Sunday, August 25, 2013

One year

One year ago today I posted a blog entry that began with the following: "No point in beating around the bush.  That colonoscopy yesterday led to a diagnosis of cancer of the rectum."

In the intervening year I have been bombarded with radiation, cut open and mutilated, and poisoned.  I don't really know yet whether the cancer is still there or not.  I have a PET-CT scan scheduled for September 3 in aid of answering that question.  I'm supposed to have a colonoscopy as well, but that hasn't been scheduled yet because of the infection referenced in the last blog post. In fits and starts, the effects of that infection seem to be fading at last, though I still have to be extra-cautious about what I eat, apparently.

In the intervening year I have ranted and screamed and pouted; made strange jokes and indulged in bits of gallows humor; suppressed even more humor that would inevitably, given the nature and location of the cancer and treatment, descended to "bathroom humor" level; been surprised not to wake up with a bag attached to a hole in my side; taken enough Imodium that I should own stock in the company by now; had legs that would not let me rest at all; been unable to leave the house and gone anyway; preached a sermon while totally hopped up on painkillers; and gone through all manner of other health traumas and indignities that I have not described in this blog, and probably will not.  You can't handle the truth.

In the intervening year I have staggered through Old Testament as one wandering in the wilderness; practice-baptized a baby; broken bread; been on the giving and receiving end of pastoral care; attended my first classes via video hookup; made the rookie mistake I always warned students against, biting off more subject than I could possibly chew in the given paper assignment; led a worship ritual in a park; gotten to know A Brief Statement of Faith well enough to hack my way through teaching a class on it; preached five times and chanted a psalm in worship, for internship credit; tried and failed to be a polity wonk; become a candidate for ordination; completed three of my four senior ordination exams and have the fourth in progress (results not to be known for a few weeks); and somehow managed not to wash out of seminary.

In the intervening year I have gone to Disney World and walked, very slowly and with lots of stops, "around the world" at Epcot; gone to spring training for the first time since moving out of Florida; gone back to Lawrence for the first time since moving and, to be honest, kinda wished I could've stayed; stood on the edge of the Konza Prairie and let the wind nudge me about like tallgrass; finally taken a bite of the Little Apple; been to the Vietnam memorial in D.C. for the first time in years; been to George Washington's birthplace, James Monroe's birthplace (or the empty spot on the ground where scholars think it is), Thomas Jefferson's famous house, and James Madison's not-so-famous house (but no Civil War sites); been to Flying Squirrels baseball games and Spiders basketball games in Richmond and Nationals baseball games in D.C.; spent a tremendous summer working in the soon-to-be-trendy town of Ashland, VA; gone to three of four weddings in a summer of more-weddings-than-I've-been-to-in-my-married-life-so-far-combined, all for outstanding people, classmates, and friends half my age or less; and somehow managed to stay awake for some of it.

I've been alive, wondered if I was dead, sorta wished I was dead, was glad to be alive, didn't want to get out of bed, couldn't go to sleep, gotten up a dozen times in the middle of the night, and am still here for whatever reason.  And here comes another year of it.

So August 24 is going to be one of those days.  Diagnosis Day?  Your Life Is Now Hell Day?  Your Body Is Against You Day?  Whatever.  I guess I'm still here.  And that exegesis exam doesn't give a rip about any of this.  So, hopefully some sleep, and hopefully fresh for a new day of whatever the heck this life is.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Health blahs again

I'm beginning to hate my body.

No, not in the body-image sense (I more or less made peace with that some time ago).  I mean I hate my body, and the way it seems intent on betraying me.  Certain old heresies in the church are starting to sound appealing.

The latest is some sort of intestinal infection that is being highly resistant to treatment.  I won't discuss the effects; you really don't want to hear it.  Suffice to say I'm more or less constantly on edge, not to mention (again) tired a lot, in ways that defeat efforts to start rebuilding my stamina.  One doesn't want to be dozing off while trying to work with weights.

It's just strange to be fighting to stay awake at 8:00 p.m.  And it's not helpful with ordination exams this weekend.

Anyway, more tests are now on order.  Perhaps the infection was not as simple as previously diagnosed.  I have trouble caring any more.  I'd just like to get through the day and night without disaster.

Of course this kicked in just a little after chemotherapy ended.  Naturally, just when I was looking forward to starting to recover a bit.  So much of the summer has been spent fighting this instead of getting my strength back.

I have ordination exams to take.  I have classes and such for the fall to get ready for.  I have blog entries I'd much rather be writing than another health whine.  Instead I'm just trying not to doze off in the middle of an ords review.

I cannot suck it up and put on a happy face at the moment.  I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.  And that's about as much as I have energy to say tonight.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

So hymnals matter after all!

As it happens, my denomination got ever-so-briefly into the heat (if not always light) of cultural conversation of late, this time over the non-inclusion of a popular recent praise song in its forthcoming new hymnal.  (In lieu of rehashing the controversy, I'll just indulge in a linkfest to blog posts and articles here, here, here, here, and here, among others available out there.  It's not comprehensive; under no circumstances will this blog ever link to anything having to do with Glenn Beck.)

