The Art of Ministry @Urban Faith

My first column is up at Urban Faith. It was inspired by the International Arts Movement’s Encounter 10 gathering. That’s one of the speakers, David Sacks, talking about his gorgeous photography work in the photo above.  I interviewed philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson at the Four Seasons Hotel after she spoke at Encounter 10. Her talk reminded me of a book club selection from the High Calling Blogs network so I incorporated a bit of that into my column. The interview with Roberta was so fascinating that I pitched my editors at Christianity Today on using it as the foundation for a profile of her instead of just running the interview. They agreed and are sending me to Southern California next month to build on it. This is how my work often comes together.

Here’s a clip from “The Art of Urban Ministry,” which combines Roberta’s thoughts with my own and Bill Strickland’s and the Apostle John’s.

In his memoir, Make the Impossible Possible, entreprenuer Bill Strickland describes the images of his earliest memories. He writes, “What I saw as I walked to school each day was an unbroken landscape of decay that taught me indelible lessons about hopelessness and defeat no matter where my gaze fell.”

Home was different. There Strickland’s mother enlisted her children’s help in keeping their simple abode neat and clean. In high school, a teacher named Frank Ross introduced Strickland to the art of making pottery. It changed his life. With the support of patrons, Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild when he was just 19 years old.

Today Strickland presides over the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a gleaming, expansive community arts and jobs training center in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Of this space he writes, “Anyone who knew me could see straight off that the place was built to offer our students the same rich experiences that had turned my life around. There was clay. There were art and photography. After a while, there were gourmet food and flowers…. And it was all housed in a sleek, clean, sunlit space that had been meticulously designed down to the last detail, to give our students the same sense of self-worth and possibility that Frank Ross’s classroom had nurtured in me.”

You can read the rest here. And check out this video clip of Ben and Vespers from the IAM Encounter 10 closing ceremony. It’s funakalicious!

I’ll Love You Forever & Until We Meet Again

This Sunday, March 28th, marks two years since my son Gabriel died. Unlike others whose loved ones have passed from this earth, I use the straightforward terminology. “Early departure to heaven” is one description I read recently. I think this person must not have seen their loved one’s body after the spirit left it, because if they had, they’d know it was dead and not just dearly departed.

Anyway, it’s been two years and nothing really gets easier. I still feel as if I’m living in a fun-house surrounded by mirrors that distort reality. Or that reality is veiled. I see the sun; I feel it’s warmth; but I don’t fully inhabit the planet that rotates around it. It’s a strange way to live, which is why working a lot helps. There’s little time or brain power for thinking about such things.

Last week, as I was going through my cloaked, surreal existence, I needed to find a book for an article I was writing. I tore open box after box in my backyard shed and collected a pile that did not include the one I was looking for, but that did include one that transported me back to life lived in real time and space.

It’s called Love You Forever and was written by Robert Munsch. The story begins with the birth of a child. His mother sings him a lullaby until long after he is grown, and then he turns it around and sings it to her when she gets old. It’s a promise to always be there for each other. This particular copy was a 2004 Christmas gift from Gabe to me. Inside the cover, he wrote these words:

Mom, this book always reminds me of you. I love it that you would take time to read to Mike & me all the time. I will never forget the way you sang the song. I was in 5th grade when the teacher read this to us. She sang it all wrong! Online you could buy the read-along tape with the way the song should sound. I’ll bet it’s all nice & perfect, but I don’t ever want to hear that. Your version is perfect for me. I am not sure which section I’m on, but I think Mike is at the one about being a crazy teen. Don’t worry though, eventually we will get to the age when we sneak to your house & take care of you. …

I’ve been carrying this book around the house like it’s my blankie. Jeff asked me if it’s my new bedtime reading. “No,” I said, “I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about it.” The truth is, I do want to hug it to myself and never let it go, or at least stick it under my mattress so it’s always close, because it reminds me of a time when life made a little bit of sense. When my baby was mentally and emotionally healthy. When he took the idea of a long life for granted.

Gabe’s brother chose a copy of this book from amongst all of Gabe’s possessions to be buried with him because the memory of it meant something to both of them. It means something to me too. It transports me out of the distorted fun-house and into reality.

Gabe, I’ll love you forever. I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be. … And then we’ll meet again. xoxo

Deep Church: A Short Review

When I heard that Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church, was getting a lot of buzz from diverse quarters of the evangelical and post-evangelical community, my ears perked up.

The Emerging/Emergent discussion was completely off my radar screen until late 2006 or early 2007 when “Emergents” were being denounced in toto in conservative evangelical circles. I was familiar enough with the reactionary tendencies of some of these conservatives to be leery of their judgment. However, because I write for Christianity Today, people began asking me what I thought. So I read some things online and went to the American Academy of Religion Conference in San Diego, where I listened to a helpful discussion by Tony Jones, Scot McKnight and Diana Butler Bass. I also heard N.T. Wright dismiss the “fluffy” post-moderns there and other speakers entirely ignore  them.

I have never been interested enough in the topic myself to actually read a book about it. I did, however, talk to Dallas Willard about the philosophical underpinnings of Emergent philosophy and was hardly any clearer afterwards. It seemed to me though that if the Emergents were guilty of anything beyond questionable theology, it was hubris, particularly in their careless criticism of the Church, our mother.

Jim Belcher’s book is not only the first I’ve read on the topic, it is also the only resource I have encountered that has clearly and thoroughly answered my philosophical questions. The chapter I most appreciated, and the one I will reread until I have it down, is the “Deep Truth” chapter on philosophy. Len Hjalmarson summarizes it nicely here, so I won’t do so myself.

If any bias comes through in Deep Church, it is a bias toward Presbyterianism and popular reformed voices like Tim Keller, whom Belcher lionizes. There’s nothing wrong with expressing one’s own convictions and preferences, but here it weakens his “third way” argument because what he’s really advocating is not a third way for all believers, but a third way for the evangelicals and post-evangelicals whose tribes have denounced Emerging/Emergent.  Similarly, I came away from the book with the sense that for Belcher “deep ecclesiology” means Presbyterian ecclesiology. As an Anglican and former Baptist who attended a Mennonite college, my witness diverges on this matter.

Nonetheless, as long as readers understand the context in which this book was written and who its audience is, they’re likely to find much to appreciate.

Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow

HearingJesus_cvrNancy Guthrie begins her new book, Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow, by telling readers that she is facing the 10th anniversary of her infant daughter’s death. This anniversary will, at some point, be followed by the 10th anniversary of her infant son’s death. Hope and Gabe are their names. Lovely names, I think, especially the latter.

Nancy writes this about the first impending anniversary: “It feels like an ever-widening chasm as the years take me further away from her, even as they bring me closer to her.”

I so appreciate this thought, because when I think about how it will feel to not have held Gabe or seen him or heard him laugh for a decade, I panic and push the thought away. One day at a time, I tell myself, even though I have an idea of what the passage of time does to memory. It’s been more than three decades since my father died. I have no recollection of his voice and only the vaguest recollection of his manner. He is a stranger to me. One I look forward to meeting someday.

