Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thinking about The Creation with a poet's help

Spring term is all over but the shouting, which is as good a metaphorical image for exam-taking as any other I could come up with.  No more class meetings remain, and since all of the exams are take-home this term I have the liberty to spread out their writing at a pace and in an order that works for me.  It shall keep me plenty busy between now and next Friday, but it shall be done, no problem.

Today, though, was given to a small but interesting step on the way not only to a grade for this term, but a thing I shall have to accomplish as part of the ordination process.  At this approaching termination of the second semester of the theology sequence, it was time for me to put forth a brief, beginning theological statement of my own, and demonstrate some capacity to talk about it coherently and even explain it a little.  At this point it's just a small statement, only a page, and hardly complete, but it's a start, and a thing to build on.

In one page I was not going to cover every theological subject available, particularly after spending a good bit of time laying out a Christology.  To be blunt, I mostly ended up working on Christology, the church, and soteriology, with a few other topics addressed off to the side, so to speak.

I was aware in writing it that I wasn't getting to everything.  No talk about the Trinity, for example; I'll have to get to that before this goes to a presbytery committee.  And nothing on creation.  I realized after the fact that I should probably have squeezed something in on that, not because it's necessarily the most important topic to cover, but that some of my other statements were affected by an implicit set of ideas about God's creation, particularly of humanity, that I had not stated.

Thinking about creation, in a somewhat more relaxed way than in discussion of that statement today, allowed several other treatments of the subject to flit through my mind.  Obviously a few bits of Haydn's oratorio came to thought; I've always been a sucker for the chorus "The heavens are telling," and the "overture" to that work, what Haydn called "Representation of Chaos," was always to me one of the more striking things that composer ever did (and Haydn is a favorite of mine; I didn't stay in musicology long enough to develop that Haydn seminar I wanted to do.  By the by, that second link seems to include a pretty good chunk of oratorio for your listening, if you have the time.  Too bad about the artwork).

Ultimately, though, my mind settled more fixedly on another creative response to the Creative Event: the poem "The Creation," by James Weldon Johnson.  I don't remember the first time I heard or read that poem, but it has managed to retain a foothold in my mind for lo, these many years.  If you know the poem yourself you can probably imagine why; it's striking stuff.  On the principle that theologians* should occasionally listen to poets instead of merely critiquing them or finding fault with them, this felt like a time to let the poem do its thing again.

*I am in no wise claiming "professional" theologian status for myself.  Yes, part of the pastoral calling does involve being a kind of theologian-in-residence, you might say, but I do not conceive of myself ever being identified primarily as a theologian, or frankly ever getting paid to be primarily a theologian. By all means keep that disclaimer handy not only for this post, but pretty much everything that appears in this blog.  

Of course, the poem does an awful lot of anthropomorphizing of God.  The first thing that God does is look around and say, "I'm lonely."  I can imagine a lot of people--not just professional theologians, but professional and semi-professional scolds and self-appointed arbiters of theological purity, ruling such a response on the part of God to be anything from na├»ve to offensive to the majesty and sovereignty of God to out-and-out heretical.  I'm guessing Calvin would have had a stroke at the very suggestion.

On the other hand, is the idea that God would want some kind of fellowship so off-kilter?  Even thinking of God as a Triune Being, and imagining God surrounded by angels or cherubim and seraphim or whatever other heavenly creatures one might imagine: what kind of fellowship would that be?  Is it so beyond the realm of conception that God would want a different kind of fellowship; one freely given, not mandated or built irreversibly into the function of the being in question?  What could created humanity possibly provide for God that God did not already have in divine sufficiency, and that God might actually want?  It seems to me that freely given companionship is as reasonable and coherent an answer as any.  Your mileage may vary.

