Monthly Archives: December 2016

Christmas – Holiday or Holy Day?

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Christmas falls on Sunday this year. Even though it’s special to have the birthday of Jesus fall on the Lord’s day, I expect church attendance to be low. Really low. Maybe half, if we’re lucky. Why is that? Let’s be honest: Christmas has become a holiday. It’s no longer a holy day. To understand why this is we have to look back and see what’s changed.

In pre-modern times, there were two approaches to knowledge: symbolic and rational. The symbolic approach was embedded in the religious stories and rituals. It was the expertise of the prophet, the priest, and the poet. The rational approach helped people understand the stars overhead and the ground beneath their feet. It allowed them to craft better tools, engineer better bridges, and raise healthier animals. Both approaches – symbolic and rational – were held in equally high regard. The same was true in pre-modern Christianity. The sacred stories (Scripture) and rituals (sacraments), on the one hand, and sacred beliefs (theology), on the other, were equally important.

The Greeks called these two approaches: mythos (myth) and logos (reason). In our modern, scientific age the word “myth” has fallen into ill repute and means a story that’s untrue. “Myth,” in this earlier sense of the word, doesn’t mean a fairy tale. As one famous anthropologist explained, it’s “not merely a story told, but a reality lived. […] It expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficacy of ritual and enforces practical rules for the guidance of man” (Bronislaw Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology,” 1926). A myth isn’t just something to be understood and believed, like reason. It’s a program for reform. It points to a better way to live.

Myths and rituals are mutually reinforcing. In ancient times the two were always tied together.  As Karen Armstrong explains, “Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it.  Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally” (The Case for God).

By rejecting sacred stories and rituals, secular modern man has lost his core. There’s no more grounding for values and no more source for meaning. Jungian psychologist James Hollis puts it neatly: “When the gods are not expressed inwardly, they will be projected outwardly.” That’s why at this time of year the Christmas cookie has replaced the communion wafer. The materialistic rituals of Christmas (gift buying and giving, binge eating and drinking) leave us emptier than before we filled our homes and stomachs with more stuff.

I’m not a Puritan who wants to cancel Christmas. I like a lot of those outward projections. I don’t want to give them up. But when opening presents or cooking Christmas dinner trumps going to church on Christmas Sunday, I think it’s time to call timeout. It’s time to re-evaluate our sacred myths and re-engage with our sacred rituals. Going to church on Christmas morning won’t solve the problem, but it’s a good place to start.

Merry Christmas!

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(Im)Perfectly Beautiful

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Vase with Landscape and Dinosaurs (2014) by Steven Young Lee

Visiting an art museum always brings surprises. Today I went to the Renwick Gallery in DC to look at art glass by well-known artists such as Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra. I found impressive examples of both. But what surprised me most were the beautifully damaged pieces of traditional blue-and-white ceramic by artist Steven Young Lee. They’re part of the special exhibit Visions and Revisions: Renwick Invitational 2016.

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Peonies and Butterflies (2013) by Steven Young Lee

Some pieces appear cracked, others exploded, still others melting like objects in a Salvador Dali painting. The combination of traditional craft and contemporary abstraction makes these porcelain vases poignant and haunting. They remind me that beauty doesn’t require perfection. Imperfect pieces can be just a beautiful and even more memorable.

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Vase with Scroll Pattern (2014) by Steven Young Lee

“Deconstructing and imploding the forms creates a visceral reaction that defies the human desire for perfection and confronts the perception of value. It is in this act that I hope to challenge and redefine what is beautiful.”—Steven Young Lee

 

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Saint Benedict’s Toolbox

What do Baptists and Benedictines have in common? Not much other than they both start with the same letter. On second thought, that’s not true. Both movements began as radical attempts to get back to first-century Christianity. Benedictines remained within the established Church but withdrew from the world. Baptists remained in the world but withdrew from the established Church. Only by the early seventeenth century when the first Baptist churches formed, the established Church in England was no longer Roman Catholic but Anglican.

