Archives For Taize

IMG_19351379868371The US Patent Office just revoked the Redskins’ trademark, saying it was ‘disparaging.’ It is. You can read the story here.

I wrote the following reflection last spring after having spent Memorial Day weekend at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for a gathering of Taize Pilgrims: 

Not being a football fan, I was only vaguely aware that pressure has been mounting in the business and political (both R’s and D’s) community for the Washington Redskins to change their name and mascot.

I know a slew of Redskins fans and the last thing I want to do is incite their wrath or to receive and respond to the types of shameful, ignorant comments you can read at the bottom of this ESPN post.

Here’s my two cents.

Taize2_candlelight_serviceAs I’ve posted, I spent Memorial Day weekend at Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I was there with a thousand other Christians from around the world for a Taize Pilgrimage.

We were all there at the invitation of Robert Two Bulls, a Lakota Indian and Episcopal Priest. We camped on his land, ate his buffalo, prayed alongside him and listened to his and his family’s stories of suffering and injustice.

Aside:
I’d never really thought too much about it until I was actually there, but how F-d up is it that America has sovereign nations within itself all due to our incredibly sinful, corrupt history towards entire people groups?

I was getting coffee Sunday morning, standing in line in the rain by the back porch of Robert’s little white church, when someone- another pilgrim like me- asked Robert Two Bulls about…

…yep, the Washington Redskins name.

The shame, anger, hurt, disappointment- you name it- that immediately crept across and through every crevice in his old face was heartbreaking and said it all.

The mascot is symbolic but not, primarily, for the past suffering and injustice meted out to Indians- the history we kinda half learn in history class after which we reassure ourselves that that’s all ‘history’ now.

It’s symbolic of how their suffering and injustice is very much a present-tense experience.

It’s symbolic of how invisible their suffering remains to an America that remains comfortably ignorant of them.

As I said, I’m not a football fan. My time at Pine Ridge, though, convinces me of one thing. Taize-2008-016

That a GAME is the only Indian issue in the American consciousness, the only Indian issue about which Americans’ are passionate enough to write hundreds of comments to online stories, is what the Church calls SIN.

It’s the stuff of Righteous Anger:

“Therefore, because you trample on the poor…I hate, I despise your festivals sports, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies games…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

– Amos 5 (sort of)

The look on Robert Two Bulls’ face when asked about the Redskins’ name was, I would argue, costlier than any of Dan Snyder’s free agent signings.

As a baseball fan, I get the arguments about historic sporting tradition.

As an American, I understand the arguments about government staying out of business.

But as a follower of Christ, I get- rather I was recently knocked upside the head- that following Christ is about solidarity: God’s solidarity with us in Christ and our solidarity with others as Christ.

And there’s something deeply, bible-bad, wrong that most of us feel a greater solidarity with our favorite sports team than with those who suffer.

A sermon for Pentecost.

The texts for this Sunday were Genesis 11.1-9 and Acts 2.1-18. You can listen to the sermon below or on the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes if you wish by clicking here.

I studied five years of Latin in high school and four years of German. I can still decline the word for ‘farmer:’ acricola, agricolae, agricolam.

And I can recall enough German to appreciate Indiana Jones on a deeper level.

indy

     I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and I still know them well enough to venture into the Old and New Testaments like a treasure hunter armed with a few well-chosen tools.

     But when it comes to speaking, when it comes to listening, I’ve never been very good at languages.

I’ve always heard how languages come easier for babies than they do for adults- their minds are like sponges, so goes the cliche. But, really, I think the difference is that no one hands out little treats when an adult finally gets the right word for ‘potty’ or ‘hungry.’

Despite my relative ambivalence about languages, on my second day of my first semester of college I decided to enroll in French class. My roommate and I were sitting in a boring Intro to English Literature course, listening to a beer-bellied, gray-haired professor recite Beowulf in Old English.

And across the hall, in the classroom opposite ours, we both noticed a twenty-something, red-haired woman standing in front of a chalk board wearing a tight leather skirt, teaching French.

We changed our schedules that afternoon.

The French teacher’s name was Isabelle, but, because of the siren-like spell she cast over my friend and I, to this day my wife refers to her as ‘Jezebel.’

My interest in French more or less began and ended with Isabelle but, once I’d enrolled, the college required me to stick it out for three additional semesters.

The good thing about French is that you can get by by approximating an accented mumble. My own accent slash mumble was a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Detective Briscoe from Casablanca.

claude-rains-casablanca

     I passed the written exams by rote memorization, and I survived the listening comprehension tests by correctly assuming that most French conversations were about Miles Davis or American Imperialism.

After four semesters, I ended up with an A average but the memory of Isabelle lingered longer.

Today I can recall a few French words, but when it comes to understanding, it’s all confusion for me.

And the Lord said, ‘Look, the people all have one language;

this is only the beginning of what they will do.

   I traveled to France a while ago to spend a week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in the Burgundy countryside. Taize is a destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims from places scattered all over the globe.

taize_reconciliation

     And ‘pilgrimage’ seems an appropriate descriptor when you consider how long and trying and confusing the journey there can prove.

At the beginning of the pilgrimage I was wandering around CDG airport in Paris, trying to locate my connecting flight. The gate number printed on my boarding pass didn’t match the listings on the terminal television screen.

I made the mistake of walking up to the desk at what should’ve been my gate and asking for help.

‘I’m just wondering if I’m at the right gate’ I said. The frenchman behind the counter stared at me blankly and said ‘Oui.’

Not satisfied he’d understood me, I handed him my boarding pass and decided to speak every traveling American’s second language. I just spoke louder: I’M JUST WONDERING IF I’M AT THE RIGHT GATE.’

Gary-Bembridge

He looked down at my boarding pass without moving his head- sort of like those haunted house portraits where only the eyes move- and again he said ‘Oui’ even though the sign directly behind him said that particular flight would be landing in Budapest.

I sighed, feeling confused, and as I walked away and he said ‘Thank you. Have a nice day’ in rehearsed non-comprehension.

Not trusting his reassurances, I walked up to Air France’s euphemistically titled Customer Service desk and pressed my dilemma to a young frenchwoman who wore her hair in a matronly bun.

‘You’re American?’ she said in textbook English.

‘And you don’t speak French?’

When I said no she said ‘Oh’ like she was a doctor examining my MRI and had found a suspicious mass.

Then she spoke rapid French to her customer service colleagues and set them all to tittering with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was pretty sure I knew who they were talking about.

Not understanding, I walked away confused.

And God said: Come, let us go down, and confuse their language…

The next leg of my journey was by train.

For what seemed like an eternity, I vainly searched around the train station for a men’s room. When I finally found one, there was an old woman standing in front of the stall doors with a mop, absently wiping at the same spot on the floor.

From the cobwebs of my memory, I pulled some of the French Isabelle had taught me. ‘I need to use the restroom’ I told the old woman.

At least I’d thought that was what I’d said. In hindsight, having later consulted my French book, I think what I actually said was: ‘I need to drive your toilet.’

The old woman with the mop looked confused so I repeated it, louder: ‘I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR TOILET.’

 

And she held out her palm and said: ‘You need to be 25 years old.’

At least, that’s what I thought she’d said.

I nodded and said ‘Don’t worry I’m well past 25’ and I walked over to the bathroom stall. But she kept talking, faster this time, her words lashing at my ankles.

When I turned around to close the stall door, the old woman was standing in the middle of it, holding out her hand and telling me I needed to be 25 years old.

I was about to pull out my passport to prove I was old enough when a tall, blond man with hipster glasses said in a Swedish accent: ‘It costs 25 cents. You need to pay her 25 cents.’

‘Oh’ I said and fished around in my pockets.

‘Sorry for the confusion’ I muttered to her, but she did not understand a word I spoke.

   tower-of-babelAnd the Lord said: Come, let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another…

For the final leg of my journey, I had to take a bus from Macon to Taize.

