The ministry of Jesus the Christ was inescapably political. At every turn he was setting himself at odds with the powers that be. Rome. Jerusalem. Religious authorities. State authorities. The confusing conflation of the two found in that day and age...
Every act of healing, every act of love,
every proclamation of the jubilee
every lesson taught;
every meal shared;
All of it - political.
A precarious statement from this pulpit given the political activities in the state of Indiana this week. Faith and politics is a mixture that rightly makes us uneasy.
But, Jesus wasn’t running for office. Nor was he lobbying for a bill to be signed into law. The particularities of Jesus’ context were different than our present day circumstances. But that Jesus set himself against the Powers, the Principalities, is plain to see.
"Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
I have a tradition of trying to turn Holy Week into a time of devotion, a time set aside for personal reflection and renewal. Certainly, it is that. But given how we begin this week, this particular service, I wonder if I need to reframe what we are up to this week. What if the political prelude of the procession of palms is the context for the entire story? Rather than treating it like a liturgical prefix, what if we paid attention and saw it as the catalyst for all that will follow. It is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry.
This story isn’t about how everyone around Jesus got it wrong...about how they didn’t understand his true purpose. It is a story about how Jeusus shows us all how far we must go - all the way to the heart of creation itself. It’s not that everyone got it backward. No. Rather, it’s that they simply didn’t take it far enough. They didn’t take it all the way to the cross, to the tomb, and to the third day.
Jesus is bringing the politics of the Kingdom of God into the heart of the political landscape of his time and it baffles everyone. So they respond.
When faced with the politics of the Kingdom of God,
there is almost always a political action in response;
a flexing of political muscle...
...an attempt to close things down. And that’s precisely what happens.
The powers shut it down. Isn’t this just what political power often does? It sets limits. It closes things down. It builds fences to keep the wrong kind of people out.
And, of course, in our own time, we often use Jesus as an excuse to do just that. We call it the Kingdom, but it’s not.
This itself is a misunderstanding of what the politics of the Kingdom are.
Jesus is trying to open things up. He’s asking for mercy. He’s offering grace. He’s trying to open our hearts and minds. He’s trying to open our communities. He wants to give everyone space to breathe, live, learn, and grow into what God created us to be.
Why are we so afraid of giving one another that freedom?
And why, when we are granted that freedom, are we so quick to renounce it?
This is Holy Week. From top to bottom this entire week of liturgies is a retelling of an act of rebellion that was meant to open us up - to open all of creation - to throw open the gates of Hell, overthrow Death and proclaim life. Can this be our politics?
Look around you at the stations of the cross.
What is devotional is political is devotional again.
A first century march on Jerusalem is an act of politics.
A twentieth century march on Selma is an act of devotion.
Can a twenty-first century procession around the block in Berkeley - that act of devotion - be an act of politics? This is the politics of the Kingdom of God and this is the political devotion that is Holy Week.
It is a politic of love and not domination.
It is a politic of love and not violence.
It is a politic of love and not greed.
This is the insurrection of God.
This sermon was preached at All Souls Episcopal Parish, Berkeley, CA.
Filed Under: liturgy
It's not rocket science. If you've been following along, it cannot be too great a surprise to hear that I was unable to get everything done in time for my oral defense. Not for lack of trying, of course, but there it was. The words stopped. There's a baby coming. I have this full time job that I enjoy. There's much to do and I need to do it all.
I'm not suggesting that anything bad has happened or that any of this is particularly unfair, but I'm sitting here trying to recharge. I petered out. Crashed. Burned. Etc. So, I'm going to take a great deal of down time and await Mixtape's arrival in early April.
Thanks again for all your support and encouragement.
Once upon a time I could work on four hours of sleep. Now it seems that though I only manage 4-6 hours most nights, I can no longer do the intense intellectual (an overstatement, perhaps) work that is needed. I'm sitting here allowing the white noise of the internet wash over me in the hopes that something will spark my energy back up. But it's not happening, sadly.
I'm going to have to regroup.
I am afraid I don't have it in me. Yes, I'm whining, but I'm good at whining. So, there's that. I wonder if there's good work for whiners? What would that be? Radio personality? Perhaps.
