"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Monday, March 19, 2012

What's so crazy about peace, love and religion?

Driving home from the hospital where I work this weekend I heard the promo for NPR’s debate show Intelligence Squared which was debating the motion “would the world be better off without religion?”  I didn’t actually get to listen to it, there were weeds to be picked, and little daughters to be played with and steaks to grill, and well… there’s only so much time to go around.

But hearing this promo seemed to fit into a stream of thought I’ve been having lately regarding what exactly does the church do?  Some folks think Church is the embodiment of the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel.  Some think it’s for living out Jesus’ command to serve the “least of these.”  Others think it’s for marking out the “elect” from the damned.  I like the first two of those, I’m not so into the third.  Let me be clear though, I’m not asking what the church is, I’m asking what it does.  I think Cardinal Dulles’ Models of the Church is the best reflection on the nature of the church I’ve come across, but it can be a little bit abstract.

My suggestion is that what churches are really designed for, their core competency, if you like, is religion.  As the NPR program suggests though, similar to the web-excitement generated by the YouTube video of the guy who loves Jesus but hates religion and all those folks claiming to be “spiritual but not religious,” religion isn’t very popular in America (or Europe, as far as that goes).  Actually, religion hasn’t been very popular for awhile now – too limiting.  It seems to me that a great deal of what church institutions have been engaged in for several decades at least is to try to pass themselves off as places that aren’t bogged down by “religion.”

But I think religion is getting a bad rap.  Religion, at its best is about the inculcation of faith.  Religious practice and religious discipline (think praying – not spanking) create in us deep patterns of behavior and thought that can be very useful in developing a worldview consistent with Christ’s teaching to love God and neighbor.  Mind you, it is possible to lose sight of the purpose of religion, the building and sustaining of faith, and to begin to pursue religion for its own end. 

I don’t think you have to go to church or be religious to be loved by God.  But I do think that church offers a time-tested way to develop faith and to learn how to confidently respond to the broken world around us in knowledge of that love.   So go ahead and get yourself some religion – you might be surprised how it turns out.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Seminary Controversies and Lent

This is a picture of the main worship space, knows as Gloria Dei chapel, here at the seminary.  It is likely that you noticed the gigantic rainbow colored banner strung across the space and over the altar.  This is the decoration put up to mark the first week of Lent.  This comes from the Hebrew Scripture reading for the first Sunday in Lent from Genesis;

And God spoke unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying:
'As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.
And I will establish My covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.'
And God said: 'This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth.
And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the cloud, that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and   you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.  And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all  flesh that is upon the earth.'

I’ll be honest and admit that I find the rainbow banner in the worship space discordant with my expectation of the season of Lent, which is usually more of a time of reflection and anticipation.  It has been a source of lots of heated conversation and eye-rolling.   Much of the reaction has been negative, though it has its fans as well.  Just before chapel today, someone was taking pictures and I quipped that I hoped the photos didn’t make it onto the seminary website.  I nearly had my head bitten off in return, and it was implied that my negative reaction was in part due to homophobia.  Unlike the linked blog in the previous sentence, this angle hadn’t really occurred to me.  Rainbow banners in church always remind me of Easter morning at the church where I was baptized, and which used a rainbow colored kite/banner in the procession on Easter morning; rainbow + worship = EASTER.  Lent is not Easter.  But is there more to this than just aesthetics?

What I can discern of the thinking of those who like it is the question, “does Lent have to be depressing?”  Well, I guess if self-reflection or self-denial (the hallmarks of traditional Lenten practice) are depressing to you, then, well, yes Lent has to be depressing.  Actually, I think those things can be liberating.  So I don’t think Lent is supposed to be dark or depressing.  Personally I find a real happiness and satisfaction in this time of intentional simplification and reflection.  But more importantly, I think there is an important formational element in denying ourselves the celebratory and triumphal in this time leading up to Easter, which of course is, in the Christian worldview, is ultimate triumph.

I think one of the geniuses of the liturgical year is that we get to take the same journey as the original disciples, again and again.  Lent is closely linked with Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness after his baptism, where for 40 days he wanders alone and is tempted by Satan.   In Lent, we too are invited to wander into the wilderness of our faith, where we can rub up against our doubts, our beliefs, and our practices and make peace with them or overcome them so that we might inch ever closer to the vision of our lives that God intends for us.