I had my fare counted out in my sweaty hand. For the entire train ride I’d practiced how to ask for a bus ticket. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the driver, an elderly, tough-looking frenchman.

I laid my euros down on the tray and spit out the one sentence I’d been playing in my head like a broken record: ‘A ticket to Taize, please.’

But then the driver asked me a question and, just like that, it was like my homework had blown away with the wind. I had no idea what he was asking me.

‘Lociento, no seh Francais’ I babbled….in Spanish.

 

The driver clenched his wrinkled jaw and asked his question again, and I just smiled, feeling confused.

‘He is asking if you want the roundtrip ticket’ the skinny man behind me explained with a German accent.

‘Oh, yes. Yes, please’ I said.

The bus driver tore off my receipt and slapped it down in my palm and began shouting at me: ‘SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. YOU COME TO FRANCE…SPEAK FRENCH!’

The skinny German behind me continued his translating duties: ‘He’s saying that when you come to France you should speak French.’

‘Yeah, I got that part. Danke’ I said and sat down, confused and red-faced.

BabelBar

Therefore the place was called Babel, because there the Lord confusedthe language of all the earth.

The story of Babel belongs to what is known as the Primeval History.

The Primeval History narrates God’s dealings with creation before God ever called Abraham or commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations. The Primeval History is not, like the rest of scripture, a particular history of a chosen People. It’s a general history of all humanity. The Primeval History is Israel’s attempt to project backwards in time and answer some of the questions we still ask:

Where did we come from?

Who made us and how?

Why is there Sin in the world?

Babel is the climax of the Primeval History. But the story isn’t just meant to answer the obvious question:

Why are there so many languages in the world?

      The story of Babel is also the bible’s attempt to pinpoint the origination of:

War

Our Fear of the Stranger and Hatred of the Other

Our Suspicion of

And Hostility towards

and Distrust of

Difference

Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own hubris, we don’t receive it as gift.

    At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs and complexions. Different, diverse tribes.

    And we respond by creating tribalism.

The energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon turn to making weapons.

     The Sin of Cain and the Sin of Babel mix and, as the Primeval History draws to a close, war is born. taize2

 

For much of the time, my time at the monastery was as confusing as my journey there.

Going through the dinner line one evening and seeing they were serving a gruel that resembled the porridge from Oliver Twist, I said: ‘No thank you, I’ll just have the bread and the apple.’

The volunteer server, a teenage girl who’d colored the Hungarian flag onto her name tag, she just smiled at me and said ‘Yah’ and then plopped a heaping spoonful on my plate.

 

One afternoon I asked another pilgrim for the time- I even gestured to my wrist- but I was instead pointed the way to the bathroom.

In the group bible study, I tried in vain to discuss Paul’s Letter to the Romans with folks for whom English was a second language.

It was confusing all round. And I couldn’t help but think that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language.

Taize2_candlelight_service

That’s pretty much how I felt the Thursday evening I ventured into the monastery sanctuary for the fixed-hour worship.

I grabbed a wrinkled blue paper songbook at the door and found an empty spot among the couple thousand pilgrims. All of us sat on the sloped cement floor facing a terra cotta altar table, above which hung red-orange sheets of canvas arranged to resemble a fiery dove.

Taize-2008-016

The worship that Thursday night followed the same pattern as all the other nights. Scripture was read. Prayers were spoken and sung. Silence was stretched out longer than any sermon.

Towards the end of the worship, before we took communion, a song number flashed on the digital screen that hung on either side of the altar.

Everyone flipped in their books, a 12 string guitar struck the right note and we started to sing: ‘Da pacem in diebus.’ Give Peace in our Days. It’s a chant, only a couple of phrases. We sang it maybe two dozen times at first, in Latin. But then I noticed the pilgrims in front of me, a youth group it looked like, they’d started to sing it in German.

da_pacem_cordium

We kept singing and after a few more repetitions I could make out French being sung behind me by a husband and wife and their three little children. And after that I could hear French starting to pop out in the crowd from other places in the sanctuary.

We were still singing the same song; it was the same tune. They’d just started to sing it in their own language.

It took me a few times more through the song before I worked up the courage to sing in English, but when I did I heard British accents joining me.

And to my left I could make out the hard consonants of what sounded like Russian and to my right I could hear Italian that reminded me of my grandparents.

And maybe it’s the tune or the words but together, the thousands of us, all singing each in our own language, it kind of sounded like the roll of an ocean wave.

Or like a mighty rushing wind.

     And even though there were other sounds I couldn’t make out, other languages I couldn’t identify, I understood everyone of them.

lightstock_87727_small_user_2741517

     And after we sang we passed the Peace of Christ and a teenage girl with stonewashed jeans and dyed green hair embraced me and said something in my ear. And I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but I understood.

     And when I filed up through the line and held my hands out to receive the Body of Christ, the dark-skinned monk looked down upon me, smiling and softly spoke a few words. I didn’t know what he’d said, but I’d understood perfectly.

And after the worship service ended and a small crowd of us lingered behind to gather around the Cross, I couldn’t have translated all the whispered prayers I heard but I understood everyone of them.

pentecosti-kosmos

God doesn’t undo what God did at Babel until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of thousands of scattered tribes: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, and visitors all the way from Rome.” 

Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill with them with praise. And though each of them speaks their own language, each of them is understood.

No more confusion.

     God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a People.

A people who, despite their differences, despite their diversities, understand one another because they remember what was forgotten at Babel: that you were made to praise God not make towers to the heavens.

     You were made to embody God’s love to the world not wall yourself off from the world.

You were made to serve in God’s name not worry about making a name for yourself.

You were made to point towards God’s future not try to secure your own. .

God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language.

God heals the wounds of the world by creating a People who are God’s new language.

You.

 

6008952208_80ed84260d_mOver Memorial Day Weekend, I participated as a pilgrim at the Taize gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During part of our time we selected small discussion groups in which to reflect on the intersection of Christian worship and the systemic poverty and injustice of the rez.

Unbeknownst to me until much later, the facilitator of my small group was Ched Myers.

Who? (You might wonder)

Ched Myers is a biblical scholar and a Christian mediator. He’s the author of perhaps the best biblical commentary of the last few decades- and one of my favorites: Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  BSM 20th

One of Myers’ chief critiques is the propensity among believers to spiritualize and thus neuter the message and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus’ Gospel is about the world to come the here and now can breath a sigh of relief. Fortunately, as long as Christians are stuck with the image of state-sponsored torture as our primary symbol we’ll continually be reminded that our Savior, despite our wishes to the contrary, is a thoroughly political figure.

A “spiritualized” interpretation of the references to Jesus’ ministry and gospel as “good news to the poor” misses the ways in which Jesus addressed the concrete, spiritual and material realities of his time and, specifically, of the peasant Jewish community of which he was part.

“Only a real debt-cancellation and land-restoration could represent good news to real poor people,” says Ched Myers.

Many scholars, including Myers, have noted that Jesus seems to have regarded himself as one who proclaimed and brought a new season of jubilee such as that mandated in the ancient Jewish law. The text from Isaiah that Jesus quoted and declared fulfilled at the synagogue in his hometown when he began his ministry is itself a reference to the jubilee year from the ancient Jewish law.

Many have also noted the relationship between the way in which Jesus talked about the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debt. This is seen most clearly in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with its pleas to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”   

“The gospels agree,” says Myers that “Jesus’ first substantive clash with the authorities arose as a result of his practice of ‘unlicensed’ forgiveness of sins, which has clear Jubilee overtones.”

Richard Horsley has offered a helpful account of the relationship between forgiveness of sin and debt in the context of first century rural Galilee.

There are indications …that the people…may have been blaming themselves.  Insofar as they were suffering hunger, disease, and poverty, it was because they had sinned, by breaking the covenant laws.  They were therefore now receiving the curses.  This is surely what Jesus was addressing in this forgiveness of sins in connection with healings (as in Mark 2:1-12).   In addressing the people’s self-blame and despair, therefore, Jesus transforms the blessings and curses into a new declaration of God’s assurance of deliverance for the poor and hungry and condemnation of those who were wealthy, almost certainly because they were expropriating the goods of the peasantry.

