Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bible Challenge Week 26

I was supposed to write for the Bible Challenge blog this week, but I missed my deadline and Grace+ is on vacation till midweek, so I'm posting this here till she's back and able to post it on the Trinity blog.

Bible Challenge Week 26: Esther 4-Job 9, Psalm 143-148, 2 Corinthians 2-7

If this week’s readings have a common theme, it is the contingency of mortal existence. Read with modern eyes, it is hard to escape a sense of foreboding for the Holocaust in Esther’s story of a plot to slaughter all of the Jews throughout the Persian empire. Through skillful political maneuvering and some measure of good fortune Esther and her adopted father manage to avert catastrophe and achieve a secure status for the Jews in Persia. But this security is no longer due to Israel being a powerful kingdom. It comes instead from the goodwill of political authorities, and is therefore constantly at risk.

The book of Job, where we’ll be spending most of the rest of August, is a deep theological exploration of the meaning of suffering. In the section we read this week, Job, a righteous man under the law, loses most of his possessions, his children, and his health. His friends begin to posit explanations for his suffering, with those we read to this point focusing on Job’s inherent imperfection as a mortal and the possibility of some unknown transgression.

Meanwhile, the reader sees that God is permitting Satan to test Job. What is most surprising about this is the direct acknowledgment, in scripture, of what we know to be true. Terrible things happen to people for reasons that we cannot discern. It may be too much to say that these things are God’s will, but our powerful God does not stop them. We read in Job a foretelling of our own contingency, that no matter our efforts, injury, accident, or disease stalk us all. To dust we will return.

Yet what is a jar of clay but moist, pliable dust fired in a kiln? We are not without hope. In his second letter to the Corinthians, a loving follow-up to his reproving first letter, Paul emphasizes that contained within our mortal bodies is the spark of our creator. This spark does not protect us from being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down, but: “We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day...Because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

How then to respond to the challenges, suffering, and affliction of our lives? Well, we can do as Job does in these early chapters: rage against God - a legitimate and sometimes appropriate choice. But this section of the Psalms gives us another way forward. Psalm 148 is a full-throated song of praise to the creator from the whole creation. Paul writes that “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession”, for which songs of praise are typically more fitting than laments as marching songs.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

I Like Bar Charts and I Cannot Lie

I have been a long-time admirer from afar of St. Paul's Seattle, who I think has a marvelous online presence. I'm going to be in Seattle for the first time since I was a teenager, so I'm super-excited that I finally get to visit this Sunday.

But one thing I asked myself was whether this church could possibly be as good as its website. I'm a data-driven kind of guy, so I scurried right over to the Episcopal Church Office of Research's website, and boy howdy, was I impressed.

See that red bar? That's average Sunday attendance more than doubling since 2004. This in a denomination whose prevailing narrative is that we've been in decades of decline.

Now, St. Paul's is a progressive Anglo-Catholic parish, the kind of place Ross Douthat argues is ideologically unsavable, and liturgically is relentlessly uncool. I can't say for sure what's going on at St. Paul's but it got me thinking about another progressive Anglo-Catholic parish I've been hearing some buzz about, Atonement Chicago.

Ok, not as dramatic as St. Paul's, but numbers are moving the right direction.

And then I thought about the parish where my church's rector did her fieldwork in seminary, St. Paul's Norwalk, another progressive Anglo-Catholic place, and...wait, is that right? Average Sunday attendance up 300% over the last 10 years?

What about other progressive Episcopal churches without the high church accoutrements? One of my favorite places to visit is Grace Chicago. It's located in the rapidly changing South Loop neighborhood, and its congregation reflects the neighborhood, with young professionals and the urban poor sitting side by side.

I can't tell you for sure what's going on at all these places - Grace is the only one I've attended, but at my peril I'm going to hazard a quick guess. In a recent article for Religion Dispatches, Meghan Florian wades into the debate sparked by Rachel Held Evans' article for CNN, "Why Millennials are Leaving the Church." Florian notes, "The thing that I miss most in this flurry of articles? Mention of the holy spirit moving in people’s lives. Encounters with the living God." This insight hits the mark for me.

The Anglo-Catholic style of worship attempts, and occasionally succeeds, at mediating an experience between the human and the divine. I make no claim that Anglo-Catholicism is the only way to do this, nor even the best way - just that its deliberateness, drama, and occasional obscurity may confer some advantages in communicating the mystery of God. But Grace Church, which isn't high church in the slightest, manages to communicate this too, through extensive use of silence and through the moving practice of allowing the congregation to declare their intentions for the Eucharist while standing around the altar at the 8am Sunday service.

Whatever the style, these practices in worship - in progressive churches, no less - define a space and time set aside for the holy, offering the potential for an encounter with the undefinable divine. Couple that with a sincere welcome for visitors coming in the door (I'm looking to experience this St. Paul's Seattle - don't disappoint me), and you may have something very powerful indeed.