Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy Week: A Lived Experience

Yesterday marked the start of the holiest time of year for us Christians.  Yes, it's holier than Christmas!!  The period we call Holy Week is the holiest of times because it is not just a moment frozen in time; rather, it is a lived experience.

So what do I mean by that?  For many of my brothers and sisters the Christian experience is one in which we remember the actions of Jesus regularly, however, they are little more than just that:  remembrances.  True, Jesus said to do many things to remember him and show others that we are his disciples(e.g. the sharing of a holy meal, loving one another as Jesus has loved us, baptizing, etc.).  But what makes Holy Week different is that it is not done just to remember Jesus.  Christians--even many Episcopalians--may argue that the celebration of Holy Communion is done simply as a memorial to Jesus.  Still, there can be no argument on Holy Week.  It's NOT just a memorial!

Holy Week is a lived experience.  The late-4th century pilgrim Egeria wrote extensively about her own trip to the Holy Land during the season of Lent, and what she found was not simply services done to remember Jesus' final days but daily prayers and services in which regular folks walked with Jesus through the days of his agony and glory.  For example, Egeria notes that the Bishop of Jerusalem sat atop a donkey and rode down the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday, embodying the actions of Jesus.  The same was true on Maundy Thursday, when the Bishop washed the feet of the city's poor.  And on Good Friday the people walked the Via Dolorosa, the path through Jerusalem that leads to Golgotha, taking each agonizing step along the way with their Lord.  This was no mere commemoration of a past event.  This was a very real experience, and Christians in the orthodox and catholic traditions continue to walk with Jesus through the Washing of Feet on Maundy Thursday to the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

And that brings me to the point of the Pashcal Triduum.  The what?!  (Don't feel bad.  I've been an Episcopalian my whole life and only learned this term the year before I went to seminary!)  The Paschal Triduum--also known as the Three Sacred Days--is one service spread over the course of three days.  The service begins with the Maundy Thursday liturgy, continues with the walk with Jesus on Good Friday, and concludes with the celebration of Christ's resurrection at the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday night.  It is thanks to Egeria that we have this celebration, and it is a glorious one!  And while it may be exhausting for some--especially clergy--it is spectacular.  There are churches out there who choose, for whatever reason, to only do one or two pieces of the Triduum.  Perhaps they are small in number and don't want to overload their people, or perhaps they, like me, have never heard of or seen an Easter Vigil before.  Be that as it may, this does a disservice, in my opinion, to the Church and to her people.  By not doing all three pieces of the Triduum, we severely miss the point. It is another example of us making the celebration of God's liturgy about ourselves, rather than about the lived-out experiences of Christ in His body.  We make the walk with Jesus because we are Jesus' body.  Thus, by eliminating one or two pieces of that walk, we are cutting ourselves off from Jesus' own walk through betrayal, agony, and, ultimately, glory.  We cannot get to Easter without Good Friday and Maundy Thursday!!

So this week I pray that you will take the time to put yourself right there with Christ.  You are there.  You are walking with our Lord.  You are in the upper room, in the garden, at the foot of the cross, and at the empty tomb.  Do not cut yourself off from it!  Sit with the discomfort of having your feet washed.  Let the tears flow as you kiss the tree on which the King of Glory hung.  And let your voice resound with the Alleluias of Easter's dawn.  Our Christian walk is not just one done in remembrance.  It is one we make with Christ every single day, and this week brings that to the forefront of our lives like no other.  May you know and feel Christ's presence as you walk with Him through this Holy Week.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Let It Be With Me

The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.

Today we take a break from Lent.  We take a break from our fast, from our solemnity, and from everything that this penitential season entails.  Why?  Because today is the Feast of the Annunciation! And while the season of Lent calls us into preparation through prayer and fasting, today is a day for feasting,  for taking the ‘Alleluias’ out and celebrating.

So what are we celebrating today, exactly?  The Annunciation marks the occasion on which the angel Gabriel came to a poor, young Palestinian woman and told her that she would become the theotokos, the “God-bearer.”  With this action the whole of human history was turned on its head.  It was not in majesty, riches, or pomp & circumstances that God chose to be born into this world.  Rather, God decided to enter the world in loneliness, poverty, and great humility.  By entering this world like all of us, God took on all of our struggles, fears, and joys.  And whereas every other deity had always dwelt far away from humanity, this God—our God—chose to be in relationship with humanity; God’s story became our story and vice versa.  And it all began with the message of an angel to a young girl named Mary.  THAT is what we celebrate today!

