Wednesday, February 29, 2012

General Conference Book Study: Synchblog

This Lent, as I mentioned last week, I am super-busy. Next week is performance week for the Bach Saint John Passion, then I get a week off, and the following week is performance week for the Brahms Requiem (which I will be singing in Symphony Hall! So excited). That's nine hours of rehearsal for each of those weeks, plus two hours of practice per week for my solo gig at a friend's wedding, and the performances.

So blogging? Uh... not so much. I'll be lucky if my apartment doesn't look like a tornado at the end of all this.

Thank goodness there is a synchblog going on right now on the General Conference Book Study! There are tons of Methobloggers out there doing great work on the recommended reading for General Conference 2012. Each week, I will post a link to the synchblog site, which happens to be the blog of my friend and colleague, HackingChristianity. Each synchblog is a digest. Jeremy posts links of all the people who discuss each book for the week, with a short description of each. You can read one post, all of them, or pick which ones look interesting to you.

I'll be reading them along with you! I just don't have the time to read and generate content myself. Perhaps at the end of this very busy Lent, I can discuss some of the reading in retrospect. Until then, please enjoy exploring the Methoblogophere and hopefully learn something new each week!

This week's post is.... [drumroll please]

Focus by Lovett Weems
Synchblog is here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday: Looking Forward to Christ's Passion

Some days, I feel as if the weight of my own sin is heavier on my heart than other days. Ash Wednesday is one of those days. This year, I have been contemplating my sins and Christ's passion earlier than usual. Right now, the Back Bay Chorale is gearing up for a performance of one of J.S. Bach's masterworks, the Saint John Passion. Unlike Bach's other passion, the Saint Matthew Passion, this one emphasizes the angry mob screaming, "Crucify!" and the underhanded betrayal by manipulative chief priests. It's very difficult to sing the turba choruses because I have to place myself in the shoes of the mob. Suddenly I become one of the ones in the garden coming with torches and weapons... I have to sing, "Give us Barabbas!" and "Crucify, crucify!" It makes me very uncomfortable, and at first, I couldn't figure out why.

Then at Monday's rehearsal, we sat down to discuss the controversial nature of the John Passion, and one of the basses in choir said something very insightful. He mentioned that he is uncomfortable singing it because he is reminded of the part of him that has the capacity to participate in a mob... and even to murder. I think he nailed it. There is still something in me that might do those things, given the right circumstances. Even though the sins I actually commit (or omit) aren't nearly as heinous as calling for an innocent man's torture and death, they still hurt others. Every time I hurt someone else, I grieve God's heart. And I betray my Savior, who came to redeem the very ones I hurt, and to teach me the way of love... which I conveniently ignore. For three hours each Monday, it's hard to live with myself. I think of all the ways I have hurt and let down both God and others, all the while narrating Jesus' suffering and death. It's hard enough to meditate on Christ's passion without layering my failures on as well. A friend recommended this video to me- it's the opening chorus to the John Passion set to footage from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (warning: the video is graphic and not for those with weak stomachs!) and it raised the hair on my neck.

Like the John Passion, this video ends with the crucifixion. Where is the hope in this journey toward the corss? The Good News, of course, is that God has forgiven our sins. But that can be hard to accept when we are burdened by sin. Another friend on Facebook wisely said, "Forgiveness is not what we struggle to achieve for ourselves. It's about what we accept. I say this from years of trying not to do this myself. It's not easy getting over the habit of thinking we can." Well, I'm a long way from getting to that point. Somehow I think that I can just be better somehow, and that in time, I can stop doing X and start doing Y. Here's where even more Good News comes in: that the Holy Spirit will transform our lives if only we open our hearts to God. The only way I can stop sinning and start doing what Jesus would do is for the Spirit to make me into a better person. It's a hard thing to ask for change, but if I really love others as I do myself, it's important to pray for transformation.

Lent is a time for transformation. Some people strive for transformation by giving up something or taking on a new spiritual practice during this time. This year, I have no extra time to add a practice- it's all I can do to maintain my current devotions. So I'm trying to do just one thing: to set aside my ego and open myself to the Spirit's work in my heart. Even in the painful times when I have to think about how Jesus was scourged and crucified, and when I have to contemplate my sins, I want to listen for the Spirit in my life. Sometimes I mourn with Mary, and sometimes I deny like Peter. But even in those moments, the Spirit is there with me because She never gives up on anyone. It's harder to adopt a practice that has no set time of day or week, and that is more about an inner posture than an outer habit. But I think it's time for a challenge.

What are you doing to observe Lent this year? How are you looking forward to the cross during these forty days in the wilderness with God?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Holy Spirit and the Feminine Divine

Recently, John Piper made a comment that has the Christian blogosphere in a tizzy over issues of gender once again: that "Christianity has a masculine feel" that is God-given. One of my favorite Evangelical bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, notes, "This is... a dismissive, hurtful way to speak about women, who Piper seems to have forgotten were also created in the image of God, were appointed by God as leaders at critical times in the history of Israel and the Church, and were the first to whom Jesus appeared when he inaugurated his new Kingdom on Resurrection Day." Rachel makes a good point. She has also called for male bloggers to write about feminine images of God or that celebrates women's role in the church. You can read the many wonderful responses by Christian men here. While I'm not a man, I wanted to contribute to the discussion because I came from an Evangelical background, and it took me almost 20 years to discover feminine images for God in the Bible. I just wasn't encouraged to read them very often before. And when I did, some of them didn't resonate with me.

