Monday, October 30, 2006

Living in Two Different Worlds

Our weekend in Madison, Wisconsin, reminded me of just how different the world is that I'm inhabiting here at St. John's this fall. Not only was the world of commerce in full force, but something called "Freakfest" was the drawing card for some additional half-million folks to downtown Madison Saturday night. The first few guys I saw on the street corner I thought were throwbacks to the sixties--complete with their full afros. But it turns out that they were only wearing wigs and were mild samples of what were to follow. Heavy Goth figures, macabre corpses, walking zombies--all were on display throughout the day Saturday and well into the night. The noise in the hall into the wee hours was at least partially provoked by the large quantities of alchohol consumed--as witnessed by the boxes of beer bottles on display Sunday morning.

The drive back to Minnesota seemed longer than the one to meet Darlene in Wisconsin. Because the sun set earlier, the last half of it was in the dark through the construction and traffic of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Coming back to the quiet and star-studded sky of Collegeville seemed almost surreal. Although there is the occasional festal bottle of wine at events, the ethos is much more subdued and cerebral. This was brought home to me at Morning Prayer as we continued to wend our way through the narrative of Ezra. Today's text, read by Fr. Allan, involved the request of the returning exiles back to Darius, who interceded on their behalf. At the end of the reading, the silence was pungent--much like the noise I had experienced but 36 hours before.

When I was a kid there was this great TV drama that aired in the sixties, called, "The Time Tunnel." In each week's story, the two main characters (male, of course) would be whisked from one time period to the next to see if/how they would cope. There was a strange juxtaposition as they moved in and out of time--an experience, I would guess, that might begin to play tricks on one's mind. That's a bit how I felt over this weekend, moving from rural to urban, monastic to commercial, a life of solitude back to one of married companionship. Trying to negotiate the movement between these two worlds poses something of a challenge but is giving me better insight, I think, into each.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Heavenly City in Our Midst

Yesterday we celebrated the 45th anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey Church. Monday evening began the vigil, complete with holy water, a darkened interior, and the lighting of the candles. Entering into the sanctuary in the monastic processional, the gloom was broken only by the cantor's surreal voice illuminated by the occasional lighting of a candle. The enveloping darkness gave one the sense of being transported back in time when light was not all-encompassing and the descent of night brought with it a sense of dread.

As we slowly made our way into choir, for the first time I found myself seated on the east side--usually reserved for the monks. As Abbot John wafted the incense in our direction, I inhaled deeply--trying to take in all the sights and sounds of an atypical Evening Prayer. The scripture lessons spoke of building--passages like the one in 1 Peter where Jesus is described as the "cornerstone." By the time we got to the continuation of the celebration the next morning, the candles on the altar continued to pierce the darkness and as Fr. Fenton read that apocalyptic text from the book of Revelation the picture of four walls descending from the heavens did not seem all that far removed from reality. For a few moments, cosmic reality penetrated our everyday existence.

Liturgy has, as one of its key components, reading ourselves into the story--but doing so in such a way that the "bentness" of our world comes in contact with the heavenly realities. We are "enacting" here below that which is continually being re-enacted in heaven above. All language breaks down at this point. Mythos runs headlong up against Logos. Nevertheless, worship points us in directions that hardly seem possible--transporting us, not so much to heaven above, but somehow bringing heaven down into our very midst. And as it does so, we become the assembly of the crucified and risen Savior--our very lives broken and restored for the sake of the world.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Thoughts on Servanthood

Yesterday's lectionary readings from Isaiah 53 and particularly Mark 10:35-45, all centered around the theme of servanthood. When I teach this mid-section of St. Mark's gospel in my Synoptics class, I am always keen to point out the difference in the way the disciples are portrayed here and the way they are treated by Matthew later. As Fr. Daniel Durken, O. S. B., pointed out in his homily, the disciples really don't "get it." He went even further than I sometimes do, portraying the circle of discipleship as "dysfunctional," and James and John as the gospels' stereotype of "dumb and dumber."

Instead of their hopes for power and promotion, Jesus dares to call them to servanthood. Servants, Fr. Dan said, are taken for granted--at least until their services disappear. Citing the social research of Nickel and Dimed in America, he pointed out that servants aren't paid well and are treated even worse. These folks, he maintained, undergird our society and do the grunt work. As a result, he postulated, at the end of the gospel lection we might be tempted to add, "I am Jesus and I approve of this message."!!!