I have no intention of addressing the controversy directly.  For one thing I don't even know the song.  I don't particularly have an itch to do so.  I have no doubt you can find plenty of folks using the kerfuffle to sharpen their already pointed knives to draw some more blood from what the consider a corrupt and fallen denomination, and I'll be damned if I contribute anything to that.  It's my denomination, dammit, and if you have a problem with that you should probably move on.

My intent here is to go to what I hope is an obvious point, one that is often disputed or dismissed in other circumstances: hymnals still matter.

What I want to insist is that hymnals matter not primarily because they reflect a church's or a denomination's theology.  They do that to some degree, but that is not necessarily the most important thing they do.  I'm more concerned (much more concerned) with how hymnals shape a church's or a denomination's theology.

One project I did for an independent study this past spring semester put me in the task (one which quickly proved much larger than a spring semester could handle) of reviewing the hymns associated with the Lord's Supper (or Communion, or Eucharist, for readers of other denominational persuasions). It was a pretty sad affair.  While collections ranging from the mid-1800s to, the mid- to late-1900s would offer a listing in the index titled "Lord's Supper," almost every hymn in such an index listing was at most a Maundy Thursday hymn or, even more likely, a Good Friday/Crucifixion hymn.  With very few exceptions (as often individual lines in hymns as hymns themselves), there was nothing in what the congregation sang that spoke of being at the table; nothing to guide any sort of reflection or theological consideration about the table itself as an act of faith, welcome, hospitality, humility; nothing about the life of a Jesus who broke bread over and over again with all sorts of unseemly people, to the point that Pharisees sneered at him as someone who eats with sinners; it was all crucifixion all the time.

For a church that probably didn't observe the Lord's Supper more than four times a year, perhaps such a lack was less glaring.  But as the twentieth century advanced and Presbyterians started figuring out that such infrequent communion may not be the best thing for the spiritual health of the church, there was very little available to those who might wish to have a hymn or two to turn attention to the act of communion itself in the congregation.  The 1940 Hymnbook (the infamous "red book" to which some churches still cling) introduced a handful of table- or communion-focused hymns, including the spiritual "Let us break bread together."  Even if an awareness and broadening of sacramental theology was at work in what might be called the "theological elites" of the denomination, one can say without too much stretching that even now such ideas have barely to make a dent in the larger body of the denomination, I would contend at least in part because it has taken quite a while for a body of hymns to emerge that can help to lead pastors and congregations in that direction where sermon after sermon will only go so far.  What we sing matters, and what we collect to sing matters, even in an age where you can get a license and pop almost anything up on a screen.

Even a hymn borrowed from a distinct theological tradition will, given time, start to affect the way people think about their faith.  The new Presbyterian book will include "Gather us in," a song born of the post-Vatican II overhaul of music in the Catholic tradition.  While most of the text is fairly innocuous in terms of inter-denominational theological exchange, it does contain the phrase "give us to eat the bread that is You," which is fairly clearly tied to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, in oversimplified summary).  Presbyterians don't hold that belief.  Nonetheless, give that song (which is already pretty popular in some corners of the denomination) twenty or thirty years of use and you'll have at least a few people in the pews at least wondering about how that works, no matter how much they got instructed on What Presbyterians Believe.

What we sing shapes what we believe and how we do theology (hint: everybody does theology, whether they know it or not).  I'm not particularly campaigning to yank "Gather us in" out of the new book, before anybody goes there, but I am insisting that hymns matter, that what we collect into hymnals (no matter what media form those "hymnals" may take) matters, and that paying attention to what the hymns we sing actually say (as opposed to enslavement to the "old favorites" or the hottest new praise choruses) is a bare minimum responsibility of any pastor, church musician, worship committee, or denominational hymnal committee.

What we sing matters.

And I haven't even gotten into how the music to which we sing those songs matters.  But that's a whole other blog post, or bunch of posts, or a book or two.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Communion meditation: The Medium Is the Message

The final sermon of my summer internship is done.  And it was not quite a full sermon: a "communion meditation" is probably a more accurate description.  Pathetically, I am rather sad that this will probably not happen again for a while.

