After Saying Your Prayers

Last week, our priest did a homily on the New Testament reading from James, in which James tells us not to be like those who look in a mirror and immediately forget what we look like. And I sat in the pew and made a mental note to schedule confession and get back to praying.

After the immediate twinge of conscience, I began to ponder what it means to “forget what we look like.” What should we do immediately after praying? (Assuming, of course, that we remembered to pray during the course of the day, which unfortunately doesn’t always happen for me).

The question reminds me of praying as a child. Back then, the answer was obvious, because prayer was that thing you do before you do something important or regular. You pray before you eat, something like “Dear Lord, please bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our bodies to your service,” an example of evangelical liturgy. You pray before bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. And God bless….” (My God bless list was highly regimented and organized according to family tree, which says a lot about how neurotic I was. Like generations before me, I also wondered what “Ifeyeshadie” meant.) You pray before something scary, like piano recitals or gym class. And of course you pray during church or chapel services, and at my Christian school we practically prayed before sneezing.

It also reminds me of the conversation between Curdie and Irene’s “great great grandmother” in the wonderful book The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. She exhorts him to do only good things, and he wonders how one could even function, because surely “good things” consist of praying and works of charity. She laughs and teaches him that it’s a good thing to eat your dinner, even if it doesn’t make him necessarily “good” for doing it. There are many more good acts in this world than there are bad ones, when you remember that it’s good to brush your teeth and talk with friends and go to work.

If we think of prayer as a regular thing, something we simply always do, then it follows that regular, practical things happen after we pray. That said, it’s worth pondering, to wonder what you do after prayer. I realized that singing with the radio about “what’s love got to do with it” is not, perhaps, the best activity to follow up the Our Father with. Nor is going on Facebook to see if anyone commented on that awesomely clever post you put up.

But have I interrupted the rosary while driving to the tune of “Hail Mary full of what on earth are you thinking, God made blinkers for a reason”? So many times.

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Burlap and Incense

My name is Caroline, and I am a liturgical snob.

There’s no support group for it, just as there’s no group for people who overuse semicolons, and probably for the same reason; we’re insufferable. I readily admit this. And yet, try as I might, I can barely contain a shudder when the priest extemporaneously changes He to God, or when the Peace becomes an impromptu family reunion, or when people’s cell phones go off during the service. I’m that guy. When I visit a church, nothing brings me joy like noting the presence of bells at the consecration. If there’s a traditional version, I’d rather have it, whether it’s organ music vs. guitars or a central aisle vs. “in the round.” In general, it seems right for Mass to emphasize the vertical over the horizontal.

That said, I’m completely sympathetic for those who need the horizontal emphasis, even those who whitewashed icons and built suburban concrete monstrosities in the 70s. It doesn’t mean they’re irreverent or godless, but it probably says a lot about where they came from.

My background was as vertical as the staunchest rad-trad could want. Our favorite hymn was Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne, which declared that “He can create and He destroy.” God was “immortal, invisible… in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

The children’s Westminster Catechism that I memorized said that God made me and all things “for His own glory,” that “God can do all His holy will.” The answer for everything was “for His own glory:” why did God command Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites? Why did God create Satan if He knew what Satan would do? Why does God only chose some and not others to be His elect, even though some non-elect die as infants without doing anything wrong? Who are you, O Man, to question God?

Not only was God all-powerful, all-glorious, holy and sovereign, not to be questioned, but we the people were dead in our sins. Our moral compass never pointed North because of the fall. We would never chose God on our own, because we couldn’t. We had no free will, no inner goodness. I was taught that nothing I did was actually good, that even my good works were probably done out of pride, or fear of punishment. No action done by man could be described as pure.