With God's resolution to make a world in place, Johnson unleashes a full arsenal of poetic description; this creation is a dynamic act.  God smiles so brightly and broadly as to unleash light on the world.  God rolls light around -- wonderful image -- to create the sun, and hurls the leftover light against the blackness to set the stars in the sky.  With light and darkness in place, God hurls the world into the space between.  It is vigorous, active language.  Things move -- and not just move, but move with power, with real force and even explosiveness.  Theologians would occasionally be well-advised not to let their theological language get so holy and splendid and systematic that the very holy stuff of which we speak is robbed of its rough power and dynamic energy.  God worked in Johnson's poem.  Things happened.  Even if one prefers the whole speaking-into-being literalism of Genesis, those things did not happen statically when God spoke.  Let it roar.

Johnson continues: God walks and treads the mountains and valleys into place, and spits the oceans into place (depending on how old I was at the time I may have gotten a good giggle out of that picture).  Still the dynamic pictures; still the vigor and energy and things moving and shaking.  Some of the images are gentle; lakes cuddle into their places, the rainbow curls around God's shoulder.  Some is sensory overload; the moment when living beings are called into being is an avalanche of imagery and a torrent of activity all in one nano-instant.

And after all that, God says, "I'm still lonely."

Time to make a man.

If God was a dynamic, working God in bringing creation into place, for the act of making this unique companion God truly rolls up the sleeves and breaks a sweat.  That word toiling may be somewhat lost to us, but it is a word that smells of sweat and labor and feels like aching muscles and weary joints.  The use of the "mammy" image is probably a game-ender for some of you; feel free to take it up with the very African-American Mr. Johnson in the afterlife, should the two of you meet.  Still, it introduces into this labor and toil just the touch of tenderness that makes the scene.  This is different, even from all that bountiful and exuberant and roisterous creation we've just seen; this is personal.  God toils and sweats over this last piece of creation as much, maybe more, as over all the rest.  The God Who stepped out into space, who flung the stars into the sky, who strode across the face of the earth--all these works of majesty, grandeur, splendor--now gets down on knees, rolls up sleeves, toils, sweats, mammys over this missing piece of the Creation.  This matters.

Johnson rounds off the poem with echoes of Genesis, as "man became a living soul.  Amen.  Amen."

Amen, indeed.  There are theological claims in here, one might say.  One doesn't have to buy them all to be moved by them, but if nothing else Johnson does introduce the note of God's extreme passion for this human creation.  Far from being obsessed with keeping Godself all pure and pristine, this God is down in the dust to make this new thing--well beyond a thing; this creature, this new living being--in God's own image.  Down and dirty, toiling.  Do we rightly appreciate this in Johnson's words?

And the one recurring theme, all through the poem just as through the Genesis story, God sees what is created and says, "That's good."  Yes, it is.

I am reminded, now matter how suicidal it sounds from here with exams to write, I have got to read more non-required stuff, listen to more music, see more paintings and sculpture, be with more people, lest I turn out to be a misshapen theologian.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Post-Easter living in a post-Christian world

Here it is, a rainy Sunday in Richmond.  Not heavy, mind you, but steady and soaking, and relentlessly gray.  I have one week of classes left in the spring term before finals.  A couple of significant assignments got turned in on Friday, and one small test-let is given tomorrow, and then the larger finals come along.  Baseball season has started, which is of course a personal source of joy and relief, and we've even had a perfect game thrown in the majors as of last night.  The house is quieter than it used to be, too quiet, since we had to let our longtime (twelve years, almost) best friend pooch go a little more than two weeks ago.

And two weeks ago was Easter Sunday.

Oddly, seminary can be a very difficult place to observe a day like Easter.  For all that Easter Sunday is something that would seem a big deal in a setting like this, a seminary is (if it's doing its job right) an educational institution.  The presumption is, among Presbyterians historically at least, that an uneducated pastor ('scuse me, teaching elder) is as likely to do damage as to do good out there in the big wide world.  This is not a presumption shared by many Christian traditions, who are as likely to send out someone who claims to be called with little more than a pat on the back and maybe a new Bible.  Then there are those who formally recommend that a potential minister take on some level of education for the task, but who then informally will step back and say "but don't learn too much," as if ... well, I don't know what the Hell they're thinking, but it is far more likely to come from that place than from Heaven, if you ask me.  I do not belong to such a tradition, and would not choose to do so.  I've seen and heard the results of it too often.