Charles Freeman
4 August 2013 (Communion)
Ashland Presbyterian Church
Luke 24:13-35; John 2:1-12

Communion Meditation: The Medium Is the Message

It was in 1964 that an obscure communications theorist from Toronto, Marshall McLuhan, introduced in his book Understanding Media the phrase “the medium is the message.”  Despite its seeming simplicity, the phrase would, over the years, assume a dizzying complex of meanings, but at its core was the basic idea that such emerging and increasingly dominant media of communication such as radio, film, and television were anything but neutral conveyors of information; instead, the medium shaped, configured, and even altered the “message” its users might have intended to convey.  Nearly fifty years later one might well wonder what McLuhan, who died in 1980, might make of more recent communications media such as email, the Internet, or Twitter.
One thing about McLuhan that was not well-known at the time was that he was a devout Catholic.  He would in later years acknowledge that his theories on communication and media – including the famous idea that “the medium is the message” – were influenced by his Catholicism. 
He did not say specifically what part of his Catholicism might have influenced his thought, but I wonder if he might have been reacting to his experience of the Mass, particularly that part of the Mass known as the Eucharist, or as we Protestants would say, Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. 
It seems a very simple observance: bread is broken, juice (in our case) is poured, the bread and juice are distributed among the congregation.  But there is, particularly in the story from Luke’s gospel today, something much stronger and deeper at work.
We are of course familiar from this story at or immediately after Easter.  Two disciples, identified as “disciples” even though not among the numbered twelve, are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus on Easter evening, their world shattered.  There was that strange report from the women in their group about the tomb being empty and angels being there, but no one else saw that (the angels at least).  The stranger appears and enters into conversation between the two; they tell their story, and the stranger responds with a staggering knowledge of the scripture, arguing that the events of crucifixion they described were exactly what had to happen, which they’d have known if they weren’t so foolish and slow of heart.  With day fading, the two stop and entreat the stranger to stay and be their guest, which he does.  The stranger then, surprisingly, takes the role of host: he takes the bread for the meal, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them.  Then – and only then – did they recognize that the stranger was none other than Jesus himself.  When he disappears, the two disciples rush back to Jerusalem to report to the others, and to describe how, as verse 35 puts it, “he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” 
Throughout all the gospels, and particularly in the Gospel of Luke, one of the most frequently recurring themes is one of hospitality, often signaled in the breaking of bread.  It is seen in miracles, like the feeding of the five thousand; it is seen in teaching moments, such as the incident in the home of the Pharisee, where the host’s lack of hospitality is contrasted with the overriding concern of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet; it is seen in surprising announcements such as Jesus’s shocker that he must go to the home of that sinful tax collector Zacchaeus; it is seen in a pattern of hospitality and fellowship so strong and so pronounced that the Pharisees scorn Jesus as a “fellow [who] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)
Finally there was that event just a few days before, the Last Supper as we call it, in which Jesus breaks bread, pours a cup, and commands his disciples to do so, as often as they do it, “in remembrance of me“ (Luke 22:19).  Even here, Jesus is not throwing some new practice at the disciples; instead, he is taking a gesture, an action they have seen him perform again and again in their time with him, and commanding them to do likewise—not as some stiff memorial, but as a remembrance, a way of living that echoes and demonstrates to the world the way that Jesus lived. 
But what is fascinating about this Emmaus Road story, as well as a bit depressing for preachers, is that it is this gesture, this breaking of bread, that opens the eyes of the two disciples to see Jesus for who he is.  All of that amazing expository preaching that Jesus did?  Nope.  If you felt like reading the story tongue-in-cheek, you could even say that all it did was give the disciples heartburn.  But the act of breaking bread was one so characteristic, so typical of Jesus that their fogged and shrouded eyes could no longer conceal from them their Lord. 
The message came to these two disciples, not in a barrage of words and scriptural exegesis, but in the rather simple medium of bread.  Stuff of the earth, harvested, ground into flour, mixed and kneaded and baked into the most basic staple of the disciples’ diet.  But in that medium indeed was a message that had been witnessed and lived so many times by Jesus that it was one the disciples knew by heart; a message of welcome, of hospitality, not just to the good folks but to the worst sinners society could dredge up, even sinners like us.  And this medium of bread, being broken, still shapes and forms that message even today, whenever we come to the table. 
On that Maundy Thursday Jesus paired the breaking of bread, a token of humanity’s most basic needs, with a cup of wine poured.  If bread represented the basics of life, wine no doubt served as a token of celebration.  The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that the very first sign Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples was one of turning ordinary water into wine, a sign that became the rescue and continuation of a wedding feast, one of the most joyous celebrations that culture knew. 
Bread broken, a cup filled.  These are still signs of welcome and celebration to us today.  They still point us to a Life of welcoming and making welcome, a Life that celebrated and rejoiced even as it grieved and mourned and got angry a time or two.  They point us to a Life that was so dedicated, so insistent on bringing us in and ministering to us, that it poured itself out in death rather than suffer any one of us not to be guests at his table for eternity. 
Perhaps the bread and cup seem a curious choice of medium, but the message that bread and cup shape for us in this sacrament is still one we need to hear, as many times as possible.  Christ calls us to come; he welcomes us to the table; he bids us be his guest.  Let us not be blinded to the message in this humble, yet exalted medium. 
The table is made ready; Jesus our host bids us come and eat.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hymns: God is Here! (PH #461); Psalm 107 (from The Psalter: Psalms & Canticles for Singing); Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread (PH #505); Draw Us In the Spirit’s Tether (PH #504)