Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Being Called "Indiana Jones"

For serious archaeologists, the relationship to the Indiana Jones mythology is an uncomfortable one. On the one hand, there's a comical quality to "Dr. Jones" that cannot be taken seriously. The fantastical adventures he goes on
and mystical treasures he finds are as divorced from reality as any other action film might be. Thus, the scholar finds it necessary to constantly remind students, readers and visitors to the museum exhibit that "real" archaeology is "nothing like the movies." Therefore, for someone to suggest that an archaeologist is "being like Indiana Jones" is somewhat insulting, as though they are not appearing as "scholarly" as they want to be. The label reveals that the scholar is not to be taken seriously. It can be discouraging.

On the other hand, the Indiana Jones movies and mythology has done much to raise popular awareness regarding the joys and excitement of real discovery. Not unlike how police television dramas inspire young people to grow up to have actual law enforcement careers, they know that reality and film differ, but one inspired the other anyway. Legitimate or not, the film character has inspired many a young researcher to joyfully enter the field or for donors to fund a discovery project. For this reason, Harrison Ford was elected to the board of directors for the Archaeological Institute of America because his legendary character had "played a significant role in stimulating the public's interest in archaeological exploration." Thus archaeologists can unapologetically own "Indiana Jones" as a sort of tongue-in-cheek mascot.

However, this "mascot" has to be utilized within reason. While the fictional character may have inspired young scholars to pursue the thrill of "adventure," they also know that "adventure" is a relative term. The thrill of discovery was no less powerful to them just because they reached their conclusions through hours spent in the lab rather than through car chases with Nazis. Thus, the "Jones" label needs to remain unspoken, lest it rob the scholar's research of some of it's deserved respect. The author that calls themselves "a real life Indiana Jones," is shedding his credibility in academia for the sake of selling more sensationalized books or enjoying the rock star status of a speaking circuit. A scholar that is desiring respect in his field, though secretly enjoys watching Harrison Ford pursue the Holy Grail, likely will cringe if friends and family says he or she seems like "Indiana Jones" (colleagues would know better than to invoke the Jones reference).

Knowing this uneasy interplay of inspiration and embarrassment, I've dangerously waded into that soup by unabashedly keeping the trappings that inspire me (i.e. a brown, felt fedora), all the while pursuing scholarly work that avoids the sensationalism spouted by those claiming to be "a real life Indiana Jones." Thus it can be said I've brought the embarrassing label on myself, and have no grounds for avoiding it. Nevertheless, my beloved spouse sees me donning my "thinking cap" and realizes it simply inspires me to spend that many more hours in the library, the lab and in the field. So the balance is to enjoy my little reminders to myself of how exciting I find "real" archaeology, hoping that people DON'T get around to saying, "Wow! You look just like..." It's an unreasonable expectation, I know. Who can blame those that reference the mythic action hero? They don't know how much I'd like to leave that motivating image from my youth left unspoken in the conversation. Somethings are just for me to know about, reminding myself of the secret thrill of pursuing what I love...but the hat is a little difficult to conceal under the rest of the clothes. If, however, I can make it to the library or the lab without anyone drawing the connection between the hat and a popular film character, the research seems just a little more sweet when I get there.

If I were THAT committed to avoiding being called "Indiana Jones," I'd leave the hat at home. I suppose a less secure man would be highly offended by the seeming loss of respect inherent in having the connection made between them as a scholar and the action star. I, however, simply smile and admit that some myths can inspire people toward real scholarship. I suppose it also helps to prevent me from taking myself too seriously as well. Nevertheless, it's a delicate balance of being inspired by a youthful myth while growing up to do the "real" work.

Inspirations have their place. What inspires you?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jesus in the Stands

Who knew that God picks his favorite NFL football team any given Sunday? I certainly didn't. He must though, to hear sportscasters speak about Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos. Apparently, he's a Christian and makes no effort at hiding it. Outstanding! More power to him. It don't mind a Christian sports player, whose job it is to entertain and inspire us with his competitive efforts, "coming out" and speaking of his faith in the open forum. On the contrary, he may even use the spotlight, if he's a good player, for speaking about how his faith inspires him to honor God and those around him with his integrity and work ethic.

What has come to seem more and more odd to me is the phenomenon of players pointing upward and thanking God for a successful play that scored points for their team. I have no doubt that they were praying for victory for their team prior to the game (and perhaps even during the game on one knee; i.e. random "Tebow-ing"). However, when the player points skyward and thanks God for the touchdown or kick that split the uprights, what in hell are they assuming? That God granted their prayer and guided the ball into the receiver's hands in that acrobatic artistry that would make Lynn Swann weep sentiment tears? Do they honestly suppose that the LORD blew his wind to nudge the pigskin away from the defenders swatting palm? What about the defensive end's prayer that he successfully stop the offense's advance?

If Tim Tebow's pastor is to be believed, God chooses NFL favorites not unlike how he chose ancient Israel from among all the other nations. But Wayne Hanson is not the only offender. The assumption of "God's favor" on a football team is communicated every time a player points upward as his endzone celebration and the fans in the living room dutifully offer the "amen" in the form of turning to the guest next to them sharing the popcorn bowl and musing, "That's good to see...a believer that gives God glory." Of course, the question "Glory for what?!" never gets asked. It's just assumed that God has something (ANYTHING!) to do with results in a football game, that he's chosen (for reasons that seem good to him) to answer the prayers of one team for victory instead of the other team's (perhaps no one on the other team prays...heathens).

You know what? That makes total sense. I think I saw Jesus sitting up in the stands during a game recently. He was the guy in section 117, row N, seat 12 with the rainbow hair and a cowbell. Clearly Jesus is an NFL fan. Heck, he MUST be. Why else would so many assume he's picked a side? I mean...THINK about it. Considering how many pastors make sure that church is out in time to watch the game, they must have gotten the memo: "Dismiss by 11:50 sharp. Jesus has sweet tickets on the 50 yard line and will NOT be in your service after the cutoff time." I like to think of Jesus painting his face and shaking his signed jersey in front of the FOX camera as it pans by.

"Absurd," you say? No more than assuming that the Holy Spirit miraculously helped the receiver drag that second toe in the back corner of the end zone while maintaining control of the ball all the way to the ground. If the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control, perhaps the praise could be offered that he inspired a little less excessive celebration, less unnecessary roughness, fewer prima donnas, more honest players admitting, "Yep. My knee was down on contact. I admit it." These things might be actually important to God, certainly more so than something as comparatively trivial as a touchdown.

The next time a player is tempted to thank God above for winning the game, perhaps they might stop and think of what their photo op says to the believer on the opposing team who was also praying for victory on the Lord's Day (not sure how the schedule of an NFL player allows for ANY church attendance for half the year anyway). I doubt very much God was interested in the outcome of the game, even less whether the kick was good. That dude I saw in the stand that I though was Jesus, was probably just a enthusiastic, mortal fan after all.

Besides, if indeed it's true that Jesus was a "friend to sinners," he's a hockey fan anyway.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Screw the Shopping...Give me Christ

I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas each year. I absolutely love the trappings of celebrating Christ's birth that manifest in sights, sounds and smells all associated with this grand holiday. The Christmas music airing 24/7 over the local radio station adds considerably to the feeling of peace, contentment and anticipation. The decorations come out and get hung around the house, contributing to a sense of serenity in the home, anticipating a peaceful time reflecting on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, when God chose to "pitch his tent" among us. When the Texas weather finally starts to cool down, the sweaters can come out of storage and help us cozy up on the sofa with hot cocoa and peppermint candies. It's a joy to get wrapped up (pun intended) in the Christmas "spirit," telling people, "Merry Christmas," as you come upon them is my goings about. I love side of Christmas that is a celebration.

I hate the side of Christmas that is consumerism. Basically, it's that time of year when the shame of having so little extra money beyond that amount necessary to cover daily necessities becomes particularly acute. Black Friday is of no consequence. Holiday deals must be ignored. Any trip to the mall is mainly to simply "people watch." Seemingly all Christmas films highlight the presents purchased for the occasion ("You'll shoot your eye out!"). The great hope is that relatives send gift checks that the parents can use shop for the kids, because nothing in the household budget allows for that activity. The question from friends, "What did you get you kids for Christmas?" are awkward, and sometimes skillfully, avoided. The spend-fest serves as an annual thermometer revealing the low "temperatures" in the bank account, driving family members to think more "deeply" about the "true meaning of Christmas" (as though this could not also be accomplished while simultaneously striking the mother load).

