Archive for April, 2011

A Conventional Change

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.
—Matthew 28:1-9

Yesterday, many read this passage from Matthew’s gospel or a similar account of the resurrection story from one of the other gospel texts. Personally, I am fond of this passage because of its jarring juxtaposition of the conventional with the unconventional. As this story begins, it is saturated in tradition. In Matthew’s gospel, the two Marys are traveling together to finish the work done on Friday. Here, the most traditional characters perform the most traditional of tasks with the greatest regard for tradition. Two days before, Jesus was killed and needed a temporary burial before sundown so that all those involved in the burial would be ritually able to participate in the important Passover festivities about to being. They did not have time to complete all of the customary rituals before sunset. However, they need to get Jesus in a tomb. (Hence the reason the tradition includes the use of Joseph of Arimathea’s personal tomb.) All those involved in the Jesus story are very mindful of tradition, custom, convention. So, now, two days later with all of the observances of Passover behind them, two women return to the tomb to finish the work begun that previous Friday.

As convention dictated, it was the job of the Marys as women connected with the deceased to prepare the body for its final burial. The Marys were playing their assigned part in the story, fulfilling their conventional roles. Yet, here is where the story takes several dramatic turns. Ultimately, these turns should not surprise us. If anything, the story of the resurrection is a story of the conventional slamming headfirst into the re-creative force of Jesus’ unconventional life, ministry, and purpose—a collision that redirects lives and reality. Case in point: the roles of the two women in Matthew’s resurrection account.

The Marys arrive as the quintessential embodiments of conventionality: they are women mindful both of the traditions of body preparation and of Passover ritual observance and purity. At that moment, in the very instance of their walking in conventionality, everything changes. An angel appears. The stone is rolled away. The guards faint. The angel speaks to them and gives them a tour of the empty tomb. And, here, for me at least, it gets really interesting, the angel gives them a command. The angel says: “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead . . . .’”

Often, we do not pay close attention to this commission by the angel, sending the two Marys to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection. This detail in the story gets lost amongst the broader scope of the resurrection narrative, mixed and muddled with the other countless minutia of a miraculous tale of death and resurrection. Nevertheless, this detail deserves particular attention because of how it relates to the final passage from the chapter, a passage that also happens to be the final passage from Matthew’s gospel.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel, we find the familiar account of the great commission. Having gone to Galilee as directed, the disciples meet Jesus and receive their marching orders: “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” In that latter passage from Matthew, the Greek word poreuthentes—meaning “go”—is used with strong imperative inflection. In other words, the persons to whom this word is directed are being sent with “authority.” In an almost parallel tone, the word hupagó—meaning “go”—is used to send the two Marys a few verses earlier. This word, while, also, meaning “to send” or “go”, carries with it an added dimension. Hupagó, in addition to commanding one to go, indicates a change of relation between the one sending and the ones sent. It literally means to being sent under the sender’s authority, as a kind of proxy for the sending and with the sender’s power. The not-so-subtle implication is that the two women have changed roles relative to their relationship with Jesus and this change in role is a marker of the change-making character of resurrection and Christ’s resurrection kingdom.

Rather than walkers to a grave, these women are now runners for the resurrection! Because of the resurrection, everything has changed: the dead do not stay dead; sin is not absolute; power is found in weakness; justice is found in peace; servant hood trumps being served; and, as it turns out, women are the first commissioned preachers of the gospel. Moreover, in this new resurrection kingdom, the women are not just the first to the tomb. They are the first missionaries of the church. This passage from the resurrection story marks a singular moment encapsulating the essence of God’s in-breaking kingdom: God’s miraculous capacity to cause the most unconventional to emerge from the quintessentially conventional.

That essence of liberation and reordering of the world is not limited to the change in role and status of two women. The story of the two women simply serve as the first in a long line of persons who act and think conventionally only to have their conventionality used to accomplish the most unconventional outcomes on behalf of God’s kingdom.

In a moment of counterintuitive lucidity, both historically and practically, consider how when we engage the church’s tradition faithfully an intriguing paradox often issues: personal piety and a pursuit of scriptural holiness may lead to the most radical social progress. Look at the ways that our adherence to traditional biblical and theological commitments resulted in an advocacy for the poor and social justice; universal education; emancipation of the enslaved; and ordination of women despite prevailing sentiment—both within and without the Church—to the contrary.

This does not mean that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is always used to liberate and never used to oppress. It has been and certainly will be used for just such efforts in the future. What I am saying is that the story’s details and over-arching tenor suggest that the puzzling regularity of the unconventional to emerge from the quintessentially conventional is properly characteristic of God’s kingdom. After two millennia, we should be getting use to it. Moreover, when the gospel is used otherwise, those uses cut against the grain of the resurrection story.

As we draw another academic year to a close with all of the conventionality that surrounds our lives in the next few weeks—e.g., exams, papers, final grades, hikes up Brasstown Bald, commencement, etc.—may we recognize that our most conventional of practices just might lead to the most unconventional and kingdom-filled outcomes if we keep our eyes open and are ready to respond when sent.

