Thursday, February 28, 2013

Assuming tradition that we know

Warren J. Blumenfeld, Associate Professor for the School of Education at Iowa State University, begins his provocative article on Huffpost Religion with a story:

On a cold and windy day this week, outfitted in my warmest winter outfit from head to toes, I entered the Memorial Union on our campus with the intention of mailing a package to my cousin in Portland, Ore. Soon after I pulled open the door through my double-layered gloves and entered the Gold Star Hall, replete with its lovely stained glass windows and the names of Iowa State University students who had fallen in war engraved proudly on the walls, a young man, who had been walking behind me, hurried his pace. 
Overtaking me and looking directly into my eyes, he commanded: "Sir, you need to take off your hat!" 
The door through which one enters the Memorial Union displays a prominent sticker announcing: "If you are able, please take off your hat as a sign of respect." 
I clearly, though firmly, responded to the young man that "Taking off one's hat stems from a Christian tradition. I am Jewish, and to us, we cover our heads as a sign of respect." The man's mouth distorted irritably as he mumbled something under his breath, and he walked down the stairs, possibly on his way to the food court, or maybe to enter the Memorial Union Chapel to compose himself beneath the seven-foot Christian cross while seated upon the pews bearing chiseled crosses on its sides, on our publicly tax supported land-grant university campus. 
The tradition of removing one's hat began in medieval times with men in Christian churches as a sign of respect to God. A number of other religious and cultural traditions, however, including Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and others, show respect for God and for individuals by covering one's head. 
As the old saying goes, the fish is the last to see or even feel the water because it is so pervasive, and therefore, the fish take the water for granted. Often, those beings situated outside the water can, in effect, perceive the water's existence with its edges, depths, surfaces, consistencies and reflections.

Most of Blumenfeld's article, Christians, Fish, and the Removal of Hats, is a call for awareness of the many "Christians standards" that have entrenched into our American society, and a plea for an appreciation of multiculturalism.  

I share Blumenfeld's goals here, but would still be pleased to see the beginnings of an even smaller change:  a challenging of one's self when someone doesn't follow your understanding of a traditional action.  Perhaps there is good reason why someone chooses to do something differently from the norm, and perhaps the opportunity to gain insight to something different outweighs our tendency to take offense.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

DJesus Uncrossed

Saturday Night Live recently lampooned Quentin Tarantino in a very violent video short entitled DJesus Uncrossed.  The sketch is a typical Tarantino bloodbath featuring Jesus coming back from the dead with revenge on the mind:  invoking Tarantino's movie re-imaginings of historical settings concerning Nazis (Inglourious Basterds) and slavery (Django Unchained). 

There has certainly been outcry:  The Catholic League called it "vicious" and the scolded the "snide remark" that the mock film was "less violent than The Passion of the Christ."  

But I have been pleasantly surprised at how many thoughtful reactions there have been as well.  More than one blogger has suggested that the video reveals how misguided many people are who preach a Jesus whose return will be about violence (and credit to Kurt Willems for consolidating them, even as I quote different sections).

David Flowers writes:  I believe that SNL’s portrayal of a “kick ass” Jesus is representative of the bad theology and sloppy biblical hermeneutics that’s so often prevalent among believers who have shaped for themselves an American gun-slinging Jesus—a Jesus that is unlike the Christ revealed in the Gospels.

Heath Bradley writes
:  Christ is declared to be the conqueror over all forces of evil, hence the graphic imagery of violence. Yet, the way he actually “conquers” is through the non-retaliatory, sacrificial love put on display on the cross. This is crucially important to keep in mind, because many people take this imagery at face value and conclude that the second coming of Jesus will be much different than the first coming. 

My favorite response came from David R. Hanson on Patheos.  The whole piece is fantastic, and this is only part: 

We’ve been trying to uncross Jesus for decades in this country, long before SNL got their pens into him. 
We have tried to arm him with our military-industrial complex, drape him with our xenophobia, outfit him with our weapons, and adorn him with our nationalism. We’ve turned the cross into a flagpole for the Stars and Stripes. We have no need for Tarantino to reimagine the story of Jesus into a fantasy of violent revenge. We’ve done it for him. We’ve already uncrossed him, transforming him from a servant into a triumphalist who holds the causes and interests of our country on his back rather than brutal execution.

The SNL sketch reveals the paucity of American popular theology with its camouflage and flag-draped Bibles that segregate the story of God for American patriots only. It pulls back the curtain and shows us just how twisted our Jesus really is: We want a Savior like the one SNL offers. We want the Son of God to kick some ass and take some names. Specifically, our enemies’ names. And maybe the names of a few godless Democrats. Definitely the Muslims. And the atheists. And the … I could go on. 
Say what you will about how offensive SNL’s sketch was. Our popular theology is more so. Because we should know better. 
But satire reveals truths that are hard to hear. That triumphalist Savior many of us worship? He more resembles the sword and gun-toting DJesus who brings righteous vengeance than the prophetic vagabond foot-washer Jesus who preaches liberation and love of neighbor in the Gospels. The Savior we have created in our own violent images seems more like a character of a Tarantino film than the one at the heart of God’s story of eternal love. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Power and temptations

Luke's temptation story (Luke 4:1-13), where the devil meets up with Jesus in the wilderness, is all about power and its dangers.  The final two temptations are great examples of how power can corrupt.

