Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fasting and Justice

As anyone who reads the paper these days will notice, the current budget battles in Washington, D.C. are coming to a head as the April 8 budget deadline looms. One of the major concerns during this time is where the cuts are proposed: human services and food stamps are on the chopping block, while defense is untouched and corporate tax loopholes remain unnoticed.

In response to current proceedings on Capital Hill, some Christians are fasting in order to call attention to inequity reflected in the current budget proposals. Bread for the World president Rev. David Beckmann, Sojourners founder Rev. Jim Wallis, and NY Times food blogger Mark Bittman are all publicly fasting.

Now, I know that in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus warns against publicizing one's fast. He said,
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven... And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 16:1, 16-18)
Of course, we should not be fasting so that we look pious and gain others' respect. The purpose of fasting is to set aside more time for prayer and to improve our focus on God. Jesus' warning to not to use fasting for our own ends or personal glorification is very appropriate. Yet this is not what faith leaders are doing right now. St. John Chrysostom wrote that time spent fasting is time apart from the distractions of the world. Accordingly, in this article, Rev. Wallis says he is using his time that would otherwise be spent eating to gather with Christians and pray.

By fasting, Revs. Wallis and Beckmann are standing in solidarity with those who do not have enough to eat. They are calling attention to the problem of hunger in America, and protesting the current budget proposal that would severely reduce funding for food stamps.

Last summer, I was a camp counselor at a youth center in Cambridge. The state-provided lunches that the kids received were pretty unpleasant. Baloney sandwiches with soggy buns, shredded beets, "potato salad" that looked like a small lump of mush... if you can make it taste nasty, these kids got it. Most of the kids turned up their noses at the lunches. Some of them had lunches packed by parents, while others bought 15-cent Cup-O-Noodles packages at the corner store. A few kids ate the lunches and went back for seconds. Those kids didn't have enough to eat at home. One of the girls, Kay,* didn't have anyone at home who cooked; she got dinner by going to her aunt and grandmother's house. Kay was aware that only the poor kids ate the state lunch and would throw it away even when she told me she was hungry. She wouldn't eat when she was going to her aunt's in the evening, but when she was going home, she would quickly consume all the food offered to her.

"Hunger in America" is just a concept until you meet a hungry child. Now when I think about food stamp reduction, I wonder how many hungry and under-nourished kids at the youth camp will be affected. Maybe they won't even be able to buy their daily sodium overdose Cup-O-Noodles.

In this time of Lent, often fasting is taken lightly. We mildly deprive ourselves of small luxuries such as chocolate and Netflix. The spiritual power of fasting, however, comes when we experience real deprivation such as loss of food and sleep. Acute physical discomfort grabs our attention in ways other small annoyances cannot. This Lent, our faith leaders are fasting in order to call attention to a deadly serious issue in our society today.

I can't join them in fasting, because I don't function well with low blood sugar. But I join them in spirit. This fast is not a political demonstration. It's a deeply spiritual exercise begun out of concern for those in America whose voices are not heard. And it is begun out of respect for God's justice. God cares that all people's needs are met, and God is angered when those with more resources hoard them from others who have less. As a person who cares about what God cares about, I must ask myself: what can I do as part of my spiritual practice to model God's justice? Are any of my daily habits hurting my poorer neighbors? This Lent, I am called to ponder my relationship with my neighbors and to think about what kinds of spiritual practices might call others to do the same.

What do you think of Wallis and Beckmann's endeavor to fast? What about the connection between our spiritual practices and God's justice?

* Name changed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Perceiving God in All 5 Senses

I want to share with you the trip I took yesterday to Portland, ME. You will recall that a couple of weeks ago, I sang a very challenging concert with the Back Bay Chorale: Rachmanioff's Vespers. Well, we reprised our performance for the good folks of Portland, which is about a 2-hour drive from Boston. The concert was hosted by the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, and I just love cathedrals! They make my senses come alive and heighten my awareness of God.


Of course, when one enters a cathedral, the sense of sight is immediately arrested, and the eyes are drawn upward toward the heavens. This church's website states that it is built in a modified English Gothic style, but I think it's pretty conventional neo-Gothic because of how "boxy" the space is. Here is a picture I took of the Chancel area. It was taken on my iPhone, so it's not the best quality, but it shows how the square construction of the walls contrasts with the intricate Gothic-style woodwork.

 This is a close-up of the Rederos, which is the term for the wooden facade behind the altar. It is grand, intricate, and definitely gives a sense of awe.

