Meditation on Repentance and Ruin

Repentance isn’t about the big things. If you take care of the little things, the big stuff takes care of itself. We tend to be obsessed with the big stuff. We roil with anger at AIG executives who hoard their millions after losing our billions, but fail to see the incongruity of refusing a waitress an expected and deserved tip, hoarding what’s in our wallet and leaving only a buck on the table after a $25 dinner. Somehow hoarding money by being cheap is perfectly okay but hoarding money by taking a million dollar bonus which is in your contract is evil.

In our fallen sensibilities, little doesn’t matter, especially compared with the big.

In spite of this “don’t sweat the small stuff” sensibility that we use to justify our little lives, we all know better. Jay Hopler’s poem, Meditation on Ruin, which was today’s poem on The Writer’s Almanac, illustrates what we all know to be the truth, if we would just admit it to ourselves. I’ll let you click over to the poem because I don’t have permission to reprint it in full. It’s a meditation on how little things – the broken shoelace, being overcharged at the gas pump – ultimately kill our spirits. But I love his recognition that we often deal well with the big stuff.

The death of a father – the death of the mother –

The sudden loss shocks the living flesh alive!

The big stuff animates; it mysteriously strengthens us to face whatever might befall us. It’s the small stuff that enervates. As Hopler says,

… But the broken pair of glasses

The tear in the trousers,

These begin an ache behind the eyes.

But while the small stuff enervates, we have an uncanny knack for ignoring it, until it crops up as something far worse. As Hopler observes at the end of the poem:

Oblivious. We are oblivious. Then, one morning – there’s a

crack in the water glass – we wake to find ourselves undone.

In the same manner, repentance is dealing with the little stuff. Mostly we are oblivious to its effects. We don’t set out to be a martyr or have the gift of miraculous healing, or to see the uncreated light. Mostly (at least for these forty days) we do as we ought to the extent that we are given grace. Mostly we are oblivious to the effects of repentance. Then, one morning we wake to find ourselves redone, transformed, sanctified.

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Linear and Spatial Worship

Protestant worship is linear. In larger churches – and even more so in seeker oriented services – the line from start to finish, with programmatic zigs and zags here and there, can be quite complex. Such a service, if it is well-run, requires an adept worship leader. At Westminster Presbyterian, in Lincoln, for instance, it was conceivable that we might have the Nebraska Brass playing, along with the choir, a guest organist, and a special presentation by the Outreach Committee. On a week like that the Thursday worship planning meeting might take a couple of hours so that the choir director, organist, worship leader, and pastor understood the precise flow of the service and all the signals involved in moving from one segment to the next.

And as complex and intricate as those special services might be, the key phrase still remains, “from one segment to the next.”

Even when a sort of ballet was required of the worship leaders, the service itself remains linear.

In the majority of Presbyterian churches I served, the choir director hated when the choir anthem was sung during the offering. It was distracting. People don’t do more than one thing at once well. If they were getting out their wallets, they weren’t paying attention to the anthem.

In other words, Protestant worship is linear, doing one thing at a time, one after the other, from introit to benediction.

Orthodox worship, on the other hand, is more spatial than linear. At times two or three different things can be occurring simultaneously. The priest has a specific function, the deacon another, and the choir (leading the congregation) yet another. Sometimes these functions go on at the same time yet seemingly independent of each other. It can all appear and sound a bit cacophonous if one doesn’t understand the rather different dynamic occurring.

Protestant worship is linear because it is primarily aural and mental. Protestants journey to heaven in a metaphorical sense, by hearing the word proclaimed through word, song, and action, and responding in prayer and praise. And that journey is made up of one step after another.

Ironically, while it is the Orthodox that coined the idea of worship being a journey to heaven, the actual worship event – the Divine Liturgy – is less a journey and more akin to a day’s work at a specific location: the throne room of heaven. In the Divine Liturgy one can see angels and elders and the Lamb upon his throne, and people gathered around the throne, and incense, and choirs singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy …”

And like an actual throne room, the day’s activities, while coordinated, are not necessarily specifically related to each other. Each participant – bishop, priest, deacon, sub-deacon, chanter, choir, acolyte, worshipper, etc. – has their specific task to get done in order to get the day’s throne room work completed. In this case the specific work at hand is the proper praise and worship of God. But if the spatial context – the throne room – is not understood, all those different tasks done for a singular purpose might appear to be competing activities.

Do I listen to the priest or the deacon?

In the Protestant church, the priest and deacon wouldn’t be talking at the same time. At least if Thursday’s worship planning meeting had been productive.

This is not to say that Protestant worship doesn’t have spatial characteristics. The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously called worship (and Lutheran worship specifically) a dance. (In a less complimentary reference, he also compared it to a flock of quacking ducks, but that’s another story.) Conversely, there is a distinct direction with a beginning, two movements, and an end, in Orthodox worship.

So it is certainly correct to observe that pretty much the same thing is happening in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and classical Protestant Sunday worship. But the similarities can cause the observer to miss the profound difference that Protestant worship is linear while Orthodox worship is spatial.

Is that a big deal? For many people, probably not, but for converts it can be a very big deal when it comes to integrating into the flow (or entering into the space, to keep our metaphors straight) of Orthodox worship. But more about that in a later post.

Just the Facts?

The other day (March 9) President Obama signed an executive order which allows limited government subsidies for new stem cell research. This essay is not about the morality of stem cell research. I do believe taking stem cells from fetuses is problematic, but it is my view that this is not where the real moral dilemma lies. The real problem is the in vitro fertilization process where eggs are fertilized outside the womb, resulting in many more fertilized eggs (ie, fetuses … ie, little babies) than can ever be possibly used. This is the immoral act that let the proverbial ethics horse out of the morality barn.