I'd love to split this holiday into two separate events: one that celebrates the birth of Christ and another that brings retailers "into the black" each year. The evolution of how these two very divergent concepts came to be intertwined must be interesting to study. Nevertheless, I wish they could be separated. The shopping frenzy be damned, I'm still going to try to "get into the Christmas spirit."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Semper Reformanda

Frequent misunderstandings arise concerning the purpose, meaning and application of the Protestant Reformation. It's such a multifaceted epoch in history that widely varied opinions and interpretations exist regarding whether it was good or bad. The Reformation of the 16th Century is at once both a tragic tale, and a glorious one. It's a tragic one because an unintended consequence of it was the subsequent splintering of the Church of the West. However, it's a marvelous story because the need for the western Church to correct some of its errors was THAT dire. Basically, it's both a fond and painful memory for all of us - not unlike how an adult recalls a particular meaningful spanking they received as a child. For this reason, some may cringe at the prospect of celebrating the Protestant Reformation on October 31st (the traditional date in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the front door of his church in Wittenburg), and understandably so. On the other hand, I believe it's deserving of a commemorative party - not unlike how adults recall a younger spanking with stories of childhood discipline that resemble, "Yeah. My father was a loving, but strict man. I remember one time I acted up...and instead of just leaving me to my self-destructive folly, he applied the 'board of education' to the 'seat of learning.' I'm so glad he loved me enough to straighten me up then...but I still couldn't sit down comfortably for days."

To the Philippians, the Apostle Paul wrote, "For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6; emphasis added). This confident statement by the Apostle can be appropriately interpreted as Divine assurance that God will remain an "engaged Father," disciplining and correcting the Church (semper reformanda - "always reforming") until the return of Jesus Christ. Far from standing aloof, allowing the Bride of Christ to wander aimlessly in error, he set events in motion and supervises them to fix things that are broken. There can be no doubt that the disunity that ensued has left us rubbing our collective backsides, saying "Oooh! That smarts." Nevertheless, the bruised posterior offers both bragging rights for the Herculean endurance and an endearing narrative concerning an attentive Father.

Therefore, while I understand that reluctance to celebrate the Reformation can be born of a legitimate distaste for the division in the Church that has sense ensued, I instead take the position of recalling the episode as a story of God's grace. Imagine the opposite scenario of a disengaged father that leaves his offspring to their own devices, meandering about without corrective intervention. Surely the the healing process continues, and we will one day see a Church re-unified in it's doctrine and mission. In the meantime, celebrating Reformation Day is to celebrate the God that corrects us when we need it. He remains interactive and engaged, bringing us back on track when we wander off it (i.e. indulgences, Transubstantiation, etc.).

Some have exploited this discipline though, using the post-Reformation division to advance their own sect, seemingly reveling in the tragic pain of a splintered church. They exult in the division and assume that efforts to heal from these wounds and seek ecumenical unity are misguided. This is a wrong application of the Reformation "spirit," by seemingly wanting to keep the "spanking" going on longer than is necessary. On the contrary, as any loving Father holds and consoles the very same child they just painfully disciplined, so also would the Father like to see us united as "one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church" again. Until that oneness is again realized (and even when it is), celebrating the God who fixes us is appropriate for any time.

In addition, Reformation Day is a celebration of the Church about the Church. It was the Church's very process of theological reflection and geographic expansion that God used to correct the errors of the medieval era. Scholars such as Martin Luther wrote on the abuses of the Roman church, calling for their correction, desiring reform more than discord. Thomas Cranmer and others advanced Christian worship free of odd innovations to classic Christian teaching that arose from Rome as well. All of these events reinforce that when God wanted his Church back in the right path, he used the Church to do it. So Reformation Day commemorates the triumph of the Church in addition to celebrating the triumph of God and his Word.

All of this suggests the necessity for a grand party, feast, celebration for God's people. It's a legitimate reason to gather the Lord's people together and incite them to revel in God's goodness demonstrated in "fixing" us when needed. When we celebrate our "engaged Father" that has reformed us before, we too can be "sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you [us] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." As a result, his work of semper reformanda ("always reforming") in us is his loving attention to the Church to keep us faithful to him and his mission to the world.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I Need to Go Hunting Again

Growing up, my father was much more of a hunting enthusiast than I was. Each year, just prior to deer season, he'd get "the fever," and his mind would begin racing on all the necessary preparations for hunting. On the other hand, I paid it very little attention until the day we left. For the most post, I found it a lot of unnecessary work to simply enjoy the outdoors and have more meat in our freezer. The whole experience seemed almost spoiled by having to lug around a heavy rifle, or having to paint my face camouflage colors for bowhunting season. My heart just wasn't into it. My father, however, was the consummate hunter, and ascribed profound importance to all aspects of it. As I look back to those years, I've come to appreciate what a "conductor of life lessons" it was that I simply didn't value at the time; not unlike how different metals are often shown to be a better conductor of sound or heat than others are.

When the term "hunting" is invoked, it often brings one thing to mind: killing. However, the actually slaying of an animal in the wild is a small minority of the entire process, and frequently is absent from the outing altogether (I went on SO many hunts and came back with nothing). But regarding the killing of big game, I don't begrudge people their aversion to performing this act. It's not for everyone. I do, however, think that those who are "anti-hunting" should also be vegetarians for consistency's sake; for every human carnivore, whether eating a fast food burger or jerky made from a proud Mule deer, is consuming a creature which as once alive, but was slain for their sustenance. Nevertheless, I've come to consider it an important virtue to participate in the ecosystem as a responsible hunter does. Note how the term "responsible" excludes poachers that ignore government regulations concerning management of game populations, or, in my opinion, those that hunt game they have no intention of consuming. I disagree with exotic hunts that seek to "bag" a rare animal for mere trophy's sake. That's not being the "ecological participant" that my father taught me to be.

Having said that, the actual harvest of the animal (i.e. killing), is something that cannot be divorced from the mystique of hunting. The marksmanship necessary to ensure that the animal is, in fact, slain (not merely sent of into the woods wounded, to die providing no benefit to the human "predator") requires preparation that precedes the outing by weeks or months. The hunter must educate themselves on the various regulations specific to the region so that they are compliant with game management and (during rifle season) firearm safety laws in every way. They must outfit themselves with the needed gear and accessories for the safety and comfort of their party. In my case, my father saw to my care and comfort, all the while teaching me to be more self-reliant through the process. I cannot speak for all hunters, but I was imbued with a striking appreciation for nature through this process; it's beauty, artistry and fragility. "Pick up after yourself," "police your brass," "minimal residual impact" were the frequent commands. Woodsmanship and ecological responsibility were the lessons and the wilderness was the classroom... and "class" was ALWAYS in session whether or not we saw any deer.

I remember killing my first buck. I was young. I fired three accurate shots that all contributed to the deer's quick expiration. It appeared to suffer as little as possible - if at all. This was important to me. As we approached the downed animal, my father began giving me instructions on how to "gut" it right then. Thoroughly grossed out, I resisted, hoping my dad would just do it for me. He became indignant that I might even think of slaying an animal this majestic and then seek to escape taking responsibility for the entire process. "No son of MINE is going to cheapen life that way by just killing an animal, but then not cleaning it too." Needless to say, I learned everything about the insides of a Black-tailed deer that morning. It was a messy and sobering ritual that had begun months before at the target range, and would later culminate with the integration of venison into family meals. At dinner, whenever some on my deer was included, the round of thanks for providing it was uniquely mine to receive. It was profound. That connection with not only the animal, but with the entire process, would wash over me anew with each successive morsel. Something primitive and timeless had been handed to me, and the singular pride that came from engaging it remains to this day.

Over the years, as I no longer lived near my father, hunting became less and less a personal pursuit. Eventually I sold my deer rifle to pay for college books, and seemed to lose all interest in perform all that work. I eventually got another buck again 20 years after the first one during another outing, of course, with my father (I've gotten just two in my lifetime). Even then, though, I was more pleased that my dad was pleased with my buck than I was elated for getting it. I'm just not a hunter as a matter of instinct.

Recently though, I've been thinking differently about it. Because the entire process, from sighting in your rifle at the range to enjoying your harvest at the dinner table, is seemingly such a powerful conductor of life lessons... I've felt like I should pursue it for my sons' sake, and for mine. The task is daunting. Re-acquiring the "tools" necessary to undertake this venture are varied and expensive (i.e. firearms, bullets [or bows and arrows], camping gear, licenses, deer tags, etc.). Learning and selecting the places to hunt is no small task either. I don't live in the same region I grew up in. Texas hunting is a very different "animal" (pun intended) from that of northern California. It's intimidating to be so unfamiliar with local customs and access areas for hunting... to say nothing of the expense of actually taking the trip. All of this could be an effective deterrent from attempting it at all, but the lessons conveyed from one generation to the next through hunting were so important as to make all the trouble seem necessary and valuable.