"Central in the Reredos itself stands the Virgin Mary with the Child in her arms. She is known as Our Lady of Portland and has a unique quality in that she was carved with the Native American communities in mind. Her dress and hair are modeled after typical native fashion and the Baby Jesus is wrapped as a papoose. The figures of the Blessed Mother and Child are almost life-size."
(from the church's website)

 This is me in the pulpit. it's not the greatest picture of me, but I just couldn't resist. Notice the four wooden carvings on the front of the pulpit set into the stone carving. They are the symbols for the four Gospels. In this symbolism, each Gospel is associated with a real person whose name correlates with the Gospel, usually assumed to be disciples of Jesus.

This is a ceramic tile at the center of the floor of the Chancel area. It beautifully shows the symbol for St. Luke (which makes sense).
In art, Luke is represented by a winged ox because he begins his gospel with an account of the priest, Zachary, (Zechariah), sacrificing in the temple. The ox represents Christ's sacrifice. -Father Hinsperger

 This is the only picture of a stained glass window I could get to come out decently (most windows must be photographed professionally). I took this because they depicted my mom's favorite Scripture, "Let the little children come unto me" (Matthew 19:14).


This is a kneeler I found. Each one was hand-stitched by church members. The Cathedral Church of
St. Luke takes textile arts seriously, and has actually created a guild of kneeler-makers. I never thought cross-stitch could be elevated to high art! I also was surprised to see this kneeler, which depicts the Creation. I was very surprised to find that magenta can be a pious color! The quality of the stitching was consistent and very comforting to touch.

The wood carvings were all done in black ash, which is a hard wood and has a distinctive texture. Behind the nave, there is a chapel for small worship services. Its ceiling is cone-shaped and made of wood with gilt paint, which is really unique. Another unique thing about the chapel is this picture of the Madonna and child, called "American Madonna." It is the only such picture that shows Jesus as a child, not as an infant. I thought it was interesting that Mary is wearing a rose robe, not the traditional light blue color with which she is usually associated.


The acoustics in the Cathedral are very live, which is my favorite type of acoustic in which to sing. It covers a multitude of vocal sins. I did a longer post earlier about the music of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, but I will embed another video for you to hear. This is the last movement of the piece and sits extremely high in the soprano vocal range. Since it's at the end of the piece, it's very exhausting to sing, because one's energy reserves are low by that point and it takes even more effort to push through even this very short piece.

After the concert, exhausted but happy, we got on the bus for Boston. When we got there, we all piled into carpools and headed home. My carpool was headed from Newton to Cambridge by way of Brookline, which necessitated driving by Boston College.

Taste and Smell

As we drove into Cleveland Circle around midnight, my friend Mary Margaret spied a food truck that sells grilled cheese sandwiches. We were all thinking of midnight snacks, so we made a U-turn and returned to the truck. Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese did not disappoint!
James, our cashier, was nice enough to pose for a picture with Mary Margaret and Candace. He was interested to hear of our adventures in Maine and made some excellent sandwich suggestions. Thanks to him, Roxy's may be coming to a BBC event sometime soon!

Mmmm, grilled cheese... this was the Turkey Bomb: turkey, gouda, chives, and cranberry cream cheese. It was a culinary masterpiece! A person cannot live on bread alone, Jesus said in last week's lectionary reading. He was right- you gotta add the cheese!

"O taste and see that the Lord is good" Psalm 34:8

In this instance, God's goodness was warm, gooey on the inside, and perfectly crisp on the outside. Perfection.

God time doesn't always have to be when we're alone. For me, I felt God's presence in every aspect of my day: surrounded by friends, expressing profound and cathartic music, eating my favorite foods, and losing myself in the space of the cathedral. Choir tours are one of the most socially and artistically intense experiences, but I always feel closer to God when I immerse myself in music and my beloved community.

Have you ever experienced God even when you're surrounded by people and noise?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Being a Young United Methodist

Over at United Methodeviations, Dan Dick has an interesting blog post: "Wanted: Young People (Some Restrictions Apply." He is interested in young people's involvement in the church. In his post, he spends a lot of time analyzing young adults (like me!) and concludes,

"We can’t change young people into cookie cutter clones of our ideal young Christian church-goers." 
 Instead, he says, our churches should prepare to be more open to young people in five ways:
  1. make it okay to ask questions, even in worship
  2. put as much attention and focus on spiritual formation and Christian service as on worship
  3. share power — let new comers have ideas, responsibility and authority (this does NOT mean put them on a committee!!!)
  4. understand that the “radical hospitality” that 35 and olders enjoy is not the same as the under 35 crowd; be friendly, authentic, and respect boundaries — most under 30s are not coming to church to make friends (yet); they are scoping out the lay of the land to see what the church believes, what it teaches, what it expects, and what it can do to help the individual grow.  Impress newcomers with your integrity and impact, not smiles and cookies.
  5. Young adults are very interested in what the congregations knows and believes.  Anything that sounds canned or rehearsed will be viewed with suspicion.  Any question that can’t be answered will cause raised eyebrows.  
I agree that young adults are who we are, and can't be expected to fit some kind of United Methodist mold. As I said in my earlier post on being a United Methodist, there is no one United Methodist identity. There are many ways to be United Methodist, and older adults need to do all they can to accept young people's spirituality and ways of being (and vice versa).

