This past Friday night I attended a church service of sorts at one of the many Church of Nones throughout the fine city of New York.  Such churches have been popping up more and more in the outer boroughs.  Whereas as a youth I would go to lower Manhattan for church I now find myself going to the northern reaches of Brooklyn where it is rather stinky and all kinds of cool.

Nonetheless, church was packed.  In fact, it was sold out.  The narthex/welcome area had overpriced craft beers that I had never heard of.  Though, they did have Yuengling which seems to be rarer fare these days as microbreweries make beer drinking so much more technical than I ever imagined it could be.  They even had pizza, though I wasn’t hungry enough to divulge myself on what was probably another overpriced item that has taken on a new definition of hip and chic.  No matter I could block out such vestiges of the newer lamer New York for the liturgy that was to take place in just a short amount of time of my arrival.

Thus, the door at the back of the welcome area gave way to the sanctuary which had its typical regalia.  A narrow rectangular room with a sound booth in the back, nestled away from the chaos and danger that would ensue in a few moments, a dance floor with a pole in the middle and, of course, a fine stage about two feet above the ground.

The band was setting up while the previous band was breaking down and more people pushed into the small space like sardines in a can.  These people had come to release the angst of their lives, to connect with one another physically and emotionally and to sing songs that had gotten them through their toughest days.  It was now time to take part in a liturgy of sweat, kicks, fists, pushes, jumps and whatever else the music would bring upon the soul.  Tonight I was just a spectator still trying to get over a terrible cold I had had for the past two weeks.  I would sing along but remain in the safer confines of the room.

A sign that things were about to begin was the prelude music that began to play over the sound system. It was the Clockwork Orange version of Beethoven’s “The Funeral of Queen Mary”.  This music could also be likened to the music that preps a people for an altar call.  It sets the perfect mood for what was about to come: chaos.  The music over, now comes the opening bass line followed by guitar and snare drum and the dance floor opens up.  Bodies are thrown, people rush the stage, the singer growls, and the people yell along as if their lives depended upon it.  Thus, there are the typical call and responses throughout:

A: World peace can’t be done!
C: World peace!
A: It just can’t exist.
C: World peace!
A: World peace can’t be done.
C: World peace!

In those opening moments a disjointed host of individuals from all over the NY metro area becomes a well oiled body of rage. A force that would scare the living shit out of any passer-by, particularly of the gentrified persuasion.  A voice is given to the frustration that so many intuit from the fragmentation and alienation of postmodern life. Here, such yelling and such rage is allowed.  Out there, it’s rude and unseemly.

As more a spectator for the evening I noticed something powerful.  As the liturgy moves from song to song with cries of “I just can’t get through to youuuuuuuu!” and guttural yells of “Overpower! Overcome!” they enter into a different arena.  Bravado and cynicism gives way to spiritual seeking and existential angst, we go from bumping to grooving, from yelling to singing to such words…

“Searching and searching for something real
You gotta know how I feel
‘Cause we been looking after the truth
Rejected those lies of our youth”

And one of my favorites,

“You come into this world
With nothing except yourself
You, you leave this world
With nothing except yourself”

What’s fascinating is the passion with which these songs are sung, a crowd seemingly malignant towards any sort institutional religion is knowingly, willingly and passionately singing along to themes derived from the Bhagavad Gita. Without a doubt, this is a liturgy, a work of these people.  A people giving vent to what they intuit within and around them.  Not everything can be reduced to a petty narcissistic materialism, a hodge podge of consumerist habadashery with the purpose of filling the gaps of our lives.  No!  This can’t be so!  This much we know and so we cry out.

And so this liturgy carries us onwards and it gets hotter and sweatier.  In effect, the sanctuary turns into a sweat lodge.  Maybe some have visions while others find themselves on the edge of blacking out.  No matter, a cleansing takes place, a baptism of sorts, sweating out the toxins of anger repressed, gratification denied, love rejected, and joy deferred.  Such is given expression in the blazing guitar and growling vocals.

After 40 minutes the Church of None is about to end its service for the evening but not without giving final voice to everyone in the room.  Calls and responses, the last opportunities to get it all out.

A: Notice everywhere there’s mass confusion and packs of lies
C: We gotta know!
A: We’re staring down our enemies in the eyes
C: We gotta know!
A: These are the days of the cheaters and the cheated
C: We gotta know!
A: But we’re not gonna bend you know we won’t be defeated
C: We gotta know!