In contradistinction to the way many Evangelical pastors try to reduce the gospel to the hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage, Fr. Daniel suggested that the question for this election is: Who will best live out their election as a servant? Which candidate views their role primarily as "public service," not an opportunity for self aggrandizement. And, even more delicate, will the candidate willingly give his/her career as a "ransom for many"?

For those of us not running for office, we find our identity in community as we gather at the Lord's Table. We are, quite literally, a "Eucharistic community." Having received our servant status at our baptism, we are, in the benediction, "sent forth to love and serve the Lord." Understanding our role as servants (I think of Paul's epistolary greetings here) is key to the way we frame our vocation. How is it that this has been lost in the ideological warfare of American culture that pervades the church? Restoring it and, even more importantly, living it is at the center of my sabbatical epiphany this week.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Night to Remember

Last night began with me in my Sunday best before a group of folks who had made my sabbatical here possible. Coming from a rather modest background where only a generation or two ago we would have been labelled "hillbillies," walking into a room of people who have known power and wealth can be somewhat disconcerting. But, one must remember that it is our common faith in Christ that binds us together--rich and poor, powerful and weak.

The most surprising part of the evening was the fact that, as scholars, we weren't lined up to go in alphabetical order. I had anticipated going fairly early on--the second in line in the alphabet. But, our Executive Director had decided, in good baseball fashion, to shuffle the line-up. So, there I was, the last of eight--the guy who has to bring up the rear, lay down a bunt, and let people get to the bathroom before their bladder bursts.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the evening was getting to meet John Forliti who sat next to me, and hearing him describe his work at the Prep school where he teaches. I am always looking for new pedagogical ploys to try in the classroom and John told me about his attempts to get adolescent boys to understand the connections between good food, fellowship, and Christian spirituality. Every year he brings over about 30 young men for a day of cooking, hospitality, and catechesis. He was kind enough to share with me the five things that he tells these testosterone-filled boys make for a good meal and so, I pass them on:
1. Whenever you come to the table, bring a smile.
2. When you gather at table, bring a story.
3. Always take a moment to see the love that stands behind the food--the good gifts from the earth and the hands that prepared it.
4. Come early and offer to help.
5. After the meal has been eaten and others withdraw, offer to help clean up.
These are simple lessons, but ones I hope to share with my students--particularly those in my Introduction to Worship class where we gather to make homemade bread for the Eucharistic table.

So, having made it through an evening where I knew I would experience some discomfort, I retreated to my apartment to watch what I was sure would be the remainder of a nailbiting seventh game of the National League Champtionship series between the Cardinals and Mets. Whenever Rolen's home run was robbed in that amazing leap in left field and Edmonds was doubled up, I thought for sure that it was a fatal blow to the Cardinals' heart. And then, twice there were bases loaded up--first in the bottom of that incredible sixth inning and later in the bottom of the ninth with the kid, Wainwright, on the mound. I knew that the world was about to come crashing in--despite that incredible home run Yadi Molina had hit in the top of the ninth. But it didn't and, despite all of my pessimism, these faltering, beat-up Cardinals incredibly won. And, the best news was that Don would not have to open up apartment number 5 this morning and find one of his scholars dead from a heart attack. The baseball gods had been kind.

So, in honor of the Cardinals' win, I wore bright red to Morning Prayer. And when I saw my colleague, Kathleen, a fellow St. Louisan, I just patted my heart and said, "I'm exhausted!" and then we got down to prayer. But, I have a confession to make. For years, my heart has been back in Toronto where I watched those great teams in 1992 and 1993 claim world titles. It was there that I had taken my girls to watch them battle the Oakland A's and Atlanta Braves and, despite a dozen or more years away from Canada, I was an American Leaguer at heart.

But sometimes, conversions happen in strange ways. Having turned down an opportunity to go back to Toronto a year ago this past summer, I guess maybe I need to learn to be a Cardinal fan after all. If Greenville is where I belong, then I guess I'm just going to have to learn to love more than one bird. The women in my family have been working hard to get me to lighten up and wear brighter colors. And after that win for the ages last night, I've decided red isn't such a bad color after all.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Addressing the Collegeville Board

Tonight, each of the scholars has been asked to introduce him/herself and say a bit about our projects--all in the space of three to five minutes. One never knows quite what to say in such a context; after all, the folks listening in are the ones who have helped make the decision to bring you here and find the money to help pay the bills. So, I hope to say something like the following:

