Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sacred Spaces

We are now living in the southern region of France called Languedoc. This past weekend, we spent Ascension Day with new friends, retired missionaries to Liberia. On Friday we had a grand meal together, and then on Saturday they invited us to join them on a hike into the mountains near the town of Anduze to search for "dolmens'. I had no idea of what dolmens were until a young woman explained to us that they were ancient burial sites made of stones in circular arrangements, usually with a large flat stone in the center over the grave. We came across 6 or 7 of these dolmens, perched on the crest of a mountain ridge (maybe the height of Montecito Peak 3,900 ft). Here, ancient peoples buried their heroic dead near to the divine, high up on wind-swept ridges. This probably happened before Christ, but shows a hunger and search for the holy with high places.
The second thing we encountered was a "minher" or a raised stone object. These were clearly prehistoric structures of anamistic worship, not unlike Ba'al asherah and fertility poles. This pictured minher was in a park surrounded by a suburban subdivision.
What intrigues me so much about this region of France is the multi-layered history that extends into human prehistory. This coming week we will be heading out to some of the Romanesque churches to review aspects of their architecture that speak of the sacred.
A question I am mulling over is: how do you know you are in a sacred space? What must be present for you to encounter the sacred God and Father of Jesus Christ? What helps your encouunter with the sacred and what inhibits it?
I hope to get to a wi-fi hotel in Ales each week to update and respond to comments and emails. If I seem slower than normal...I guess I am.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Graced by Voice-Mail

Last weekend was an emotional rollercoaster. I went back to Salem Covenant for the first time since moving to Santa Barbara in September 2005. I was invited to officiate at the wedding of a former confirmand and friend who is not part of any church in the Twin Cities, so it was ethically appropriate.
My son Isaac met me at the airport and shepherded me through the new light rail system in Minneapolis. We walked about a mile from the station to his house, where he hosted me (a very cool thing for a dad to experience; kids taking care of me). My daughter Elizabeth joined us for a delightful Greek dinner Thursday night. Friday I observed Elizabeth teach K-8th grade music at Hope Charter School in lower East-Side St. Paul, in the former administration building of Hamm's Brewery. It was the neighborhood I played in as a child, now 99% Hmong. Again, I was overwhelmed to see the professionalism and competence of my daughter at work, teaching, guiding, disciplining and engaging class after class. The wedding was outdoors amidst threatening rain, but all went well. Saturday night my children made dinner for me and we sat around Isaac's dining room table and talked and then went walking through the neighborhood. What another treat!
Sunday I went to Salem's earliest service, principally to hear Cindy Reents on the pipe organ. It was masterful and food for my soul. Unfortuunately I could not greet Cindy, but greeted everyone else around me before heading out, late, to the Bloomington Covenant Church where my broher Tim preached a barn-burner sermon on John 15. We all went out to Perkins for lunch with my folks and then I packed for the airport.
Sitting in the airport I felt like a totally blessed dad, except for one thing, I missed Luke, my middle son. So I called him, getting his voice mail and told him about my weekend and how I was 2/3's fulfilled, missing him too. My plane came, I got on and turned off the phone and flew to Santa Barbara via Denver. Upon landing in Denver, I flipped on my phone to find a voice mail from Luke. He was in Denver between flights from Kansas City to Eugene, coming back from a weekend Ultimmate Frisbeee competition. So I called him immediately. He was just a few gates away and would be boarding in 15 minutes. He would run to my gate and find me. I got off the plane and saw this lanky boy running through the crowds looking for me. I shouted "Luke!" and he saw me. I hugged him harder than he expected, but it was a dad's drream fulfilled: all 3 kids in one day, with the help of voice mail! I slept most of the way home to Santa Barbara, listening to Simon Preston playing Bach organ numbers and grateful to be a dad.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Rite of Spring