As a teenager, I watched R.C. Sproul’s Fear and Trembling video series, in which he called the faithful to reflect upon their wretchedness. The video discussed when God struck down a man for touching the Ark of the Covenant, for trying to catch it before it fell in the mud. Sproul taught that God’s action was only logical: dirt does what dirt is supposed to do. When it gets wet, it becomes mud. It obeys the natural laws, unlike man, who disobeys. Our hands are much worse than dirt, than worms, than the foulest thing you can imagine. The only reason we could stand before God is because of Christ’s righteousness, the snow covering our dung heaps.

If anyone was brought up to have a vertical-oriented faith, it was me. The experience was like pre-Vatican II Catholic guilt, but without the release of Catholic confession. They hammered home to us that faith is not about feelings, not about what’s in it for us. We were never overburdened with self-esteem. We were fed on complex theology from childhood, without sugar-coating. Except for the whole Protestant part, it was a Michael Voris dream come true.

That’s why I’m sympathetic to the tackiness, the feel-goodisms, the watered down theology. I don’t think it’s true, and I think it’s harmful in a different way, but I understand why so many would find it appealing. I can see why hearing Latin triggers painful memories for many who grew up pre-Vatican II, just as hearing an “altar call” triggers pain for me.

Last Sunday, the reading was from Isaiah 6, in which the prophet enters the Holy of Holies, with smoke going up before the throne of God and six-winged cherubim calling to each other “Holy Holy Holy!” And the prophet cries out before God that he has unclean lips, woe is me. His sin is purged with a burning coal.

It’s a beautiful, stunning passage, and I hate what it does to me. I hate that hearing the lector read it made me tremble with terror. I hate that I was suddenly a teenager watching “In Fear and Trembling,” when Sproul talked about that exact passage. I hate that the priest talked about God’s glory, not because he said anything wrong, but because I hear it through the filter of my past. When he says God’s glory, he may see beauty, but I see atrocities committed in God’s name, that are “for His own glory.” The word glory is a cover-up, a word to whitewash all the horrors done by Joshua to Canaan, the genocide, the rape, the executions and stonings that God Himself supposedly sanctioned “for His own glory.” Be ye holy.

Thing is, Beauty kept calling my name, in spite of all. I got lucky, because my particular faith tradition had done its own whitewashing. My ancestors snuffed out candles and tore down altars and destroyed icons and burned monasteries, for the glory of awful Jehovah. We worshiped in a plain building with a central wooden pulpit, our version of the altar, without pictures except for a stained glass cross. I don’t connect incense and candles and chant with my past; I connect it with moving away from my past, with choosing for myself where to worship, for daring to let God love me.

But if we’d been the ones with incense and Latin? I’d be making burlap banners and holding hands in the Our Father.

How Do We Attract Young People to Church?

You can start by knowing that that’s the wrong question.

Yes, that is the wrong question. It presupposes that the church is “in here,” that young people (whoever they are and whatever that means) are “out there.” Who is the “we” asking the question? Presumably, old people at church. “We” don’t really like young people, other than a few that we’re related to, and even then in small doses, because who can understand them, kids these days, but we’re facing our mortality and all the clergy say that we need young people or the church will die out so (sigh) here we go. Let’s put the word “cool” in the mailed out newsletter and add another guitar at Mass. That’s what kids like, right?

Let me propose a different beginning: consider that you probably already have “young people” in the pews. You may not notice, because that single woman in the back creeps out so quietly after the last hymn, but she’s there. The young couple with the baby that screamed during the consecration until someone shot enough dirty looks in their direction – they got the memo. The college students that get really preoccupied during the offertory because they spent their last cent on textbooks, yes, those are the ones that always leave during holidays. The awkward young man at Christian Ed who wanted to talk theology, not knowing this wasn’t the done thing, just let the leader finish the talk so we can get coffee in the fellowship hall, he was there. They were all there one Sunday, maybe two, maybe they asked a bunch of questions about possible service opportunities and classes, but their faces went blank when we told them about the women’s Bible study that meets every Tuesday at 10 a.m. I wonder why we never saw those nice young people again?