I, a Baptist, find myself drawn to the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to Christian living. Even though it was written specifically for silent monks a millennium and a half ago, it still speaks to anyone who will “incline the ear of [their] heart.” In fact, Benedict offered his “little rule for beginners” as a gift to all, addressing it to “whoever you may be.”

In chapter 4, the Rule enumerates seventy-two “tools” of spiritual craftsmanship. Among these are some usual suspects such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” Others are more monastic in flavor: “Love fasting,” “Love not much talking,” and “Love chastity.” My favorite is number twenty-one: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” In chapter 43, the Rule says, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the set times of communal prayer in a monastery. Thus, the Rule equates prayer and loving Christ, since both are identified as the pinnacle of Christian spiritual practice—that to which nothing should be preferred.

One thing that strikes me is how Benedict begins and ends his list of spiritual tools. He begins where Jesus began, telling his hearers “to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.” That’s number one, and it’s a positive command. He ends with a negative command. Number seventy-two says, “And never despair of God’s mercy.” These two form the bookends of spiritual disciplines. I believe Benedict positioned them intentionally. Those who attempt to love God by obeying his commands and living a good life ultimately fail. No one can love God perfectly, keep the commandments continually, or practice spiritual disciplines consistently, even in a monastery. The temptation then is to wallow in self-pity. Self-pity makes you want to give up, feeling you’re not good enough for God. That’s why Benedict ends by telling us what not to do: never despair of God’s mercy. No one is so far gone they can’t be forgiven and restored. No one.

A monk was once asked, “What do you do there in the monastery?” He replied: “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” That’s a picture of the Christian life outside the monastery too.

The tools in St. Benedict’s ancient toolbox for monks can help anyone live a healthy spiritual life today. Even a Baptist.

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True Repentance

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Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), National Gallery of Art

The Gospel reading last Sunday, Matthew 3:1-12, introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. We need to set the record straight about one thing: he wasn’t a Baptist, at least not in the denominational sense of the word. Even though he’s called “the Baptist,” he wasn’t a member of a Baptist Church. His title means that he was known for baptizing. John turned a Jewish ritual bath for converts into a sign of repentance. Let’s keep in mind the Baptist movement originated in England in the early 1600s. John wasn’t the first Baptist preacher. He was the last Old Testament prophet (in style, message, temperament), even though he appears in the New Testament.

John lived in the desert. He wore weird clothing. He ate bugs. Some people thought he was Elijah the prophet come back from the grave. A cross between Grizzly Adams and Jonathan Edwards, John preached hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, telling listeners to turn or burn, get right or get left behind. When the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes showed up to have their sins washed away, he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

How do we know if we’ve truly repented of our sin? The short answer is that we don’t keep doing it. Since John fits the mold of an Old Testament prophet, it would be instructive to ask a rabbi what repentance means in the Jewish tradition. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, here’s how the famous Rabbi Maimonides answered the question, What constitutes complete repentance?  He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent.” (Jewish Literacy, rev. ed., p. 608; citing Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva,” 2:1).

Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes the future Peaceable Kingdom, so beautifully illustrated by the painter Edward Hicks:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

I always assumed God will take away the predatory instinct from these animals. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is that the wolf still wants to eat the lamb but chooses not to and the lion still wants to devour the calf but refrains. This is a picture of true repentance.

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Mind Blowing Art Glass

Some artists attempt to mimic nature; others draw inspiration from nature without trying to copy it. Glass artist John de Wit takes the latter approach. His playful abstract pieces blend color and texture in surprising ways while subtly evoking natural forms such as tree bark, cascading water, and bird nests. The following images are from the website of Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery, which represents the artist.

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These asymmetrical forms are both whimsical and sophisticated. This isn’t your grandmother’s Tiffany vase. There’s something more organic and spiritual going on here. I’m blown away by this blown-glass artist.

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