The Church Calendar (11)

The following piece was written a long time ago (at least five years).  At the time I was Brethren in Christ, but torn between the appeal of the liturgical tradition(s) and unprogrammed worship practiced by Quakers.  At some level I am still torn; there is a lot to learn from our liturgically oriented brothers and sisters, as the paragraphs below show.

 The Church Calendar

 I cannot recall my first observation of Advent. I suspect it was without frills: five candles surrounded by evergreen sprigs, accompanied by hopeful sermons about divine love. Recently Advent has become more elaborate: five drip-less candles, well-ordered evergreen all around the sanctuary, a Christmas tree, dozens of poinsettias, and sermons focusing on hope, divine love, and the incarnation. For weeks, I am encouraged to prepare for the Lord’s advent. The church looks, smells, and sounds good.   Preparation is the watch word.

Imagine my shock upon learning the “church calendar” celebrates the life and death of St. Stephen on December 26. In 24 hours, we rush from loving and innocent images of a new born child to the bloody fatal stoning of the first Christian martyr. And there is more: December 27 celebrates the life of St. John the Evangelist who was exiled and imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos. In 48 hours, “high church” Christian worship focuses on birth, death, and imprisonment. Unfortunately, the calendar doesn’t take a break from this litany of suffering. The Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod the Great in his zeal to kill baby Jesus, is held on December 28. A birth, a martyrdom, an imprisonment, and a massacre within 72 hours. I still haven’t found anything to prepare me for that.

I often ponder these four “holidays,” asking, “What were they thinking when they compiled the liturgical calendar?” I don’t know. But I think they were insightful. Just because God appeared as an infant and lived among us doesn’t mean evil disappeared. We have, and always will have, to contend with the likes of King Herod. But Advent tells us we aren’t alone in this world where evil also exists. And St. John the Evangelist’s inclusion reminds us that we have an important role: we are witnesses to the fact that God’s chosen is the source of life, even in the midst of pain, suffering, and exile. That was John’s message in his gospel (John 20:31). Finally, St. Stephen’s day reminds us that the baby born yesterday grew up. And when he learned to speak, he said, “Take up your cross, and follow me” – a call to imitate him in our pained, yet loved, world.

Back to the Homeland (10)

A little over eleven years ago my family and I were preparing for a sabbatical year in Clydebank, Scotland.  My employer had very generously arranged for me to have the entire year off to write and pastor a small congregation.  (There you go Helena: something nice about my employer.)

Years before I had opened a Royal Bank of Scotland account.  Part of our preparation for the year was to contact the bank to learn how to best reactivate the account so we could use it upon our arrival.  So, I rang the bank, and spoke to the branch manager’s administrative assistant.  What I thought would be a quick conversation was not.  I would ask her a question, she would ask the manager, then she would give me the manager’s answer.  This process was repeated for about 15 minutes.  I would later learn that such a long drawn out process was par for the cultural norm in Scotland.

Once all my questions had been answered and I was about to say a final thank you and hang up, the strangest thing happened.  The young administrative assistant said, “So, you’re coming home then?”  I was confused.  We had conversed for 15 or more minutes.  I didn’t pretend to be a Scot, and I certainly didn’t use a lame Scottish accent to impress my banker.  I mumbled, “Pardon?”  “You are coming home, Mr. McDermond.”  I explained I was an American and my father’s family left Scotland well over two hundred years ago.  Her matter-of-fact response: “Yes.  I understand, but you are coming home now.”

And then it hit me.  Because of the highland clearances, a very dark period in Scotland’s history, there are more people of Scots ancestry living outside of Scotland than those living in Scotland.  And the general thinking of those in Scotland is that once you were a Scot you are always a Scot…no matter how long you have been away.  And so I responded, “Yes. Yes, indeed, I am.”

I leave for Glasgow in three hours.   My traveling companion is Duncan, our youngest son.  He claims he can’t recall very much from our year in Clydebank.  I think this is a cleaver ploy to visit the UK.  I hope the people in the homeland haven’t changed their minds.  I will be out of touch for nine days, but taking notes on the trip as fodder for a couple of future blogs.  Until then…

I Think Yesterday was a Sign I am Getting Old…and Starting to Mellow (9)

Yesterday left me so unbelievably confused.  There were points where I was beginning to think I was losing my mind.  I simply couldn’t grasp what was happening.  As you recall, on Thursday, June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court announced their decision on the legality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), as it is legally known, or ObamaCare, as it is politically known.

My initial confusion came while watching the news services.  They were all telling me that SCOTUS had upheld the Act’s legality…well, all except Fox.  At first Fox reported the law was struck down.  But I digress.  I could not, for the life of me, figure out who the “h-e-double hockey sticks”, SCOTUS was.  The only Scotus I knew was John Duns Scotus, O.F.M.  Duns Scotus was one of the most important theologians of the high middle ages and a Scotsman.  He died in 1308.  I was fairly confident he didn’t give a rip about ACA let alone have the authority to uphold or overturn the law.  Then it dawned on me: Supreme Court of the United States.  I get it.  Unfortunately, things didn’t improve.