The second temptation:  “If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.” 

For the price of worship, the devil offers Jesus the opportunity to rule the world with justice. End the tyranny of Rome: instant regime change. Jesus could accomplish great things for the world by accepting this temptation, by “playing the world’s game for a good purpose.” (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, edited by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor.) 

This fit the vision of what many expected of the Jewish Messiah:  the one who would restore the Davidic kingdom.  Put us back in charge of everyone and everything.  Certainly Jesus would be a better ruler than Caesar.

The third temptation: “Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)” 

This doesn’t sound like anything’s offered here, but in truth it may the greatest offer of all. Take control of the temple. Establish righteous leadership. Restore the rightful place of the temple as the center of faithful living. All it would take is an example to the community, and Jesus could have ultimate religious power to be used for good.

It might be troublesome to realize that the devil tempts Jesus with good things. We tend to think of the devil leading us to only do bad things, but that’s often not the case. Governance with justice is a good thing. Righteous religious leadership is a good thing. To make it harder, all of these things fit into Jesus ministry: Jesus, throughout his ministry, will advocate governing with justice and faithfully wield religious power.

The devil seeks to move Jesus only to solutions, or to taking “the end justifies the means” approach. The devil seeks to divert Jesus from faithfully walking God’s unknown path towards a more certain one with results measurable to the it worldly goods, political power, or religious power. The focus for Jesus, however, is the kingdom of God...and remains so in the midst of the temptations.

We can see parallels for us on a smaller scale.  We are temped to use our own politics of power:  be it force over someone, or under the guise of religious power where "we're right" (and you're wrong).

But for a moment, let's additionally consider the first, somewhat neglected temptation:  turning stone to bread.  I've suggested in the past that this is the devil suggesting that Jesus take on the blight of mass hunger.  Work your God magic:  feed the hungry and solve this societal woe.

Then again, perhaps this is not what is happening here...

Luke's text says that "for forty days he was tempted by the devil".  That makes it sound to me like they've been going at it for awhile, and what we have in Luke is the "final round" of temptations.  

I imagine the devil saying, "Look Jesus, you should eat something now before we continue.  You need your strength if you're going to best me here, and your rumbling stomach is getting on my nerves.  Just turn this stone to bread:  no one will know and it won't hurt anyone.  For God's sake have something to eat."

What would it matter?

Funny thing about temptation:  it's not usually the big stuff that first gets us in trouble.  It doesn't usually begin with hurting others, but in the rather careless way we use our power without considering what it does to ourselves.  

Episcopal priest Rick Morley wrote:

Satan starts by tempting Jesus to eat some bread, which Jesus can make out of a stone. 
I mean, why not? Is there anything particularly wrong with that? After fasting for forty days, he can’t eat a little bread? 
He can change water-into-wine, but stones-into-rocks is out of bounds? 
But, the real question is—is that what God had in mind for Jesus on that day? Was that God’s plan for Jesus right then? Was that how God wanted Jesus to be fed? 
Obviously not. 
You see, temptation isn’t just about the desire to stick your hand in the cookie jar. It’s about being led towards disobedience. It’s a lack of discernment—or the willing deviation from the discerned will of God. 
The Christian life is meant to be a life of seeking after God. Listening for God. Listening to God. Following God. 
And, when following God’s will, sometimes we’ll pass up things that are just fine. But, things which God didn’t have for us to do this day, or in this particular way. 
Spiritual maturity looks not just for the things that are passable, or explainable. Not just for the things that will get you into trouble. 
But, spiritual maturity looks for the way that God has set before us, and then summons the courage to go there—and to ask for God’s help along the way.

Luke did something very clever:  his long list of names of whom Jesus is related to differs to Matthew's in two significant ways.  Matthew links his audience back to Abraham, their spiritual father.  Luke, writing with a Gentile audience in mind, brings us all the way back to Adam.  Additionally, he has the list not at the beginning of his Gospel like Matthew, but right before the temptation story.  Right before the devil temps Jesus to turn stone to bread, we trace Jesus' bloodline back to "Adam, son of God."

"Don't worry Adam...that apple won't kill you...who's going to know?"

This realization concerning temptations can have great impact on our daily lives.   What is God calling us to be?  What helps us go forward in that journey?  What are the things that we can do to help live into God's vision for the world, and what distracts us from that path?  How often do the things that "don't really hurt anyone" keep us from living into the hope of God?

This Lent calls us to use our ears, mind and heart to discern the path God would have for us, and perhaps to resist some of our more familiar and comfortable temptations.