To announce forgiveness of sins is truly good news for those who are literally poor.

Jesus not only sought to lift the spiritual burden associated with poverty, but also to transform the material relationships that produced that poverty.

Myers indicates for example that

“Jesus’ Jubilee orientation” is seen not just in his forgiveness of sins/debts but also in: 1) his instructing the disciples to “to help themselves to field produce” justifying it with “his punch line: ‘The Sabbath was created for humanity’” (Mark 2:27); 2) “his efforts to rebuild community between socio-economically- alienated groups” such as tax-collectors (Levi, Zaccheus) and the debtors they exploited; 3) and his call for radical restructuring at all levels, from the household (Mark 3:31-35) to the body politic (Mark 10:35-45).

Myers regards “table fellowship” both in Jesus’ practice and in his storytelling as the typical venue chosen by Jesus to illustrate his Jubilee claim that “first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

Meals lay at the heart of ancient society: Where, what, and with whom you ate defined your social identity and status.  Thus the table was the “mirror” of society, with its economic classes and political divisions.

In the extended banquet story of in Luke 14, Jesus systematically undermines prevailing conventions and proprieties which advocating a new “table” of compassion and equality.  The opening episode deals (not surprisingly) with a dispute over the Sabbath practice (Luke 14:1-6).

Next comes Jesus attack on the dominant system of meritocracy, with its hierarchies, prestige posturing, and ladder-climbing, and his invitation to “downward mobility” (verses 7-11).

He then offends his host by criticizing his guest list, rejecting the reciprocal patronage system of the elite and calling for a focus upon “those who cannot repay” (verses 12-14).

The series concludes with Jesus pointed little fable about an exemplary host who finally understands the bankruptcy of meritocracy and decides instead to build a Jubilee community with the poor and outcast (verses 15-24).

In the light of these and other “Jubilee footprints” in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Myers finds it not surprising that the early church practiced what he calls “Sabbath economics” as exemplified in the story of radical sharing of property among believers in the aftermath of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day Pentecost.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved [Acts 2:44-47].

Christian conviction is that God promises a comprehensive fulfillment of human existence in the universe.

Salvation includes our souls and our bodies, our individual and our collective or corporate existence.

Jesus’ primary metaphor for speaking of salvation was a political one, “The Kingdom of God.”

It was an economic metaphor as well.

We are bold to proclaim that among the promises of God to us is this: the situation of mass poverty and gross material inequality that reigns now shall not be when God reigns.   

And where God reigns even now in the world that he so loves, that poverty and inequality is being transformed in justice.

 

images-21 Kings 19 

It’s called a theophany.

At least that’s what the biblical scholars call it. Theophany: ‘a public presentation of God’s immediacy’ is how my bible dictionary puts it.

Theophany-

as in, the LIGHT that strikes the apostle Paul blind on the road to Damascus. As in the VOICE that tears open the sky at Jesus’ baptism and declares ‘This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.’

Theophany.

It’s God making himself known, in the now.

Like:

When God appears to Abraham and promises Abraham a future and a home and more descendants than the stars, God appears to Abraham as FIRE. Theophany.

Or, when Job shakes his fist at the sky and shouts indictments at the universe, God appears as and answers from a WHIRLWIND, a TORNADO. Theophany.

And when the People of Israel gather at Mt Sinai after having only recently crossed the Red Sea, the Lord appears to them as SMOKE and CLOUD and FIRE and finally in an EARTHQUAKE. And when it’s all over, the People of Israel are left promising: ‘We will do whatever the Lord says.’ 

Theophany.

It is, as one scholar describes it, an enactment of God’s power and it evokes fear and awe and certainty.

But when it comes to Elijah, God is not so reliably typecast.

When it comes to Elijah, God’s not there- not in the WIND, not in the FIRE, not in the EARTHQUAKE.

With Elijah, there’s nothing. Just silence.

Elijah’s come to Mt Horeb. You might know it as Mt Sinai. It’s the place Moses goes to when he’s despairing and wants to give up his mantle and throw in the towel. It’s the place where Moses says to God, with bit lip and barely suppressed anger:

‘I want to see you. Show me…show me your glory.’ 

For 40 days and 40 nights Elijah’s been walking to Mt Sinai, but for those same 40 days and 40 nights Elijah’s also been on the run from Ahab, the King of Israel, and from Jezebel, his Queen.

Jezebel- she’s not from Israel nor does she worship Israel’s God, and she’s not long in the throne before she begins instituting the worship of Baal as Israel’s national religion.

For the first time in Israel’s corporate life together paganism is the official policy. It’s a golden calf in every home. It’s no idol left behind. It’s temples and altars and seminaries and nearly 1,000 priests and prophets. It’s a royal veto of the 1st commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ 

God responds by first sending a drought to Israel.

And then God sends a prophet.

Only Elijah isn’t your ordinary kind of prophet. Elijah doesn’t preach sermons about justice to the poor. Elijah doesn’t paint word-pictures of the coming day judgment day. He doesn’t wear camel-hair coats or symbolically break clay pots.

     Elijah doesn’t do anything symbolically.

Elijah challenges the system heads-on. He goes before Ahab and Jezebel, and he challenges them to a duel, to a showdown on top of a different mountain, Mt Carmel, to see which god is true and which god isn’t.

In one corner- 850 prophets and priests of Baal.

In the other corner- Elijah (just Elijah).

And with them up there on top of Mt Carmel are all the People of Israel, summoned there by Elijah so that on that day they could watch and they could choose, once and for all, who they would follow.

The contest there on Mt Carmel: two bulls, two piles of wood. One is for Elijah and the other is for his opponents. Both sides will pray to their gods and the one who answers with fire, that one is the true and living God.

Not only is Elijah’s prayer answered with fire, the fire is decisive. It falls from the sky and consumes even the stones and the soil. And after Elijah has defeated them, it rains.

The drought is over.

The Queen’s idols are shattered, and her false prophets are shamed.

Now, you’d expect- at that point- the people gathered there on the mountain to denounce their idols, to confess their sin, to return, to the God of Israel.

You might even expect them to rise up and overthrow the King and Queen who’d led them astray.

images-1But instead there’s nothing. Nothing changes. No one trades allegiances. No one is moved by what they’d seen. No one’s life is transformed. No one’s converted.

No one cares.

What should be the highlight of his career, his biggest moment- it instead turns out to be his biggest disappointment, his lowest point.

Just when he should be celebrating, he has the rug of his faith pulled out from underneath him and he lands hard on his doubt and his hard questions.

For the first time he can’t hear God all that clearly, and for the first time this prophet doesn’t know if God hears him.

God’s gone silent on him.

So, where does he go? He goes to the one place he can think of where he can ask God directly:

Why?

Why is this happening to me?

Why me and not them? Why me when I’m the one who’s been faithful?

Why have you let me down, God?

I thought if I served you, you’d watch out for me.

Isn’t that what relationship means?

Elijah goes to the place where God has spoken before, to the place where God has appeared as FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and CLOUD and EARTHQUAKE.

He goes to the place where God gave Israel direction and certainty, to the place where God gave Moses comfort and guidance.

Elijah goes to Sinai in search of that word- theophany. You see, Elijah wants God to come in FIRE and WIND and TREMBLING. He wants God’s VOICE to tear open the sky and speak in a BOOM that sweeps all of his doubts and questions away.

Just like Moses did, Elijah wants to put his foot down on Mt Sinai and demand:

‘I want to see you.‘ 

     But what he gets is SILENCE.

     A while ago I spent a week at Taize with some of our college-aged youth from Aldersgate.

As many of you know, Taize is a Protestant monastery in France. It was founded after WWII to be a visible sign of reconciliation after the violence of the war.