This new thing that God was working in Mary’s life must have certainly been frightening; in fact, in every other occasion that an angel meets a human in Scripture, the angel has to remind the human not to be afraid.  However, Mary’s fears are put at ease with her incredible faith.  “Let it be with me,” she says.  Let it be with me.

I wonder what new thing God is doing in you right this moment.  I wonder what heavenly work is being nurtured within you.  Maybe it is frightening.  Still, I pray that you will have Mary’s courage to say yes to it.  Let it be with you.  Let it be with me.  Let whatever new thing God is creating be with us.

So today, as we step away from Lent, I pray that you will celebrate whatever new thing God is stirring up inside of you.  I pray that you will use this day to look around you and see the glory of God’s creation and shout in joy and thanks for the abundance of God’s goodness that lies all around you.  And yes, dust off those ‘Alleluias’ today!

God’s blessings be upon you as you continue your Lenten journey and as we turn the corner toward Jerusalem, the cross, and glory.  But for today, celebrate God’s goodness in you and around you!  Alleluia!!

The Annunciation (Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898)

Monday, March 16, 2015

A New Transformation

Because this blog’s title is ‘Father Prime’ I would be remiss if I did not make a post here and there about the Transformers.  Every child of the 1980s knows who they are:  heroic Autobots battling evil Deceptions with the fate of their homeworld of Cybertron and our own planet Earth hanging in the balance!  At its core, Transformers is about a civil war raged between two warring factions of the same race of sentient robots, and since 1984 they have taken on a number of new forms—pun intended. 

The original Autobots and Decepticons from the 1984 Transformers series.

As a fan of the franchise I am always excited for a new series.  Perhaps it is because each new series takes me back to being five years old.  Perhaps the millennia-spanning conflict of the Autobots and Deceptions makes for some really great storytelling.  Or perhaps it’s simply that each new series brings the hope that it will be even better than the preceding one.  

This past weekend saw the premiere of Transformers:  Robots in Disguise on Cartoon Network.  It is the 10th cartoon series to debut in the U.S. since the original—what we call Generation One—ended in 1987, and with each new show comes the promise of fun, exciting, and captivating storylines with a cast of characters that we can truly get behind and care about.  Some series have succeeded in this regard—such as the mid-90s Beast Wars—and some have failed miserably—such as 2004’s Transformers: Energon.  From what I’ve seen thus far of Robots in Disguise, I have really high hopes!

What makes Transformers such a successful franchise, however, is not just characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron.  What makes Transformers so successful is the ability to adapt, which has nothing to do with the characters and their abilities to change their shapes into nearly any object imaginable.  Unlike other series of my childhood, like M.A.S.K. or Voltron, Transformers has managed to adapt with the times and let go of some of its 1980s charm and find new ways to connect with viewers.  Shows like M.A.S.K. and Voltron have attempted to reboot themselves for new audiences, but they’ve lacked the staying power.  When Beast Wars premiered in 1996 fans were in an uproar that Autobots and Deceptions had been replaced by Maximals and Predacons and new animal forms had taken over for slick vehicle modes.  But after a few episodes, Beast Wars proved to be a rousing success.  Change, despite what fans originally thought, was a good thing.  The same has, more or less, held true for every series since.  Most folks—including myself—are angry at first with the change, but soon enough we find something to love.  And quite honestly, I can find something to love with every single Transformers series, even ones that I know are sub-par.  

Megatron and Dinobot from Beast Wars.

And so now we find ourselves with the promise of a new show, the promise of a new transformation.  The animation is different, so are the characters and the overall tone of the series.  And with Robots in Disguise comes a renewed interest in my childhood hobby.  Each new episode makes me feel like a kid again, which I certainly don’t think is a bad thing.  

