Thursday, March 27, 2014

Holy Lent, Batman!

The internet melted when I posted a reflection on churches and insights from Downton Abbey.  Like the Queen, I am most amused.

I enjoy exploring popular culture.  Indeed, a look around our house will merit a number of scholarly works essential to reading the Bible with the best (I hope) tools for contemporary issues in interpreting the sacred text.  I keep a good size collection of works in theology, historical and contemporary alike.  Beside me are Jaroslav Pelikan's five volume work on the development of Christian doctrine (aka "The Christian Tradition", published by Yale University Press), a book exploring Christology and Hispanic Christianity, a great volume on Matthew's gospel from a Roman Catholic scholarly commentary series, and the second volume of the "Grounded" storyline from recent issues of Superman.

Yup, I read comic books.  My weekly trip to the comic bookstore (a mere 10 minutes from my home/office in Albany, not that anybody keeps track of things like this) is part of my regular schedule.  I did promise Kerry that I will go only once per week.  She pines away for the days when we were a good hour's drive from a comic shop, but I digress....

I read a few comics, mostly from the DC Comics stable of characters.  For the uninitiated, DC owns Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and all the other characters in the Justice League familiar to my generation in its "Super Friends" Saturday morning cartoon.   Note:  The less said about the Wonder Twins and that monkey, the better.  They are NOT part of DC's official continuity.

Superhero comics can be about the "biff!" and "pow!" big battles between spandex clad villains and the valiant equally spandex clad heroes.  The Adam West "Batman" series (soon to arrive on DVD) set the industry gold standard for subverting the genre with its sly and not too subtle campy take on Batman. 

In comparison, the recent films by Christopher Nolan elevated the "Dark Knight" side of Batman's grim and gritty interpretation. Indebted to many creative teams of writers and artists, Nolan created films well suited to the mood and paranoia of our contemporary issues.   How does one stand for the right and the just when so much chaos inhabits our world?   Christoper Nolan's films pitted Bruce Wayne against the unchecked "id" of the mentally disturbed psychiatrist Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow, the seemingly immortal international terrorist Ra's Al Ghul, the brooding strongman called only "Bane", and of course, the late Heath Ledger's Oscar winning interpretation of the Joker.  

The more modern era of comics (1980s to present) deal with more adult themes, where the Penguin's trick umbrellas can shoot bullets, the Joker can be a force of terror just entering the room with his manic reputation preceding him, or Two Face is rendered as a cool-minded lawyer able to shift in personality at the flip of a coin (literally!) to become as ugly as the grotesque disfigured side of his face with its bulging, bloodshot eye.   In the Nolan Batman films, Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family butler, observed of such mad criminals, "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn." 

Reading the comic book adventures of characters sometimes depicted as cartoonish caricatures, and, in the hands of writers who have embraced the genre as a form of literature, great figures of often tragic proportions, I find myself reflecting on the sharp edges of the world, the times of challenge where one yearns for heroes and hope while others might find reason only to despair or see no way to question the chaos around them.   Characters like Bruce Wayne, who lost his parents tragically to an armed robbery turned violent, demonstrate how a sense of purpose can lead to vocation.  We may not live in a world of "biff!" and "pow!" antics, yet we do have the choice of how we live with the pain and the fury of the world around us.

The Lenten season is a time to take stock of the world.  We need the penitential edge of the season to work on the shadows lurking within us.  We need Good Friday to sober us to the fullness of death.  Just as surely as Easter is coming soon, with its promise of resurrection and new life, we have to dwell also in the midst of the world's unevenness and uncertainties.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lenten Reflections: The travails of change, or Transition Comes to Downton

During the Lenten season, I find looking at popular culture helps me connect with the pondersome questions of what it means to be human.  As Christians journey through Lent, we look at the state of the world and know that Christ's story (life, death and resurrection) is one well acquainted with the pain of the world, just as we find our hope in Easter's alleluias.  With this in mind, some Lenten reflections while watching PBS this winter:

The television show "Downton Abbey" is a formidable ratings winner for PBS stations.  Chronicling the "upstairs" and "downstairs" of the historic house and grounds of the Grantham family, "Downton" is the creation of Lord Julian Fellowes, a member of the British aristocracy himself and an Oscar-winner for his script of "Gosford Park", set in similar times and situations as Downton Abbey. 