We spent a week there with young people from all over the world, thousands of them. For a week we worked together, we studied the bible together, we slept on the ground and three times a day we worshipped and prayed together- morning, noon and night.

And of those three daily worship services a good 20-30 minutes of each was devoted to silence. There was never any sermon. There was no special musical offering. There was not even a long, elaborate communion prayer.

There was just singing- lots of it, and even more silence. And the silence was never introduced. We were never told: think of this during the silence. We were never directed: pray about this, meditate on that.

The silence was just allowed to happen.

And from the first day we were there it was obvious that they believed God does things in the SILENCE.

Towards the end of our week at Taize, the brothers of the monastery divided the thousands of us who were visiting into country groups. Each country group met with a monk to talk about their experience in the community, about they’d learned and what they would take home with them.

Those of us from the US- there weren’t many of us. We all fit onto 3 narrow benches, and we formed a small circle in the afternoon shade. The monk who came to guide our conversation- his name was Brother Pedro- and he had storm-colored hair that was parted neatly to one side and green eyes that seemed alive with fire.

And far from wearing a brown monk’s habit with a rope tied around his waist, Brother Pedro wore chinos and boat shoes and the same turquoise button down Land’s End shirt that hangs in my closet at home.

Brother Pedro was from Barcelona. He’d grown up during the dictatorship in Spain, he told us, and he’d come to Taize as a young man- not really sure why he’d come or what he was seeking. And he’d never left.

Having introduced himself, Brother Pedro went around the circle, asking us to share how the week had impacted us.

More than a few said that they liked seeing with their own eyes how the love of Christ really does transcend language and culture and country. Others offered how they’d been deeply effected by the trust the brothers show to the thousands of visitors who come each week- no doors are locked, no rules are given. A couple of people suggested that this must be what the first church was like, with everyone sharing their life and their possessions and their prayers together.

Because I was the only pastor in the circle, I didn’t say much. I didn’t want the group to defer to me and not share themselves. But afterwards, when everyone had gotten up and begun to walk to the dinner line, Brother Pedro came up to me and he asked me what I’d take home with me from the week.

Without thinking or knowing why, I said: ‘the silence.’ 

He smiled and his green eyes lit up.

And he put his hand on my shoulder and he said:

‘When I first came here, when I was a young man, I didn’t believe in God. Or, at least, I didn’t believe God has done such a good job of being God.

But then I experienced the silence. And that’s when I learned that if God can speak in the silences, then there’s never a time when God isn’t speaking to us, present with us,  working for us.’

He must have been able to see I didn’t follow him completely because he said:

‘It’s not that God is speaking or working only when it’s obvious to us. The silence here…it taught me that God is always at work, and if he’s always at work then he’s also always with you.’ 

Elijah comes to Sinai wanting a theophany.

He comes to Sinai seeking FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and EARTHQUAKE, a display of God’s power and glory, an obvious and clear sign that God is present, that God would get back to work in his life, that God would be with him as he had been before.

But what he gets is SILENCE.

You know- Elijah, he’s worked miracles.

He’s shattered idols and faced down kings and queens.

But maybe God speaks in SILENCE to Elijah because Elijah needs to know, he needs to learn, that God’s always speaking, always working, always with him.

Even when he seems silent.

Maybe Elijah needs to know that—

Just because you can’t see him clearly at this point in your life, it doesn’t mean he’s not there.

Just because he doesn’t feel as close to you as he did at a former time, it doesn’t mean he’s not with you.

Just because your life feels stretched more than it ever has before

Just because you have more questions than you ever did

Just because your doubt feels firmer than your faith ever felt

     It doesn’t mean he’s not with you.

It doesn’t mean he’s not at work.

It doesn’t mean he’s not speaking.

Just because God came to Job in a whirlwind and a tornado, it doesn’t mean he can’t come in the quietness of a manger.

Just because God made the earth tremble at Mt Sinai, it doesn’t mean he can’t silently shake the foundations with a Cross and a Tomb.

Just because you’d like nothing more than a mountaintop theophany in your life, it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work quietly and invisibly in your life.

Now, there’s more than a few of you in this congregation who’d like nothing more than to march straight up Mt Sinai, put your foot down and demand that God do something NOW about:

The pregnancy you worry over

The marriage even your best intentions can’t make work

The job you still can’t find

The kids whose decisions make you bite your nails

The diagnosis your wife or your son just received

And it’s not as immediate, it’s not as sudden, it’s not as exciting or visual as EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE- but maybe all we really have to do for a theophany is LISTEN.

 

 

Here’s this weekend’s sermon from Romans 4.1-5 for our series, JustifiedYou can also download it in the iTunes store under ‘Tamed Cynic.’Or, you can listen to the sermon here: 

      1. The Stars are the Light of the World

photo-4     Over Memorial Day Weekend I joined 1,000 people from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is a monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to their monastery in France to participate in the rhythms of their communal life.

Once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota Nation to welcome pilgrims to Pine Ridge.

Just as pilgrims do at the monastery in Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge worshipping 3 times a day, sharing simple meals, and sharing our faith stories in small groups. photo-3

On Saturday of the Pilgrimage Weekend, after morning prayer and breakfast, we were assigned small groups to reflect on the morning scripture lesson.

I was told our small groups were assigned according to the order in which we’d registered for the Pilgrimage, but I swear it was due to some some cruel, cosmic joke I can’t be sure.

The seven of us in my small group sat down in a circle in the dry, prairie grass.

     Directly across from me in the circle sat a white-haired, tie-dyed Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California.

     Next to the lady bishop sat a gay Episcopal priest from San Francisco.

     Next to him sat a Unitarian lay person from Boulder, Colorado.

     Next to him, a Catholic civil servant from Paris, France.

     Next to her, a women’s studies PhD candidate from Barcelona, Spain.

     Next to her, on my left, was a man who looked like a shorter, plumper, balder, older version of me- except he was dressed sloppy and had an unkempt beard.

     His green Velcro sneakers, red tube socks and Trotsky eyeglasses screamed ‘European Socialist.’

     And finally in the circle, there was me.

We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.

     I went second to last. As I’m want to do, I tried to charm them with self-effacing, sarcastic humor.

‘I’m a Methodist pastor from Virginia,’ I began, ‘and I just gotta say my congregation back home would be shocked to hear that I could be the most conservative person in any group.’

No one laughed, which, I suppose, just proves how liberal they all were.

‘You didn’t tell us your name,’ the Bishop said with a tone of voice that suggested what she really meant was: ‘I’d prefer not to make your acquaintance.’

     ‘Sorry, my name’s Jason’ I said, ‘Jason Micheli.’

And when I said ‘Micheli,’ the shorter, plumper, older, balder version of me shouted: ‘Micheli! Italiano!’

He shouted ‘Ciao!’

And then got up and embraced me like Gepetto rescuing Pinocchio from the Island of Lost Boys.

He rubbed his sweaty beard across my face as he man-kissed me on both my cheeks, and then he began ticking off the names of people he insisted I must be related to back in “Roma.”

Wiping his sweat from my face, I gestured for him to introduce himself.

He adjusted his glasses and said in a thick accent: ‘My name is Tomaso.’

Tomaso told us he was a scientist, a geologist, from Rome. And then he laughed nervously and said: ‘I am not a Christian. I am not a person of faith.’

Both times the accent landed heavy on the ‘not.’

5127ee0225791.preview-620Our bible study felt forced. Everyone in the group kept deferring to the bishop and, being Episcopalian, the bible was an unfamiliar to her.

The bishop said the types of knee-jerk things you’d expect an Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California to say.

And- you’d be proud of me- initially, at least, I bit my tongue and didn’t respond with any snarky comments.

That is, until I remembered she wasn’t my Bishop- at which point I started to interrupt her with thoughtful, sober comments like:

‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal, Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’

In truth, I wasn’t really interested in our bible study- because, really, I was dying to ask Tomaso, the paisano to my left, why he’d flown all the way from Italy, driven all the way from Denver, agreed to sleep in a horse pasture and go without running water and spend 4 days with Christians and celibate monks if he was NOT a person of faith.

