Embodied prayer, popular culture and beauty...

NOTE: On Sunday afternoon, October 26th some musician friends and I will have the privilege of hosting a worship celebration for the Berkshire Association of the United Church of Christ at 3 pm. (First Church address: 27 East Street in Pittsfield, MA) What follows are my remarks and the songs we will be sharing as a way of experiencing what we call embodied praying with music. There will be readings fro the Iona Community of Scotland along with visual images from modern and contemporary artists, too. If you are in town, why not stop by?
Reflections on the Word in Music, Poetry, Silence and Prayer

Part One: Entering into Embodied, Incarnational Prayer
Today I would like to invite you into a different type of prayer: call it embodied or incarnational meditation – call it an experiment with beauty – or maybe just an encounter with a spirituality of popular music. Each of these definitions are at work in what we are testing out today – incarnation, beauty and music – because each have given us a way of authentically wrestling with our tradition and deepening it in some ways as well as naming some of the holes or shadows within it at the same time.

You see, for a spiritual tradition that proclaims, “In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and that Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and grace,” our way of doing Christianity has been pretty long on the words and awfully short on the flesh.

+ Our liturgies are word saturated – idea drenched – while all the other senses get short shrift if not disdain and neglect. Our spirituality has devolved from one rooted in critical intellectual reflection on our physical acts of social justice and tender compassion , to paraphrase Howard Rice in his very helpful study Reformed Spirituality, to something anemic, aloof and alienated from matter.

+ One long time member of one of our congregations said to me not long ago, “When I come to worship I want to escape the world, rest for awhile from all the harshness of contemporary life and let my mind be filled with pleasant and beautiful thoughts.”

+ And I thought, “Hmmmm… escapism, retreat and sentimentality – hardly the path of Jesus” but this soul is not alone, right? Many in this neck of the woods confuse quietism with tradition, self-centered or personalistic piety as prayer and tepid or even vapid romanticism for spirituality. It is what one of my profs once called “Sloppy Agape” – a corny obsession with the incidentals of religion – that avoids and denigrates the messiness of real life.

Now please don’t misunderstand: I get why people want to escape from the furry of modern living even in the beauty and relative peace of the Berkshires. In his paraphrase of the Bible, Eugene Peterson reframe’s the words of Jesus – come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest – into what has become almost a mantra for me: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace because I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

Isn’t that beautiful? Are you burned out on religion – then come with me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace – I get that. I want that, too. Lots of us do: when I was in Tucson before coming to Pittsfield, one of the women in my congregation was a former pastor of the first GLBT congregation in town, an incredible fighter for those who have been shut out and denigrated as children of God for so long, whose church fired her because they said she had become too liberal in her theology.

Now get this: this church, which she founded out of a very conservative theology, after 10+ years turned on her and fired her because in addition to welcoming the gay and lesbian community – and fighting for just HIV/AIDS burials back in the day none of us knew what HIV/AIDS was – she also wanted to make sure that there was room at the table of Jesus for the hookers and the runaway kids, some of the street people around the church and those 2 or 3 straight allies who joined her in the good fight. And her folk said, “No, let them go someplace else because this church is ours!” And when she tried to remind and teach them that the church didn’t belong to them like a club – that it belonged to Jesus – they fired her.

She and her life partner had been worshipping with us for about 5 weeks when I used Peterson’s reworking of Matthew 11 – are you burned out on religion – and after church she took my hand and said, “God knows I am burned out on religion… what I need to taste is some of God’s grace.”

+ Learning how to feel the unforced rhythm of grace – to integrate word with our flesh – is part of what this experiment is all about.

+ And feeling – or experiencing – the blessings of grace is essential because for too long our tradition has mostly just talked about grace.

One of my favorite writers, Cathleen Falsani, is known as the God Girl because she interviews famous people about their encounters with the Sacred. In her most recent book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, she writes:

Why grace? Because some days it’s the only thing we have in common… because it’s the oxygen of religious life, or so says a musician friend of mine, who tells me: “Without it, religion will surely suffocate you!” Because so many of us are gasping for air and grasping for God, but fleeing from a kind of religious experience that has little to do with anything sacred or gracious. Because you can’t do grace justice with a textbook, theological definition or abstract concept but you can get closer by describing it with music and film, pictures and stories.

She then writes: I have a favorite T-shirt that reads, “Jesus is my mixtape.” When I bought it, I thought its slogan was charmingly quirky, but over time it has acquired this transcendent quality, a motto that sums up my belief that everything – EVERYTHING – is spiritual. At the center of that everythingness, as a pastor friend of mine likes to describe it, is a universal rhythm, a song we all play, like a giant, motley orchestra. Sometimes in tune, sometimes off-key. We call it by different names. Still, it remains – if only we have ears to hear it – the eternal soundtrack that plays in the background of our lives.

She is talking about the unforced rhythm of God’s grace – the integration of our ideas with our lives – our heads with our flesh and blood – our political and public lives with our private experiences – she’s talking about – and I’m talking about – learning to live into the promise and blessing of the incarnation within and among us.

