The Glass Darkly

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Happy Snow Days!!!

I think I was outside all but about 3 hours from 7 am till 4:30 today - mostly shoveling and catching up with neighbors who were shoveling. The snow was wet and heavy. I don't think I'll be able to get out of bed in the morning, but somehow time like that I always feel is well spent. The kids and I did enjoy some sledding and building a snowman this afternoon. So nice to have snow days when you don't have to go anywhere!

The Hands and Feet of Jesus in the face of Injustice

Again I ask, "how long, Lord!" How long can the injustices of oppression and exploitation continue!!! Our friend Kristen Jack and his family witnessed this on Saturday in the slums where they work and live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We saw the beginnings of similar behavior by the government in 2003 and 2004 before our return to the US. Shameless acts of barbarism still happen and go unchecked because of corruption, greed and tyranny. Voices cry out for justice at great risk.

This was sent out today in the most recent InfoFlow from the International Church in Phnom Penh. May the Lord bless the efforts of Christians in the the ways they reach out to this forgotten people.

Opportunity to Contribute towards the Evicted Poor of Dey Kraham, at ICF Services this Sunday

Cambodian security forces and demolition workers forcibly evicted 152 families from Dey Kraham community (a slum on the edge of the city) in the early hours of 24 January 2009, leaving the vast majority of them homeless. Some of the families were not able to retrieve belongings from their homes before the demolition. Officials from Phnom Penh municipality were present during the destruction. The Phnom Penh municipality has provided less than 30 of the 152 families with shelter (at best this means a bamboo platform with a blue tarp over it) at a designated resettlement site some 16 kilometers from the city centre. Most of the structures at the site are incomplete, and there is no clean water, no electricity, sewage or basic services. Earlier, most of the affected community rejected being resettled there because it was too far from Phnom Penh, where they work, mostly as street vendors.

This Sunday, at each ICF Sunday Service, there will be two ways that you can be the hands and feet of Jesus towards the Dey Kraham Evictees:

  1. Before each service, bring clothing items, new and used (for babies, children, and adults), and drop them off downstairs at the designated drop off spot.
  2. During each service Contribute in a special offering that will be received. The offering will be used to purchase food and other urgent items.

Sacredness - part 3

In my contemplation about the sacred, I've really come to the conclusion that what connects all this is the mystery of our faith. But I see two main obstacles to our acceptance of mystery:

First of all, we need to teach our consciousness to submit to the reality of mystery. Sounds like an oxymoron, but I think it takes practice. And I believe that means we need to disarm our reason. I do not mean we disengage our reason or deny it. We need to allow our reason to observe and learn from our experience of mystery. But we cannot allow it to
guard us or prevent us from full participation in the mysteriousness of our life and faith by raising cynicism or doubt.

Secondly, I think we need to not be afraid when mystery confronts us as a spiritual reality beyond our consciousness. For truly, the ordinary really is sacred beyond our comprehension. (Though I still wonder if and how there things that are more sacred than others?) But I think that true faith is in God and His work through his Creation, thus the mysterious connection between the physical realities and spiritual ones should not be so scary.

I also think there must be a mysterious sacredness to the words that we speak whether it be in our liturgy or prayers in this time and with the saints. There is definitely a mysteri
ous connection between the things that we do both in worship and incarnating Christ in everyday life that makes all of life sacred to a certain degree, though I can't say what that degree is. And as for sacred places where we stand, places of worship and places of human experience, all I can say for sure is that there are clear examples in the Bible that there were holy places of God's presence where God's people could not stand. Yet Jesus showed us that, essentially, there were no places he could not go because they were not sacred enough. Even the home of a tax collector was holy ground for the Incarnation of God.

Mystery, by its very definition, transports us to a realm beyond our consciousness or understanding. I think that for us to name something as sacred means that we hold that place or thing in higher esteem, perhaps, but we don't always really know why. It is too tempting, however, to merely pass of our determinations of sacredness
as only being human constructs or psychological pacifiers or supports. There is a spiritual element to it, thus there is mystery and ultimately, faith. There must be. Faith beyond ourselves and human experience. Faith for what can happen beyond our comprehension. Faith for even the impossible. This is mystery.

Mennonites are not completely unable to embrace mystery. There are a few Quakerish aspects to our worship, traditionally. We acknowledge the influence of the Spirit in our worship. We also embrace a communal hermaneutic. We believe the Spirit does speak through the human gatherings of the Body. This is mysterious, yet tested. And, as has been mentioned in our gatherings, an indicator of this is the unity that can result as discernment takes place. This is truly mysterious and beautiful and hopeful.