And, of course, last but not least:

C: Hard times! Hard times!
A: Seems I’m being forced into a mold
C: Hard times! Hard times!
A: Forcing me and I’m growing cold

With that it spirals to an end with a long cry and the convergence of all the instruments culminating in a few punching explosions of strong notes reverberating one last time.  Instruments freed and let go for the evening.

“Good night! Thankyou! Peace!” says the singer.

Followed by applause and yells of appreciation church is over.  Some opt to stick around to hang out at the welcome area, maybe buy a shirt or some merch, drink beer or get their much needed water.  Others quickly leave.  The minute they step into the cold the steam rises off of them.   A sign of their visceral cleansing.  Toxins have been released and calm begins to set in as they head back into the world.  The Church of None has done its job.  It has fed, comforted and renewed those who gathered.

Until next time.

This past summer we spent three straight days in Disneyland with Becca’s side of the family.  As was expected we had a blast and are already looking forward to going back this coming summer.  Though, there’s something that has stayed with me since we left the parks.  It was the quiet that we encountered when we got back to Becca’s parents house after the three days of madness.  It hit me then how overstimulating Disneyland is from the amount of people to the subtle background music to the full on in your face imagery like fireworks, parades, and Disney characters.  The quiet that we encountered after this was incredibly refreshing and much needed.  Though, I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I was completely out of the Disney environment.

I’ve seen messages that emphasize that the church should glean something from Disney in regards to the way in which they can hold people’s attention.  This point is well taken, especially as it relates to the art of preaching.  But I confess I don’t want my attention held, I want it to disappear in God.  I’d rather have quiet.  It seems like that’s a dangerous commodity these days.  Quiet, that is.  I know, it is a little weird referring to it as a commodity but I’ve got a 3 year old and a 1 year old.  In my world it really seems like it’s something I must trade and invest in given how little of it there is.

Quiet and stillness are truly countercultural in a culture that runs on production and consumption and wears busyness as a badge of honor.  To be quiet, to take a step back means to be missing out on something of importance.  For only the important are out there because they worked hard to get noticed.  They produced and have thereby been rewarded.  It’s fascinating, you know?  We consume never to be satisfied, only to move on to the next thing.  We spend hours Tweeting, sharing, liking and updating only to be more miserable than before.  Yet we continue on like the hardest worker in the world; the junkie.  Motivated by the next hit of dopamine.

And oddly, we already have what we need.  We just struggle to realize it.  Is that not the problem that compels the person to become a junkie, to go looking for more?  I lack, therefore I must fill.  But with what?  Noise?  Distraction? Maybe Jung was right about us after all when he wrote,

“People will do anything no matter how absurd to avoid facing their own psyches.”

 

There are certain things that over time are harder and harder for me to ignore and have ended up becoming sources of frustration and even anger.  One specifically relates to how the church and its pastors often use and interpret the scriptures.  A recent article written by David Bentley Hart for Commonweal exposes this very problem.  Hart brilliantly writes,

“Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are, rather than—as is actually the case—the kind of people we are not, and really would not want to be.”

As I read this I couldn’t help but exclaim inwardly, “Yes!” “Yes!” “Yes!” This is because in the world of face to face and internet communication I have found that true scriptural exegesis isn’t really welcome so long as it does not validate a common sense understanding of the world.  In fact, it’s a bit scary to witness the hoops and levels of outright denial that many will go through in order to maintain the status quo hermeneutic they hold.  Not only that but how nasty and personal they get in the process of defending their point of view.  Recently, I had to unfriend someone on Facebook because of their of incivility in regards to an article that I had posted about Christo-anarchism.  I had been around the bend with this person before on other social media platforms regarding various topics such as the rich man in the Gospel of Mark and how the Markan Jesus stood against economic injustice.  Much frustration had developed over time as he argued against Christo-anarchism from a dogmatic perspective that was informed by Luther’s Small Catechism. The problem, though, with this line of argumentation was that it did not take into account the deeper narrative frameworks of the scriptures and, in particular, the Gospels.  He would simply not take up my arguments on scriptural terms.  When he did use scripture it was in the vein of proof-texting which is just downright tiring and reminiscent of reading parts of Augustine’s writings. (As an aside, and interestingly enough, Augustine can be credited with theologically legitimating the Constantinian shift of the church in the 4th and 5th centuries.)  Disconcertingly, this person has had no lack of supporters in the form of pastors and, unsurprisingly, professors with Ph.D’s.  Yet, to be fair, I can also tell you of friendly encounters wherein the Scriptural witness was abandoned in order to defend the status quo of American militarism and an oversimplified view of Lutheran vocation “that affirms the kind of people we are.”  Again, disconcertingly and eerily put forth by those with Ph.D’s, those with the “best minds” and those within the church hierarchy.  This, at least for me, gives an added punch to the argument that location is everything when it comes to how one interprets a text.

