Thursday, September 1, 2016

On rocks and religion

About a month ago, I started noticing something beautiful on our dog-walks.  Along the trail we walk (it's in the woods in a state park), I noticed some rocks at the base of trees, on fallen logs, etc.  Each rock was painted a rather neutral color to fit into the woods, and each rock had a positive message on it.  I remember "ah, songbirds -- the love song of the morning" as one of them.

(I've made my Cursillo, and I immediately thought of these as palanca, but I refused to take them because I wanted them to make other people's days better too.)

One night the rocks disappeared.  I thought the park maintenance workers had taken them, and when I asked them (they know us well), they said they hadn't, so I hoped more would come.

Meanwhile, I started making rocks of my own, and thought I'd add Project Semicolon work to these rocks.  Project Semicolon is a mental health initiative (see link above), and I thought to myself that maybe having the semicolon on them would help people who encounter these on the trail, maybe people who are suffering from depression or even just having a crappy day.  I wrote things like "The universe is glad you are here" and "thank you for being."  I made sure to plant a few that said "your story is not over"... and I put a large semicolon on all of the rocks after the message I wrote.

People started adding them and it was wonderful.  Until someone started adding religion.

This might be unexpected -- I, the Super-Episcopalian, didn't want to see religious messages spread across the trail?  You're darn tootin' I don't.

Here's why.

Religion divides.  As soon as you say "Jesus," a whole bunch of people who think of the bad things about Christianity are automatically repelled from the underlying message.  Same if you say "Allah" or any other specified-by-religion name the world uses for that force of love that is the most universal message of God: it repels those who are automatically repelled by the thought of established religion. (Cases in point: my father, my husband, and me when I was going through difficulties with my faith...)  And suddenly the rocks have chances to generate negative emotions instead of positive ones.

Love unites. Using love without specified religious terms makes these messages more accessible to everyone, religious or not, spiritual or not.

I do not want anyone to be repelled/put off/offended/negatively affected by these rocks in any way.  I'm sure someone will find something to be offended about, but I think that if the specified religious wording is kept away from the rocks, people of different or struggling or nonexistent faiths will feel more comfortable seeing these rocks, and possibly the message of Love will enter more hearts.

And that's what God's all about, no?  It/He/She is about LOVE.  All are welcome.  Why wouldn't we want to welcome everyone no matter what?  And to do that, I don't think that making something feel off-putting will make someone feel welcome.

All are welcome.
Amen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

On Confirmation and Reception

Two years ago this past May I was received into the Episcopal Church.  My particular reception liturgy was awkward and chaotic for me.  Our priest-in-charge at my church had just stepped in at that point, and so I missed some of the information that I needed before the liturgy.  So I came in late and wound up walking into the meeting with the Bishop when it was halfway through; 10 minutes before the mass my priest hadn't shown up yet owing to getting stuck at the doctor, and he was in a flannel shirt and jeans when he did.  It was in a tiny church in a tiny town, and the music consisted of a single organist who meets every stereotype of the classic little-old-lady-set-in-her-ways organist who makes so many mistakes that it threw off all the people who actually read music.  All in all, quite the "rinky-dink" service.  It was my mother's first exposure to the Episcopal Church, and I'm afraid that it wasn't the best possible impression for someone being completely uncomfortable walking into the nave (especially someone as well-versed in liturgy as my mother).

This past year was the Reception/Confirmation/Baptism liturgy of my dreams.  It was in one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the Diocese, it had a 40 person choir made up of different choirs from the district (mostly made up of the people from said large and gorgeous church -- which also boasts a phenomenal music program), and there was incense and amazing organ music and phenomenal choir music... I was honored to sing in the choir.  And I got to watch the beauty of the liturgy in one of the most beautiful environments possible.

My first thought was how much I wished I'd waited.  How awesome would it have been to walk down the aisle to Grace Church as a confirmand and see the magnificence of that environment.  And hear the choir!  And have my priest actually in clericals!

But as I watched from the choir stalls, I got to thinking: I've always loved the high liturgy, but how many times do I get lost in it?  (One of the ways I explain the contrast between Episcopal vs. Roman Catholic is to say that Episcopalians in general are a lot more easygoing but they still like to have fun with all the ritual stuff.)  I inherit this probably from my mother, who is so well-versed in liturgy that she knows that you're supposed to genuflect on TWO knees on Maundy/Holy Thursday after the Eucharistic procession (RC church).  Her appreciation of the beauty of the rituals is not lost on me, but how many times do I wish that she missed that one little misstep/wrong order of something so that I wouldn't have to hear about it later and then have my view on the liturgy tainted?

So: was "my" liturgy a message from God, a forced situation of humility for me to learn to appreciate?  I mean, my first exposure to the Episcopal Church was in a very High church (which is what ultimately made me fall in love with it -- the poetry of the Ordinary, the beauty of the hymns, the awesome organ blasting, all of it!), but not all churches of any denomination are "high."

A forced humility.  Sometimes we need this.  We need to see things stripped to their essentials to show that there is something greater at work than incense and loud organ music and magnificent choirs.  The poetry was still there.  The sincerity was still there.  So what if my priest was in a flannel shirt?  God sees what's in the heart, not what is on the outside.  God loves us for us, no matter how we come into a church.  Isn't a church a place of refuge for the fouler, darker parts of our hearts, where we can let it go to God and know we are not judged but LOVED for our not-quite-beautiful clothing and possibly dirty hands?

It took 2 years and seeing this year's really impressively elaborate liturgy to realize what God was telling me and teaching me.

And I'm glad He did.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Lent

"so what'd you give up?"

Invariably we hear the ubiquitous: sweets, chocolate, junk food, cursing... and so many non-observers of Lent leave their knowledge at this.

So what of this "giving stuff up" business that is the first thing "muggles" think of Lent?  Are we masochists?  Are we glorying in our own martyrdom, so that everyone can see what devout Christians we are? 

I never like to think that Lent is about "giving up."  Giving up implies sacrifice, yes, but it also implies resignation.  Why would we ever want to give up?  Give up on our faith?  Give up on our convictions?  Why not come at Lent stronger, more willing to take on the challenges of this beautiful time - a way of NOT giving up.  Lent is not a season of deprivation.  It is a season of sacrifice, but that is not its focus.  Lent is so, so much more.

In Lent we remember.  We remember those 40 days that Christ spent being tempted and tested by the fallen angel Lucifer; we remember the incredible strength it must have taken to experience this: strength of mind, strength of body, and -- arguably most importantly -- strength of heart.  These spiritually Herculean tasks of the Lord are definitely something to remember; what perfect Love God the Son could have and did have to do all of this for us.

In Lent we reflect.  We reflect on what we do, and what we feel, what we are -- outside and in!  In our reflection, we repent also.  This is why, in my Roman Catholic upbringing, there were so many more people going to confession than any other time of the year: they/we reflected, repented of our wrongdoings, and resolved to serve God better in every way we know how.

In Lent we prepare.  Lent is the season leading up to the both solemn and glorious Passiontide -- the most holy week of the church year; that most holy week that culminates in Christ's resurrection from the dead.

We are not here to "give up."  If anything, we are here to do the opposite: to remember, to reflect, to prepare ourselves to journey head-on into the joy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, bearer of all our sins and savior of the world.  And we ask that our actions show our deep love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.