I think we could grow in the area of embracing the mystery of liturgy and sacred space. This is what started my ruminations on it all. There are words of our faith passed down through generations that we embrace faithf
ully in some contexts but not others. There are times of Church history we look to more quickly than others too in comparing them to our present day worship. We provide sacred space sometimes but not others. We give time and place for funerals and even recite vows for weddings and baptisms, but what about other functions of worship and Body life? What about for healing or restoration of those trapped in addictions? What do we believe about Communion? Do we understand what we are saying in the liturgy?

And I think Mennonites, who historically have worked on the forefront of social justice issues, showing that the physical is as much as important as the spiritual, still struggle a bit with how that can happen in gathered worship. Four-part harmony and sharing time are key elements, but they don't transport us to the area of mystery where only God understands our awe and reverence. We decorate for birthdays and anniversaries and other occasions that celebrate the life of God's Creation, yet worry that our weekly celebration in corporate worship to God Himself might get too distracting or frivilous if we "decorate." Will our sanctuaries ever be sacred places or are they still just meeting houses. I wonder.

Do we need sacred spaces and places and things? If so, how can we allow the mystery of such enrich our worship and daily living?

Sacred Places - part 2

As I continue to consider sacred places, I recall a conversation with one of my pastors a couple years ago about the church building and how it is available to the community. We were discussing whether or not it is appropriate that we lock our church. Shouldn't a church be a place of sanctuary, open to anyone as needed? As I think about times I visited various cathedrals and even Buddhist temples in Asia, there were many cases where the buildings were unlocked all the time or at least during the day for anyone who may want to enter for prayer or worship or quiet time. Are these places sacred spaces? And if so, what makes them sacred?

It seems like a building plan has been part of conversations at my church for many years, as have security issues with our current building. Maybe we subscribe to the idea that a church has some amount of intrinsic sacredness about it, but we also realize that in our post-Christendom society, that sacredness is not as acknowledged as it once was. In the conversation with my pastor, we threw around the idea of a prayer room on the side of a new building that could include some worship elements and be open to the outside while the rest of the building could be secured. I wondered how the room would be used. Would it be respected? Would there be a sacredness about it? And how does that happen?

This leads into my consideration of sacred tangibles. I've also been pondering some images I've seen in the last 5-10 years:
  • a stone jar of water where people stop to dip their hands as they enter to worship
  • wisps of incense lingering over a book that holds the Scriptures
  • a candle lit before prayer
  • scented oil dabbed on the forehead of a parishioner
  • a string of stones held close as prayers are recounted
  • a room that holds icons, a Cross, an open Bible
  • wine and bread on the altar
Are these things sacred? Could it be that the water is holy, the book itself is worthy of a kiss, the incense really reaches to God, the flames of the candles release prayers, the oil has healing powers as does the icons of saints, the stones of a Rosary are channels for prayers, a room is a vehicle in which we can meet God, and the wine and bread are the actual blood and body of Christ?

I wonder.

Even though I have had plenty of experience in liturgical churches in my family's church background, strangely, I was raised to doubt the sincerity in the worship practices of those denominations. And as I began to understand what it meant to be Mennonite, I was taught not only to mistrust the sincerity, but actually to condemn most of liturgical practice as idolatry.

Sadly, I was taught that
the repetitious liturgy recited or read from prayer books each week were empty words. Cathedrals were full of idols and the parishioners really didn't know the Risen Christ.

My Mennonite upbringing taught me that churches should not be cathedrals. They are merely meetinghouses where the congregation gathers each week. This emphasis was extremely enriching to m
e as I began to formulate my theology of the Body of Christ. But in many ways, as I later realized, it forsook many of the gifts of the Body and the acknowledgment of how humans learn.

The issue was with the tangibles -- those things we touch and experience with our five senses. The Mennonite Church gradually began allowing the use of symbols or decor in homes, but somehow portrayed it as sacrilegious if used in the church building. There was very little room for the artistic and educational richness in symbols. Everything was pragmatic and concrete. A basin and towel was just that, a basin and tow
el used to wash feet. They were merely instruments to teach humility. Grape juice and bread -- just food. The elements themselves were not sacred, rather one's obedience in partaking them in the context of the congregation was important.

I'm not sure what people were taught in relation to the Holy Scriptures. I have met people who see their Bible as a sacred part of their life, and, for example, would never think of allowing it to even lay on the floor. They may keep it lying on a table in a special place in their room. Others I know use the Bible more as a reference book. They may have several in their homes in different translations and sizes. While the Scripture may be sacred to them, the book itself is not so much. Are our Bibles sacred? And if so, what does that mean or how should that impact how we treat them?

I recently sat with a deeply spiritual woman dying of leukemia. There were candles lit in her room and a faint smell of incense in the air. She had icons hanging on her door and IV bottles. Her relatives brought her a very special oil and Rosary with very holy stones from the Jordan river in the Middle East. These tangibles brought the woman peace and assurance. She knew she would be healed; there was no question. And so far she is doing well.

