Paradox: Time or Space

Just recently have I allowed Abraham Joshua Heschel into my reading repertoire. Perhaps I did not know of his works earlier because of evangelicalism. Perhaps I did not read him when I first began learning of him because of a complacency in my own shallow knowledge of Holy Land disputes. Perhaps there are other reasons that don't really matter. But a few weeks ago while I was unable to lay down Israel: An Echo of Eternity, I found myself processing much of the philosophical and theological genius therein.

This work he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, and in the introduction his daughter confesses that so much of his intensity and sheer (arguably blind) devotion to his subject matter—Israel—may have been tempered by a later awareness of the condition of the Palestinian people had he not died prematurely. But this isn't really the focus of my thoughts anyway...too involved, intense, and polarizing for this simple blog.

Early in his argument, Heschel drops this bomb of genius, "To ignore the paradox is to miss the truth." He offers the example of a brief quote from Solomon's inaugural speech for the temple in 1 Kings, "The Lord dwells in thick darkness." A beautiful statement in an of itself, is it not? Heschel marks that although the Shekinah is everywhere, the experience of it is always somewhere because humanity always lives at a particular place. Here's an extended quote:

Living truth is the blending of the universal and the individual, of idea and understanding, of distance and intimacy, the ineffable and the expressible, the timeless and the temporal, body and soul, time and space. Even those who believe that God is everywhere set aside a place for a sanctuary. For the sacred to be sensed at all moments everywhere, it must also at this moment be somewhere.

A few pages later, the point strikes me vividly. It's a point that I, and my fellow post modern Christians, value beyond that of our former generations. It's a point that I beat loudly on a drum myself but received in a new pattern of reverberations at this hearing: "God is no less here than there. It is the sacred moment in which God's presence is disclosed. We meet God in time rather than in space, in moments of faith rather than in a piece of space."

I'm not enough of a scholar to fully unpack this. And I totally take his ideas out of the context of Jerusalem and apply them to contemporary church. Plus, as I consider further the idea of God-in-time before God-in-space, I must celebrate the gift of such awareness.

For those of us who find suspect ideas of anything absolute, especially truth(!), how freeing to think that more than some rational, modern, industrial approach to God's presence marking a place holy or not, God created not the temple first, but the Sabbath. Time. Moments to participate in the divine no matter the space. What a fabulous deconstruction of sacred and holy. (Reminds me of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.)

Here comes a gross over-simplification of such a beautiful idea, and yet, it's this practical situation that brings Heschel to life for me...

I think this is why I struggle so desperately to care about the missing sterling silver, custom-made, totally gorgeous, and yet stolen/missing/neglected communion ware that is so holy and sacred to my current church. I wish I had a photo of one of the goblets; they are amazing. And without taking time to describe the detail with which they were designed and the money they represent, I will say that the team of congregants responsible for their care offer no hesitation in defending their sacredness. To not handle these worship supplies with the utmost reverence and gentility is to defame all that the church represents. No hyperbole intended!

As worship director I continually had to negotiate a balance between the volunteers who so highly value these elements and the building services individuals who actually cleaned them as they would any other dirty cup of juice. As the volunteers themselves struggled to articulate what it is they actually ascribed to these pieces of shaped silver, I found myself fully able to empathize with their concern over something so special to the life of their church. On the other hand, I was/am wholly unable to understand the theological errors in such thinking. Had they known of my irreverence for such pieces of worship, errrr, expensive cups competing with God in stature, our relationship may have been marred—the concern for this part of worship undoubtedly this intense. How does such mis-shaped thinking originate?

I think one way is by limiting God to a certain space. In this case, communion is only special, i.e. sacred, if served
with the pristinely polished, silver cups. (Nevermind the fact that they make the juice taste like metal.) with the 'right' liturgy.
with the elements of the meal resting atop a meticulously ironed brocade cloth.
with the ministers seated in sturdy throne-like chairs in front of them.
and I could go on describing the ritual.
a ritual that in my opinion, which I never shared out of respect for those with whom I partook of the meal, is boring, out-of-context, and way too long.

So much so, that God-in-time collapses for me during this liturgical element that ought to be so central to the life of the church. (Here's where I get really honest) the elements of this ritual where I find God most manifest (the communal aspect, the humility, the simplicity and ordinariness of the act, etc.) are absent because of the damn silver. As I find myself longing to see/taste/hear/feel/sense God move, instead, all I hear is the clanking of the cups on the trays.

To ignore the paradox is to miss the truth, Heschel reminds me.