Good evening. My name is Brian Hartley and I am an ordained minister in the Free Methodist Church, a denomination in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. I am beginning my fourteenth (14th) year at Greenville College, a small Christian liberal arts institution some 150-plus years old in southern Illinois, situated about 40 miles east of St. Louis. As in most such institutions, I am called upon to wear several different hats--as Associate Professor, Dean of the Chapel, and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion.
Growing up the eldest child of teenage parents in the hard-scrabble Ozarks, it was the church that provided for me my primary sense of identity. Though we were a small sect who identified ourselves over against much of the rest of culture, the love of those largely uneducated and rustic folk and the stories they told with such gusto and joy provided me a kind of spiritual nourishment that sustained me, particularly during those painful times of change every year or two as the ministerial appointments were read out by the Bishop. An odd duck of sorts, when I wasn’t attending church services, I was usually holed up with my nose either buried in a book or listening to the elders in the various communities where we lived tell tall tales.
The art of storytelling was perfected for me by my grandfather who was both a bi-vocational pastor and an accomplished jokester. It was he and his books which held me mesmerized--by ancient family folklore, particularly of his own grandfather who had been an early Free Methodist circuit rider. So, it was that after graduate work at Princeton Seminary and St. Louis University, and preaching assignments in London, England, and Toronto, Canada, I’ve come back around to try and make sense of how preaching and its inherent narrative provides a sense of meaning and order for people who oftentimes find their world flying apart.
My project focuses on a set of twenty sermons which served to reframe a new liturgical and societal understanding for those living through the disorder of the early Elizabethan regime. Through them, a female monarch sought to assert her authority, cast a vision for the emerging Church of England, and urge people to behave and practice their faith in certain ways. As such, these homilies (published under her imprimatur in 1563) provide a helpful case study in how sermons shape worshipping communities and forge bonds of societal identity. Delivered at a time when chaos reigned and when three generations shaped by entirely different circumstances and oftentimes given to different theological commitments had to learn to live together (oftentimes in the same household), these sermons help us to better understand how a previous generation negotiated religious differences in a world in which they oftentimes found themselves living as “resident aliens.”
Thank you all for providing this quiet and prayerful Benedictine environment-- particularly on behalf of those of us from less-represented voices in both the Protestant movement and the church at large. I believe the fruit of the time spent here will have an immeasurable impact on my future teaching, preaching, ministry, and writing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gagging on Zechariah

Today is the Feast Day of St. Luke and, since one of our sabbaticants is working on a project on Luke's gospel, I suggested that we throw a party in her honor. But, the Institute Board is coming tomorrow and we are all working hard to put our three minute speech together. Besides, we had a gathering last night in the Great Hall with the monks where the food was rich and there was more wine than I've ever seen and nobody wants to party now anyway because it's snowing and the north wind is blowing again.

Going to Evening Prayer has become something of a chore, due to this return of winter weather. You walk up the hill into the cold north wind and, to top it all off, now it's dark as well. Can you imagine what it must have been like someplace like the Island of Iona if you were a monk? I'd not only want one of those black wool gowns, I'd want some breeches as well.

Needless to say, all of this change in the weather creates havoc with one's health. So far, knock on wood, I've only had to fight off a bit of an eye infection. But one poor monk, who was serving as lector the other night, got stuck reading through this long, dispassionate passage from the prophet Zechariah. This is one of the dangers of the monastic approach to the Liturgy of the Hours--you sometimes find yourself in these long passages from the Bible through which you have to plow in a lectio continua manner.

So, just as we have pictured in Scripture, this poor guy has to swallow these prophetic words and he literally gets choked up. I'm sure it was just a bit of phlegm but it was clear that he was in distress. As his voice grew ever more gravel-like, he paused and had a period of spasmodic caughing. Then he paused again and tried to compose himself. But he couldn't--Zechariah's blather was stuck in his throat. And, instead of looking to the hills from whence cometh our help, his eyes lifted to the south side of the choir. Fortunately, two monks rose ready to take over and the younger came forward to do his duty. The poor lector had to withdraw in indignity.

I wondered what Eugene Peterson would have made of this? (I could envision in my mind's eye Robin Williams playing the role of the monk and groveling on the floor of the chancel, only to keel over in front of the altar in a spasm of acute muscular distress--but that's another movie). But, more seriously, I was reminded how many times I choke, at least metaphorically, on the Scriptures. "What's that you say, God? You've got to be kidding, right?" I guess these little windows into our humanity oftentimes ironically point us in the way of truth. In the mean time, I'm going to take it easy when it comes to those minor prophets.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Apostolic Witness

Today is Ignatius of Antioch's Saint's Day. Whether Ignatius actually knew any of the disciples we don't know. What we do know is that early in the second century, as he made his way to his death, he wrote several letters to churches in Asia. In one he said:
"I am God's wheat, ground fine by the lion's teeth to be made purest bread for
Christ. No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He
who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our
sakes is my one desire. The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my
brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me
stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the
world. do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light.
Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of
imitating the passion of my God."