I'll keep learning what I need to and perhaps I may soon be out there with my boys, teaching them some of what my father taught me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Coddling the Grouch

There's a particular demographic group in our society that has been coddled, and excused, and accommodated and tolerated for so long that they feel like they can just do and say what they want, wherever they want. I'm talking about grouches: those negative and grumbling people that seem to find a destructive super-cell imbedded inside every silver-lined cloud. You see them all the time, but mainly can hear them nearby. Their voice delivers that raspy, doomsday prophecy concerning the present opportunity while their shoulders hunch over and sink back into their skull. The airborne negativity needs to be resisted if you don't want to contract their strain of pessimism. There's no known vaccine. Vigilance is the only treatment.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ride Out!

With the knowledge you have gained
from a hundred training days,
Ride out!

With trust in one and all
to heed the blaring urgent call,
Ride out!

With courage few can know
and brilliant skills to show,
Ride out!

With honor, grace and pride,
and God ever on your side,
Ride out!

On apparatus prepped with care
to dangers few would ever dare,
Ride out!

To those emergencies to solve
with your leaders' fierce resolve,
Ride out!

To your city, swift and brave,
that prays for God to come and save,
Ride out!

To your neighbors, scared and near,
and family, loved and dear,
Ride out!

As God's caring hands and feet,
knowing what timely needs you meet,
Ride out!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Prayers for a Fire Station

On May 21st, it was my privilege to participate in the dedication of the new station for Fate Fire Rescue. The fire department for the City of Fate, Texas is an exemplary team that has taken a leadership role in Rockwall County, demonstrating excellence that neighboring departments can learn from. Having been their fire chaplain since 2007, it has been my honor to serve them since then, though after moving to Houston in late 2009, my interaction with them diminished considerably. Imagine my joy when they asked I be present for, and participate in the dedication (and "blessing") of their newly constructed, state-of-the-art, station on Main St. Not qualified to offer a sacramental or "priestly" blessing for their station, I performed instead my usual habit of writing prayers for the occasion that we might offer up to God on behalf of those that assemble and serve there. This constituted a "blessing" which could be invoked by any who read them as often as they do. The following were written for the occasion of the station dedication, but will also be framed and given to the dept to display as they see fit (it was suggested that these prayers might be hung in their designated spaces within the station). I post them here for my friends to see what manner of "blessing" I hope that my beloved firefighters will receive as often as such prayers are read among them:

Prayer of Blessing for the Training Room

O gracious Lord, who by your Spirit did train the young men of old in the ways of battle for the service of your people, Grant that by that same Spirit those that have given themselves over to be counted among this department shall receive the excellent training and instruction as is fitting for servants of our God in the care of this fine city. Illuminate their minds to sound precepts and teach their hands for service, that residents may call upon them with confidence of their skilled instincts to save, to the honor of the most responsive Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer of Blessing for the Berthing and Rec Areas

Almighty God, who has given space within these walls for them who stand watch over this city, and with utmost vigilance remain ready to answer the call, to receive rest from their labors while sleeping for a time or enjoying such delights as their camaraderie affords, Grant that they may find in here a replenishing respite when not needed for emergencies or such duties as are asked of them to the taxing of their spirits and bodies. So that when running they may not grow weary, and in walking they will not faint, to the glory of your Comforting Son our Lord. Amen.

Prayer of Blessing for the Apparatus and Equipment Bay

Almighty Father, who is the sender of all things fine and helpful into the world, for the benefit of your creatures great and small, and who has provided such excellent equipment for these your helpers to use in service to this city, Grant that this collection of tools and gear may accompany them on the apparatus which, carried along by your Spirit, may enable them to fully bring that help for which you have empowered them, for the reputation he who provides all help to the distressed, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer of Blessing for Command and Control

O God our Chief, who has ordered all the world to follow them that lead with excellence, and who has provided as gifts from your gracious treasury such officers as may command your servants in this duty, Grant that they, being ever mindful or their charge, will increase in love and competence for guiding those that so need their leadership. And we entreat you that their devices and channels of communication might never fail them, that through their clear direction and wise admonition, citizens may dwell assured that God has sent his best to them in time of need. To the honor and glory of he who rules from his throne, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Porch Life

Part of what defines a family is how comfortable the members are around each other. We've all been to those family gatherings in which some members maintain a cordial "truce," but the warm reception was a little much to ask. Visit any home and you'll immediately take notice of how those that live there relate together. Do the spouses seem agreeable and supportive of one another? Do the children play nice and respect the grown ups? It doesn't take long to gauge the life of the household by observing how the residents get along, if they enjoy each others' company or if they like to hang out together for no particular reason.

So is it with a family; so it is with a church. There are many indicators that can help one detect the health of a church. How many attend? What do they give? How many are sent out from there to Christian ministry? Do they value symbols and sacraments in worship? There are a wide variety of factors that can demonstrate that this is a healthy local body of Christ, following the Lord and growing into a mature expression of his Church. Among the telltale signs that a church is maturing into something honoring the Lord is how comfortable it's members are with each other, and how readily they welcome newcomers into that comfort zone. This exercise of a healthy church can be summed up in the technical term: "hanging out."

It's valid question to ask whether a church's members like to "hang out" together, having nothing particularly special to do than to simply enjoy each others' company. A church body is often called a "family," or a "home church." If the "home" analogy is to be adequately explored, then someone must ask, "Where is the living room?" What space is provided by the church wherein the "family" members can simply "hang" together? What facilitates their "hang out?" When can it occur?

Many churches are so heavily programmatized that they cannot imagine supplying space and time for its members to do absolutely nothing but sit and relate together. I worked for a "mega-church" before, where its nearly 4,000 members and multiple pastoral staff exited the building all within minutes of the Sunday service being dismissed. All that was left within half an hour of the closing song was the janitorial staff (which included me). The mass exodus was so thorough, that when people showed up late for church, just missing the service by twenty minutes, looking for someone to pray with them, all they found was us janitors there to minister to them. The instinct to "hang together" was not cultivated in that church, though countless sermons about "developing a sense of community" were preached with passion.

Since then I've seen churches not only preach about "community," but also facilitate it by offering space for experiencing that "common life" together. In some places this can be a "fellowship hall," but my experience has been that something unique is offered by an expansive porch or courtyard. This could be due to the fact that the Anglican churches I've attended have members that share an appreciation for good tobacco. Smoking a pipe or a fine cigar appears to facilitate "hanging out" together better than many other methods can. Obviously since smoking isn't going to occur indoors, a church porch is necessary for it. For this reason the porch is needed to facilitate Pipe Club for the church as well. Now the porch life at Church of the Holy Trinity was legendary for being a "hang out" place for the church family members. Not only did Pipe Club happen there the last Friday night of each month, but Sunday afternoon found that porch populated with people in no hurry to go anywhere. Many of the men smoked while the women related together near the playground where children continued to play. The "common life" of the church was plainly evident. I often commented regarding the men that didn't race home to watch the game: "Of course they're all football fans... they're just bigger fans of each other."

St. Matthias Anglican Church
has a porch area too (pictured above). It's well suited to facilitating their Pipe Club on the second Friday night of each month, but has gone under utilized on Sunday after the Holy Communion service. While every church differs in culture and practice, "The Porch," as a function of a church's common life together seems almost required across multiple congregations. While I didn't want to assume that what works at one church would be well received at another, Holy Trinity and St. Matthias share many common elements. Among those are their emphasis on the natural affinity that Christians should have for one another drinking deeply from Celtic Christianity. Since this "brand" of Christian community has been something emphasized by our Bishop, it stands to reason that congregations where our Bishop's presence has been felt would have this emphasis too. Thus "the porch" is a fitting demonstration of how our Bishop's influence has taken root.

In light of this, it seemed only right that the porch at the Cathedral of Saint Matthias would find us, last Sunday, enjoying a pipe or our cigars following the service. It was very natural to rest in that shade, in no hurry to exit to our various homes. As a added benefit, some even visited and inquired about the church, stopping by specifically because they saw us sitting outside. The Porch did its work on a number of levels, even acting as an attractant because of our "common life" being enjoyed together. I suspect that this "porch life" will continue to reap untold benefits, and I look forward to all of them.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Assisting Instructor's First Workout

When I taught kung fu full time, it was always understood in the Temple that new instructors were ever being trained and groomed to lead in student development and workouts. One of the first "rites of passage" for a young assisting instructor (AI) in the Temple was to lead the workout in Skill Class. The structure of Skill Class was that the 50 minute group session was divided in half. Roughly 25 minutes was spent on a rigorous workout full of repetitions of moves, stances and strikes that all participating had learned in private sessions. Then a 5 minute stretching period would ensue to help the students relax their breathing and prepare their bodies for pairing up to spend the remaining 20 minutes practicing the technique for the night. The chief instructor, or senior instructor (SI) present that evening (this could, at times be one of the masters visiting, or even Grand Master Simon) would show the class an advanced technique that all present could then practice with their partner. The senior instructor (SI) could lead the workout portion if they chose to, but that was often left to the assisting instructor (AI) to lead.