So clearly I believe the education is good and needful, but the relentless logic of theological academia doesn't always fit the liturgical calendar.  "Christ is risen indeed!  Now let me finish that exegesis... ."  You can see where that might not be the most uplifting way to mark the occasion, yes?

So if the seminary is not as much help, you turn to your local church (where one really should turn anyway).  It's one thing if you are, as many of my classmates, from this general area and can turn to your home church for such an occasion.  It's also the case for many that, having affiliated with a church for an internship or some other formal connection, your plans are more or less set for you.  It's another thing to be from a far place.  It would have been lovely to go back to Lawrence for Easter, or to Tallahassee for that matter, but not entirely practical.  And still being new enough to be short of an internship or other such formal affiliation, I find myself in a curiously free-lance position.  So you (or at least I) start to find myself watching for clues about how a church deals with Easter, Easter as an ongoing liturgical season or even Easter as a way of life (or both, ideally).

Sadly, I missed Thomas last week.  The church we have attended of late does many things well, but they don't seem to be all that interested in the Revised Common Lectionary, and darn it, I missed my sermon on Thomas.  The lectionary tends to bring the story of Thomas along each Second Sunday of Easter, and as I've eased into the tradition of lectionary-guided worship that has become something I've actually looked forward to, bizarre as it may sound.  Thomas seems so darned bipolar in his few Gospel appearances, ready to go die with Jesus at one point (John 11:16) only to earn himself the eternal nickname "Doubting" immediately post-resurrection, somehow without getting credit for being the first of Jesus's human cohort to make the greatest leap of recognition thereafter ("My Lord and my God!" in John 20:28).  Being driven to the Thomas story year after year almost forces a preacher to acknowledge that Thomas gets a bum rap (if he deserves to be rapped for anything, it is for abandoning the fellowship too quickly and therefore missing out on Jesus's first post-resurrection appearance, not for being doubtful about a second-hand story; do you honestly think you'd have done better?), and to lay out the Thomas story more fully and to offer the character up as something more than an ill-formed cautionary tale.  I've been fortunate to hear the story preached by pastors who have done exactly that in years past.  Not this year, though, and I've found myself a bit bummed by that.

It isn't just my particular affinity for Thomas, though, that makes me particularly keen to pick up the post-Easter narratives of Jesus's disciples, or the stirrings of the very-early church in Acts which also appear in the RCL at this point.  Their world is not as different from ours as it used to be.  Oh, on the surface it's quite different, obviously; scribbling out this blog entry on some kind of papyrus should be image enough to point to some of that surface difference, and surfaces (shallow as they may be) do make a big difference in how we live.  Still, though, the so-called "post-Christian" world in which we try to be Christ-followers now has some similarities to the world of the post-Easter disciples, or the Acts Christ-followers, what I shall call a "pre-Christian" world.

Yes, a "pre-Christian world."  Not a "pre-Christ" world, obviously (if you read John 1 seriously there's no such thing as that, right?), but a world that certainly was not predominantly Christian, a world where that term ("Christian") didn't really exist yet.  This particular movement was a minority sect within a minority sect in a vast, far-reaching empire with innumerable minority sects shadowed by the empire itself, which tolerated those minority sects as long as they didn't interfere with the Empire as majority sect.

If you go by the numbers, then the phrase "post-Christian world" probably doesn't make sense, at least in the United States.  A significant majority of Americans still claim to be Christian (78% as of a Gallup poll around Christmas 2009), and Christianity's seemingly establishment quality is such that it's still hard to imagine a person avowedly affiliated with a different religion (or no religion at all) getting much traction in a presidential campaign, even leaving aside the whole Romney-centered debate about Mormonism and Christianity in this campaign (and remember, Joe Lieberman got nowhere in 2004).  Worldwide, though, it's a different story, and even in the US the cultural sway of Christianity is not what it was.  "Christian" is little more than a niche market label in Hollywood, or in the publishing or recording industries, referring specifically to a movie or music or book to be pitched primarily to a particularly right-wing audience (i.e. not me).  "Christian college" carries much the same sort of implication these days, a far cry from the days when even the Harvards and Yales of the world (not to mention a bunch of "state" schools") had some sort of religious support system underneath.  Clearly Christianity used to wield a great deal more influence culturally than it does now.

