Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ash Wednesday





It was my first time.  Unexpected and not long in the planning.  I had thought about it for a few days, but it wasn’t until that day after work at the dinner table.  “Wanna go tonight?” I asked.  “I suppose,” she replied, “what time should we leave?”  For fifty-five years I had never been to an Ash Wednesday service.

I grew up in a rural area surrounded by families that all, except us, went to the only Catholic Church in the township, and most of the kids in those families went to the parish school through eighth grade.  They were all second or third generation German immigrant families, Klein, Brown, Rasch, Robach, Umlor, Dietrich.   We were the only Protestant family, a Dutch, German and Irish hybrid, on our mile section, perhaps as well on any of the surrounding mile sections.  Much of the time we managed to get along well.  We lived ten miles from any village.  If we kids wanted to play a game that required more than four players (every family had at least four kids), we had to join up.  For baseball we could often get five players on a side, the batting team supplied the catcher, and right field was an automatic out.  But there were many times we did not get along, we fought, called each other awful names, were threatened with gross harm if we trespassed on their property.  We didn’t own enough property to trespass upon.

When I got to ninth grade in high school, a group of the ninth and tenth grade boys who had gone through eighth grade at the parish school pestered me: would try to trip me as I walked down a hall, knock my books and notebooks out of my hand, call me names, and angle to draw me into a schoolyard fight.  Early in the fall of my ninth grade year, my mom sensed that I was distressed about school and asked me to explain.  Upon explanation, she said “you need to take one on.  Next time they pester you in a place where others can watch and where teachers are near enough to break it up, go after one of the ring leaders and win the fight.”  This was shocking for me to hear, having been brought up to believe that one should always turn the other cheek, having seen this precisely in various Jesus films where, some years later, I wondered if Jesus was on codeine or smack.  Jesus in those films had an airy voice, flowed as he walked, said blissfully things like “consider the lilies of the field” and “peace, be still.”  My mom said to take one on and win the fight.

So I did.  A teacher intervened, we got hauled to the principal’s office and parents were called in.  When my mom arrived and was told what happened, she told the principal what she had heard from me, and what she told me to do.  The principal stuttered a bit, said “okay, but I’ll have to give him one day after-school detention.”  A pretty good deal, I thought, and three and a half years later thought it a great deal for it worked.  It was my only high school fight.  Win, win fast and hard, and others will know that if they want to take you on they might win but it will be a win that will leave a few painful marks on them.

I am sure that is not why I had never been to an Ash Wednesday service before.  I can’t just look down my nose at my Catholic neighbors for anti-Protestant sentiment.  I was raised in a Protestant church that had at least as strong anti-Catholic sentiment, equating the antichrist of the Apocalypse with the Pope.  When we read of Jesus saying judgmental things about priests, rabbis, and Pharisees, we pictured them in robes like priests and acolytes wore in the Catholic church.  Perhaps even our Sunday school materials dressed them to look like Roman Catholic priests.

I grew out of that anti-Catholic sentiment immediately after high school, becoming much more generous in my orthodoxy over the intervening years.  Maybe most religions exhibit a kind of theoretical or doctrinal cannibalism or genocide.  We just can’t much tolerate those who are close to us but a little bit different.  That difference is like the small grease stain on your carpet that you notice, but none of your guests ever notice, and to you it is as noticeable as a big wart on a chin.  My orthodoxy has gotten too generous for some, but mostly they tolerate me.

I think it has more to do with my inclinations toward liturgy.  I am low church.  Very low.  Low church can be a bit goofy.  If you allow for a little spontaneity, if everything doesn’t have to follow a schedule, you open yourself up for the person who wants to share more detail about their life and God’s goodness to them than you are comfortable hearing.  Sometimes hearing their stories is like coming upon lovers kissing in public.  Some may find that sappy and cute, but some just want to say “don’t you have a private place for that?”  However, in low church with eyes wide open you can see people genuinely in love with a God who walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death, who has ate with them in green pastures, has slaked their thirst with calm waters, and surely whose goodness and mercy is chasing after them all the days of their lives.  When you see that, you have to be awfully Stoic to not be deeply affected.

