Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ways to get involved in our hurting world

I recently wrote an article which I am hoping will be published at Huffington Post or another online resource, which calls for Christians to be a people of action in our world where so many are suffering. I am trying to compile a list of concrete ways for people to help out different causes. If you have a favorite charitable or aid organization, please take a moment to comment with the name and link to their websites.

Help Ukraine

Razom for Ukraine

Help Syria

10 ways to help in Syria

World Hunger

Feed My Starving Children
Stop Hunger Now
U.S. Hunger


Girl Rising
The Malala Fund


How to Help the Homeless
Stand Up For Kids


Nothing But Nets (Malaria)
IMA World Health
International Health Partners
No AIDS Task Force


World Relief
American Red Cross

Friday, May 2, 2014

What is liturgy?

I went to a conservative non-denominational high school that was a loose association of families (mostly from the same church) who home schooled their children but wanted them to have certain types of classes available. I won't explain the long story of why I was in this setting (maybe another time) but I remember a really funny conversation I had with a classmate the Wednesday after Easter. My family was attending a Lutheran church at the time, and as you know from my recent post on the subject, Holy Week is a Big. Freaking. Deal. for Lutherans. So we were understandably tired the day after Easter and skipped school, and so my classmate was inquiring about that. After I had explained about the week-long church marathon, my classmate looked at me and asked quizzically, "Why would go go to church that many times? Are you Catholic or something?" I was really offended! Not because there's anything wrong with being Catholic but because as kind of the original protestants which made their non-denominational worship a thing at all, I felt like people should recognize that there are protestant traditions that are deeply ritualistic but which also profess a different doctrine than Catholicism. I didn't want to be lumped in with another denomination whose theological commitments were different than mine! I felt so very misunderstood.

Aside from demonstrating what a dork I was even in high school, I'm telling you this because that was the first moment when I realized that liturgy is not well understood by a lot of people. What is the point of all those calls and responses and all that jazz? To non-liturgical traditions, it can feel stuffy or formal. To non-Christians it's just strange. It's a shame that it looks that way, though, because to those of us who know what it's all about, the rituals of worship are deep and beautiful expressions of our Christian identity. And so, as usual, my goal here is to explain a little bit about it.

Now, when I say liturgical, I don't necessarily mean a denomination that is formal with incense and robes and organs and such. Liturgy can be formal or informal, but it is basically the form of the worship service, or the things you do and say in it. For some, the parts are set and everything is the same each week (or depending on the season), and for some the parts can be moved around and change slightly from week to week. A Lutheran worship service will vary quite a bit in the order but generally has the following things: greeting, confession & forgiveness, prayers, readings, sermon, confession of faith (creed), holy communion, and benediction. There will be hymns interspersed throughout. Again, this can be formal with organ and lots of bowing and robes to super informal with t-shirts and rock bands. Liturgy refers to the things you do and say as part of the worship service, not how you do and say them.

So what's the point? These things can look silly, especially everybody reading the same text in a monotone, and if you do them week after week you can slip into not thinking about it. Why not keep it simple and have music, a scripture reading and sermon, and maybe some prayers? The answer is that liturgy gives shape to the service. It tells a particular story, and we go through these motions to remind us of what ties us together as a people, and what the important parts of our faith are. Skip Sundberg is a professor at Luther Seminary, and he contends that a worship service is itself an act of confession and absolution. Through the liturgy we acknowledge that we are broken creatures, and then we have forgiveness declared to us again and again, through the reading of the gospel, through prayers, and especially through communion. The real beauty is that regardless of what exactly you believe (and there is a lot of variety), you have an awareness of being called to a community.

The importance of the community can't be underestimated, and for me this really answers the question of why you go to church at all. It's not because God will be mad at you if you sleep in (trust me, I sleep in sometimes and I do this church stuff for a living!), but because being part of a community ties you with other people who can have faith when you are too weak, hurting, or scared to do so. I remember being a teenager and questioning the whole Jesus thing, and at that time I couldn't bring myself to say the creed. I just couldn't do it. But people stood all around me declaring it, and it was okay for me to not have faith then, because somebody else had faith for me. Going through these motions as a community can also help you to recognize your sin and humble yourself when you're too prideful, because you're saying the words and that practice transforms you even if you're not aware of it. And most importantly, through these rites and rituals we declare to one another, profess publicly before one another, and hold for one another the truth of the gospel that despite our sin, we are forgiven, and despite our brokenness, we are healed. We worship together and do so in particular ways because we are all tied together by Jesus who came for the world, and gives a formful expression to the things we believe, so that our faith can feel tangible even when God feels distant, and so that we remember who we are and to whom we belong.

