Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Pipe Club

It is a great mystery, but much more is gained from the company of old men, encircled in a fog of pipe and cigar smoke, than merely a few hours of mature camaraderie. Something about masculinity is much more "caught" than it is "taught." To catch these crumbs of wisdom that fall from the elders' table, one must be in close proximity to the one's dropping them. In addition, it is no small matter to be invited into the fellowship of older men when they gather to speak of weighty matters, of light-hearted jokes, of legendary anecdotes and deeply held values.

A grocery list of virtues to which younger men should continually aspire are on display, implied in the praises of past comrades and laments over errant brothers. In such an circle, one hears about the manliness of fidelity, the duty to treat one's family with understanding, the honor of service to one's country, the respect due the dead and the folly of misguided politics. By participating in this "Pipe Club," I partake in the shared history with "tribal elders."

And yet, it is not merely these qualities that draw one to a smoke-enshrouded porch in front of a church. Indeed there is something in the smoke...

Wafting in the burnt tobacco fumes is something mystical, magical and necessary. An indescribable efficacy rides upon the cloud holding steadily aloft around the heads of those gathered. The pipe then becomes an instrument of meditation, and the cigar a conductor of reflection. The tobacco is truly then a gift of God, offered in creation for our pleasure and to facilitate the appropriate times of slowing life down. Indeed the pipe and the prayer book can can easily go together, as does coffee and Scripture reading each morning.

But one's smoke is best when mingled with others' smoke. It calls out to community; to speak with the other smoker of things that cannot be merely mentioned in passing, but instead require a few draws from the pipe or that 50 ring maduro to consider the answer well. Surely of the many pleasures built into creation, tobacco has had the effect of creating close networks of people. As admittedly destructive as cigarettes are (this is not contestable), it is universal "sign language" for one cigarette smoker to place two fingers to his lips in a clear sign of requesting to "bum a smoke" from another smoker who has pulled his own pack out in the smoking area. Neither could speak the others' native tongue, and yet this communication could occur without ambiguity.

Pipe and cigar smokers know the vast difference that exists between their pleasures and the vice of cigarettes (non-smokers seldom understand the difference, and therefore often ignorantly claim there is none). Nevertheless, better the "vice" of cigarettes than the isolation of neglecting so effective an excuse to gather with peer/mentors that God has placed around you to nourish the soul. Along that line, the Pipe Club at Church of the Holy Trinity is a joy to attend, and a blessing to the heart, mind and spirit.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Technology "Fast"

Experiencing an interruption in internet and television service has been an inconvenient, yet not altogether undetectable blessing. The resulting effect has been a greater necessity to engage those activities that exercise the mind and nurture relationships better. In place of surfing the net, we have books to read. In place of the news to watch, we converse over dinner. In place of cartoons, my kids watch movies from our collection (2 hours long) that keep their attention for longer than minutes (with commercial breaks every 5 minutes). Instead of immediately turning on the football game that I enjoy watching, my wife and I go walk a couple of miles. Yes, the interruption of information and entertainment technology at home may be inconvenient, but there has been an "up side" that can be extracted from it.

In light of this unexpected benefit, it would behoove us to voluntarily perform this technology "fast" from time to time. Imagine the relational and concentration wealth that can be developed from the simple voluntary denial of the image-drive world to invade the harmony of the household. This can be taken so far as to even prefer candlelight for an evening over the simple flicking on of wall switches. Perhaps this practice can be incorporated into our Feast of Apartments held in May.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

People Watching

My love of humanity is horribly inconsistent.

At times I think I love ALL people (undoubtedly self-deluded) motivated by Christian sentiments of wanting to emote in sync with the Father's affection revealed in John 3:16 ("for God so loved the world."). Other times though, I can be grotesquely snobby, supposing that people must earn value that is not inherently theirs by virtue of being anthropologically classifiable as homo sapiens. To combat the contradicting extremes I employ two practices:

1. I attempt to recall an Augustinian view of my own depravity, knowing that I'm only capable of a certain amount of love for anyone. Therefore, I reign back thoughts about how altruistic my motives and affections really are. God may love "the world," but I'm thankful to have periods of love for anyone - let alone those who make it difficult. I simply have never arrived... I have a long way to go. I always will.

