Friday, December 28, 2007

The Practicing Progressive


Several Decembers ago, our congregation had just finished singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and most of us Lutherans were feeling as pleased as punch about our musical rendition. We were, if the truth be known, perilously close to committing the sin of pride, a particularly insidious indiscretion for our sometimes curious brand of Christianity. In the silent afterglow of our singing, a young man raised his hand and asked if he could address the gathered. He asked respectfully but with such intensity that I felt I couldn’t deny him and, besides, it was, after all, the Christmas season.

He strode to the front of the church looked out upon us all, offered his Arabic name, and told us he was a resident of Bethlehem, the one just outside of Jerusalem and to which entrance is determined by armed guards of the Israeli army. “I am here to tell you that despite your lovely hymn there is no peace in Bethlehem. There is instead very little hope in the place where Jesus was born.” He went on in his gentle but passionate manner to describe in disturbing detail the situation in his home town. When he finished there were few of us who felt much like belting out “Joy to the World!”

His intrusion into our normally pleasant little Sunday worship was more than a temporary disturbance. Ever since that disquieting morning, I’ve had trouble singing that old favorite with its evocation of a sweetly still little town.

Three of the world’s major religions refer to the land occupied by Israel and Palestine as holy but by all appearances it is anything but. Hardly a day goes by without news reports detailing the violent deaths of residents of one side by residents of the other. Our president’s recent attempt to facilitate reconciliation between warring factions is to be lauded but my sources indicate word on the street is far less hopeful.

Hatred fed by religious fervor is surely the most destructive force at work today. Any Christian with even a cursory understanding of history must admit to horrific atrocities in the name of the faith. Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and more would have to confess to similar acts of carnage. This very week, a gathering of normally peaceful Hindus in India wrecked havoc upon Christian homes and churches for some perceived slight. Arguably, religion has done more to create havoc in the world than any other social force.

All of which is why a picture from strife-torn Iraq in the news this week did more to lift my spirits than all the carols we sang on Christmas Eve. The photo was of the Christmas Mass in Mar Eliya Church in Baghdad. The pews were packed and sitting in the very front row were Shiite Muslim clerics and tribal leaders. They were announcing by their presence to be “in solidarity with our Christian brothers…to plant the seed of love again in New Iraq.”

Such sentiment is welcomed, of course, and I dare say may be part of a growing movement among some Muslims and Christians for greater understanding between these two monotheistic faith traditions. Indeed, this past October, 138 Muslim clerics and academics issued a document called “A Common Word” that announced their conviction that Christians and Muslims are both committed to “Love of one God and love of neighbor.” !00 Christian leaders, including Southern Baptist Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Life” fame and Robert Schuller from the mega-church Crystal Cathedral, signed a similar document in response entitled, “Loving God and Neighbor Together.”

Any attempt to find commonalities and to work cooperatively among various religious traditions should be both acknowledged and encouraged in the midst of continuing conflicts fed too often by religious fervor. Here in the mountains, the Vail Chapel, serving as host to a variety of religious traditions, is a stellar example of religious cooperation as it shares not just a worship center but office and fellowship space as well. Not only does such an arrangement contribute to goodwill and understanding among the congregants, it gently coerces clergy as well. It can be very awkward for a Lutheran pastor to bad mouth a Baptist preacher on Sunday morning only to meet him at the water cooler on Monday afternoon.

Which is precisely the point. The more the various faith traditions co-mingle and co-operate, the more possibilities for peace become present. Over and over again this truth is made evident. Whether it comes in a Christmas pew packed with Muslim clerics or a lone Palestinian man pleading his case to a congregation of slightly uncomfortable Christians.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Dec.22. 2007

It’s easy to be a cynic at this time of year. A quick stroll through Wal-Mart is probably all one needs these days to feel the hard shell of misanthropy encircling the heart. Inflatable crèches with “Happy Birthday Jesus” blinking in the background can accomplish much in turning even the most amicable agnostic into a sneering skeptic.

I’m actually quite an admirer of Jesus but I bemoan what much of religion and society has turned him into. I suppose it was inevitable that we’d get a miracle story surrounding his birth but turning those few pleasurable biblical paragraphs into a multi-trillion dollar industry seems a bit over the top to me.

Still, I don’t want my creeping cynicism to prevent me from remaining objective about divine intervention. After all, the Texas Board of Education is still claiming legitimacy for the six days of creation and a friend of mine admits to praying each time she goes into the City Market parking lot for a spot close to the front doors and, she claims, it inevitably appears although she also admits it sometimes takes ten or fifteen minutes for the miracle to actually take place.

