On building temples

Kester Brewin writes:

The city, our whole world, is a rich resource for enquiry and inspiration. We need not to build temples, but to see the world as a temple. To see each thing as sacred, as having the potential for beauty, for transformation, for guiding our thoughts.

The last sentence quoted above could well be a summation of my goals in life. To be aware of the sacredness of everything in every moment is something I strive for. In contrast to Kester, however, I think it is precisely this reason that we do need to build temples.

The voices that surround me are those that tell me the world is mine to be bought and sold, that it is a dangerous place in need of taming, that it is crude matter trapping a higher spirit. The world is a material to be formed into a product and escaped. To be transformed by the sacred beauty of the world I must train myself against those voices. I must learn to identify the sacred over the commodity. I must grasp beauty over usefulness.

When advertising is the dominant feature of both the landscape and the discourse, how do we reorient toward the sacred? This reorientation is goal of the temple. The temple is the place in which focus on the sacred is the goal. The temple is the part of the landscape in which the focus is necessarily on the sacred. The Temple is the site of resistance to the desacralization of the world. It does not (or should not) define itself as a sacred space in the midst of the profane, but as a point of focus on the sacredness of the world.

The temple is the training ground.

I pray daily. I set aside time to sit and be in the presence of the divine. I break out of the patterns of the day and put my focus on God through contemplation. I learn to experience the presence of God.

This practice does not imply that at all other times I am outside the presence of the divine. Rather it teaches me to become aware of the presence at all times. I don’t pray and then define all other activity as not-prayer. I pray so that all activity becomes prayer. I sit at my altar and practice specific forms of prayer so that I can orient my entire awareness toward prayer.

This is the goal of the temple. It is a space in which to learn to see the sacred, not so that everything outside the temple is excluded from the sacred, but so that outside the temple we can see the sacred in the face of all that tells us to deny it.

We build temples not to exclude the world from them, but to learn to see the world as the temple that it is.

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

I’ve been invited to be a part of an online sermon series, and my first day to preach was today. Below is what I was led to write.

26 February 2012: Year B, First Sunday in Lent.

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, and Mark 1:9-15

Turning. Turning toward something. Turning away from something. Changing direction. Reorienting. Our readings today speak of turning.

In the first, one of the most terrifying episodes in the Bible has come to an end and even God wishes to turn from that. The one who is love turns away from destruction and toward love. Toward life.

What does it mean that God turned, changed direction, reoriented?

We see it again in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, after his baptism, a very public ceremony, turns away from the crowds, from his family and his people, He turns away so that he can turn back toward them renewed. He turns away from temptation so that he can turn toward his ministry.

The Psalmist asks God for help turning. “Make me to know your ways,” he says. “Teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” Turn me toward you, Lord. Take me out of my busy life. Teach me patience as I wait for you.

And the author of 1 Peter talks to us of our own turning, our baptism, “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” echoing the earlier cry of the Psalmist.

Here at the beginning of Lent we bring our attention to our own turning. We may be turning away from our evening cocktails, or from spending too much time online, but in these turns our goal is ultimately to turn ourselves toward God. Often in saying “O my God, in you I trust” we have to remind ourselves to turn away from the places where we often put our trust, places that do not deserve it.

On Ash Wednesday we heard the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This reminder of our own mortality, and of our oneness with all that surrounds us, opens our entry into Lent, into our turning. Looking at this precious and brief time we are given forces us to take note of our own direction, to be deliberate in that toward which we are oriented.

Perhaps you are called to turn away from clothing yourself in the products of worker abuse. Perhaps you are called to a clearer mind, turning away from alcohol or other substances. Perhaps you are called to turn toward God in regular prayer. Perhaps you are called to turn toward God in service. Perhaps you are called to fasting and self-denial, to turning away from yourself and toward the other, often-forgotten children of God. Perhaps you are called not to turn away from yourself in self-denial, but to turn toward the self that you or others have forgotten to love, toward remembering that you are made in the image of God, that you are holy and that the dust from which you came was stardust.

Whatever the call may be, God is calling to you. God is asking you to turn, as God has shown you God’s own turning.

Lent is a time for turning, but I cannot tell you how to turn. I can only tell you that God’s call is to love. You must listen to God’s call, to how God is calling you to love.

O God, in this season which begins with an embrace of our own mortality, an acknowledgement and observation of the brevity of the time in which this pile of dust is animated by your holy breath, we put our trust in you. Help us to walk the paths to which you call us with steadfast love and faithfulness. Help us, O Lord, in everything that we do, to turn toward Love.

