Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Lenten Choices: Personal and Corporate - Part 2

From last week: "Deep needs wide. High needs long. Personal needs corporate.  Remembering that God says more than anything "Do not be afraid" we can trust the interplay between personal and corporate.   Trust matters.  Jesus will show us how."

The interplay of personal and corporate is one of embodiment.  And when we are thinking about Jesus in his last days this embodiment is dramatic and meaningful.  It speaks of a reality that connects us to God.  As a drama it plays out with others, with the powerful, with pretenders, with onlookers, enemies and pawns.  

Because the drama is meaningful it is played out purposefully.  It witnesses to truths about us and truths about God.  Like the Fourth Gospel the miraculous acts of Jesus are called signs because they are witnessing to more than changing water into wine so a party can continue, more than the new view of life had by a man born blind being healed, and more than a multitude of people getting a good meal from a meager collection of fish and bread.

Always accompanying these signs is a conversation about listening and hearing, about blindness and seeing, about physical hunger and spiritual food.      

That's why trust matters.  When we follow a drama to a painful ending or when we are made aware of meanings that we have previously not known there is a displacement.  It starts as surprise or curiosity.  Sometimes it feels like the ground is shifting under our feet, like none of the rules we learned will work, or like our friends are abandoning us. 

No wonder God keeps saying "do not be afraid."  This embodied and meaningful drama is not just about a Jesus of Nazareth disappointing expectations and confronting the powers of first century Roman occupied Jerusalem.  It is about us, too.  It is personal.

Remember the other word for embodiment is incarnation.  For us that means that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a cross is also a moment in the drama with meaning.  When he says "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." he is speaking as one of us. He is showing the world how to die and in so doing creating meaning that informs our dying nearly 2000 years later.  It is about us, too.  It is corporate.  

Our lives can't be lived otherwise any more.  Our lenten choices aren't either/or choices.  They are both/and choices.  The drama is now our drama, both personal and corporate; the meanings are now for us to know, both deep and wide; the story for us to tell now and forever.  Fear not.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Lenten Choices: Personal and Corporate - Part 1

Like the previous Lenten Choices an either/or approach will miss too much. That is to say each pair attempts a comprehensiveness of expression and doesn't finally beg us to choose between the two.  A practice of faith that chooses wide over deep ends up shallow or if deep over wide and you have a life of faith that is dark and private. 

The same should be said about today's pair.  At it's best that is exactly what the church is: individually -- read "personal" -- we grow as we share and interact with the others of the group -- read "corporate."  Neither is enough by itself.  Without the leveling and context framing of a shared faith our personal pursuits risk sinking into idiosyncrasy. 

Robert Bellah outlines this trap in his study of Sheila in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) Her practice is to avoid fanaticism and "in defining what she calls 'my own Sheilaism,' she said: 'It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.'"

None of this is wrong but she is missing any partnering with others.  For her there is no tradition, no leadership, no community, nothing to say to her "stop" or "go" or "help" or "listen" other than her own thoughts.  She is all on her own.

It also will not work for any individual to allow the church do all the work for them either.  Blind allegiance to the body (latin - corpus) can not hope for the development of persons. There really is no other way. 

Without the body/corpus there is no like minded "other."  Something else is missing when Sheila is all alone and when the corpus requires total abeyance; it is the moral standard that helps us to know what sin is.  By herself Sheila cannot presume that authority, besides she's afraid of being branded a fanatic.  Without an interest in the autonomy of persons the corporate definition of sin fails and is based on utility or how one serves only the whole -- think Star Trek's BORG.

Again these are worst case scenarios but they demonstrate the necessity of interplay between the personal and the corporate. Deep needs wide. High needs long. Personal needs Corporate.  Remembering that God says more than anything "Do not be afraid" we can trust the interplay between personal and corporate.   Trust matters.  Jesus will show us how.  More next week.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Lenten Choices: High and Long - Part 2

The logic of the seasons starts with Easter.  Without that part of the story our seasonal tradition has no base, no anchor, no movement and no calendar.  All our seasonal traditions hang on Easter and serve our telling especially that part but throughout each season eventually all of the story. 

Year after year we work our way through the story and our traditions help us do that.  Our traditions sustain us and are how we "go long."  The high part is the story itself.  The gospel John tells it best: "In the beginning was the Word. . . " It is "high" because it comes from God.