The first half of Skill Class was often left to the AI for a few reasons:

1. They needed the practice being in front of people. Every AI simply needs time in front. Those butterflies must be subdued. In fact, while the workouts can be intense and physically demanding, they're not as mentally demanding. The AI can teach in short spurts of what we called "filler talk" (i.e. "louder!," or "lower in the stance," or "check your foot position") between repetitions. Such basic techniques are the norm for the workout portion of Skill Class, that the AI need not access a vast repository of knowledge in order to deliver a good sweat. Certainly there is the occasion of the mind inexplicably going blank, wherein the AI is at a loss as to what basic motions to lead the class in. One humorous example was from another teacher that shared about his first Skill Class as an AI. He seemingly forgot all other motions and lead the class in 25 minutes of Front Thrust Kicks. Those poor people were barely able to walk back to the changing room. I myself remember leading in such a basic selection of moves that SI later bailed me out by standing in the back and giving me hints on something else to do beside yet again another High Rising Block/Thrust Punch combination. For the AI, this is his practice time to become comfortable leading the people of the Temple.

2. The students need to acclimate to a new face teaching them. Private instruction can be a more personal venue than a group session (i.e. Skill Class, Kung Fu Club or Sparring Club), thus it's necessary for an AI to develop some of their credibility alongside teaching new students, and at times prior to teaching more advanced students. The AI is being taught directly from the SI throughout the workday and even at times apart from work hours altogether. Thus their skills are often likely beyond that of the more advanced students simply because of the constant exposure they had to higher knowledge. However, the advanced students still, as a courtesy, because of their faithfulness, deserve the AI "prove" themselves before deigning to instruct those that have often been in the Temple longer, though have not sought instructor rank. There simply is legitimacy to letting the student body get used to the new guy. In this symbiotic relationship wherein training occurs, the SI does well to think of the people of the Temple as another means of molding AI's into good teachers.

3. The "technique portion" of Skill Class is made more significant. There's little doubt that when you change instructors midstream in Skill Class, different weight is given to what the latter teacher brings. The AI played the role of the "Tasmanian Devil," bouncing off the walls and leading the workout with such rabid intensity and frenzied energy, that his is clearly not the persona of the poised and circumspect teacher emerging from the office to impart wisdom. His role was simply to hone the body and mind to adapt to the chaotic rigors of hellacious combat. Concluding his portion with a climaxing "sound focus," the AI lead the class into stretching that calmed their breathing and quieted the mind so that the SI delivers higher techniques and pearls of wisdom to those truly prepared to receive it. Speaking with a softer tone, with measured words and a calm demeanor, the SI demonstrates the technique (or series of them), to the class attendants paired up with their partners. His teaching is given considerably greater respect, and the technique is considered "homework" for the students who want to lace their skill sets with this new "hidden treasure."

As a practice, the system of delegating the "workout portion" of Skill Class to the AI is effective and has stood the test of time across many different martial arts traditions, settings and styles. What many might not realize, without this background, is how evident this system is in the Church as well. Unlike Skill Class, the liturgical Holy Communion service is divided into three groups: the ante-communion, the communion and the post-communion. However, in practice they truly do separate into two major groups, for the communion and post-communion are both executed by the "SI" in the service, be it the resident Rector or Bishop present for a special occasion. At the end of the ante-communion portion, the sermon can possibly be delegated to an "AI" specifically authorized to do so as a Deacon, but all that follows concerning consecrating elements for communion cannot be delegated. Only the Priest ("SI") can perform these tasks because of the unique qualifications placed upon them in the Church to do so.

This morning, as the "AI" for Saint Matthias Anglican Church (Deacons are assigned by the Bishop to assist in whatever capacity the Church requires within the scope of their qualifications), I was metaphysically transported back to my first Skill Class as a young AI for Temple Kung Fu Studios. All the of the same admonitions from my SI at the time were repeated today ("Speak up," or "enunciate," or "project your voice so that people can follow along well"). I was tasked with leading the ante-communion portion, climaxing in leading the congregation in reciting the Nicene Creed. We then changed "instructors" with the Rector preaching the sermon and leading the remainder of the service.

The usual and predictable hiccups occurred that are part and parcel with weathering my first "workout" in the liturgy. Indeed I'll remember to pray more loudly when facing the front in the future; for if the people cannot understand what you're praying, how can they give the "Amen" (cf. 1 cor 14:16)? Nevertheless, the entire service was like leading my first "workout portion" of Skill Class all over again. Improvements will naturally occur since no one ever undergoes their "first time" more than once. Being the Deacon for Saint Matthias Anglican Church is comfortingly reminiscent of being a young assisting instructor for Temple Kung Fu, yet I expect it to be far more rewarding; For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Their First Mission

On Wednesday it was necessary to send my two sons on their first traveling adventure on their own. Of course, I had no doubts that it would go smoothly. I had the standard confidence that fathers are suppose to have that their sons have been listening well throughout all the previous training on how to act like men in his absence. Previous summers had found all three of my children flying off to the grandparents' house for an extended stay. Early on, they all needed an escort with the airline to ensure that they successfully made the necessary plane changes at layover cities. As the trio grew into seasoned travel veterans, and my daughter was old enough to be the watchful "Wendy" from "Peter Pan," no escort from the airline was requested. So off, onto the airplane my wife and I would sent them each summer, assured of the kids' safe passage to grandma and grandpa's house.

This year differed, however, in that my daughter was now too old to take a full month away from the responsibilities she's seeking to take on here at home. Thus the boys now needed to fly away on their own. The initial exchange that took place with my oldest son needs to be discussed briefly. Upon learning of this situation, his tone took a fearful turn as he mused, "Oh. I don't know about that." Among a father's many duties is to seize opportune moments for his children to mature. At critical times in their life, the right combination of circumstances can emerge that will place them at a crossroads of sorts. In that instant, they can either (1) choose the path requiring courage, that challenges them to take on new responsibilities, exercise new powers and brave the possibility of failure, or (2) shrink back into familiar patterns made comfortable in childhood. To my son's seemingly timid response laced with uncertainty, I countered, "You 'don't know about that?' Well... I DO.. You ARE going on this trip and you WILL be fine. You WILL accept this challenge, and you ARE flying to Grandma and Papa's house on your own. Is that understood?"

"Yes sir." He knew no other response would do.

As we drove to the airport on Wednesday, I took that time on the road to brief them thoroughly on what to expect. I would be with them at Houston Hobby Airport, but not as they changed planes in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Yes, that's right. Their first time ever flying alone included changing planes at LAX. I was fine with this because I was aware they were receiving good training. Navigating the highway, I emphasized the need to talk to people, to ask questions, to identify those in a Southwest Airlines uniform as people eager to assist them. I attached it to our family identity with "We're Otts. That means we ask more questions, get more cooperation, speak to more people, coordinate our help and get more done than most people. Some might not ask for help," I warned them," because their pride convinces them it'd be better to do it alone...not so with us. We're Otts," I continued, "we get it done because we ask for help. Understand?"

"Yes sir," they both agreed in unison.

I made sure this principle of asking and getting help played out before their eyes multiple times at the airport. When we got their, I was shocked to discover that every parking garage was "FULL." In all my years of flying, I have never seen an occasion when all garages were full at an airport. It might be a more frequent occurrence than I'm aware of, but this was the first time I had seen it. After driving two loops around the terminal entrance, I stopped and asked a parking lot attendant where parking could be found. He instructed that lots were available out on Airport Rd. that offered shuttle service to the main terminal. Therefore, that is exactly what we did, and the boys thought the shuttle was a neat addition to their experience.

Next we entered the main terminal and approached the ticket counter. I made sure the boys were watching as I walked up to the Southwest Airlines employee and openly declared, "Hello. These guys are 12 and 14, and it's their first time flying alone." As expected, the gentlemen beamed, looked at my sons and responded, "Outstanding... we'll make sure everything goes perfect." He checked their suitcase, and issued the boarding passes (plus my pass to escort them through security). After successfully navigating the security gate (a tense matter considering the TSA horror stories that abound), we put our shoes and belts back on.

Standing in the center of the main concourse, I began to test them: "Where's your gate information display? Find your flight number. Where's you gate? Is it leaving on time? Do you see the current time there?" Standing there, after they were able to answer all my questions, I was satisfied they could find their bearings in an airport. Still having plenty of time before their departure time, we elected to have lunch. Following that, we walked to their gate. Again, I made sure they were with me, watching me, as I walked up to the gate counter and addressed the attendant: "Hello. These guys are 12 and 14, and it's their first time to fly alone. They'll be changing planes in LAX."