Obviously losing a child as a 43 year old mother is a completely different experience. Gabriel grew in my body and nursed at my breasts. I held him and soothed him and nurtured him with every ounce of my being year after year after year. I also died with him on March 28, 2008. Only I have to keep on living.

I’m quite sure Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow is going to be a helpful book, because it begins honestly and without platitudes.  And because Nancy wrote to me after reading my last essay about my Gabe. She shared her story with me and told me about her hopes for this project. Thank you Nancy for remembering to send the finished product. I so appreciate it!

I may or may not refer to this book again. For now, I’d like to quote a passage from the introduction that stopped me in my tracks. I read it aloud to my husband. 

I don’t know what has brought sorrow into your life.  Maybe you, too, have stood by a grave and said good-bye. Or maybe you have had to bury your dreams for a future with someone you love or your plans for doing something you have longed to do. Perhaps circumstances have forced you to leave behind a position you thought you were made for or come to terms with a frightening financial problem or a painful medical condition. Perhaps you live with ongoing sorrow over a child who has turned away from you or from faith. Maybe you are living with regret over the sorrow brought into your life by your own bad choices, or maybe you are living with resentment over the sorrow brought into your life by what someone else has done.

I read this to Jeff because it is a list of possibilities and we are living all of them simultaneously.  It made me realize that our lives are a kind of miracle. People can live through anything. I know that now. What happens in the wake of anything though is that each of us is faced with a choice. Every day, and often many times a day in multiple and varied situations, we are offered the choice to live rather than to merely exist.

Today Jeff and I went to church and worshiped. With the fullness of our beings we offered ourselves up to God. At the singing of the recessional hymn, I glanced down to my right to see my husband seated on the pew in pain, as always, but with eyes closed, hands upturned, a slight smile on his face—as always.

We exchanged pleasantries with our fellow congregants for a long time afterwards. An executive sought me out to tell me that with 32 forced retirements at his organization, there may be a spot for me. Other people’s pain could mean relief for mine.

Next there was a Starbucks run and a stroll through the local farmers market, where we bought a lunch of imported salami and provolone, olive bread, homemade sun-dried tomatoes and organic vegetables.

After that came our weekly visit to the cemetery to water the pansies—yellow, gold and white—and to tell Gabe how sorry I am for everything.

One day I was there fussing over the grave, saying I was sorry for this or that or something else entirely when I had an epiphany. I realized that my son is dead and I’m still fussing over him. How bad of a mother could I have been?

A therapist I saw briefly last year said it is easier for me to blame myself than to acknowledge that Gabe did this. She’s right, of course, even though, ultimately no one is to blame.

Going to the cemetery comforts me. It helps me to live. The same therapist, who buried a first-born son herself, said this is because the only way we mothers have left to care for our dead children is to take care of their graves. A friend of mine went every day for years. Before you dismiss such morbidity, you should know that The Compassionate Friends estimates that 19 percent of parents have buried a child. That’s 2-in-10.

After the cemetery, we stopped at the Sprint store to pick out a new phone for me, one with internet access. If I weren’t living, I wouldn’t care enough about what’s going on in the world to be a news junkie again.

At home, Jeff set about his daily ritual of beautifying my parents’ yard. Everything he does, he does with passion and precision. Everything. Still.

Our lives are tragic. They are also a miracle of sorts. By the power of the Holy Spirit, three things animate this miracle: family, faith and love. Without these, I would have no hope.

Interview with Bill Yeargin, CEO of Correct Craft @TheHighCalling.org

My interview with Bill Yeargin is up at TheHighCalling.org. He was wonderfully candid about the challenges of being a Christian businessman. Who is Bill Yeargin and what is Correct Craft, you ask? Here’s the intro:

Bill Yeargin is the refreshingly down-to-earth President and CEO of Correct Craft, an 84 year old company that manufactures and sells the Nautique line of inboard wakeboard and water ski boats. He has been at the helm for just under three years, but is a well-known figure in the marine industry, having served on the executive team at Rybovich Yachts and on both national and international industry boards. Yeargin is the author of two books, Yeargin on Management and What Would Dad Say? and has published more than 200 management and leadership columns. He shares his practical advice in person at management conferences throughout the world. At home in Orlando, Florida, he boldly combines faith, service and work. Yeargin talked to TheHighCalling.org about how he does this and about leading his company with integrity in these challenging times.

Read the interview here.

[Note: The boat in the photo above is not a Nautique tow boat, in case you were wondering. It’s a fun fishing boat in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ.]

Beauty By Any Means Necessary

My latest post is up at Her.Meneutics. It’s called “Is it a sin to nip and tuck?” and was reclaimed from an article I worked on in 2007 that never made it to print. I offer the original here because my sources* made many points worth considering and because I think it’s a really good piece of work.

The photo above is of my sister Connie Smith before cosmetic surgeons created fingers for her from skin on her thigh. Connie was interviewed for this article. Living in Orange County, California, inspired my interest in the topic; Connie’s embodied experience informed my thinking.

“Beauty often wins love. It just does,” write Karen Lee-Thorp and Cynthia Hicks in Why Beauty Matters. No wonder women, and, increasingly, men are willing to endure the pain and risk of elective cosmetic surgery to attain it. New York Times reporter Alex Kaczynski states it bluntly in her cosmetic surgery expose’ Beauty Junkies. “In the end it all comes down to sex. … We are looking for love. And we will accept lust.”

Few admit this with the aplomb of Cena Rasmussen. This former model readily confesses that her cosmetic surgery addiction was fueled primarily by the bliss of turning heads. By her own admission, Rasmussen has spent years looking in the mirror. More often than not, she has seen reason to improve the image that stares back at her. Rasmussen was twenty-seven years old when Palm Springs, CA, cosmetic surgeon Razi Mazaheri first sculpted her flesh. He was dating Rasmussen’s friend and she was envious of the friend’s evolving, surgically-enhanced appearance.

In one transformative day, Rasmussen had breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, cheek implants and an eye lift. The breast augmentation didn’t heal properly and had to be redone almost immediately. In fact, one-quarter to one-third of breast augmentations will require additional surgery, according to Kaczynski and the FDA.

For Rasmussen, aesthetic surgery would become a biannual ritual that continued for two decades. There were more rhinoplasties, breast surgeries and lifts—eyes, face, neck—and non-surgical procedures as well. The regimen ended with a hyalauronic acid peel in 1999 that burned the skin on her face so badly, she says it left her looking like a “freak of nature.” Since then, Rasmussen has sworn off Mazaheri and has had nothing but $4000 worth of laser treatments to reduce the scarring. Still, she remains undaunted and is planning another face lift—her third, or is it the fourth? She can’t recall.

Racing into the Future

Rasmussen may represent an extreme in the use, or what some might call abuse, of cosmetic surgery, but the trend has been growing exponentially. In 2006, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, Americans spent just under $12.2 billion on 11.5 million surgical and non-surgical procedures.