I wonder, as spring creeps its way into our lives, what new thing is God working to premiere in your life?  What new transformation is at work inside you?  That might sound pretty corny, and I suppose it is, but our ability to change, to adapt, to find something new at work in our lives is the only way that we will avoid the hazards of burn-out, depression, and anxiety.  Transformers has managed to stay fresh by changing itself in more ways than one, and so I think the same holds true for our own lives.  

Life itself is a transformation.  And just as the old Transformers comic book used to refer to “a world where things are not as they seem,” our lives are not what they seem, either.  The lives that we live often revolve around our possessions, jobs, and other frustrations.  But the true focus is the life Jesus calls us to, the life that looks out for the Other and points us to the Kingdom.  God is constantly doing new things to point us in this direction, to transform our way of thinking and being, especially during this season of Lent.  And in a weird way, the Autobots and Deceptions do the same thing.

The Autobot cast of the new Robots In Disguise.

So, brothers and sisters, how is your life being transformed??

Monday, March 9, 2015

Until That Day...

While scrolling through the Facebooks and other social media today I was surprised to find out that it's International Women's Day.  I hadn't heard anything about the day, no fanfare, no big announcement, nothing.  To top all off, the day selected for this commemoration was the only day of the year that's 23 hours!  That's right, the day selected for celebrating women is only 23 hours long.  Odds are that was not intentional, but the impact should not be lost on us.

A National Women's Day should not have to exist.  Nor should Women's History Month, which is going on right now.  Nor should Black History Month, which we honored in February.  Any commemoration that singles out a particular group should not HAVE to exist.  All men and women, of every shape, size, color, creed, and lifestyle should be honored and celebrated every single day of the year.  That's how it SHOULD be.  But sadly, that's not our current reality.

The fact is that the white, heteronormative, Christian narrative has dominated the history of western civilization.  This narrative has subjugated anyone and everyone that does not fit nicely into these categories.  As a result, women have been treated as little more than personal property, people of different skin tones have been enslaved and systematically eradicated, non-Christian peoples have been killed in the name of righteousness, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender peoples have had basic human rights denied to them.  All of this because the people in power fit a certain profile:  white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, heterosexual, men.  Blessedly, this trend is (very slowly) changing, and the tide of history is beginning to turn.  But it is not so simple to turn centuries-old thinking.

This is why a National Women's Day is important.  It's why Black History Month still matters and why social media trends such as #TransLivesMatter are needed.  I've heard the argument: 'There's not White History Month, so we shouldn't make special concessions for minority groups!'  I've heard the phrase 'Tyranny of the Minority' more than once.  Here's the thing:  the people in power don't get to dictate how the Other should feel.  As a white, heterosexual, cisgender male, I do not have the right to tell a black man that he shouldn't be outraged over police violence or a transwoman that her experiences of being outcast are not valid.  I simply do not have that right, nor does anyone!

I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who I believe is the living embodiment of God Almighty and whose life I try to model, so that this world might look a little more like this Kingdom of Heaven that he spoke of so often.  When I hear so-called Christians say that racism no longer exists, or that women are treated as equals, or that gay and trans people are somehow infringing on Christian values, it makes me ill. Either they're stupid or they're not paying attention! It's a complacency and a willingness to just accept the centuries-old ways we have always done things.  But the Jesus that I serve is a much more radical person, someone who looked at the standards of his own time and said, 'It doesn't have to be this way!'  The Jesus that I know is the one who said that God has "lifted up the lowly," (Luke 1: 52) and again that "those who are not against us are for us," (Mark 9: 40) and again "love one another as I have loved you" (John 13: 34).  The Jesus I know shows no partiality and sees none of the petty barriers that we have erected for one another.  Those Christians who use their faith to continue holding women and other minorities back in the name of righteousness are simply bigots.  Simple as that.  And they do not represent me or the faith upon which I stand.

