Thursday, September 21, 2017

When Autumn Arrives

Summer was long.

From a strict passage of time sort of perspective, it was just as long as it always is. There are only a certain amount of minutes, hours, and days in the months of June through August, and nobody has found a way to add more.

But still, summer was long. As in, it felt long, and for more than one reason.

June was fine. I enjoyed my first vacation since December and after I got back turned right around and headed to Baltimore for the UCC's General Synod. That month was relaxing and rejuvenating and it was everything that I needed it to be as my first real break in six months.

But July and August were long. Again, no longer than usual measurement-wise, but existentially, it could not have been any longer. I usually have a lot more free time during this season of the year, and when I'm not keeping my mind occupied with the needs and tasks of ministry, my thoughts veer into everything I'm doing wrong, have done wrong, will probably do wrong in the future. And for various reasons largely inappropriate for this medium, my mind decided that it was going to work all manner of day and night and early morning to sort through these issues again and again and again.

String enough of those days and sleepless hours together, and your spirit doesn't have much left by the end.

Sometime in August, I realized how desperate I was for fall. I always hit a moment like that as the summer months wind down, but this was an inner plea stronger than I've experienced in a while. The thought of fall's arrival, of the days ticking down toward September, the mere thought that the calendar will soon change like it always does, helped move my soul from Level Just Give Up to Keep Calm And Watch For Pumpkins.

I get how arbitrary this sounds, like the passage of time doesn't really affect people in this way, does it? Given how Seasonal Affective Disorder and its summer opposite are real, quantifiable, observable things, I think I have at least some ground to stand on here. I wouldn't presume to self-diagnose, but something was happening to me in July and August that was causing me spiritual and emotional anguish.

The moment I noticed something was changing came while I read MGoBlog's massive preview of Michigan's upcoming football season, as quintessential a fall feature if ever there was one. As I read through Brian Cook's detailed description of the program's quarterback situation, a pleasantly intrusive thought came to the forefront:

"You know, things are going to be okay."

This time of year does that. For me, the mere anticipation of fall's approach causes muscles to relax, energy to tick upward, mood to improve, outlook to brighten. It's how others experience summer or Christmas, where the intangibles of the season work their magic and provide reassurance that, in the midst of self-doubt and spiritual desolation, at least there's still this.

And no matter what else is happening, this will always arrive and make the rest of it more bearable.

Monday, September 18, 2017

What Churches Can Learn from Doctor Who

I've contributed a post to the Ohio Conference UCC blog, Holy Experiments, entitled What Churches Can Learn from Doctor Who.

An excerpt:

A few weeks ago, the BBC announced the newest person to play The Doctor beginning next season: Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to take on the role. When the show returns for its annual Christmas episode this December, we will see the current Doctor played by Peter Capaldi transform into Whittaker’s as-yet-unestablished version of the beloved character.

As you might be able to imagine, this has divided the fanbase. And even if you’ve never seen the show, you can probably make some educated guesses as to what those on each side of the debate are saying.

And you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the church.

Read the whole thing at Holy Experiments.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Vintage CC: All About Eve

I wrote this in October 2013, shortly after we'd put down our beloved cat Eve. Four years later I still think about her quite often, and in certain situations catch myself reflecting on what she would have done. She truly was a member of our family, and I still miss her.

As soon as we walked into the kennel, she started putting on a show. She rolled onto her back, her head upside-down and almost pressed against her cage, while she stretched a paw toward us through the bars. All of this while a constant stream of meows burst forth, as if she couldn't get them out quickly enough to tell us everything that she wanted to say.

There really was no debate that day about who would come keep us company at our new apartment in West St. Louis County. We'd just moved off of Eden's campus and in short order wanted to take advantage of our newfound freedom to have a non-human companion help to transform our new space into a home. And she did, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, as she'd wake us frequently in the dead of night with a series of sandpapery kisses. No matter how many times she'd be gently removed, she'd be right back again. In hindsight, we were her new family and maybe she was just joyful to have one.

We named her Eve. It's common to think that since I'm a pastor, this was a reference to the Biblical character. Actually, the allusion is a little more obscure and clever than that: since she was black and white, it was suggested by the psychology major that we name her after the first documented case of Dissociative Personality Disorder whose personas were known as Eve White and Eve Black. Maybe that explanation is more interesting or more disappointing. But we liked it.

Of the three cats we eventually acquired, Eve was always the most affectionate. Those uninvited middle-of-the-night wake-up calls never stopped, although they did become less frequent as she learned to be satisfied with lying between legs or up against someone's back. More notable, perhaps, was the way she'd seize the opportunity to take up residence on your lap shortly after you sat down. All the subtle hints given that you wished to get up would only be met with wide-eyed stares, the rest of her body only slightly adjusting so that she could remain.

This was one of her greatest gifts, the way she'd get you to slow down for a while and just enjoy the warmth of her company. This is a common behavior with cats to be sure, but neither of the other two do it like she did. She had a better way of sensing when she was needed; of sharing herself when we were most harried or upset.

