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.