Those first century Jews-become-Christian congregations understood Easter, with Jesus and his reconfigured messiahship -- accomplished by his death and resurrection -- as the centerpiece of the new story, the good news.  As they expanded the story both backwards by remembering the signs of healing, calming storms, feeding the multitudes and forward through Emmaus, the Galilean shore, the Mount of Olives a consensus emerged. 

With this expanded story new ways of prolonging community life around it emerged as well.  Baptism became the tradition of new inclusion, gifts of the spirit empowered community ministries of all sorts and the laying on of hands marked members for leadership and missions.

The core story never lost its height, as demonstrated by the language of the fourth gospel and the magnitude of the last of the Christian canon's works, the Revelation to John.  One of the measures used by those early congregations to determine whether a text could be included along with the core story was how it repeated or expanded on that loftiness of God's reconciling the world to God's self through the person and work of Jesus who died and was raised.  To conflict with or avoid that claim almost insured exclusion from the emerging canon of scripture. 

High and long are still working principles in the church.  We still listen for God's voice especially in that core story and understand the seasons encircling Easter as informed and measured by it.  And year after year we repeat the traditions to point us toward Easter and to help us to continue, now reborn by it. 

Really, high and long aren't separate choices.  We must let them collaborate and promote each other and call us forward.  As a lenten activity it is only the choice or not to practice a mindfulness of the reconciling God revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth and to be equally mindful that we are tradition-bearers for those who come long after us so that they too may hear God's high calling.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Lenten Choice: High and Long - Part 1

All of the seasons of the church have largely two sources of input in how they are shaped and expressed. There are those things that have come primarily from the story of the 1st century life, death and resurrection of one Jesus of Nazareth, son of a man named Joseph and a mother named Mary. To get to and from that core story we rely on older and newer uses of history and tradition that have been practiced before and after the story of Jesus was being lived by its characters.

The newer components emerge in the history and traditions of every other human who has so chosen to respond to that story and its history. Because there are humans, who live and die, involved with the refinement and sharing of that history and story the accompanying tradition has diversified and drifted apart.  Now it's traditions.  The western parlance is denominations.

Our traditions have produced a liturgy of liturgies.  In order to best tell the story as gospel for others and ourselves over time we have developed a liturgy of each year and with seasons made sure to repeat all the sources of the story.

Easter season is that time of the liturgical year when we are consumed by the best part of the story.  "Alleluia, Christ is risen!" begins and ends our worship on every Sunday in that season and we nearly bathe in the parts of the story that remember that marvel and mystery of Jesus being raised from the dead. The traditions that accompany the telling of that part of the story include how the church is dressed, our posture in worship, the words of our worship and on and on.

Every season gets to take its turn with its own dressing, postures and words that help expose their parts of the story we need to rehearse so that we are best prepared for Easter.  For example, in the season of Lent our practice is more about preparation than any other theme.  We read those parts of the story that have to do with how Jesus prepared for his death and resurrection.  And our traditions help us to prepare, as well.

The logic of the seasons starts with Easter.  Without that part of the story our seasonal traditions have no base, no anchor, no movement and no calendar.  All our seasonal traditions hang on Easter and serve our telling that part of the story with how they expose the story in their turns.

Year after year we work our way through the story and our liturgy helps us do that.  That's the long part.  The high part is the story itself.  The gospel John tells it best: In the beginning was the Word. . .

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Lenten Choices: Deep and Wide

I'm referring to the song I learned in Sunday School back in the 1960s in Anderson, SC.  God's love is big, I can swim in it!   I never once considered that that depth and width was meant for anything other than my pleasure, my immersion.  That is to say that the piety I was taught was built on personal salvation, on becoming singularly sufficient either by conversion or submission, me and Jesus.

It took teen-aged frustration and well-worn parents to find any purchase, any traction in a world that understood justice as salvation, that understood God's love as for saving the world and not just building an army of Baptists.

When I last sang this refrain it was not about me as the one bathing in God's fountain but me as one of many striving for peace and prosperity among all people.  It was in the 1980s in an inter-denominational and racially mixed meeting gathered to pray and imagine how best to support the work of a homeless shelter.