There's a Calvin and Hobbes strip where the two title characters are getting ready for bed while expressing disappointment that the day's play couldn't have lasted longer. But then one suggests to the other that they can keep playing in their dreams together, so they make plans to do so. Maybe I, too, can hold out for such a hope that rough-tongued kisses and warm laps may still happen where dreams dwell, the gifts of a special friend still enjoyed.

Monday, September 11, 2017

What is the Liturgical Calendar?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?, What is the Labyrinth?

Both people who use the liturgical calendar and those who don't might not consider it a spiritual practice. Many familiar with it know it as the primary determinant for the rhythm of a church's worship life throughout the year, including how you decorate the sanctuary, what sorts of songs you sing, and the scripture texts that are read and preached on. And yet this in itself is the shaping of spiritual practice; how one moves through one theme to another, one calendar alongside others.

There are possibilities beyond Sunday worship of both communal and individual natures for spiritual formation as well.

First, what do we mean when we talk about a "liturgical calendar?" We mean a schedule of dates and seasons laid overtop that of the Gregorian calendar that commemorate different moments in the life of Jesus and the early church. Various cycles for reading and preaching certain Biblical texts called lectionaries have been set up to coincide with the liturgical year, highlighting certain themes and stories according to the season.

The liturgical calendar did not emerge whole cloth. Rather, it was established gradually with certain days and seasons preceding others (did you know that Epiphany used to be a bigger celebration than Christmas?). Eventually, most church traditions settled on an agreed-upon calendar that they still observe today. The Orthodox tradition does things a little differently, which is for another post. The rest of this explanation will deal with what most other traditions know and observe.

What, then, are the seasons of the liturgical calendar?

Advent: The very first season of the calendar begins on the Sunday closest to November 30th and is marked by the 4 Sundays prior to Christmas. The traditional color of Advent is purple to symbolize royalty and waiting, and is a time to reflect on themes of yearning for God's redemption and salvation in dark times. Many churches also use blue to symbolize hope. This season is one of preparing for and anticipating the arrival of God's new promise in the form of the birth of Jesus.

Christmas: This is known more as a single day than as a season, but the celebration of Christmas actually lasts 12 days beginning on December 25th and continuing through January 5th. The color of this season is white, which symbolizes purity and God's glory. It is the celebration of the arrival of Jesus, the one promised and hoped for during Advent.

Epiphany and the season after: Varying in length, the season after Epiphany starts on January 6th and lasts until the day before Ash Wednesday. The color of Epiphany Day is white, but the season after is usually green to symbolize what is called Ordinary Time, when we also think about how God is part of our everyday lives apart from special celebrations. As mentioned, Epiphany preceded Christmas and was and still is a time to reflect on the mystery of God's incarnation in Jesus. Part of this season's culmination is Transfiguration Sunday, during which we read the story of Jesus' appearance changing on a mountain to hint at his special identity as God's Son.

Lent: Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent lasts 40 days and 6 Sundays, ending on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The Sundays of this season are listed separately because they "don't count" toward what is meant to be a time of penitence, preparation, confession, and discipline; you get to enjoy a small time of celebration and relief one day a week. This season's color is purple, again symbolizing royalty and waiting. It culminates during Holy Week, the final week of Lent, which is a time of remembering and re-presenting the events of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, final meal with the disciples, arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Easter: Considered the highest day on the calendar, Easter is the joyous celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Like Christmas, people often mistake this as a one-day observance, when really it is a season that lasts 50 days, often called The Great 50 Days. The color of Easter is white, symbolizing new life. This season features many stories of Jesus' appearances to the disciples and others after being raised, and his instructions to them to continue his ministry. This season ends the day before Pentecost. It also moves around on the calendar, set on the first Sunday after the first new moon after the Spring Equinox, which can set it anywhere from late March to late April. This in turn affects when the seasons around it begin.

Season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time): Beginning the day of Pentecost, which is the celebration of the Holy Spirit's descending on the disciples in Acts 2, this season spans 5-6 months through most of the summer and fall until we begin again on the First Sunday of Advent. This season is colored green, symbolizing the ordinariness of the everyday and God's presence in it apart from a special observance.

With all that explanation and background, how do we use it as a spiritual practice?

1. Find a calendar, devotional book, or website that can serve as your go-to reference for where you are in the liturgical year. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to this; find one you're most comfortable with and can access with little trouble.
2. Find the season, week, and day (if applicable) of the current season. In many books and websites, this will include relevant scripture readings.
3. Explore other traditions associated with the season. During Advent, for example, many light Advent wreaths to mark the Sundays leading up to Christmas. During Lent, many take on a discipline of "giving up" some indulgence or habit. There are many possibilities to help you really get into the season in mind, body, and spirit, beyond reading scripture.
4. Set aside time to spend with the stories and figures that give shape to the season, e.g., the prophet Isaiah or John the Baptist during Advent, the post-resurrection stories during Easter, or the early church stories in Acts during Ordinary Time. Use lectio divina if it will help.

The possibilities are quite bountiful when it comes to using the liturgical calendar for one's own spiritual enrichment. It can serve to shape the rhythm of your devotional life not just on Sundays, but every day.