I am not much for ritual, order, pomp, liturgy.  Simply saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison feels awkward.  At least it used to.  Even with that I have gotten beyond that feeling to where now, reciting it in unison, it is hard for me to get through without being overwhelmed with how far I am from hallowedness.  This past Sunday I was asked to be one of the servers for Holy Communion.  As I stood there with watery eyes dispensing the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, I could barely choke out “Christ’s body and blood, given for you.”  I don’t understand how I had any right to be the dispenser.

But I did it.  I went to an Ash Wednesday service.  Wait! There is more!  I even went forward for the imposition of ashes.  What a phrase!  An imposition.  In the sign of a cross.  My wife and I hadn’t discussed it, hadn’t mentioned a word of it.  But when the invitation was made to come forward I looked at her, got up, and she followed me.  As he marked me, he instructed me “you are dust, repent and believe the Gospel.”  I heard it as “you were dirt that was made alive, now live the Gospel.”  I felt the gravity of it all.

And then the homily was titled “Wearing your halo too tight.”  It was about making a show of your pious acts: praying ostentatiously in public, making a public display of your charitable giving, fasting and letting others know you are fasting.  And I wondered if, when I left the service and on the way home stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items, I should leave the ashen cross on my forehead, or erase it.  Should I make a public declaration that I participated in a Christian community?  Or would I be making a public display of my piety?

With the communion service that was part of the Ash Wednesday service, individuals could be anointed with oil for healing.  Most accepted it.  I again was one of the servers of communion (the lone station with the “gluten-free” option, seeing how I go to a contemporary and hip church).  The congregation faces east, with a stained-glass rose window that on Sunday mornings shines bright with the morning sun.  I was serving the gluten free option at the south end in front of the congregation.  Next to me was a woman anointing with the oil.  As she’d apply the oil, she’d have just a short few words for the person, a phrase I didn’t fully hear.  At the far north end was an eighty-two year old man doing the oil anointing for that aisle of people.  The north wing of the church seats about one-third as many people as either of the center sections seat.  When all the rest of us were done serving communion and anointing with oil, he was still down there with four people still in line from the piano-side section:  a white-haired woman, a pre-teen boy, an almost forty year-old couple .  As each person stepped forward, he conversed briefly with them, anointed them with oil and proceeded to pray for each of them for seventy-five seconds.  We, the rest of the congregation, sat in silence for over five minutes while he completed his duties.  It was difficult to watch, like it was too private to be made so public.  I focused my gaze on my hands.  Then, he finished and walked back to his seat.

I had witnessed mystery.  Next year, I thought, that is the line I want to be in.

As we got in the car to head to the grocer, we both wiped the ashen cross off our foreheads.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Southern and Gospel, or Suthun ayn Gawspul



I read a good book on the life of Flannery O’Connor.  She died of complications due to Lupus in 1964 at the age of 39.  She was a Southern and Roman Catholic fiction writer, mostly short stories.  I think I’ve read all her 32 short stories, but I haven’t read her two novels.  I’ve also read what she wrote in essays about the craft of writing, about being a Christian fiction writer, about why so many of her stories are so shocking.  Her stories are filled with grotesque, deformed, offensive, and violent characters in part because she deeply believes that is what we humans are.  She also believes most of us make ourselves look better than we are, think more highly of ourselves than we ought, which makes it very hard for us to see the need for grace, mercy, and redemption.  When she writes dialogue, she writes it phonetically such that you can hear the “suthun drowal” or southern drawl.  Having lived in Nashville for four years and having waitered at an expensive Italian restaurant there, I can hear in her writing the liquid and luscious elegant southern woman accent.  Or I cayan heeya in haw ridin the le-a-quid ay-n luzjous elgant suthun woomin ayakcint.




