Successful individuals and institutions demonstrate the competency of gathering and integrating information from a wide variety of sources to create a cohesive, comprehensive worldview. The Roman Catholic Church is just such an institution and worldview.
Turn That Frown Upside Down
Yesterday, I took a little detour off of the Ozaukee Interurban Trail to the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary grounds. I was dismayed to see that the sign had been replaced with one bearing a new, most unfortunate logo.
It's hard for me not to see the logo as a frown, perhaps even a frowning face with the cross actually forming an "X" for the eyes. It's like a cartoon character who has just been administered a knockout punch. As sad as this is, I don't think it needs to be lasting. I would suggest that the WELS cure its current condition by redoubling its emphasis the Word and Sacraments--and by the Word, I mean the Word without spin. A stronger focus on the Liturgy of the Eucharist would lock up time and energy that is currently too often frittered and wasted. Reciting words that are thousands of years old leaves little room for wandering into what I would consider human additions and spin. I don't expect a stronger liturgical focus will happen, but nor do I think it is impossible. Twenty-five years ago, they were still in the "thees and thous" and I would never have predicted that international, ecumenical liturgical advances would be introduced--as they indeed were less than a decade later.
My Aunt Lynne is in ICU, evidently dying. Against what I know would be her wishes, I asked that my Facebook friends direct positive thoughts to San Antonio, her home of several years. (I don't know that she'd appreciate so much fuss being made over her by strangers. Older people are different that way.) When I logged on a few hours ago and the responses started to come in, I was reminded that I hadn't asked for prayers. I briefly thought that I must be a horrible Christian. (Of course, no one other than myself is accusing me of that.) The more I think about the whole matter, the less sure I become. Two thoughts have crossed my mind:
- My Aunt is, to the best of my knowledge, non-religious
- Some of my Facebook friends are non-religious
but nor do I want to get into the game our society plays of "Please pray to the supernatural being of your choice," as I don't believe there is a choice.
Also, I fear that using the word "prayers" may cause the information to be processed in a certain way that is not necessarily the intended one. It's one of those words that--to use an e-mail metaphor--is more of a flag than a subject line. I know from Sunday School, confirmation class and what have you that "prayer" (theologically)means words addressed to God. I would never be ashamed to ask for or recommend that. I also know, though, what it's like to put prayer on the "things to do...sometime" list, like getting my teeth whitened--just as soon as I start brushing my teeth three times a day so the "before" picture won't be so awful. It can be uncomfortable to think of our souls being laid bare before God, and we sometimes feel the urge to make ourselves presentable first. So we put it off.
This doesn't really square with my current understanding of a Creator who wants soul-on-soul intimacy with us. Of course, God is both immanent and transcendent, but it would seem to me that the "transcendent" part is pretty much understood. Were God satisfied with that part, it might be argued, He could have stopped creating before the sixth day--or even the first.
As human beings, we often crave someone who "gets" us. We may even secretly crave someone who can read our mind. If we have these cravings, I'd guess it's because we're conscious of a God-shaped hole in our lives. For other people to "get" us, they rely on our limited ability to express ourselves, as they can only know what we tell them (in addition to their own--more or less subjective--observation). Not so with God.
I don't think God intended prayer to be like going to the Bank of God, and having to talk to Him through a thick pane of stilted awkwardness. Don't we tend to think of "prayer" as something we put in the little drive-thru tube before hitting the "send" button? Wouldn't it be good to sometimes, instead, think of prayer as the spiritual heartbeat of our lives? We don't spend very much time listening to our own heartbeat--yet it's good to have it listened to by another regularly, and listening to another's bespeaks a special kind of intimacy. (Or, you know, a stethoscope.)
I know that I'm overanalyzing this, and that if I were ill enough to mention it in my Facebook status, I would simply ask for prayers. Still, I suspect that "prayers" is a word too often said without understanding what it means--and, of course, too rarely carried out, myself very much included on both counts. After all, I confess that I had to look the word up just now to find out its etymology.
What Would Jesus Spend?
Some reflections on the article I posted earlier (same link as just below):
- I wonder if the school's Great Hall is really as ginormous as it looks in the picture.