That’s a 446 percent increase from 1997. Surgical procedures increased by 98 percent and non-surgical procedures by 747 percent. Liposuction, breast augmentation, eyelid surgery, abdominoplasty and breast reduction were the top surgical procedures in 2006, while Botox injections, hyalauronic acid, laser hair removal, microdermabrasion and laser skin resurfacing were the most popular non-surgical techniques.

Ninety-two percent of patients were women, but men had nearly one million procedures. Forty-seven percent of patients were aged 35-50, 22 percent were 19-34, and 25 percent were aged 51-64. Ethnic minorities made up 22 percent of the patient pool.

Sculpting flesh is just the latest in millennia of questionable beauty-enhancement practices. The use of mobile x-ray machines for hair removal early in the last century is another. By the 1930s, the technique seemed “firmly entrenched,” writes Teresa Riordin in Inventing Beauty. She says women appear to have been “either ignorant of the dangers or simply willing to ignore them, given the ease and effectiveness of the treatment.” Sound familiar?

According to Riordin, women have long been collaborators and profiteers in this business. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, for example, women received one-third of all U.S. patents, but in the category of pre-surgical breast enhancement (“falsies”), nearly two-thirds of patent-holders were women.

 So what is a Christian to think about elective cosmetic surgery? Is it a sin to get a nip and tuck? Depends on whom one asks. I asked a variety of professionals and lay people. Their answers are an eclectic brew.

Choice

Lilian Calles Barger, author of Eve’s Revenge, says the choice to have cosmetic surgery is not a free one. “If you tell me, ‘my mother had cosmetic surgery. She’s a very independent woman. She really loves God and she wants to do this, and this is her choice,’ I say, ‘This is not a free choice. This choice is under duress.” Barger describes the phenomena as “appalling,” “gut wrenching,” “fundamentally wrong,” “a failure of the imagination.”

“The body is not just a hunk of meat,” she insists. “The body is significant in Christianity. The Bible talks about how we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. The question is what are we offering our bodies up to when we do that?” Her conclusion is that we’re offering them up to “false beauty and to cultural norms that we should be challenging,” but adds, “so that is where you can be compassionate, because you can understand that sin is not the sinner by themselves. It is collaborative, communal, reinforced. We support each other in this.”

Barger’s claim was born out in interviews with several cosmetic surgery patients.  In nearly every interview, individual choice was held out as a trump card, but all the women made their decisions within the context of relationships both personal and professional.

Therapeutic and Spiritual Perspectives

A disconnect between body and Spirit emerged in the reasoning of two patients who said body sculpting decisions are spiritually insignificant. “I don’t think it is a spiritual issue in any way,” says Rasmussen. “I personally believe that when we die, we’re going to have a glorified body that’s not going to be physical in any way. So what does the Lord care what we do to our skin?” Rasmussen explains that she both saved for her procedures and tithed faithfully throughout the exercise of her habit.

 A fifty-something patient who asked not to be identified has had eye lid surgery, a chin implant, a mini-face lift and Botox. She says that as she struggled with the idea of tampering with the body God gave her, she sensed Him saying, “My beloved, you’re beautiful. You don’t need to do this.” She doesn’t believe, however, that tuning out the voice of God was sin. What matters, according to this patient, is “where your heart is.”

Cissy Brady-Rogers is a Pasadena therapist who has had a mastectomy, but no reconstruction after breast cancer years ago. She says that our culture “sets women up to feel shame about our bodies.” Body shame originates at home where children are not taught what to do with developing bodies and sexual impulses. It is then reinforced in school and through the larger culture. This coincides with what Brady-Rogers calls “disembodiment”—the phenomenon by which a subject looks into the mirror and sees that he or she does not measure up to cultural ideals and then comes to view their body as an object in need of repair rather than simply “me.” She says those considering aesthetic surgery would do well to heal the cause of their discontent (shame) rather than treating symptoms surgically.

Sociologist Philip Rieff talked about this disembodiment as “the triumph of the therapeutic” in his landmark 1960s book of the same name. It is a view of self as patient to be cured that he believed had replaced religion as the defining cultural narrative. He wrote, “That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, announced a fundamental change in focus in the entire cast of our culture—toward a human condition about which there will be nothing further to say in terms of the old style of despair and hope.”

For Christians walking out faithful body stewardship in defiance of this fundamental change, Brady-Rogers (who holds a Master of Divinity degree along with her other credentials) offers another narrative. She says patient-consumers are trying to figure out how to save themselves, just like the Galatians were, and in the process are biting and devouring one another by increasing the social pressure on all of us to conform to false ideals. “There is always going to be some law, some culturally offered avenue to save ourselves, to make ourselves okay, to fix what’s not working.” What Paul said is that it’s not going to work. Christ is the only one who can save us. “We are free to have plastic surgery. There is not a biblical law that says, ‘Thou shalt not have plastic surgery or drive a BMW,’ but what the Scripture says is: do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another.”

For a woman contemplating aesthetic surgery, she advises, “I would like her to have a group of soul sisters who could support one another in becoming who they are in Christ, and support her in a process of discernment about that decision, not as solo journey. That may be part of the problem; too many women are making these decisions in isolation from other women.”

 Idols and their Denouncing Prophets

Although the pursuit of beauty and the power it wields are timeless, a plethora of television makeover shows has normalized the triumph of both the therapeutic and the pornographic. Affluence and materialism, improved surgical techniques and doctors fleeing managed care realities for a cash business have all kept the engine humming along in the direction of more medical intervention to tame unwieldy flesh, according to Kaczynski.

In a 2004 New Atlantis article, “The Democratization of Beauty,” Christine Rosen wrote, “Cosmetic surgery … feeds our envy of those who embody nature’s most powerful but fleeting charms—youth, strength, beauty, and fertility. Its supporters praise its ability to change lives and its critics denounce it as the expression of our society’s worst impulses.”

As Christians reach for the charm, it’s these worst impulses that Hans Madueme, M.D., a fellow at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, insist pose the greatest danger.

He calls the trend “deeply depressing” and says it’s one more area of American materialism that shocks his African family when they visit. The intuitive “yuk” reaction some Christians have towardaesthetic surgery is instructive, says Madueme. It tells us where the culture is moving, and reveals our loves, desires, idols and lusts. He suggests three “functional idols” that come into play with aesthetic surgery: youth, beauty and money. Consumers idolize youth and beauty, while medical providers exploit patients “inordinate desires” as a function of money idolatry.

Gary Churchill, a suburban Chicago facial plastic surgeon and aesthetic patient, offers a different perspective. He believes God directed him to a career that overwhelmingly consists of making women look and feel younger and more beautiful. Churchill was deeply offended when a fellow churchgoer suggested his work is incompatible with his faith. He takes a minimalist approach to surgery that leaves patients looking “refreshed” rather than altered.

Scot Rae, a bioethecist at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA, had an up-close and personal introduction to the world of cosmetic surgery when his wife Sally was having breast reconstruction after a double mastectomy. Although Rae was shocked to see young women in the surgeon’s office perusing catalogues that advertised buttocks implants, he strikes a middle ground.