There was a bunch of spleen venting on Facebook.  I seriously considered turning off the computer, but I didn’t.  While what ensued was confusing, I also thought it was delightfully amusing as well.  In the past, when I was younger, I would have been irate.  Not yesterday.  I was amused.  And confused.  My favorite was a collection of FB postings from people who hated the decision and wanted to move to a country that fell more in line with their worldview: Canada.  The problem is many, if not all, of these folks seemed really, really conservative.  Canada, if you didn’t know, isn’t.  For example, Canada has “socialized medicine”.  The great irony is that many of those who despised SCOTUS’ decision thought the USA had just hit socialist rock bottom.  Their solution to avoid American socialism was to voluntarily accept Canadian socialism.  Confused.

By the way, everyone who glibly announces Obama is a socialist and dragging us down into the vortex of socialist horror really confuses me.  I admit I was not a political science major in college.  I have read neither The Communist Manifesto nor The Wealth of Nations, but I am fairly confident that the good old US of A is firmly in the capitalist camp and not about to switch allegiances anytime soon.  The reason I know this: I lived in England from 1982 to 1987.  This, of course, was in the dark period of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. (That sentence is a big hint as to my political leanings.) The Labour Party that opposed her and the Tories were, for the most part, REAL socialists.  Trust me.  Tony Benn, Michael Foot, and Neil Kinnock make President Obama look like Orin Hatch…relatively speaking.  Confused.

I was also confused by the fact that in addition to not fully grasping what Canada or real socialists are “about”, some of my fellow Americans don’t even get what WE are “about”.  I fully understand how one might misunderstand Canada.  It is, after all, that remote, exotic and mysterious place to our north. (Note to any Canadians who read this: that previous sentence was meant as a compliment.)  But at least try to grasp the basics of your own nation, please.  One guy wrote on FB that he was going to Canada and coming back “in four months when he (Obama) was out of office.”  Ahhhh.  Four months from June 28 would be roughly October 28 or nine days before the election which will determine if Obama continues or ends his presidency in January, 2013.  If that guy carries through on his wishes, he is gonna waste a lot gas driving back and forth to Canada.  Confused…but seemingly not as confused as that guy.

I am most confused by the assumption by many people that yesterday’s SCOTUS decision is evidence that the American system is hopelessly broken.  I thought it showed the system works pretty darn well.  Certainly it works as well as the founding fathers had hoped.  ACA was passed by BOTH the Senate and House of Representatives, and then signed by the President.  Admittedly, the process was partisan, but that doesn’t mean the overall system is flawed.  It simply means it is time for our elected officials to start working together for the common good and stop working to get their party re-elected.  The real evidence that the system works beautifully was clear yesterday.  People who didn’t like it had the right to challenge it.  They did.  The neutral SCOTUS ruled that the “rules” were followed and ACA was valid.  Whether you like it or hate it, it was the product of a system which was followed.  It is the product of a system that works.  Even better, and not at all confusing in my mind, is the fact that the SCOTUS was evenhanded in its decision.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed by Ronald Reagan, moderate Republican, voted against it.  Kennedy is widely viewed as a moderate on the court.  He is often the “swing vote.”  And Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by George W. Bush, conservative Republican, voted for it.  Roberts is clearly viewed as a conservative.

Ultimately, we should be grateful we live in a country that is guided by the rule of law and has a system which fairly determines the validity of new laws as well as any human beings can.  We could, on the other hand, live in Syria or Somalia or Burma.  That would be very confusing.

Why I Find Quakers and Their Theology Intriguing (8)

For roughly 37 years I claimed to be an Anabaptist with a strong “overlay” of Pietism, which is a kinda precursor to evangelicalism.  However, for the past ten years I have found myself more and more unsettled with my “tried and true” religious orientation.  I have changed and so has “my” denomination.  In particular, I found the worship within the tradition to be very wordy, but lacking engagement with God.  Additionally, it seemed as though we were collectively cutting the ethical orientation of the Gospel’s anchor loose from the evangelism boat which dominated the Church’s agenda, thus resulting in our drifting on the currents of cultural engagement trends.  In other words, we fixate on evangelism, but seemingly we are not very interested in discipleship.

Since August, 2011 I have been attending an unprogrammed local Quaker meeting.  The Quaker, or the Religious Society of Friends, movement began in the mid-seventeenth century under George Fox’s leadership.  “Unprogrammed” Quaker meetings are silent as those present wait for the Light, the name Fox gave to the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of the Risen Christ, to move those present to speak a message.  Traditionally, Quakers believe God has placed the Light in everyone, but not everyone listens equally well to the Light.  Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa did.  Hitler, Tomas de Torquemada, and Pol Pot not so much.  Most people lie somewhere between these two extremes.  Despite our varied openness to listening to the Light, God still desires to communicate with us.

Because the Light has been given to all people and all people can listen to God’s leading there are no “ordained” clergy within the movement.  Thus, some people think the Quakers did away with the clergy.  However, as my (F)friend Fred Baldwin pointed out at one meeting, it is more accurate to say they did away with the laity.  Friends believe in the “priesthood” of all believers.  Everyone is a minister and responsible for embodying and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As Rufus Jones noted, “The kingdom of God is something men do—not a place to which they go.” (This quote is taken from his book Fundamental Ends of Life.  I assume he also meant to include women, but he wrote this work in 1925.)