"That's wonderful," she said, winking at the oldest, "these two young men look perfectly capable to me of flying on their own. But if you'd like some directions about the next airport, step up close, honey."

"Man," I thought, "she's good."

She instructed my oldest about the airport they're changing planes at, what gate they'd arrive at, and where the next gate nearby would be. Making sure he understood, she smiled and offered to have them move up in line so as to ensure they'd sit together (Southwest does not have assigned seating). "Wow!" I thought, "this was a good lesson to them in asking for help."

Indeed it was, the boys commented to me as we were waiting for their flight to board on all the cooperation we had received simply because I spoke up. The insights gained through what they witnessed had made an impression, and I could not be more pleased. As a result, I was more confident than ever they would do well on their first "mission" on their own. Waiting by the gate with them, they seemed suddenly taller than they were mere hours before. A little step toward manhood was taken in those brief minutes from the house to the plane. As I watched them saunter down the ramp, the 12 year old looked back at me, but the 14 did not (just as it should be). The elder son's eye were fixed on the adventure ahead, the open door to flight #618 welcoming them into their next phase of life. I was proud of them right then. As a father, I felt the quiet satisfaction of completing a vital stage of their training. These young apprentices stepped out into a new world, and I walked back to the car a little taller as well.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spontaneous Sacred Space

Much of my praxi fide regarding interacting with the trappings and surroundings of worship gravitates around "elements of the sacred" (which I describe in "That's Sacred to Me"). Of those elements, "sacred space" is a powerful component. I'm deeply moved by space that has been designated, set aside, prepared and constructed with architecture, decoration and layout for the service and worship of God. The sanctuaries of churches will often reflect their character, history and culture. The wood beams, the stained glass, the steps, stage and shape all reveal something of what the congregation and leadership sought to convey simply by having you walk in and have the senses quickened by the environment. The fact the many cathedrals are built in the shape and floor-plan of a Cross is not lost on me; nor does it escape my attention how steps to the altar simulate ascending the mountain to meet God at the peak. "Sacred space" is an element of the worship that reminds me of God's habit throughout Holy Scripture of "localizing his presence." In a stunning condescension to our spatial finitude, the God that is everywhere elected to make himself detectable somewhere. If he remains everywhere then he's as good as nowhere to those who cannot, due to mortal limitations, be everywhere with him. Thus, the omnipresent God "localizes" his presence somewhere as a benefit to those who need him nearby. What makes some space "sacred" where other space is "common?" God is present there, for the benefit of finite creatures, in a way that he is not present elsewhere. Thus I do not begrudge Daniel praying westward toward Jerusalem (Dan 6:10), since the people of God clearly felt his presence in a way there that they did not feel while in captivity. A church sanctuary can have this effect, being reminiscent of ancient worship in the Temple, when God's presence was so localized as to be visible. These things are on my mind when at church.

For this reason, I was particularly excited to have my ordination to the Diaconate performed in the sanctuary of Church of the Holy Trinity. It's dark wood and subtle windows; it's architecture and pews; it's layout as an intimate and rustic space with heritage and character; along with my own history there over the past two years of becoming "regularized" as an Anglican Christian, reading the selected lessons from the Scriptures during the Holy Communion service, processing as the Crucifer, assisting in preparing the table for Communion or serving as Chalice-bearer. That space is not only "sacred" for use in Christian worship, it has become "sacred to me." To those who might think this an unhealthy attachment, ask any martial artist and they will tell you how the "training area" holds a special place in their heart. I was thoroughly and understandably thrilled to learn that the service would take place at Holy Trinity, and particularly in that place where I had undergone so much "training" to serve The Church in this capacity.

Imagine my disappointment, then, to learn just two days before that the air conditioning was not working for the sanctuary and could not be serviced in time for Sunday morning. I was informed that the entire Holy Communion service, with my ordination included, would need to be moved to the parish hall - where meals, games, parties and all sorts of other activities in the life of a church are conducted. Don't get me wrong. It's still the part of the church's building, so it "borrows" a sacred aspect from the sanctuary simply by virtue of facilitating other necessary functions of the church's culture and mission (the kitchen is there for crying out loud!). Nevertheless, comparatively speaking, the parish hall would seem a rather "common space" to hold my ordination service in light of those thoughts regarding "sacred space" that I carry with me in worship and that I also teach to others. Try as I might to be a "big boy" about the news, I suspect some were likely aware of my downcast tone when I responded to the news with, *sigh* "that's okay. We can't have people melting in the sanctuary. It's July in Houston, after all."

The sense of loss in my heart, and possibly even detectable in my voice, revealed an epic lesson I had yet to learn - or perhaps remember that I already knew: that space is not made "sacred" by human hands, but instead by God's presence. The reason THIS space is more sacred than THAT space is because the Lord is there. Ask any Israelite what makes "that tent" more special than "this tent" and he'll tell you, " might have something to do with the PILLAR OF FIRE (that is God's own presence) shooting up out of the top of it." Among the better examples of this are found in Genesis 28, where Jacob awakens from his vision of the Lord and realizes the Lord is "there" in a manner not experienced elsewhere, renaming it from Luz to Bethel ("the house of God").

Yet even this is eclipsed by the example in Exodus 3 wherein Moses is instructed to remove his sandals because he's standing on "holy ground" near a desert sage bush. We are not to take from this a general reverence for near East desert soil or sage brush. On the contrary, "this ground" here is pretty much the same as "that ground" over there. This bush here is just like that bush over there. Thus, for the Lord to declare THAT ground to be "holy ground" was undoubtedly tied to his presence in the bush before Moses. It's not the bush that's necessarily special because, as Tony Evans as aptly stated, "When God's the fire, any 'ole bush will do." God's presence upsets our fixed notions of "common" and "sacred" because he can, for reasons which seem good to him, chose to inhabit seemingly "common space" and by this rendering it not so "common" anymore. This sense of "spontaneous sacred space" is essential to Christian doctrine, for it reflects God's prerogative to inhabit what and who he wants for his own reasons - not needing to consult with anyone for approval or input. His use of the bush before Moses was the first lesson Moses needed to learn from the Lord...that being: "I use what I want. I inhabit what I want. I empower who I want to do what I want. I, even I, and I alone, make the 'common' into the 'sacred' with my own arbitrary will and incomprehensible presence." This makes Moses' objection all the more exacerbating. God did not choose him because he was special. He was being made special by God's choosing of him. God did not inhabit that bush with his fire because it was sacred. His presence as fire in that bush MADE it sacred. Such could be said of the Apostles as well. A simple character study for each would reveal surprising inadequacies for becoming habitations of the Holy Spirit who would come upon them with power, transforming them into Christ's own witnesses to the far ends of the Earth. These "common" men were made not so "common" after all simply by God choosing who he wants, indwelling who he wants, and consulting none before doing so.

Today, the "sacred space" at Church of the Holy Trinity was to be found in a place normally designated "the parish hall." Our own culture understands this. "Air Force One" is not a specifically striped and equipped Boeing 747. While it may be the normal mode of air travel for the President of the United States, it receives that designation only by carrying the President. Should another aircraft carry the President? THAT plane will be "Air Force One" for that time. So also was that place normally designated the "parish hall" today instead transformed into the "sanctuary." For indeed, where God chooses to localize his presence, that place is now sacred for such time as his people can enjoy his presence there. Without even immediately realizing it, my thoughts regarding "sacred space" were actually reinforced and honed by this event. My ordination DID take place in the sanctuary, for worship of the only God who IS carried on with glorious aplomb. Far from anything missing, unexpected benefits and additions arose that might not have otherwise. Just as one example will suffice: the image to the right [click to expand] shows the moment in which the Bishop placed his hands on me to deliver that particularly connection in the ordination service wherein the responsibilities and weighty charge for a Deacon is placed upon a man, and empowered by God for executing that office in The Church. Another Deacon ("Deacon Dave"), took the picture from his vantage point seated with this music team. The unintended consequence of this angle was that, as the Bishop would later point out to me, the glow of the window's light behind us would give the appearance of "the fire of God descending your head as I laid hands on you." *Gulp* This sobering thought might have been been pictured in some other way had the a/c been working, allowing the service to been held in the normal sanctuary, but This picture was uniquely made possible because "the sanctuary" (or "sacred space") moved about 40 yards to the east this morning.