Rae says Christians must see medical technology through a proper theological lense. He says God embedded his wisdom into creation through general revelation and that technology is “one of the primary ways that human beings unlock and apply God’s wisdom in the continuing quest to subdue the earth.” Rae allows that this quest was complicated after the fall, but says the three Ds—death, disease, and decay—were brought into the world by sin, and, as such, are legitimate targets for alleviation through technological means.

Like Madueme, Rae believes our intuitions are helpful, but sometimes in need of re-education. “They give us sort of yellow lights, but not necessarily red or green.” He offers a three-fold grid for evaluating aesthetic surgery. First, he says,” We are not our bodies, but we don’t devalue the body.” Second, “Medical technology, in general, to help alleviate the entrance of the effects of sin is a part of God’s common grace. And I think you can make a very good case that aging is a consequence of sin.” Third, “There’s a dynamic interaction between the soul and the body. So that’s why I think it makes sense that both men and women who have a change in their bodily appearance can feel better about themselves, and vice versa.” He concludes, “I think the bottom line is that you get principles and parameters out of Scripture and those form the fence around the field in which there’s freedom to make decisions.” If his eyelids were to droop in ten years, Rae says he would consider a nip and tuck.

Marketing toward Insecurity

To those who suggest that cosmetic surgery is marketed toward women’s insecurity, Ray Anderson, senior professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA responds, “We need to look at it much more realistically, that it’s on a continuum. It’s on the same continuum as other aspects of embodied cultural life that effect our self-image….The solution to that [marketing towards women’s’ insecurity] is not to demonize an industry, but it is to revitalize the soul, the self in such a way that one is free to make use of products, services, opportunities within responsibility without having to be branded in ones own mind at least to be capitulating to that culture. We have to be strong enough so that Christian women now need to be socialized in the Christian community in such a way that they are able to make good choices with regard to products and opportunities to enhance their appearance and self-esteem within their culture.”

Anderson’s son-in-law Gregory Evans is chief of aesthetic and plastic surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, CA. His practice is equally divided between corrective and aesthetic surgery. Evans says, “We all as physicians help people, but our area of the field is really trying to focus more on quality of life issues. … So one day a hand, another a cleft lip, breast reconstruction, injecting Botox around the eyelid—so we’re involved in the whole facet of a person.” Evans acknowledges the potential for exploitation, but offered a four page code of ethics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons as evidence that his board is serious about combating unethical advertising practices fueled by greed. 

The only board certifications Kaczynski trusts are those offered by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Anne Brattli is an aesthetician and salon owner in Sarasota, Florida. Brattli found out the hard way that not all board certifications are equal. Ignorant of uneven licensing practices in the industry, she briefly went to work for Kurt Dangl, a practitioner who was later featured on 20/20 and in Beauty Junkies for his part in the death of a breast augmentation patient whose anesthesia was administered by an unlicensed “nurse.”

Brattli says Dangl offered free surgeries to employees after four months of employment. At first she considered a tummy tuck or liposuction. But after witnessing the grisly realities of the operating room (which were visible from the break room where employees ate their lunch), Dangl’s arrogance and myriad grotesque complications, she changed her mind. Eventually she learned that Dangl’s primary training had been in dentistry and took an early and permanent maternity leave.

Brattli has been examining women’s faces under a high-powered microscope for a decade. She identifies a nagging problem with medically enhanced beauty. “When you’re talking to someone who’s had Botox and they smile at you, they don’t look sincere and you can’t put a finger on it, but it’s because they’re smiling at you with their mouth and not with their eyes. When you get a person who smiles with their eyes and their mouth, you feel like they’re genuine. With Botox, it doesn’t matter if they’re genuine. It just never reaches their eyes.”

“Sooner or later a person that resorts to some artificial way of delaying aging or overcoming some perceived abnormality is going to have to deal with the fact that you’re going to have to live with what you’ve got,” concedes Anderson, who, at 80-years-old, is still dying his hair and beard dark brown.

Wisdom from Tarnished Humanity

Some women, like Connie Smith, never have had a choice about the bodies they inhabit. Smith was born with multiple birth defects [her term of choice]: congenital constricting bands that cut off most of her fingers at or below the knuckles, a clubbed foot and webbed toes. With sponsorship from March of Dimes, cosmetic surgeons created digits that have served her well for more than 40 years. Perhaps it is women like her, Brady-Rogers and Sally Rae who have the most to teach us about living within our imperfect, aging bodies.

Smith is a homemaker and is divorced from her husband. Facing the idea of mid-life dating and re-entry into the job market, she has no plans for medical enhancement. She feels the same cultural pressures that others do, but says when she feels good about other areas of her life—particularly her relationships with God, family and friends—her birth defects don’t bother her or others. “When I’m feeling good, I project an air of confidence, she says, “My hands are the last things on someone’s mind; they are looking at my face or my body, or they are listening to my words. My hands are irrelevant. When I project insecurity, I feel like some people treat me like I’m invisible. They’re looking at me in a different way.”

Transcendent Pursuit

Rieff and Kaczynski may be correct that the therapeutic and the pornographic have triumphed. The theologians may be correct that technology can be either used responsibly or abused in a Christian context as it alleviates the effects of the fall. Feminists and therapists may be correct that the industry exploits women’s greatest insecurities and culturally induced shame. But there’s also something uniquely American and Protestant in the wholesale rush to embrace medical enhancement.

David Brooks describes this strain of perfectionism in American life in his book On Paradise Drive. He writes, “Unlike some other bourgeois nations, we are also a transcendent nation infused with everyday utopianism,” a utopianism that “lures us beyond the prosaic world” and “gives us a distinct conception of time, so we often find ourselves on some technological frontier,” Of these ever-expanding frontiers, Brooks duly notes that we occasionally look back on them with regret.

As medically altered faces and bodies become more commonplace, will the era of Botox and DD breast implants be one we regret? Will the dangerous excesses be abandoned as x-ray hair removal machines were? One can only hope.

*Note: I have not updated the information in this piece. Source affiliations and cosmetic surgery stats may have changed.

Losing Religion; Finding Art and More

    

Yesterday, my husband and I attended a book signing by former L.A. Times  journalist William Lobdel . The signing took place at a book store in historic Clinton, New Jersey .  The book (Lobdell’s first) is Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace . We were late for the noon event because we love Sunday worship so much, we were unwilling to skip it or tear ourselves away before communion as we’d planned. I note this because it illustrates how good people who go through similar crisis of faith often come out of them with very different conclusions. 

Lobdell’s book is dedicated to both his family (a wife and four sons) and those wounded by "the church." He and I lost our [investigative] religion journalism virginity simultaneously, though not collaboratively. We both thought we’d do God’s work by reporting on (or informing on) the seamier underbelly of American Christianity … only to find that corrupt subjects and their supporters often seemed empowered by the exposes’ written about them while we and their victims were accused of being tools of the devil.  

