Monday, February 28, 2011

The First Song of Moses, Exodus 15 : 1 - 18

Moses' song in honor of God's divine salvation of Israel tells the story of the parting of the Red Sea.  It reminds me of hearing someone tell of a come-from-behind victory in a sporting event. The enemy throws out a little trash talking  in verse 9, but  in a remarkable turn of events, ends up "sunk like lead" by the majestic warrior Lord.  Moses just can't find enough adjectives to explain how he feels about this triumph of the weak over the mighty. Everyone loves a good underdog story. Do you believe in miracles? YES, YES!

This metaphor of salvation as a recue operation is very appealing to me. There are so many unsatisfactory explanations. For example, from the very first time I heard the substitutionary atonement theory I was bewildered. If God was so mad at us that he couldn't forgive us unless someone innocent was tortured, then what kind of God was He anyway? The ransom theory isn't much better. If Christ died so that His blood could be a payment, to whom was the ransom paid? Was God holding someone hostage or was Satan? If it was God, then we're back to the earlier question. If it was Satan, well, isn't God stronger than Satan? Does God condone negotiations with terrorists? I realize that there is no earthly metaphor that can perfectly explain the grace of God, but a "rescue" at least makes sense. Frederica Mathewes-Green compares it to the way a fireman suffers burns and wounds to save a child from a burning house. She says, "He may dedicate this courageous act as an offering to the Fire Chief he loves and admires. He may do it to redeem the child from the malice of the arsonist who started the fire. But his suffering isn't paid to anyone in the sense of making a bargain. Likewise, God redeemed His people from the hand of Pharaoh when He rescued them in the Red Sea. But He didn't pay Pharaoh anything. He Himself was not paid anything. It was a rescue action, not a business transaction, and our redemption by Christ is the same." Well said.

List of the 9 Biblical Canticles

1.  The First Song of Moses, Exodus 15 : 1 - 18

2. The Second Song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32 : 1 - 43

3. The Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2 :1 - 10

4. The Song of Habbakuk, Habbakuk 3 : 2 - 19

5. The Song of Isaiah, Isaiah 26 : 9 - 21

6. The Song of Jonah, Jonah 2 : 2 - 9

7. The First Song of the Three Young Men, Daniel 3: 26 - 56
(You'll need to find a Bible with the Apocrypha included for this one and the next one. Or look it up online.)

8. The Second Song of the Three Young Men, Daniel 3 : 57 - 88

9. The Song of the Virgin Mary, Luke 1 : 46 - 55
and   The Song of Zacharias, Luke 1 : 68 - 79

So What's the Plan?

I'm a compulsive planner. When I was in college, I had a draft of the courses that I needed for every term leading up to graduation. Before I begin a new semester, I plan the topics, activities, and tests for every single day that I'll be teaching. I don't really mind altering the plan if necessary, but not having a plan to follow sends me into a serious state of stress. I have to have an idea of what is to come, and the further in advance that I can ink it in, the better. So, what's the Lentblog plan?

First, the dietary laws. I am wildly interested in my own dietary habits. I read about nutrition, grow some of my own vegetables, count calories, and keep a food journal. The journal incorporates exercise and the carb/protein/fat proportions that I consume. (There's an app for that!) With that said, I can't imagine that anyone else would find such notations as anything but soporific. So, unless the food is somehow relevant to the day's meditation, I'll show some restraint and spare you the bite by bite commentary of my nourishment.

Next, how often am I going to post? Well, Easter/Pascha is on April 24 this year which is 55 days from now. The devotional guide that I'm following has 40 entries that reference 9 Biblical Canticles (also called "Odes" or "Songs").  If I can manage a response to each of the 49 meditations on a more or less daily basis, then I'll still have a little cushion left for the days when I just can't get everything together. One thing I've learned already is that I'm going to have to write these things and then leave them alone. I woke up in the middle of the night last night thinking of a better word than one I had used in an earlier post. I think I've gone back and made at least one editorial change on everything I've written after it was posted. I'm reminded of Guy Clark's response when someone asked him how long it took him to write a song. He said he didn't know; he'd never finished one.

