly and Ivy became Christ’s crown of thorns and his drops of blood. Four calling birds and the other twelve days of Christmas became the four Gospels. And so on.

All well and good. But there comes a point where it’s too easy to re-christen anything and everything, and what bugs me about this is that the same principles are used to justify the all-pervasive practices of consumption that the Christmas season celebrates and perpetuates. It just galls me that many Christians, individual and collective, try to harmonize a system like this of gross capitalist injustice and advocacy of empire with a faith whose scriptures, which we supposedly consider to be fundamental to our identity, condemns this very thing. Ugh.

Random thought #6. It’s not healthy to watch the Grinch, Charlie Brown, any version of Dickens’ ChristmasI killed it…Oh, everything I touched gets ruined! Carol, and the New Line Nativity Film all in the same week. It’s even worse if you read them in connection with the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. Result: blogs like this.

Waiting for GodotThis week’s message was a bit related to my own from a couple weeks ago, specifically the idea of Advent being a season of waiting in hope and expectation for “something.” My point (here) was precisely that Advent was the season of waiting and hoping and yearning for something new, but that we are too damn blind, stuck and stupid to really recognize anything new, because “everything” is new every year. Reverend Doctor left us with a challenge to think of something we are waiting for this Advent.

But as my five year old son asked (turning to his mom during the message, in fact!), “What are we supposed to be waiting for?” Indeed! and even better: “waiting is BORING. I don’t wanna wait and especially for something I don’t even know what I’m waiting for.”

Holy smokes, we have a critic in the making. Talk about the faith of a child. My kid’s question and complaint was more prescient than the message itself. Leave it to a 5 year old to liken Advent to Waiting for Godot.

But the kid’s right. That was the impact. In taking up Reverend Doctor’s challenge, you’ve got to ask this question and address the inevitable boredom if you do, in fact, decide to wait around for Godot. Because other than the usual suggestions (at least in liberal protestant sermo-theology) of justice, peace, civil rights in various formats, economic equality, healthcare, and unstated other possibilities (next paycheck, serenity at home, a sex life, overcoming addiction, etc) there wasn’t much of an answer. Is Advent about the possibility of all these? Well, sure. And I’ll be the first to say that these are all vital, essential, biblical, Christian ethical values we should indeed hope for in expectation. But is this any different than the rest of the year? No, and my kid knows it. Advent shouldn’t be just another opportunity to preach the same-old-same-old. This is exactly why we can’t see newness, and power, anymore; liberal churches continue with the program of justice, while conservative churches continue to drill home the narrative of Christ’s coming, his being born-to-die at the expense of really looking at the implications of this for social, prophetic justice. The former leaves out the narrative; the latter leaves out the prophetic (and I’m not referring to the apologetic “prophetic foretellings” of conservative and evangelical churches).

So what am I waiting for here? How about hearing from our pulpits a message that fuses the two? A prophetic message of justice that includes the narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2? We liberal church people can’t assume that our fellow parishioners are biblically literate enough to simply assume the prophetic and Gospel material is common and assumed knowledge part of our social mnemonic makeup. We’re generally not. That much is clear. We evangelicals can’t assume that we have any clue on what is really going on in the prophets when we read them for Advent. Thirty something years of being brought-up-born-again has revealed that to me as well.

This Advent, I’m waiting for something new. My prayer is that when it shows up, it’ll be like porn; I’ll know it when I see it. This Advent, I’m waiting for nothing less than something as radical and ridiculous as the idea of an unwed pregnant teenage mother bearing a baby at once human and divine who would scatter the proud-hearted, forgive sin, give light to us who sit in darkness, and speak through the mouths of the prophets of old. There is a waiting for this newness, but this waiting is a vigil, and it requires alertness, awareness, sensitivity, and vigilance. It’s not a passive waiting. It’s a waiting that involves getting off our ecclesiological asses and being vigilant in the dark. It’s nothing less than being vigilant for the Kingdom, a Kingdom here and now, always and already and to come. That’s what I’m waiting for. Not the usual; waiting for the usual is, as my son says, boring. If he knew the expression, he’d be dead on if he said “boring as hell.”

Exactly. Come, Lord. And FTLOG, bring Godot with you.

In light of the discussion going on in an earlier post (Oct. 31), I give you a piece from the NYT directly relevant to the relationship between sense, material, and, ahem, spirit.

Bourbon & Bluegrass 

04bour6001.jpg

And remember that the sainted inventor of Kentucky’s bluegrass nectar was none other than Elijah Craig, ordained as a Baptist minister in 1771, pastor of Blue Run Church, Kentucky, and was arrested for peace-disturbing sermons. You can pay him homage here.

Ah, life in the spirit, materiality- and sensory- style.

Next Page »