In addition, "elements of the sacred" present in the service rendered it so monumentally special as to leave all other concerns about architecture virtually irrelevant. Even the music selected was alarmingly appropriate, and it was everything in my power to maintain discipline and not leap for joy, losing all composure in the midst of this reverential event. My two sons were able to serve as Curcifer and Gospeler, completing the picture of our household faith and service to the Church as we processed down the center aisle for reading the Gospel lesson. My good friend, Fr. Lawrence, presented me as a candidate to the Bishop, and I indeed felt very "Viking" as it was now my privilege to lead the congregation in the recitation of the Nicene Creed. ALL of the elements of the sacred were present (Sacred times: it was during the Sunday morning Holy Communion service. Sacred rites: the ordination service was meaningful, ancient and weighty. Sacred objects: carrying the Cross, the Gospel, etc.. and having a Deacon stole place over my shoulder. Sacred Offices: the Bishop was present to conduct the ordination, in involved Presbyters and the induction of a new Deacon. and yes... Sacred space: we held the service in "the sanctuary").

I learned this morning, or at least needed to be made to remember, that God may, at any time, create "spontaneous sacred space" with the help of any human hands or the planning of prepared architecture. His presence alone is what is required to make a space "sacred," and in this we had a generous portion of his presence today. My ordination as a new Deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church did indeed take place in the "sanctuary," and I was short-sighted in thinking it might be otherwise. Thanks be to God that he localizes his presence to make the space around him "sacred," wherever that might be.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Line of My People

Lo, there do I see my father...
Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers...
Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning...
Lo, they do call to me. They bid me take my place among them... the halls of Valhalla where the brave may live forever.

This is the dying confession of the Vikings in the above movie clip from "The 13th Warrior." It appears loosely based on (if internet sources are to be trusted) an ancient "Viking Death Prayer" dating to well into the first millennium A.D. In the context of that story, it is prayed just before the one praying is expecting to die any moment and enter the afterlife. Many cultures have this custom of preparing themselves for death, reflecting on being "gathered to one's fathers" in the moment before leaving this life and taking that "journey" into the next one. No doubt Muslims, Jews and other major religions of the world all have such an incantation. Certainly a Christian would naturally recite The Lord's Prayer or perhaps Psalm 23 in that final moment. Nevertheless, something should be on the tip of the tongue at that moment to remember one's belief and what you expect to behold when your eyes close for the final time.

The "Death Prayer" in the clip above is highly instructive on a number of levels. Among the chief lessons that should be gleaned, though, is found in line three: "Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning." It has become such a maxim that this truth runs nearly uncontested: rugged individualism is killing Christianity in the West. Individualism has become religiously syncretized with Christianity to the point that when someone is asked to give their "testimony" of converting to Christ, they typically speak only of their own religious decision and conversion, leaving out the familial context into which they were born. The instinct to tie one's self with the family line that has come before is so conspicuously absent that missiologists note with regret that even in churches the difference in greeting stands in contrast to the rest of the world (Inside the U.S.: "Hi. What's your name?...What do you do?" contrasted with outside the U.S.: "Hello. What's your name?...Who is your father?"). To combat this tendency it is necessary to remind people just how "tribal" or "communal" Christianity is meant to be.

This concept is ubiquitous throughout both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Specifically, our focus in class recently was on the genealogical record of 1 Chronicles chapters 1-9. For some, reading through this record can become cumbersome, labored and even curing insomnia in some cases as people pass out. This is unfortunate since this record, and others like it in Holy Scripture, is so important for the reader within the faith community to identify with the ancestral story. One did not simply arrive into life with the LORD on their own. There is a tribal tale to tell regarding God's history with "your people." Over and over again God speaks to the people of Israel with the opening reminder, "I am the LORD your God that brought you out of the land of Egypt..." Communal history and personal identity are inextricably linked.

For this reason, the ancestry of faith becomes the most important story one can know and tell. It is because the ancestry of faith trumps all others that it's such an important source of identity. Even Jesus listed his "mother and brothers" as those "who hear the word of God and do it" (Matt 12; Mark 3; Lk 8). So "the line of my people, back to the beginning" is the ancestry of faith for as long as God has been relating to people, holding them covenantally close to himself as a Father holds his children. This "line" is also reflected in how authority in the Church is passed down. The paradigm of "Apostolic succession" for bishops serves as a central uniting strand in "the line of my people." Quite literally, when a bishop can trace his successive "line" back to the Apostles it offers a powerful visual image of "the line of my people" because it truly is laid out on a chart, tracing this "line" back through the centuries.

In like manner, in worship the congregation joins with all that have come before in lifting our hearts up unto the Lord. This communal/tribal sense of worship is reflected as the liturgy confesses "Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of Heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, evermore praising thee and saying, HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High. Amen" (emphasis added). Thus even in the the process of worship, we rightly can say, "Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning." Any given Sunday is a tribal exercise wherein our individualism can be shed, confessing that we, along with the whole ancestry of faith, will "dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (Psalm 23:6).

For me, one aspect of a Holy Communion service that feels truly "tribal" (or almost "Viking") is the recitation of the Nicene Creed. In reciting it together as a congregation, we confess the same faith as did "the line of my people, back to the beginning." The Church is "the line of my people." But not merely them, for ancient Israel also worshiped the only God who IS until he was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. So "the line of my people" truly does extend "back to the beginning." There is ONE God and he only ever has ONE people for himself that are charged to reveal him to the world; and since the Church as become what ancient Israel used to be, that ONE people is "the line of my people, back to the beginning."

I can see "the line of my people" in Christian icons, in artwork of the ancient Church, in frescoes and wood carvings. I can see them in the heroic tales of the Reformation or in the succession of bishops in the first millennium. I can see them in the Acts of the Apostles authored by Luke, or the genealogical record of Christ authored by Matthew. The line of my people extends back through English reforms of Thomas Cranmer, the translation works of William Tyndale or the Bohemian John Huss. This line reaches back through the missionary exploits of Saint Patrick or the persecutions of Diocletian. This line spans the globe and includes churches on every continent and throughout time, from Tokyo to Antioch, from Philadelphia to Alexandria. It runs across north Africa and through the Scandinavian fjords. It navigates around the British Isles and under the Cape of Good Hope. This line runs through the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. "Lo, there do I see the line of my people..." of all tribes, tongues and nations that at are my fathers, my mothers, my sisters and my brothers though faith in the Lord Jesus Christ "...back to the beginning."

"Lo, they do call to me..." from around the throne of he that was worthy to receive and open the scroll by purchasing for himself a people with his own blood. "They bid me take my place among them..." worshiping with angels and archangels, hearts lifted up unto the Lord. Because the Lord is our Shepherd, we will dwell in the house of the Lord... forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theology Held in the Hands

For some, theology is primarily a mental exercise, giving ascent to formulations and propositions that summarize or articulate Christian doctrine. There is nothing wrong with this per se, for it is often asserted that Christianity may be more than mere propositions, but it is never less. However, when theology is thought as simply a cerebral pursuit is when we think amiss. Theology can be as tangible and material as when "doubting" Thomas touched the hands and side of the newly resurrected Christ ("God with us"). To secure our redemption, God took upon himself full humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ. However, this is not the first time he has seen fit to use the material of this world to convey his power and presence. In fact, God has a very long track record of using material stuff to convey his spiritual presence. Sometimes, the reality of God can be held in one's hand.

In the Old Testament, "sacred objects" conveyed the presence and power of God in an object or instrument dedicated for Divine use and for his service. The staff of Moses, the Ark of the Covenant, the cloak of Elijah all were inanimate objects; yet God nonetheless used them in a way to clearly show he is present in the world, using material things to accomplish his work. Thus the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the ultimate use of earthly "stuff" (full human nature and physiology) to express the full presence of God, is the culminating apex of a "Divine habit" demonstrable throughout time. For this reason we would completely expect that God would continue to use "stuff" to convey his grace and presence since no New Testament Scriptures bring this "habit" of God to a screeching halt. On the contrary, so evident is this practice of God in relating to his Church that the abuse of Communion (physical elements) would find some in the church at Corinth sick and others dead as evident judgments of God for misusing his "stuff." Therefore, we acknowledge that the reality of God (theology) is not merely a mental issue; it can have very tangible and material moments to it.

Of all that the Church practices, the most central example of this is the Communion service. This has always been true in the Church, the reduction of it to "merely a memorial" of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is a relatively recent invention of Swiss Reformers from the 16th century. It has always been seen as expressing God's presence and conveying his grace to us in a manner that other rites do not. This is why abuse of this could constitute capital crimes according to the Spirit of God in relating to the Corinthians. The significance and power of Communion is such that it is no small matter to participate in serving it to God's people. Having been serving as a Chalice Bearer, I can say that the weight of it is not lost on me. Years of seminary classes and theological lessons are compressed within the moment that I hold the chalice in my hands and approach the nearest worshiper, preparing to offer them the "cup of Christ." At that moment, all that I've learned about God's grace, his habit of conveying his presence through material stuff, the history of the Church in celebrating his redemption together in Communion all come crashing over me. It's as though all of those concepts, lessons and truth could be compressed into a single moment and can be held in the hand and offered to another.