There's no right way to worship, and liturgies come in all shapes and sizes from a jazz service to the highest high church you can imagine. But for those of us who love this style of worship, there is something deeply moving about standing next to people you may not know at all, but knowing that we, as Mother Theresa said, "belong to each other" and that their confession is mine and my forgiveness is theirs, because we are all Christ's.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Physics of Bread and Wine

I happened upon an interesting article about time and the laws of thermodynamics today. I don't claim to be knowledgeable in the realm of math or physics by any means, but my understanding is that these scientists are conjecturing that despite our traditional understanding of time, entropy, or the chaotic state toward which all things tend, exists regardless of the direction that time is flowing. In other words, if you have a room full of particles moving around, their arrangement will, over time, become more chaotic, but according to these scientists, if you run time backwards the arrangement will be equally as chaotic. This presents a really interesting problem, because the big bang was theoretically a moment of extremely low entropy, but how can that be if, in reverse, the universe would un-bang into an equally chaotic arrangement as it is heading toward now? Furthermore, if it's true that we are moving toward entropy in our universe (and we think it is, as we see the universe expanding and becoming less organized), how do we explain cosmological changes that result not in more disorder, but in order--for example, the birth of a star. Maybe that's not a good example (again, not a physicist!) but we also see examples of increasing order in our lives.

In some ways, we always become disorganized. I think I have written before about how I think that this ever increasing state of entropy is a symptom of a world which is fundamentally broken. Stephen King's Dark Tower series writes about a 'winding down' of the world, where time doesn't move as it should and things that should work or have order don't. It's a beautiful metaphor for how we live. It feels like the world has "moved on." We lament the way things were, when it seemed like they made more sense. But in some ways, it's not the world that's becoming more off. Objectively, the world is getting better in a lot of ways. MLK said that the arc of history is long and bends toward justice, and we can see that all over the place from the introduction of child labor laws to women's suffrage and civil rights. Yet some people would see recent progress (such as marriage equality or sexual freedom) as a sign of increasing societal decay. So we have this strange paradox between entropy and order, which varies based on our perception.

There's an interesting episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where Captain Sisko meets aliens who exist in non-linear time. They have difficulty understanding Sisko's grief over the death of his wife because for them all moments exist simultaneously and are accessible. Sisko is a linear creature who can't go back in time, but he's also stuck in the moment of his wife's death. These aliens struggle to grasp the problem of human entropy--our lives heading toward death, having an awareness of it, but being bound by it at the same time. Whether he went back or forward, his life was still trapped in a moment of the ultimate entropy of death. And yet these aliens existed outside of this time. It got me thinking about how these scientists mentally experimented. Is it possible that the problem isn't entropy in all directions, but our perspective on things?

The story of the walk to Emmaus is a perfect example of this. Two disciples are walking along the road toward this town of Emmaus three days after Jesus' death, where they encounter a man on the road. They have lost all hope, buried in a moment in time in which the man they thought would redeem Israel had died, stuck in a moment of grief and an irreparably altered future. However, it turns out that this man on the road is actually Jesus, though they aren't capable of perceiving him as they knew him. On this road, Jesus walks with them, teaches them, and ultimately they beg him to stay. He goes with them to eat, and it's only through the meal that they are released from the trap of their linear, finite reality and opened up to the resurrected Christ sitting across the table from them.

We are stuck in this reality where whether we go forward or backward we face pain, decline, helplessness. The parallel between infancy and old age has been pointed out by many people, and it's true. In this world, we are largely helpless either way. This article on time made me think, though, not about our own constraint, but the way that God breaks into it. Although time's arrow moving both backward and forward looked like increased entropy in the minds of those scientists, I suspect that in the mind of God who created all things, it makes a lot more sense. The arc is truly too long for us to perceive. And yet we have a little puncture hole into that reality, when we are met by the presence of a being who is both divine and mortal in bread and wine and water. Through the sacraments, and through our daily encounters with the Spirit of God in the world, we are introduced to a glimmer of the reality that defies our understanding of thermodynamics. Often our existence does look and feel pretty chaotic, but I think that is only because "now we see dimly, as in a mirror." (1 Cor. 13:12) When the reality of a defiant, grave escaping Jesus returns to us in fullness and we see him face to face, I expect that things will look mighty different to us as well.