I started taking pictures. Or am I making pictures? Does one take or make pictures? Some moments are so wonderful that they must be taken captive in a 4x6 rectangle, a few hundred pixels. We want to possess time, or at least a moment, but the best we can do is createI a keepsake, maybe, or a memento that the past really existed. That tantrum existed. I have evidence. By the way, so did the colic.
But it’s also true that pictures are made. Created. Photographers pay attention to things like composition and lighting and mood and create their own representation of reality. We all impress ourselves upon the object of our perception. There is no objective way of looking at a flower, for instance. You decide to look at it a certain way, from a certain angle, and create a representation of reality.
Photographers can bend moments to create the stories they want to tell. There is no one narrative that must be told—at any moment there are numerous stories available to be expressed. Take the classic snapshot of the coffee cup, bible open, with the gingham filter. No one would ever know that there is a toddler screaming about hot chocolate one seat over. Nonetheless, you’ve decided to make the moment tranquil, and exclude the bratty toddler, because you have a brand to maintain. Imagine a President who takes a picture with a Bible in front of St. John's Church, but outside the frame is a group of protestors who have been gassed to make the picture. A counterfeit strength overshadows the courage of those gathered with irritated eyes and constricted lungs.
From self-branding to propaganda, each snap is a story.
Get rid of white Jesus. You know the one. It’s not particularly Da Vinci that’s the problem. Nor, is it Rembrandt. It’s the one with the brown, flowing locks and the tender hands caressing sheep that’s problematic. Render him with deep blue eyes and things get stranger. How did it come to this? An ethereal, European Jesus distanced from his Palestinian roots and divorced from the coarseness of his life, the scars implanted into his hands. Can Precious Moments be crucified? It would be like strapping a Care Bear into an electric chair.
If you grew up in the evangelical South like me, then you’ll have to undergo a good deal of reconditioning. We all know that Charlton Heston is Moses, Jonah is an asparagus, and the real Jesus is painted by Warner Sallman (see above).
One summer I worked at a Methodist Museum in Saint Simon’s Island and they had a room with displays of nativities from countries all over the world. There was a Japanese Holy Family kneeling as if attending a tea ceremony, an African Jesus cradled in a hut, an Italian Holy Family that was doing whatever Italians do. “Christ for the world,” we proudly proclaimed. They’re finally making a Jesus who represents the diversity of humanity (Barbie would catch up a few years later).
Symbols matter, of course. And Jesus always confronts us in our historical and cultural locations with the particular tools and symbols we have to make sense of him. It’s a gift to see the incarnate one become fully human in every tribe, race, and culture.
Here’s the problem: the chameleon-like Holy Family has always found a way to shape-shift into Swedish models. There wasn’t a single nativity that looked Palestinian. It reminds me of what George Bernard Shaw said: “God created us in his image and we decided to return the favor.” Pick the Jesus you like best.
We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but we know that he wasn’t the ancient Brad Pitt. God transcends culture, and so encounters all cultures, yet we also know that Jesus was a part of a particular culture—one that recited the Shema and ate tilapia out of the Sea of Galilee.He was ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ from a small town in the Middle East. Rarely, do we render him as such. God forbid that “Christ for the world” be a homeless, Palestinian Jew who came not to the Gentiles, but to his own people, Israel…….(read more)
Is there bad worship?
I miss in person worship. Let’s be honest, watching a bad stream in underwear got old by the beginning of July. There’s no substitute for warm bodies, loud coughs, kids whining about being bored (usually mine), the consumption of bread and juice. To be more honest, I miss singing. It’s the saliva flung from mouths belting at the top of their lungs. The beauty, mundanity, and hope of human community laid bare. Singing is an act of communion where the voices of the gathered are unified to express what can't be expressed by spoken word alone. This is God’s love made auditory through harmonies and melodies and instrument. Now, of course, it’s singing that is one of COVID’s most deadly weapons, especially hazardous to those of us who sing that bridge for eight times in a row.
I know you miss it. I do, too.