I liken this to a scene in "Iron Man 2" in which the character of Tony Stark spends time in his lab discovering a new element. For special effects, it's a rather impressive moment in the film in which Tony has the components of his research projected as holographic images before him, to be manipulated and controlled using his hands. In an instant of eye-catching imagery, Stark throws his hands wide to expand the view of his "element," filling the room with it's projected details in which he sits at the center. Turning around to behold it all, he basked momentarily in the discovery of it, then claps his hands together to once again reduce the image's size down to a single glow of light in his palm. Going from the exploded view to the singular view with the wave of his hand brings the whole reality of the element, which was far larger than him, into a compressed size that he can hold in one hand.

It is my favorite moment of the film (and occurs in the above clip at 3 minutes in) because of how it not only conveys the idea of sacraments, but also ministry moments in time as well. I've had plenty of instances like that when a quick event in ministry work seems to compress within seconds centuries of church history and doctrinal back-and-forth. All of this can happen when working in the Church during a worship service, and particularly during Holy Communion. I walk up to the rail to gently offer the cup to a Christian awaiting the Communion wine, easing it forward and reciting those comforting words to accompany offering this to God's people:

THE Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

In that intimate moment, it is the privilege of the Chalice Bearer to lean in close to them to ensure a smooth and clean motion holding the cup to the lips of people. Often it means being closer into worshiper's "personal space" than is even needed of the Presbyter who must walk by placing bread in Communion bread in their hands (as is his exclusive responsibility). Nevertheless, in that second of connection, it is not me they commune with, but Christ; yet in the mystery of the Church, they and I do connect in that setting. The vertical connection to God and the horizontal connection among people are both pictured in the holding of a chalice full of communion wine to a parishioner's lips. Centuries of history, tomes written on theology, scores of Biblical passages all compress into that brief two or three seconds with each person. Certainly Tony Stark's exploded molecular view of theological reality is compacted down into the single act of leaning in to offer the cup. Theology is held in one's hands at that moment.

Not long ago, I was in the midst of this work during a Sunday morning Holy Communion service, when I noticed a visitor at the rail who I did not recognize. As I followed behind the priest, who was placing Communion bread in the hands of kneeling Christians, I approached this man with the cup of wine. To my surprise, he motioned to me that he had already had bread and did not expect to receive wine as well.

Now I had read that during Medieval times the Roman Catholic Church had fanned the flames of controversy by refusing to offer communion "under both kinds," offering only bread to the people and not wine as well. The Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries addressed this and rightly corrected it. Nevertheless, some Roman churches persist in using Communion as a means of sparingly offering God's grace because those approaching the rail should be more sober minded about it. Rubbish!! One dare not withhold that which Christ has freely offered and expect to escape his stern rebuke. I was at once both indignant that any had ever told this man that he could not have Holy Communion "under both kinds" and moved with compassion for him. How much had this practice taught him that God's grace is only partially offered to him? How much had he wondered about his worthiness to boldly approach the throne of grace with his petitions and prayers because of some Roman practice of keeping something back. ALL of Communion is meant to convey Christ's presence and grace to us as our hearts are caught into heaven in worship to "commune" with him where he sits at the right hand of the Father. I would NOT want to be on the receiving end of Jesus' displeasure at watching tangible, material, physical instruments of his own grace being withheld from people.

So there I was, offering the Chalice to this man that was not expecting to receive it. The exact exchange is important. He held up a hand and said, "thank you, but I had bread." Instantly my mind raced through my church history lessons to access a reason for which he might not expect this also. My response to him was, "it's ok. You can have this too." Of course, what I didn't say was, "and I don't care what loser told you otherwise!" Instead, I just smiled and offered God's grace freely to him. He beamed. He lit up like a man who had just been told he wasn't simply going to receive "part" of God's assuring grace that day, but ALL of it. Of course, I smiled wide as I leaned into him and offered him the cup. I felt a compressed version of the Reformation had occurred in those few seconds. Stark's molecular hologram compressed down and theology, centuries of it, could be held in the hands.

The Church has always recognized that the Gospel is communicated through symbol, sacrament and speech. Theology is not merely a mental pursuit. It is communicated through very tangible means sometimes, and even the realities of God's grace can be offered through sacraments offered and received in faith. In my duties so far, I've seen vast amounts of seminary training compressed into single moments, and events into the material, earthy "stuff" of worship elements. Indeed, God's still uses "stuff" to convey is presence and grace; and thus theology sometimes can be held in one's hands.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Congratulations sounds weird

Upon a successful completion of the oral examination under a panel of watchful eyes and learned examiners, it is with a serious heart that I report a ceremony ordering me to the Diaconate still on the schedule. Of course I was pleased with the outcome, and the approval of such godly men, as a prerequisite for serving in the Church with those responsibilities and duties assigned for that office. For the person committed to the work of the Church, whether seeking that career or not, the satisfaction gleaned in being useful to it's mission is a generous reward. However, it is precisely because this is not a "career move" that the many "congratulations" I've received seems just a little strange to me. The new black shirt and white collar that will be donned henceforth for my church involvement, beginning on the 17th, does not feel like an achievement that would invite such interjections. On the contrary, it's a weighty matter to wear the uniform of one entrusted with the responsibilities of a Deacon, and frankly some jubilations appear nearly inappropriate.

I might liken it to congratulating my daughter that she now not only has the responsibility to clean her room, but to do dishes and laundry as well. Sure we could claim that we congratulate her based on the positive step of accepting more responsibility, but to her it's bittersweet. I can relate to her right now. On the one hand, there's a sense of graciously receiving those congratulations because it is no small matter for the Church to receive another "servant" in the tradition of "Stephen" - first martyr for Christ following his Ascension. On the other hand though, long gone now are the days of remaining the nominal churchgoer content to just do little parts here or there without any real, tangible commitment. In addition, it creates a new realization that being responsible regarding one's writing and conduct are matters than can reflect on the Church in now a different way than before (I'm already growing sparing with my Facebook comments). Certainly it is true that all Christians should think this way, but the uniform just creates a heightened awareness that can impact everything.

These sobering thoughts cast a clerical "shadow" across the "congratulations" offered by some when hearing that I'm being received into the Diaconate. It's a milestone, to be sure, but not necessarily an "achievement." I'm not trying to advance a career, and this step does not move me closer to goals for which I have been ambitious at all. On the contrary, it's a heavy matter to have such a label ("Deacon") placed upon you by those to whom you would submit yourself. It's weighty and laden with responsibilities not previously expected. If someone says "congratulations," I'll thank you them for their kind encouragement; however, to me it still sounds a little weird.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Politics of Covetousness

In a political season (Is it ever NOT a political season?), cultural values can often be revealed in what messages and tactics political candidates use to gain the favor, and thus the votes, of the electorate. We see what at least THEY think is important to us by how they attempt to offer what we want. For this reason, a political speech or advertisement can seem either affirming or insulting. However, what appears common among many across part lines (though I find that one party does this more than others), is the encouragement to break, violate, transgress or just down right ignore the 10th Commandment: THOU SHALT NOT COVET.

The full verse of Exodus 20:17, translated for the NET Bible reads, "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.” In essence, the question as to whether it is fair whether my neighbor has something that I do not should not enter my mind; and if it does, it should be expelled as a negative emotion. I'm to remember that I cannot know all the of the circumstances through which they came to possess what they do; that for all I know they gained such possessions through strictly virtuous means; and that it's possible their example is simply meant to inspire me to be more industrious. While it may be possible that my neighbor acquired their possessions through "ill gotten gain," I cannot know that for sure; and even if I do know, that is a matter for them to answer to God for - who has commanded that I not covet their possessions especially if they unethically gained them.

For this reason, one might as well, in our culture and economy, paraphrase verse 17 the following way:

You shall NOT covet...

- your neighbor's healthcare plan
- your neighbor's retirement plan
- your neighbor's car
- your neighbor's house
- your neighbor's school district
- your neighbor's subdivision
- your neighbor's prosperity
- your neighbor's daycare
- your neighbor's toys
- your neighbor's country club membership
- your neighbor's university
- your neighbor's title in the industry, or
- your neighbor's influence in the public square.

In other words, my neighbor's business is none of my business. As one that has had less that my "neighbor" almost ever since leaving home at age 20, I can attest that this is not always easy to perform. It is, however, the moral mandate nonetheless. They are responsible for them, and I am responsible for me. Each is to guard their own conscience before God; and it is God that has mandated not to covet.

