Tuesday, July 21, 2009

This minister's bookshelf

Well, not my bookshelf, per se, but what I've been reading.

About a year ago my wife and I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The novel (Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2004) takes place in a small town minister's home. It is one of the most beautiful books I've read, and the author clearly knows her theology. And grace. At about that time, Ms. Robinson's latest novel was released. Home tells the same story, from the perspective of the other home in Gilead. If you don't know these novels, or her first, Housekeeping, find and read them!

This summer I set myself to reading all that Marilynne Robinson has in print. So I have read Home, and marveled again at the beauty of her prose, the insight into family dynamics, and the saturation of grace. I am now reading Housekeeping.

As my "coffee shop reading" I have just completed a collection of Robinson's essays. At least one day a week, I stop by Caribou to sit and read before entering the melee that is my office. It's a good place to bump into people, and some days I read very little. But at home there are other distractions, and I won't bump into people, so there you have it. It also gives me a chance to read and savor, and take my time with the essays. The Death of Adam collects essays apparently written during the 1990's. They are as beautifully articulated as her fiction, while being both scholarly and occasionally ironic.

Here is a Christian writing without jargon; biblical faith and language and a balanced political idealogy. She employs a rich vocabulary (I got reacquainted with Merriam-Webster most mornings!) in exquisite but unpretentious sentences. I hardly dare begin to quote her ... where would I stop? She identifies herself as a mainline Protestant, and is also a clear, winsome student of Calvin and Edwards. Her defense of these Reformed giants, and of the Puritans in their train, is stunning and delightful.

On my Facebook profile, under "religious views" I state: "Calvinist who welcomes wonder." That was before I read these essays, and I am all the more happy to stand there now.

Three quotes, and I'm done:
An indictment (my word, not the author's) - "I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward a particular holiness - which, while we are on the subject of divine abhorrence, God, as I recall, does not view much more kindly than he does neglect of the poor. In fact, the two are often condemned together." (p. 102, in "Family)

On theology - "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling iwth a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and, of course, Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song adn legend and prayer." (p. 117 in "Dietrich Bonhoeffer")

A description of a Christian (herself) - "I will make a shocking statement: I am a Christian. This ought not to startle anyone. It is likely to be at least demographically true of an American of European ancestry. I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music, and art Christianity has inspired. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed." (p. 260-1 in "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion") To which I will just add - would that this were true of more self-described "evangelicals"!

Monday, July 20, 2009

From sea to shining sea

Belated thoughts on Independence Day weekend worship.

But first: an anagram for "belated" is "bleated." It's right I should keep this in mind when I write in this space from week to week.

On Sunday, July 5, we sang "America the Beautiful" in our morning services. No one I have talked with remembers this hymn being sung in worship at College Church. It was not put into the service without a great deal of thought, extended staff conversation, and personal reservation. In the end, while I know it was appreciated by many, and though it was my decision from beginning to end, I'm not sure it was a good idea.

I select hymns and choral music for morning services, based on the sermon text of the day. When things work, this gives a cohesiveness to the hour, usually without belaboring the preaching point; instead, there is a sense of complementarity between the singing and the preaching. It works.

I planned the July 5 service, along these lines, earlier than normal because I was going to be away the week the plan was due to be submitted. This gave me the opportunity to come back and look at it without the press of the planning schedule. It was only upon review that I realized, "oh right, this is the July 4 weekend." Because we often have conversations with congregants about things civic and patriotic - why don't we have a flag in the sanctuary? how come we never sing patriotic hymns? - I thought, well, what harm is there in considering a national hymn in this service? I can think of plenty of harm, actually, and believe with many that one of the great challenges and failures of the American church is mixing nationalism, patriotism, and conservative politics with evangelical faith. Still ...

Reading again the text of "America the Beautiful" I was struck that while it is a national song, it is quite clearly a prayer for our country. (Interestingly, after we sang it in service, many people commented that they could not remember having sung any verses but the opening.) Well, I thought upon reflection, what if we acknowledge the national holiday in a prayer hymn, following the time of congregational prayer. It was a given that (as is our custom) the morning prayer would include thanksgiving for the blessings of living in this land, and prayer for our leaders, justice, etc. You know, biblical content for praying for our nation. That would not comprise the entire prayer, but would be a part of it. Then we would end the prayer with a hymn (as we often do), this time a hymn of prayer for our country.

I took this question to the ministry staff. It prompted an engaged and stimulating discussion. Some of the reservations voiced were: * there is nothing Christological about the hymn (that's not a show-stopper, but it is a serious matter in our context) * can we posture the use of the hymn in a way that counters the intuitive "jingoistic" instinct of any national hymn? * though certain political types would be pleased by it, we can be sure others would be uncomfortable * what about the - not tiny - numbers of our congregation who are not Americans?

Well, it was a good discussion, and it also included good reasons to use the song. I left the meeting less inclined to put it in the service. But when it came time, and after more conversation, I decided to put it in. The pray-er in the service would set it up before he prayed ("this morning in our prayer we are going to give thanks for our independence; following prayer we will sing this hymn of prayer for our nation."), and following the general prayer and the Lord's Prayer, woud again point out its function in the service. All well and good.

In reality ... well, duh ... this really doesn't "sing" like a prayer hymn. And the force of our patriotic association was too strong for us to sing it "thoughtfully." It was a moment. Not the moment I had hoped, and not I think very effective or appropriate as Christian worship. I can think of only 3 dates that I would have tried this: Sunday, July 3; Sunday, July 4; or Sunday, July 5. July 2 would be early enough, and July 6 late enough, to "get by without it." I can't say now whether next year (Sunday, July 4, 2010) I am likely to do it again.

Still, I admire this hymn and celebrate its place in our national psyche. I am among those who would vote for it as our national anthem. One of the features that makes it weaker for use in Christian worship (Jesus has no place in it) actually strengthens its value as a hymn for all Americans. (Excluding, of course, atheists!) And my, does it teach me how to pray for the land that I love:
God shed his grace on thee; and crown thy good with brotherhood.
God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.

There are some historical or cultural problems, to be sure: the confusion of pilgrims with sternness (long and ably refuted as an unfair stereotype); the celebration of manifest destiny (ouch!); the very Euro-centric vision of it all. But I love the longing for (it is not a description of what exists, but a prayer for) "alabaster cities undimmed by human tears." It might not hurt for more people in this country to learn the verses to the full song, and enlarge our vision for the country.

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not express my thankfulness to have the freedom to not program a patriotic song in a worship service.