Here are a few questions I’d propose:

1. What do you mean by “young”?

Do you mean anyone below 50? (I’m looking at you, Episcopalians). Do you mean “young white middle-class couple with small children?” Do you mean “college and career” – a nebulous phrase that includes freshmen putting marshmallows in the microwave and 30 year old singles with 401Ks – or did you have high school students in mind?

Since I’m not in an amiable mood, I’d guess that you’re expecting this:

young couple

Not this:

This photo was taken on Broadway, between 61st and 62nd Street. The picture speaks for itself... *************** This set of photos is based on a very simple concept: walk every block of Manhattan with a camera, and see what happens. To avoid missing anything, walk both sides of the street. That's all there is to it … Of course, if you wanted to be more ambitious, you could also walk the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. But that's more than I'm willing to commit to at this point, and I'll leave the remaining boroughs of New York City to other, more adventurous photographers. Oh, actually, there's one more small detail: leave the photos alone for a month -- unedited, untouched, and unviewed. By the time I actually focus on the first of these

2. Why do you want young people to come to church?

Is it simply because otherwise the church will die out? Is it concern for their souls? Is it because you think the church has something good to offer? Is it because young people have something good to offer?

3. All of which culminates in a final question:

What do you mean by “church”? Are you sure that you’re in it, and that young people aren’t? What is the church’s purpose? Why do we even do this crazy thing where we dress up and go to a building on Sunday morning and sing songs and listen to a sermon and take bread and wine? Does it make you feel good because you did it, and your parents did it, and everyone respectable in town use to do it?

Does it scare you that it’s no longer mandatory in polite American society? If so, what do you fear? What would be lost if we lost the church – whatever that is?

7 Quick Takes: Favorite Easter Hymns and Songs

seven-quick-takes-friday

Disclaimer: these may not be specifically “Easter season” hymns. They just make me think of Easter.

1

Cece Winan, “Alabaster Box”(This is the perfect song for Maundy Thursday too).

When I first heard this song in high school, I knew I’d heard a Christian song that, for once, was authentic and not some canned, three chord travesty played on Christian “always positive” radio. Cece Winan is a Gospel singer, and this song is a beautiful musical telling of the Mary who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. It’s not the kind of thing you’d sing as a congregational hymn, but as a personal hymn of praise, it could not be more perfect.

2

Nicole C Mullen, “I Know that My Redeemer Lives”

Mullen was my favorite Christian musician in middle and high school because of songs like this one. If you’re Protestant you’ve probably heard it – for awhile it was overplayed. However, since I hadn’t heard it in awhile, it still sounded fresh and beautiful. The lyrics perfectly express what it means to be a Christian on Easter, and the music is triumphant.

3

My Song is Love Unknown

OK, so technically it’s a Holy Week hymn, not an Easter one. I don’t care; it’s one of the best hymns in the world, and it deserves more love than just getting sung on Palm Sunday. When it’s Easter season but you feel a bit contemplative (and maybe a bit sick of the “He Rose! He Rose!” variety), here’s your song.

4

Carol of the Exodus

I didn’t grow up knowing this one, but now I’m in love. Talk about goosebumps.

5

Hail Thee, Festival Day

(I had a bear of a time finding a good recording of this: they all seem to be of congregational singing, which is wonderful, and the way it should be sung, but those recordings lack auditory clarity. This had the clearest vocals.) Perhaps that’s the sign of a good Easter hymn though: that it’s always sung in unison, in large groups, with all the stops pulled out. I didn’t know this until my first Easter vigil, when we had bells and noise makers for the chorus. I have never felt so much like a kid, so happy and full of joy, as when singing this Easter hymn.

6

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, King of Creation

This one I did grow up with, and it can be sung all year, but seems especially apt during Easter.

7

O Sons and Daughters Let Us Sing

That seems as good a place as any to end.

The Beat Goes On

If you grew up evangelical Protestant like me, the religious part of Easter stopped with the benediction Sunday morning. After that, the goal was to get sick on chocolate bunnies and jelly beans while spreading Easter grass all over the house – my goal, that is, not my parents’.