I think that Dan's tips above address the cultural age gap between younger and older adults (especially 1, 4, and 5). These tips also identify problem areas in our churches (2, 3, and to some extent 4). Having young people as part of the local church can point out when our concept of hospitality is too narrow, neglected areas in worship, and our structure of operations is not inclusive of all age groups. These are all very important things that need to be improved in the UMC.

It is true that the aging Boomer generation holds the vast majority of power in the UMC, and that needs to be rectified- young people can contribute fresh ideas and new voices to decades-old conversations. Our perspective can help the UMC become more balanced in our outlook. And our passion for articulating our theology and purpose can help the UMC become more focused in the decade to come.

Our age group is focused on service and impact, so we can make a positive contribution to the UMC in our emphasis on mission. Hospitality immediately comes to mind as an area in which we can help expand the UMC's mission and many of us have a heart for the poor and those who have been affected by devastating circumstances. I think that improvement and expansion of mission is probably the area in which our generation will have the most impact in the UMC.

So what can young people do to contribute to the church? Show  up! And participate. If someone discourages you from joining a committee or starting a ministry, don't give up! Jump in and start contributing in the ways in which your heart leads you- now.

What can you do if you are an older adult? Welcome young people into the ministries of the church! Find out more about what our church believes so you can talk to them about it (I suggest you begin with our Social Principles). When you start to feel defensive or protective of your ministries, stop and ask yourself if the young person you're with might have a valid point. Realize that this is her/ his church too. Think about how you can make room for young people in your church.

Because young adults are not the future of the Church- we are the Church.

If you are a young adult, how do you feel about getting involved with a local church? If you are an older adult, how do you feel about the young adults in your midst? Do you talk to one another?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mardi Gras/ Ash Wednesday

This week marks an important transition in the Christian calendar: from the excitement and awe of Transfiguration Sunday to the somber tone of Ash Wednesday. Today, Mardi Gras (aka Shrove Tuesday) and tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, mark our passage from the season of Common Time to the season of Lent. During Lent, United Methodists and other Christians take time to observe 40 days of introspection, penitence (confession), and sometimes fasting.

Last week at work, two of my coworkers decided to celebrate the Mardi Gras season by decorating a King Cake. The King Cake is usually eaten around Christmas outside of the US, but is associated with Mardi Gras in the US. Inside, a small prize is hidden, and whoever gets the prize has to buy next year's King Cake.

Joey got the prize this time. It was a tiny plastic model of the baby Jesus. Not gonna lie, it was kind of creepy... they had ordered triple berry filling, so it looked like an albino fetus covered in red goo. Oh well, it tasted good, so we will probably order another cake from "the Best Little Bakery in Southern Mississippi" next year. Today, many churches in my area are having pancake suppers to celebrate Shrove Tuesday.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, so our church is having a 6:00 service for which I will sing, then is kicking off the traditional Lenten Bible study. On Sunday, my friends, Doug, Lane, Jaime, and I had the usual pre-Lent "so what are you giving up this year?" conversation. Lane said he might give up Dunkin' Donuts, which is located just outside his office building. Jamie said he had totally forgotten about Lent until that moment.

 Rev. Ann S. Howard cautions that Lent is not for our own self-improvement efforts, but is a time to live into our humanity. Her post over at The Beatitudes Society blog muses:

Maybe this Lent I'll shape up. I'll give up that nasty habit, I'll be nicer to my nosy neighbor, I'll spend more time doing good deeds, I'll waste less time. I'll really make an effort this year. And then, maybe I'll be back in the game, just like that baseball player. By Easter I will be an exemplary Christian, batting 1000. I don't think so. Lent is not 40 days and 40 ways to self-improvement. Lent is the invitation to settle deeply into our humanity, bruised knees, bruised egos and all. This kind of settling in is different from coming up with disciplines that might make us better.
Settling into our humanity like this means we can give up the illusion that we get somehow better by muscling our way into spiritual disciplines...[it] means that we can give up the heavy lifting, spirituallly-speaking, and simply receive the gift of Lent. To "remember that we are but dust" is the reminder that we live by grace. We live by God's extravagant love and radical forgiveness. Lent gives us time to discover these gifts, and live as if we accept them.