But COVID-19 is pressing me to think more critically about our worship—what is it to accomplish, or it’s end, and what makes it truthful? Does the worship actually honor God, transform lives, and break chains? It's all a way of thinking through what it means to experience God. The church is comfortable debating trinitarian and christological heresies, our beliefs, or what we call orthodoxy. We’re even good at debating the ways our beliefs shape our actions, our social justice and works of mercy, or what the church calls orthopraxy. We’re less comfortable thinking critically about our experiences, particularly those in worship. I rarely see good, deep theological reflection about how to evaluate what makes a right worship of God. Did you get the bumpies? Yes! Good enough.
Can a right experience of God be birthed out of harmful theology or social negligence? Here's a pressing question for our historical moment: is our negligent worship in the midst of a pandemic actually an experience of God?
The church is being pressed to think about our worship as we reckon with our history. Lauren Winner has wonderfully drawn attention to the ways our worship has been shaped by damaged gifts. The practices and instruments of the church aren't guaranteed to magically create disciples. They're holy, yet fallen, just like us. We are a church that baptized African American slaves in worship, but kept them in chains. How about a people who can spend the hour of prayer asking God to keep slaves obedient? Walter White, of the NAACP, said that the acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell-fire created orgies of emotion that laid the groundwork for the passionate, emotive ritual of lynching. How can one exit the doors of the church after worship, go into the streets, and lynch a human being as the benediction?
Now we’re beginning to face the answer: the same way people can gather, and sing, and touch in the midst of a pandemic without any regard for the material health of a brother or sister. Hey, as long as hands are lifted and hearts are warmed, then bodily harm doesn’t quite matter as much. We’ve long been pressed to come to terms with how our dualistic theologies, and gnostic tendencies, have led to a disregard for the material station of our brothers and sisters. Now we’re being pressed to think more deeply about our worship. Do we worship the worship? Has worship become the golden calf that distracts us from taking the long trek up the mountain to meet our God?
Peter Rollins has delightfully called church a crack house. It’s a civil version of getting drunk on a Saturday night. The world is full of pain and suffering and we use the church as an escape, but then we get addicted to the high. The withdrawals are so bad that we have to get back in the doors no matter what physical harm it causes oneself or another person. What a shallow version of church.
Many pastors feel powerless in the face of such an addiction. How do you convince one that God might actually be found outside the walls of the church, in small groups, or safe worship services? It might be the case that God is giving us the room to develop an ecclesiology and mission for today’s world, to dream about creative ways that we can be an authentic community when all of this clears up. It might be the case that God is calling us to enter into the pain of the world, the pain of humanity, during this season and not escape it with a catchy chorus. God is, after all, known best for calling people into the dark.
My Methodist forbearer, John Wesley, noted that a right experience of God would be transformative, social in nature, always pressing on toward the transformation of the cosmos. If bodies are harmed or if sickness is being spread, then we should question the experience. In right worship, hearts are opened for God. The problem is that when God comes, God brings all of God’s friends. It’s a package deal. There is no worship of God that excludes concern for God’s children.
Unfortunately, I’m still trying to lean into technology to make safe worship spaces. I used to be one to decry technology. After all, But the church has always used technology to spread God’s love to the masses when physical presence was unavailable or inexpedient. Paul writes to his friends, “I miss you a lot and I look forward to a joy-packed reunion.” The Spirit of God becomes absorbed into the papyrus and he presses the send button. It’s technology—the best they had—and God is on the move. Today, the Spirit comes to a family or a group of friends through a screen, at least for a season. But our hearts can still be warmed when two or three are gathered, loving God and loving neighbor.
A Back to School Letter
Young Harris College Campus Community,
I’ve heard it said that you can learn a lot about someone by asking what they’re waiting for. The next vacation, graduation, the perfect job. Too early to dream about retirement? Later, it’s good news from the doctor who is on the other end of the line. An early mentor told me to pay attention to my fantasies—that they’ll reveal my deepest longings. If you're dreaming about California's coast, maybe it’s time for a vacation. It’s another way of asking about salvation. What do you think is going to give you a sense of wholeness?