Nonetheless, I especially resonated with Hart’s experiences regarding the criticisms he received for an article he had previously written for First Things .  In this article he praised Laudato Si.  Here’s what he notes about the said criticisms:

“The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.

Here, however, my more than two years laboring in the vineyards of the koine Greek had rendered me immune to the reasonable view of things. For, while Gregg had common sense on his side, I had the actual biblical texts on mine, and they are so unambiguous that it is almost comical that anyone can doubt their import.”

More often than not, after various conversations I have come to a similar conclusion as Hart.  I’m sure in the eyes of others I came across as stubborn and resistant to common sense but the texts say what they say.  I don’t presume to say that I’ve got it all figured nor am I willing to say that I am good at embodying it either.  Nonetheless, it seems to become a burden of sorts that only gets heavier as I see the scriptures misused again and again by those who purportedly know best.  Like King Saul who has been given a spirit to torment him I feel similarly crying out from within, “Can we at least be honest about this?” I know! I know! I am being sooo melodramatic!  But in the words of the great Anthony Hamilton, “Do You Feel Me?”  Thus, in closing I gift you with this wonderful song.

I have experienced and witnessed miracles.  I have also seen the fruits of wisdom blossom and accomplish much.  Yet, I have also seen their limits.  I have found myself waiting for the miracle, waiting for the sign only for it to never come.  I have seen wisdom be thrown off by the illogical and unpredictable proving it can only go so far.  In the midst of this meaning was traded for meaninglessness.  The seeds of emptiness were sown that could not be easily gone with a quick snap of the fingers or explained away with an engineer’s systematization.  Still, I looked for a sign, I looked for some wisdom, some meaning.  Though, as life went on, such things were harder and harder to find.

There are the stories and the experiences that we remember and take comfort in.  These are the signs.  They can increase our confidence in God but they can also work against our faith.  They can all too easily form within us a standard and an expectation in regards to how he should or will act.  He parted this sea here, therefore he will crumble the walls before me there.  There is the discernible system to explain why things are the way they are best articulated in the famous statement, “Everything happens for a reason.”  When tragedy strikes, when the unexplainable occurs, we always have a way out because we can explain it all away.  To stay in the anxiety and the discomfort is to be reminded that we are not in control.  Oddly, we seek out God in order to regain some modicum of control.

“God spoke to me.” “Come see what God is doing.” “God is on the move.”

I’ve been there, I’ve said similar things. Many seem to lay claim to God, yet contradictions abound. The abuser and the narcissist always seem to have God on their side.  Like a cacophony of voices or what must be like the mind of a schizophrenic, there are no shortage of voices claiming God’s approval and blessing.  All around me, God is here, God is there and yet he is seemingly nowhere.

There’s a fine line between atheism and faithfulness to Jesus of Nazareth. Faithfulness to Jesus often requires us to get rid of our crap, to get rid of those things that are seemingly good but end up being idols.  Things like signs and miracles.  Things like wisdom and reason.  Such things are exhausted and revealed to be incredibly lacking on the hill of the Skull.  There, no sign or miracle is given.  No one swoops down from heaven in a chariot at the last minute to give the bad guys what they deserve.  Strangely too, wisdom accomplishes its mission, for it was good that only one man should die rather than a whole nation.  There we see all of the institutions that we are taught to trust in take off their masks and dispose of the things they supposedly uphold.  The Church, the government, the right and the left hand, simply upholding the social order and sending another scapegoat on its way.  Thus, our way of life continues on unabated; a way of life that we created in spite of God.

I’ll confess, I’m compelled to rush to the Resurrection, to make it all okay and to take away any anxiety or discomfort.  But I’m not. The Cross of Jesus Christ gets to the heart of our problem.  It cries out at us and begs us to grapple with such things, with tragedy, with the seeming meaningless of life itself where not everything makes sense.  Where signs and miracles come, go or never show and where wisdom helps but shows itself to be lacking.  The Cross calls us to let our trust in such things go, to see them for the idols that they often are and the Resurrection calls us to begin anew.