In this morning's reading, we heard his letter written to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna who, later in the century would meet his own martyr's death. When we came to the part where Ignatius reminds his younger charge that dealing with good students is always a joy but addressing "annoying students" is what really brings out Christ in us, I definitely detected a snicker. He goes on to say something like, "Put up with everything, so that God will put up with us." The image he trots out for Polycarp is that of an anvil, able to withstand all the mighty blows struck against it.

In the wake of the canonization of all the new saints last week in Rome, one of the monks was heard to say, "Popes don't make saints--only God can do that!" Certainly God used Ignatius to not only inspire Polycarp (who became a great model of death in his old age when he was asked to "curse Christ") but to challenge us, as well. What is it that takes an ordinary person and changes him or her into such a standard-bearer for the Gospel? I don't really know, but I hope, at least, to learn to heed Ignatius' advice about being patient with annoying students.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Relinquishing Control

The birds are taking wing over Lake Stumpf these days--on their way to a warmer climate somewhere south of here. You can here their honking most every evening as they come flying over the water in V-formation. Something inside of them (as well as the colder temperatures outside!) compels them to pick up and leave, looking for happier hunting grounds where lakes don't freeze over and trap their quarry.

I made my way across the bridge which links the north shore to the south last evening, not really knowing what was in store for me at the concert entitled, "Songs of Sinatra," by Steve Tyrell. I have to confess that I love Frank's music. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that my parents had one or two of his LP's in their large record player. Tyrell was a pleasant surprise--how have I gone this long without listening to him? He's probably best known by my college readers as the guy who sang, "The Way You Look Tonight" in "Father of the Bride." But he's also recorded a slew of other classics which feature his unique voice--somewhere between silky smooth and rough gravel. So, there I sat weeping into my handkerchief as I sang along last night--geezers breathing hard on their aluminum walkers, interspersed with young college kids.

The band was also great and featured two guys I've heard live before on the trumpet and sax. Both were in the infamous "Blood, Sweat, and Tears" horn section which my wife and I loved and heard live on our first anniversary, and the sax player is the guy you would recognize from the Blues Brothers movie who hops up on the counter and wails away. The trumpet player (who could still hit and hold those glorious high notes) had to resort to his bifocals to play--a sign we're all getting older than we'd like to admit. After thirty or forty years of playing, these guys seemed to enjoy doing their thang just as much as they had with David Clayton Thomas and BS&T.

Today's gospel lesson was about learning to relinquish control (thus, the allusion above to the music and tears). Fr.Patella suggested this morning that, "the bad thing about wealth is that it narrows our focus and seduces us into thinking we can control past, present, and future." So, there I was again--the king of control--trying to figure out how I can "loosen up" and learn to follow Jesus better. Mind you, this doesn't mean unleashing the demons (after all, head and heart must find an Aristotelian mean and learn to live together).

But, I have noticed that as I get older, I am growing more sentimental. In short, my heart oftentimes just comes surging to the surface and it's all I can do to keep it together. Maybe it's being away from those I love. Maybe it's realizing that the view in the rearview mirror is as large, if not larger, than the one out the front. Maybe it's simply discovering this great sense of peace and joy in being where I'm at and doing what I do. I don't know. I only know that I need to figure out how to live inside my own skin--even when doing so means occasionally relinquishing control. So, as I attempt to live each day with joy and grace, I pray God will give me strength to take wing and to learn to rest in Him.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Good Order over Warfare

As I read more and more about the English Reformation, it becomes clear to me that, unlike many on the Continent, the British chose to use liturgy as a point of conversion rather than to kill one another over doctrine or theology. As Norman Jones writes in the English Reformation: Religion and Cultural Adaptation, "the law was not interested in sin, it was interested in order. . . The English did not go to war over religion. The English exception seems to arise from the nature of English government and the attitudes of English leaders."

On the one hand, there was Thomas Cranmer who, trained as a good Christian humanist, believed in the power of persuasion, "teaching the people through Reformed liturgies and sermons rather than slaughter." While, on the other hand, you had Elizabeth I who intentionally "endorsed the maintenance of harmony within a broadly tolerant church." For both, peace and conformity, gentle persuasion and good order were the way forward towards the creation of Christian community.