What is there to say? I'm not going to try to "teach" St. Andrew's hymn. For anyone who wants to read it, there are multiple sources online if you just google "The Canon of St. Andrew." No one needs me to tell them what it says. Besides, I'm the last person who should be teaching about poetic writing. I am not a poet. I feel the urge to laugh hysterically at the understatement of that last sentence. Eight of the canticles are Old Testament passages that praise God for His work in history for our salvation. Mary's Magnificat from Luke is also included. (I'll post a list of all of them with the Bible references.) I'm just planning to read them and then write whatever seems like it needs writing down.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Canon of St. Andrew

In my study of Orthodoxy, no author has been more valuable to me than Frederica Mathewes-Green. She is a commentator for National Public Radio, a columnist for Christianity Today and the wife of an Orthodox priest. Her journey from a 9 year old Catholic who wanted to be a nun to Unitarian Church member to hippy vegetarian Hindu took an even more unusual turn when a dramatic conversion experience  led her back to Christianity and eventually to Orthodoxy. It's a great story. If you're interested, read Facing East for the details.

My guidebook for Lent this year will be a Mathewes-Green book titled, First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew.  St. Andrew was a first century Jerusalem monk who wrote a hymn which is used as one of the Lent worship services each year in the Orthodox church. The canon is divided into nine canticles which Mathewes-Green has rearranged into forty readings that include commentary on the text and brief meditations on the verses. I read it last year and made notes of my thoughts at the time, so it will be interesting to repeat the process and see what (if anything) has changed.

The Orthodox do not recognize Ash Wednesday (March 9 this year), so their Lent officially starts two days earlier than the Western Christian observance. And it really starts a week before that, because they ease into the water instead of taking a big plunge all at once. As a group, the Orthodox church essentially eats a vegan diet during Lent.  For 2011, starting Monday February 28 all meat is eliminated from the diet, but dairy products are still allowed. On Monday March 7, the dairy is also eliminated. It sounds hard core, but they allow exceptions. There are feasts (such as the one for St. Patrick) that suspend the rules, and there are allowances for personal situations (like birthdays and other family celebrations).

Last year I kept the fast except when eating with my husband who is not observing Orthodox Lent. Jesus assumed that Christians would fast, and the only rule is gave is to not be a whinin', complainin' showoff about it. (My paraphrase, not a direct quote.) Inflicting my choice upon an innocent man who is in the midst of his busiest most stressful time of the year didn't seem quite right, so I kept our meals together intact. But I hit other snags. I don't eat a lot of meat, but dairy is a significant part of my diet. Eliminating it left a large hole that I unfortunately filled with sugary snacks like Twizzlers. I actually gained weight during Lent. In discussing this with the local Orthodox priest, Father Basil, he suggested that I use the story of Daniel as a guide. Eat simple healthy food like Daniel and his friends chose over the rich, unhealthy choices of the palace. So this year, I decided to keep the dairy and eliminate or at least minimize the sugar and desserts. I'll keep the naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables. I'll only eat meat with my husband. Somehow a simple cheese sandwich seems more in the spirit of Lent than an entire box of SweeTTarts.

Of course, the main point is not the actual food, but the minimization of emphasis on physical hunger and appetite so that spiritual growth can be stimulated. That's the road that I step out on tomorrow.

Orthodox? You mean, like, Jewish?

My first visit to an Orthodox church was for entertainment. Many years ago, I took my small children to a Greek festival, an annual event of an Orthodox congregation in Birmingham.  I was thinking of delicious food, lively dance, and the fun of experiencing colorful  Greek culture.  Somewhere in the back of my brain, the "Orthodox" adjective had been filed away with "Jew" and I had not retrieved it before the festival, so I was mildly jolted by the proliferative use of Christian symbols and icons as I entered the church. Looking back, if I had been using my head I would've known that a Jewish congregation would not refer to its building as a church. I vaguely remember concluding, "Well, what do you know, they're Christian." and then proceeding to the food line.

