Monday, March 02, 2015

God's Anonymous Ones

As I enter through heavy wooden doors, I encounter a hush that is understood rather than enforced. I sign in; the woman sitting at the desk looks up and smiles pleasantly, asking me who I am there to see. The smile gives way to a look of recognition as she points me toward the hallway and tells me the room number.

I pass a nurse's station that is more bustling than I am used to. Maybe I never wanted to notice the amount of noise that exists here. Maybe I'm the only one who thought that such a place deserves as little conversation as possible. I pass through the midst of another family standing in the hall, members gathered in groups. They pay just enough attention to allow my passage.

I arrive at the room, but am told to wait outside for a moment. I lean against the wall, not feeling hurried. It is while here that I begin to catch snippets of conversation from the other family. I don't look at them directly in an effort to minimize my voyeurism, but I inevitably gain a better understanding of what has just occurred: their slumped shoulders, vacant stares, pithy phrases exchanged about a "good long life." I've been a part of many of these scenes. There are certain commonalities, but each is still unique: reality altered, disorientation sets in for a time, a treasured companion gone.

A nurse emerging from the room interrupts my reflection, and I am allowed to enter.

At this juncture, her disease has overcome her ability to speak. She strives and strains, but it takes tremendous concentration to understand. I've brought along a Bible, and read a few passages to her. We allow the silence to interrupt us often. I pray for her. We hold hands for a while. Then it's time for me to go.

In this place, as in many, nobody really notices visitors. Staff and other guests understand that there's some relationship, some reason for being there, but we don't say unless we're asked. There's always an understanding: you're here for your thing and I'm here for mine. We'll share an elevator or stand in line for coffee or sit in waiting rooms with a chair or more between us if we can manage it.

We certainly have something on our minds, of course. After all, some situation has brought us together. It might be cancer or a surgery or a broken bone or an aneurysm. We won't tell unless prompted. We won't be prompted except by someone we trust or with authority, or both. In the meantime, we'll catch brief phrases on the way past each other or notice the body language. Noticing what we can from the non-exchange, each of us continue on our divergent paths.

I once attended a lecture by a noted author and speaker. I couldn't tell you the exact content of her talk that day, but we were all riveted by her personality if not the subject matter. We'd read her books and many had no doubt heard her on prior occasions. I brought along one such book for the occasion, hoping that I could get it signed if I had a chance.

I was thankful to see that I would have such an opportunity. As she signed it, she made small talk about where I was from and maybe something about what I did. I don't really remember much about that either. The only thing I do remember is the terseness with which the conversation ended: a beat of silence, followed by a single, "Goodbye." There was a line behind me, after all.

I'm sure I took some notes from that lecture. I could root around and find them if I wanted to revisit them. I'd read her written words and jotted down thoughts from words spoken, but my words to her would be forgotten as soon as I walked away. It's easier for many listening to one than the other way around. No, whatever I said to her was like two passing in a hallway, picking up just enough, then forgotten.

I return to that same hushed space a week later. I pass through another hallway vigil of weary phrases  and step into a room that had seen dozens of occupants and hundreds of interactions just like ours. I read and pray and be silent, without fanfare or celebrated wisdom. No crowd gathers to hang on our words; no one records our conversation for prosperity. We are the other's only audience.

This is how it is among God's anonymous ones.

Friday, February 27, 2015

February 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for February...

1. I was given Eager to Love by Richard Rohr as a Christmas gift, and have been reading it little by little the past few weeks. It's actually my first encounter with Rohr's writing, although I've been meaning to check out some of his stuff for a while after a lot of glowing recommendations by colleagues. In this work, Rohr examines the lives and witness of Francis and Clare of Assisi, as well as their enduring influence on religious orders and Christian practice in general. I'm a longtime Francis fan, and this has been a fascinating and inspiring look into the spirituality behind what he and Clare were trying to do in their movements. They were both devoted followers of Jesus, and while their approach seemed radical in their own time, I think it still would today.

2. When I finished all of the episodes of Parks and Recreation available on Netflix (read: all of them save the season currently airing), I thought that the final episode of last season would have been a perfect finale. I knew they were planning one more season, but I would have been perfectly satisfied if they'd ended it there. Another season, with a time jump and a drastically different set of circumstances for most of the characters, caused me to worry that the latest episodes would feel unnecessary. Thankfully, I haven't felt that way. The characters' lives are clearly different, but their personalities and relationships remain largely the same. The series finale, which aired this past week, featured a look into where each of them will end up doing, as well as a celebration of what Leslie has striven to do the entire series: work to make the lives of others even a little better. As fitting as I thought the previous season finale was, this did just as well.