Changing Our Diet: Consuming Love

Posted in Uncategorized on April 18, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

Christians regularly met “on a stated day” in the early morning to “address a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity” and later in the day would “reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal”.
—Pliny the Younger

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
—1 John 4:7

When I lived in the UK, one of my favorite experiences was the set menu. Frequently, when arriving at a restaurant or pub for a meal, there would be a chalkboard out front stating the prices of the set menu. For instance, one of my favorite places to eat would offer a starter, entrée, and dessert for about $8. For each of those courses, I would choose from just a few options, e.g., one of two soups or a salad for the starter, a puff pastry and plowman sandwich for the main course, etc. By restricting the options, the restaurant could better reduce and predict its costs. In addition, as a customer, I was able to have a hot, freshly cooked, quick meal at a reasonable price. From my experience, a limited menu had its benefits.

This week, on the chapel’s menu, we are offering a set menu, too. The only option will be a multicourse menu of love. Setting aside time to consume love reminds me of the short ditty offered to us from those Saturday morning oracles of my childhood, “Schoolhouse Rock.” In particular, I have in mind the phrase “you are what you eat, from your head down to your feet.” Sage and perceptive advice understood by the early church millennia before. Yet, rather than consuming fruits and vegetables while avoiding covering them with “goop,” the early church encouraged its members to consume love by sharing in a weekly love feast or agape.

By consuming love, we become what we eat, replacing who we were in our misbalanced love—i.e., sin—with who we are created to be in the image of a God who is love. Historically, Christian theology, according to Delwin Brown, classified sin into two categories: pride and sensuality. Classically, the word “pride” was used in a way that we tend not to use it today. This classic notion of pride, as Brown describes it, “is excessive self-regard, not adhering to appropriate limits, taking for oneself more than that to which one is entitled.” Today, we might use the word “arrogance” instead. In other words and recalling the story of the fall, pride is trying to act more like the Creator than one of the creations. Conversely, sensuality is not a disparaging of our physicality but a way of articulating an excessive focus on our physical needs and wants. In the classical concept, sensuality was associated with the lower self, our physical being. Notwithstanding some of the potential problems with such a division of the self, placing this notion in this classical context proves helpful because it explains how sensuality is but sin to another extreme. Therefore, if pride is our trying to be more than human, then sensuality describes our being less than human, failing to embrace our responsibilities and rise above our “mere” passions. In summary, Brown says, “sin is disproportionate love, love that is out of balance—excessive or deficient love.” By saying that sin has a two-fold character, we are saying that the sin of pride is loving ourselves too much and the sin of sensuality is not loving ourselves enough.

A balanced love embraces God, creation, community, self, etc. appropriately. Now, establishing what is “appropriate” is the challenge. For the early church, one way to do attempt to establish appropriately balanced love was by regularly coming together in mutual love and care for each other and their God. Retaining that tradition, we will gather in the chapel on Wednesday at 7pm to share in a Love Feast, endeavoring to consume a balance diet of love. Everyone is welcome to this meal of prayer, praise, reflection, and remembrance. As meal prep, I have included an excerpt from The United Methodist Book of Worship detailing the history and elements of the service:

The Love Feast, or Agape Meal, is a Christian fellowship meal recalling the meals Jesus shared with disciples during his ministry and expressing the koinonia (community, sharing, fellowship) enjoyed by the family of Christ.

Although its origins in the early church are closely interconnected with the origins of the Lord’s Supper, the two services became quite distinct and should not be confused with each other. While the Lord’s Supper has been practically universal among Christians throughout church history, the Love Feast has appeared only at certain times and among certain denominations.

The modern history of the Love Feast began when Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians in Germany introduced a service of sharing food, prayer, religious conversation, and hymns in 1727. John Wesley first experienced it among the Moravians in Savannah, Georgia, ten years later. His diary notes: “After evening prayer, we joined the Germans in one of their love-feast. It was begun and ended with thanksgivings and prayer, and celebrations in so decent and solemn a manner as a Christian of the apostolic age would have allowed to be worth of Christ.”

It quickly became a feature of the Evangelical Revival and a regular part of Methodist society meetings in Great Britain and throughout the English-speaking world. As Methodist immigrated to North America they made Love Feasts an important part of early American Methodism.

While Love Feasts became less frequent in the years that followed, they continued to be held in some places; and in recent years the Love Feast has been revived. Love Feasts have often been held at Annual Conferences and Charge Conferences, where persons may report on what God has been doing in their lives and on the hope and trust they place in God of the future. . . .

The Love Feast has often been held on occasions when the celebration of the Lord’s Supper would be inappropriate—where there is no one present authorized to administer the Sacrament, when persons of different denominations are present who do not feel free to take Holy Communion together, when there is a desire for a service more informal and spontaneous than the communion ritual, or at a full meal or some other setting to which it would be difficult to adapt the Lord’s Supper.

The Love Feast is most naturally held around a table or with persons seated in a circle; but it is possible to hold it with persons seated in rows. A church sanctuary, fellowship hall, or home is an appropriate location.