2. I watch people as they go about what they do, and attempt to consider what issues are facing them, influencing them to hustle and bustle through their various activities. Intolerance with people is often born of brief "snapshots," assuming that behavior observed in a mere moment is somehow indicative of their whole lifestyle. Were such a paradigm applied to me, surely I could be seen as being among the more diabolical villains to plague the human race. Therefore, I try to suspend the tendency to judge by "snapshots." Even when I only have brief contact with someone, some imagination can be used to place the moment within the context of a larger life story.

This discipline can be put into practice whenever I'm in the company of people. It's easier to do at home obviously, since I know more of their life story. Still not entirely too laborious is to extend this understanding toward those one works with. Through workplace conversations you become aware of the issues faced by co-workers. As a result, any given moment can be better placed within the broader context of their living narrative, making you more tolerant of perceived annoyances or quirks.

Where it gets more difficult is in those places where you interact with people you do not know for brief, single moments.

-The harried retail checker ringing up your merchandise on "Black Friday."

-The rude driver that forces the nose of their car in front of you during the morning commute.

-The customer service rep trying to address your issue over the phone.

This practice is often put to the greatest test when "people watching" at a bus stop. Public transit commutes offer a wealth of opportunities to see just how understanding toward people I'm willing to be. The bus stop is a tremendous arena for discovering exactly how much Jesus Christ has influenced my affection for "the world." The person waiting next to me is not necessary for me accomplishing something. My understanding toward them does not "grease the wheels" of something I'm trying to accomplish. The retail checkout person might go slower if I'm not patient and kind with them (and we can't have that). The car merging into my lane better get that space, lest I risk denting both theirs and my vehicle. The customer service rep on the phone can make my life easier or harder based upon how cooperative they are motivated to be (hopefully my kindness motivates them to help me... a lot). The bus stop bystander though, means nothing to me, except that they are a fellow person with a life story in which fits this moment in time.

People watching, on such occasions, is the chance to discover exactly how loving I'm becoming, or can be from time to time. So often I'm depraved, selfish and rude. However, it's good to know that the Spirit of God can invade even THAT, and punctuate my life story with epiphanous "snapshots" of His influence.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Smoke-filled Room

As the thurible waved back and forth behind me, while I processed into the the sanctuary carrying the cross, I could already smell it. The incense burned sending its smoke rising into the rafters. For some, this is a strong scent that might distract from worship. For me, it's an olfactory journey into the throne room of God. The fumes drift around and invade the atmosphere. Such elements can lead you, literally, by the nose into the images of worship conjured from Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4. When we had arrived at the front of the sanctuary and entered the area of the altar, the priest waved the incense over the altar, the sacramental instruments and toward us acolytes. It's a wondrous thing to worship Christ with "the prayers of the saints" wafting over and around you. In ideal conditions, the air conditioning can be disengaged so that the smoke develops stratigraphic layers of fog rising up to the ceiling (and symbolically up to heaven). Indeed Christian worship can, and should, be a multi-sensory enterprise.

The incense smoke activates a historic "trigger" in the brain that hopes the ancient saints would be pleased with how we have received their "baton" of worship rites. It also powers up a futuristic instinct regarding saints' collective worship of Christ in heaven. It agitates and quickens an awareness of the present-day participation in timeless worship that has been being conducted by angels since their creation. The incense, therefore, has the past-present-future aspects of all legitimate celebration. I have discussed before how this rubric measures the validity of all ceremony and celebration. The finest elements of church practice uphold this philosophy.

The lingering "scents of worship" stay with me throughout the week as I engage in morning and/or evening prayer. Prayers from the Book of Common Prayer contain such creedal truth and ancient language, that I sense I'm still engaged in "common prayer" with those saints I thought about when enveloped by incense smoke. My "smoke" mingles with theirs to waft up before Divine nostrils. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit take a big whiff and say to one another, "Do you smell that? I love it."

For this reason, there's nothing like worshiping in a smoke filled room. For us at the Church of the Holy Trinity, this happens on the first Sunday of the month. O that it was a weekly occurrence! For some in episcopal churches (albeit Reformed Episcopal - Anglican), some elements of worship simply smack too closely of Roman practices, and therefore must be introduced judiciously. Nevertheless, having chosen to "eat the whole buffalo," I've developed an 'appetite' for all that ancient liturgy and practice offers. Our wise and temperate priest is including new/ancient elements with measured incrementalism. My default response remains, "swing that burner at me again, father. Nothing aids an atmosphere of worship like atmospheric worship." The smoke-filled room is exactly the place where I want to pray with all the saints (past, present and future).