I’ve been in ministry now for 8 years and one thing that has become clear to me in this amount of time is that the image that we project out into the world can mask much darkness. Human beings who believe in God and believe that they are doing God’s work can easily justify anything.  How often do we do something that we wanted to do all along and then attach God’s name on to it as if that makes it all okay?  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t guilty of this myself but I am.  Do what I want and then tack on God’s name as my legitimizer.  It’s a great tactic of ab-users.  The reason is that it’s hard to argue with someone who invokes God’s name in emotional circumstances and situations.  That’s what makes it so confusing.  That’s how it works.

The Pharisees claimed that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub and his family said he was out of his mind. He didn’t subscribe to the normal narrative.  Accordingly, the Pharisees were considered the blessed, the sons of the light, and the keepers of the great tradition.  They were the faithful and they truly meant well.  They were ab-users, though.  They divorced their wives for better ones that brought more status and wealth.  They devoured widows’ houses to keep their way of life going.  They loved banquets, they loved to socialize, and they loved to network.  All of these things were for good because it could serve their children and their grandchildren well in the future.  All of this revealed that God was on their side and that they were blessed.  Ab-users wouldn’t want you to think otherwise, even though they left a trail of destruction behind.  Their image was great, the rest sucked, but you’re not supposed to know that.  That’s what social media is good for.  Press releases are a God send.  Triangulation is the best way to distract and push forth.

It’s not an accident that after being accused of being in cahoots with Satan and of being out of his mind that the Markan Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Image is one thing, words are another, but actions speak much louder than anything else we can come up with.  How you live, how you behave, how you treat others reveals what you really believe, where your true allegiance lies. The rest…well…

 

 

Right before he died Emperor Constantine decided to finally be baptized.  Some scholars believe that this was because he knew that he could not be a faithful Christian while acting as emperor of the Roman Empire.

During this time in church history baptism was preceded by catechesis which placed a great emphasis on how one lived.  It wasn’t until a catechumen fully displayed a Christ-like habitus that they were baptized into the faith.  We know that Constantine had a deep respect for Christianity, but we also know that as emperor he preferred to take Christianity on his own terms.  It could be said that he was the first cafeteria catholic.  It seems that it was the prospect of death that finally prompted him to take the call of Christ seriously by literally shedding his purple robes (the early church rejected purple clothing as it believed that it was a sign of excess, privilege and wealth).

It’s strange to think but it would seem that Constantine has a one-up on many Christian leaders today.  He may have at least saw the contradiction between worldly power and faithfully following Jesus.  This hit me when I read the blog of a former church body president who expressed his disapproval of those athletes who refused to stand during the singing of our national anthem.  We’ve so wedded our civic religiosity with our Christian religiosity that we often can’t even tell the difference between the two.

One of the pernicious affects of unbridled nationalism and patriotism is that it serves as a conduit for all of the anxiety and anger of a people.  It gives us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world.  It provides a mask and a distraction from all the darker elements within ourselves.  It’s far better to be united around a common cause and against an enemy out there.  It’s a large scale example of Jesus’ teaching on projection – seeing the speck in your brother’s eye while not noticing the log in your own.

It’s a deep tragedy when the church signs on to this and gives it its blessing.

Integrity Lost.

 

This past weekend Emma and I built a garden bed out of the rocks strewn about along the rock wall alongside our house.  We had some left over bags of soil to use for a small garden bed but rather than go out and by some wood or cinder blocks we opted for the rather inexpensive route of rocks.  In fact, it probably goes without saying that they were free.  So after scavenging for some good wall building rocks, throwing in two bags of dirt, and planting some strawberry plants we have a nice little garden in the corner of our backyard.

As we were looking for rocks and stacking them I was reminded of all of those scenes in Genesis when Noah or Abraham or Jacob build an altar to the Lord by stacking stones or rocks.  An even more powerful passage that came to mind is the one from Exodus 20:25 that says,  “If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.”

In the world in which we live distortions, disconnections, perversions abound in our relationships with one another, ourselves and the world around us.  Yet in the world in which we live connection, harmony, and health abound despite such things.  While the scorching sun can bring drought so can it also bring growth and health.  There are moments that call us back to who we are, that call us back to connection and to clarity.  Some would say that this is the Holy Spirit reaching out to us.  There’s a continual call to repentance, to have a change of mind and of heart, away from ourselves and away from what the world would tell us is important.

Building with rocks this past weekend served as such a reminder.

Rocks dug up from the ground many years ago, stacked as a wall to serve as a property line of sorts.  Now some of them strewn about taken by Emma and I to build a small garden.  Free and from the earth, not created out of our hands and by the latest technology.  Rather created by God and now stacked by us, made to fit by us without tools.  We simply worked with what God created.  And I was reminded of how truly good it is.