When our bible study wrapped up, I grabbed Tomaso by the elbow and I said: ‘Tomaso, call it professional curiosity, but what are you doing here if you’re not a person of faith?’

And, a bit anticlimactically, he said: ‘Because my wife made me come.’

‘Well, that’s nothing new. Half the men in my church are there because their old ladies force them to come.’

Tomaso chuckled and grabbed his book- a science fiction novel- like he was about to leave, but I said: ‘Tell me- why don’t you consider yourself a person of faith?’

He smiled like a professor who’s not sure how to water down his material for a freshman class, and then he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed litany. His reasons against faith.

‘I am a scientist’ he began, ‘and there is no scientific explanation for a 7 day creation, for an incarnation, for a resurrection.’

    ‘Gosh, there isn’t? I guess it’s a good thing scripture doesn’t try to explain them scientifically then, huh?’

My sarcasm apparently didn’t translate because he just kept ticking off his reasons for not believing:

How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.

How faith is just a psychological crutch.

How the Gospels don’t always agree with one another.

How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.

How it’s superstitious to think bread and wine can become anyone’s body and blood.

How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.

How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.

How scripture is not the literal Word of God but instead bears all the messy fingerprints of people like you and me.

His list was surprisingly long and surprisingly unoriginal. And when he got to the end, he held out his hands like a magician, whose just disappeared his assistant, and he said:

‘See, mi amico, there’s nothing left for me to believe. There’s nothing left for me to be a person of faith.’ 

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‘Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ 

     There may be no other sentence in the Old Testament that has been more significant to followers of the New. And more misleading.

     God told Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah, would have millions of descendants- as many as the stars in the sky.

     Abraham believed God and that was enough for God to credit Abraham as ‘righteous.’

Ever since Martin Luther, the Founding Father of Protestantism, Father Abraham has served as Exhibit A for what we think it means for us to have faith:

Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved. 

Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it. 

Abraham simply believed in God. 

Abraham was saved by faith alone. 

At least that’s what we think Paul means in Romans 4.

But here’s the problem:

When we reduce Abraham to an example (for us) of someone who has faith in God and is rewarded accordingly- we lose the biblical plot of what God is doing IN and THROUGH Abraham.

And when we lose that plot, the seam Paul’s entire argument in the Book of Romans unravels.

Because the argument Paul is weaving from Romans 1 to Romans 16 is that what we discover in Jesus Christ is God making good on a promise first made to Abraham.

Because when you go back to the Book of Genesis, you notice:

It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.  

It says Abraham believed God

It doesn’t Abraham accepted God as his personal savior. 

It says Abraham believed God

That is, Abraham accepted something God said. 

Abraham believed a single thing God said. 

A very specific thing God said. 

Abraham believed the promise: the promise that his children would be like the stars in the sky. 

But this promise, it isn’t about God providing Abraham with progeny.

The promise is that THROUGH Abraham God would create a new and distinct People in the world.

The promise is that the way God would pick the world back up from its Fall, the way God would heal the world’s sin, the way God would bring forth a New Creation would be by creating a New People.

The promise is that through Abraham God would create a People who would do what Adam failed to do, a People whose trust in God and trust in one another would provide an alternative to the ways of the world.

abramThe stars God promises to Abraham- they’re meant to be a light to the world.

That’s the unconditional commitment God promises and that’s what Abraham believes.

And God, scripture says, reckons that to Abraham as ‘righteousness.’

Now if, as I told you weeks ago, ‘God’s Righteousness’ is a specific biblical term that refers to God’s commitment to undo the injustice of the world and usher in a New Creation, then Abraham being ‘reckoned righteousness’ means Abraham was credited, acknowledged, signed up as a participant in God’s New Creation work.

Abraham didn’t believe everything he could possibly believe about God; in fact, plenty remained that Abraham still struggled to believe:

Abraham lacked faith that he and his wife’s old bodies could produce new life.

Abraham doubted the events in his life would pan out as God had predicted.

Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.

But despite his doubts, despite his questions, despite those parts of God’s Word he scratched his head at and crossed his fingers through- what Abraham always believed, what Abraham always had faith in, what it always meant for Abraham to be a person of faith, the person of faith, was his faith in this single promise:

    The promise that God so loved the world, God would not give up on what he had made.

     That just as God’s first creation began with God calling into the void ‘Let there be light,’ God’s New Creation would begin by God calling a People who would be a Light to the world.

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Sunday afternoon, a group of us there for the Pilgrimage weekend made another pilgrimage.

To Wounded Knee.

The place where the US Army, without provocation, slaughtered over 300 Indians, little more than a hundred years ago.

2/3 of the victims were children…with their mothers.

In 1973 Wounded Knee became the site of a standoff between Lakota Indians and the Federal Government. Resulting in more violence.

Wounded Knee remains a festering reminder of suffering and injustice that persists to this day.

So on Sunday afternoon, in reverent silence, we loaded on to 3 school buses.

And silently we rode the 30 minutes to Wounded Knee, riding past shacks and trailers and the kind of poverty that seems to fit a 3rd world nation better than this one.

When we arrived at Wounded Knee, the brothers put on their gleaming, white-as-light, monastic robes and then they led us all, silently, down the road and up the hill to the graveyard. photo-2

Some locals from the reservation were there, loitering, sitting on top of rusted, broken down cars and squinting at us with justifiable suspicion.

There’s a church there by the graveyard. It had ‘Fuck you white people’ spray-painted on the sanctuary doors.

An old woman was in the graveyard planting flowers by an old tombstone while a young woman tamped down the dirt of a freshly dug grave.

The mass grave, the hole where the victims bodies had been dumped, is at the center of the cemetery.

Brother Alois, the head of the monastery at Taize, motioned silently for us to make a circle around the mass grave.

I glanced around the circle at all the people, literally, from all over the world, from as many nations as there are stars in the sky.

Then Brother Alois held out his hands for us to take hold of one another’s hands.

Then Brother Alois bowed his head and so did we.

And then we prayed. Silently.

For a long time.

Silently- because how else do you pray when some of the people you’re holding hands with share the same names as the bodies you’re standing on top of and still suffer the consequences of so many empty words?

As Brother John, another monk, had told us the previous morning, we were going to Wounded Knee:

‘as people of faith, to a place of broken promises, to be a silent, visible sign of a different promise, the promise that the God who made the world in love will, with us and through us, redeem it.’ 

Many of us kept the silence as we rode the way back from Wounded Knee. After we’d returned to our campsite, I ran into Tomaso. Both of us were coming out of adjoining Port O’ Johns and reaching for the hand sanitizer.

     ‘If it isn’t Doubting Tomaso’ I said.

‘Mi amico, how are you?’

     ‘I’m not sure. I just got back from Wounded Knee.’

‘How was that?’

     ‘Did you not go?’

‘To pray?’ and he laughed like it was a ridiculous notion. ‘No, I stayed here and read my book.’ And he held up his sci-fy novel.

     ‘Like I tell my wife: faith is the easy way out in this world.’

‘Easy? How can someone with a PhD be so stupid?

Jesus has done a lot of things in my life but made my life easier is definitely not one of them. Faith hasn’t been my way out of the world; faith has thrust me into the world: to places I’d rather not go, to pain and poverty I’d rather not have weigh on my conscience, to people towards whom I’d be happy not to feel any responsibility. 

Easy way out? Are you a complete idiot?

Most of the time, to believe in God is to feel heartbroken over all the places you see God absent in the world. I just watched and prayed as a 20 year old Indian girl wept over a mass grave beneath her and a hopeless future in front of her. Faith isn’t an escape from the world’s problems; it’s a summons to wade waist deep into its problems.

I know you’re a geologist, Tomaso, but does that mean you have rocks in your head?’ 