I don't know how people work full time and do doctoral work. It's too much for me. I'm not even at the dissertation phase. Lordy. Ugh.
Preachers, when you stand in the pulpit and you talk about limitations and failure, what do you talk about? Is it only ever fictional? Is it only ever Moses' stutter? Peter's cluelessness? Maybe it's Martha's work ethic. Or do you stand up there and say, "So, this one time I really fucked up. Let me tell you about it." Or more generously, "Here's a story of when I hit the limits of what time and energy allowed me to do." Do you ever tell those stories? Why or why not?
I don't know what's going to happen next. I'm going to go back to the salt mines. I may make it. It's also possible that I just won't be able to write any more tonight about semiotics and liturgical song. I just don't know.
I just don't know.
How does a sonic symbol function? Maybe we should first ask, "What is a sonic symbol?" Can there be such a thing? It's a foregone conclusion that there is such a thing, in my not-so-humble opinion. Still, I need to "show my work" as the old mathing attage goes. Let's pray I don't drop a negative somewhere along the way.
What follows is an attempt to distill my comps essay into just a few words. The hope is by doing so, the 30-40 page missive will be more clear to me and I can finish it up today. Here is how I framed the question for my comprehensive exam proposal.
In Sonic Theology, Guy Beck wrote, “While historians of religion have routinely conducted research into sacred space and sacred time, they have curiously overlooked or ‘overheard’ the dimension of sacred sound.” To meet the implied challenge of Beck's words, the focus of this particular essay is the hymn “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” by eighteenth century Baptist preacher and hymn writer, John Fawcett (1740 - 1817) and its present-day use as a communion hymn in many American Baptist congregations.
This essay will interpret the hymn and construct a sonic theology through a brief survey of various religious practitioners, the semiotic theories of Thomas Turino (semantic snowballing), Naomi Cummings (listening as an act of love), and Jean-Jacques Nattiez (discourse theory), and the theological notion of "multi-faceted loving" described Augustine's De Trinitae. More than simply about sound itself, a sonic theology is holistic and performative, the sonic elements of the music carrying a variety of theological meanings found in lyrical text, in the ritual context and it performative strategies, in the embodied interpersonal relationships between liturgical participants, as well as participants' memories of past performances of the hymn. This essay will argue that a sonic theology is constructed in ritual context between individuals participating in worship and over time.
I. Introduction: Beck's challenge is a helpful one. Both Sonic Theology and his more recent volume, Sonic Liturgy take seriously the utility of liturgical studies for an ethnomusicologist like himself. Ed Foley and Mary McGann both provide helpful lenses by which one may understand the function of sonic symbols in liturgy. What I am proposing in this essay is that the semiotics approach of (ethno)musicologists Turino, Cumming, and Nattiez provide a helpful accompaniment to the liturgiological frame. The phenomenon of singing in the liturgy is itself the symbol. There is an objectivity to embodied performance that can be described as "symbolic." To get at this phenomenon, I've pulled together a little ethnographic data on the singing of "Blest Be The Tie That Binds" in Baptist congregations. It's commonly used at communion which gives it a handy liturgical context for the purposes of this essay.
II. History of A Hymn: Baptist Minister John Fawcett (1739-1817) penned the text to "Brotherly Love" in a fit of sentimentality when he left his long-time pulpit for a new job in London. He and his wife were eventually overcome with their grief and returned to the former congregation. It's a curious piece that has two melodies assigned to it though DENNIS is the most common. What I cannot uncover, however, is how and when the hymn made its way to the United States. Did it come in a collection of hymns? Or did Fawcett bring it himself when he was invited to speak at Brown? The historical record is unclear (though this too would make a fun project). Over the years Fawcett added several verses though contemporary hymnals include only three or four.
III. Present Day Performance: Here's the fun question as far as I'm concerned...Where did this little tradition come from and how widespread is it? No one knows. Again, did Fawcett suggest it be sung when the Lord's Supper is celebrated? Who can say, but there it is. Baptists across the country stand in circles and hold hands while singing the first verse of the hymn. The question that then emerged after collecting the data was simply, "What does it mean?" The ethnographic data reveals that it means a great many things. And the text of the hymn does not always frame the meaning. Also interesting is that the meaning of the rite (or if it is even a rite) is seldom explained to people performing it. They are left to their own devices to make meaning. Beck's work is a helpful tool to framing just how this happens. And, in turn, the results of the analysis prove to be a rich field and Turnino's "semantic snowballing" comes to the fore.