I also went recently to a small town to meet some relatives at a diner that has all you can eat spaghetti for $5.  There were eleven of us there.  We might put them out of business or force them to change prices.  I had two servings, my dad had four.  Then we went to the small babdist church for their twice a month Tuesday night Gospel Jamboree, otherwise known as the joyful noise meeting.  It began with a guitar band led by a 70 year old couple, Bob on electric Jean on acoustic, another 60 year old guy playing electric lead, and another 60 year old guy on a big acoustic.  They sang some old timey honky tonk gospel songs.  Then a 75 year old guy sang some Carter family songs, pretty well.  One guy did a couple of Hank Williams songs (one was “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”).  A woman played violin, then they got her to fiddle “Boil Them Cabbage Down.”  Then the lead guitar player did Orange Blossom Special, usually a fiddle number, very impressive.  My brother-in-law sang (he has a great voice) accompanied by instruments on a CD.  I remember a musician friend once wondering how it would be received if for special music at church he’d play piano accompanied by a recorded voice.  Another brother-in-law sang a couple of early 20th century hymns that are no longer in most hymn books.  A couple of the singers were terrible singers who were deeply in love with Jesus.  It was like the vision of the heavenly realm given in the Revelation of St. John, people from every tongue and tribe and nation who are there definitely not to sing or perform for my enjoyment.




While I am writing this I am listening to a bunch of old, mostly “gospel” Hank Williams recordings.  While they are called “gospel,” most of them are not even close to being biblically accurate.  I am not saying that as a criticism or a complaint.  For one thing, it is so hard to know what if anything is biblically accurate because there are so many issues, even very important issues, over which the bible does not speak in a single voice or have a single and consistent view on:  free will or predestination, communion as the body and blood of Christ or a memorial meal, the kingdom of God as a domain distinct from present reality or as a growing part of present reality, and on and on.




Those country and western gospel songs are more accurately described as American rural folk religion songs (“I’ll Fly Away,” actually a Carter Family song, is a classic example of that).  Gospel or not, they are good foot tapping honky tonk songs, often with lyrics that lament some life wasted in honky tonks that has been rescued from dissipation by Jesus.  A classic of that is Johnny Cash’s “I’m Alright Now” (written by Jerry Hensley).


                I’m alright now, I’m alright now

                I was ridin’ on the devil’s train but I got off somehow

                I’m alright now, I’m alright now

                Gabriel, let your trumpet blow, I’m alright now.



I wonder how many gospel songs Hank Williams wrote—I’ve seen a list of over 100 songs he wrote.  He had 35 songs that placed in the top 10 on the Country & Western chart.  He was born Hiram King Williams, but changed his name to Hank after he was in his first band at the age of 14.  He did several gospel recordings in 1950 under the name of Luke the Drifter which didn’t sell well because people didn’t realize it was Hank Williams.  He died January 1, 1953 when he was only 29 years old.  He was southern and gospel and he’s alright now.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Letter 2012