This was yet another chapter in my life of learning and unlearning, of framing and changing frames, of doubt and repentance.  But consider that even without competitive Southern Baptist upbringings or bleeding heart liberalism we can each remember envisioning a world smaller than the one we now understand as seen and loved by God.

Each one of us can grow, each one of us has grown, each one of us has a way of understanding that is larger than the one we had before.  Some of that comes by repentance, some of that is natural human development and personal individuation, some of it is only by way of a deep spiritual maturity.

This song has meant so many things to me and now it means the possibility for spiritual depth that comes from God but only continues when there is an accompanying redistribution of that love. 
It's deep AND wide, not the either/or of my earlier understanding.  It's not just my salvation and it doesn't forget that I need saving, too.  It's not just feeding the hungry and it doesn't ignore my own deficiencies and weakness.

The fountain of God's saving love is for me because it is for everyone.  The fountain of God's love is deep because of who God is.  It can be deep in each one of us because God's love goes that deep.  The fountain of God's saving love is wide because of who we are.  It can be wide because every human, even the ones with more to learn, has some of that love to share.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Lenten Choices: Law and Grace

One of the themes behind our modern practice of Lent is "being tested."  Loosely imitating the story of Jesus being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit we use the 40 days to fast from excess and pray more steadily, more deeply.

In effect we test ourselves, our resolve, our appetites, our capacities and more.  We begin with great and in most cases reasonable hope that on the other end something will be proven more trustworthy more reliable, more fit for demands of our lives during and after Easter.

Though it is God who saves us and we are totally dependent on God's mercy to do that still we strive to get better as creatures, as incarnations of love and faithfulness.  I like to use the phrase "to make God's job a little easier."

Most of our Lenten disciplines are heavy on the law side of the religious equation.  Measuring pounds lost is "of the law."  Keeping track of calendar moments like my daily environmental reminders or extra classes like Mudhouse Sabbath, or devotional/worship sessions like Stations of the Cross require a law-like measurement and attendance.

Fear not.  This version of the "law" has little punitive authority or power, mostly because it is of each individual's designing.  But the principles that direct our practice are like rules and standards.

Sometimes the testing of our own design is too much or it fails to move us forward. Even by our own self assessment and before Lent moves into Holy Week we have abandoned our fast or study.

Thanks be to God the measure applied from the one who watches over us is grace.  God's grace is always next whether we attend every session, say every prayer, or avoid every temptation.  God's grace is always next.

Perhaps we could acknowledge those instances when our own disciplines expose a truth to us well before the 40 days are past.  All that takes is for us to consider that these tests of our design just may be able however unintended to show us more of who we are, more of how we are God's, more of how the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is God's greatest grace to us.

No matter the test, God's grace is always next.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Lenten Choices: Balance and Capacity

It seems like every year I'm adding something to my spiritual practice during Lent.  As a parish priest I've always been interested in using this season to provide options for the spiritual practices of my parishioners.  In most cases the hope is not only that "those things may please him which we do,"(Ash Wednesday, BCP 269) but that a forty day rehearsal of them will "stick."

We continued our practice of Night Prayers for more than two years after introducing them in Lent of 2015.  Morning Prayer, Rite 1 on Wednesdays continued after it's introduction during Lent a couple of years ago. Theolatté started during Lent.

There are other ways to categorize the practices of Lent because some of them aren't meant to "stick" such that they become permanent or dominant features.  We fast during Lent; some do on Fridays until sunset, others on Sunday mornings until they have received communion.  But we do not intend for fasting to replace eating as the norm.

Fasting only works the way it does because eating is the norm.  Fasting works because of how it contrasts with the established standard of -- even well moderated -- consumption.

To continue a practice of fasting after Lent is finished requires continuing the contrast as well.  The intent is balance and not wholesale change from one practice to another, from eating to not eating.

Regardless our Lenten practices can be meant to and in most cases should continue; saying our Morning Prayers every Wednesday now year after year or introducing and nurturing balance in our consumption is as worthy after Lent as during.

Our practices call on us to be aware of our capacities and our energies. This concern for our capacity along with the value of balance moderates that stereotypical approach to Lent that imagines great changes -- never say "never?" -- in one's behavior or life-style. 

Instead we are encouraged by the hope for balance and by a recognition of our capacities -- call it "knowing our limits" -- to use Lent for rehearsals, for practice and for growth. That way we can finish our 40 days changed and able to continue changing.