As a part of a group of sabbaticants given to ecumenical dialogue this semester, the role of good will, charity, hospitality, and the willingness to listen are all becoming clear as necessary prerequisites for framing conversation and thinking through hard issues of faith. Liturgy has the potential either to create community or to divide us from one another. It seems to me that good order is always preferable to warfare, but many groups have as their raison d'etre the construction of the "other" as enemy. Learning to not frame our world in such a way is quite difficult but much more productive and Christlike.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Promise and Perils of Hymnology

Snow has come to central Minnesota, dusting the ground and providing flakes which need dodging as one walks faced into the cruel northern wind. Darkness has now descended upon both Morning and Evening Prayer, the candles burning beside the altar taking on a much more prominent role. Monks shuffle into the chancel, sometimes straining to hit the opening note of the hymn.

In yesterday's discussion of the Benedictine Rule, Fr. Allen pointed out that during the great Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, there was a certain conservative streak which permeated much of monastic practice and limited non-biblical materials from the liturgy. The concern was that heterodox views might somehow sneak into worship so only biblical pieces were allowed (though the New Testament canon was not entirely closed during the early part of this discussion).

As a result, hymnology didn't really play a leading role in some churches until after the early creedal period. And, when hymns began to be incorporated into the Office, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, was oftentimes seen as the prime example (in fact, in the Benedictine Rule, the Latin simply suggests that "now comes the Ambrose"--referring to the singing of a hymn).

I found this particularly intriguing because of the battles that went on over music in the Reformation and that continue to rage in the church. In the sixteenth century, many Reformers complained about the complexity of the music and reverted to the simple singing of Psalms (as did many of the monks in the early church). Other kinds of singing might be seen as, at best, "superfluous adornment." The desire was for simplicity rooted in biblical principles, if not literal words.

In the current "Worship Wars," much of the debate that rages is over style, completely ignoring the earlier historical lesson. As Marva Dawn and others have suggested, there is oftentimes even a tendency for the musical style to submerge the words and their message. The danger here, as the historians suggest, is that non-orthodox ideas can creep in. One of the major problems is the solipsism at work in much of contemporary music: it is, quite simply, self-referential with God used only as a prop. Young people come looking for a subjective experience--not necessarily to be confronted with their own sinfulness in the face of a Holy God.

Negotiating these treacherous waters is never easy, but the study of the history of the church can be helpful here. Understannding that music can be dangerous is essential (even Plato knew this!). But Ambrose provides a positive example, as well. He inherited a bishopric which had been tainted with heresy so he sought to compose hymns which would affirm orthodox belief. Others are at work on this exact issue today and new hymns and musical forms provide a wonderful opportunity for both celebrating and teaching the faith. The first thing, though, is to see the role of music within the liturgy (it is primarily a tool, after all) as providing both peril and promise.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Adjusting to Change

The news is rather dismal--it's as warm as it is going to get today (33 degrees F.--a full 25 degrees colder than Greenville right now!). It will gradually cool a few degrees and we will descend into the first skiff of snowfall of the season. For a boy from the south, this smacks of some kind of cosmic freak show. I can't even remember snow this early in Toronto.

Adjusting to wintry weather so early in the season strains my immune system. The watery eyes, the sniffling nose, the aching shoulders--all point to a bodily sense I tend to associate more with December or January than mid-October. Back at home, students are waking up to mid-term exams and the realization that college is not really about improving one's social life. The pressure of academics and the darkening days can promote a sense of doom and gloom.

I have spent much of my professional career studying change: historical, literary, and theological. I am fascinated by how cultures, families, and churches adapt (or don't) to changing societal forces. Just yesterday, for instance, I was reading an essay by John Bossy entitled, "Moral Arithmetic: Seven Sins into Ten Commandments," in which he discusses how the moral system of the late Middle Ages (constituted by the Seven Deadly Sins) came to be displaced in the Reformation and Early Modern Period by a different moral system rooted in the catalogue of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). Chancels were generally stripped of their medieval furnishings and, in many cases, came to prominently display above the communion table twin tablets--prompting Thomas Hardy to write in Jude the Obscure, "the tables of the Jewish Law towered sternly over the utensils of Christian grace."

Change calls forth the best and the worst in people. Families oftentimes wind up separated generationally while churches divide. I oftentimes find myself descending into the bathos of a professorial whine about the forces that are shaping my students--forces that are much more pronounced, much more complex, and much different from those that shaped me. It is tempting to settle into the "grumpy old man" routine, or, as I was once labeled, "an idiosyncratic old fart."

