Monday, September 7, 2015

Eden Paige: How do you Name a Human?

It’s an odd thing to choose how to designate a person for the rest of her life.  It feels narcissistic. I get to choose her designation, but I do not own her; she is her own person.  How do you name someone in advance of knowing her personality and convictions? Do we choose a name based on the sound as it leaves your tongue or etymology or family history? The name can be a container to hold your family’s histories or your dreams about who the child might become. In Scripture, names are often awarded after a person has come into contact, obeyed, or sometimes wrestled with God. You don’t get to choose your name and that symbolizes something important in our consumerist society.  You are forever tied to a person—or group of people—who have given you a specific designation.

I’ve concluded that our daughter will grow up to be her own person, but she will never be able to escape the stories that have preceded her, whether those stories are familial or Scriptural.  No one is self-made. Our daughter will have to wrestle with the same stories with which we have wrestled. In that sense, she will never be her own person just like I have never been my own person. She will be placed inside of a tradition, just as I was, and she will emerge as an individual within that history.

I knew her name would be Eden the second I heard it mentioned, even though I was not initially enthralled by the name. I sat on the couch pondering our little baby’s destiny with a title like “Eden”; soon thereafter, she probably punched her mother’s belly. I would not be surprised.  Is it ever too early to rebel? We decided that there were no obvious cruel nicknames and it’s uncommon and not too unusual. Eden, of course, was the first garden in Genesis.  It means ‘paradise’ and ‘delight.’  And we love gardens—the outdoors, nature, and hiking. The bonus is that one of my favorite novels is East of Eden by Steinbeck.   As I surmised, the name dethroned my previous favorite after a couple of weeks.

More importantly, Eden reminds me that there is a goodness at the core of our world.  This is something that a theological guide of mine, Stanley Hauerwas, notes.  He writes that most of us cannot come up with a good reason to have a child beyond our biological instinct: “About the best we can muster is: ‘Children help us to be less lonely.’ (Get a dog; children make parents more lonely, not less.) And, ‘Children help give meaning to life.’ (Such children are seen as another possession like a BMW.)” It’s easier to think of reasons not to have them—who want to lose freedom?  Or, more prominently, who would choose to bring children into our fallen world? I challenged Danielle that we would have a child when she could convince me that there is a good reason.

‘Eden’ is an answer to the question of why Christians have children. Hauerwas later gives us a hint at what he is after,  “Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories…It is our privilege to invite our children, and other’s children, to be part of this great adventure called church. Christians ought to ponder what an amazing act of faith it was for Jews in the face of constant and death-dealing Christians and pagan persecution to go on having babies. People of God do not let the world determine how they respond to tomorrow.” (This and the previous quote is fromResident Aliens).

Of course, we remember that the Adam and Eve were placed in Eden, a place full of wonder and delight.  Though our world has changed since the beginning, it’s our responsibility as Christians to make sure that the world remains as (and is re-created into) a place of delight, wonder and awe. At some point, our daughter will decide for herself whether it’s worth the effort to participate in God's re-creation of Eden.  But for now, this will be the story we teach her and one day it will be the story she will wrestle with.  It’s the story of Eden—paradise.  We think it’s a beautiful story. And we pray that Eden will take part in re-creating our world into an even more delightful place.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Birthday Church

John Howard Yoder and his student Stanley Hauerwas have convinced me that the nature of worship is political—or that worship shapes the way we live and structure our lives through our common prayer, confession, singing, studying, and table fellowship. I have been in a church long enough to learn that worship is also shaped by the narrative of our culture and North American Christianity—that is consumerism, capitalism, efficiency, and instantaneous gratification.  In other words, I have yet to see the fruit of worship’s slow work. I hold on to the hope that worship shows up, even in disguise, to provide our lives with habit, balance and direction.

Our United Methodist Women (UMW) created a wooden “birthday church” piggy bank in our sanctuary.  On your birthday you are expected to put money in the piggy bank, which goes toward missions or other special UMW projects. It sounds something like this, “Happy Birthday! Now where is your special offering?” 