3. We're nearing the end of the newer episodes of Doctor Who on Netflix, which includes all but the latest series with Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor. Jenna Louise Coleman is the current companion to Matt Smith's Doctor, who provides a bit of spunk that others haven't had. I loved the story arc with the Doctor's impending death from the sixth series, but the seventh seems a bit meandering and disjointed, perhaps in part because there's a change in companions midway. What I'm really looking forward to is finally watching the 50th anniversary show, which as of this writing we're only a few episodes away from.

4. I've been listening to and enjoying Paperhaus' new self-titled album this month. I never heard of them prior to a few weeks ago; they have kind of a Modest Mouse vibe, with lots of focus on the interaction between guitars as their driving sound. There are only 8 tracks on the album, but each takes its time in developing musically. As mentioned, there's a lot of interplay between guitar sounds, and plenty of room given for meandering and noodling, with some long instrumentals. Being acclimated to jambands, I didn't mind these the way others would, and I was simply appreciative of the musicianship and experimentation. While each song gives itself a lot of space, the album as a whole gets in and gets out. I especially liked "Cairo," "Untitled," and "Surrender." Here's the video for "Cairo:"

5. I've also been listening to Tomorrow Is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens, which pulls from a wide variety of musical influences including blues, soul, bluegrass, and gospel. Giddens' voice itself is smooth and strong, and each song showcases her many talents amid a diversity of instruments. Here she is performing "Waterboy" on Letterman:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Saint Francis and Doctor Who

"Wherever we are, wherever we go, we bring our cell with us. Our brother body is our cell and our soul is the hermit living in the cell. If our soul does not live in peace and solitude within this cell, of what avail is it to live in a man-made cell?" - Francis of Assisi

I've been thinking about this quote from Francis quite a bit lately. Part of the reason he's remembered so much for his connection to nature is that he was always out in it, out wanting to commune with the world rather than spend all his time in a monastery room. We don't need a cell in a special building, he said. Our own bodies are our cells. They go places, as they're meant to do. They interact and connect and bump into others. We ourselves are a sacred room in God's great big monastery. And we should seek comfort within ourselves in order to rest peaceably there.

We carry our cells with us. They're always present, not to retreat into but to live within comfortably.

So naturally, that got me thinking about Doctor Who.

The Doctor has a special ship called the TARDIS, an amazing piece of Time Lord technology that looks like an old-time British police box on the outside, but is much, much bigger on the inside. Not only can it travel through space, but it can travel through time as well. "Anywhere you want," the Doctor is fond of telling his companions. It can go there with a few buttons pushed and switches flipped. Any planet or country, past or future, the TARDIS can take you there.

But as incredible as it is, the TARDIS is not to be sat in idly. It contains a vast expanse of rooms and capabilities, but its true purpose is to get you someplace where you then leave it behind for a while in order to explore where it's taken you. Don't worry, it'll be locked. It's safe. People rarely tend to take advantage while you're away.

Now, here's another trick that this ship has up its sleeve. Even when you wander away from it, you're still connected to it. Some of its powers go with you as you poke around the brave new world in which you've landed. It translates alien languages in your head. It sometimes gives its travelers the ability to heal or to stave off threats. Even though you've left it physically, it goes with you.

The Doctor and his companions carry the TARDIS with them.

So of course, this brings me to the church.

Those of us who serve established churches usually find ourselves working with a faith community with a set of assumptions about what the church is. Even the word "church" usually connotes something specific, that being Sunday worship. When you say you're "going to church," you usually mean you're going to worship. That phrase is for that particular event, not the Tuesday committee meeting or the Wednesday Bible study or the Saturday service project. When you say you're going to church, you mean the Sunday morning moment where you sing and listen to a sermon and pray and give money.

The word "church" also usually means a place with stained glass, classrooms, a fellowship hall, offices, and a steeple. Most in established faith communities speak of church as a physical place to which you go to do a specific set of activities. And this physical place needs attention and time and a great big set of budget line items to maintain it.

Now here's where we remind each other that the church is more than that building. There's even a Sunday School song about it: "the church is the people" and all that. But aside from singing that every once in a while, how good are churches at living it?