Frankly, I am more convinced than ever that all that influence poisoned the church, and that the effects of the poison are ongoing.  An awful lot of people still resent the loss of that influence (or is it control?), rather like an addict cut off from that next high, and will wage whatever "culture war" is necessary to keep it from slipping away.  Others get teed off at the reactionary nature of that influence and walk away, cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Perhaps it is time instead to learn from our "pre-Christian" brothers and sisters, those folks who held no influence, and therefore could only live influence.  The kind of folks who became well-known in Roman cities for taking in infants abandoned by parents who did not want them.  The kind of church where Paul could send Philemon a letter via his runaway slave, challenging Philemon not only to welcome him back, but to welcome him as a brother (and dare him, implicitly, to keep his brother as a slave).  The kind of people who didn't bow down to the little tin gods the Empire put forth (please tell me I'm not the only one who remembers the Don Henley song of that title?), even if it meant suspicion and eventually persecution.  In other words, maybe it's time to learn from our "pre-Christian" sisters and brothers how to be Christian, and living with these witnesses in their post-Easter, pre-Christian world is as good a place as any to start.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Another hymn!

The hymn-writing muse struck again, which I suppose is good news.  The bad news is that it did so at 4:30 in the morning.

One of my classes this term, Spiritual Formation, has focused for most of the last half of the term on the Lord's Prayer, with readings from several different authors from N.T. Wright to Lauren Winner to John Dominic Crossan offering reflections and close readings of the prayer.  I guess under those circumstances, and with my hymn-antennae activated with last week's singing of a hymn of mine and the release of the new Presbyterian hymnal content list, some form of poetic-hymnic response was hardly surprising, if not quite inevitable.

So I will throw the four of you out there some raw meat.  Here 'tis, in its still fairly unpolished form.  It is part paraphrase and part trope of the prayer, with some metrical shoehorning as necessary.  It fits with tunes like GORDON ("My Jesus, I love thee") and FOUNDATION ("How firm a foundation"), but as the day goes on I find myself drawn to a pairing with ST. DENIO ("Immortal, invisible, God only wise").  Make of it what you will, comments welcome.

Our Father in heaven, all glorious above,
Your name be all-hallowed and honored with love.
Let Your kingdom come and Your will now be done,
Just as in your presence, here under Your sun.

Give us on this day just the bread that we need,
And let not this grace drive our hearts into greed.
Forgive us our sins as we also forgive,
And in this forgiving, Lord, teach us to live.

Do not lead our souls near temptation’s allure;
From evil’s great power Your deliv’rance be sure.
For Yours is the kingdom, the glory and power,
As long as we live, every day, every hour.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A hymn, and some thoughts on a new hymnal

The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song released its list of those hymns and tunes to be included in the forthcoming new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and any others who want to use it.  (That list can be seen here.)  As a particular aficionado of hymns and the singing thereof, I was of course happy to get the chance to see and even download the list, though I won't pretend I've done anything like a thorough and thoughtful survey yet--I'm still in classes, after all.  Still, I can make a few close-to-home observations:

1) "Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord," about which I blogged some time back, appears to have survived to be sung from another book.  Yay!

2) When you get the hymnal in your church, plan to use the hymn "Look who gathers at Christ's table" immediately for communion.  Just do it.  You will thank me later.