Gated and Locked

In a recent post I mentioned that I spent part of a weekend going around New Orleans looking at churches. There are some amazingly beautiful structures dedicated to God in that city. I’d recently gone to a Christmas concert at St. Louis Cathedral, and while the focus on imperialism and violence in that building left a bad taste in my mouth, it also left me wanting to see what else the city had to offer.

Christ Church Cathedral is home to the first Protestant congregation in the Louisiana Purchase, and the building itself is beautiful, sitting right on the streetcar line in the Garden District. The chapel just next door was constructed in the same style, and looks to be a seamless addition. I’d love to have gone inside, but alas, the church was locked. And the gate was closed. And the chapel was locked as well.

I found myself being angry that the church was locked and that the parking lot was gated. What right do we have to stop people from entering the Lord’s house? How can we decide “church is closed”? Are we not supposed to receive all visitors, to give to those who ask of us? Are we really limiting when people are able to use the church building for worship or prayer? If anything should be open to all at all times, it is a church. To quote Johnny Paycheck, “That’s the House of the Lord. That guy’s got a hell of a nerve.”

Churches locked, gates closed, no trespassing signs on cemeteries, everywhere people are being closed out of sacred space. As I saw more and more of this, I became more and more incensed. And saddened. How greatly are we failing the world if our doors are not always opened to all comers? These churches were doing it wrong!

As I sat with how upset I was with the people running these places I began to see them as a mirror. As I plan a guerrilla art project to mark mundane spaces as holy in their own right I started to ask myself how I was closing off Christ’s church to those around me. How often do I lock my car doors, or avoid the eyes of those asking me for help? How often do I close myself off, refuse to see Christ in my neighbor, or show my neighbor Christ in myself? I lock my front doors when I leave, pretending that “my” house is anything other than God’s.

Pete Rollins has talked about how people give themselves permission to have crises of faith. As long as someone in authority has faith, he says, they tell themselves its okay. They don’t have to actually experience their own loss, because they can hold onto someone else’s faith vicariously. I was doing that here. The crisis wasn’t in the closing of the church doors. It was in the closing of my own doors. I acted as though I could do that, I could fail to live up to Christ’s standard, as long as the Bishop did it for me.

My anger was misplaced. How can I expect others to respond to the call on my behalf?

Whose (Who’s) Country?

My girlfriend digs pop country. It’s not usually my thing, but she’s turned me on to a handful of good songs. That’s what I get for writing off a genre completely, right? I end up missing out on good music. Thing is, I also miss out on a lot of utter crap, and that I’m good with.

Listening to songs about being country leaves me with the impression that to be country means to willfully narrow one’s experiences, to be anti-intellectual and to be convinced that these things make you superior to… everyone.

The one on my mind lately is “Bait a Hook” by Justin Moore. This little celebration of xenophobia sees the narrator criticizing someone’s new beau for such egregious offenses as caring about the environment, drinking fruity drinks and, god forbid, eating sushi. Mustering all his eloquence, the narrator says such a life “sounds like it sucks.” The chorus of this ditty?

He can’t even bait a hook
He can’t even skin a buck
He don’t know who Jack Daniels is
He ain’t ever drove a truck
Knows how to throw out a line, but not the kind in a field and stream book
No darlin’ I ain’t even worried, you’ll come runnin’ back
He can’t even bait a hook.

Now, setting aside the fact that the name of the man who gave us the ubiquitous Tennessee Whiskey was Jack Daniel, not Jack Daniels, this whole thing is the narrator saying “STOP LIKING WHAT I DON’T LIKE!”

This limited view of what is and isn’t country isn’t new. Hank Jr.’s “If Heaven Ain’t A Lot Like Dixie” and “Country Boy Can Survive” are two songs that I grew up on that have the same attitude. “If it’s not what I’m used to, then it’s crap!”

Things like this made me so very thankful for Johnny Cash’s words in his autobiography, Cash:

I was talking with a friend of mine about this the other day: that country life as I knew it might really be a thing of the past and when music people today, performers and fans alike, talk about being “country,” they don’t mean they know or even care about the land and the life it sustains and regulates. They’re talking more about choices — a way to look, a group to belong to, a kind of music to call their own. Which begs a question: Is there anything behind the symbols of modern “country,” or are the symbols themselves the whole story? Are the hats, the boots, the pickup trucks, and the honky-tonking poses all that’s left of a disintegrating culture? Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music. Does a certain kind of music now produce a way of life? Maybe that’s okay. I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m just alienated, feeling the cold wind of exclusion blowing my way. The “country” music establishment, including “country” radio and the “Country” Music Association, does after all seem to have decided that whatever “country” is, some of us aren’t.