We are in a time where life in the church isn't what it used to be. Budgets and membership are shrinking, people are finding other things to do with their Sunday mornings besides "going to church." The whole practice of going to a place for even a few hours a week seems like a big daunting production for some families.

So how might we think about "church" in a new way? How might we think about ourselves as individual cells in God's great big monastery, in which we pray and are at peace with God and ourselves? How might we think of the church as more like the TARDIS, a community outpost that is always with us and empowering us even when we are apart from it? How can the church be a place that takes us to amazing new spiritual places when we are together, but is still with us the rest of the week when we're apart?

There's no easy answer. But if we start imagining, God might help us come up with some great possibilities.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Five Reminders for a Meaningful Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Lent is one of the holiest times of the church year, a season of 40 days and 6 Sundays leading up to remembering Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. It also seems to come with some misconceptions from both observers and non-observers alike. I thought that it might be helpful to share a few reflections and remembrances to help clarify what Lent is. Hopefully it will aid those making this journey toward Easter.

So here are some things to remember about Lent:

1. It's about self-examination, not self-flagellation. Many people recoil at this season because it just seems like such a downer. Who wants to sit around beating themselves up? The larger point is to take honest stock of yourself, and that includes habits, behaviors, and attitudes that don't line up with God's vision. You're invited this time of year to examine yourself, and to identify and seek God's help in transforming those things that hinder or even destroy life (including your own), rather than create it or build it up. Sure, doing that has a good chance of causing you to feel bad about some things. But the intent is to move through the discomfort of facing difficult truths into new ways of viewing God, oneself, and the world.

2. It's about awareness, not artificial sacrifices. A common Lenten tradition is to "give something up" for the duration of the season. Over the years, I myself have given up chocolate, cookies, television, alcohol, the internet, and fast food. A critique that I see fairly often is how First World Problems it all seems, as if staying off Facebook for 40 days is really supposed to bring you closer to God. True enough, by itself giving up sweets probably won't do much for your spiritual life. The other part of the equation is the awareness that this act of self-denial is meant to help cultivate. In part, you can consider how much time you may have spent indulging in the thing you gave up and the disordered attachment you have to it. In the meantime, you can fill that space instead with any number of spiritual practices such as devotional time, meditation, lectio divina, and many others.

3. It's about Jesus' suffering, as well as ours. People see Lent as a downer not just for the self-examination component, but because it focuses on Jesus' suffering, including his temptation in the wilderness and all the events of the final days leading up to his death. People are uncomfortable with this for a variety of reasons. But we don't focus on these events as voyeurs or glorifiers of violence. Instead, we are meant to journey with Jesus through them, sorrowing with him. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) to feel the suffering of these events as an integral and inescapable part of Jesus' life, and 2) to consider how God suffers alongside us in the same way.

4. Holy Week makes Easter what it is. I get it. Your week is busy and there's a premium on your weeknight hours. Getting to a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday observance takes a lot of planning and rearranging and it seems like too big of a hassle to attempt. Nevertheless, the events of Jesus' passion, complete with their agony, uncertainty, emptiness, and seeming finality are what give Easter its celebratory power. We can't understand the joy of the resurrection without traveling through the crucifixion. If you can't make it to a service during that week, reflectively reading one of the Gospel accounts a little each day could be a sufficient substitute, as one possibility.

5. Lent was made for people, not people for Lent. This season is what you make of it. Take up practices that speak to you, leave behind those that don't. The journey won't be, and isn't meant to be, the same for any two people. To observe practices that are going to be burdensome, arbitrary, or based on others' expectations rather than help open your heart to the possibilities of the Spirit is counter-productive to the entire exercise. No matter the specifics, the ultimate goal is for you to deepen your awareness of and relationship with God, and to immerse yourself in Jesus' road to the cross. The way you mark this time is between you and God. However you do it, may it be inspired and transformative.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

An Invocation for Transfiguration Sunday

Faithful God, we come together to this moment where we are most obviously and visibly the church. Here we are your gathered people, seeking a sustaining and empowering word from you and from each other. And yet when we leave this edifice of brick and mortar, remind us that we are still the church, less obvious and less visible, but no less connected to Christ and to our fellow pilgrims. By what we receive in this moment set aside as sacred, inspire us and challenge us in the week to come to make other times sacred as well, by reflecting your love to a world in need of a new vision. Amen.