3) I wish the table was sortable by heading (say, by author), because I'm curious about who the most-represented new hymnodists would be in this book.  I suspect John Bell and the Iona community show up well in that regard, though I am a little too preoccupied/lazy to go through and do the counting right now.  Taize songs would probably tally strongly, too, but there are at least a couple in the 1991 book, whereas I don't recall any Bell/Iona pieces in the current book.  I don't have one at hand so I can obviously be wrong here, so feel free to correct me without being a jerk about it. ;-)

4) Is it just me, or does there seem to be an odd influx of old nineteenth-century gospel hymnody into the new hymnal?  I'm not saying it's taking over, but there do seem to be several such pieces not in the current book that are going to give me bad flashbacks to my past in another denomination.

5) Is it fair to say by now that we can see what products of the "hymn explosion" of the 1970s have demonstrated staying power?  Fred Pratt Green remains quite well-represented in the new book, it appears from a too-quick scan.

6) Some years ago, when I was teaching at a school in south Florida and helping with a morning prayer service on that campus, I was looking for a somewhat topical hymn text for the service which followed shortly after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.  Searching (I think) the message boards of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, I found a text suitable to the occasion by one Adam M. L. Tice.  Unable to find the tune he had recommended for that text, I searched out another to use and plugged the hymn into that service.  As requested, I sent the author a brief note mentioning its use, and received a very kind and gracious reply.  All of that is to say that it's nice to see a different hymn by that same author is to be found in the new hymnal.

With any luck I'll be able to spend more time with this list and have some more focused thoughts on it before the next hymnal committee is formed.  For me, though, the week's other hymn news hit a little closer to home, even if it doesn't amount even to a tenth of a teardrop in the Atlantic Ocean by comparison.  It was this week that I joined the ranks of "hymnodists," so to speak--not in the sense of writing a hymn, but in actually having it sung by other people.

Dabbling in hymn-writing seems to have been an odd but pleasant side effect of the longer-term process that set me on this fool's errand.  My first effort actually dates back much further (and shall never see the light of day), but in the course of struggling over this whole change of my life and vocation a small number of hymn texts found their way into my psyche and into Word documents.  I won't pretend that many of them are of tremendous quality.  There is a Psalm 97 paraphrase that might be okay, and a hymn on the upper-room events of Maundy Thursday that might be workable.  The one which most pleased me, though, was a little text that actually came from a rather angry place, about the time Arizona started flogging its anti-immigrant law.  The furor surrounding that event put me in mind of Leviticus 19: 33-34, and the words formed themselves with frightening efficiency.  I tucked the result away, with a handful of possible hymn tunes attached, wondering what occasion might ever prove suitable, if any.

A few weeks ago, our New Testament class was offered the opportunity to participate in the planning of this past Wednesday's chapel, to be led by our professor, and as usual I jumped at the chance.  In the initial layout of plans for that chapel our professor indicated he would be giving his homily on verses from Romans, speaking to the idea of living in community, welcoming one another "without borders," as the eventual title of the homily would put it.  Perhaps surprisingly it took me some time to remember my own little hymn and to guess that this might be an opportunity to try it out, if the others were willing.  They were, and it went into the service.

When I first began studying music, I majored in voice, which meant I had to perform in front of others, obviously.  As I shifted into academia I obviously had to lecture in front of an awful lot of college and university classes, as well as give research papers in numerous locales in the United States, Canada, England and Ireland.  Getting up in front of people and speaking (sometimes my own writing) or singing (stuff written by other people) was, in other words, fairly common, though in some cases still nervousness-inducing.  It's been a long time, though, since I've been as nervous as I was in the couple of days leading up to Wednesday's chapel.  In a way the release of the hymn list on Monday may have heightened my nerves a bit, if only by reminding me that there are plenty of people out there who are quite good at writing hymns, and what makes me so arrogant as to think I had anything so useful to offer?  (I am not the most secure person, folks.)  Still, it was too late to back out.  It was printed in the service order and everything.  If I had hoped to escape notice even that could not be helped, since John Carroll pointed out my authorship of the hymn before we sang it.