Someone once said that coincidences are miracles where God chooses to be anonymous but I have a hunch the Almighty might be missing entirely from some of the recent allegations of celestial interference. “It was meant to be” claimed a bride named Mary from Provo, Utah. She married Brian Christmas earlier this year. Think about it. Or take the inevitable reports this time of year that claim someone has discovered Jesus’ actual manger in the basement of a home in Toledo or a similarly stretched astronomical assertion that exactly pinpoints a certain star’s earth-illuminating rays two thousand and six December 25ths ago. Such contentions only provide additional fodder for our growing cynicism.

Christmas letters are similarly suspect. We tread perilously close to wading into a sea of cynicism when we sit down to read our December mail. I mean, after all, what are the odds that every one of your Christmas correspondents’ kids are graduating summa cum laude from Oxford or just returned from a 3 year mission trip to the Amazon? (Disclosure: Even as I write this my wife is racing to the post office to mail the first of our thirty-three thousand yuletide epistles, each one claiming similar feats of progeny wonders.)

Christmas Eve holds its own temptations toward cynicism, particularly for the cleric. It is difficult at best for the pious pastor to look out upon the crowds that pack the sanctuary on this particular night and not wonder where all the folk were during the last fund drive. I especially remember the midnight service some years back when an inebriated part-time disciple loudly demanded change for the ten-spot he dropped into the offering plate.

Nevertheless, and despite anything Pat Robertson has to say at this time of year about Jesus coming back to damn to hell all homosexuals, Democrats and liberal-leaning Lutherans, I will continue to fight the good fight, trying desperately to resist temptation as I struggle against Christmas cynicism and so, in the best St. Perry Como tradition (Indeed, picture me, if you will, wearing a Santa hat and offering the grandest of smiles!), I wish you all the happiest of holidays.

I would like to add, however, for the sake of my own integrity and the future of all religions everywhere and with the foreknowledge that such action reveals my own moral and spiritual weakness, that I will be withholding my aspirations of goodwill from those folk who have, over the course of the past year, angrily flipped me off while driving speedily by…only to reveal a fish sticker swimming upon their back bumper.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Practicing Progressive


San Juan Capistrano is about to become noticed for more than just the swallows that return to its mission each year. This week a federal lawsuit was filed against a local high school teacher that contends he has made disparaging remarks about Christianity in class that were “highly inappropriate” and caused Christian students to “feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens”.

James Corbett, who teaches Advanced Placement European History at Capistrano Valley High School, finds himself as another potential victim of an increasingly popular movement that seeks to pit some followers of religion against reasonable pedagogical standards.

When a writer’s life is threatened for musing upon the less savory sayings of Muhammad, for instance, or when a college professor is silenced and accused of being anti-Semitic for criticizing the policies of Israel, our ability to objectively pursue intellectual insight suffers another blow. Sacrosanct belief systems can certainly be worthy of respect, even reverence, but they should hold no elevated status in an educational forum. Religions and religious systems should be subject to the same objective scrutiny as any other current or historical endeavor receives. Avoiding analyzing a religion for fear of offending its adherents makes a mockery of intellectual inquiry.

One of the great temptations of this hyper-sensitivity to religion is the current tendency to eliminate all religious references in the classroom. Appreciated or not, the Bible is arguably the most influential book in the development of western civilization and yet most public schools shy away from offering a curriculum that includes any analysis of the book at all. Countless political movements, innumerable works of literature, causes of war and forces for peace have been shaped by biblical passages and inspired by scriptural interpretations and yet one is hard pressed to find much reference to the Bible anywhere in the classroom.

It is a prickly issue to be sure but its difficulty should not be resolved by simply avoiding the problem. How does one understand the Zionist movement of the 20th century without a passing knowledge of the stories in Exodus? How do we make sense of Sunni and Shiite differences that may ignite a Third World War without studying the development of Islam? All of Asia is permeated by a plethora of religions that most westerners know little or nothing about. China and India are positioned to become the most economically influential countries in the world. Can we understand their political strategies or cultural differences without at least a cursory grasp of their religions? Christianity’s history is rich with art and music, architectural wonders and even scientific achievements but there is also a darker side of political intrigue, scholarly suppression and murderous wars. Surely understanding our present is at least partially dependent on scrutinizing our past and yet we have this educational void that threatens to grow larger with each egregious lawsuit.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m convinced that religion holds enormous power over both our past history and our current conditions. To ignore that power is to not just fail to understand how we got where we are but to fail to devise a workable plan for the future.
You don’t need Santayana’s oft-quoted warning, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” to understand the importance of historical analysis. A quick survey of our Iraqi pre-war intelligence, an oxymoron if ever there was one, makes painfully evident what can happen when we are ignorant of religious and cultural histories.