The paradox, especially one of faith, is uncomfortable and takes much effort to appropriate! But upon such integration sets free the believer to grapple with and explore more deeply the transcendent mystery of God. We are free to value the silver cups for the beauty of their design, celebrate the blacksmith artist who crafted them, and yes, collectively mourn the fact that tourists steal them because they are just that cool. But we are not limited in our divine encounters during a holy meal of remembrance and grace. The point is not lost if we allow ourselves the tension of paradox. We can remember that it's not the cup we honor but a carpenter servant who most likely offered the wine in some type of generously used, bacteria-infested, wooden goblet. The point is that we honor the carpenter.

So if the sacred is not partial to the secular, nor is it distinct from the secular but everywhere holy, then I want to embrace the totality of that Presence so fully that I do not miss it for fear of it seeming too misplaced.

At the end of his book, Heschel nearly comes full circle with this statement,

Are customs and ceremonies, are services and sermons, an adequate antidote to the massive dehumanization, to the emerging monsters of absurdity?...Ritual, loyalty, theology, remain deficient unless there is an ongoing responsiveness to the outbursts of immediate history, our own situations.

Being alive means being exposed to contradictions and defiance, facing challenge and disappointment. Religion may die when its truth becomes trite—its poetry a conceit, its observance inane. Truth becomes half-truth; worship, comfort; belief, vapid...To have faith is to be in labor.

And as a woman who types this while seven months pregnant, anticipating the arduous, joy-infused road to and of labor, all I can say is, "holy fuck." I'm alive! I'm in the middle of a really intense situation, and the church's rituals are dying. They labor not on the things of God but the accoutrements of this world. And the paradox is forgotten... the truth is being made trite...

(Congratulations if you bothered reading all of this rambling!)


I was surprised

The Christian Century recently featured an article on new ways of doing church outside the confines of denominationalism and traditional ordination requirements for their clergy. Duh.

Sometimes I wonder about these mainliners and their disconnect with culture—stuff Evangelicals have been in-tune with since their inception—things like technology, modes of churching, trendy ideas about theology. In part it's their theology that limits their interaction with culture, right? On the other hand, it's one of the reasons so many of their churches are flailing. Surely we can update ritual and liturgy without the end goal being to bring more people to 'salvation.'

Regardless, this issue of the CC annoyed me for a few reasons. One of the ideas featured in the article was a young person barista-ing at Starbucks as a way to meet new people and hopefully invite them to Bible Study. Really? This is as far as we have come in our ways of re-branding church? I find this insulting to the regulars of said coffee shop and completely arrogant on the part of said barista. What happened to serving coffee just to serve coffee? Why do the motives have to be so calculated and manipulative? ...how...how...well, how Evangelical. Why must church center on bringing people in? And if that's the goal (which I'm not favoring), then why can't you be direct about it? Why use Starbucks? And like I said, realize that this is not a new tactic. My funda-gelical childhood church used Krispy Kreme donuts fifteen years ago.

Secondly, the conversation about ordination was intriguing. Many of the leaders of new church movements are young, not yet ordained, but serving in leadership that traditionally requires such credentials and set-apart-ness. The holy collars themselves are blessed, aren't they? As the denominations themselves are struggling to remain vibrant and relevant (mainline and evangelical ones), they are now forced into re-evaluative roles regarding the legitimacy of such 'unorthodox' leadership. I'm glad they are finally asking these questions, again, even if they are about  thirty years behind culture. Who knows what will come of it.

In the meantime, I'm beginning yet my second job in ministry (this August) that would normally desire one who is ordained, but because so many (out of the church) care less about parish life and ordination these days, I am the hire regardless, I suppose. Pickin's are slim. That's not forced humility. That's a statement about how I find it weird that they are so okay with the fact that I'm not licensed or ordained. The first draft of the press release listed me as Rev. I actually want to be ordained but can't make it happen (been working on it for about five years now) because of all the ridiculous stuff one has to do in addition to the degree. Where is the balance? Why are the reins held so tenaciously by those in power?

Your churches are dying people! You have young people with new ideas, and you won't let them in because they ain't allowed to wear the stole yet, and they can't wear the stole yet because you worship your rules and regulations. Stop putting the protocols before the relationships.

Alas, the church continues to miss the point. What's new? Perhaps my surprise at how those of us mainliners who still care about the future of the church cannot critically engage her more. So I leave half-empty/half-filled (still depressing either way) worship services wondering how much longer the numbers will dwindle and how many more churches-turned-condominiums New England and New York will see in the next thirty years.

I'll have an iced grande decaf light mocha, hold the inauthentic community bible study. Thanks.