I pray that the day does come when things like International Women's Day are no longer needed, when women are celebrated with the same fervor as men, when they make the same living wage as men, and when the images of the "fairer sex" that we have erected over the years are torn down.  I pray for the day when African Americans can walk down a white neighborhood without fear of being questioned simply for who they are.  And I pray for a day when the right to love unconditionally is granted to all God's children.  But we are not there yet, and that is why days like this are still necessary.  So until that day, it falls to us to continue to raise up the rights of those who have, for so long, had those rights denied.  It is up to us to make this world look a little bit more like the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke.
 #nationalwomensday #blacklivesmatter #lgbt #translivesmatter #equality

Monday, March 2, 2015

Never the Answer

Yesterday in church we heard Jesus say one of those things that we aren't particularly fond of:  he calls Peter, the rock upon which the Church is built, Satan.  He calls him Satan!  Think of the worst possible thing you could call another person, and THAT'S the equivalent here.  It's a disturbing moment, and more than once I've heard clergy say how uncomfortable they are with talking about it, almost to the point of either ignoring it or--God help us--changing the reading altogether.  This is never the answer.

The Gospel from yesterday speaks to a bigger issue:  what do we do with passages of Scripture with which we do not agree?  I experienced this once in seminary when I set up for a service of Morning Prayer and listed Psalm 137 as the prescribed Psalm for the day on our song board.  Two minutes before the service began an older seminarian walked into the sacristy and exclaimed, "We can't say that psalm because it's the one about bashing babies' heads against rocks!"  Fortunately, the Prayer Book allowed us to omit the final three verses of that psalm, but that moment stuck with me.  Is that really what we're supposed to do with difficult Scriptures?

I was once in a planning session for a service, and both readings prescribed were not particularly "nice."  One of the other clergy asked, "Don't we want something more edifying?  We don't want people to be in a bad mood when they hear these."  But statements like these, and like the one the older seminarian said to me, are dangerous.  Here's why.

Firstly, it's picking and choosing Scripture.  If it's not ok for fundamental evangelicals to pick and choose what Scriptures they pay attention to, how is it ok for us to do the same?  True, we may not be trying to push a particular theology the way that folks  do who constantly raise up one passage of Leviticus while ignoring the passages around it, but in deciding what we should or should not read on a Sunday morning, we are making the Scriptures about us.  We are arrogantly proclaiming that we know better than the lectionary authors what we should and should not be hearing in a given service.  We don't get to do that!  That's not what catholic worship is about!  Catholic worship is about setting aside the emotions of the one and accepting the practices of the whole.  And the whole has decreed that we use a lectionary and not pick and choose our readings.

Secondly, it does a disservice to our congregations.  How can folks in the pews be expected to wrestle with difficult Scriptures if we are not doing it ourselves?  The Bible is full of moments that make me go, "WHAT?!" or moments that make me angry at its writers and question their motives.  But I cannot just put those passages down and pretend they are not there.  If we ignore the fact that the Gospel of John uses the phrase, "for fear of the Jews," then we are not fully communicating to the folks in the pews what John actually means by that phrase and we are failing them as teachers.

Finally, it's making worship about us.  Let's get one thing straight:  worship is NOT about us!  It is about God!  This is how those of us in the catholic tradition can come together and worship, even if the particular liturgical/worship style of the congregation doesn't fit with our own.  Those of us who identify as "high church" would never walk out of a service just because that community was not using incense or chanting the Gospel.  That's insane!  But that is what we do when we choose to change words of Scripture or leave out passages entirely.  We are projecting our own anxieties onto the Scriptures, using excuses like, "We'll catch flack from the congregation if we use this passage."  How about instead of worrying about catching flack we use it as a teaching moment?  How about we worry less about what the folks in the pews think and focus more on the agreed-upon customs of our tradition so that all of the focus and attention can be on God, not ourselves?

Changing Scripture to fit our own emotions is no better than saying that Scripture never changes and means the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Scripture is meant to be examined, studied, and wrestled with.  Methods such as textual and historical criticism help us put Scripture into its context and truly get at the heart of what is being said.  This is what we are meant to do with the Scriptures.  They are not there for us to use as our personal weapon, nor are they there for us to do with as we damn-well please.  They are there to tell us the story of God and God's people.  And it is our duty to care for that story and to respect it.  That means studying and critiquing it, but it also means letting it exist in its own time and not changing pieces just to suit ourselves.

Have you been faced with a piece of Scripture that you're not comfortable with?  The next time that happens, don't ignore it.  Don't just pick another one that will make you feel warm and fuzzy.  Sit with it.  Analyze it.  Ask questions about it.  And maybe you'll get to the heart of what is really being said.  And maybe your own spiritual journey will be enriched.