Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Christianity ala Youth Group, or, Our youth group is such a photo bomber

A few weeks ago, I snapped this photo at a meeting of my church's youth group. It just kind of happened that the three items ended up on the table in front of me. I asked afterward and nobody owned up to intentionally arranging the items... in fact, no one else noticed the significance until I had said something.

Anyway, this is what I saw:

Each of the items has a practical significance; Goldfish crackers have been a staple of church youth ministry since time immemorial because they never go stale and you can buy them for $20 a pallet. Any wise youth worker carries a water bottle because getting dehydrated (especially in Minnesota) is just asking to catch the latest bug that all the cool kids are sharing. And candles are great because, even when you have a kid who doesn't like the games or isn't interested by the lesson plan you've written, you know that every pyromaniacal kid will be into the closing prayer when you're passing around an open flame.

But, of course, me being me, I saw these things reflecting deeper meaning in this gathering of youth at church...

Goldfish are crackers, but that also means that they're bread products. And there is another bread product that is essential to sacramental theology: communion hosts. You wouldn't be able to make Eucharist without some kind of bread product. And it's even better that Goldfish are actually in the shape of fish! I have long valued the Christian fish in my life because of the symbolic value it has had in Church history. I think I could talk anyone's ear off on this topic, if they were to let me (which is why my wife doesn't let me anymore).

That water bottle holds something essential to human life, but you also can't mention water in church without talking about Baptism. And baptism, in a youth group context, is a really weird thing. Most kids in a youth group have been baptized because their parents wanted their kids baptized. And the kids are usually in the youth group because their parents want them there. So, often, there is that common experience, but it happened when they were so little that they really don't remember it, let alone have been able to find a deeper significance to it. But nonetheless, the waters of baptism are important because they affirm that these kids are full and equal members in the Body of Christ, along with the oldest little ladies in the faith community.

The candle is our own Christ Light for the youth group. While still acknowledging all the light metaphors in scripture and Christian tradition, I value the Christ candle most as the sign of Easter. I love hearing that Christ is the light shining in the darkness and that the darkness cannot quench it. And, moreover, may I also say that I finding the symbols of the two Great Sacraments flanking the reminder of the Easter Christ Candle was incredible? I might go so far to say that Easter, when Christ's triumph over death is celebrated, is when these two chief sacraments are even more wonderful.

Now, taking a step back, I will admit that I was a pretty big geek to suddenly make these connections when a water bottle, a candle and a box of goldfish were sitting on a table. But I also want to admit that I find such richness in reflecting on seeming coincidences. I rejoice in being able to find reminders of Christ's story is such mundane things like this.

Almighty God, who made the heavens and the earth, who filled all of creation with such wonderful things, I give you thanks and I rejoice for the small things in my life that remind me that reality is so much bigger than what I can see right in front of me. I pray this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Baptism of the Lord, or, My Mentor Is Straight Out of the New Testament

I have often thought that John the Baptist is a great icon for the diaconate.

Icon of the Theophany
[yes, I know John isn't front and center, but you'll see the importance
of this icon in a few moments]

Deacons are ordained for the Word and service and these two things are incredible attributes of John's ministry. The service component is evident in scripture when he tries to describe what he is doing, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals." Now as the story goes (and as is celebrated in the liturgical tradition), John, for all his words of how lowly he is, gets to inaugurate Christ's ministry in the waters of the River Jordan. I say that's pretty incredible service. Thinking of what it means for an individual to be Christ's baptizer, I am at a loss trying to put myself in those shoes, er... sandals...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Psalm 42: A drowning deer

"As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after you
You alone are my heart's desire
And I long to worship you."

These are the first four line of a hymn that I used to sing when I was in children's choir. I hated singing this song. It sounded so sappy. I envisioned a deer coming up on a stream, passing through a dense forest and I wondered how in the world this image could have any bearing on worship. It just sounded so hokey. And it still does, if you just look at those lyrics. I mean, I'm now cringing at the way that I'm sure the parishioners loved hearing their little ones sing about their all-encompassing devotion to God through the words of this song. It must have been cutesy in a very pious sort of way.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Prologue: Ora et Labora

So, I've been reading through the psalms. Well, not reading, per say. Listening. I like listening to Krista Tippet's public radio show as a podcast. I will own this; that as a millennial, I like to be able to listen to what I want, when I want. So podcasts. Any rate, I had gone way back and downloaded her interview with Bobby McFerrin. Before anybody gives me crap about liking Bobby McFerrin, I will say that he was raised Episcopalian, so I will claim him in mock denominational pride. I also found out that he was discerning a call to the priesthood and monasticism in his twenties, along with his call to music (he could have easily done all three, but that's another matter...). My point in all this backstory is that McFerrin suggested something I found interesting.

He admitted that every morning he gets up and reads the psalms. He said that every couple months he goes clear through the Book of Psalms. He treats it as a spiritual discipline, along with improvisation, which I also found very cool. And he suggested that it might be a good spiritual practice for others, too. So I tried it

It was very serendipitous for me because I had been looking for a way to be more intentional about my workouts (no matter how strange you find that statement, please bear with me. I will explain how this goes together). I had a new smartphone and, at this point in time, I had recently found out the password to the wifi guest network at the YMCA. So there it was. On suggestion of Bobby McFerrin, I began to stream audio files of the psalms using my Bible Gateway app. That one even gave me a choice of translations to listen to!

Now, at this point, it may be good to explain what I mean when I say "I was looking for intentionality."

I have not often been one to work out, only looking to get ripped. I started working out about the same time that I quit smoking in college. I figured that it would be helpful to quit one habit and pick up another. Point is, in order to deal with the pain of this new "running" thing I was putting my self through, I found that I could meditate on a word or phrase, turning it over in my mind and examining it, letting it shed light in gradients of meaning. Often this word or phrase was something that stuck with me from church.

Well, as I grew stronger and more confident, I began taking on more and more physical challenges. I would agree to projects or helping out with tasks that I would have felt I was not fit for before until I found myself in charge of maintenance for Thunderhead Episcopal Camp in South Dakota. Let me tell you, I have never moved so many bunks and picnic tables in my life.

After our youth camp sessions were done, it was my task to put a weather stain on each of the decks attached to the cabins. It was a time consuming, mind numbing task. I desperately needed something to keep my mind occupied so that I wouldn't go insane. So I began reading the daily office and lectionary each morning before starting my work. I was thankful for this time of prayer and scripture because I was able to take from it a word or phrase and turn it over and over, like I had when I had started running.

The description that came to mind was the Benedictine tradition of ora et labora, prayer and work because that was what I found myself doing, becoming intentional about reading God's Word, offering my prayers and then meditating on it all as I worked. And so this is what I mean when I say I wanted intentionality to my workouts. I wanted a way to better incorporate something churchy into my workouts, since the work I put myself through reminded me so much of the work that I found myself managing while I worked at camp. Finding a way to attend to god's word was appealing. And the smartphone, the wifi, and the suggestion to read through the psalms came together nicely. And like the Benedictines, I thought it would be nice to have the word read to me. To heed the small voice that speaks to me.