The intrigue of Downton Abbey is less about the period costuming and customs but telling the story of an era as it begins to change.  The premiere episode in the first season begins the tumult, as the heir apparent to the estate goes down with the Titanic.  The line of succession reflects the values of the time, as Lord Grantham, also known by his given name as Robert Crawley, has three daughters and no sons.   By the standards of the era, the Lord finds himself without an heir, other than distant male cousins.   The lineage is checked, and the new heir apparent is a cousin named Matthew, who was raised decidedly with different values.

As Matthew tours the estate with Lord Grantham, the elder Crawley notes his cousin's detachment.

Lord Grantham: You do not love the place yet.
Matthew Crawley: Well, obviously, it's...
Lord Grantham: No, you don't love it. You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that will crack in the frost.
Matthew Crawley: But you don't?
Lord Grantham: I see my life's work.

When this episode aired first on PBS, I heard in Lord Grantham a kindred spirit.  At the time, I was serving a congregation whose facilities could be "Downton" sized.  I thought of the many conversations and decisions that consumed many Trustee meetings worrying about the building's rising utility costs and the major commitment the facilities placed on the budget.  I had learned by this point the grim truth of many churches built in the grand and heady heights of the 19th and up to mid-20th century:  A 19th century building was not built with 21st century utility and heating costs in mind.  Further, as a congregation's numbers declined, the building did not magically shrink to fit the present day needs of the church.

We made some excellent strides forward during the years I spent at the congregation.  Through Missional Church training, we discovered how our big building could have a sacred and social responsibility.  Classrooms that were largely unused (and often filled with dusty "church junk" that always accumulates) became space for non-profit organizations to set-up their offices and provide needed services.

As Downton Abbey reached its fourth season, the Crawley family is now in 1923.  The Abbey itself has full electrical light throughout its rooms, above and below.  The economy, however, had changed after the first World War, bringing a great deal of opportunity for the "lower" classes but a great deal of instability and threat to the well heeled landowners.  Matthew Crawley brought a willingness to change with the times, and even though he died dramatically at the end of Season Three (aka "the actor decided to move onto other projects"), the plot line of Season 4 shows how some around Downton Abbey are willing to move ahead while Lord Grantham is guarded, hoping that things will turn around and return to what was normative before WWI.   One gets the impression, however, that times will not be with the elder Crawley generations, trying their best to live the future on the terms of the past.

The stories of congregations today are the stories of times before and still yet to come.  How we embrace change matters greatly with how we manage our way through unpredictable times (and economies).   Learning to live with the present challenges with receptivity to what is at hand and just emerging makes our future look brighter, rather than with mere foreboding.  Further, while I have your indulgence, may I also suggest that quick fixes be shown the door as fast as possible!  Managing change takes time and energy.  Don't be fooled by short-term answers!

In the third season as the financial challenges began to come into view (if not into focus), Matthew Crawley introduced the idea that the estate should have a sense of cash flow and financial management.  Lord Grantham wondered about investing in a financial opportunity by some bloke named Ponzi.  Thankfully, even though disaster and heartache struck the family later in the season, Matthew Crawley's level headed thinking may have been the gift that will help the Downton characters move forward rather than flounder in the tides of time.

May we cultivate leadership, vision and fortitude among our congregants to do the same!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lent: Exploring the Familiar Anew

Noted German Jurgen Moltmann
shares his theological journey
in his autobiography "A Broad Place"
(Fortress Press, 2008)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

I have trouble with memorization. Give me a verbal grocery list, and I will ask you to write it down. (My spouse has offered even to pin it to my shirt!) When I was in community and university theatre, the other actors knew that I would have my lines down eventually, emphasis on “eventually”.