Together, we can do it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Get a grip, Kurt

Yesterday I suggested that "regular" posts might mean everyday...

Unless I want them to be like this current one, it WON'T be EVERY day.

Still, regular will mean multiple posts per week.

That is all (for now)!


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ashes to go

Ash Wednesday was a new experience for me, in no small part to the "Ashes to Go" movement by some in the Episcopal Church.

Yes, I presided for our usual Noon service, and the 7pm is still to come, but in addition, I offered "Ashes to Go" in two locations:  The White Mountain School, and in front of the post office here in Littleton.

Last year, I did a short service in the chapel at the school, and then hung around for stragglers.  The problem is, the chapel is out of the way and gloomy.

So this year, using the Ashes to Go model, I stood in the school's Great Hall, right by the cafeteria (guaranteeing foot traffic), wearing my cassock and surplus.

The most memorable moment came when a poor student couldn't negotiate the stairs, in no small part distracted by the guy in the strange clothing.  The space worked well, and seven of the students and 3 staff members came over for ashes.

Here is what I handed out to them (modified from the online resources for Ashes to Go):

Why “Ashes to Go”? 
(Or:  why I’m standing in the Great Hall in these strange clothes offering ashes from burnt palm branches) 
Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence. From the Middle Ages it became the custom to begin Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross. The reminder that we are dust turns our attention to the creative power of God, and God’s ability to heal the brokenness in our lives when we offer that brokenness to God. That turning to God is the work of Lent, preparation for the celebration of Easter. 
I’m offering ashes here today because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building. We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business! The ashes we receive here are to remind us throughout the day of our need for God, and of God’s call to us. 
There is much more to the beginning of Lent than ashes alone, and I encourage you to make time for worship with a community of faith, for the support of others and of the great traditions of faith in our work of repentance and renewal. But God meets us not just in worship, but in the midst of life, and we offer the opportunity to remember our faith to those whose schedules make it hard to stop and pray with others today.

I spent an hour standing by the crosswalk in front of the post office, mostly waving to people in passing cars.  Most people simply waved back, but the smiles of recognition and delight from some were priceless.  One man rolled down his window to shout out "what a wonderful and thoughtful idea!", before continuing on.  I was a bit stunned when a woman brought out her checkbook to give a donation to the church before receiving her ashes. All in all it was a great experience. I might have stayed longer than the intended hour, if not for my fingers needing some warmth.  By the end of the hour, three people parked their cars to get out to receive ashes, and another six on foot asked for ashes as well.  I was really pleased with the quality of the conversations.

I know not everyone is comfortable with Ashes to Go, but I am convinced that it is well worth our time in addition to offering our regular services.  I really liked Scott Gunn's post on the subject, excepted below:

The world is more full of seekers and wanderers than it is of disciples. Our task, as Christians, is to share the Good News and preach a gospel of hope in a world without much real hope. If we limit ourselves to those who would cross our thresholds first, we will be limited indeed. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. One need not be baptized to receive them. And, it seems to me, the act of receiving an ashen cross and a reminder of one’s mortality is as good an invitation to repent as many will ever receive. That gray cross is a powerful sign, even when that’s all there is. 
Let’s look at it another way. What’s the down side of Ashes to Go? Might we cheapen the experience for “real” Christians? Surely not. Those who have committed themselves to the faith will hardly equate a quick prayer at a train station with a full-on Ash Wednesday liturgy with a Christian community. Might we cheapen the Christian faith for those who are seeking? I don’t think so, though no one could be sure. It seems to me that lay leaders and clergy who don vestments are, in some ways, taking Paul up on his offer to be fools for Christ. And the morning commuter is taking a more than a small risk walking onto a train with an ash cross on her or his forehead. 
If Ashes to Go is a replacement for the Christian community gathering for the beginning of Lent, then I would be worried. That’s not what’s happening though. Rather, Ashes to Go is a complement to the gathered community, an opportunity both to share the need for Good News and the Good News itself. 
With our church finding itself ignored more and more easily in a busy consumer world, I see plenty of good in the act of stepping out into the public square with small containers of ash.

Ash Wednesday today: start of my Lenten discipline

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.

I'm doing Ash Wednesday services at Noon and 7pm at the Church, "Ashes to go" on the sidewalk in front of the Littleton post office at 1pm, and “Ashes to go” at the entrance of the White Mountain School cafeteria at 10:30am (an Episcopal School in Bethlehem, NH).

I'm also naming my "Lenten discipline":   regular reflections here on the blog.

I'm fallen away from it for awhile:  filling up my day with other things.   I've wanted to get back to this type of "writing", but haven't.  

Yesterday, I bumped into George who serves on the board of the Littleton Community Center.  We had a nice brief conversation, during which he expressed that he missed my writings on the blog.  He was the second person to graciously say so in the past few weeks.

It was the final bit of motivation I needed (thanks George!)

Will "regular" mean everyday?  Perhaps:  if I miss one I'm not giving up.  

Blessings to all those beginning their Lenten journeys.