IV. Semiotics, Theology, Composition: Semantic snowballing is a handy turn that Turnio (ethnomusicology) offers up to describe how symbols, specifically musicking behaviors, accrue meaning over time for communities and individuals. His Peircian framework is mammoth but helpful no less as Turino is interested in how Peirce helps us understand music as a social phenomenon. Similarly, Cumming takes a Peircian approach but to it she adds some feminist critical theory and frames various kinds of "desires" between composer, performer, and audience that adds a helpful affective dimension to Turino's frame. There are different kinds of loving at work. But this is not the only semiotic approach. Nattiez frames a separate trinity of "concept, behavior, and sound" that expands our understanding just a little further. Here is where we have to remember that there is a theological act in the making. Returning to the ethnography, I'll explore this activity and suggest that Augustine's Trinitarian theology is a helpful vessel for comprehending what's at work. There is a risk in this as none of the respondents mention Augustine, but as a liturgiologist, I'm hopeful that I can pull the old sage out of my tool box and put his ideas to work because his "multifaceted loving" is an expansive enough notion to hold these musicological analtytical tools. It is, if you will, my own understanding of the hymn as I have experienced it. Here the researcher adds his own perspective to the ethnography. The snowballing continues and meanings are composed in each iteration of the rite. This is where I will nod to Jacques Attali's notion of "composition." This still feels a little far afield and may simply end up as a footnote (a long one at that), but I think the philosopher has a helpful framing here.
V. Conclusion: I think Beck asks the right question. And turning toward ethnography (McGann) is helpful. Foley's taxonomy, however, feels heavy handed. The semiotic tools I offer expand us beyond functionalism's taxonomies into something a little more generous. Composition happens. We may or may not like it, but as human behaviors are concerned, it cannot be ignored. Framing meaning is not framing orthodoxy. It's simply coming to an understanding of one another in the social life of the worshiping community.
So, that's what I got. Have at it!
Filed Under: hymns
he text sometimes leaps off the page and my mind reels. The ideas communicated are pristine and invasive. I muddy them with my own cross-referencing thoughts. One ideas scattered into a million notions. That’s just the first page. The act of reading has become a kind of interstellar navigation with unpredictable intrusions from gravity wells and creatures with one too many limbs. And I have forgotten my towel.
I who am.
It’s like this bad poem from High School or something. It’s an embarassment, but a necessary one no less. Every time I open a book my mind skitters across the pages and I am lost. I am supposed to be writing, but this is as close as I get. I string wordstogetherinthevainhopethatsomething of value emerges.
This is what it’s like for me to work on comps.
It’s just my brain in the way once again.
This is not a problem of discipline.
This is something else.
Sadly, whiskey only makes things worse.
How do you solve a problem like Lady Gaga?
Is she the mother of monsters or is she Julie Andrews' biggest fan? Did you see her on television singing a medley from The Sound of Music? The internet exploded with commentary. Lady Gaga, with much less fanfare and show than people might expect from the performance artist who has been known to wear a meat suit, stood before the audience and delivered. She had trained for months to develop the vocal technique similar to Julie Andrews. She retooled. Changed. She moved to where she needed to be in order to connect with new people especially her hero. It was an incredible gesture.
There's a kind of artistic humility in this. And a kind of courage and confidence. From piano bars to "Little Monsters," to Tony Bennett, and now The Sound of Music, Gaga has managed to reach countless people. Her twitter account alone has over 44.6 million followers. Her reach is astonishing and, truth be told, so is her artistic courage.
She has also failed. She has produced absolute drek. Maybe you saw her Thanksgiving special of a couple of years ago. Or the Muppet Holiday Special?
Then she gets up and tries again. She has elevated spirits and given those who thought they were on the outside of society a sense of belonging and place. And, now, she presents us with something new and powerful, an homage to a hero, a new sound, a new embodiment for her music. Unafraid of old sounds or new sounds, of one generations music or inventing the music of a new generation, she places herself at the intersection where Tony Bennet and Jim Henson's Muppets cross over with drag queens and people who simply want to dance.
