Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday: A Time of Tidying

Here we are, at the day before Lent begins.  I remember the 1970's, when people would come to church more than once a week--we might have had a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper.  We will not be doing that at my church today. 

More of us are familiar with Mardi Gras, usually as a drinking holiday.  And some of us might be familiar with Carnival festivities, which might last several weeks. 

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.

Many of our Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday traditions come out of the need to use up the excess.  In medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items--because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and treats and the drinking.

We are at the juxtaposition of many holidays that involve tidying:  a Candlemas tradition involves sweeping one's house, the Chinese New Year has a time of deep cleaning, and many of the days leading up to Lent involve a straightening.  I don't have time for deep cleaning, but I will be grading rough drafts--a straightening of a different sort.

In the past, I've made special bread; if you have time, this blog post will walk you through the process.  I've made pancakes, but it always makes me somewhat sad to eat them alone.  I will not go out drinking tonight--I have to get up early tomorrow to go to spin class and then to work.

Today is also the day of the New Hampshire primaries--talk about interesting juxtapositions!  Yesterday was the Chinese New Year, which ushered in the year of the Fire Monkey.  The year of the Fire Monkey is often seen as a time of completion, and it has the potential to be a time of prosperity.  But fire years, while giving warmth, can also be times of aggression, restlessness, and impulsive behavior.

And then we move to Ash Wednesday tomorrow.  My poet brain is already whirring.

I will spend some time in contemplation as I move through the day.  I will have a sense of a different calendar that pulses beneath the secular rhythms of our culture.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Lent Approaches

This week, we leave the season of Epiphany.  Ash Wednesday will remind us of our dusty destiny:

We will change the paraments to purple:

Perhaps we will have a stark reminder of our mortality in the chancel:

It is time to decide on our Lenten disciplines:

It is time to move into a time of penitence:

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Microcosm of a Church in a Single Sunday Morning

A week ago, I went to every service.  Our church, although relatively small in terms of total Sunday attendance (100-125 worshippers), has 3 services.  Last week I went to all three to lead the congregational meeting that we've woven into the service and to talk about our congregational commitment to raising money for Luther Springs, our Florida camp.  We have discussion time in the weeks leading up to the prayers and votes that we do during the meeting.

It was interesting to go to all three.  Our 8:30 service is the most streamlined, although it has the essential elements of Word and Sacrament.  I noticed that the hymn "Jesus the Very Thought of You" was partially written by Bernard of Clairvaux, and I said a prayer of thanks for how much monasticism has been part of the church, even when we didn't realize it.

Our 9:45 service is the most interactive, and it's the one I choose when I can only go to one.  I did wonder if I like it so much because most of my friends can be found at that service. 

The 11:00 service is our least peppy.  It can feel downright ponderous.  But I am biased.  I notice that people sit and let the service wash over them.  At times, there are only a few of us in the congregation who sing.  I wonder how much people are comprehending.

But I do come from a teacher's perspective--when people aren't participating, I assume that something's wrong.  However, from a worship perspective, the Quakers and other contemplatives have reminded us again and again that there's much to be gained from sitting and getting ourselves to a still and quiet place.

And then I was part of the team that counted the money; I also had a bit of chili from the congregational chili cook-off that happened after our services.  It was a true microcosm of our church.  All we would have needed was a service project to make the microcosm complete.

It was interesting to see the differences in services and activities and to think about the different purposes that they serve.  I expected to feel exhausted by the end of it--after all, I spent over 5 hours at church. 

But instead, I felt soothed.  I went home with a supreme sense of contentment.  I was pleased to see our church in action, in all sorts of ways of action, in a snapshot of a Sunday morning.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Musical Antidotes to Collective Evil

The last few weeks have seen many important musicians head off to that great jam session in the sky.  A few weeks ago, the death of David Bowie took us all by surprise.  Then it was the death of Glenn Frey of the Eagles.  And this week, the death of Maurice White, of Earth, Wind, and Fire.

I remember those first Earth, Wind, and Fire albums that I got, the amazing cover art that seemed to promise revelations from ancient cultures.  And indeed, Maurice White was fascinated by these cultures, as this story on the radio program The World explained.

And this essay takes these thoughts even further, exploring how Earth, Wind, and Fire was revolutionary in so many ways:  "On slickly-produced tunes like 1974's Sly-influenced 'Shining Star,' EWF strove for an effervescent rhythm and blues that was a clever combination of Vietnam War-era counter-optimism, Black Arts movement-influenced Afrocentricity and Holiness Church messianism."

The article explores the ways that Earth, Wind, and Fire worked towards transcendence, the ways they were so successful: 

"White concocted music that meant to shield us from a world constantly threatening to harden us and turn our hearts cold — a post-civil rights America defined by the Nixon administration's terror tactics against anti-establishment activists, by the devastating influx of heroin in inner cities and by the ugliness of organized white resistance to busing.