I'm going to try and avoid the worst of this approach. It doesn't really help, after all. In fact, writing this weblog, working on Facebook, exchanging e-mails are all attempts to adapt to a culture I find sometimes offensive, sometimes exhilirating. I guess I best do the same with the weather. Complaining only exacerbates one's bitterness. Better to revel in the changing of the seasons and the fact that, at least up here, one can experience real snow.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Readjusting to Ecumenical Life

The weekend was spent getting reacquainted with my wife, Darlene, with our old friends, Dennis Vigil and Susan Cross, and exploring the Mall of America. All of this shift away from a regimented lifestyle to one with loved ones (not to mention the temple to the god of Consumerism!) was a welcome respite--but, it is now difficult to get back into the swing of things. After over thirty years as a couple, the bonds of love are strong and there is a ripping experience that takes place whenever separation occurs. Thus, I was in the dumps the rest of today after seeing Darlene off.

Within minutes, I was in the midst of an academic discussion of the Rule of the Master, a predecessor to Benedict's Rule in the Latin tradition. I just sat there somewhat numb, trying to let my mind and heart readjust to the passions and rigors of academic work again. At lunch, the topic of ecumenical dialog came up and I found myself wishing I could somehow express how painful it is to try and engage in productive discussion whenever, by so doing, one is automatically somewhat ostracized by one's own tradition. I have found that the passion which motivates me to explore the overall "catholicity" of the large capital-T Christian Tradition marks me out as suspect by those whom I count as my most natural friends and family. At times, it would be so much easier just to go on one's sectarian way.

But, then, at Evening Prayer tonight, I couldn't believe it. The opening hymn was, "O For a Thousand Tongues." All day long I had been wondering, "What am I doing here?" That hymn and the monks singing it in their slow and deliberate way, reminded me that Wesley is embraced as someone who explored the margins of that great Tradition. His voice is an important one in the larger ecumenical dialogue and unless we, his heirs, take our place at the table, that crucial voice will be missing.

So, as the weather cools and even the dreaded "s"-word (snow) is heard on the weather forecaster's lips, I know that I am here for a purpose. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and do the hard thing. I guess I'd better get busy and pull up a chair.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Value of Repetition

At Morning Prayer today the reading centered around the value of repetition. The writer spoke eloquently of how our very lives are framed by a sense of sameness--our hearts beat at a regular rhythm (lub-dub, lub-dub), we inhale and exhale breaths, the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, and, particularly at a time like this, we notice the regular shifting of the seasons from awakening and growth in the spring, to abundance of life and verdancy in the summer, to the slow and gradual death of the vegetation in the fall, to the dormancy of the cold winter. This cycle, this sameness, to life is all around us.

The liturgy seeks to replicate this, at times. In the St. John's books, we go through a four-week cycle of the Psalter. I've now been here long enough to pick up on the repetition of the scriptures I heard during my first and second weeks here. "Lord, you have been our refuge, our ever-present help in times of trouble." This mixture of form with some freedom lies at the heart of an understanding of worship as reflecting the very nature of life itself. The liturgy provides a "frame," much like the window at the Stella Maris chapel above frames the fall colors.

American culture, on the other hand, tends to value that which is new and different over that which is old and the same. New faces of celebrities dominate our news stands while old faces are consigned to oblivion. No one wants an old car, they want the newest and latest. This same thinking permeates the expectations regarding worship by many of my students. They confuse new and different with more sincere and truthful--when, in reality, oftentimes it is the tried and true which ministers most to us in times of trouble. At funerals, we read the twenty-third Psalm, not because it is avant-garde but because it brings back to us familiar words and images of comfort in a time of distress.

I think that many young people are missing exactly this need for a sense of the regular and mundane. They stay up late with no thought of the morrow and shove food into their bodies that brings no real nourishment. And, when they find themselves in a spiritual and emotional malaise, they look around for something new with which to fire the passions, like a drug addict who needs a different kind of high to get him through the day. The Benedictines are teaching me to value that which is repetitious and mundane, to look for value to the everyday and the ordinary. If it is the Psalms that have sustained the people of God over time, then learning to say them on a monthly basis (even, as St. Benedict suggests, to commit them to heart) is sure to provide spiritual nourishment when it is most needed.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Contrasting Images

The news from Washington as we prepare for the fall election is nothing less than horrific. As badly as the Democrats had made a mess of things when in power, the Republicans seem to be able to "one up" them. There is a general disgust about Representative Foley and his secret e-mail liasons with adolescent male pages. His revelation that he is both gay and was abused by a clergyman when young himself surely seems to be an attempt to provide a smokescreen and elicit empathy, when in reality it smacks of the height of irony and depths of bathos for a party committed to upholding so-called "family values."