One of the advantages of the Love Feast is that any Christian may conduct it. Congregational participation and leadership are usually extensive and important, especially involving children.

Testimonies and praise are the focal point in most Love Feasts. Testimonies may include personal witness to God’s grace or accounts of what God has been doing in the lives of others. Praise may take the forms of hymns, songs, choruses, or spoken exclamations and may vary from the relative formality of an opening and closing hymn to spontaneous calling out of requests and singing as the Spirit moves. Sometimes the leader guides those present alternating spontaneous singing and sharing in free and familiar conversation for as long as the Spirit moves. Wesley counseled that all the above be done decently and in order.

Prayer is vital to a Love Feast. A fixed form of prayer may be used, especially something like the Lord’s Prayer or Be Present at Our Table, Lord, that is familiar to the people. Spontaneous prayer requests and prayers may come from the people.

Scripture is also important. There may be scripture readings, or persons may quote Scripture spontaneously as the Spirit moves. There may be a sermon, an exhortation, or an address, but it should be informal and consist of the leader’s adding personal witness to what spontaneously comes from the congregations.

Most Love Feasts include the sharing of food. It is customary not to use communion bread, wine, or grape juice because to do so might confuse the Love Feast with the Lord’s Supper. The bread may be a loaf of ordinary bread, crackers, rolls, or a sweet bread baked especially for this service. . . . The beverage has usually been water, but other beverages such as lemonade, tea, or coffee have been used. Early Methodists commonly passed a loving cup with two handles form persons to person, but later the water was served in individual glasses. The food is served quietly without interrupting the service.

Have a wonderful beginning to your week. I will see you in chapel.

Sense Change

Posted in Uncategorized on April 11, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

“Where I’m From”
George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

This week, Young Harris College, holds it inaugural celebration of Appalachia. Called Festival Appalachia, the celebration marks an intentional effort by the college to reflect on the impact its location has upon its character and the people who have made and continue to make the institution such a distinct place. As an incarnational people, attention to place and its people seems only natural to me.

Digging our hands deep into the soil of this place to turn over the deposits of the past, making us ready for our future, The Office of Religious Life will share in this celebration and exploration, principally, through song. On Wednesday night in chapel, we will sing. Through the instruction of Bill Fox, we will attempt shape note singing. A traditional method for singing in the mountains of Appalachia, shape note singing’s distinctive tones have resonated through these valleys for generations. Like vibrations from the past, we hope to incarnate these hymns of promise and praise in this week’s chapel service.

Have a wonderful start to the week. Attend as many of the Festival Appalachia events as you are able. While you are at it, consider the import of the following passage of scripture relative to celebrating a place and honoring a people as an essential exercise of our faith:

“‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them . . .’” (Revelation 21:3b)

Picture Change

Posted in Uncategorized on April 4, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

Narratives function to sustain the particular moral identity of a religious (or secular) community by rehearsing its history and traditional meanings, as these are portrayed in Scripture and other sources. Narratives shape and sustain the ethos of the community. Through our participation in such a community, the narratives also function to give shape to our moral character, which in turn deeply affect the way we interpret or construe the world and events and thus affect what we determine to be appropriate action as members of the community.
—James Gustafson

We tell and live stories all the time. Now, by stories, I am not simply referring to a tale I spin for my daughter as she resists sleep. (However, such stories do count.) Rather, more specifically, the kinds of stories I have in mind are those narratives that provide the substantive components of a life. And, more importantly, I am not just speaking of the hearing of a story but of our living that story, embodying it in with our lives. It is the performance of the story that makes us part of their larger narrative, effecting us by that narrative’s force. (This is why “role-playing” for children and adults can be so expository.) This is the kind of “story-telling” that scholars like James Gustafson and others are so keen to promote. As Gustafson contends, narratives play both an epistemological and exegetical role. Epistemologically, narratives provide the form the lens through which we see the world. Exegetically, narratives provide the moral descriptions necessary to call something good or bad, holy or unholy.

Specifically, our faith communities are story-dependent performers . . . and for good reason. Faith communities recognize the power to narrative, the import of myth. These communities tell the same stories repeatedly, recycling their story’s motifs, characters, and enactment, embedding their narrative’s epistemology and morality in the performers through orthopraxis, i.e., right practice. Functionally, narratives capture the intellectual and moral nuancing more indicative of actual living, training the story’s tellers in the skills necessary to navigate a life that is less predictable than we might hope. In addition, some of our narratives provide overt shaping, while others are more subtle in their telling.

To be sure, faith communities are not the only places narratives are told. Others use story, too, for the conveyance of information far too complex to be communicated through didactic streams of data. From Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories to Ridley Scotts’ dystopian “Blade Runner,” narrative services as an essential epistemological tool to frame and examine our rational and moral understanding of the world.

This week, we will explore the notion of narrative as a life shaping and world-changing device. In particular, we will turn to the usefulness of “moving pictures,” i.e., film and television, as a tool for theological illumination and practical transformation.

Have a wonderful week.