     I thought to myself.

But instead I squirted some Pure El into my hands and I said- the only thing I said:

‘Easy way out? That’s and  interesting indictment coming from someone who spent the afternoon relaxing in his tent, reading a trashy novel.’

Doubting Tomaso laughed and said: ‘Like I said, there’s too many things I don’t believe ever to be a person of faith.’

‘Tomaso, you don’t seem to understand that, being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.’

‘Why do you care so much about me anyway?’ Tomaso asked, ‘Do you care about ‘my salvation’?’ he said with sarcastic air quotes.

     ‘That’s just it- it’s not about you and your salvation. Ever since Abraham, it’s never just been about you, you selfish coward. It’s about God calling- God needing- people to be light for the world’ I wanted to scream at him. 

But I didn’t.

And he finished wiping the Pure-El into his hands and said ‘Ciao.’

And then he walked back to his tent, and with the world just a little bit darker for it.

 

 

 

 

 

5127ee0225791.preview-620Over the Memorial Day Weekend a few of us from my congregation joined between 1,000-1,500 pilgrims from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at Red Shirt on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to participate in the rhythms of their communal life, and once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota nation to welcome pilgrims to Red Shirt.

Just as pilgrims do at Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge in worship (sung chants, sung prayers and a whole lot of silence) 3 times a day. We shared simple meals of buffalo meat straight off the rez, and we shared our faith stories in small groups. We listened to each other; in fact, listening was the primary reason we’d gathered. We camped in tents in a horse pasture and went, uncomplaining, without running water.

For those few days at least, we did our best to approximate the simplicity and joy of what the New Testament refers to as the ‘oikos.’

The ‘economy’ or household of God.

Our ‘sanctuary’ was a hollow carved out by the wind in the middle of the badlands. We sat in the prairie grass under the sun and stars.

Sunday night’s worship concluded with Taize’s traditional Prayer around the Cross.

photoThe cross is an icon of the Crucified Christ with water rushing out from his pierced side. For the prayer around the cross, the icon is taken out of its stand and laid on top of 4 cinder blocks so that it’s about a foot off of the floor and perpendicular to it.

As the gathered sing, one by one, pilgrims approach the cross on their knees. Once they make their way to the cross, they place their forehead on the cross and pray.

The Prayer around the Cross is powerful to experience.

It’s just as powerful to watch so many approach the cross with devotion and seriousness.

But it’s even more powerful to notice the patience and hospitality everyone affords one another during the prayer, for it can take a good long while for that many people to crawl to the cross and then pray on it.

Before the Prayer around the Cross on Sunday night, Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, invited us to place our burdens upon the cross, the burdens we suffer both personally and collectively ‘because,’ Brother Alois said in his simple yet incisive way:

‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past.

Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’

His words hit me with converting clarity.

The prairie wind I felt blow across me could very well have been the Holy Spirit.

Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.

When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.

photo-1We prayed that night just a stone’s throw from Wounded Knee, the site of massacre where a mass grave of over 300 innocents slaughtered by the U.S. Army little more than a hundred years ago.

Afterwards the soldiers took gleeful pictures next to heaps of bodies of children and their mothers.

Wounded Knee remains a festering wound of memory for the Lakota.

Brother Alois spoke of the cross and collective suffering, we all knew what he meant.

And in one sense, nothing he said was revelatory or profound.

Yet here’s what hit me about what he said and from where he said it:

the ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Lakota, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me.

Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.

On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’

For your sin.

Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin. Jesus is your substitute. He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.

On the purely theological level, I’ve always had a problem with penal substitution. Quickly: penal substitution seems to make God’s wrath more determinative an attribute than God’s loving mercy. It easily devolves into a hyper individualistic account of the faith (me and God). God the Father comes out, at best, seeming like a petulant prick who bears little to no resemblance to the Son, and, at worse, the Father seems captive to his own ‘laws’ of righteousness, honor, wrath and expiation.

Forgiveness, it’s always seemed to me, shouldn’t be so hard.

And shouldn’t require someone to die.

I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when I heard Brother Alois introduce the Prayer around the Cross the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.

Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.

But what about the sinned against?

What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.

Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.

Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about the millions of others whom those wretches, who’ve been found by this amazing grace, treated like chattel?

At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.  We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’

Because it suits us.

Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.

Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brother Alois’ words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering.

Sure, every single, last Lakota gathered with us was, on an individual level, a ‘sinner.’ Just as surely to focus so singularly misses the larger issues, for the Indians praying with us at Red Shirt have been sinned against by us actively for centuries and they are now sinned against by our cynical indifference.

To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.

If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Pine Ridge. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?

On my knees in the hollow that was our sanctuary and hearing Brother Alois’ words as they struck the ears of Indians along with mine, I realized that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies as one of us. With us.

In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.

Location, location, location.

Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears- that’s what I realized at Pine Ridge.

The cross, I realized at Pine Ridge, is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord.

The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.

No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.

Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, Pine Ridge has left me believing that the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.

5127ee0225791.preview-620If you read this blog then you already know that I’ve spent the last four days at a Taize Pilgrimage gathering at Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I’m writing this on our trek home. I calculated the time and the mileage- the journey here took me just as long as it took me get to the Taize community in Burgundy, France and it will take just as long to return home.

The same is true for hundreds of the others who gathered this weekend and that should tell you all you need to know about the power of the Taize community and the grounding, foundational role it plays in the faith of Christians all over the world. I’ve met pilgrims who came here from Poland, France, Spain, Korea and Italy.

I’m too tired to write much now- especially on my phone of all things- and I’ll reflect more later, but I wanted to take a moment to share a few observations on the nature of the event itself.

As I posted earlier, the Taize community understands its mission to be a ‘pilgrimage of trust on Earth.’ All of life, the brothers believe, is a pilgrimage wherein we embody our trust in the Creator by extending trust (in the form of hospitality, listening and reconciliation) to others. In their community in France, this mission gets realized in how the brothers welcome 5K pilgrims every week from places around the world- places, it should be noted- that often have nothing in common and much in dispute once you extract Christ from the equation.

This same emphasis on ‘trust’ has been paralleled by the pilgrimage gathering here at Red Shirt, as we (and that ‘we’ is mostly very white and across the board Christian) are only here because of the trust and hospitality extended to us by the Lakota. No small thing when you consider we’re the only outsiders of this number gathered in this part of the reservation since the “Incident” at Wounded Knee in the 1970’s.

This pilgrimage weekend was the initiative of Robert Two Bulls and his Father, both Episcopal priests. It’s their land we camped on. It’s their bulls we ate.  And it’s their trust in the possibilities of Christ’s reconciling work that has brought us here. 5127ee0433ed6.preview-620

When it comes to reconciliation, the Two Bulls and the Taize Brothers see eye to eye on methodology. Or rather, you might say, theology. That is, they both share the conviction that the everyday, simple practice of Christian faith is itself an act of and means towards reconciliation.

Christians need not defer to the more ‘professional’ realms of politics, economics or social science (none of those disciplines have been particularly benevolent to the Lakota in the past anyway). Instead, the Two Bulls and the Brothers share the belief that the historical issues here are complex, the politics messy and the solutions seemingly elusive but, in the meantime, people of faith- no matter how different- CAN sit down and share a meal together, open their home to strangers, share stories and prayer and listen.

And that’s all this weekend has been about. There’s no ‘work project’ or charitable, mission activity- reservations have enough of those and seldom do they yield any sustainable good.

There’s no issue advocacy, passing around of petitions or voting on resolutions- which surely would have dominated this weekend had it been sponsored and run by a denomination (UMC) like my own.

And what teaching there has been about the history, culture and suffering of the Lakota has been first-person, told unrehearsed in small groups or around a meal.

In a culture where Christians of both liberal and conservative stripes defer to politics for hope and change, the Two Bulls and the Brothers would remind us that, for Christians, real change comes through our solidarity in Christ. Indeed a few hours in a place like this and you realize, given the tragedy that is omnipresent, Christ is the only bridge, the only common ground, upon which we have any hope of meeting.