When I spoke to Mennonites about how to encourage her to have peace and assurance, they used language like, "she certainly has a strong faith." "We can pray for her to have peace and assurance." "We can only hope that her trust in these things will help her." I detected little to no acknowledgment that the tangibles held any sacredness in and of themselves. It was as if healing centered on faith alone and the physical presence of particular things in the room were irrelevant.

Yet I wonder.

And other images flash through my mind:
  • a burning bush around which was said to be holy ground
  • a wooden rod that sprouted
  • a man struck dead after touching the Ark of the Covenant
  • the cloak of a prophet passed on
  • a fish that carried a missionary
  • the river where a leper was cleansed
  • mud on the eyes of a blind man
  • a sick woman touching Jesus' cloak
There are many others that could be listed. But I'm thinking about how the ordinary somehow becomes sacred and how that affects us both physically and spiritually. How does this happen? Are they merely human constructs? Or are there truly holy places and spaces and things? When do physical realities become sacred?

And perhaps a more important question is, what about our spirituality or faith do we miss out on when we fail to recognize the spiritual realities in the physical?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sacred Places - part 1

I have been pondering various aspects of sacred places, sacred spaces and sacred things. I have many thoughts I want to record as I consider how "sacredness" fits into my experience and theology. This past week I was considering what kind of places have been sacred to me and why.

I was digging through a closet at church the other day. . . candles, matches, various candle holders, centerpieces for the altar, fabrics . . . lots of "stuff" that can look so ordinary, yet take on a kind of holy purpose on a Sunday morning. I don't know what it was, maybe the look of the lines of white candles or the concentrated smell of such items that suddenly transported me back about thirty years to my childhood.

I was about eight or nine years old, standing in a back room off the front of the sanctuary at the United Methodist church where I was baptized and first
became a member. The room was mostly empty. A closet held some vestments and the counter before which I stood held a few red Bibles and covered a cabinet with lots of candles, doilies and green and red silk drapes for the altar and pulpit areas. I was putting on a white gown and reviewing in my mind how to operate the long, well-used, brass-colored lighter I was holding for the candles at the front of the sanctuary. I was an accolade, a role I don't think I ever fully understood and had forgotten about until just the other day.

Even though I did not understand the reasons we had such roles and decor in the church, I still held a certain sense of sacredness for that place: the sanctuary with its pews; the Cross at the front with red light streaming in around it from the stained glass on either side; the railing across the front of the "stage area" behind which steps continued upward to two pulpits, one on either side; and then pews behind the right pulpit for the various participants in the service and the organ and piano behind the pulpit on the left. I stood up there many times as a child for recitations, song leading, plays/programs, and even when I first responded to an altar call as a very young child during a week of evangelistic services.

I loved that place bot
h when it was full of people but also when it was empty. Something about it felt sacred in the quietness after everyone left. Solitude is sacred to me. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe because it provides space to sit and think and reflect. I can clear my mind of all the junk that accumulates in the course of human contact--regretful words, hurt, confusion, busy-ness. In the quiet I can just think and pray.

As both a student and teacher, I always cherished the solitude after school walking through darkened rooms and halls after students and teachers had mostly left. As a child, I spent hours sitting by myself outside where the trees and fields and stars and clouds became my sanctuary. I also loved the solitude of the church building after most people had left or when I accompanied my mother there during the week to work on children's ministry stuff. I explored every corner of it, always stopping to stand in awe of the large painting of Jesus praying over Jerusalem or looking into the sanctuary from the doors, or singing and praying from the piano at the front. It was a time of renewal and peace for me. There was something holy about those places and times.

I've been thinking about sacred space and places and things lately. I wonder what makes places and tangibles sacred? Is there really such a thing? Is it just a psychological thing or is it spiritual as well?

Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but something about humanity itself has taken on more of a sacredness to me in recent years. As I drove home from church on Sunday, I was aware of the people in every car I passed. I wondered about what they were doing and what they were thinking about. There was an awe that came over me of God's incredible love for all of them and how I so much wanted them to feel and live in that love.

I realized that, contrary to what I always thought, it may not just be the solitude of places that has made them sacred to me. I think the fact that people, God's creation inhabits there has something to do with it too. And when God's Creation leaves, a sacred presence remains. God's presence in all that was there is still there and makes that place holy. The words that had been spoken, the sounds, the human silliness, the chattering of birds in the trees, the reverence, the worship, the learning, the cooperation, the love . . . all that happens, be it in the fields, in a school or in a church sanctuary somehow remains there for God to wash over and cleanse and sanctify. I can't explain it adequately, but there seems to be something holy about that. And I have found that being in those places nourishes my soul. I can feel God's incredible love for His Creation, His delight in communion with His Creation and His desire for reconcilliation with all of Creation.

I'm not sure how this relates to all my other reflections on sacredness, but maybe after I organize my thoughts in writing, I'll get a better sense of how it all fits.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Can't help but love the new "First Family?"