Fast forward several years. I read a wonderful book by Richard Foster called Streams of Living Water that described traditions of Christian faith throughout the history of the church. He uses the divisions of Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational.  Written in 1998, it addressed the comment now heard frequently:  "I'm very spiritual; I'm just not religious."  The book is excellent, and I highly recommend it, but the reason I mention it in this post is because of something contained in an Appendix titled, "Critical Turning Points in Church History." In describing the "Great Schism" of 1054 when the Roman Christians split from the others, he gave a history of those "others", the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was the first time I'd realized that it's only the Western Christian church that splits daily. The Eastern Christians exist just like they did in the time of Christ.  How is it that I've lived smack dab on the buckle of the Bible Belt and been completely unaware that the Jerusalem church as well as the others in the New Testament are STILL THERE with Eastern Orthodox congregations?

And it's not just a remnant. According to Wikipedia the 230 million members of the Eastern Orthodox church make up the third largest group of Christians in the world. Catholics are by far the largest with 1.2 billion and Protestants second with 670 million. The Protestant category includes a multitude of church denominations across the spectrum from mainline to evangelical. This is where we find around 100 million Baptists of which about 15% are Southern Baptist.

Now jump to the present. One day I saw a friend that I hadn't seen lately at our church. I learned that the family had left the Baptist church and joined an Orthodox church. I assumed they were driving to Birmingham or Atlanta to worship, but was surprised to learn that there is a new Orthodox congregation in the area of our small town. I saw the opportunity to experience the worship that I only knew from books. Unfortunately, the schedule of services conflicts with my own church, but during Lent the Orthodox church has extra services (and of course the Baptist church does not), so I saw my chance. It was love at first sight. The worship is full of sights, sounds, and smells. Long sessions of singing and chanting of psalms and scripture were beautiful and incredibly different from what I knew. Did I mention LONG? There's nothing concise about it. And don't worry about falling asleep, because the worshippers stand up during the entire service. Except for the children who wander around. There are a few chairs around the edges of the sanctuary for the elderly or anyone else who needs to sit, but otherwise it's Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus! I attended a number of the Lent services as well as Pascha (the Orthodox name for Easter) and plan to do the same this year.

I'll tell you all about it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

This is What Baptist Looks Like

Back in the 70s when ideas were changing about women and aging, feminist Gloria Steinam had a stock reply to those who informed her that she didn't look 40. She said, "This is what 40 looks like." I'm often tempted to steal her line when I get the occasional, incredulous, "You're Baptist?" I've come to appreciate in recent years the amount of flexibility that comes with the Baptist label. From the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut back in 1801 who insisted on a separated church and state in their famous letter to Thomas Jefferson to the wacko Westboro Baptists who are abhorred by everyone, Baptists are a varied lot. That's what forgoing a creed will do for you. We have a document called The Baptist Faith and Message, and in recent years there has been a push  for members (or at least for missionaries) to swear they believe it, but as a general rule, it's every man for himself. Each local church is autonomous regarding the convention, and each believer is autonomous regarding the church to which he belongs. We require baptism by immersion and communion. Anything else is negotiable to some extent. It's amazing that we're as coherent as we are.

The label certainly carries with it some preconceived notions. This probably explains the trend of the newer larger Baptist churches to omit the label altogether and follow the New Testament tradition of naming the congregation "The Church at CityName." When my daughters moved away to college, both were disillusioned with the Baptist church for different reasons. One now attends a church with traditional worship and liberal social views. "Baptist" is the first word in the title, and the church exists because they were brave enough during the civil rights movement to decry racism, and allow a black woman to join the congregation. They still welcome everyone, and it's still not popular. They allow women to serve as ministers and deacons. My daughter asked, "How are they Baptist?" The other daughter attends a church that she  initially assumed was nondenominational since "Baptist" is never mentioned there. But she knows the ropes, and it only took one service for her to ask, "How are they not Baptist?" She's right, of course. They're members of the Southern Baptist convention; they just choose not to flaunt it.