And I think that’s where Taize (here at Pine Ridge or in Burgundy, France) intersects with Emergence Christianity: the conviction that everything must begin with the Gospel authentically embodied and practiced in community.

I’ve always like the rhetoric of Stanley Hauerwas’ maxim: ‘The Church doesn’t have a social ethic. The Church is a social ethic.’

Liking that rhetoric and understanding it are two different things because I think this is first time and place I’ve had any real notion what the hell Hauerwas means.

As Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, said:

“In going to Pine Ridge we want to listen carefully to the story of the Lakota people, and listen together to what the Spirit is saying to us all in our attempt to create a world of solidarity and peace. Only by coming together beyond our differences in a climate of prayer and sharing can we find new ways forward.”

5127ee036396c.preview-620Or as Brother John put it in a bible study Saturday morning;

“Forgiveness is God’s act of New Creation performed on the relational level.

Saying ‘I’m willing to listen to you or I forgive you’ is one of the ingredients that ultimately culminates in what Isaiah describes as a New Heaven and a New Earth.’

The surprising thing for me in all this is how disempowering and ennobling an experience this has been.

The Rule of Taize spells it out like this:

‘It is Christ himself whom we welcome as a guest. So let us learn to be welcoming; our hospitality should be generous and discerning.’

White Christians from the States aren’t usually in the objective part of sentences like that one.

We typically think of ourselves as welcoming people in Christ’s name and chiding ourselves- sometimes a bit self-congratulatory- to see Christ in the stranger. But here, we’re the ones being welcomed by people- Americans…more so than us even- who’ve gotten the shaft from my people at nearly every turn, past and present. And that is a humbling (in the sense of stripped bare) experience.

It also means that in some way I am Christ to/for them and maybe that’s the greatest leap of faith of all, for being welcomed here to Pine Ridge by the Lakota leaves me feeling not a little like a blinded Saul being welcomed, nursed and cared for by Ananias, Saul’s former victim.

 

Taize-Pine-Ridge-2013I’m spending the next four days at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as part of the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust. I’m joined here by 3 others from my church along with thousands of Christian pilgrims 18-35 from around the world as well as the brothers from the Taize Monastic Community in Burgundy, France.

The Taize Community was started by Brother Roger Schultz, himself a Swiss Reformed Protestant, in 1940 as an ecumenical monastery that would in its life together embody peace and reconciliation in postwar Europe.

What started as a small band of brothers from Catholic and Protestant denominations quickly grew to attract over 100,000 ‘pilgrims’ every year for a week at time. These pilgrims come from all over the globe, are primarily youth and young adults and for 7 days seamlessly integrate into the community’s weekly rhythm of fixed hour prayer (worship), bible study, and work.

As I tell people, think ‘Woodstock crossed with a Medieval Monastery.’

Every year the brothers of Taize take their community on the road in order to reconnect with former pilgrims and welcome others who might not be able to make the trek to rural France.

I’ve been to Taize a couple times in the past. The following are my journal reflections from my first pilgrimage.

Taize 2008 016

One of the brothers here yesterday described the community here as the hub or the spoke around which the entire world revolves. ‘We think of our community as the engine that keeps the world running’ he said.

And by ‘community’ he meant the the community’s rhythm of thrice a day prayer and worship. That if they stopped worshipping the world would cease spinning. Their worship, he believes, is what they owe the world.

It’s their vocation.

My first gut reaction to hearing him describe the world and worship this way was to dismiss it as so much pious speech.

That this was my first reaction I feel exposes something, a deficiency, in or about me.

As any good seminary student learns early on, ‘liturgy’ means literally ‘the work of the people.’ The work of the laos NOT the clergy. I don’t know if I’ve ever really grasped what this means until I came here.

Too much or too often our worship is not work (even though it can sometimes feel like work to endure a worship service). Seldom though do we think of our worship as work- as something we do for another.

What I mean is: our worship is most often driven by what people in the pews like or want. We evaluate worship based on its utility, based on what I want, how it makes me feel, whether it ‘feeds’ me or I got something out of it.

And just because I don’t sit in the pews doesn’t mean I’m not guilty too. I cater to that same utilitarian impulse with topical sermon series meant to get people’s attention while other pastors pack secular wisdom into the guise of sermons with series like ‘5 Biblical Principles for a Better Marriage.’

The unspoken goal of most worship is the experience it creates in the worshipper; liturgy becomes instead the work of the clergy for the benefit of the laity. Worship is to serve the needs of the people there. Why else would ‘performance’ be such a strong element of worship be it the choir standing up front as they would in a musical or a band playing on stage as they would at a concert?

What would it be like for a congregation to believe as firmly as Brother Whathisname that if they stopped regular worship their surrounding community would cease to exist? What would it be like for a congregation to gather every Sunday morning in the conviction that ‘this is the work we do on behalf of our little patch of the world?’

The worship here at Taize shouldn’t be so appealing to so many young people.

While all the chants sung here, which make up almost the entirety of the worship, are dated from the late ’50’s on (making them more contemporary than most traditional hymns) the sound is decidedly ancient.

There are no song leaders, no visible cantors, no choir or band up front to lead us. Nothing sounds remotely like anything you’d hear on the radio and yet thousands of people younger than me are sitting on their butts for nearly 5 hours a day singing strange, archaic-sounding music.

The appeal, I think, is the brothers’ conviction that the world needs their worship as much as a body needs water.

 

Taize-Pine-Ridge-2013I’m spending the next four days at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as part of the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust. I’m joined here by 3 others from my church along with thousands of Christian pilgrims 18-35 from around the world as well as the brothers from the Taize Monastic Community in Burgundy, France.

The Taize Community was started by Brother Roger Schultz, himself a Swiss Reformed Protestant, in 1940 as an ecumenical monastery that would in its life together embody peace and reconciliation in postwar Europe.

What started as a small band of brothers from Catholic and Protestant denominations quickly grew to attract over 100,000 ‘pilgrims’ every year for a week at time. These pilgrims come from all over the globe, are primarily youth and young adults and for 7 days seamlessly integrate into the community’s weekly rhythm of fixed hour prayer (worship), bible study, and work.

As I tell people, think ‘Woodstock crossed with a Medieval Monastery.’

Every year the brothers of Taize take their community on the road in order to reconnect with former pilgrims and welcome others who might not be able to make the trek to rural France.

I’ve been to Taize a couple times in the past. The following are my journal reflections from my first pilgrimage.

How Many Churches Would Tear Down the Sanctuary For Visitors?

The sanctuary here at Taize, taking off on the community’s founding mission, is called the Church of Reconciliation.

It’s hard for me to describe other than to say it’s probably not what you envision when I say monastic community. The floor is cement covered in thin, threadbare carpet. The building is wood and the inside walls are plain, unvarnished and unpainted. Icons of Jesus dot the walls irregularly and closer to the altar the side walls contain small, simple 18×18 stained glass images.

The floor has…no pews. Everyone, brothers and pilgrims, sit on the floor or on tiny (6 inches high) wooden benches they carry in with them. The floor sweeps down towards the altar area so that visibility in a space that can seat over 5K pilgrims is surprisingly good.

The altar area contains open-ended terra cotta pots stacked on top of each other, each with a lit candle inside, that together hearken back to the Christian catacombs. Stretched across the altar wall are two large orange sails that together look either like a dove, a cross, or the fire from the Pentecost story.

Or all three.

And that’s part of the intent.

Taize is radically ecumenical, deliberately using icons and symbols and liturgy that have open-ended meanings. They’re meant to be suggestive not prescriptive. It’s all part of welcoming pilgrims from all parts of the world and all traditions.

The sanctuary is simple, sparer in fact than many Methodist congregations. But it’s beautiful. Hauntingly, entrancingly beautiful.

And here’s the thing.