I think I have nothing profound to say this year.  I’ve been reading some thought provoking blogs and books.  Among the books:  Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right; Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults; Chris Cooper, Run Swim, Throw, Cheat: the science behind drugs in sport; Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture; Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book; Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: how a liberated woman found herself sitting on her roof, covering her head, and calling her husband “master”. From Gawande, I learned the importance of procedure and checklists to keep organized and avoid costly mistakes.  From Smith and Snell I got a much better understanding of the outlooks of 18-23 year old emerging adults.  From Cooper I gained some depth about performance enhancing drugs.  From Smith my confidence was deepened and stretched about the humanly constructed bible we have.  From Beal likewise I better understood the history and development of the construction of the bible.  From Evans I saw how open the bible is to reading it in very different and still faithful ways.  From several: to think of the bible as a guidebook or manual for life, or as having a single view (The Biblical View, as many books proclaim) about anything important, is to do it, and God, a disservice.
                Beth has had a challenging year. She has been spending a day almost every week driving 70 miles to her mother’s to assist with her life.  At the end of November her mother had a mild stroke.  Beth’s increased involvement over the year has prepared her better to deal with the post-stroke issues.  She’ll finish another year with over 2000 miles of bicycling, much of it exploring back roads of Clinton County.  After a few years of serious talks from her physician about her cholesterol levels (and her family history of strokes), in mid-fall she decided to do something about it by better eating habits.  In just eight weeks her cholesterol went from very high to the moderate range.  She was thrilled about that.  Now she wants a new, faster bicycle and a mountain bike.
                Kevin announced his engagement to Marissa Perez, setting a wedding date for May 25, 2013 in Monticello, MN.  He bought a 1920s house in Minneapolis between Uptown and Lake Nokomis, near the light rail, occupying it in January.  It needed much work, and he got a good deal on it.  To move in, he needed a new furnace, hot water heater, range, fridge, and toilet.  Since moving in he (alone or with the help of parents and grandparents) tore out carpet, refinished hardwood floors, installed a tub-surround, painted walls, replaced all the windows, new overhead garage door and put a service door in the side of the garage, and ran electrical to the garage.  By adding 40% in materials to the purchase price of the house, it is now worth 200% of what he paid for it.
                Jayne is living with us, working part-time at the airport checking passengers in, loading and unloading baggage, cleaning the airplanes, and so on.  She is seeking full-time work in these still hard-times in Michigan.  She continues to organize disc golf leagues, participate in tournaments.  She likes taking her kayak out on the local river.  Early in the fall she went fishing with a friend and caught a couple of 16”-18” smallmouth bass.  Late in the fall she went deer hunting, got her first deer with one shot after being in the stand for thirty minutes, and three days later helped her friend butcher and package the meat.
                My job is more stressful than I’d prefer.  I am resilient.  I sometimes lose sleep thinking of what I should have done or should have said.  I try to let it go; sometimes it is hard to do so.  By the end of December I will have ridden my bicycles over 8000 miles this year, a feat I’ve never before accomplished.  Mid-summer I did my first ever bicycle camping tour: a nine-day/eight-night self-supported tour of north central and northeastern Wisconsin with five friends, riding 70-110 miles a day, each day temperatures getting into the 90s, only two nights cooling below 70.  Each day we’d have a general direction, but no particular itinerary. It was surprisingly easy to ride over 700 miles in nine days, even with the loaded bike weighing about 70 lbs. Over the summer and early fall, I got out several times in my canoe or Jayne’s kayak fishing for panfish on Muskrat Lake, with enough success.  Early November I had a high school reunion, the 36th.  It was only the first or second time I’ve seen any of my classmates since graduation.  It was rewarding and encouraging to see them.
                My warmest Christmas wishes to you,
Eric

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Divine Sovereignty Worthy of God



The title of the Sunday sermon was “If God is in control, then what?”  It was the last sermon in the liturgical year, the next Sunday being the first Sunday of Advent.  The pastor thought it a good sermon topic for ending the liturgical year.  The topic was Divine Sovereignty.  The pastor’s aim was to reconcile three issues with a notion of Sovereignty: unexplained catastrophe, undeserved prosperity of the wicked, and human free will. The key verse for the sermon was Psalms 103.19: The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.

I don't have a problem with Divine Sovereignty, at least how I understand Sovereignty.  My conception of Sovereignty fits exactly, it seems to me, with Psalm 103.19.  I don't understand it in the way that is typical for Calvinists.  Calvinists seem to think that Sovereignty requires, in addition to God ruling over all, that God be in detailed control of every event.  That is, they equate Sovereignty with predestination and foreordination.  Indeed an online encyclopedia of Christianity, Theopedia, defines Sovereignty of God as “the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.”  Get that?  It is “the biblical teaching,” as if there is only one biblical teaching about God’s authority, such that any other notion of sovereignty is non- or un-biblical.  The definition also adds the notion of “control” whereas biblical texts end at “rule.”

Yes, there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is in control of some details that we usually think of as under control of humans: perhaps Romans 13.1 The authorities that exist have been established by God.  But that is ambiguous between referring to individual rulers and referring to the notion of human rule and authority: which did God establish, individual rulers or the notion of human authority?  We usually think that determining who is in charge is a matter of a ballot or an appointment by a superior, not a matter of divine control.   And there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is not in such control: perhaps Psalm 2.1-3 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles’.  They conspire, plot, rise up, and band together against the Lord.  All this is in vain not because it is really God who is controlling everything; it is because God rules and they are supposed to serve God (with “fear and trembling” it says).