I could talk about her for a long time. I'm a big fan.
And I know that much of what she presents publicly is marketing show. No more. No less. And yet I wonder what we, the Church, can learn from Lady Gaga's fearless risk-taking positioning of herself at the intersection of generation after generation of music-lover.
Has she seen that it is a small world of connection in which we move and are loved and are held by one another? And have we, the Church, somehow forgotten?
Baptist minister and sociologist, Bob Dale has written that this is the first time in history (as far as we have bothered to track this kind of thing) where six generations are alive in the church at one time. Six. The church is not simply made of Boomers and Millennials. It's not made up solely of young families, or elder leadership. It is made up of 90 year olds. 80 year olds, seventy year olds, ten year olds, one year olds. All of the generations are at the intersection of society that we call "Church."
This is not a problem to be solved, but it does present a quandary, a challenging reality in which to live. It's a mountaintop quandary.
This is the holy ground upon
which Moses stood all those years ago.
This is the place where
the burning bush still burns
if we simply have the eyes and hearts to take note of it.
This is the place where God says,
"Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.
All the people.
Not some of the people,
but all the people the old and the young."
No wonder Moses trembled on that mountaintop. It is so much easier to market ourselves to a certain kind of people, to people who remind us of us.
Moses was asked to go get God's people.
People who he did not know.
And set them free.
Not for his own benefit.
Not for wealth or fame or honor or position.
If we've learned anything in the last few decades in the church it's that wealth, fame, honor, and position are fleeting. At some point we started looking more like Empire and less like God's People. God calls us to the work of liberation not Empire-building.
Where we, the Church, stand today is on the mountaintop where there's a burning bush and we have gathered to ordain one of our own to pick up this charge in which we all share: "Set my people free."
A few weeks ago I was in Norfolk, VA. for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. Dr. Proctor was one of Dr. Martin Luther King's mentors. The conference is an annual event where progressive African-American seminarians, pastors, and educators gather together to speak about the shared work that is set before them. It's an incredible event.
This year there was a panel of speakers who shared their experiences ministering in Ferguson, MO. One was a young woman, a seminarian at Eden Seminary. She has been very active in the #blacklivesmatter movement in Ferguson. She has been asked time and again, "Who is the leader of the movement?"
It's a question that infuriates her because it misses a central facet to the movement itself. This is a people's movement. She started to preach right there with everyone looking on from this passage about Moses and the burning bush and she asked us to imagine for a moment that Moses wasn't alone. Just for a moment, she said, imagine.
Moses is not alone.
Leadership, she said, in this day is not about any one person.
Leadership, she said, is a collective effort. "There are so many of us standing before the burning bush. And this time it wasn't just one person who said, 'yes' to the call but a people saying 'yes.'"
It was a powerful moment as she everyone in the room to respond to a shared call - not a solo call of rebuilding the status quo in our own image, but to the liberation of a people.
It is a world of connection in which we move and are loved and are held by one another. We are called not just to liberate ourselves but the Empire from itself in the process.
Liberation that does not liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor is no liberation at all.
It is simply the building of a new Empire.
It is astonishing to me how Dr. King's message, one he preached from this very pulpit, is still so relevant today. It astonishes me that so many years later a message given before I was born is still needed. Dr. King did not see his work taken to its fruition. We have not seen this work taken to its fruition. And I see now that I too must be humble and recognize that I too may not see this work taken to its fruition.
You see, this is the thing about mountains and mountain tops. Mountains are a kind of quandary. Like society itself, not a problem to be solved, per se, but something to be navigated, something to be understood and engaged, to be taken seriously, but you can't fix a mountain.
Just like we cannot fix the reality that there are six generations alive and present in the Church. We cannot fix people's opinions of us. We cannot fix what other people do. We cannot fix geography.
So Moses didn't fix it.
He climbed it.
He scaled it.
He went to the top of it and there,
there is where Moses met God.
Moses discovered his own liberation
and the call to liberate others.
You cannot have the mountain top experience without the quandary that is the mountain itself. Dr. King himself had to ask, "Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?"
Dr. King did not fix the problem of racism.
Instead, he showed us liberation.
He did not fix The Church.