Indeed, it was not until sometime in college that I knew my social security number by heart, and only then due to the university’s practice of tracking everything by a student’s social security number. Now with the very real issue of identity theft, organizations do not use your SSN and give you a different set of numbers to identify your files. Worst of all, this means you now have yet another number to remember and forget and remember and forget.

Yet, I can stand before a congregation and recite a verse of scripture. How? When all manner of things, including even other verses of scripture, seem to defy memory, I can recall this verse without pause. I suppose it has to do in part with repetition. I eventually got my SSN down. I eventually memorized my lines by opening night.

Over the years, the verse known as “John 3:16” was impressed upon me by repetition, through children and youth education, sermons, music, church newsletters, you name it. It is a verse taken to heart by the congregations of my childhood. In turn, it became a verse that I carry with me throughout the journey of life. Indeed, this one verse of scripture speaks for so much of Christian beliefs, summing up the way Christians understand God and explains why we share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. These words are for everyone to know and take to heart.

Go back to the most famous verse of New Testament scripture and ponder these words carefully. The world God deeply loves is a place of great brokenness, fractured by human sin and great sorrow. God sends his one and only Son to be the salvation of the world, though some will not choose to take the Gospel at its word. According to John’s gospel, the world is a place where things are a bit grim, in need of a light to find its way out of the shadows that otherwise overwhelm. John’s prologue celebrates what God is bringing about in Jesus’ life and ministry, claiming, “the true light was coming into the world, meant for everyone” (John 1:9, paraphrased).

Such a love for the world means that not one of us is beyond redemption and not one of us is without hope. Taking this to heart, we are free to see the world with new eyes, less jaded or resigned to “fate” and more empowered and liberated to love our neighbors and ourselves in more life-giving, abundant ways. It is a word that we help the wee ones learn in Sunday school, the word informing our proclamation, and the word driving churches in word and deed alike. By doing so, we bring God’s promise fully to the world.

The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wisely observes,
For if God has raised the persecuted, forsaken, assailed Jesus, who was executed by the power-holders of this world, then he brings the future to the persecuted, forsaken, and damned of this earth. Christ’s resurrection is the promise of a new future for the godless and God-forsaken people, and not least for the dead. (A Broad Place, Fortress Press, 2008, p. 103) 

In too many places in the world are where the persecuted, forsaken, and damned live in fear, destitution, and marginalization. In too many churches are people taught these powerful words of Gospel and given too little encouragement to go out into the midst of the world, showing the sign of the crucified One through their words and actions.

When we choose to live as children in the fullness of Christ’s incarnate ways, we cast that light further into the world, bringing hope, empowerment, and grace where there might otherwise be none. “John 3:16” goes from lips to heart to hands and feet. In doing so, the Crucified One is seen lifted up in the midst of the world.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lent: Exploring the virtue of a humble faith

A reflection for beginning the Lenten journey:

During the third century, some Christians began to go out into the wilderness, claiming a life separated from the cities and making a simple life out in the Egyptian desert.  Considered the first monks, these women and men came to be known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  People began seeking out these wise persons for spiritual advice, and we have wonderful collections of brief stories and sayings written down by their followers. 

One story tells of a wise monk who met up with the Devil on the roadside.  The Devil had hoped to pounce upon the monk and instead admitted that the monk was causing him no end of torment. 

The Devil claimed he was trying everything he could to harm the monk, even going to the extent of fasting and keeping vigil just like the monk. 

No matter what the Devil tried, the monk was off limits.  The Devil concluded that the monk was untouchable not because of his daily rituals. The devil could keep pace with all of these things. 

What stymied the Devil was the monk’s humility.

(As translated by Yushi Nomura, Desert Wisdom: Sayings of the Desert Wisdom, Orbis Books, 2001, 20-21).

For more about the early Desert Fathers and Mothers, read Benedicta Ward's collection The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, revised edition, Penguin Books, 2003, or Laura Swan's The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Women, Paulist Press, 2003.