Smells and bells

May 22, 2011

Upon the invitation of a few new friends, Christian and I just recently started attending an Anglican church called St. Matthew’s. Neither of us know much about the Anglican tradition, so we’ve been talking a little to those around us that do (Christian’s brother is actually in grad school right now training to be an Anglican priest, and one of my Torrey professors, also an Anglican priest, gave a really informative lecture on the history of Anglicanism last week).

Recently one of the priests from St. Matthew’s, Father Mark, spoke at a listening party for a radio show our friend Barak produced (Barak also happens to be the one who invited us to St. Matthew’s). The show’s theme was “I (don’t) Want to Change the World: Interviews with Top Media Leaders.” Barak asked a few Biola professors and Father Mark to comment after the show was over.

Father Mark talked about how often American churches aim to please by making their services—the worship, the sermon length and content, the overall atmosphere—fit the preferences of their congregants.  And, often Americans choose their church based on taste and personal preference. Of course, this isn’t a new problem, and I have heard a lot of speakers talk about why it’s not okay—because it’s selfish, it’s shallow, it’s arrogant. But Father Mark’s point was that it’s also really harmful, because sometimes we want the wrong thing. He talked about the dangers of letting our preferences (instead of ultimate reality) dictate how we view God—the eternal and unchanging God. What a nightmare for the whole world to simply be a mirror of our preferences, just the way we like it… that  only works in a universe where we like all the right things. In reality, our preferences are part of the problem.

Of course, the ever-increasing trend of customization (perhaps the best example of which is customized wedding vows, a relatively new phenomenon) makes sense in a postmodern context: if there is no ultimate reality, no absolute truth, then who better to define how things should be than us? But Christians do profess an ultimate reality, so it doesn’t make sense that we expect our churches to be just like nearly everything else in our culture: made to please. At St. Matthews, I do not like the smell of incense, my legs get tired from kneeling, and I have a really hard time singing some of the hymns. But I am so happy that this church will not break its centuries-old traditions to please me. I am so happy I am not getting everything I want, because then maybe I can begin to figure out if I am even wanting the right things.  (Of course, before I could get to that realization, I have to understand where these traditions came from and why they are important. And  a lot of that mostly has come  from my two semesters reading and discussing and writing about the early Church Fathers…but I still have so much to learn).

A lot of this reminds me of J.D. Salinger’s brilliant little book Franny and Zooey. The last half of the book is basically all a conversation between Zooey and his sister Franny, where he confronts her about her misusing the name of Jesus:

“Worse than that, though, I can’t see—I swear to God I can’t—how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even understand…If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him and he was and not as you’d like him to have been… The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back.”

Just like I’ve often decided how a church service could be better in my head, I have also made Jesus who I want him to be. I will never stop needing to be reminded that this is not okay. Not just because customizing Jesus is delusional and self-centered, but because if Jesus is only who I want him to be, if he fits into my reasoning about what love is, He is not enough to save me.


January 21, 2011

I have been reading the Psalms these past few days for the Great Books program I am in; for our first session we will be discussing 44 of them, categorized thematically. After an entire semester of Medieval Theologians from Pseudo-Dionysius to Thomas Aquinas, the poetry of the Psalms is a much-needed reminder that God appreciates beautiful sentences (though imagine how much more beautiful they are the original Hebrew!).

The last group of Psalms I am reading is “Psalms on Creation” (8, 24, 33, 65, 104, 136). I was expecting, from the categorization, to read about “nature”—trees, sunlight, squirrels. After all, when someone talks about enjoying or caring for “creation,” he usually means the forests, the environment, the earth. But I found that I was also reading a lot about myself. In Psalm 65, God doesn’t just “still the roaring of the sea,” He also stills “the turmoil of the nations”—and in the same sentence.

Now, I know the appropriate reaction to this is supposed to be something like “can you believe that the same God who created the universe also hears our prayers?” And in my better moments, I am overwhelmed by that truth. But yesterday, I found myself resisting this lumping: I’m not sure if I like the direct comparison of the waves of the ocean to the wars of men.

And then I remember Psalm 103 also:

“…for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.”

Beautiful. True. But so difficult. People rarely say these words to a parent who has just lost a child, or to a teenager watching a grandparent die of cancer. But there’s another side to this truth, as there is so often. (I am slowly learning to appreciate, instead of be intimidated by, the complexity of Scripture.)

In J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny hates that Jesus discriminates against birds when he says,

“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

My reaction is just the opposite of Franny’s*. The suffering of humans saddens me far more than the suffering of birds, and so it makes sense to me, emotionally especially, that while God cares for birds, he considers man “more valuable.” (So valuable, in fact, that He would die to save him.)

But God doesn’t always make sense to me. Too often I forget I am a created being, that my friend, sick in the hospital, is a created being…that, as Annie Dillard puts it, “our breath is not our own.”


* this particular section within Franny and Zooey is saying much more than I can understand… I just read it yesterday and have only picked a very tiny part out to reference, but I want to write again when I have thought about it more. It is a brilliant book.