Rather than run from potential lawsuits by relinquishing the importance of religious literature and history, schools should recognize the enormous threat to honest intellectual inquiry that is posed by such litigation. There are times, I’ll grudgingly admit, when discretion is the better part of valor but, as we currently are witness to religious wars being waged around the world and in our own nation, this is surely not the time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

December 10, 2007

The second Sunday in Advent had us worshiping with the saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. If you’re not familiar with this very different congregation, I’ll give you a brief description of our Sunday morning experience.

The facility is relatively new and very beautiful. Done in a style that is reminiscent of the wooden Russian Orthodox churches that were built along the northern California coast in the last couple of centuries, St. Gregory of Nyssa is located in a semi-industrial area of the city. It has the particular good fortune of being situated directly across from the Anchor Brewery, a source of great memories from my seminary days.

We were greeted at the door and asked to fill out nametags…red if you were a first-timer and black if you had visited before. The sanctuary is famous for its dramatic depiction of dancing saints that surround you as you enter the nave. It is a great collection of celestial celebrities that aren’t limited to just those of the Christian persuasion. There is even a dog dancing above your head…which is more than coincidental as I will soon reveal.

Luther is there and so is Gandhi and MLK Jr. and a host of others…go to their website for a neat illustration.

The nave is divided into two distinct parts. At one end are comfortable chairs divided into two sections that face each other. In the space between the chairs is a reading stand on one end, surrounded by a plethora of staffs that support all kinds of beautiful fabrics and designs. At the other end is a settee out of the movie “The Ten Commandments”. It is here that the preacher, seated, offers his homily. Next to the settee is a set of large bell bowls that are rung in sequence at appropriate times.

As we sat, waiting for worship to begin, several people made their way over to us to offer their welcome. Most welcoming, however, was a large mixed-breed dog whose owner laughingly told us that we were sitting in his pet’s favorite pew. Being dog people ourselves, the pup offered a wonderful introduction to our worship experience.

There were no musical instruments to be seen and, indeed, the worship was done entirely a capella. The service of the word moved at a meditative pace with some chanting of Psalms, a reading from Romans and a commentary from the preacher with reflections from the congregation as well. Periods of silence were particularly appreciated by me…although I must confess that this part of the worship experience was entirely too orthodox for me but, then, I’ve come to the conclusion that just about any Christian worship is too orthodox for me.

After a time of silence, we moved to the other half of the sanctuary where the table is placed. There are no chairs here and we entered singing and circling the table throughout the verses. We were then led into a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer with full body movement including prostrating ourselves on the sanctuary floor several different times. The Peace was shared with lots of hugs but respectful of visitors’ awkwardness in the midst of the congregation’s own intimacy. Beautiful prayers were offered and many of the congregants added their own petitions as well. There was a clear invitation to all to commune and while the bread was distributed by the celebrant, we offered the cup to each other.

Then we danced with the saints. Still in our circle, one of the priests instructed us as to the four step circle dance that we were about to employ. It was reasonably simple to follow and after a few faltering attempts, it was a delight to do. Such activity does tend to break down any inhibitions among the worshippers and served, as well, to help us experience the mural that was painted above us in a new and very existential way.

After the benediction, the worship table was stripped and quickly became the place for coffee and goodies. Such a transformation had the congregation remaining around the table for much longer than traditional worship allows.

No question that we will return to worship again…especially after the announcement that first-time visitors were expressly asked not to put anything in the offering basket but rather reflect on their experience in worship and, if they returned, to then give generously.

I seem to remember that this particular ministry was commenced by a priest who had significant financial resources of his own. In any case, such a style would certainly be dependent on a few very dedicated folk who were willing to support a congregation with a decidedly non-traditional worship that is anything but “contemporary”.

The current state of Christian worship, be it traditional or contemporary, rarely appeals to folk who are looking for theological integrity and intellectual challenge in their religious experience. The good folk at St. Gregory of Nyssa seem to be seeking to rectify that incongruity with an unusual approach that invites serious consideration for progressive Christians.