He called the Church out on its need to be Empire
and asked us to be participants in God's
Some of us left Egypt.
Some of us didn't.
But that didn't stop Moses.
It didn't stop Dr. King.
It didn't stop Jesus on his way to the cross.
God never stopped loving everyone and neither can we.
All God's people are beautiful,
People of every
those who love men,
those who love women,
those who wear drag,
those who march,
dance, rally, praise,
and desire love.
The work of liberation takes striving and time. It is the work of generations...all of us at once serving the future, the generations yet to come. It's a daunting task, but that cannot stop us from proclaiming the mountain top truth of liberation of all people that this world is a world of connection in which we move and are loved and are held by one another.
And this, Rev. Jessica Abell, is your charge.
Be an extremist for Love.
Proclaim liberation to the captives
and the captors.
Join the throng in Denver
and Ferguson who are
Standing before the burning bush.
Stand on the mountain top
and in the intersection
and breathe deep with them, my friend.
Learn how to sing again. Retool. Create.
You will need to catch your breath,
take your time,
for it is the long game of God
that we call ministry.
Take courage. Be humble.
You will not see the end of it.
But you can participate
in God's work in us.
You can call us
to God's liberation.
Some will join you.
Some will not.
Some will even respond
violently to the call of liberation.
But you still must stand
for the ground you stand on
is holy. And you are
not alone. We are with you.
The sermon for the ordination of Rev. Jessica L. Abell at First Baptist Church of Denver, CO; she is the first woman to be ordained by the congregation in FBC's 150 year history.
I am listening to Lisa Gungor's album, "From the Ground." I have always liked her voice. And her collaboration with Michael Gungor (her husband) in the band Gungor is always interesting. Still, he gets the majority of the attention there. His guitar is prominently featured. Lisa's album, on the other hand, is about her voice and the lyric.
Now, I am not one for lyrics. What does that mean, you ask? I like the sounds over the words. A good melody is great because of the melody and not the lyric. There are scores of tunes I know but still cannot recite the lyric. Lisa's stories are compelling. Wrapped up in the silky voice and the stark instrumentation, she provides just enough sonic scaffolding to tell the story.
That said, or writ, I have yet to write anything for my comps. They are due next Friday. Between now and then I'll be flying to Denver to preach a friend's ordination service. I'm elated to do so. But, you know, there's just not enough time this side of the eschaton for me to do what I need to do.
Right. You knew this already, but I whine. I'm whining now. I'm wasting words on my blog that might very well belong in a comps essay. My study skills and habits are proving troublesome. So is my personality.
God made me this way, some would say. I don't know about that. It's more complex, I'd gamble to say. Still, here we are. I'm whining. I'm imagining not completing this program. I don't experience it as a loss, per se. It saddens me to no end, but it's not a loss like in winning or losing. It's not a failure, either. It's just hitting the edge of my limits. I can't dunk a basketball, either.
I am no less valuable a person. Those aren't my hangups. I have many hangups, but that ain' one of 'em. I'm awesome. But I'm limited.
This may be the limit for me. I just can't do this work.
Is that so hard to imagine? No.
And I need to imagine it if I stand any chance of completing the degree.
Can you imagine that? Imagining completing it is not helping me. It stymies my ability to do the work. Imagining not completing it is much more realistic somehow, much more helpful. Ah well.
I'm just tapped and I want to disappear.
One last thought. Some will say that I should not share such wrangling in public. They are smart people and likely right. But I'm doing this to work out my own stuff. If such wrangling offends, I am sorry. But, if I am honest, I find it scandalous that public speech about failure would be such an anathema. So, there's that. I will speak openly about failure. Know that.
Filed Under: hymns
Clearing the cobwebs this morning. First thing that comes to mind is that social media is proving too much a distraction. Usually, it helps with my more extroverted thought processes. It also helps by providing a little (or a lot) cognitive white noise. Not now. I have too much to do in too little time. I have to get this shit done.
The other thing that has come to mind, the second thing, I guess, is that I am out of the big post-its. This is a great sadness. I’m going to have to find another way into these essays. No biggie, but I kind of liked the post-its.
These are always in careful interplay in my mind.
Some people rise to the challenge,
I find it a personal affront.