Typically we suspect that the world owes us something on our birthdays, namely, lots of money and presents.  Our women have begun to overturn that consumerist mentality. At Plains we owe the church something on our birthdays. The birthday church is a basic lesson in stewardship; a reminder that every gift is of God, and we give to God a portion of what we have been given. The birthday church offers a visual reminder that each person has something to contribute as we drop our dollar bills into the piggy bank. Wesleyans call this responsible grace. You have been blessed to live another year, so we expect you to give your life (and your pocketbook) in response.

 I couldn’t care less about how much money is in the birthday house. Yet, I do hope that this small act of subversion fosters a habit of giving, that it leads to the transformation of our consumerist minds, and we might learn how to give our lives to one another in the polis called church. Or, maybe, if we have enough birthdays, then our ‘birthday wants lists’ will shrink and our ‘birthday thanksgiving lists’ will grow. It’s a small act, slow and deliberate, but it’s also subversive.

There is a fascinating little story that is preserved for us in Greek literature about Odysseus. The story of Odysseus is the story of a man who tirelessly tries to get home to his wife. Along the way, Odysseus meets much opposition while he sails across the oceans. At one point he comes across the Sirens.  The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms of death. Odysseus decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew stuffed their ears with wax that the Sirens might not lure them.

But finally, he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens?

Worship is often frustrating to plan and lead. There is not much immediate gratification in the job.  I don’t really see changes after my sermons, even when I am really proud of them. But that’s not really why we gather. We gather every week because we trust that we are singing a much more beautiful song—and that a more beautiful song will subvert the ordinary and steer us in a more beautiful direction. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Slow Pastors: We Need Some New Role Models

I always fancied myself an electric razor kind of guy, but I recently made the move toward a five blade manual razor—the Gillette Fusion ProGlide, to be exact. My world already feels too rushed. Why must I make shaving as efficient as possible? It’s nice to slow down, to feel the gel on your hands, massage it into your skin, and then to hear the crackling sound of sandpaper as the razor is pulled down.  It beats the electric sound of buzzing anyway.  I wonder if hipsters buy classic shave sets and vinyl because they just want to slow down. A manual razor seems to be a step in the right direction for me. 

God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. We worship a patient God. I think of the work that the ekklesia project has done on ‘slow church.’ “[This] is the God who walked with his people for forty years across the wilderness, sat with his people for seventy years in exile, attends to the impoverished and down-and-out, considers the lilies of the fields, loves this world enough to become human, died on a cross rather than kill, and took three days to be resurrected.” (See Any God who calls humans to be God’s hands and feet is surely not in any hurry.

Lent is a time to slow down. It’s a time where we remember that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. That’s striking, right? Jesus spends 40 days alone before any ‘real ministry’ takes place. Jesus calls us to go into the wilderness, too, and to become slow and to waste time (in the eyes of the world).  We give up technology that we might look each other in the eyes and develop the gift of truly being present. Other Christians adopt diets that make us remember that food takes time—plants must grow and animals must graze.  Pastors, if anyone, must learn that slow can be a  good thing.  Oftentimes our biggest accomplishment is a well-formed prayer after a visitation or a good paragraph in a sermon. A slow week at church does not feel like an opportunity for more time in prayer, study, and writing—it’s torture; I pull my hair out until I find something ‘productive’ to do, like help someone.

That’s partly because all of our current Christian pastor heroes are not known for being slow. We endorse the ‘Rob Bells’ and in the United Methodist Church, the ‘Adam Hamiltons.’ I read people like Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas who ‘have no unpublished thoughts.’ It’s about volume—the number of worshippers, the number of mission projects, the number of original theological thoughts. We look up to the kinds of people that make us wonder, “How do you do so much?” None of these things can be accomplished by going on ‘prayer walks,’ right?