I read with interest his article on Trinity Broadcasting Network when I literally lived around the corner from the media giant’s world headquarters. I had visited the glittery venue myself for an essay on television indecency , and was consequently excoriated for inferior faith by Joni Lamb , one of TBN’s competitors. I noted Lobdell’s disillusionment with evangelists Greg Laurie and Franklin Graham when he wrote the L.A. Times  essay about his loss of faith  that led to Losing My Religion . Lobdell wondered how these and other reputable evangelicals regularly appeared on TBN despite the blatant charlatanism and allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder. I wonder about such things too. I wonder also what these evangelists and their Catholic counterparts think their role is in the deconversion of the Lobdells of this world.

During the Q&A, I asked about his wife, whom he followed from evangelicalism into Catholicism. He said that as he began to come home with increasingly egregious stories about her denomination, she too abandoned faith. As to their four children, I don’t know. One assumes their parents’ deconversion means something to them.

"Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher  also reported on the Catholic pedophilia scandals (as a Catholic) and later converted to Orthodoxy . Recently he opined that it may indeed be better for some scandals to remain hidden because exposure is so destructive to the faith of ordinary believers. I disagree with him for reasons Lobdell mentioned yesterday. Complicit silence breaks faith with victims, both those who speak up and those who don’t. As Christians, we are especially called to care for "widows and orphans"—in other words, those most vulnerable to abuse (James 1:27 ). We are also called to walk in the light (1 John 1:7 ); I take this to mean a commitment to truth, not lies.

Lobdell said that he’d inevitably be contacted by other alleged victims after his stories would run. They’d be particularly incensed if a perpetrator publicly downplayed his guilt. Dreher writes that he’s been tempted to report on Orthodox corruption, but has decided that his own and his family’s faith can’t handle it. This is a luxury many are not afforded: police officers, pastors, teachers, nurses, parents, other idealistic religion reporters. I trust that God will make right in the end that which is not made right in this world. I eagerly await the day when mercy and justice will visibly kiss. I know they did so on the Cross, but I long for faith to be made sight.

On the jacket of Lobdell’s book is an endorsement by John Huffman, chairman of the board of Christianity Today  and a hero of Lobdell’s. Huffman writes,

William Lobdell has written a heart/mind/soul-wrenching spiritual autobiography. He has been inspired by followers of Jesus who have served their Lord with integrity. But he has also been devastated by observing, up close, the ugly, sinful underbelly of a critical, self-serving, institutional and individual religion. This is a must-read filled with warnings and wake-up calls to those of us in leadership positions. I respect Bill for his honest reporting of his odyssey to this point and pray that someday there may be a future book, just as honest, with a grace-filled conclusion.

Lobdell said that before he lost his faith, he requested a change of assignment at the L.A. Times . He "couldn’t take another story." When he publicly confessed his deconversion, he expected criticism. Instead he received 3000 emails, the most his newspaper had ever received. Many of them expressed empathy and support. Mine was among them.

I’m glad to finally possess a copy of Losing My Religion . I think I’ll find it oddly comforting. Along with it, I’ve just begun reading Becky Garrison’s 2007 offering, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith . Garrison is another journalist who shines her spotlight on holy dirt. In this book she turned it outward. Lobdell doesn’t fit within her field of vision though. He is more a Materialist than an anti-Theist and, despite the blazing A  logo on his blog, he sounds more pink agnostic than bright red atheist. Could there yet be a reconversion sequel in his future? Believing supporters are praying so. If our prayers evaporate unanswered, no harm done, right Bill?

In addition to these atheist tomes that coordinate nicely with A Secular Age , I’m reading a book Christianity Today editor-at-large Rob Moll sent me some months back. Rob and I became friends after he wrote an expose’ on my former church group  and was excoriated for it in the blogosphere. We lost our Christian [investigative] journalistic virginity together on that one. Although he’s much too young for such a heavy topic, Rob is now writing a book about Christian dying that will no doubt be excellent. His research led him to send Jeff and me Walter Wangerin Jr.’s Mourning into Dancing . I find most grief books beside the point, but I do pick this one up sporadically and glean some comfort from this pastor’s experience with those who’ve suffered devastating loss. Anger and disillusionment are common features of grief. People of faith cannot thrive there though. Nor can they thrive in a religious gutter. It’s good for them us to climb out and breathe air that’s fresh and clean.

I felt on the verge of tears through much of Lobdell’s talk. His story tapped into a place of deep pain for me. The betrayal. The lost idealism. The impact on my family (with loss of hope and life rather than collective loss of faith). He described the molestation victims he had gotten to know through his work as having "hollowed out souls." I resonate with that description. My mother and I were talking recently about that part of us that died with Gabe. How, in some measure, we’re just biding our time now until this life is over. Lobdell believes that when it’s over, it’s over. There will be no reunions. No justice. No mercy. I find those thoughts both unbearable and untenable. Unbearable for obvious reasons, untenable because there is too much mystery and beauty in the world to believe it has no ultimate meaning.

After the book signing and a simple, satisfying lunch of lentil soup and egg white/asparagus/Swiss cheese omelet, Jeff and I happened upon the Hunterdon Art Museum , which is housed in an old stone mill. The building itself is a work of art and the "Cutters" exhibit was literally inspiring. When we came home and showed our son photos of the various cut paper and steel art objects, he got out the previously neglected daily origami calendar I had bought him for Christmas and produced a collection of his own. I was thus prompted to thank God not only for art, but for honesty, comraderie and faith. These are gifts that science may describe, but which it cannot explain. Sorry Bill.

 

Update: The Library Journal description of Mourning into Dancing as found on Amazon.com :

Wangerin, a Christian minister and imaginative theological writer, provides a splendid description of death, grief, and the feelings of those who mourn the separation. Wangerin includes four types of death: the primal fall or original sin over which human relationship with God was broken; the numerous "deaths" we each suffer on earth, as typified by the biblical story of the prodigal son; individual bodily death; and "dying absolute," or spiritual death. His primary focus, however, is the small deaths in daily life as typified by one family’s grief. Wangerin depicts human feeling convincingly; his theology that all death is related to the first (primal fall and original sin) supports his hopeful and confident faith in the purpose of grief as leading to renewal, healing, and resurrection. For public and seminary libraries.

Update 4/8/09: My review of Losing My Religion is here, at Her.meneutics .

Being Well When We’re Ill

 being-well-when-were-ill

Last week Christianity Today announced its 2009 book awards, which evaluate books published in 2008. For several years now, I’ve served as a judge in the Christian Living category, and been introduced to some wonderful books that I might not have otherwise read. I’ve also trudged my way through a few that, well, I didn’t care for. (What does Rob Bell have against proper paragraph structure anyway?) Sometimes I’ve been in sync with the other judges and sometimes I haven’t. This year, I was. The winner, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing was excellent, as are most InterVarsity Press books that I’ve read. IVP books are consistently well edited: The writing is always tight and readable, the style clean and the content substantive.

