...are the ones that make the biggest difference


New church - where do you draw the line?

With our recent move, the wife and I (and son) have started the process of looking for a church. After deciding against Orthodoxy, which sounds negative, I know, but isn't meant to be understood that way. Ultimately there were just too many little things that we couldn't quite reconcile ourselves to. But after we decided not to become Orthodox, we tried out a few different churches and ended up in a large, non-denominational style congregation. It was certainly a far cry from Orthodoxy, but it was starting to meet our needs and we had hopes of getting involved. Unfortunately, the time demands of school were too much and we didn't end up connecting with anyone for some time. But over the last 5-6 months prior to the move, it had started becoming more and more like the church I youth pastored at (here are some references here here here). Our time in Orthodoxy had given us a stronger appreciation of the intentional nature of worship. Singing pop-music to set up a sermon ain't it.

So we were going to be looking for a church no matter what. Now we're in our new city and not 100 yards down the street is an Episcopal church. We decided to try it out first and have gone for a couple of weeks now. The worship is liturgical and reminded us a great deal of the Lutheran churches (Missouri Synod) that we had checked out before, excepting that the music is much more simple. I last took choir in middle school and the Lutheran hymns were all over the map melodically, which I couldn't even come close to keeping up with. The liturgies have been led by a team of three women priests. The head priest (is that the vicar? I must admit some ignorance of the Anglican terminology) is a male but is presently on a summer sabbatical. I admit that the idea of women priests is still a bit unsettling to me, and not just because of our time in Orthodoxy. I tend to be a traditionalist in many respects and the issue of male leadership is plainly discussed in the Bible in several places. But so too is the equality & priesthood of all believers. I guess I'm fairly ambivalent about the issue at present.

However, the priestess who gave the sermon both today and last Sunday did a phenomenal job, They were on the short side, but I found them both challenging and encouraging. Today, for instance, she spoke about the congruence between our times - with all their uncertainty and present natural disasters striking so close to home*, and the uncertainty of Jesus' time, particularly with the Roman occupation. In sending out His disciples, Jesus sent them out "prophetically unprepared" - no money, no bags, no extra clothes or walking sticks - so they would see both God working in them and in their most meager activities. What may seem just like pebbles disappearing into the roiling sea, may be used in mighty and mysterious ways by God to bring about His Kingdom.

In my distinct pleasure of the simple liturgy, the quality of the homilies and the architecture (say what you want, I still think the design of our worship space is important!), in the challenge of confronting an issue I had not adequately reflected on previously, still ringing in the back of my mind are the larger issues confronting the Episcopal church in this country. I obviously disagree with electing an openly gay, divorced bishop who presently lives with his partner. I also find the disrespect the American Episcopal Church has shown to the larger and more conservative Anglican communion hard to stomach. But I also know there is a fair amount of theological diversity in the local bodies, so this congregation could be fairly conservative or at least middle of the road. I guess I'm just not sure where to draw the line. Is being in communion with Gene Robinson enough to prevent my communion in this church? Or should I be more local minded? So what are the local issues that could potentially cross the line? It seems that a lot of the issues I have dealt with previously, questions of authority, tradition and worship are once again coming back to me, but in very different forms. This congregation seems to care deeply about the things I care deeply about - outreach to the poor, positively affecting the surrounding the community, sharing Christ with those who do know Him. Are issues of sexuality sufficient to overcome those things? Where do I draw the line?

*My brother lives in Cedar Rapids and his home was hit by the catastrophic floods. He was ordered to evacuate Wednesday night and hasn't been able to get back in to check the damage. On top of that, he recently had surgery and so he's somewhat physically limited. Please pray for him & his wife, and the entire region.


Moments of Significance

**Some of what follows may seem critical of a family member, but it is not intended to be taken personally. These are general comments on our culture and the way it treats the significant moments of our lives.**

My brother-in-law got married this weekend. Overall, the weekend went surprisingly smoothly. The only blemish was an intense thunderstorm that struck Friday night during the rehearsal dinner, which really only soaked people (such as myself) who had to run out to get the car. The rehearsal dinner was relaxed but poignant, and the wedding service itself was beautiful. The words of the pastor were encouraging, gently challenging and, above all, seeded with the Gospel. The musical choices were excellent and the two singers have wonderful voices. The reception went well; the food was good, the toasts personal and humorous, and a video prepared by my brother-in-law (he is an all-things-technical whiz) was both moving and personally revealing. I look at my brother-in-law, and his new bride, in an entirely different light after seeing what he prepared.