During Lent I remember the unproductive Christians—the fathers who ventured out to the wilderness, the mystics who lived in convents, the Christians who waste their time by staring at rocks. I remember people like Julian of Norwich. She found God in an acorn and it changed her life.  Yes, an acorn. As she held the acorn in her hands she wondered, “What can this be?”  And God spoke to her, “It is everything which is made. For God made it. God loves it. And God preserves it.”  Paying attention to it, she learned how God paid attention to her. Holding it, she learned how God held her.   Julian writes, “Love was its meaning.  Who reveals it to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.” You can't notice an acorn if you drive everywhere.

The mainstream church needs heroes like Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, which is a group home for those with mental disabilities. Vanier's community was less about consuming God and more about kenosis, self-emptying vulnerability. L'Arche is about learning to love one another. Vanier writes, “Love doesn't mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”  Vanier didn’t build a legacy by packing stadiums with his sermons. He participated in the slow formation of a community that became a part of Christ’s subversive kingdom.

We need more exemplars like Julian and Vanier. Although, I presume that Vanier is ok with being ‘relatively’ anonymous. These are the people who are doing the patient, enduring work of God in our world. They are the ones who challenge us to become incarnate in a community, even if we did not choose it, and learn to love its strengths and weaknesses. Where are all the slow pastors? No, really, where are they?  Maybe we are too busy to find them or don’t want to move slow enough to notice them. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Broken Lent

I broke my Lenten discipline. I mean this literally—the Rosary I decided to wear during Lent snapped in my sleep. I have always flirted with Catholicism and Orthodox spirituality. Catholic and Orthodox mystics are more interesting than most Protestants I have run into.  We are so concerned with written words that we forget that we have five senses to drive us into the presence of the divine.  We are allowed to use images, icons, beads, and candles. Really, it’s ok. I've learned to try anything that might help me learn how to pray, even a Rosary. I rarely prayed through the Rosary in one sitting, but every time I noticed the cold beads pressing against my skin I was compelled to throw a prayer dart to heaven. It worked until it broke. I am not surprised that it has been around for a few hundred years.

I didn’t “Hail Mary;” at least, initially. I used the Jesus Prayer in lieu: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Sometimes, I prayed through virtues or fruits of the Spirit.  Strangely, a few days later I found myself praying, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Maybe it was for the thrill.  It felt perilous, or at least mischievous, for a Protestant to utter ‘hail Mary, full of grace.’ After a while it has become cathartic. It’s been nice to know that Mary is waiting to intercede on my behalf when I falter.  I ask my friends to pray for me—so why not ask the theotokos, the mother of Jesus?  She’s lived it all—lowliness, joyfulness, sorrow, loneliness and regret.  I won’t discriminate; we are the body of Christ, the communion of saints. Any words will do when I have none.  

We memorize liturgy and prayers so that we will have something to say when words disappear. What do you say when you sit at the bedside of a loved one or gather at the Jordan River? We say things like, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Written prayer is therapy.  Unfortunately, Methodists are not taught to memorize prayer or Scripture.  I haven’t memorized nearly enough Psalms.  I am learning that I need to have resources locked away when my heart isn’t communicating with my mouth.  Nor are Methodists encouraged to ask a saint for prayer.  Where are we supposed to turn when we forget how to pray? We're out of luck.

Our individualized culture supposes that the best prayers must come from our own hearts.  Or, if we can’t think of the words ourselves then something must be wrong. I am reminded of a story that Lauren Winner shares in her book Still. She writes,

“A four year olds notion is that a prayer is about God, rabbits, deer, Santa, and turkeys. At seven, prayer is when you ask for something you need, like water or rain or snow, then at twelve, the child begins to speak theologically: prayer is how you communicate with God and even ask God for forgiveness.