So, as we move into this time of music and visuals – readings and silence – movement and conversation – please understand that this is not a performance or a concert: it is an experiment in using the stuff of ordinary life to both ground us in God’s grace and awaken us to the beauty that can change the world. As Cat Stevens once said, “If you want to sing out: sing out; and if you want to be free: be free.”

I hope you will join in singing the songs that you know – and entering the spirit of the ones that are new to you – to see what happens, ok? Try to notice the movement and feel of each tune, too, especially the way the first song embodies both the spirit and form becoming Christ’s living body together – bringing all our unique gifts – into one community.
(The first cycle of songs and readings takes place including: One Voice, Iona readings, A Thousand Beautiful Things, Mark 14: 3-9 (about compassion) and Mary’s Eyes.)

Part Two: Why Popular Culture and Music
This text from Mark 14 – in which a woman does something excessive and beautiful for the Lord by using something from everyday life and letting it become the stuff of healing and grace – is critical for us. The scholars tell us that one version or another of this story appears in each of the gospels so it should cause us to pause and reflect on its significance.

+ In John’s gospel she is Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha, who anoints Jesus just six days before the Passover feast; Luke offers her as a woman of the street while Matthew and Mark leave her unnamed but active just prior to Christ’s death during Passover.

+ All of the texts agree, however, that when this passionate woman uses precious oil and her hair to be prayerful, the men freak out: Judas cries about how this sacrifice could have been used for the poor – and the others seem to agree – leading the contemporary painter, Makoto Fujimura, to note that “her embodied and extravagant prayer evoked an equally opposite and ugly reaction from those who were supposed to be devoted to the master. One disciple gave her whole self while others betrayed him.”

I think that is often what happens when we get Incarnational with our religion and break down the phony barriers between what some call sacred and secular. Do you remember the old founder of Koinonia Farms and the progenitor of Habitat for Humanity Clarence Jordan? He used to tell the good old boys in the segregated South that they would affirm the heresy of Docetism in a heartbeat if they ever under-stood that the Word of God took up residence in the flesh of a person of color. What’s more, he used to say it was in every believer’s best interest to embrace integration right now rather than be shocked at the end of time when every tribe and race is dancing together around the foot of God’s thrown in a radically integrated life beyond life.

So evoking and blending the beauty of everyday life in a radically Incarnational way is often jarring to lots of people – it is even sometimes shocking and off-putting – so let me share three quick insights about why using popular culture and music can be helpful to us in doing theology in the post-modern context. Because even in the Berkshires – and greater New England – post-modern thinking and attitudes are becoming the dominant cultural reality of the day and we need to know how to engage it. Greg Stevens of Rochester College summarizes it like this:

+ First, popular culture reflects society’s real values. We may not always like what we see – a good mirror often tells us that – but as they say on those make over shows: “The 360 mirror doesn’t lie!” One scholar said that by looking at what we see in the world as it is, “we learn that as much as we are a culture obsessed with wanton sexuality and enamored with the trivial (we've practically elevated Britney Spears to the level of deity) we are also a culture equally enthralled by the concept of redemption. Just spend a week in the movie theater or watching primetime television drama and count how many times this theme pops up.” We are aching for something to fill the emptiness to say nothing of searching for signs of hope and meaning.

+ Second, popular culture shapes society’s values and beliefs. And this happens through the stories we tell. “The reason people get so upset about portrayals of violence or smoking on television or depictions of an abortion without subsequent emotional consequences is because they know that these portrayals do in fact influence thoughts and actions to some degree. People have even coined the phrase "the CSI effect" to refer to the impact that show has had on potential jurors who are now much more educated about forensic science and criminals who now have a better grasp of how to avoid detection.” The songs we sing and the shows we watch often shape our cultural agenda – they give us eyes to see and ears to hear – and wisdom about the signs of the times.

+ And third, popular culture matters to real live people. “People take their favorite shows, musicians, and authors very seriously. They develop strong emotional attachments to these things and have sometimes profound aesthetic experiences of them. In other words, popular culture has become a form of popular art.” Now, we can be elitist about this – and there’s a ton of crap out there – but it is equally true that the “best shows on television provide viewers with a significant aesthetic experience and scholars are coming to realize the importance of studying that experience. In fact the philosopher Noell Carroll prefers to call popular culture "mass art" and says that such mass art provides people in western culture with their "primary access to aesthetic experience."

Are you still with me: popular culture, in other words, offers us resources and insights into the real lives of the people in our churches – and speaks the language of many of those who feel alienated and locked out of church, too.

So listen and sing – feel and embrace – the next prayer cycle as we share two of the most important song/prayers of this afternoon: “Things the Grandchildren Should Know” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The first, by the Eels, is a hauntingly confessional tune about how a broken soul comes to love his equally broken father – it’s about redemption and healing – while George Harrison’s classic uses the guitar to evoke the broken heart of the Lord watching creation maim and kill and wound itself over and over again. As Jesus told those at the feast in Bethany, “This extravagance is a blessing for she has done something beautiful for the Lord.”

