Eating the Seder, Singing Gospel

Two opinion pieces appeared this Lenten season in the on-line version of Christianity Today. The first, written by two Rabbis, argues that Christians should not eat a Seder meal as a commemoration of the Last Supper. The second, written by two Evangelical Christians, gives counterarguments to the first.

Both sets of arguments have merit. I’m not qualified to contradict either, but I am more inclined to agree with the two Rabbis.

I’m a Gentile. Specifically a Christian, born and raised in the Roman Catholic church, who later embraced Protestant traditions. My mother’s parents were born in Hungary. My father’s family came from Ireland. Maybe if I took a test to have my DNA analyzed for ancestral traits I might learn that I have Tatars, Kalanguya, or Ethiopian Jews among my forebears, but for now I self-identify as a White Gentile of European descent.

That argues against the adopting of Jewish traditions such as the Seder meal as a part of my Christian practice. The Seder, a remembrance of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery, draws on a heritage that I can’t claim. It’s possible instead that someone in my family’s past was active in persecuting Jews. The links to that past are weak or nonexistent, so I’ll likely never know.

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Sheet music for the Gospel Service

I struggle with similar misgivings when it comes to singing Gospel music. On Sunday 23 April the Gospel Choir of the Grace Presbyterian Church of Montclair will present its eleventh annual Gospel Celebration. Gospel music is powerful in its message and in its composition. And it is great fun to sing. Our rendition of “John the Revelator” alone is worth the price of admission. But Gospel music draws on the experiences of the African-American community, which has endured slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement, and denial of opportunity that I cannot comprehend.

What right do I have to sing such words of suffering, pain, and loss?

The controversy over the inclusion in the Whitney Biennial exhibit of a painting of Emmett Till comes to mind in this context. What right does a White artist have to adopt for her own practice a tragedy of such magnitude, one that played out in a community not her own? Strong arguments in support of and against the artist and curators continue to be made.

My reactions to the two activities, eating the Passover Seder and singing Gospel music, may also arise out of some unrecognized prejudices. After all, Motown was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and lately I’ve been listening to WBGO more frequently. But would I want to be a musician of color? Maybe not.

Nonetheless, if we are to bridge the gaps with people who are different from us, most importantly so that we can work together to address the ills that affect our world, we need to know and understand what brought those people to the place where they are now. Participating in a Seder meal as a Seder meal and not as a Christian practice might help. And I will overlook my misgivings and participate joyfully in Grace’s Gospel Celebration in the hopes that it will let me me understand the heritage of  my African-American friends in the choir a bit better.

What has brought people with whom I differ in other ways to the place where they are now? What opportunities exist for me to learn about them without pretending to be something that I am not or asking them to pretend to be something that they are not?

I hope you have and take opportunities to sit with those who are different from you and offer each other glimpses into your heritages and passions. What can you accomplish together once you get to know one another better?

I want to thank Krista Tippett of On Being for airing a conversation that provided some inspiration for this post.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Winter Silence

Just before sunrise, at approximately 7:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, our neighborhood in the Allwood section of Clifton was very quiet. No surprise, really, given the day and time. The sounds that could be heard were mostly bird calls, including jays, crows, English sparrows, and a nuthatch. A grey silhouette, shaped like a mockingbird, sat in a nearby bush but made no sound.

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Sunrise over Allwood, May 2015

The birds that remain in the area during the cold months are active and vocal. They call to alert one another to the presence of predators or to the location of food sources. In a few weeks they will begin calling to attract mates and any quiet early mornings will be filled with those hopeful sounds. By coincidence our pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Paul Leggett, preached on New Year’s Day about the sometimes unrecognized presence of Christ in our midst. In discussing John 1:26b Paul said that anything that brings us joy, such as hearing bird calls, is a token of the presence of Christ.

By another coincidence Krista Tippett’s On Being broadcast on New Year’s Day 2017 featured her interview with Gordon Hempton, originally aired in May 2012. Hempton refers to quiet not as the absence of sound but as the absence of noise. Big difference. He also says that humans have evolved to be most sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of bird song. This suggests to him that one of the key indicators of a habitat or ecosystem that will support human life is the presence of bird song.

Silence can allow us to hear important things that we ought to hear or that will enlighten or gladden us. Silence can also make us uncomfortable or unsure of what’s coming next. I once attended a meeting with other members of an organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for publicizing the organization and its events. I said little and mostly listened. When I was next in the presence of another member who was also at this meeting she said she was tempted to hold a mirror under my nose to see if I was still breathing. 🙂

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Many of us think now is the time to speak, if social media activity is any measure of those inclinations. Yet few of us are truly the prophets whose voices need to be heard. (Yes, I do grasp the irony and hypocrisy of that statement.) Bill McKibben is a prophet. Wendell Berry is a prophet. Tim Keller is a prophet. [insert name of your choice here] is a prophet. I am not. I need mostly to listen, evaluate and think critically, and, because being silent does not mean being passive, act in ways that will benefit humanity, the planet, and the church.

For my part I hope 2017 will be more a time for keeping silent and for being  thoughtful, intentional, and charitable when speaking is necessary. I wish for you a year filled with beneficial silences, profitable interactions with those around you, and actions that bear good fruit. May contentment and health also be yours in abundance. Thank you as always for stopping by.

Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

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A Garland Instead of Ashes?

This was originally written as a devotional for our church choir, and it received a couple of favorable comments, so I’m sharing it with a wider audience. Full disclosure: I did not attend an Ash Wednesday service this year or receive ashes as discussed here.