Life is hard enough.
Add a “challenge”
and I want
But today is a day for other things. Again, my limitations are being tested and without the post-its to help me through this process has become more difficult. I still don’t know what kind of work I’m actually doing. Quality is ephemera. “Correctness” is a myth. I had forgotten how much of the humanities is institutionally approved opinion about the ineffable. Theology is more so.
There is a significant voice in my head that disdains the entire project for that reason alone. Sound and fury signifies nothing unless you get a grant. God, I love this stuff. Why is that?
I should get a cup of coffee.
Soundscape: n. the sonic environment, the sum total of all sounds within any definitive area which surround us as a result of certain historical, technological, and demographic processes. see also: keynote sounds, sound signals, soundmarks (R. Murray Schafer), pious soundscape (Charles Hirschkind), and acoustemology (Steven Feld).
The trouble comes for me when colleagues begin to devise and then employ taxonomies to the creation of or participation in soundscapes. I seem to have an allergy to taxonomical approaches to anything.
As an anylytical approach, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a taxonomy. They are entirely neutral as tools (until they aren’t). So, what gives?
Well, here’s my problem and why I fall into the ethereal arms of semiotics all the time. There is no taxonomy complex enough to navigate the social or interpersonal nuances of music making. And once we start shoehorning all the nuances into categories or classifications (sonic genus, anyone), then we miss the opportunity to experience the music in all its glorious ambiguity.
Unless there’s a classification named, “shit we just don’t grok.” That’d be okay.
I’m sitting here trying to get this paper apart so I can put it back together again and it just keeps getting bigger on me. It is getting away from me.
Music alone, music and ritual action, music and text, music and text and ritual action...simple enough classifications for the liturgiological ethnomusicologist and yet...the sonic icons are bigger than this, more efficatious on a per case basis. Ethnography shatters even these most vague classifications.
Soundscapes are created and navigated by individuals within societies that maintain and contain ritual aspects only some of which are religious. In this, religious acts are not closed semiotic systems. Rather, they are moments of attention, interpersonal accretions that are either incorporated into the conscious experience of the participant or ignored until something novel or profound or irritating and offensive captures the conscious attention of the participant.
It is possible that something unconscious is also occurring, but that's above my paygrade today.
Filed Under: liturgy
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them
And here goes Jesus hamstringing us before we even get started. How, O Gentle Savior, are we to grow and expand our influence if we cannot practice our piety before others? How will they see us? How will they know us? This is the challenge of the 21st century church in America: the desire to be seen by the communities in which we live. Yet here is Jesus...“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them...” but I get ahead of myself.
It was spring of 1995 and I was one of the musicians at another Episcopal parish, the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond, VA. It was the Easter Vigil and we, the choir, were standing in the choir loft behind the nave. From our vantage point we could see everyone gathered. At the other end of the nave were the altar and sanctuary. It was the middle of the Vigil, that turning point after the litany of the saints and as the lights were raised revealing flowers and garlands and brightly colored fabric. Faces shone as brightly as the decorations. Then we sang...
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Day is breaking in our souls.
Then. It was right then that I finally got it...in the midst of song and light and flowers and gathered humanity...in liturgy...I finally *got* it.
“Oh. Here is God. Here is resurrection. This is what it means.”
And I wept. I was done. Having been found I was done in by God.
I was (and in many ways still am) one of the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious. I had been working as a church musician for a few years. I even had a degree in religious studies (with anthropology and music wrapped up in there, too). And even though I had been baptized at St. James the Less Episcopal Church in Ashland, VA., church was never really our thing as a family. It was never really my thing. Spirituality...yes. Absolutely, but religion? Specifically church? Oh no.
I could never see God in it. And these insane stories about the resurrection? You must be kidding me. There were better more sensible options out there.
But I had a musical skill set and it was Richmond in the early 1990’s and Christendom was still the place to be. So there I was deep in it and still...I had no clue what any of us were talking about. I saw the people. I liked the people. I sang with the people. We even marched together to end gun violence in the city. But I could not find God in it.
I was looking...seeking as they called it back then, I was seeking God wherever God may be found. I was looking for the resurrection as we recite in the Nicene Creed every Sunday.
I saw everything else.
I saw piety...but not God.