Taize 2008 016I read yesterday how, just after they finished building the Church of Reconciliation complete with an ornate stained glass rear wall, they anticipated more Easter pilgrims than the sanctuary could hold.

 

And guess what the brothers decided to do?

Add another worship service?

Nope.

Tell them sorry come again another time?

Not a chance.

Without thought, debate or church council vote, they tore down the new back wall of the new sanctuary and erected a circus tent so they could accommodate everyone in worship.

Do I really need to point out that this is the opposite of what most churches would choose?

 

Most churches…as soon as the building gets built the building becomes the focal point of the community’s reason for being. Giving is about giving to the building. Debates are always about the building, who can use it, who owns it, who can do what with it, who is not paying their fair share towards it.

Most churches…they put pictures of their building on the Sunday bulletin as though either a) you didn’t realize where you just drove yourself this morning or b) you’re here to join an organization/institution and not the Body of Christ.

Most churches….struggle to grow and attract new people because they’re stuck paying a mortgage and mortgage payments make for lousy sales pitches.

The brothers here at Taize, having a building prettier than most, still realize what many churches and Christians forget:

They exist to welcome those who are not yet there.

There is a provisional nature to the community here that is instructive. The brothers have a willingness and a readiness to be flexible, to change and adapt, to alter (attributes you likely don’t automatically associate with celibate monastics) all in the aim of welcoming new people- who won’t be back again until next year, if ever.

Nothing here- however important or beautiful or seemingly sacrosanct- is beyond alteration if it gets in the way of their mission. The only lasting thing they care about is your making a good first impression with Jesus Christ.

Not only does this radical hospitality jive with what even the most unchurched person associates with Jesus, I think its exactly what the most unchurched person most craves from his followers.

 

Taize-Pine-Ridge-2013I’m spending the next four days at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as part of the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust. I’m joined here by 3 others from my church along with thousands of Christian pilgrims 18-35 from around the world as well as the brothers from the Taize Monastic Community in Burgundy, France.

The Taize Community was started by Brother Roger Schultz, himself a Swiss Reformed Protestant, in 1940 as an ecumenical monastery that would in its life together embody peace and reconciliation in postwar Europe.

What started as a small band of brothers from Catholic and Protestant denominations quickly grew to attract over 100,000 ‘pilgrims’ every year for a week at time. These pilgrims come from all over the globe, are primarily youth and young adults and for 7 days seamlessly integrate into the community’s weekly rhythm of fixed hour prayer (worship), bible study, and work.

As I tell people, think ‘Woodstock crossed with a Medieval Monastery.’

Every year the brothers of Taize take their community on the road in order to reconnect with former pilgrims and welcome others who might not be able to make the trek to rural France.

I’ve been to Taize a couple times in the past. The following are my journal reflections from my first pilgrimage.

Incarnating the Gospel: You are the Sermon

For years I studied preaching. ‘Homiletics’ is the official discipline, part theology of preaching and part the art of rhetoric. As a Protestant pastor, my bread and butter is the preached Word- that’s our tradition, our reason to be as Protestants. Many more people call me ‘preacher’ than call me ‘Father’ or anything like that.

And I like to preach. I enjoy the spiritual discipline of having to contend with a text every week, to dare God to speak or not speak to me and, ultimately, through me. Likewise, preaching is how I’ve learned to establish and build credibility with congregants. When I looked impossibly young to be a pastor at the very least my preaching reassured skeptics that I might know how to do a few things reasonably well.

And so it’s strange to me to worship in a place like Taize.

TaizeHere, we worship 3 times a day, between 45-90 minutes each time, every day of the week. Most of the worship is singing the short, repetitive, beautiful chants Taize for which Taize is now famous. The worship includes a scripture reading, usually in several different languages and then silence. Long periods of silence. Where my own congregants can hardly cease rustling their bulletins long enough to achieve silence, here at Taize the silence- of 5K plus pilgrims sitting on a cement floor, mind you-can last anywhere from 10-15 minutes. In the mornings, there’s Eucharist that is celebrated in a boldly ecumenical fashion and evening worship on Fridays and Saturdays mimics Good Friday and Easter.

 

But there’s no preaching. No sermon. Really hardly any spoken word at all- the songs are indicated not by announcement but LED signs on the left and right of the simple but beautiful sanctuary.

 

At the beginning of this week I thought this lack of preaching was surely a deficiency. ‘Doesn’t there need to be sermon?’ the Protestant on my shoulder kept asking. ‘Doesn’t the Word need to be proclaimed’ the Calvinist in me kept wondering; preaching is part of Calvin’s definition of worship in fact.

 

Now that it’s been a week here however I’ve changed my mind.

I now realize the silence is sufficient because the life of the community is its own witness to the Word.

 

The brothers and pilgrims here spend every moment together, studying scripture, sharing their stories, working together, eating together, worshipping and relaxing together.

In most churches, you need the sermon in order to ‘illustrate’ how to ‘apply’ the biblical text to every day life. And in most churches the starting presumption is that the connection between biblical text and every day life is forced at best.

But here at Taize it’s the opposite. It works in reverse. Their life together points to the truth of the biblical text. Acts chapter 2, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s Fruits of the Spirit- they’re all on display here both in the brother’s life together and in the hospitable, trusting way they welcome visitors in to that life.

They don’t need a sermon here. They are the sermon.

Together they’re- we’re- incarnating the Gospel in its essence: serving, sharing and worshipping. This is Church, or at least Church stripped of all the unessential, non-Gospel accretions that weigh many congregations down and fog the essence of what a life lived together in Christ looks like.

The word ‘incarnational’ gets bandied about a lot lately in its relation to the emerging future church. While I’m sure that term can mean many things to many people, I think the closest approximation is right here.

If incarnational is the buzzword of the emerging church and ‘intentional community’ its manifestation, then the Church of the future started in 1940 when Brother Roger rode his bicycle to this tiny little village.

 

Taize @ Pine Ridge

Jason Micheli —  April 10, 2013 — 3 Comments

taize-pine-ridge-2013-360There’s still a couple of weeks if you’re interested in signing up to go the Taize gathering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the Badland.

Taize, the ecumenical monastery in France founded after WW II.

Each week throughout the year thousands of young people from around the world gather at Taize for a week of community and prayer.

Phyllis Tickle argues that in the future Taize will be credited as one of the precipitating movements of Emergence Christianity.

I believe her.

Because my previous visits to Taize have proven to have an enormous impact on my own spiritual development and how I understand the nature of the church.

The Taize gathering at Pine Ridge will be over Memorial Day weekend. I plan on going with a few others, and I will be guest-blogging for Tony Jones about my experiences there.

Check out this video about the gathering: Video

Here are a few details and then you can click over to read more at the Taize website itself.

When: Friday afternoon, May 24- Monday morning, May 27

Who: Anyone ages 18-35

Cost: $50.00 (plus travel…however we decide to get there)

Lodging: Tent Camping

Food: Provided by the Lakota

If you’re interested, contact me. Here’s the info page at Taize’s website.

Taize @ Pine Ridge

Jason Micheli —  January 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

taize-pine-ridge-2013-360Taize, the ecumenical monastery in France founded after WW II, is taking their community on the road to host a pilgrimage weekend on the Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. My previous visits to Taize have proven to have an enormous impact on my own spiritual development and how I understand the nature of the church.

The Taize gathering at Pine Ridge will be over Memorial Day weekend. I plan on going and will be guest-blogging for Tony Jones about my experiences there.

I’d love to have some others join me if you’re interested. Outdoor worship in South Dakota with the Taize brothers and pilgrims from all over the world. How could you say no.

Here are a few details and then you can click over to read more at the Taize website itself.

When: Friday afternoon, May 24- Monday morning, May 27

Who: Anyone ages 18-35

Cost: $50.00 (plus travel…however we decide to get there)

Lodging: Tent Camping

Food: Provided by the Lakota

If you’re interested, contact me. Here’s the info page at Taize’s website.