The season of Lent begins with the distribution of ashes. Growing up in the Catholic tradition I heard the priest invoke Genesis 3 as he applied ashes to each forehead: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” As I think about that, though, I think of dust as the general product of decay. Ashes, on the other hand, have a more specific origin.

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Squiggles and Dots

A few days ago our daughter Betsy sent us a photo of Ellie Rose leafing through a copy of a magazine. Ellie is fifteen months old, so the photo isn’t really evidence of her precocity, especially since the section she was looking through at the time is filled with ads for graduate schools and seminaries. But it did start me thinking about forms of communication, and especially about communication that makes use of words.

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Parsing Paris (COP21)

Hopes and expectations have been high for substantial action to come out of Paris climate talks (officially the  21st Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or COP21).

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The Earth as seen from Apollo 17 on 7th December 1972. NASA photo.

With six days of the conference completed, and six more days to go, it is too early for anyone to pass judgment on the proceedings. I’m not qualified to do that in any event.

We might reasonably expect one outcome, however. That is that the actual good accomplished by the decisions and actions taken at this conference will not live up to the hopes and expectations of the participants and observers. There are too many hurdles for the participating governments to overcome to implement the practices that are needed to reduce the amount of carbon that people put into the atmosphere.

That’s not to say that governments should make the changes that they can make or that we should not support our government in its efforts to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. It is, however, the nature of international relations that each government must look out for the interest of its citizens and must respond to business and other entities that seek to direct the course that government takes. The political priorities of all of the nations of the world will not be set aside to create the unified approach to climate change that the planet needs.

It would be pleasant to think that the Breakthrough Energy Coalition will be successful in developing and deploying technologies that can reduce greenhouse gasses, and I certainly wish these people well, but these are business people who have amassed through aggressive business practices the enormous fortunes that they are now pledging to the cause. Also, as with international relations and politics, is it reasonable to expect profit-oriented businesses to favor reducing greenhouse gas emissions over all other considerations? Will we as shareholders—my retirement funds are largely in equities—tolerate that?

All of this may of course be lazy, ignorant bloviating. What I should be saying is that creation care, including reducing global carbon output, still comes down to the informed and voluntary efforts of individual citizens. It requires that we approach all aspects of our life holistically, with a sense of stewardship instead of entitlement, which living in the United States tends to produce. The already existing outcomes of climate change, including rising sea levels, more frequent and more severe droughts, and more frequent severe storms, also require that we look with compassion toward those who are most directly affected by those outcomes.

The season of Advent reminds us that a day is coming when the creation will be restored and the sins that are pollution and environmental degradation will be removed forever (Isaiah 11:1-9, Romans 8:18-26). Until then, we can always find ways, some small and insignificant, some more substantial, to reduce our carbon footprint and other impacts on creation. One that has caught my attention again recently is reducing the consumption of red meat, particularly mass-produced beef. You may choose other efforts that are more closely aligned with your creation-care priorities. May God bless and encourage you as you pursue them.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for your patience, and thank you for stopping by. Best wishes for a peaceful Advent and Christmas season and for a healthy and contented New Year.

Bad Religion (Ross Douthat)

I just finished reading Bad Religion by Ross Douthat. Thanks to Margo Walter at Grace Presbyterian Church​ for the referral. It’s brief and well written. Full of observations and arguments about the history and current state of American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. Read it critically and with a dictionary nearby if you choose to read it. It might make you angry; it might open your eyes. Ancillary to the major themes of the book is an observation near the end about the state of aesthetics in contemporary Christianity: “[M]any Christians are either indifferent to beauty or suspicious of its snares, content to worship in tacky churches [a cheap shot?] and amuse themselves with cultural products that are well-meaning but distinctly second-rate. Few Americans think of religion as a great wellspring of aesthetic achievement anymore, and the Christian message is vastly weaker for it.”

I’m grateful to be able to worship in a place where experiencing and creating beauty is recognized as a means of knowing God and honoring God.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Bumblebees and Chaos

Thanks to a faithful group of bumblebees, our raspberries are producing prodigiously. The bees visit blossoms throughout the daylight hours and as a result we have a constant harvest of berries. One recent morning I was picking some when a bumblebee flew into the group of berries that I was investigating. I enjoy watching the bees and I am happy for their presence so I made no attempt to flee or to shoo this one away. At one point he was close enough that I could feel on my forearm the breeze produced by the fluttering of his wings.

Photo of bumblebee visiting raspberry blossom.
A bumblebee visiting a raspberry blossom, with an immature raspberry nearby.

Of course this brought to mind the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is an expression, if you will, of chaos theory. Chaos theory says that a small change in the initial conditions of a dynamic system will result in that system taking a very different path from the path it would have taken had the small change not been introduced. The butterfly effect expresses the notion that the breeze generated by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can affect the strength of and path taken by a hurricane thousands of miles and several weeks away.

Could my bumblebee have something to do with Tropical Storm Polo, the latest in the series of tropical storms to threaten Baja California this year? It’s not likely. But it does remind me that small things sometimes make a big difference.

The writer of the New Testament Epistle of James had this to say about some small things:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. (James 3:3-5, New International Version)

The negative effects of even a few poorly chosen or ill-timed words are well known; who among us has not known of a friendship, marriage, or career ruined or derailed by a few words? Conversely, we may also know of a situation where a few words or a small gesture, such as a note of thanks or encouragement, can refresh and restore a person who is going through a challenging time, and thus enable that person to persevere and overcome the challenge.

May all of our words and actions be such that they help maintain peace, harmony, and order instead of introducing chaos. Thanks as always for stopping by.