If I say that it is not fair for my neighbor to have that which I do not, it is God I argue with - not with political pundits. It is God to whom I must answer if I ignore his prohibition against this attitude, just as if I had ignored his commandment of "Thou shalt do no murder," or "Thou shalt not commit adultery," or "Thou shalt not steal" to name a few others. In the choice between virtue and vice, these commands remove ambiguity concerning key moral "pillars" of a lasting society. A culture can ill-afford, and maintain any expectation of longevity, to encourage wide-spread dishonoring of fathers and mothers, rampant murder or stealing, adultery as a pastime or bearing false witness as a praiseworthy trait. In like manner, so also will the society assuredly self-destruct that encourages ubiquitous coveting as well.

For this reason, I tire so greatly of political candidates seeking to win my vote with promises to tax from my neighbor that which my neighbor then cannot refuse them, in order to turn around and offer it to me. Being among the "poor" (by all economic measures within the U.S. economy we are so - obviously not so when compared to the "developing world"), I feel particularly patronized by the promises offered by candidates during their various campaigns. I have a wealthy neighbor next door. I like him and his wife. They are a nice couple. We share life concerns and yard duties. However, whatever a politician promises to provide for me, I know that must take from him; that he'll have no choice in the matter; his generosity be damned, they will take it through taxation and offer it to me so that I'll be grateful for their provision. In essence, the politician is encouraging me to covet my neighbor's belongings and lifestyle amenities so that I'll will vote for them. They are encouraging me to break or ignore the 10th commandment!

In a culture that is increasingly venerating vice over virtue, this is another aspect that I've been disgusted with the mechanism by which our desires are revealed to the world. The politics of covetousness have me wandering whether the electorate has not so punted the Divine lawgiver as to ever receive this admonishment. Certainly no candidate will ever be elected suggesting to news reporters or potential voters, when asked whether its fair that the rich have what they do, "That's none of your business." Even a relatively poor person such as myself could hardly get away with such an admonishment now. Too many seem just naturally desirous to "get even" with "the man." I lament such instincts. It's does not speak well for us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On the Mixture of Kung Fu and Church service

"Better to sweep the floors of the Temple than to seek one's fame and gain outside of it."

This was a common saying in the martial arts system I trained under. It's possible we romanticized the life the old Shaolin monk in the 2nd Fukien Temple, and perhaps even took at face value more than we should stories of the lifestyle of Shaolin Priests sent out into the countryside; but I figure that the old legends must have an antecedent of truth to them. These stories and legends helped us to maintain the right attitude on the Temple, and to think about our training and our responsibilities with the right frame of mind. The legends and legacies, many of which have been since supported in both popular magazines and reputable journals about martial arts, helped us think about service to our students and community, about humility in the face of authority, the passion with which we should pursue our students' growth and the reverence one should show to the history and contribution of those who have come before you.

In the Temple we started with a little "bow in" procedure that acknowledged both the past masters that had developed the Art and kept is alive throughout the ages, and also acknowledged Grand Master Simon for bringing it to us today. It was not necessarily declaring our Grand Master as superior to all other teachers in the world, but a martial artist is nothing without respect for his teacher. That respect remains with them throughout their training in the temple, and became part of their strength when they left the temple to go out and take justice and their teaching out into the world. As a result, the training lifestyle of the Shaolin priest maintains his ability to serve those around him, and keeps his skills honed for instruction as well. The priest has entered a life of service, continually training so that service does not dwindle from him.

The parallels to service in the Church are astounding. So much so that I have found that most of my old principles and ideals for serving and training in the Temple fit seamlessly with serving in the Church. When I don the vestments for a Sunday morning, it might as well be the flowing uniforms we trained in. When in the sanctuary, I have every instinct to bow when I enter or exit just like in the Temple. The Cross I carry seems well weighted like a kwan dao. Orthodoxy feels like loyalty to the "past masters." Apostolic succession of the Bishop seems reminiscent of the importance we gave to tracing the line of one's master, though a succession of masters, back to the early Temple, as a manner of claiming fidelity to the Art and the master's that have come before. I was once told that if I looked at the Church through the same lens that I looked at the Art, I'd be in a liturgical context - most likely Anglican. Well, indeed that is exactly where I am.

I considered all of this as I trained my old forms today in the backyard. In light of the clear comparisons that can be drawn, I could not help but think of my kung fu as a exercise of in service of the Church now. Each movement, every leap and strike seemed like practice for skills that Church puts to use for servicing the Lord and the community. Blurring the line between Art and Church even further, "kung fu" is often a euphemism for "excellent work." There's a "kung fu" of poetry, of architecture, of writing, of reviewing accounting statements or working on cars. Yes, there can be also a "kung fu" of liturgy and service in the Church. Thus, kung fu in my back yard now feels like a living analogy of my "kung fu" of church service. If I ever have the opportunity to teach kung fu in the church again, the combination will feel so very complete. The mixture of kung fu and church service is a joy, especially when I feel like one flows into the other without any effort at all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On the difference between sermons and homilies

Sunday was my first occasion to deliver the homily for a liturgical service, and the differences between this setting and previous ones in which I have preached could not have been felt more strongly. The transition from one tradition to the next has been rather smooth regarding participating in other aspects of the service, but none of those so clashed with my personality and ministerial experience of preaching the sermon in the midst of the ritual's flow. In Baptist context, a physically animated communicator is not simply welcomed, but practically required. The science and art of communication must become the focal point of the service because the preaching of the Word is the most highly valued "sacrament" in that tradition.

When I was a Baptist preacher, I was very animated. I've never stood stationary behind a pulpit in my life. I moved around, gesticulating wildly to make my point with hand motions, face expressions and body stances. My marching along the stage and around the podium has even helped me address my life-long battle with talking too fast. The steps and gestures created something of a "cadence" with which to time my syllables and avoid becoming the audio equivalent of fine print. The "auctioneer" preaching style needed to be tamed and movement helped with that.

In addition, extemporaneous anecdotes or quips were also encouraged in the Baptist preaching context. Sure preparation of a quality sermon was prudent and expected, but relating to the audience was also valued; and this is achievable through letting one's "hair down" a bit. After all, the entire service builds up to the "climax" of the compelling sermon and the responses it motivates. For this reason, I've spent approximately 18 years with that approach, developing those skills and seeking to refine THAT type of delivery. I've spoken in front of churches and classrooms, and have been confident that I'd be at ease addressing them once I get going (the butterflies before have never really fully gone away).

That confidence would flee far from me last Sunday as I prepared to deliver the sermon in a context that differs so considerably from the Baptist genre. In an Anglican service the preaching of the Word is not the chief "sacrament" that the congregation will encounter - Communion is. Thus, the service does not build up to the sermon. The sermon is part of the build up to the Eucharist. For this reason, it's inappropriate for the preacher to so deliver his message in a manner that might eclipse the importance of Communion. The same characteristics valued in a Baptist preacher are not those valued in an Anglican preacher. The sermons even differ in length and structure. Consequently, it's important that the Anglican preacher remain behind the pulpit. Mobility is not your friend. In addition, I was trained that when reading the Epistle selection in the Sunday morning service, it's inappropriate to infuse too much of one's personality into the reading because, again, that would be imposing upon the reading of God's Word the distinct skills and nuances of the reader. It's NOT all about you after all.

Therefore, I wrote my sermon to the requisite length, preparing to read it as I had the Epistle lesson at other times as well. This proved a disaster for two reasons: (1) I still did remember that I was delivering a sermon, and thus all the old instincts were right on the surface desiring expression, and (2) focusing on the new constraints created somewhat of a nervous "bind" that distracted from good oratory discipline. Thus I rattled off that sucker with the speed of a radio commercial contest disclaimer. A sermon written for a strong 15 minute duration was completed in 10 minutes. The syllables smeared together like a watercolor painting left out in the rain. The dynamic acoustics of the sanctuary ensured that elderly ears would be forced to hear several sentences at once. That puzzled look on those in the audience was not attentive interest in what was being said; it was the looking of straining to discern WHAT was being said. All of the years of preaching experience had been rendered null and void for this vestment clad "greenhorn."

The solution is not, however, to think about returning to former habits. Instead the need is to adopt new ones. The sermon must be delivered with attention to the components of good communication. The chief need for me will be to SLOW - THE HECK - DOWN. One idea presented to me might prove useful. After the sermon has been written and printed out, I can stamp around the page the image a of turtle. It's slower than a hare, but gets there nonetheless. I'll be looking for that turle stamp in a stationary shop very soon. It will need to have the desired effect by the time the next preaching opportunity arises. Years of experience delivering Baptist sermons can work against you when it's time to deliver an Anglican homily. Perhaps the turtle will help me make that transition smoothly.