I admit that it irritated me when hymns were replaced by choruses and committees were replaced by "teams", but considering that Baptists have been in existence only 400 years, any tradition that we have pales in comparison to those of other Christian faiths that have been around for 2000 years. I've been baptized by immersion, and I partake of the Lord's Supper, so I'm covered in terms of the definition. The day it registered to me that the definition is a minimum standard, it opened up a vast expanse of worship options.  It's fine to sit quietly in a pew and listen to a sermon, but I can be Baptist and observe Advent and Lent, burn candles and incense, think icons are beautiful, and make the sign of the cross.  Faith is an experience of all the senses as well as the intellect. Yep, this is what Baptist looks like.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What does a Baptist know about Lent?

The short answer, of course, is "nothing." I can't ever recall hearing a mention of Lent from the pulpit. Baptists aren't much on fasting in general, and 40 days of it certainly seems excessive to us. The primary trait of Easter in the evangelical setting can degenerate into High Attendance Sunday. Now that church is so casual, even the idea of a new Easter dress is nostalgic and quaint. Feeling the void and drawn by the appeal of something I didn't have that someone else had, I started observing Lent a few years ago. I'm a chronic list maker and item checker, so the first thing I did was compile my list. Imagine my surprise when I counted 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Just my luck, I had chosen the longest Lent in history to beqin my quest. Then someone told me not to count the Sundays, and that put the total much closer to 40. For my first Lent, I chose a time sacrifice -- rising one hour earlier than I wanted to each morning to read passages from the Gospels. Another year, I fasted from solid food from Thursday evening to Friday supper. This amounts to only two meals omitted per week, so it's not wildly sacrificial, but there's no question I missed those meals! Lent inconveniently falls at the end of the semester and during baseball season. One year I got so far behind that I gave up on the whole thing and had my own personal Lent in May after school was out. Having grown up with no liturgical calendar and an emphasis on a "personal relationship with Jesus" it didn't seem that crazy to just adjust the situation to my convenience, but honestly, that's probably taking the whole "priesthood of the believer" idea a little too far. I remember being told that if I were the only person on earth, that Jesus would've died just for me. Maybe so, but of course there would have been no one there to execute him so I'm not sure how that would've played out. The point is that while personal responsibility is important, so is community and tradition. It's a very powerful idea to think about Christians all over the world humbling themselves in hopes of becoming more spiritually aware of the presence of God.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I'm going to have to study on that.

One of my favorite quotes from my grandfather is, "I'm going to have to study on that." He was a man who fixed things. Cars, toys, household items --- anything that had the ability to break. Occasionally he would be temporarily stumped by a situation, but giving up was a last resort. He would "study on" the problem and figure something out. He was also inclined to favor the rapid solution over the elegant one. He was not a detail person. Lack of time and materials led to some memorable creative solutions. Like the time he made a rack for our firewood. When the drilled holes didn't quite match up, he bent the bolts to fit. It seemed odd that the bolts and holes were labeled as pairs until it was time to assemble the rack. And when we paid our final respects, laughter joined our tears when we noticed that he had fixed the loose button on his good navy suit with kelly green thread. Hey, it worked.

I've been fortunate to be able to make "study" the central part of the first half century of my life. From my days on the Sunday School Cradle Roll of Wylam Baptist Church to my career as a math professor, I get the opportunity to read, study, teach and learn something almost every day. What a gift! This blog is my attempt to add writing to the list. It begins with the 2011 season of Lent, and then afterwards, well, I'm going to have to study on that.