My top choice, however, was the Award of Merit winner: Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope in Spite of Infirmity by theologian Marva J. Dawn. I chose this title even though the editing could have been tighter, because content is queen.  Dawn lives with multiple physical infirmities, and still manages to have a full life of writing, teaching and speaking. She writes an honest account of the challenges those ailments pose for both her and her husband. The book is laid out in chapters that work nicely as daily devotions. They begin with a Scripture and end with a prayer. Sandwiched between are Dawn’s theological and personal reflections.

Being Well When We’re Ill isn’t just a book for sufferers, but also for caretakers. It isn’t designed as such, but in my role as spouse and mother to three (now two) chronically infirm family members, I found it exceedingly helpful. For example, chapter nine is titled Loneliness–Community. It begins with a meditation of David from Psalm 31:9-12:

Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.

Dawn notes that this psalm comes from a time when physical afflictions were often thought to be God’s punishment. David emphasizes his feelings of alienation from friends and neighbors, and his enemies’ delight in his sorrow. Most telling though, are his feelings of abandonment. In an earlier chapter Dawn examined the blame that is frequently assigned to those who suffer.  She revisits the theme here:

Some people espouse the bad idea that we experience chronic illness or handicaps because we have done something wrong. Then such people try to help us fix it, which leads to a different kind of isolation.

The types of isolation she identifies are: physical isolation, intellectual isolation, emotional isolation and envy, social isolation, misunderstanding and spiritual isolation.  In the midst of the discussion, she quotes seminary professor Arthur Paul Boers:

I learned long ago in giving pastoral care that in stressful situations people feel not just severely alone but profoundly misunderstood. The sense that “I’m the only one who knows, understands, or feels this” may be ever more difficult than whatever appears to be giving the pain. … It is important to name and share the details and to have someone else listen to them.

Not only have I been on the receiving end of such misunderstanding regarding my husband’s and sons’ infirmities, I have also been the one to alienate and isolate them because of my own ignorance of their conditions. Dawn’s book helps me to better love my family and stand with them against the misunderstanding of others.

Her advice for strengthening ourselves spiritually is rich:

As emphasized in previous chapters and emphasized through the Scriptures, the Trinity is never apart from us, even when we feel that we are enduring a dark night of the soul. But our various kinds of isolation and the deep loneliness that results make us feel that God is absent too.

That is why it is so important that we establish habits of reading the Scriptures, so that we can trust what we know over what we feel. When we feel most estranged from God, we find great treasure in texts that assure us of the Lord’s presence. …

We cherish the sacrament of the Eucharist, for it gives us bread and wine so that we can know Christ’s presence in a tangible form. In the same way, the sacramental work of the church is to be a physical sign of the Trinity’s presence for the sake of everyone, especially the lonely.

The chapter ends with this prayer:

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Being Well When We’re Ill is a book I would give to others and that I highly recommend. It’s one I would never have been introduced to had it not been for the book awards. Don’t miss this gem!

Another book that my husband and I have been recommending a lot, especially to the young and spiritually alienated, is Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. I saw no mention of it in this year’s awards. I’m sorry about that, as I would have preferred it to a couple other contenders.

The Real Mary, Take 2

I realized pretty quickly after my previous post on Scot McKnight’s book, The Real Mary, that I made a silly comment that I’d like to clarify. I wrote:

Scot says she [Mary] is responsible for much New Testament theology.  Ever heard that before?

Well of course you have. So have I. What I wasn’t thinking about was the obvious fact that Mary was the first eye-witness to the Incarnation. What I was thinking about is the subject of this book: the ways in which Mary influenced the faith beyond the obvious. I was thinking like an Evangelical layperson, not a skeptic or a scholar.

To the skeptic, Mary is either an object of pity who made up a grand tale in order to survive in a repressive culture or she is an immoral liar. To the biblical scholar, I’m unapologetically ignorant, if grateful for their work. The skeptic’s Mary may have more in common with the Real Mary than the sanitized modern religious icon with whom most of us Christians are acquainted. At least their Mary has spunk, like the real one.

What I thought I’d do by way of penance is to highlight a few striking points from Scot’s excellent book. I’ll skip over the informative chapters on how we came to believe the things we do about Mary and about inaccurate Protestant notions of what Catholics believe. Instead, true to Evangelical form, I’ll highlight his observations from the biblical account. (I really appreciated the history lesson though.)

First, he spends considerable time educating his reader on just how provocative Mary’s Magnificat was culturally and politically. He writes:

In the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned any public reciting of Mary’s Magnificat because it was deemed politically subversive. … The Magnificat was for Mary’s world what “We Shall Overcome” was to the African American community in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. …When we think of Mary, the first thing that should come to mind is the kind of courage we find among informed protesters—and, by reading the Magnificat in context, we can imagine Mary to be wiry and spirited and bold and gutsy.

Furthermore:

Mary was not a “nice” girl. If  “nice” means meek and mild and mind-your-own-business, then Mary was not nice. In fact, Mary scared “nice” passive girls because she was dangerously active. Instead of minding her own business, she was minding Herod’s and, as we will see, Caesar Augustus’s. And well into Jesus’ own ministry, we will see that Mary minded Jesus’ business, too.

In discussing Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine, Scot introduces us to one of many instances in which Mary struggles to figure out what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah and for her to be his mother.

Mary meddled in Jesus’ business, Jesus revealed to her that he did only what the Father told him to and only when the Father wanted it done, and Mary trusted those words of her son. By trusting Jesus, Mary unlocked the doors to a mighty miracle. But, Mary first had to surrender her own honor to her son. The Gospel of John suggests Mary stumbled into this, the way many of us stumble into faith.

Likewise:

The real Mary and the real siblings and the real relatives of Jesus were ambivalent about Jesus—perhaps much of the time. … Mary’s ambivalence is clear: She believed her son was the promised Messiah and, at the same time, she knew what he was doing was contrary to what the Messiah was promised to do. … Mary’s special challenge was to trust that the God who spoke to her and through the Magnificat was at work in Jesus in his ministry and his mission.

That Mary exercised significant influence on both Jesus’ ministry and on the early church may, again, be obvious to both skeptics and scholars, but not necessarily to us Protestants who were raised in churches that simultaneously devalued and sentimentalized her. So …

 … when it is argued that the Gospels are in part Mary’s “memoirs,” we must agree with the general drift: For from whom else would the early Christians—and the Evangelists—have learned about these things if not from Mary.

When I suggested it unusual that Mary shaped Christian theology, I was thinking about things like Jesus’ teaching on justice, mercy and the Law as well as his apparent preference for sinners over the kinds of legalists and moralists who would have scorned both him and his mother. What I was thinking about was Mary’s fiestiness and unacknowledged influence on the Apostles.

I have never been a skeptic or a scholar. An intellectual wrestler, yes, and a product of Evangelical churches. Thus, I am almost delighted to have made this blunder. I’m the person for whom Scot wrote this book. You’ll have to pick up a copy of your own if you’d like to adopt his suggestions for honoring Mary without venerating her. I’m not sure I’d plan exactly what he has in mind, but I would like to organize an event around the topic/book and I will utilize the suggested reflections that he includes in one of three appendices.