The Gospel is primarily “embodied” in four basic ethical convictions.  Calvinists have their TULIPs and Quakers have PIES (seriously everyone should at least be tempted to investigate the Friends because of this imagery).  PIES is an acronym for peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  From the beginning, Friends have been part of the historic peace church movement.  They refuse to use violence to resolve differences.  A little known fact is that William Penn and the Quakers who founded Pennsylvania had a “non-aggression” pact with the Native American tribes in the colony.  This agreement lasted for seventy years…until the Quakers lost control of the PA assembly.  Anyone who follows current PA politics knows a return to a Quaker majority would be an improvement…hopefully.

As for integrity, Friends believe they are to live lives which are consistent with the ideals they espouse.  For example, Quakers were the first religious group to ban slavery among their fellowships.  And they gave their former slaves cash upon their emancipation.  In 1790 the Friends petitioned the US Congress to abolish slavery.  These early Friends were out of step with the society in which they lived as they attempted to follow the Light as they understood it.

Within a Friends’ gathering everyone is considered to be equal.  Positions of leadership, such as they are, can be held by either men or women.  The “clerk,” or informal leader, of our meeting, i.e. congregation, is a woman.  While she has been a given particular role, her voice or opinions are no more important than anyone else’s views.  This sense of equality goes back to the very beginning.  The first Quakers refused to “tip their hats” to their social superiors…because they didn’t believe there were any superiors.  Some were put in prison for this “anti-social” behavior.

Finally, Friends seek to live simple lives.  Simplicity impacts their places and forms of worship, which are plain and straightforward.  Their attire, homes, and vehicles are (ideally) functional.  They do not commit themselves to overcommitted schedules.  Generally speaking, their basic “life styles” reveal Quakers aren’t out to impress anyone.  They attempt to live without the multi-faceted clutter that plagues so many western lives.

My close friends who are not Friends point out that I am a sad example of a Quaker, and they are probably correct to make this observation.  I point out that I was also a sad example of a pious Anabaptist.  A better spokesman for the Friends is Rufus Jones.  His book The Faith and Practice of Quakers is a classic.  And if you’d like to worship with us some time let me know.

Summer is for Reading (7)

Technically, all four seasons are good for reading, but I find that summer is great for catching up on literature I want to read.  This past year I reorganized two courses, and that means last summer and the academic year was spent reading things I “had to” read.  That, of course, means the next three months are gonna be wonderful.  I have pulled together a list that is probably longer than I can actually work through, but I am most definitely going to do my best to read the following books.

One of my absolute favorite British novelist is Joanna Trollope, who is a great, great niece (or something like that) of Anthony Trollope.  I don’t actually expect anyone to know who he is.  She writes about dysfunctional English families.  Great stuff.  I have missed her last two offerings: The Soldier’s Wife and Daughters-in-Law.  Technically, that is the beginning and end of the “reading for pleasure” list because I will probably NEVER reference either of those books in a class.

The following texts have a 50/50 shot at being mentioned in a course.  There are three books about Jesus/the Gospels that I MUST get through or I will have considered the summer a waste.  The first is Scott McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.  McKnight, like me, is a fan of N.T. Wright.  Wright produces books faster than I can read them, and so his How God Became King and Simply Jesus will be read.

For spiritual formation I hope to get through a number of Quaker and “Quaker-related” books.  Douglas Gwyn’s Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John will be read devotionally.  The Faith and Practice of the Quakers and Essential Writings by Rufus Jones are on the program.  Jones was probably the most influential Quaker in the first half of the twentieth century, and a well-known advocate for a mystical understanding of spirituality.  For a very long time, I have found mystics intriguing; therefore, when Richard Roberson offered to loan me a book about Mother Gavrilia (Mother Gavrilia: the Ascetic of Love), I said, “Sure, you betcha.”  Or something like that.  Gavrilia was a Greek Orthodox believer who after a mystical experience sold all she had and moved to India to work with the poor.

I am not going to apologize for this: I think pietism has some really good handles for grasping Christianity.  I know some folks think the tradition is too experiential, emotional, and lacking cerebral engagement with the faith.  I think both experience and intellect are important, and I believe historical Pietism is generally misunderstood.  So, I hope to get through Michelle A. Clifton-Suderstrom’s Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: the Christian Ethic of Pietism.  If it is accessible, I will be recommending it.  Perhaps if people took Pietism more seriously, Ross Donthat wouldn’t have reason to write Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  Donthat, who is the youngest person to be a columnist for the New York Times, argues that what is passed off as Christianity is far from “orthodox.”

Yesterday, I began the program by purchasing and starting Partricia McCormack’s Never Fall Down.  Described as a “novel”, the storyline actually follows the horrific experiences faced by Arn Chorn-Pond during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia.  The narrator is an eleven year old boy who tells his story in simple sentences and broken English.  I am 68 pages into the book, and it is, for lack of a more creative expression, a page turner.

Well, that is what I am planning on reading.  I would be curious to know what books are on your summer reading list.