- Here, again, my main concern is that conservative Lutheranism is complicit in what I believe are the two great lies of our society: the first being that money is a lifestyle-enhancing accessory and the second that we can play this ridiculous game of checkers in which we (in this case, "we" being white middle-class Lutherans) can just keep moving further and further out to get away from "them". "Them" may be a certain group of people, a certain category of social problems, or both. Never mind the environmental impact, never mind the financial impact, never mind the human impact. (I'm not trying to argue that money doesn't enhance lifestyle, rather that this is not its created purpose.)
- An observation: it's always easier to buy something than to be something. I don't know anything about raising or teaching children other than what I remember from being a child myself, but I think a problem that plagues the school's social milieu is using money to buy things that replace parenting and upbringing. Building a palatial school building is easier than building the content of someone's character. I'm not saying they fail to do the latter--only that the former is easier. I think lavish packaging of not-much content is fairly universal in all areas of our society.
Looks like the Missouri Synod drank some boom Kool-Aid too.
Thinking out Loud
Here are my main beefs with conservative Lutheranism. This is primarily meant as a way of organizing my own thoughts.
1) No social justice teaching
2) Liturgy/Eucharist: The baby was thrown out with the bathwater in centuries past, and the influence of American Evangelicalism is worsening the situation. Example: the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is to be the center of congregational life. This should be visible and tangible in the space of the church building. The altar--I mean, the one on which the Eucharist is celebrated--is to be its architectural focus. Don't bust out the portable table twice a month as if Jesus were coming over to play bridge. This is actually not even true Lutheran practice, but rather an erroneous one taken from the Reformed. . .but I won't bore you with the details here.
3) The WELS says it's short of money, but evidently has enough resources to sic its own latter-day "dogs of the Lord" on Pastor Mark Jeske (see below)--I feel a rant coming on, so I better hang it up. Goodnight.
Though my near-infatuation with the Roman Catholic Church continues--this evening, I attended Mass at St. Robert's, as I had the Sunday before I left for Arizona--I was disappointed by the television coverage just now of the impending installation of Archbishop Listecki. Once again, the inevitable sports references were made. I don't expect anyone (whether priest, bishop or laity) not to like sports, but I just have this feeling that diocesan officials make sure to throw in that ready-made sound bite, secure in the knowledge that the pandering local media will catch it and run with it. If I were Catholic, I would find that a bit insulting. All the more so in light of the pending changes to the language of the Mass which, I can only imagine, will make the liturgy much harder to understand for the salt-of-the-earth folks to whom the sports references are intended to appeal. It's disillusioning to have to wonder if the Roman church doesn't sometimes act like another colossal human institution that offers panem et circenses (bread and circuses) with one hand while consolidating power with the other.
And, I might add, pandering to Joe Sixpack is so last decade.
Ascension Lutheran Church - Paradise Valley, AZ
Here is where my parents and I went for Christmas Eve worship.
More Old St. Mary's
I feel my life being pulled in a direction that I didn't expect. For the past two Sundays, I've gone to Mass at Old St. Mary's. Because it's standing room only, latecomers are encouraged to sit in the choir loft. I'm fascinated by human behavior and mannerisms, and make a hobby of trying to read and interpret them. I probably try too hard to make use of my background as an English major by reading behind the lines. I feel like I'm gaining some experience in detecting the body language and communication mannerisms that convey "This isn't genuine" or at least "I'm going through the motions," especially because so much of life is made up of such interactions. My overwhelming impression of Old St. Mary's is that on the contrary, the clergy simply exude sincerity, and this also extends to the lay ministers and other participants in the liturgy.
I think one of the most basic principles of life is that even the most binary realities aren't static forever. Every so often, the earth's magnetic poles reverse. The inevitable creep of human history is that we eventually become that which we originally defined ourself as not being. As we age, sooner or later we turn into our parents. The United States, which originated in a revolution, becomes the bloated imperial mess it is now--regardless of our political persuasions, we can probably all agree on that! And, most oddly, the Lutheran Church becomes more Roman Catholic than the church down the street called...Old St. Mary's.
I think the Reformation reflected two overarching themes. The first was that the church had become abstruse and irrelevant to people's lives. The second was that worldly power structures had crept into the church and that these needed to be banished. Unfortunately, I am coming to the conclusion that the Lutheran church, in at least some of its incarnations, has backslid in both respects to the point where it's almost as bad as it was five hundred years ago. To oversimplify, the spirit that the Reformation was intended to overcome was "We're gonna tell you exactly what the Bible says, and you're gonna eat it and shut up and write your check (or put your gold coin in the slot, as the case was back then)." I have the sad duty of reporting that this vibe is still being given off--but not necessarily by the Roman Catholic Church, or at least not all parishes.