Older children understand that prayers come within themselves. The older child knows that the child is the author of his own prayer.  I realize I am supposed to think that this is an advance from the younger child’s idea that prayers come from God or from heaven.  But I do not think it is an advance. I think it is something those children will unlearn, later, if they keep praying. I think they will come to know that the youngest children are right. I think they will come to know that their prayers do not, in fact, come from within themselves. I can participate in prayer (or not) show up to pray (or not) but I am not the author of my prayers; when they come, they come from God (76-7).”

Lately, I haven’t been the ‘author’ of many prayers.  I’ve used prayers from Scripture and prayers from saints. Most of the time Scripture and tradition have already said what I want to say with more eloquence, poignancy, and honesty.  This Lent, I am relearning the notion that I must be the author of my own prayers. And that's ok because sometimes the well has run dry. Maybe you’ve never been vacant and empty, but one day you probably will. And then you’ll learn that prayers in a book and intercession from Mary are still prayers because all prayer comes from God.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Holy Land

Jesus descended into the pit

Israelis wear skinny jeans, separation barriers between countries are heart-rending, and it’s ok to go to a bar in Palestine. These were a few of my surprises during my trip to the ‘Holy Land.’ Of course, there were larger and more significant spiritual surprises, too.  Pastors often hear the phrase “the Bible comes alive in the Holy Land ” but I didn’t completely buy it because I succumb to pride. I changed my mind when we were immersed into the cave where Jesus likely spent the night before he died. We read Psalm 88, “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down into the pit.”  I realized that I had never really read Psalm 88. 
Time-space is important to God because God chooses particularity. And if God did not choose a specific time, land, or people then we would not really know God.  It’s all about revelation. That’s how our God works. Yet, too often we forget that God did not choose to become incarnate in the United States of America.  Jesus wasn’t born in South Georgia (like me).  The Word became flesh, Jewish flesh, and pitched his tent Nazareth, Capernaum and Jerusalem.  It was a blessing to see the particularities of where God chose to reveal Godself—the people, architecture, and geographical distinctions will deeply affect the way you read Scripture.   

Some insights are fairly insignificant, but still interesting—David was able to easily spot Bathsheba (and likely, many other women) bathing on the rooftop, Jesus probably got really tired walking up all the mountains in Galilee, and there really are palm trees all over the place. Other insights are more profound.  A city on a hill is beautiful and can be spotted from miles away, Jesus went way out of his way when he travelled to Samaria to minister to those on the fringes, and one really can move mountains (after all, that’s what Herod did with the Herodion).
Seeking refuge from the rain

Bishop Goodpaster reminded us of the contrast between the magnificent Herodion and the humility of Shepherd’s field (Jesus’ birthplace).  On our first day in the Holy Land we walked through the remains of King Herod’s fortress, the Herodion, a fortress fit for a king. Shortly after, we drove a few miles down to The Church of the Nativity and Shepherd’s field.  It began to rain hard and we sought refuge in a cave like the stable in which Jesus was born. Don’t miss the paradox: our king takes refuge in a cave, while the worldly king reigns on top of a mountain.  That’s what our God chose. 

Along the way I gained a greater appreciation of our Jewish roots.  We need the help of Israeli and Palestinian Christians lest we continue to create Jesus in our own image. Or, is this just me?  I am prone to create God in my own image and force Scripture into my established cultural biases. Just ask my wife how many times I said, “That’s not how I pictured it.” Our tour guide, Deeb, took us to the Mt. of Beatitudes and read us ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’  This native of Jerusalem then told us that the kernel of Christianity is, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” It was the closest Deeb came to preaching.  Jesus’ words continue to be the greatest challenge for that small piece of land in the Middle East.

 I am a little less likely to plop Jesus down in Western North Carolina.  My white, North American lenses have become a little bit thinner and Jesus no longer looks as Aryan as he did before. And this is really significant. I think of the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman—you know, the ‘half-Jew’ who was despised by the Jewish people.  Jesus says rather bluntly, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is of the Jews.”

I’m glad that I’m continuing to learn that I, too, really don’t know.

The wall separating Israel and Palestine