It happened again. Another Confirmation Class completed and commmenced. It was, I realized, my 26th Confirmation Sunday; from the early days in Lafayette, Indiana, to Muskegon, Michigan, where one year I had only 2 confirmands, to the 13 years in Minneapolis, where Confirmation classes were sometimes as large as 30. It's a rite, it's a ritual, it's a formality and a custom full of traditions, expectations and dreads. This year's class, composed of three students (blended with the first year class, not pictured, of six more) and four teachers, meant wonderfully small groups of students and teachers talking about text and meaning. We met every Tuesday from 4:30-6:00 pm. It's an awfully incovenient time, sandwiched between school and dinner and team sport practices. These students (and parents) paid a high price to shuttle 7th and 8th graders to and from class and get home in time for dinners and evening events.
So, is it worth it? Is the custom of pastor-taught Confirmation an outdated ritual that has little place in the emergent conversation of church engaging culture? Is it a time-sink for over-committed pastors (not to mention adult volunteers and parents)? Is Confirmation something better released into the larger sphere of youth-ministry and overall discipleship?
I don't think so. After 26 years of doing this, I have this treasure trove of relationships with 7th and 8th graders (now grown-up, married and bringing their own children to Confirmation classes somewhere). It's a great point-in-time connector between the senior (or lead) pastor and the youth, especially 7th and 8th graders who wildly fluctuate between silly childhood and profound adulthood. It becomes the time when I am allowed to put families together by visiting with students each week about life, and school and home. It's when I, the pastor, enter family streams without the reason of crisis.
Next weekend I am officiating at a wedding of a couple in St. Paul who have no church affiliation, and probably will not. Why me? I was her Confirmation pastor (and her brother's) and we established trust ten years ago in a basement classroom filled with squirrely confirmands. Now I'm allowed to re-enter a family's tender time of marriage because of Confirmation.
It's less and less about getting the material covered and all the memory work done, and more about cementing relationships of trust and love.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Attractive Incoherence

"When in doubt, obfuscate" was a humorous phrase my father taught me. When pushed by some bristly church member about a fine point in theology that I might be weak on, use some German words, peppered with academic jargon with a serious frown on your face. If need be, appeal to Aramaic origins and use terms like "philology" and "hueristic." This is the same method that the giant squids use when being attacked; they let loose a bunch of dark ink into the water to obscure their presence and vulnerability and shoot off into safety.
When I read LeRon Shults' letter in the most recent www.emergent.com newsletter by Tony Jones, I couldn't help but smile; looks like ink to me, dark, light-obscuring and quite profound. I could only imagine LeRon's impish smile as he wrote these words defending the lack (read; avoidance?) of anny sort of a doctrinal statement coming from the emerging conversation. It was a linguistic cul de sac that was quite fun to read, but disappointing to see.
I guess this could be part and parcel with current cultural trends. My wife is a printmaker and formerly taught art history at a Christian college. There she was beseiged with this type of obscuring language: who dares to qualify and judge art? where does the artist end and the audience begin? why should one culture's notion of beauty have primacy over another's? who dares to call something skilled and well-done? there is no difference between an installation of found trash and a carefully drawn portrait.
I am neither Luddite nor alarmist. But come on. Jesus was not quite so reticent of definition: "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." Now there is a legitimate place for the adiaphora, the ambiguous and the less-than-clearly stated. But the emergent conversation will do itself harm if its leaders and thinkers avoid what Jesus embraces and instead opt for a posture of linguistic gymnastics. It is fun to play with words. But when someone is on their deathbed with cancer or the son of a friend commits suicide and turns to a pastor/beleiver for help, don't turn the water dark with ink, tell them about who Jesus is now and offer the words of promise he gives.
LeRon's argument against definition is that it cuts off conversation by becoming absolutist. I disagree with that. Because I have a belief does not make me necessarily a belligerent bully. My sense of theological clarity is not a barrier but a bridge; an inviting bridge to further conversations with the hungry and seeking world.

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