But then it hit me: Christians have been worshiping the feminine divine for centuries, in the person of the Holy Spirit. Before you object that the Holy Spirit doesn't have a gender, I want to point out that God doesn't have a gender either, and Jesus only had a gender while on earth, but we tend to ascribe masculine characteristics to them and to refer to them as He. Also note that the Patristics (whom John Wesley studied avidly) referred to the Holy Spirit as She, including Clement of Alexandria, who envisioned the Spirit as mother.

I'd also like to point out the role of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). If you sit down and read Proverbs, you will find wisdom is personified  as "She." You can see this right away in Proverbs 1:20-23, for instance. The wisdom passed down from generation to generation in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and other books is revered in Jewish culture. Like the Jews, we believe that wisdom flows from God and the wisdom that we can attain is given by God. Proverbs 8:22-31 references this feminine voice, "Woman Wisdom" as she is sometimes called, and indicates that She was there in the beginning with God, when God was creating the world. Genesis 1:1 says that God's Spirit moved across the waters of the deep, before the world was formed.

Some Christians today interpret these verses as referring to the Holy Spirit, others interpret them as referring to  Jesus Christ, and still others say that Woman Wisdom merely personifies one of God's many attributes. But whichever interpretation you choose, each one acknowledges a feminine dimension in one Person of the Trinity. Personally, I prefer to interpret a connection between the Holy Spirit and Woman Wisdom because of the idea of Holy Spirit as breath/ wind as described by Catherine Keller, one of my favorite theologians, in her books On the Mystery and Face of the Deep.

Keller emphasizes that, as Spirit, God is wholly Other to us. Unlike Jesus, the Spirit has never been embodied. While the Bible imagines God as a mother, a warrior, a woman looking for a lost coin, a shepherd, and a father, except for Woman Wisdom, biblical  images for the Spirit are non-human: wind, fire, dove.  And yet, the Spirit is intimately involved in our lives: She resides with us in this time between the ascension of Jesus and his return. The Spirit is here with us in the everyday spaces of life, the nitty-gritty of our routines and personal struggles. Although the Holy Spirit is most definitely Not Us, the Spirit is always With Us. The Spirit is powerful. Like a mighty rushing wind, the Spirit whooshes into our lives, pushing us to be who God created us to be. Like tongues of fire, the Spirit gives us new words to speak into a world of pain and darkness. If we try to ignore these nudges and the words given to us to speak, the words will come out anyway. Anyone who has ever been called to ministry or who has ever done or said something prophetic knows that! The same power of the Holy Spirit that transforms lives in Christ is the power of the Spirit to propel us to action. In manner of speaking, the tongue of fire above our head becomes the fire in our belly to do mission.

Who is this Person, whom I do not know and can barely comprehend, who has changed my life and transformed my very self? Who is this Person who gave me gifts to live out my call to ministry, thereby making me who I am? Somehow the Spirit has always known me better than I have known my own self, and who has breathed over me every day, on my best days and my worst days. Like women everywhere, this Spirit cannot be stereotyped, tamed, or put in a box. The Holy Spirit Is Who the Holy Spirit Is, and all we can do is come along for the ride of discovering Her. Try and put the Spirit in a box, and She will burst it open and burn it down. The Spirit is wild and powerful, yet She accomplishes the slow, gradual work of transforming our lives. Gently cradles our hearts each day, the Spirit knows us so well that She "intercedes with sighs too deep for words" at the throne of God during the times when we have no strength left to pray (Rom. 8:26).

So many women I know hold together strength and fragility, power and vulnerability, fierceness and gentleness, Otherness and intimacy. Somehow the Holy Spirit holds all of those things together too. One can't take some of these attributes by themselves and say that the Holy Spirit is either always masculine or always feminine. That's because gender stereotypes don't accurately represent who we are, let alone accurately represent who God is. For centuries, Christians have worshiped the feminine divine in the Holy Spirit, in all of Her untamed, unpredictable, stereotype-defying glory. In Western culture, we tend to elide the Spirit into the other two (usually presumed masculine) Persons of the Trinity because our culture erases women's voices. But our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers remind us that to do so is a spiritual loss... likewise, it is a loss to discount women's voices and contributions in the Church.

Reverencing the Holy Spirit the same way we reverence God the Creator and Jesus Christ teaches women to value ourselves and teaches men to value women. And it is an ancient practice that we do well to observe: praying in and through and with the Spirit draws us closer to into the heart of God.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Coffee Hour vs. the Newsfeed?

I'm working on a massive blog post for next week about the Holy Spirit, but in the meantime, I thought I'd post an article that caught my attention earlier this week.

Lots of folks say that the Church has a corner on the market of true community; that in a world that is increasingly going digital, our niche is with those who need an analog haven from the chaos of social networking and the deluge of emails. But an article in the Sojo blog, "Whenever Two or More Are Gathered... Online," makes an excellent case for fellowship that isn't face-to-face (more like server-to-server).

What do you think? Can online fellowship measure up to coffee hour at church, or even replace it?