There were, of course, highlights to the weekend, but there was a moment in particular that stand out to me.

I, a nephew and the bride's brother, were ushers, and as such, were tuxedoed and invited into the wedding party photos. I, of course, give no merit to the suggestion that there is any kind of luck, ill or otherwise, associated with the groom seeing the bride before the wedding. I do, however, see some special significance to the moment that the groom sees his beautiful, white-clad bride walking towards him in the seconds before they are to be joined. That is a moment that is shared by everyone in the room, and to me, it is one moment that most clearly reveals the analogous relationship between a man and a woman and Christ and the Church. The bride, the Church, being presented in the company of heaven, blameless and pure, to the groom, the Bridegroom, for an eternal union. I remember clearly seeing my own wife in this powerful moment; in fact, it is about all I remember of the wedding ceremony itself. My wife was lovely and beautiful and radiant in a profoundly unique way that will never be repeated. It is a singular moment in our wonderful marriage. But my brother-in-law and his fiance chose to experience this significant moment in a different, less communal way. And they did it for pictures.

The meeting was arranged in a park. A lovely park on a clear, if windy, early summer day. The men arrived about an hour earlier for their photos, then the women. The bride and groom met under a domed gazebo, alone except for the photographer, as the rest of the party waited in the seats of the ampitheater that surrounded them. They proceeded with several photos there, followed by many more photos of them and the wedding party at various other locations in the park. Photos of them in each other's arms, kissing, gazing at each other. As I'm sure you've gathered by now, this bothered me. Not only did I think they were missing out on a truly unique moment in both their own relationship and their relationship with those attending the wedding (friends and family alike), but they were missing out on it for mere memorabilia. And memorabilia they got in spades - 2 sets of engagement pictures, the pre-wedding photos, ceremony photos, family photos immediately after the ceremony and then more pictures of the couple downtown after the reception. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that their choices reflect a larger cultural pathology to prize the artifacts or narrative of a memory more than the living out of the memory-making experience. We do not inhabit the moment; we provide commentary.

There are numerous examples of this. Scrapbooking, for instance, which is a hugely popular hobby among women particularly. What is the point except to frame and narrate specific memories? How many pictures are taken with the explicit appraisal of how they will appear in a scrapbook? So too are the elaborate social rituals we engage in. Whether its the ten year old girls running up to each other squealing, the group of college-aged friends bar hopping or fifty year old men on the golf-course, so much of what we do with and for each other is not about the actual relationship. Rather, its about defining and narrating the experience of it. I had a good friend in college who moved to California and started hanging out with a group of women. I could tell she wasn't particularly happy there or with them, but she found the narrative arch of 'Sex and the City' compelling enough to compare her group of friends with the show's characters. By using the ready-made identities and relationships of the show, she was able to find some meaning in relationships she would not otherwise have maintained. The story of their friendship, even a borrowed story, became far more important than the friendships themselves. The story is all that matters! Going back to the event that inspired this post, look at the wedding industry. It rakes in billions of dollars a year on dresses, decorations, locations, wedding planners, cakes and extravagant gifts not to celebrate a union, but to tell the story of the "happiest day of your life!" It is another borrowed narrative that we impose on ourselves.

The intent is to tell the story of the event, to present the narrative to others and, most importantly, to the self. And the stories we choose to tell are frequently provided to us by a culture steeped in narcissism, greed and perpetual instability. This is why we have to keep finding a new story to tell. Each new event requires us to once again frame and narrate the story. It seems to me that we are incapable of believing in the event without having a story to relate. It is almost as if the moment becomes ephemeral unless we can provide some narrative or artifact to represent it. The nihilism inherent in consumerism and materialism, the support structures of our Western culture, prods us ever forward into finding another story to tell because without them, we come face to face with our own insigificance.

Which is precisely what we must do as Christians. We have to confront and accept our own insignificance in the grand scheme of history. We will have our roles to play, but Christ must increase and we must decrease. We are but grass, here one day, burned up the next. The story of Christ, which we take as our own in our repentance and baptism, makes us both eternally significant and temporally insignificant. The events of our lives matter but only because they are imbued with eternity. This is why the martyr can lay down his or her life so willingly. It is not because heaven awaits, but because the Kingdom is already present. My life has meaning only in the presence of the King. Without Him, all the trappings of this life, even those moments of profound happiness and joy, are but brief steps in a steady march towards destruction. In embracing His story, our story can only take a back seat. We give up the meaning of our life in exchange for the meaning of His life.