We don't have princes and dukes in our society--we have highly-paid CEOs. We glorify executives who deal in programs and budgets and kind of vague but impressive-sounding terms like "initiative". These executives may be dear folks with hearts of gold, and their programs may be wonderfully executed and originate from the best of intentions. The point is, unfortunately, that isn't how God deals with us. God has revealed to us that He identifies with humble means and that he chooses humble water, bread and wine as the vehicle by which to impact our lives. That's it. Finito. We're not at leisure to decide that we're not satisfied with this, that this is 2009 going on 2010 and we need to try to extrapolate this into a language that we understand, with programs and staff and initiatives and leveraging and lattes.
Rather, I believe that God says: "You, church, are to be about the water, bread and wine. When the bread and wine are on that altar, you kneel down and pay attention and ring them bells and chant and act like this is the most important thing in your lives. Because it is. I don't care if your budget is ten cents or ten million. Don't act like the Word and Sacraments are quaint little awkward rituals, and that you'd really rather be somewhere else administrating some program. This is My program. Do it."
The question, which is increasingly not a question, is: Where is this being carried out?
The Shroud of Turin
Not sure if I should be as fascinated by this as I am, but there you go. . .here is the Wikipedia link, updated to reflect the latest developments.
Old St. Mary's
I went to Mass this morning at Old St. Mary's, as I have done from time to time when I run really late (they have one at 11:30 a.m.). I was pleasantly surprised. The new Associate Pastor, Fr. Brian Mason, is exceptional--probably the best Roman Catholic priest I have seen as celebrant since high school days. I find it an ironic twist that in contrast to the bloat of Martin Luther's day, Catholic parishes are now strapped in terms of personnel and financial resources, and it is they who must become lean and allocate those resources wisely. The Reformation occurred, in large part, because the church had become a huge financial shakedown. I wonder if it isn't the heirs of the Reformation who have now allowed themselves to become guilty of this, if only because its demographic is the wealthier one in our time and place. Indeed, something I can't help noticing is that when the offering is gathered in Roman Catholic churches, you can always hear change jingling. Moreover, if those churches have asked for money either directly or indirectly, I've either forgotten or not noticed. Such appeals are a regular part of Lutheran sermons. The apparent relative dire straits of the Roman Catholic church concerns me, but I also wonder if that isn't healthier for the church.
Attraction and Repulsion
Man, the WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) sure is doing a good job of making itself unattractive (you may need to be a Facebook user to view this link). As a translator, I am often faced with the task of conveying obscure folkways to the readers of a text. It's hard to imagine explaining to non-Christians why the North Dakota Synod isn't talking to the South Dakota synod (to give a fictionalized example). It's even harder to imagine explaining why a synod in decline would turn on perhaps its brightest-shining light, Pastor Mark Jeske, pastor of St. Marcus church in Riverwest and head of Time of Grace ministry. (Aside: I just love that picture of him.) As it happens, I attended a service at St. Marcus in summer of 2008, and decided that it wasn't my scene, not that I really know what "my scene" is. I wonder, however, if the negative attention being paid to Jeske isn't fueled by some people's carnal desire to be holier-than-thou--and I know it's a carnal desire, as I have felt it too. A human tendency to want to knock down those who are successful may also be at play, as the congregation and Time of Grace are indeed very successful.
I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, thinking I may as well drive to stay out of the heat. I had parked my car just off of Irving Park Road, and was walking back to it when a large Catholic church building caught my attention. I walked over to investigate. As it was about a half-hour before the Saturday evening Mass, an elderly woman was just entering, so I followed her. I kneeled in the very last pew to pray and soak in the air conditioning. The church was my favorite kind of Roman Cathoilc church: distinctively RC, yet not over-the-top/gaudy.
The musicians were rehearsing the music for the Mass. The music and singing were diffuse and echo-ey in the large space. The low light (the picture makes it look brighter than it actually was) gave everything a gauzy aspect. The Psalm of the day, with its melodious refrain, particularly engaged my attention--so much so that I had to look it up in the hymnal:
For a moment, I felt like I had the answer to everything, and that what my life should be--both here and in eternity--was crystal clear. Though I inevitably fall away from it, it was a little glimpse of Heaven; I had a similar experience at the church on Michigan Avenue that is open for visitors and prayer.