In retrospect, Maurice White's clever idea in forming EWF was to power forward with an ethical black music that could force us to keep our heads up to the sky when it mattered most. It was as if through the EWF concept he wanted to offer a therapeutic public sphere, where we could all find collective peace of mind, where we could ward off the evil running through our brains. Today, the violence inflicted on black lives and trans lives and women's lives and Syrian lives forces us to question whether all lives really do matter to all of us; as a result, EWF's most politically explicit songs, like 1987's 'System of Survival' are relevant as ever."

I am not as familiar with today's musicians as I am with the musicians of my youth, so perhaps there's still a thriving musical culture/counterculture still attempting to do what Earth, Wind, and Fire did so successfully.  If so, I'd like to know about that music.  With the various aspects of our culture turning so vitriolic (here I'm thinking about the most recent Democratic debate), it would be wonderful to have an antidote.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Politics, "Star Wars," and Hope for the Future

I have a new post up at the Living Lutheran site.  It looks at the political race, at the latest Star Wars movie, and what those yearnings might tell the Church.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Oddly, this [story about politics] made me think about the release of the latest “Star Wars” movie where we also see people in need of a savior, people willing to take huge risks to be part of a quest that’s bigger than themselves – the outlines of which they only dimly perceive. In many cases the characters face very long odds, an almost impossible mission, and yet, the community they create is one that makes it worthwhile."

"But it’s not just those characters in the movie – it’s also about those of us who flocked to see the movie the week it opened."

"What can churches learn from the popular culture that surrounds us?"

Go here to read the whole piece.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Nature of the Soul and Other Questions from a Literature Classroom

This week has been a week of many classroom observations.  One of my favorites was an Introduction to Literature class, which was discussing this sestina by Charles Algernon Swinburne.  It begins this way

"I saw my soul at rest upon a day
      As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,"

We then had an interesting discussion about how we view the soul:  as a bird in a nest?  Does the soul exist.  The teacher called on me, saying, "We have a poet in the room.  Kristin, how do you see the soul?"

Oh, the pressure!  So I answered honestly.  I said, "I see the soul as being somewhat trapped by the body, which will break down in all sorts of ways."

We talked about the body as a sort of cage, and I hastened to say that I wasn't really comfortable with the theology behind it.  I wanted to make a speech about the dangers of Gnosticism, but that would have required hijacking the whole class.  I also wanted to talk about the dangers of dualism, about the new philosophies of the mind, about all sorts of stuff that would have been tangentially relevant, but not particularly helpful to the interpretation of the poem.

In the end, I reminded myself that I was in the room to observe, not to take over.  And I was glad that I practiced the spiritual discipline of being quiet.  It was great to listen to the students have a spirited (soulful?  how many puns could I make?) discussion about the soul, about the ways we live a good life or recover from our mistakes--and I was interested that no one really mentioned God in a traditional way.  I could tell that the students who spoke had some sort of spiritual life--or at least, a yearning or two that had been acknowledged.  I couldn't tell you much about their specific beliefs or practices.

I admired the way that the teacher wove the conversation back to the line by line analysis of the poem.  I was happy that most of the students stayed with her.

But more than that, I was thrilled to see that students are still thinking about spiritual and philosophical questions, like "What is the nature of a soul?" 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 7, 2016:

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm: Psalm 99

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12--4:2

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

Here we are, the final Sunday before Lent begins.  Transfiguration Sunday gives us a chance to wrestle with an essential question:  who is this Christ?  Why worship this guy?

Do we worship Christ because of his glory?  The mystical elements of Transfiguration Sunday dazzle us and threaten to overshadow the rest of the story.  What a magnificent tale!  Moses and Elijah appear and along with Christ, they are transformed into glowing creatures.  A voice booms down reminding us of Christ's chosen and elevated status.

It's easy to understand Peter's response:  we'll stay on the mountain, we'll build booths!  It's easy to understand why the disciples stay quiet about this mystical experience.

Jesus then heals a child; he's a success where his disciples have failed. 

Do we worship God in the hopes of harnessing this kind of transfiguring power?  It's easy to understand this impulse.  But the rest of the lesson for today warns us against this impulse.

Jesus know that he's on a collision course with the powers that rule the world.  The disciples argue about who is greatest, and Jesus reminds him of the nature of his ministry:  to be least.

For those of us who worship Christ because we want transfiguration, it's important to remember what kind of transfiguration we're going to get.  We're not likely to get worldly power because we're Christians--in fact, it will be just the opposite. 

Will we get healing?  Maybe.  Will we be creatures that glow with an otherworldly light?  Metaphorically.  Can we charge admission and get rich from our spiritual beliefs?  Go back and reread the Gospels, and see what Jesus has to say about wealth.

Ah, Transfiguration Sunday which leads us to Mardi Gras, a few last hurrahs before the serious season of Lent, that season of ash and penitence.  Let us stay here in this glow. 

But let us not forget the path before us, the path that brings us off the mountain and into service. Let us not confuse the mountain top for the true relationship that God offers us.