We need to examine our motives for what we choose as our spiritual practice for Lent. Expecting too can lead to giving up our practices by day 5 or 6. Conversely, we might not expect enough. For instance, if we decide to give up something that isn't all that important to us, that's not really fasting. The practice of fasting for Lent can take many forms, as long as it calls attention to our need for self-examination and repentance.

Lent is about considering how we live daily, and whether our habits and attitudes are in line with the Gospel. For the ways that are not, we repent. Repentance means that we allow ourselves to feel regret and sorrow over what we have done wrong, and think or pray about how we can do better in the future. Repenting requires us to commit to doing the right thing next time. It can be a painful process to admit we have done wrong, but repentance is the first step to healing. This first step is realizing how much God loves and values us, even while realizing that we have done wrong. It might feel crummy, but an awareness of our need for grace and God's generous gift is necessary in order to be changed into disciples of Jesus Christ.

Becoming a disciple is an ongoing process. It's not as if we're "saved" once and then don't have to do anything else. Being a Christian means that we allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into the likeness of Christ. Taking time out for reflection and repentance is a very important part of that process of transformation. Our continuing conversion depends on deepening awareness of God's generous love for us, and striving for holiness in our everyday actions is our response to that love.

How have you practiced repentance? Has it been challenging for you? What is your Lenten practice this year, and how will it help you to be self-reflective and repentant?

As for me, I am just trying to continue my daily devotional practice. My devotions call me to repentance and holiness every day, so if I can get through Lent without slacking off (Saturdays included!) I'll be doing necessary reflection.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Music as Prayer

As those of you who read my opening post will remember, I sing in a civic choir in Boston called the Back Bay Chorale. This week, we're gearing up for a performance of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, which has got me thinking about music's role in my prayer life.

The Vespers is a piece that is designed to be sung throughout the vespers service on Holy Saturday and into the wee hours of the morning on Easter Sunday. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, everyone gathers for the all-night vigil about 10 or 11 PM, and it finally ends at about 4 AM. Then after church they have a huge feast to celebrate Christ's resurrection, including the congregation's traditional foods. One of my Greek Orthodox friends told me about chowing down on all her Greek favorites, then slinking home around 7 or 8 AM, exhausted. No wonder she usually spends Easter Sunday sleeping!

This concert is a real challenge because it is sung in Old Church Slavonic, which was a regional dialect of Greek used in the 9th c. CE to translate the Koine Greek of the Bible into a Russian equivalent (basically, it's a transition language that's dead except for liturgical use, like Latin). The letters don't look even remotely familiar, and some of the sounds are hard to make. Plus the singing is very athletic, and sits very high in the soprano part, so it takes a lot of energy to sing.

Even though it is a very difficult piece to sing, I love the Vespers movements' Biblical and theological themes. For instance, #9, "Blessed Art Thou, O Lord" tells the story of the women disciples who go to Jesus' tomb on Easter morning. The Tenor and Bass sections narrate how the women take myrrh and spices to the tomb, and meet the angel. Then the Soprano and Alto sections come in and sing the dialogue: "Women disciples, why do you weep? Behold the tomb and understand: the Savior is risen from the dead!"

I also love #6, "Rejoice, O Virgin!" It's the Orthodox version of the Hail Mary, but it uses an arcane theological term that has a lot of meaning: Theotokos, which means "Christ-bearer," or more  literally, "Birth-giver to Christ." If you read the Wikipedia page I linked to, you'll read about the Nestorian controversy. But what it won't tell you is that early Christian women were a big part of the support for understanding Mary's role as the bringer of God incarnate into the world (Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, ed. Kee). I love that this translation of the prayer uses Theotokos because this term came about due to women's participation in theological conversation in the 4th c. CE. "Virgin" in our culture today just refers to a state of being of an unmarried woman, but Theotokos sets Mary apart as a special woman chosen to do God's work. I've embedded #6 below, which is short but the most beautiful movement in the whole piece, I think.

When I sing these movements, it's very hard to get everything right: all the notes, words, rhythms, and the dynamics our conductor gives us. As I concentrate, though, I delve into the meaning of the words and how the music expresses them. Immersing myself in creating the music lifts my spirit and pulls me into a more earnest participation in the story of God's love for humanity. The ancient Church fathers and mothers who lived in the Egyptian desert called this "mindfulness." In other words, the more I concentrate on my activity and doing it well, the more I am focused on God.

Another Church father, Irenaeus of Lyons, once said, "Those who sing pray twice." I think he said this because singing requires mindfulness- attention to the task, to the faith expressed in the music, and to God. When I sing, I pray once with my lips and again with my spirit.

Are there any things that you do to focus your attention on God? If you don't have your own practice like gardening or painting, try really paying attention to the music and words of the hymns next time you go to church. When we pay attention to doing even the most mundane things, we can connect with God in the everyday.