I've been trying to decide how I should frame this post since Tuesday. I am so full of excitement, admiration and love for this new "First Family." I don't know that I ever sat in front of the TV for so long before (well as much as I could between interruptions by children) just wanting to drink deeply from the moment: people's reactions and feelings, the visuals of the various participants, the places and their significance for this country . . .

I started a running list of the reasons I feel such respect and admiration for President Obama and his family.

1. I love the fact that they are a young family trying to raise their daughters to be respectful and responsible. Of course many comment on how adorable the girls were on Tuesday!

2. I enjoy Michelle Obama's efforts to shorten the pedestal on which people have placed them by pointing out the ways they are
ordinary -- or rather what Americans like to see as ordinary: a devoted family, a fun-loving couple and committed, hard-working citizens.

3. I admire Barak Obama's consistent efforts to remain respectful, even when he disagrees. It was clear that Vice President Joe Biden's jab yesterday at Chief Justice Robert for stumbling during the presidential oath did not please Obama.

4. I appreciate Obama's intentionality toward inclusion. He reportedly mentioned to GW Bush that he may be calling President Bush for advice in the coming days/months . . . interestingly, however, Bush's response made it clear that no, Obama would not need his advice and should depend on the advisors of his own administration now
. Even so, I appreciate Obama's desire to find the good in people, and maintain relationships, even those with whom he so starkly contrasts.

5. I am energized by President Obama's global view through both his upbringing and acceptance of diversity. He knows how to capitalize on the diverse views, cultures, languages and backgrounds that make up the American people and their neighbors around the world. He is certainly not an Isolationist, rather has the courage to engage the issues and see the value in diverse perspectives.

6. As a result of #5 I feel comfortable and confident in President Obama's approach to international diplomacy. We might not come off looking like a superpower "over" others as much . . . but that is fine with me. I do trust, however, that we, as America under Obama's leadership, will exhibit respectful power to work "with" others in the international community, and for that I am so relieved.

7. I'm understanding more why people keep commenting on the "generational shift" that has occurred. Obama understands the mind-set of the generation above him, but also that of the younger generations. A few funny indicators I've thought about include technology. Like many in and around my generation who are so inclined and can afford to do so, he depends on his BlackBerry (I guess not anymore due to security reasons). Also, his campaign wisely utilized Facebook and blogging to connect to those even younger.

8. He is both self-aware and worldly aware so can connect across age, culture, but also economic barriers. His humble upbringing along side his experience living and working in Chicago stand in sharp contrast to his elite education. Yet all of that gives him extremely unique abilities to relate to people of all walks of life.

9. I loved the inaugural ceremony on Tuesday. The language was gracious an
d the spirit was uplifting.
"We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where the son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven . . . When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us."
(words from the Invocation by Pastor Rick Warren)
"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things . . . And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity . . . For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness . . . We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth . . . This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny . . . and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
(excerpts from President Obama's speech)

"What if the mightiest word is love?"
(Praise Song for the Day, poem written and recited by Elizabeth Alexander)

"And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance . . . With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream."
(excerpts from the Benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery)

10. Finally, I can't help but smile to see that President Obama is left-handed. Actually, he joins 5 other presidents in this trait since WWII. Even though left-handedness has not always been accepted, I've always had this secret belief that left-handers are blessed in that they potentially can utilize more of their brains. Language is a left-brain function, but in lefties, it develops in both halves which, most researchers say, are more symmetrical in lefties. And Obama's left-handedness is a bit telling of his age, for my mother, a generation ahead of him, was a left-hander until she was severely disciplined in school penmanship classes, after which she had to re-train to being right-handed. What subtle freedoms we can enjoy these days! :-)

And so, back to Tuesday . . .

Tuesday was a cold day -- one on which many courageous people braved the temperatures to stand in that place, to experience what it is like to not just view history, but feel it and be a part of it. That evening, however, I was reminded that history is always remembered from the perspective of the writer. I was sitting in a Pep Boys Auto Store for 2 hours because the cold temperatures killed my mom's car battery. As I waited, I watched the newscasts recount the day. The father of a family sitting next to me also watched the reports. He shook his head a number of time disapprovingly and at one point said under his breath, "It's scarey!" I could not read his mind to know exactly what scared him. But his demeanor made it clear that he could not see nor feel the joy and hope that day brought, only the fear he had been told to hold for too long.

I could hardly contain myself, but I don't always have the courage to engage diverse viewpoints. I wanted to say, "there are many reasons this new 'first family,' has restored hope and faith and courage in me and in much of this country. Don't allow cynicism or fear to blind you!" At some point, we all need to make the choices between despair or joy, fear or faith, hate or love. For too long I was tempted with the former. Now is the time to take heart and live out the latter, what we know brings life and shines hope.