(An aside: do y’all still put Easter grass in children’s Easter baskets? Because that is masochistic.)

Even adults in evangelical churches don’t think of Easter as a season though. Once the day is over, it’s back to business as usual. In fact, some churches don’t have Good Friday services, so Easter Sunday has to cram in all the truths of holy week into one hour. This leads to the odd experience of singing O Sacred Head Now Wounded in a church full of Easter lilies.

My whole life, my favorite holiday has been Easter, even as a child. This might be because winter in the South is kind of like a cooler summer without bugs, so Christmas lacked a certain magical element that you get when snow’s on the ground. But springtime – the Deep South knows how to do spring. Folks move down here and have to get allergy shots for all the pollen. Moreover, this flower fest starts in March, sometimes even in February, so no matter how early Easter comes, it’s warm enough to wear that new Easter dress and sandals and have a sunny Easter egg hunt. It never made sense that the fun had to stop with one day. When I found out that Episcopalians, along with Catholics, celebrate Easter for 50 days, it sealed the deal. (John Knox, if you wanted to keep me Presbyterian you should have kept the church calendar.)

A few years ago, a priest told me that some Christians prefer certain seasons to others. His particular favorite is Advent, which might be my least favorite because it’s so damn hard to practice in our culture. It’s not just a preference thing but a spiritual one – some people are drawn to particular seasons because it provides something their soul needs. Well, I’ve always known I needed Easter; I just didn’t know there was a whole season for it until a few years ago.

Soon after I had this revelation, I found my mom’s calendar from the year I was born. I’d never known what time of year I was baptized: Presbyterians baptize infants, but it’s not seen in same light that Catholics see it, so there’s no reason to celebrate the day in a particular way. Turns out I was baptized in April. Feeling goosebumps, I found the date for Easter and started counting forward, and yep, I was baptized during Easter (a week after Ascension Sunday, to be exact). It’s almost as if God stamped my soul right then, giving me exactly what I would need.

If you’re new to the church calendar, it’s hard to know what to do with it, especially when it comes to Easter. There are multitudes of articles about Lent, more ideas than any one person could try in a lifetime. But when it comes to knowing how to celebrate resurrection for 50 days, the pickings are slimmer. Why is this? Is it really harder to celebrate than to fast? Does Jesus still need to tell us not to fast in the presence of the Bridegroom?

For those who are new to the party, here are some things I’ve seen online in the last few days that have helped keep me in the mindset of Easter:

1. Easter People Podcast: Easter Joy in a Messed Up World. This podcast is run by two dear friends of mine up in Virginia, and I highly recommend this one in particular. They talk about finding joy when Easter Sunday falls during hard times. I really liked the idea that Easter gives us fuel and stamina for the coming year.

2. Resurrection of Dolls. You may have seen the story of the Tasmanian mom who finds second-hand Bratz dolls, cleans off the makeup, and creates natural-looking dolls for children. It’s truly beautiful how these trashy, scary cast-offs are remade into dolls with natural faces and home-knit clothes. As the article says, the new creations look “more at home on a tire swing than on the runways of Milan.” While this is not religious or explicitly about Easter, it struck me that this is a real resurrection for something that was ugly and unwanted, that now has new life and brings happiness to others.

3. The Women of Holy Week: Mary Magdalene. You should see the entire series that Rachel Held Evans wrote on the women of Holy Week, but this was my favorite. Both the church and the world have gotten this Mary’s story wrong over and over again. It strikes me how all the world wants to see women only in terms of our sexuality: at times in the church good women were just “virgins” (check out the descriptors for female verses male saints), and in today’s sex-saturated culture good women are sexually available and titillating. Rachel looks at how based on one inaccurate sermon, Mary Magdalene’s story got mixed up with that of another Mary – because women, who can keep them apart – and it stuck. Even though Mary Magdalene is not portrayed as a prostitute in Scripture, she got branded for hundreds of years. Only in this century was she exonerated by the Catholic church, and secular culture never got that memo. This story says who she really was: an apostle to the apostles, the first person to see Jesus alive and to proclaim the resurrection to unbelieving male disciples.