In the meantime, the news media seems absolutely flumoxed by what to make of the grieving Amish community in Pennsylvania. For a culture that thrives on spectacle and bombast, these quiet simple-dressed Anabaptists seem so counter-cultural. Which is exactly what they set out to be. Despite the critique with which theologians are familiar of Niebuhr's "Christ against Culture" paradigm, the sheer iconoclasm and simplicity of a people seeking to live out the heart of the gospel leaves the evening news reporters near speechless. It is almost comical to watch a reporter trying to capture a head shot full-on while an Amish elder seeks to avoid the spotlight.

The Amish approach to both forgiveness and death seems to be where 21st-century Americans struggle the most. While the media revels in images of rage, violence, and vituperation, they remain puzzled by the Amish quietness and a commitment to pray for both victims and the family of the victimizers. When an Anabaptist scholar explains how children are brought in to stand at the coffin of their dead sister and friend to contemplate the brevity of life and the hope of the resurrection, Ann Curry seems caught in the headlights--like a deer in the middle of the highway not knowing where next to move.

The fall season, however, reminds us all too well of the cycles of life. Death must be embraced as a reality and a central part of our lives or we will continue to live in the myth of a death-denying culture. I am reminded of one scholar who once suggested that the 19th century was obsessed with death and spoke rarely of sexuality while we seem preoccupied with the minutiae of sex and run from any extended discussion of death. Thus, this strange juxtaposition of images between power in the nation's capitol and the powerless outside of Lancaster, PA.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Holiness as Cosmic Gift for the World

Today has turned cloudy, a wind has come up, and a light wind is blowing in. As amazing as it all seems, the beauty of yesterday with its vibrant colors is fast fading as the strong breezes rip the leaves from their tenuous anchors. The gradual floating orphan leaf of Monday has become an all-out dervish-like swirl of piles of leaves today--rendering a somewhat barren landscape where, only yesterday, there was once great swaths of color.

Perhaps it was the sense of so much colorful loss that made it difficult to slave away in my basement chamber this morning after prayer. I would pick a footnote here or there, but coming up with something new and original seemed beyond me. I would rearrange a sentence or try adding a new paragraph, but this world of words, this world of my own creating, seemed to crumble like dust in my fingers. Scott Wenig's revised dissertation, Straightening the Altars, had arrived, and I spent part of the morning searching for data from original sources he had combed through, primarily in English Diocesan records.

Exasperated, I reached for the second volume in Gordon Lathrop's trilogy, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology. I was quickly struck by a section near the end in which he discusses the subject of "holiness"--something which quickens the pace of any good Wesleyan theologian. As I read, I found myself coming to something of an epiphany: holiness and hospitality are inherently symbiotic. Here's the relevant section--

"The Christian practice of holiness must always involve the subversion of all religious ideas of holiness. If Jesus Christ is our holiness, then holiness is no longer separation and ritual purity and perfect observance. In Christ, holiness is connection with others. It is the unclean cross and life through death and welcome to the outsiders and transformative mercy for the world. If the meeting constitutes just us as the insiders, then Christian holiness involves the subversion of the meeting. It involves the transformation of the meeting to be much more than our social conventions of gathering, from any culture, could ever make it. The practice of holiness involves the constant work on the open door, both that all others may come in and that what is seen in the liturgy may flow out. The practice of holiness is the discovery of God's gift to all of us, together."

It seems to me, as something of an historian, that we Holiness folk had the right inclination, but the wrong theology and sociology. If, as Martin Luther suggested, sin is incurvatum se (something turned in on itself), our attempts at inculcating a holy life individually was doomed to failure because holiness is essentially a social project to be undertaken within community and for the good of all of creation. While a single brilliant leaf might be but a colorful apparition to the viewer, the forest come alive with color beckons all to give thanks to the Creator God. The quest for holiness, then, must not be about ME becoming more like God for the sake of myself but must, of necessity, be a corporate quest with cosmic implications.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Endings or Beginnings?

It occured to me while I was out on the trail today that, while some people see the fall as the end of something, for others of us it is the beginning of something even more powerful. While the colors signal the fact that summer has come to an end and winter is approaching, the falling leaves also are necessary to provide the nutrients for the next season's flora.