I had other places to go for God.
Until...somehow the liturgy, the symbolic action of the people of God, that craft of the gathered many, pointed me beyond...to God.
I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know what was different that night. There is no formula for revelation. But revelation does happen and...we see.
We see that we have always been seen by God.
God holds us and beholds us even when it can be so hard for us to hold and behold God.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them...”
It seems we’re stuck in a bit of a quandary. We know this story. We know the questions of relevance and meaning and how the church has lost its social location. We know all this.
The quandary is this: how can we hear this word from the Gospel and take it seriously when we have been rendered strangely invisible in our present time and place?
This is a good question. It’s a necessary one. And yet we are challenged by this passage today to reconsider our desire to be seen. It’s as if the call that we have been given - to see the needs of others; to see them - has been usurped by our own need for others to see us.
We keep asking, “But don’t you see us?”
If we’re honest, the answer is yes. Of course people do. All the time. It's a media and information storm.
They see us on television and on-line. They see us in the bookstores. There is a global spiritual marketplace and it’s enormous and they see us everywhere. We’re right there next to Ram Das and Scientology. They see all of us: Pope Francis, Shelby Spong, Rob Bell, Diana Butler Bass, Mother Teresa, Joel Osteen...we’re right there to be seen all the time...Our problem is not one of visibility.
The ethical ambiguity of the spiritual marketplace gives a provocative context to today’s readings...we blow our trumpets and call our solemn assemblies to announce the glorious coming of...who? The author? The popular? Ourselves?
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them...”
The honest truth is that every time I tweet, blog, or update my Facebook status I am hoping others will see me. It's a mess.
As Michael preached just a couple of weeks ago, our struggle is with that terrible notion “evangelism.” We keep trying to change the world around us into our own image when all along it is we who have been called to simply reflect God’s image.
We have been called to be a sacrament, an icon of the Most Holy fully present in the world.
Our work is the sacramental craft of showing people God and not ourselves. This is the heart of Jesus' admonition. Jesus would rather us pray in a closet than offer one more self-referential rite.
So, preacher, where is the Good News?
Well, it’s this: “now is the acceptable time.” Now is the acceptable time. Now. Revelation is always and ever now. This is the day of the Lord, the always and not yet sounding of trumpet, our reason to call a solemn assembly.
We have been given this time and not some other.
We have been given this day and not some other.
We have been given this moment and it is an acceptable time to the Lord.
And what better time in history than this acceptable time to show people God through sign and symbol?
This is a time when people actually know how an icon works. They know how symbols function. They carry scores of them in their pockets - touch them (reverence them) and they show you something more. They point beyond themselves toward something...other.
Today’s quandary is not that the general public has forgotten how symbols work. Instead...and work with me here, it is perhaps we who have forgotten how symbols work.
In our anxiety around the present state of being church in America we have short-circuited our symbols, putting ourselves in the way somehow when it is God who people wish to see. Can it be that we keep redirecting the icons, the symbols, the sacraments back to ourselves? Somehow we must become invisible. Not absent but mysteriously transparent.
How does that start? Well, we, the Church, can say to the world, “We see you” rather than ask, “Do you see us?”
We see you. Like God sees you we see you.
We see you being sold across the globe.
We see you imprisoned. Detained. Sequestered. Segregated.
We see your bodies lying dead in North Carolina, Missouri, California, Libya. Lynched. Defiled. Your dignity stripped from you. Our hearts break as God's heart breaks.
We see your bodies like we saw Jesus' body those many years ago.
We see it all.
We see your uncertainty
and we see your death for we share in it.
And that is not all. We know that’s not enough. No. We know that God sees you. God sees you. God loves you. God is here now in the middle of all that you endure and all you celebrate. God is here. God’s face is ever turned toward this world.
And we are doing all we can to be present as you too come to see that God holds and beholds you...
...for we see God through you.
And so we begin again this Ash Wednesday. We begin again with Lent. I know Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, but this, for me, is always the beginning. Ashes. Bodies. God. Ash Wednesday reminds me that we are one with Creation and not separate from it.
If a Baptist preacher may be so bold, this rite is a sacramental reminder that God sees us, our bodies, our mortal lives, all of who we are. God’s imprint is already upon us body and soul, and these ashes with the hands that place them upon our foreheads, are a sign of that reality.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Made in God’s image, we are dust and sacrament.