Ironically, when in vitro fertilization was still very experimental, some pro-life groups supported the research, saying that any procedure that makes it possible for parents wanting children to have children of their own must be a good thing. But at the risk of being considered a luddite, I observe that this step – taking the baby-making process out of the womb and into the test tube – is the unnatural step that led to all the contemporary moral dilemmas about stem cell research.

After the baby doctor fertilizes all those eggs and then uses one or two of them to insert into the womb, the remaining eggs are frozen until at a later date they are destroyed or they degrade on their own until they are no longer viable. In either case, no one bothers with funeral arrangements or wakes or candlelight vigils. Using the same embryos for stem cell research possibly seems a more humane and dignified end than getting freezer burn in an anonymous scientific lab.

The moral peril occurred long before we ever arrived at the ethical fork in the road we call stem cell research. But again, that’s not what this essay is about.

My gripe with President Obama is not in signing the executive order, but rather what he had to say when he did it. He said it was time that we make scientific decisions based on facts and not ideology. It’s a rather stupid thing to say, and I suspect that Mr. Obama is smarter than he let on when making this rather sophomoric philosophical blunder. You know, he had to dumb it down to the level of the average senator and news reporter, so given the context, I’ll forgive him for his error.

Besides, I think I know what he means …

… and I couldn’t disagree with him more.

An ideology is, according to Random House dictionary, “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” In other words, it’s our corporate world view.

Of course Obama wasn’t using the word in this sense. The dictionary’s second definition gets closer to his narrow use of the term “…such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political and social plan along with the devices for putting it into operation.” In other words, ideology is when we use our world view to shape a plan of action.

But that isn’t how the President used the word either. Rather, when he says “ideology,” he’s referring to a plan of action based on a world view with which he disagrees.” To put a not-too-fine point on the matter. In his enlightened view, Democrats have good ideas; Republicans merely have ideology. Or to take it outside the realm of American politics, Tim Geithner works with solid principles while that crackpot Gideon Gono over in Zimbabwe prints money hand over fist because of his ideology.

Don’t get me wrong. I was no big fan of Mr. G. W. Bush’s good ideas ideology. He had the idea that American style political democracy and economic capitalism is so good that everyone in the world should want it, and nothing was going to stop him in making sure they got what they “wanted.” In this sense Bush the Younger had a very Jacksonian presidency, and for the people he was helping, he was often terrifying in his benevolence.

Many people rather prefer authoritarian governments. They are often more efficient and certainly require less responsibility of the citizenry. And I am of the opinion that if that’s what they want we shouldn’t impose our sensibilities on them. (And on this point I am not thinking so much about the Bush’s various wars, but rather their activities through subtly heavy handed organizations like the World Bank.

But while I didn’t care for his policies, the thing I loved about Bush is that he was at least smart enough to know his perception of the facts were rooted in an ideology and he was very up front about using that ideology to promote his plan. The current President seems to think he can separate facts from interpretation and world view. That’s a dangerous path to go down.

Bare facts without interpretation …

… well, there’s no such thing.

And the result will be that the wielders of the facts (in this case, both the President and the scientists) will become a tool of the ideology rather than the other way around.

And that is the worst sort of ideology imaginable, Mr. President.

Tight-Fisted

Listening to NPR news this morning, I heard Americans described as “tight-fisted” because instead of buying stuff from retailers, they’re saving the money.

NPR simply has to be called out on their utterly twisted sense of reality.

Savings is not a vice. Not buying a new i-Pod to replace last year’s model is not tight-fisted.

Seeing a hungry person who wants some lunch and refusing to help is tight-fisted.

Refusing to support the congregation you are a part of just because the priest or pastor doesn’t meet your expectations is tight-fisted.

Giving a 5% tip to a hard-working waiter is tight-fisted.

On the other hand, putting 5% of one’s paycheck into a savings account instead of buying a plasma television is anything but tight-fisted.

There was a time that savings accounts and CDs and 401k’s were considered virtuous. By National Public Radio standards, I guess they’re a vice.

Based on that logic, when the spring fundraiser comes around, call your local NPR station and tell them you wouldn’t do anything as tight-fisted as not spending your money … you’re going to use you’re $10 a month you used to give to NPR to buy bagels instead.

The First Commandment

I assume you think I’m talking about the first commandment given to Moses, the first of the Decalogue: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

But I was reminded by today’s Synaxarion reading (It’s a book of lives of the saints; sort of like the original Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.), that the first commandment God gave humans is in Gen. 2: 16f.

You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.

Before Moses and the Chosen People, before Abraham and the Promise, before Noah and the Flood, before the concept “East of Eden” meant anything at all, God told Adam and Eve to fast. They were given the bounty of God’s good earth, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”

Would it be too great an exaggeration to say that food is the greatest temptation we have? I think it safe to say it is the original temptation. And for St. Paul it personifies the very rejection of God. “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18f).

And in that terrible moment doesn’t that also describe Adam and Eve? Their god was the belly and their minds were set on earthly things. Thinking she would achieve their glory, Eve ate and gave to Adam, and that meal revealed their nakedness of which they were then ashamed.

One might expect such cosmic consequences from cosmic transgressions like murder, blasphemy, or damaging the ozone layer, but we’re merely talking about breaking the fast (albeit, the first God-ordained fast): “Eat of any tree but that one.”

Maybe we ought to reprioritize our bad habits and rethink which is the baddest of the bad. Maybe we ought to give food its due, and do without in order to tell our bellies that it comes in at a distant second to our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.

Maybe we ought to remember just what the first commandment really was.