I think the reason this was so pronounced for me today is that I encountered two different types of folk out on the trail from different ends of the life-cycle. The first were several senior citizens, some paired off, slowly making their way, judiciously navigating protruding tree roots, all the while smiling at the surprising warmth of the day. Ahead of me at one point there was an older couple, holding weathered hands, just shuffling along. At another point, I heard the rhythmic thud-thud of feet pounding into the dirt headed directly for me. Suddenly, there burst through the trees young adoloscents from the Prep School out for an afternoon run. Some were giggling, others talking, others oblivious to what was going on around them (ear buds blanking out the natural sounds of life for some artificial blast from an IPOD). But both types were framed ahead and behind me by the canopy of overarching leaves suggesting, on the one hand, the dying of the light, on the other, new beginnings.

The picture above was taken inside a now disused chapel (Stella Maris) which has a lone stone table inside (think Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!). On either side are three open chapel windows which served as a frame for what stood outside. Did the chapel represent the death of something or the possibility for a different kind of life just outside the ordinary? These juxtapositions are familiar referents for me as I continue to read through the literature from the English Reformation. For some, like Eamon Duffy, the reforms meant the death of something quite dear (late Medieval piety). For others, like A. G. Dickens, it signalled the fresh winds of Renaissance learning and the gospel cry of Martin Luther's "sola fidei."

Allen M. Young, a curator of zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum, speaks of this conundrum in the natural world in his book, Small Creatures and Ordinary Places, in this way:
"Consider thinking of this cycle of seasons in the following way. In spring, life sprouts from the eggs and seeds sown last summer, well before the first frost and autumn's descent over the land. In summer, life reaches a full bloom, not just among plants but among animals too. Then in autumn, life literally falls off its pedestal of prolific glory. But while autumn may feel and behave as an ending, it is really a new beginning. For all that we enjoyed in the yard or meadow this summer has its living fate now sealed away beneath the leaf mulch, in the soil below the frost line, even in the middle of rotting logs in the forest. Life has gone underground only to be saved from winter's wrath and to bloom once again to great heights next summer. In autumn, the drama of life switches for most creatures from branches, leaves, and stems to the mulch below, and in winter to the deep recesses of pond-bottom mud and sand. Life flourishes but it is temporarily more subdued than exuberant."
--From Schmidt and Felch, Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, 48.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Negotiating Change

Ultimately, the fall season serves as a transition between the summer and winter. Here in Minnesota, the latter can prove to be long and strenuous so soaking up the beauty of these lingering sunny autumnal days is very important. Learning to negotiate transitions is never easy. Victor Turner, in his research, spoke of the opportunities that are presented in these "in-between" times--what he called liminality.

In the reflection on today's Gospel lesson at the Saturday evening vigil last night, the reading spoke of how Jesus challenged his disciples with new ways of thinking--a paradigm with which, the gospels suggest, they had difficulty coming to terms. In fact, St. Mark uses this entire mid-section, in chapters 8-10, as a kind of lacuna, or "in-between" time, to set up the long passion narrative which follows. In many ways, he seems to be suggesting, Jesus and the disciples find themselves in a liminal spot. Is it possible for the disciples to move beyond their own cultural and restricted worldview?

One of the reasons I am fascinated with 16th-century Britain is because, in the course of just three generations, a radical reconstruction of religious culture occurs which must be negotiated family by family, and parish by parish. In his study a generation ago, Anthony Esler dubbed the third of these generations the "aspiring Elizabethan younger generation." It included all the leading lights of the English Renaissance, from William Shakespeare to Edmund Spenser, Lancelot Andrewes to John Dunne, Philip Sidney to Christopher Marlowe, Robert Cecil to Francis Bacon. These outstanding representatives flourished under the significant shifts of power that took place from Edward VI to Mary to Elizabeth I. And, under the latter, they received their education and went on to perpetuate the fruits of the late Medieval period which had preceded them, couched in the new paradigm of modernity.

My own sense is that I find myself, just short of age 50, in the middle generation--having grown up a "boomer" who challenged the status quo, but anxious to hand on to the next generation the best of the Christian Tradition. My concern is that "the baby not be thrown out with the bath water"; that a reversion to total subjectivity couched in emotion and egocentrism not occur. I am not overly pessimistic, but I think that finding ways to reach this enthusiastic and passionate generation (using tools with which they feel comfortable) is essential. If this can occur, this "in-between" time in which we live may yet be seen in retrospect as wonderfully productive--providing new ways of understanding old wisdom. The key will be successfully negotiating the divide between old and new in a way that affirms the best of the old and the excitement of the new.