4. Introduction to Eastertide from a Presbyterian. If spite of what I wrote above, it seems some Presbyterians do practice Easter season after all! I love this article, because it presents the idea of Easter tide to those who have objections and even names those objections. (I can hear my mom saying “but we’re supposed to celebrate Easter all the time!” Whenever a Presbyterian objects to something in the church year, you can bet it’s because “we’re supposed to do that all the time.”) I was not familiar with Bach’s Easter Oratio, but now I’m going to look it up!

5. Catholic Culture: Fifty Days of Rejoicing. This is an awesome resource for us newbies. I knew about some symbols like the phoenix, but I had never thought about bees or beeswax having anything to do with it.

And finally, the Pascha Nostrum:

Alleluia.

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;

therefore let us keep the feast,

Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,

But with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.

Christ being raised from the dead will never die again;

death no longer has dominion over him.

The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all;

but the life he lives, he lives to God.

So also consider yourselves dead to sin,

And alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.

Christ has been raised from the dead,

the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

For since by a man came death,

by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die,

so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.

He is Risen! Why Do We Say this Every Year?

Tonight my husband and I went to an atheist group meetup at Whole Foods. This is not an unusual activity for us. About a month after moving to Savannah, he looked up groups that were not Christian in order to engage ecumenically. For almost a year now he’s been going to those social meetings in his collar, and often I go too. We’re not there to preach, to “win souls,” to bring them to church (although that has happened – a story for another time). We’re there to talk and be with people. We’ve made good friends with wonderful people, and I’ve learned more about a small community that feels discriminated against in the Deep South.

While chatting with one woman, she mentioned how difficult Facebook was today. She wondered why people seem so surprised that Jesus rose, yet again, and feel the need to declare it in the exact same words that all their friends use. From her perspective, it’s as if everyone decided to say, every Friday, Thank God it’s Friday, as if there was any doubt that it could happen yet again.

Perhaps for this reason I rarely say “He is risen!” On a few occasions I have said it full of joy, with tears streaming down my face, full of wonder. Mostly though, when someone says it to me I feel awkward. I know what to say in response – “He is risen indeed!” But I’m more likely to say “yep,” which is awkward for everybody. Part of me, the irreverent part that’s never been good at this whole Christian thing, thinks “Yeah, well it’s not like any of us didn’t know how this story ends. We remember this every year, and every year it’s the same result. And we get all emotional and happy and eat deviled eggs and buy new dresses and start wearing white shoes, and not a bit of it feels real.”

But maybe I’m picking on the wrong thing. After all, this Holy Week was hard for me because it was different. I had work every evening, which meant I missed out on my favorite service of the whole year, the Easter vigil. Thankfully I was able to attend Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, but I had a medication issue and slept through Easter Day services this morning (mea culpa). So I left the church on Good Friday after venerating an empty wooden cross and hearing the Passion narrative and taking reserved communion. Everything was bare bones, as it should be on Good Friday. But then, I didn’t really experience Easter: no vigil, no morning Eucharist. Just waking up late after sleeping through all my alarms, with that sinking feeling of having missed all the good stuff.

God was risen once; He’s not dying and rising every year, so why is that our shared experience of the crucifixion and resurrection? If we know the story so well, then are we participating in emotional manipulation?

Maybe it’s the same reason we smile when the first flowers come up in spring. It’s not a surprise; no one’s thinking “wow, I had no idea that spring came after winter, what a revelation!” The thrill is not dependent on surprise, but on repetition. Maybe we are all children begging our parents to read it again, read it exactly the same way every time, with dramatic voices and gestures. And if you dare skip a page we’ll call you on it.