Cash by Johnny Cash, pp 12-13.

I grew up in the country. Country life made me who I am today. It influenced the way I think, the things I enjoy, the ideals I carry. My favorite snacks when I was a kid came out of mamaw’s garden. I’d walk next door and grab turnips, green onions and cucumbers out of the garden, wash them off with the water hose and eat them. I know that nothing storebought can beat the taste of yard eggs, and that snap beans taste best when you snap ’em yourself. I know how to milk a goat, and that you grab her by the ear and pop her on the nose if she tries to butt you.

I also hate hunting and fishing. Hell, I don’t even eat meat. I’d rather have good gas mileage than a giant pickup. I think Bud Light is shit and sushi is the shit. I’ll jump off the rope swing into the river with you, but you’re going to have to go gigging frogs on your own.

As I often do, I’ll defer to Don Williams’ classic “Good Old Boys Like Me.”

Good Ole Boys Like Me by Don Williams on Grooveshark

So what do you do with us? What about folks who were shaped by and love the country, but who find its trappings these days to be abhorrent? What do you do with those of us who like to read and write, who’d enjoy a glass of wine on the front porch, who’d fire up the grill and throw on some tofu or mushroom caps, but who also know what shade of yellow-green means to watch out for a tornado and that when all the cows are huddled in one corner of the field there’s rain coming? What do you do with those of us who can’t think of anything more beautiful than a star-filled silent night sky, and who wish that damn whippoorwill would shut up long enough for us to hear it, but who recite poetry when we see it?

If I were a lesser person, and I may well be, I’d turn Mr. Moore’s words back on him.

He’s never even read a book.
Hides his insecurities in a truck.
He has no clue who Walker Percy is,
and probably doesn’t give a fuck.

I’m wearing boots and a Wrangler shirt while I type this. I just got an email about the garden we’ll be planting soon. I’m in the middle of a book on the lives of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and, yes, Walker Percy. I cried when I saw Kris Kristofferson sing and on the day Johnny Cash died. With all due respect, Mr. Moore, if that ain’t country I’ll kiss your ass.

Conference Christianity and Pilgrimages

Tonight one of my favorite writers on theology and philosophy of religion is speaking at the college where I started my degree. Unfortunately I live a good 8 hour drive from there now, so I won’t be in attendance. At the same time, across the country, a conference on process theology will be starting up.

I’ve found myself critical of contemporary emerging, progressive, liberal Christianity’s focus on conferences as a major mode of community building. Soularize, Wild Goose, Emergent Village Theological Conversation, Jesus Radicals. In the build up to all of these you hear things like “You’re going to want to be there,” or “If you care about these topics, you need to get there.” It feels somewhere between the advertising industry’s more common “You owe it to yourself to do this” and the more evangelical Christian “God is moving in this place.” To not go is something between denying yourself and denying God.

The site of the work, the community and the celebration is not in the churches, but in the conferences. To some degree it feels to me like “Come do these things here, because you’ll never find this at your local church.” And that’s probably true. But I’ve wondered if the conferences serve as ways to avoid making these things happen in our churches. If we get to talk about process theology once a year, then we don’t have to push to bring in into our churches. If we have alternative worship experiences here and there, then we don’t have to fight to have them at home.

Then there’s the costs of both time and money, which make the gatherings inaccessible to many. Registration, lodging, travel, time away from work, time away from family, childcare, these things add up, and likely figure into why these events are overwhelmingly populated by white, middle to upper-middle class, hetero, cis men.

And to top it all off, I’m such an introvert that being around that many people is draining.

I think these are valid criticisms, but I also think I’ve put too much stock in my criticisms.

The other night I was watching a National Geographic documentary on the Appalachian Trail. Seeing and hearing from those who were hiking the trail made it clear that the experience was one of pilgrimage for many of them.

American Protestantism does not have sacred sites, but many still feel the draw of pilgrimage. We desire having space, time and movement set aside for God. This stuck me this weekend as I ambled around New Orleans, looking at the beautiful church buildings that permeate the city. To travel to a sacred site touches something deep inside many of us, and hearing the hikers speak about their experience on the trail it hit me that these conferences function as pilgrimages for many in American Protestantism. People are creating their own sacred spaces, temporary and movable. People are building their own pilgrimages from the ground up. Whatever critiques I may have of the process, I can relate to that desire.