I do have one minor complaint, which I include only to balance my obvious appreciation. The critique is this: theologians and pastors sometimes go too far in speculating on what Bible characters knew or were thinking. If they would own their opinions it would be fine, but when they communicate speculation as fact, well, as a journalist, I wince and usually scribble a question mark in the margins. How does anyone KNOW exactly what any other person is thinking, now or in the distant past? At best, we make educated guesses.  Scot makes some of those in this book, but presents them as fact. Nonetheless, there’s much to commend in The Real Mary and I’m grateful I was introduced to Scot’s work several years ago when his book The Jesus Creed was nominated for a Christianity Today book award. As a judge, it was my first choice.

For a semi-skeptical perspective on Mary (and a gorgeous artist’s rendition of Jesus’ birth), check out Andrew Sullivan’s eloquent post, in which he describes his own faith, and confesses his lack of respect for those of us who believe biblical “myths” literally occurred. He’s impossible not to take seriously, but his limited view of transcendent mystery and the Holy Spirit’s creative power allows me to take him, as he takes us, with a grain of salt.

The Mourning Madonna above and the previous photo (of an 18th century Colonial Peruvian Madonna) were taken at the Princeton University Museum. The wall notes for the Mourning Madonna read as follows:

A fine example of the mater dolorosa (grieving mother) type, this sculpture focuses on the emotional impact of Christ’s crucifixion. An isolated figure with her head inclined toward her empty lap, Mary expresses her pain over the sacrifice of her son. This seated figure combines features of the Virgin standing at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion and those of the Virgin of the Pieta′ (Pity), seated with her dead son in her lap, to form a rarer image of maternal suffering. The grieving mother was thought by worshippers to be a particularly persuasive intercessor with Christ on behalf of the faithful.

If you read The Real Mary, you’ll have a better understanding of what people mean when they talk about Mary interceding for them with Christ.

A Final Note: I get very few comments on this blog, but I’ve decided not to take them at all anymore. If you’d like to discuss one of my posts, or anything at all for that matter, email me at exploring.intersections[at]yahoo[dot]com and we’ll have a private conversation. I enjoy those. Special thanks to L.L. Barkat and Mark, my two most faithful and thoughtful blog buddies. Blessings, and thanks for reading.  c

Thinking about Religion, Belief & Politics @ Princeton

The inaugural Danforth Lecture at Princeton University was a lucky little feast for the brain Thursday afternoon. CUNY anthropologist Talal Asad gave a breathtaking talk on “Thinking About Religion, Belief and Politics.” I hadn’t expected Charles Taylor to be the subject of Asad’s elegant dissection, but there it was: A Secular Age fileted and served on ice. 

This eminent scholar/author said Taylor’s seminal work deals with personal crisis of belief that are insufficient to the global crisis of our time. He argued that beliefs formed through external acts of devotion and training are not inherently coercive, but can lead to authentic faith and the formation of a moral personality. Asad appeared to be making a case for non-Judeo-Christian, or, at least non-Protestant, religious influence in the public square. He spent precious little time talking directly about politics, but instead drew an entertaining connection between the development of public ventilation systems and narcissistic notions of belief.

Asad objected to an audience member’s suggestion that he dismiss religion outright as a dangerous force that wants to control other people’s bodies. He said the secular/religious debate is tired and suggested that market forces can be at least as coercive as religion. He cited coercion of women’s bodies as an insightful example. 

Although the lecturer expressed faith in liberal democratic values, he has comparatively little faith that states can effectively implement those values. He concluded by confessing doubt that mankind will see the next century. With such apocolyptic vision, one wonders where he gets off saying personal faith is insufficient to the times. Perhaps he thinks no other kind will hold sway in coming decades.

Ah well. My momentary USC advisor Diane Winston tipped me off to Princeton Religion Department public offerings. I had been lamenting the loss of such local events at USC and UCI, but found this first lecture a more than adequate substitute. Thanks to Ed Gilbreath, I’ve also been reading the blog of two Princeton professors lately. Check it out; it’s called The Kitchen Table.

The Princeton University Art Museum is likewise a lovely place to spend an afternoon. The museum is free and contains a good deal of compelling Christian art and iconography. There are also a couple witty architectural exhibits right now and a nice collection of ancient art, including Roman floor and wall mosaics. Strolling the campus, parts of which date back to 1756, is itself an exercise in art appreciation.

My husband’s handicapped tag came in handy on this trip. A quick phone call to the PU parking office and we were waved in to park on campus. Between the museum and the lecture, I dragged him to the Whole Earth Natural Grocery, which has been selling bulk health foods on Nassau Street since the 1970s. The last time I was there, it was a warm, earthy place. A low VOC renovation has left the store feeling sterile, cold and utterly suburban. Still, I stocked up on brown rice, Kombu seaweed (which is supposed to reduce the gassiness of beans when a couple 1-inch chunks are thrown in the pot) and other vegan staples. 

On the drive to Princeton, I was struck once again by the subtle beauty of my state. We passed quaint farms, small towns and mile after mile of hearty pine. A gas station on Rte. 33 was simultaneously selling Chicken Parmesan sandwiches and gas for under $2-a-gallon. Can’t beat that.

At dinner on the same road in Hightstown (half way between home and Princeton), a high school classmate of my husband’s was working as a waitress. Dinner was lousy. We should have eaten down the road at Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty instead. Baker’s original Lobster Shanty is a landmark in my home town of Point Pleasant Beach. I went to high school with his children, one of whom is a longtime friend.

We were at a delightful party together last night. There was plenty of good wine, lots of laughter and a passionate debate amongst old friends the likes of which I imagine taking place in Republican living rooms from coast to heretical coast. The topic? What does it mean to be a Conservative? What went wrong in ’08? And since when did disagreement mean one’s conservative and/or spiritual credentials are suspect?

Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to be home?

I have a job interview Tuesday. Send up a prayer for me if you’re so inclined. I’ve been told to prepare for a two-hour introduction.

Beyond Smells & Bells: A Review

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and I’m missing my Anglican church (St. James in Newport Beach, CA). Had I been there this morning, I might have played a role in lighting the Candle of Hope. I’ve been worshiping with the Baptists since I returned home. It’s an incredibly loving congregation right now, which is how it began 30+ years ago. Then there was a church split and then another and another. Anyway, these Baptists love my family and our roots with them are as deep as human roots go. And yet. And yet, I deeply miss the Anglican liturgy. 

My “low” church friends sometimes ask me what it is about the “high” church liturgy that I love and miss. I find it difficult to explain, which is where Mark Galli’s latest book, Beyond Smells & Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy comes in. Galli, whose writing I’ve always appreciated for its provocative honesty, gives shape to my thoughts. In describing the mystery that I long for, he writes:

Worship that doesn’t in some way leave a large space for transcendence and mystery is not fully worship of the God of the Bible, who when asked to name himself—to explain his essence—said rather truculently, I am who I am.”

The liturgy shines in the shadowy place called mystery. But to leave matters here, at the threshold of incomprehensibility, would also be leaving out something. For mystery is both more complicated and understandable than we imagine.