I’m guessing that the answer is college for most of our students. They've been waiting to come back to campus because they've spent the last six months cooped up in their houses with too much bad news and snapchat. Even after Carole Baskin and John B came to an end, college was still on the horizon, a carrot dangling at the end of a stick, to motivate them through another week. The college campus offers salvation from the reality of pandemic. It’s the Waffle House, a few interesting lectures, a good party—escapism. And that’s the risk. If we’re not careful, coming back to campus will become a mask that’s pulled over our eyes instead of our mouths.
Fear is normal as we return back to our campus home. Some in our community have trepidation about the health of our campus and the health of the community—the moment a loved one will contract the virus. Kierkegaard, my philosopher-superhero, says, "The person who has learnt how to be afraid in the right way has learnt the most important thing of all.” What's the right kind of fear? Some types of fear keep us immobilized, debilitated by irrational thoughts. But we need the healthy sort to keep us home when we're supposed to be home or lead us to strap cloth coverings on our faces when our droplets carry a deadly disease (even when they fog up our glasses).
I’ve found myself in both camps within the same hour—excited and anxious. The whiplash from my excitement’s collision with despair has given me a crick in my spirit. Quarantine began as a social distancing competition and I was in the top third of the pack (the competition turned out to be light). Now, I have daily fantasies about eating with friends, dreaming for the kind of communion that takes place around dinner tables. The isolation is hard to bear, but our communion must remain modified, nonetheless.
In an earlier devotion I mentioned that the year 2020 is the ironic lens by which we are coming to see who we are as human beings, particularly the ways we are deeply intertwined with one another. A touch, a sneeze, a cough can travel all the way from China to Young Harris, Ga and take a life. We’re seeing the ways that our racial imaginations have travelled from the 16th century to the year 2020. We are being forced, amidst life and death, to acknowledge the ways that we can’t live apart from other people, nor can we tell our own stories apart from the story of another.
Think about this: what happens when you must make a deliberate calculus about whether to come to a college or university because it might result in the destruction of life? Or, forced to leave the house to satisfy an economy? What happens when must realize that Black and Brown people have been weighing that risk of leaving the house, weighing life and death, for hundreds of years? These are the pandemics at play in 2020.
I look around and notice people who are acknowledging our deep interlocking humanity and stories. But there are others, in a particularly modern way, who wish to insist that they have no story, but the story they chose when they had no story, to quote a former professor of mine. We are learning—in a fear filled, violent way—what Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently: “We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all.” That’ll preach during pandemic.
Our life together must consist of physical distancing for it to be successful. Our community’s health is only as strong as the most selfish or obstinate student. This means we must wear masks and become vigilant in paying attention to the ways our bodies are taking up space. (Could this be a good exercise as we continue to think about racial justice?) But implied in our physical distancing is the antithesis—our deep connection and dependence on each other. We are a people who are so intertwined with one another that even our physical distancing is an act of human joining and solidarity. The body is broken, but it remains one.
Fall of 2020 might encourage us to go smaller and deeper. Young Harris College Religious Life will not let physical distancing lead to spiritual or social distancing. Rather, we’ll find a way to prune our gatherings so that they foster greater spiritual depth and flourishing. The United Methodist Church began as an 18th century movement of small groups—families gathered together, pursuing piety and mercy together. The church has always grown big by getting small. The first guideline of their gatherings was, “do no harm.” Can we modify our life together accordingly? It will be a challenge, but we’ll find a way to wrestle out a blessing.
We have reason to believe that we can do this safely, but it depends on your response on campus. President Van Horn calls this our ‘shared responsibility.’ My health depends on you. And yours mine. That’s frightening, but it’s the way the world has always worked.
Jesus challenges his followers by saying, us with “there’s no greater love than one who lays down a life for a friend.” It’s a draconian charge to sacrifice your life, but we can start by laying down our comfort and wearing a mask, having smaller gatherings, put a hold on singing in chapel. We can avoid needless trips off campus or dining inside of community restaurants. The best engine for right living isn’t fear, but it’s developing empathy and love. In our selfless empathy for another we will begin to model the God who was emptied for our salvation.
What are you waiting for?
At the end of the pandemic, maybe we’ll have discovered that we’ve learned how to wait on the needs of another. And in learning how to wait for another, we’ve learned how to love.
Love to all of you,