Why should anyone think that the notion of Sovereignty also requires God to be in control of everything?  And why should Calvinists be able to dictate what any other Christian should believe about the Sovereignty of God?

A Sovereign is a ruler, one whose law is law over a domain or region independently of whether a subject agrees with or accepts that law.  A Sovereign is not someone who controls every event that occurs within his or her kingdom.  A Sovereign is one who is the lord of that kingdom.  No Sovereign controls her or his subjects, determining every event that happens to them.  If a subject disobeys the Sovereign, or violates a law set by the Sovereign, the subject is subject to sanction.

With such a notion of Sovereignty, now applied to the Christian God, I see no conflicts between Sovereignty and human free will.  I also have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) wicked people from prospering in what seems a great unfairness.  As well, I have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) great amounts of pain and suffering seen in some unexplained catastrophes.  Why?  Because Divine Sovereignty does not require God being the cause of, or in control of, every detail of every event.  All Sovereignty requires is that God rules over all and God’s kingdom is authoritative over all other realms.

Some of the great amounts of pain and suffering are just due to there being a material world that operates with considerable regularity, following (what we call) laws of nature.  There are some things God cannot and could not do.  God could not make a material world perfect (whatever that means), at least if you hold a standard theological view that God only is perfect.  Maybe to say that some original pre-fallen creation was "perfect" simply means that it was full or complete, that it didn't need anything added to it; it cannot mean "perfect" in the sense that most folks think of God as perfect.  God also cannot make a material world with material persons who acquire a good deal of their knowledge of the world by means of the senses, of nerves, synapses and brains, and make it such that material persons could not sense pain.  If we have material bodies, they will be capable of over-stimulation.  Even if there was an Adam living someplace before a fall, if he stepped on a sharp rock he felt a pain.  I could follow a similar line of reasoning to explain how God designed a world in which benefits sometimes come to various undeserving individuals.

So I don't believe God is in control of everything.  Nor do I think God can do everything.  Nor do I think God knows everything.  And I still think God is Sovereign.  God sets the way for how humans should interact with and relate to God and their neighbors.  God may even have set the way that the universe would develop and run.  God may even enter time and space to act in special ways, the ways we call "miracles."  Sovereignty requires that God is the final, ultimate authority.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Lastly, at least for now, while I think God doesn't know everything and isn't in control of everything, there is no event, no human choice or human tragedy that catches God so off-guard that God has to feel helpless and wonder what in the world to do.  An image I use is of chess playing (I don't know how to play chess, so this is hearsay).  It is as if we are playing chess with God.  God lets all of us make our moves (well, maybe for some or all of us there is a measure of prevenient grace so that some or all of us can freely chose to side with God who, through Christ, was reconciling himself to the world).  Whatever moves we make, even those moves that cause great pain and suffering to others—those things that I believe cause God sadness—God always has the capacity for a counter-move.  God can always win the game in the end.  When naturally caused or humanly caused evils occur, God can make things whole again.  I think that to be God, God does not always need to make things whole again.  But God can.  Or maybe God always does make things whole again, but some of those whole-makings are so far down the road that we never experience it.

If most people would think a few minutes about these matters, while they might initially feel very uneasy and even unwilling to say so aloud, I do think they would tend to agree with me.  On the one hand, they want to mouth the mantra "God is in control of everything."  After all, on a list of good and proper things for contemporary Christians to affirm, “God is in control of everything” is about the same status as “God communicates to us through the Bible” or “God loves everyone.”  Nonetheless and on the other hand they (at least secretly and in their private moments) think that God does not control everything, that they really do make choices, that bad and wicked things are not controlled by God.  I think they'd be better off dumping the mantra "God is in control of everything" and instead just stick with the mantra "God is Lord over all."  And Lords, as we all know, do not control their subjects; yet the subjects have to answer to the Lord and should Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling (Psalm 2.11).