He then compares the Eucharist to the handshake of a couple major league baseball players that occurred after a game stopping brawl. He says the handshake “conveyed a story—with characters, conflict and resolution.” Every time those two players shake hands, it will always be more than a ritual; it will be a remembrance. Likewise,

The liturgy contains a similar “handshake” at its climax, an outward action that conveys a deeper drama. To some this moment looks like routine ritual, like that handshake might have looked to those who had not heard what had happened a few days earlier. But those with eyes of faith see a mystery opening before them in the liturgy.

We call this moment in the liturgy a sacrament, an outward sign of an invisible reality. But it has also been traditionally called a mystery, though not because it is something that baffles us or eludes our understanding. Benedictine writer Jerry Driscoll puts it this way:

“The word mystery preserves the tension between the concrete and the divine. Something is definitely present, but what is present exceeds and overflows the limits of the concrete, even if it is present only by means of it. This is mysterious in a way unique to Christian understanding.”

Galli concludes:

The liturgical handshake—that is, the sharing of bread and wine at the climax of the service—not only recalls something that happened, but re-presents it in a way that makes it a present reality.

A minister says words and performs actions, but at a deeper level, it is Christ who is presiding. We share in bread and wine, but the reality is that we are taking Christ into us. It looks like this is all occurring in time and space, when in fact the boundaries of time and space are being shattered, when for a few moments “heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.”

When all is said and done, though it may look like we’ve done nothing more than re-enact a routine religious meal, in fact, as the concluding prayer notes, something terribly significant has occurred: “You have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the sacrament of his body and blood.”

Beyond Smells & Bells is a short book that breezes along combining Galli’s meditations and metaphors with pieces of the liturgy itself and with the work of theologians. It is not a book for experts, but instead is one for people like me who have returned to the liturgy of their youth and can’t quite explain why. Or, perhaps, for those seeking to understand a family member’s decision to do the same. It could also benefit the spiritually dry, confused or curious.

The Anglican liturgy healed me after years of broken church life, even though my Anglican church and the larger Anglican body was itself broken. For this reason, I especially appreciate and miss the corporate confession of sin that precedes the Eucharist. Even when one has always done their best to act rightly, there is guilt in living through so much failure and more guilt from failure’s inevitable consequences.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Chris Hedges talks about this type of moral ambiguity in a recent interview with The Sun. Discussing topics as diverse (or connected) as war, Fundamentalism and the New Atheists, this son of a Presbyterian minister says:

The world rarely offers us a choice between the moral and the immoral. It’s usually a choice between the immoral and the more immoral. That’s why moral decision making is so tough. Who was more moral in the Warsaw ghetto uprising during World War ii: those people who didn’t join the uprising, because they had children and feared for their safety, or those who led the suicidal fight against the Nazis? You can’t say one was more moral than the other. It depended on who you were. …

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “You make a moral choice, you act, and then you ask for forgiveness.” That’s a wise statement. You make the choice, because you can’t sit around hemming and hawing forever. You ask forgiveness, because, to quote Paul, “We look through a glass darkly.” What appears moral and good in our eyes may not appear good and moral in the eyes of others, even our friends. No act is absolutely moral or good, because we don’t live in a utopia where we have those absolutes.

Hedges found healing from his battlefield memories in being a dad. I found it in the liturgy. Affirming the Creed, praying with the Saints and the saints, confessing both sins and ambiguities, passing the peace and being cleansed by the blood of the lamb each week was a powerful, worshipful remedy for me.

Another aspect of the liturgy that I am drawn to and that Galli touches on is its timelessness. He writes:

We have to pay attention to cultural context, no question. The history of the liturgy has been in part about finding words and ritual that help people in a given culture to express their thoughts and feelings to God in ways that makes sense. The liturgy has always had freedom and variety within its basic structure.

But it has steadfastly refused to let the culture determine its shape or meaning. Liturgical churches know that as profound a reality as is the surrounding culture, there is an even more profound reality waiting to be discovered. Like Mrs. Haller [an elementary school teacher] did for me, the liturgy gently and calmly gets us to open our eyes to the new reality, showing us the value of the “necessary separation” from the old. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we find our gaze directed away from ourselves and toward God and his kingdom. When we return to our homes, we are never the same.

When there is little difference between going to church and going to the mall or the movies, God’s holiness and majesty can be diminished in our minds. Familiarity can lull us into complacency. Galli writes that this can happen too with the liturgy, if we’re not careful.

In regard to church buildings, both ordinary and extraordinary, he reminds us:

To be sure, we can worship God anywhere, and the church is not the building but the people. Yet this does not take into account how God normally works in our lives—that is, by revealing himself to us in places, places that become sacred and holy.

This is precisely why parishioners become feisty when someone wants to remodel the sanctuary in the least little way. … And why they will fight to the death (or, more precisely, to the debt) to keep their property out of the hands of their wayward denomination. This behavior, which is sometimes described as “worldly,” is ultimately grounded in a biblical understanding of the world—that this planet contains spaces where God meets people.

Liturgical churches understand this reality. Thus their healthy addiction to magnificent worship spaces, whose very architecture evokes the reality of God’s presence.

This very reality is why we eschewed funeral parlors when planning services for our son. They are devoid of meaning, divorced as they are from ordinary life. Our last Christmas worshiping together as a family was at St. James Church. The first service took place there. Trinity Bible Church holds more memories and meaning for our family than most other places on this earth. A service was held there as well. The fact that people have fought over and in these spaces speaks less to me about our corporate failures than it does about the love that transcends failure.

Which brings me to my final point about the liturgy. I’ve met God in churches both “high” and “low.” I’ve met him in nature and elsewhere. The services in “low” churches that I’ve attended generally build up to the preaching of the Word. A man stands at the center of the hour. I’ve benefited from this style … and witnessed the attendant destruction when the man falters or begins “inhaling his own fragrance,” as a friend so aptly put it. Preaching is an integral part of the “high” church liturgy. It is not the climax. When the man fails, the liturgy goes on. There’s humility to this style. So much of preaching is designed to perfect us. It will never be, in this life. Traditional liturgy engages our frail humanity. That’s probably what I love about it most. It is not a spectator sport; it’s a contact sport for sinners.

Galli examines all these issues and more. I commend his book to you as a primer. In the acknowledgements, he thanks those contributors to his blog who helped shape his thought. He’s a sporadic blogger. Just when I think he’s going to begin posting regularly, he goes silent for months on end. Demanding day job, I guess, what with being senior managing editor of Christianity Today and all. Check out this recent post on The Blessings of Everyday Hate. Nobody dared respond. I liked it for the reasons I like this book. It’s provocative, thoughtful and down to earth.

The Far Country, and Home

We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickle’s worth of sense into our days. And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do: churn out enormities at random and beat them, with God’s blessing, into our heads—that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God? (And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?) We forget ourselves, picknicking; we forget where we are. There is no such thing as a freak accident. “God is at home,” says Meister Eckhart, “We are in the far country.”

We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all. We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to break our necks for home.

There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.

—Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm