Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jesus' Extreme Makeover: An Alter Christus Indeed

This past Sunday, the Guardian newspaper came out with an article entitled, "A very muscular brand of Christianity: Why Jesus has undergone a macho makeover." I thank my friend, Ron Emrich, for passing this item on to me, because as a self-professed gym rat, I have always struggled with the notion of a pure and sanitized Jesus, stripped of every hint of grit, edge, and masculine hardness. So, to imagine Jesus as a buff biker dude with tattooed guns restores a certain authenticity in my mind to the Word made flesh. If Jesus were to appear among us today, he might very well look quite unlike some of the traditional depictions of the Savior that we are used to: the doe-eyed, airbrushed Good Shepherd of our illustrated Bibles, or the icon vested in the magnificent robes of Christ the King or Jesus Christ the Great High Priest. The graphic and unsettling embodiedness of the crucified Jesus is suggested in artist Stephen Sawyer's evocative images, such as the one above. This is not to say that I have any problem with the traditional images of Jesus; in fact, I cherish them, and the walls of my study are adorned with Orthodox icons of Christ Pantokrator, Christ the Great High Priest, and the Madonna and Child.

But above my computer for many years has hung a picture of a man's back tattoo of the Crucifixion. This picture has served as a reminder that the the Christian faith would not be what it is without the raw, enfleshed suffering of the Crucifixion by which humanity was saved from sin and restored to right relationship with God. I was deeply moved when I first saw this picture, for I perceived that to carve an image of this event in one's own flesh is to share in the suffering of Jesus' own passion. It is to proclaim Christ crucified, died, and risen. As one who has endured the intense pain of the tattooing process several times, I can tell you without any hint of melodrama that I have never experienced so poignantly or personally the physical suffering of Christ as when I'm getting inked. In fact, the pain was so blinding during my first tattoo that I spent the two-and-a-half hours in the chair reciting the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary through clenched teeth. Later on, I also discovered a certain resonance between this experience and the Shewings of the medieval mystic, Blessed Julian of Norwich, who described in rather gory detail her sharing of our Lord's physical and spiritual suffering through a series of visions. Julian's accounts seem gratuitously bloody and even pathologically masochistic to modern sensibilities, but there is something in them that truthfully expresses the depth of the connection between Our Lord's passion and human suffering. Suffering and sacrifice is a raw truth of human existence.

To be sure, I did not get ink because I relish suffering, but because I wanted some way to publicly and indelibly declare my commitment to becoming a priest, so I got a Celtic cross on my right arm when the bishop made me a postulant and a dove of the Holy Spirit on my left arm when I entered seminary. As a believer in the sacrificial nature of the priesthood, I never wanted to forget that my vocation was supposed to cost me something, that the priesthood was a difficult life and identity to take upon oneself. As odd as it may sound, the painful process of the inking had something sacramental about it, making the sacrificial commitment truly enfleshed, not just abstract. The pain-memory of the tattooing has followed me as a reminder of my commitment throughout the formation process in seminary, during the search for a call, in the radical reordering of my life. I know that, especially for some of my traditionalist friends, the idea of having a tattooed priest, may lead you out of your comfort zone, and that's OK.

But if the Catholic understanding of priesthood is true, as I believe it is, that at ordination the priest becomes an alter Christus, another Christ, then we may need to expand our understanding of what a priest looks and acts like. Instead of only being icons of airbrushed holiness, priests (and I would argue all the baptized) should also embrace the grittier and more embodied dimensions of our personhood that may not cohere with a narrow vision of pure and sanitized sanctity in a cassock and chasuble. I am not suggesting replacing one image or persona for another, but rather the healthy and authentic integration of identities that honors the fullness of who we are and who Christ was and is. I have so admired friends and colleagues that have modeled for me the authentic both/and approach over the traditional either/or paradigm. They are both gay AND Christian, priest AND marathon runner, traditional AND progressive, morally holy AND prophetically embodied. For us to be an alter Christus is to honor both Christ the Great High Priest and the biker dude with the tats. The Gospels very clearly illustrate the many ways Jesus rubbed against the grain of the respectable establishment and power structures of his day by challenging social norms and consorting with the disreputable biker dudes and edgy folks on the margins. So, personally, I dig this new Jesus with the tats. I think Sawyer got something right, but I still like my Orthodox icons and my cassock.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I don't wanna mess up my hair!

This week, my friend, Dr. Regina Benjamin, the U. S. Surgeon General, attended the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show, to promote exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle, particularly among African American women. When asked why she attended the event, she said,

"Actually it’s the perfect event. My priority as surgeon general is prevention. Everything that we do is to try to build a healthy and fit nation. What we find when talking particularly with African American women - I’m later finding this with other women, too - was that when we talk about exercise, we hear, 'I don’t want to sweat my hair back or I don’t want to mess up my hairstyle. It cost me too much to get my hair done this week.'”

What I love about Regina's comment is her perspicacity and creativity in approaching a critical barrier to human health and well-being, seeking obstacles and solutions in seemingly trivial places. Hair styles, really? You bet. I've heard the same excuse from priests who have resisted wearing a biretta during mass. "Well, I don't want to mess up my hair."

Regina's interview, which can be seen on CNN Health here, points to a number of practical barriers to doing things that are good for us, whether it's getting to the gym or going to church on Sunday morning. "We haven't been able to make it to church, because . . . fill in the blank (the kids have soccer practice, it's my only day to sleep in, we have a family thing, we're renovating the downstairs bathroom)." I'm not trivializing these reasons/excuses/explanations, but simply suggesting that we should find ways of working around these other demands to make time to nourish and nurture our souls. Is the condition of our spiritual health really less important than soccer practice or the downstairs bathroom? Regina explains that she works out at night, so that if her hair gets messed up, it's no big deal, since she's at home for the rest of the evening anyway. Or you could get a lower maintenance hairstyle like mine, so that neither the gym, nor a biretta, nor hurricane force winds could mess it up.

Besides, there is a great deal of overlap between these different areas of our lives; they all have an impact on each other. When I was working in health care policy, we always promoted the holistic model of human well-being, encompassing the full spectrum of biopsychosocial health, and to this I would add spiritual health, as well. Shouldn't we be looking after our complete selves, without sacrificing any integral component? As a matter of fact, Regina insightfully points out that the hairdresser is the perfect place to talk about health issues, since people will talk about anything with their stylist. "When you’re sitting in the chair," she notes, "it’s a good place to have conversations about sensitive issues, public health issues… about getting HIV testing - everyone should get tested - things like diabetes and heart disease, strokes and getting your blood pressure checked." It's true. People talk to their hairdressers about everything. And on the flip side, I have hairdressers that confide all sorts of things to me, too, particularly when they know I'm training to be a priest. So, the next time I go and sit in the chair, maybe I should ask my stylist what he is doing on Sunday morning . . . or at least invite him to the gym for a workout.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Jewish son's playful reflection on the Assumption of Mary

It has always seemed odd to me that so many people struggle with the doctrine of the Virgin Mary's assumption into heaven. "This event has no basis in Holy Scripture," they say, as if that statement somehow settles the argument. Scripture, it is true, is a primary source of Christian belief and teaching, but it is not the only one. As a Jewish son myself, I can hardly imagine a faith where Mother Mary is left down here below. That just doesn't make sense to me. I must say with a certain amount of both seriousness and impishness that the stereotypical closeness between Jewish mothers and their sons has a bedrock foundation of truth that cannot be overlooked or dismissed, despite the supposed lacunae of Holy Scripture.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has noted that the unity of doctrine is articulated through analogy, which is essential, for example, to integrating the salvific narrative of the Old Testament with that of the New Testament. Our reliance on analogy helps us to see even in our own stories, our own lived experience, the Christian faith and witness in new forms, and yet preserve Christianity as something distinct and identifiable. Williams explains that "'Is it the same God?' is a question not to be answered apart from the question, 'Is it the same hope? or 'Is it the same pattern of holy life?'" (Williams, On Christian Theology, 24) Through this analogical approach, we can perceive whether these potential glimpses of truth are consistent with the underlying story of salvation that God is trying to reveal to us. The doctrine of the Assumption is an excellent example of this process. "To explore the continuities of Christian patterns of holiness," he says, "is to explore the effect of Jesus, living, dying, and rising; and it is inevitable that the tradition about Jesus is re-read and re-worked so that it will make sense of these lived patterns as they evolve" (Williams, 25).

So, as I read the Scriptural accounts of Jesus' relationship with his mother, I draw analogically upon my own experience as a Jewish son, and declare unequivocally, "Well, of course, he brought his mother into heaven. What kind of son would he be if he didn't!" Needless to say, this intuition is not limited to Jewish sons, and even without this cultural background, I think I could get what the doctrine is about. It is about the relationship between mother and son, and the mother's role in the story of human salvation. For example, the wedding feast at Cana in the second chapter of the Gospel of John reminds me of my own Jewish mother's guidance about hospitality and good manners. I smile as I think about Mary chiding Jesus, "The wine has run out. I thought I raised you better than that? Hop to it, Jesus--and you servants, do what he tells you." Jesus at first balks petulantly about his time not having come yet, BUT he complies with Mary's wish and turns the jars of water into wine. Some might consider this Jewish mother a little domineering perhaps, but the nagging is all for the good, and Mary discharges her responsibilities admirably. Her ascension into heaven is but an affirmation of her integral role in the story of Jesus' salvation of humanity. To bear (and raise) the son of God is no small vocation, and it certainly would require a formidable woman to pull it off. No wimps here.

As the old joke goes, "all Jewish mothers think their sons walk on water, but in Mary's case, it just so happened to be true." My mother has always articulated great pride in me. I have her to thank for the solid character-building that I received growing up and that has made me the good person I am today. And goodness knows, I sometimes I lapse into bad manners or thoughtlessness or fail in my filial duties, so I am grateful that my mother still calls me to account. If Mary is anything like the other awesome Jewish mothers I've known, for Jesus to leave Mary down on earth would no doubt result in some pretty harsh and justified rebukes: "You don't call. You don't write. This is the thanks I get for carrying you in my womb for 9 months? After all the sacrifices I've made for you . . . you'd think you'd be a little more grateful." Well, all joking aside, she'd be absolutely right; so despite Holy Scripture's silence on the subject, let's give Mary the place of honor in heaven that she so clearly deserves. After all, would we do any less for our mothers?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Abraham at Mamre: Church Websites offer only one chance to make a good first impression

As a member of Generation X, which is still considered relatively young for churchgoing folk, I have occasionally provided some consulting to churches on the development of their Websites, particularly poor, rural, and small congregations. Now, I am by no means an expert in Web design, programming, or online marketing; in fact, my technical skills are woefully out of date. I am sensitive, though, to the importance of having a Website that allows a congregation to put its best foot forward with a very discerning public. Regrettably, I have all too often seen churches undercut their best efforts at growth and vitality by producing a site that looks like it was last updated in 1999. Animated gifs are a no-no. Pages that are "under construction" or "coming soon!" are an abomination. Splash pages are sacrilegious to the sensibilities of current users. In fact, such features are likely to discourage a visitor from visiting either your Website or your church.

The most heinous sin, however, is a home page that bears as its visual centerpiece a picture of the parish's building. I find it odd that members of a church would think that a pic of an empty building would be a big draw for people who are looking for a new congregation. Since joining a church involves at its core forming intimate relationships and integrating into the life of a community, wouldn't it make more sense to showcase pictures of people interacting? When people are looking for a new church home, the questions they are asking themselves as they gaze upon a Website are: "Does this feel like a place where I will fit in? Are there people here like me? Is this a community where I will be nourished and supported?" Obviously, it's pretty hard to answer these questions with a picture of a vacant nave or sterile exterior.

The good news is that more and more folks are becoming wise to this, and are focusing on illustrating relationships, rather than facilities, and I have been fortunate to worship in congregations where this has been the emphasis. A successful Website is foremost about offering hospitality and telling people about who we are as a community, before they even arrive on our doorstep. This is not to say that buildings are not important, but it is more compelling for prospective visitors to witness what the building makes possible instead of existing for its own sake. We need to answer the critical question: Who are the people inside the building, and what happens there? This morning I ran across an article by Jamie Stup on Business2Community, which did not explicitly address church Websites, but was useful in reminding me that a church's Website is the first public experience of a congregation, and so it should be very intentionally designed to make a clear statement of identity and relationship. Stup observes quite insightfully that "whether you realize it or not, you experience a subconscious reaction to the site before you have even read one bit of content. You have a first impression based on the overall look and feel of the site," and this includes, he explains, not only pictures, but even layout, navigation and color.

With this in mind, I have always thought of church Websites as mechanisms for "outreach," rather than "inreach," since people who already belong to our churches are likely getting information on what's going on from other sources than the Website. People who do not yet belong, on the other hand, are going to experience in an instant by every detail of the Website whether they are going to be welcomed. If it's clearly set up for those who are already initiates, rather than people on the outside, then people will rightly assume that they are viewed as outsiders. A Website that articulates that we are going out of our way to reach people where they are and that we are trying to make it easy for them to learn about who we believe ourselves to be says that they are truly wanted. Hospitality even in a Web environment does not place the burden of effort on the other, but on us. It is hardly hospitable to state even implicitly that we expect the stranger to do all the work and to meet OUR expectations for belonging.

All of this reflecting about Websites reminded me of the story in the book of Genesis, chapter 18 about Abraham's hospitality to three strangers. The story opens with the statement that "the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground" (Gen 18:1-2). Abraham does not know he is greeting God (or his messengers, as it is often read), but is simply observing the custom of the land that required extravagant hospitality to be offered to the stranger and the traveler. Abraham offers to bring water to wash their sore and dusty feet, invites them to rest under a neighboring tree, and then asks his wife, Sarah, to bake cakes, while he and his servant slaughter and prepare a calf for the meal. They fall over themselves to welcome and nourish the hot and exhausted strangers in a way that obligates us, I believe, to practice hospitality extravagantly on our Websites. The reward for Abraham's and Sarah's hospitality is a renewed relationship with God that results in the birth of a son to the barren Sarah and fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that He will make him the father of many nations, including the Israelites.

The story of Abraham and Sarah at Mamre invites us to attend to every detail of Web-based hospitality that will make what we offer more about the needs of the visitor, rather than our own preferences, needs, and concerns. This focus might well involve minimizing "church speak" that only we as the current initiates will understand, cutting pictures of empty church buildings that we regard as the apex of architectural prowess but will be meaningless to the stranger, and offering navigation and information that will favor the outsider over the insider. It is not easy to shift from our understanding of the church Website as something that is "OURS" to an understanding of it as a gift that we offer to others. But how else are we going to convince people we do not yet know that the welcome they will receive when they meet us face-to-face will be worth the drive or subway ride or walk to our church?