So we sang it.  And it went well, as far as I can tell.  It sang pretty well, I believe (I did manage to pair it with a fairly familiar and singable tune), and at least some people responded to it positively.  So, somewhat emboldened, I will put it out here for others to see.  It's not under copyright or restricted or anything, so make of it what you will, and if you have any use for it in a worship service or other setting feel free to do so (all I ask is that you let me know, perhaps in a comment below).

There are several tunes with which this text can work; LAND OF REST (found in the current Presbyterian Hymnal at #522) was the one used this week, and it seems pretty suitable to me.

Receive the stranger in your midst with welcome and with grace;
For you are strangers in this world, and living out of place.

The world may splinter and divide by race or creed or clan,
But there are no dividing lines within God’s loving plan.

There are no aliens in Christ’s eyes, exempt from God’s full love;
But all are children of our God on earth just as above.

Receive the stranger in your midst as Christ has welcomed you,
And be Christ’s welcome in this world in all you say and do.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

That Saturday

This is an odd day in the Christian calendar.  Tomorrow is obviously the big day.  The past two days, Manudy Thursday and Good Friday, have very clear places in the Christian narrative, even if large swaths of American Christendom choose to blow them off.  The previous Sunday, Palm Sunday, can even be claimed to initiate a whole week that can, depending on how one reads or manipulates the Gospels, be assigned particular places in the progress from palms and hosannas to crucifixion and then resurrection.

But Saturday?  It sits there, quietly, resisting all attempts at narrative.  Presumably Seventh-Day Adventists are celebrating Easter today.  I would guess that some megachurches have been celebrating Easter since Friday night, and are probably throwing at least two Easter "Sunday" services today.  On the flip side, some churches in the liturgical tradition will observe an Easter vigil starting sometime late this evening, possibly well into the night, marking the overnight/early morning act of resurrection as well as the sleepy human body can manage.

All of the above being true, the point still holds that this particular day itself is a bit of a void.  What does one do?  Keep Good Friday's attitude of sober remembrance, or jump ahead to Easter's celebration?

It could be worse, though.  Imagine if you can what it must have been to be a Christ-follower on that Saturday.

(We presume based on Acts that the word "Christian" did not yet exist, so let's try to avoid that.)

We might actually guess, counter-intuitively, that those who were the serious Christ-followers may actually have not given up much.  The fishermen in the bunch gave up their business, Matthew probably couldn't go back to his tax-collector gig.  Most of the other disciples proper, well, we don't know what they were doing before the hit the road with Jesus.  It's entirely possible that one of the reasons it was appealing to follow this traveling rabbi was that there wasn't really much to keep them where they were.

It might just be that the ones who gave up the most to follow Jesus were the group of women identified at various times as being supporters or part of the group or somehow attached.  It could have been bad for a woman's reputation, so to speak.  Maybe even shameful.

Of course, that day it could have been regarded as shameful for any of the followers.  With your leader hanging on that cross for all Jerusalem to see, it was hard to escape the ultimate and awful end of your teacher, your hopes, your aspirations.  Everything you had believed about this Jesus, every one of his amazing deeds, his mind-blowing teaching, all of that...the Romans had stomped on it all most ruthlessly.  What did you have left?

It was a Sabbath, but how could you observe the Sabbath?  How could you show your face at all, to anyone?

Since the Gospels don't seem to suggest that the disciples were remembering all those things Jesus had said about rising again in three days, we can only guess that this despairing, hopeless, possibly shamed and humiliated mindset is where Jesus's followers were on that day.  Whether hiding in an upper room, or off wherever Thomas decided to wander off to, or doing who knows what, I don't know if we modern Christ-followers can possibly comprehend the depths to which the hearts and minds of these first followers had sunk in the hours since the crucifixion.  And so far as they knew, they would go to sleep, and they would wake up, and (if the authorities hadn't showed up to haul them off to prison or worse) would live through the exact same kind of day.  Some of the women apparently planned to go take care of the body, but what else?  What could one do tomorrow that was any different?

So we can only guess that these followers went to sleep that day, so to speak, expecting the day after the Sabbath to be just like this awful, dark, hopeless Sabbath.

It wasn't, thank God.