It is we who are the icons, the symbols.
And we point to God.
This was a sermon preached at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, CA on Ash Wednesday, 2015. Listen.
Filed Under: liturgy
To say I have a fragile sense of self is to define addiction.
Some of you might be downright shocked to know that many clergy have to undergo a three-day battery of psych tests as part of the ordination process. If a significant issue is discovered, say, addiction or something else (you can imagine what denominations are looking out for), one's ordination process can be slowed down or halted all together. When I was going through the process, I too went through these evaluations.
The result? I have "a fragile sense of self."
What does this really mean? Well, I'm an alcoholic. It's true. I've spoken about it as part of my faith journey (read: testimony; yes, I have a testimony). I don't wave it around like some flag, but I'm not shy about telling people. And I have certainly told the congregations and other organizations I have served about my history with addiction.
Keeping this stuff secret, for me, is poisonous.
At any rate, there it was, "a fragile sense of self" on my evaluation. This caused everyone to pause. The ordination committee had a ton of questions for me. They did the obligatory background check (this is perfunctory; everyone gets one). They checked my references, etc. They did their due dilligance to make sure, as best as anyone could, that I was not going to fall off the wagon.
Of course. No one can promise that. Not really.
And let it be known, if I do fall off the wagon, there will be ramifications appropriate to the fall. Addiction is not a get out of jail free card. The addict is responsible for all their actions. Three minutes in an AA meeting and you will hear people talk about being responsible, making amends, and taking ownership of their own actions and all the implications therein. Falling off the wagon isn't an excuse for hurting someone else.
Again, I haven't. I promised my wife I wouldn't. I promised my churches I wouldn't. And, well, I haven't. But that's never the whole story, is it? Again, you can't really promise that. Addiction is not some behavioral on/off switch. It's far more complicated.
The committee did their work. They made sure that I had a strong safety net. They connected me with mentors and networks. They took my personal challenges seriously. They were vulnerable with me. They were honest. As was I. This is how we were able to move forward.
To say I have "a fragile sense of self" is to define addiction. For me the alcohol was a way to mediate a perceived deficit of character. My sense of self is oft precarious. Thus, therapy. Lots of therapy. And professional mentors. Through out my ministry I had mentors and a therapist. I was candid, perhaps overly so for some, with leadership in the churches I served. It simply became part of what I navigated as a pastor. Everyone has to manage something in their lives as pastors. I am no exception...nor is addiction an exceptional challenge.
None the less, to be who I am and be a pastor means being candid with those to whom I am closest. To be a pastor by definition is to be close to people. No secrets. No "special friends." Candor. Vulnerability.
Fragility. All the time.
Thus my public whining about my PhD on Facebook, too. It's all there. And, yes, I am in therapy. I talk with other alcoholics. I rely on grace. Don't we all?
There has been a great deal of hubub of late regarding clergy and addiction disorders. We do need to spend more time as clergy discussing our own challenges. Denominational gate keepers need to be more aware of what addiction is and find health to manage the call processes of their clergy. Lives are absolutely on the line.
But I percieve a lack of charity in so much of the public discourse on the issue. I see a lack of love, of hope, of a belief in healing and grace. If we believed in healing and grace, then we would not be afraid to set high standards. We would believe that through grace and healing an alcoholic would make a fine priest, pastor, nun, or bishop. We would address it openly. We would not stigmatize it.
But I am afraid that is precisely what we are doing. We are stigmatizing addiction and addicts. It troubles me deeply.
Every time I see a picture of a clergyperson on the news and "alcoholic priest" is written below, I am terrifed. For them. For myself. For my family. Watching these stories unfold is an assault on my senses.
I could fall off the wagon. Statistically, I will without question do so. I hope to defy those statistics, but I have to take them seriously.
And I am afraid. I am afraid that I too will become a paraiah.
There's more that I could say about this. I'm rambling and have no idea how to end this post. So, I'm just going to stop writing. If you comment on this or share it, be generous. Be vulnerable. I'm trying to be so here. And if you find it to hard to be so, then simply close your browser and start over.
Filed Under: theology