Few people in my life would likely make the mistake of characterizing me as a naturally disciplined or pious person. Zealous, maybe. Pious, no. I’ve tended to live life in a passionate pursuit of a particular direction only to stumble, fall, get back up, and run a different way (not necessarily opposite, just different).
Thus, it has been an interesting experience for me this Lent to spend time reading, writing, and reflecting on discipline and ascetic practices. This stumbling and turning has often felt like an aimless back and forth, but in these weeks of reflection, it has been encouraging to look back and see growth. While the back and forth has been real, what has seemed like “just meanderings” have turned out to have some forward direction.
Father Richard Rohr gives this encouragement, “The steps to maturity are, by their very nature, immature.”
As we look back, each step behind us is going to seem immature, maybe even like a mistake. Hitting our head and saying “God, I was such an idiot back then,” is evidence of grace at work in our lives. The ability to see the ways we failed that were invisible to us at the time, is a sign of our growth in wisdom and discernment. This is often hard for me to accept.
CEO of World Vision Australia Rev. Tim Costello reminds us that the Lord's Prayer "is not about us."
"This Easter we remember that Christianity is in some ways about the power of weakness — a man on a cross ... exposing the weakness of violent power. This rather is extraordinary power defined in love," he says.
Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane.
In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.
Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.
So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.
Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.
Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.
Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).
All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.
At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.
The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."
“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.
We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.
Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.
Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.
As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.
I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."
Have we made God into a monster? And as a result, have we taken the holiest of weeks in the Christian year and dressed it up as a celebration of bloody, violent sacrifice?
If so, I'm afraid we've gotten Easter all wrong.
I lead a small group discussion every Sunday morning at First Christian Church, Portland, where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. It's one of my favorite hours of the week, partly because of the common bonds of trust we're building that transcend our many differences. But it's also become a very safe place to ask hard, disturbing questions and to express ideas that, in many other contexts, might be shouted down or even excluded entirely from the conversation.
This week, we were discussing whether one could identify as Christian, in that they follow the example and teaching of Jesus, while also claiming no belief in any sort of metaphysical divinity (i.e., God). One member of the group, Heath, raised something very thought-provoking, particularly given the context of Holy Week and what it means to so many.
“If we are to believe that God sent Jesus to die for our sins,” said Heath, “it's easy to understand why so many would want to distance themselves from such a monstrous God.”
That led to a lively discussion about what Easter — and more specifically, Good Friday (when Jesus died by crucifixion) — meant to each of us, and how that understanding informed our understanding of the nature of God.
If God sent his only son first and foremost to die for our sins, then the climax of the Gospel narrative at Easter is the defining point at which we are left with what Heath called “Fifty Shades of God.”
Here we are left with what I call the conundrum of substitutionary atonement, which is the belief that Jesus took our place on the cross — deserved by us, not him — in order to satisfy the price someone had to pay for our sins. And although many who call themselves Christians claim this belief, it raises some hard questions we tend to overlook when embracing such a claim.
Systemic theology lecturer Dr. Ben Myers talks about Jesus' prayer, "deliver us," and how following his example leads us not to optimism nor pessimism but into hope.
"The prayer of Jesus teaches us quite a different way of looking at the world. He acknowledges the presence of evil in our lives. He acknowledges that there are things in this world that are bent out of shape ... that no amount of human effort could make right. ...When we join our voice with the voice of Jesus we catch a glimpse of the world as it really is — vulnerable, hurt, yet poised on the brink of redemption."
In this reflection, Rev. Dr. John Dickson talks about total dependency on the bread of life, and being one of the first cultures in history that doesn't see the process of food being grown, harvested, and prepared.
"For most of us food is like magic, it just appears — but the Lord's prayer says, No, no, everything comes from the hand of God."
If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.
There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?
I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Paul says that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
I can think of many times when I’ve felt foolish. Like forgetting someone’s name, or worse, calling them by the wrong name. Or when I read The Life of Pi and thought it was based on a true story because of the voice of the journalist.
The times when being foolish has really hurt, though, were when I placed trust in people only to be let down.
Among Christians who practice Lent, the Holy Week timeline is a time for reflection on the practices of Jesus in his last days prior to his death. Reflecting on Holy Week can be a spiritual practice to consider the place of those practices in our own lives. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus followed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday by taking time on Monday during that week to publically drive out and speak against temple-based financial exploitation.
The cleansing of the Temple is documented in all four gospels. Three place it during Holy Week. Scholars have written that this event occurred in the area of the Temple known as “Solomon’s Porch,” which was open to Jewish and Gentile worshippers alike. It was a marketplace for the purchase of items needed for worship — pilgrims attending Passover celebration, unfamiliar with Jerusalem, may have purchased sacrificial animals at a higher price than elsewhere in the city. Poorer individuals, unable to afford a lamb, may have purchased overpriced sacrificial doves. Foreign currency, forbidden inside the Temple, could be exchanged, for a fee, for local currency to pay the annual Temple tax.
It has been argued that the High Priest may have received a percentage of the profit from the money changers and merchants, so their removal from the Temple would have caused a financial loss to those in power. It has been argued that the noisy marketplace atmosphere may have been disruptive to the atmosphere of worship. The text is unclear about the exact nature of the sin. However, it is clear that when Jesus saw the market, he became angry and turned over tables, driving out those exploiting the people and publicly calling them “robbers.”
Whatever the exact nature of the financial sin was that was occurring in the Temple at the time, the text in Mark suggests that after this act of clearing the Temple, those in power began to earnestly plot Jesus’ arrest and death. Jesus’ opposition to the money changers was directly related to his arrest and crucifixion later in the same week.
While I would like to identify with Jesus in this story, I realize I am more often in the position of the watching crowd. Or am I the merchant, lining my own pockets with the misfortune of others and making profits or receiving benefits from practices that exploit?