(The second cycle of songs and readings take place including: Matthew 11: 28-30/Cathleen Falsani: Sin Boldly – Things the Grandchildren Should Know – Iona readings – While My Guitar Gently Weeps.)

Part Three: Beauty Can Save the World
Ok, what did that feel like to you? Let’s talk about what you felt, ok? What I was trying to suggest – and evoke – is something of the God of compassion. One of my favorite poets, Scott Cairns, has written about what he calls “The Spiteful Jesus” – the figure of a burned out religion rather than heart of grace – who:

Is angry… He is just… And while he may have died for us, it was not gladly.
The way his prophets talk about his, you’d think the whole affair had left him
Queerly out of sorts, unspeakably indignant, more than a little needy
and quick to dish out just deserts. I saw this Jesus when, as a boy in church,
I first met souls in hell. I made him for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when
My own mortal father (mortal that he was) forgave me everything, unasked.

He goes on to say that as he grew up, he longed for the other Jesus – the Jesus that rang true to grace and wasn’t burned out on religion – or at the very least didn’t offer up a burned out religion when w really need the unforced rhythms of grace. And I have to say that I’m there – that’s what I’m looking for, too – the Jesus that reaches out to me and offers refreshment, strength and grace. Which is my final insight: reclaiming the role of beauty in our world. Jonathan Edwards played with this idea – as did some in the Russian Orthodox tradition as well as the Roman Catholic theologian Hans von Balthazar – suggesting that the mission and ministry of the Holy Spirit is to bring beauty into creation.

Now think about that: many of our theologies are pretty well-developed when it comes to God as Creator or Father or Mother, and our Christologies are often deeply considered, too. But when it comes to the Holy Spirit, well, we get a little loosey-goosey and aren’t really sure what to say about her… which is why some have been exploring the way the Spirit evokes and inspires the creation of beauty as the very heart and core of the Spirit’s ministry in the world.

+ Certainly our tradition holds that in the beginning the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep and brought order out of chaos, yes? Interestingly, Karl Barth in his 1956 little book about Mozart confessed that “… if he should ever get to heaven, he would first of all seek out Mozart, and only then inquire about Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher… (For) the music of Mozart offers us a parable of the kingdom of heaven… he heard – and causes those who have ears to hear even today – what we shall not see until the end of time: the whole context of providence.”

+ Then there is the understanding that it is the business – dare we say the ministry – of the Holy Spirit to inspire and fill us with the essence of God? Celtic theologian John O’Donohue notes that: this is precisely how beauty works in the world: We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; there is no accounting for taste because each person's taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary. Can we then say that beauty inspires – fills us with the Spirit – so that we can see the sacred beyond all limits?

+ And then Gregory Wolfe, editor of IMAGE a journal of mystery and art, writes: Only beauty can incarnate truth in concrete, believable, human flesh. Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things… (Because) its essence is to remind us of the everyday and to transmute it into a sacrament. Beauty tutors our compassion, making us more prone to love and to see the attraction of goodness. Art takes us out of our self-referentiality and invites us to see through the eyes of the other, whether that others is the artist herself or a character in a story. And because beauty endows goodness with mercy, in enables us to see how difficult it is to achieve goodness, how often one good exists in tension with another.

I am coming to trust that beauty is both the ministry and the clearest manifestation of the Holy Spirit – and our tradition has a lot of work to do in order to catch up with the movement of the Spirit. Now there is a lot more to say – and I mean a lot more – so if you want to go deeper into some of these thoughts I’ve put together a little booklet of some of my writing on this matter which I will be happy to share with you.

But let’s bring this time to a close with one more experiment, ok? It has been said that every person in all of creation was born with their own unique note – some sing high and some sing low, some sing without regard to obvious melody and some are organically harmonious – but when you put everyone’s note together, it makes a beautiful chord. A unique sound that gives us a clue to the very grace of God within and among us.

+ Now every time I try this it comes out different: back in Tucson my congregation made that sound of a very traditional choir: deep, rich and four part of harmony. A few weeks ago when I tried it in Pittsfield, we got a jazz chord: oh my God it was hot and totally unexpected. And I have no idea what kind of sound we’ll come with this afternoon, but I know it will be wonderful.

+ So here’s how we’ll do it: we’ll use the word Jesus used for God in prayer – ABBA – an intimate and tender word of trust and sweetness, ok? Abba – and on the count of three – I want you to sing your note to the sound of Abba.

+ I don’t know what your note is, right? Maybe you don’t even know what it is, but God has given us all a note – and when we sing it and share it – it creates something beautiful – and maybe even inspirational.

Do you understand what I’m asking? At the count of three, we’re going to sing our God given note using the word Abba. Can you say, “Abba?” Ok, one… two… three… ABBA

So let those who have ears to hear… hear.


Luke said…
we are human-beings... not human-doings or human-busyings. it's okay to simply be and notice God in your surroundings. wonderfully put.

back to that paper!

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