Monday Muse: On Birthdays and Pentecost

First, a confession: I’m not a big fan of my birthday.

Actually that’s not quite accurate. I like my birthday just fine, but as an inherently private person I’m not a big fan of others’ expectations of how I should spend my birthday, so I’m deliberate about keeping the actual date under wraps.

Last year's birthday cake. Guess who's children know her well?

Last year’s birthday cake. Guess whose children know her well?

There’s a whole host of reasons why I resist the norms of birthday celebrations, why “doing something special” doesn’t appeal to me, but ultimately my reasoning is terribly dull and practical: at the end of whatever hoopla people engage in on their birthdays, after twenty-four hours of sucking whatever specialness can be sucked out of the day, what has changed?

Nothing.

You are still you. I am still me. Life is still life.

Perhaps you are a little fuller from eating cake. Perhaps you are a little more tired from partying hard. Perhaps you had a good laugh, maybe a good cry. Likely your wallet’s a little lighter.

But birthdays don’t change anything — or, to use religious language, birthdays aren’t conversion experiences.

Which is why I find myself perplexed this year as I (re)consider the annual “Pentecost is the Church’s birthday” liturgical theme.

Now maybe your church doesn’t celebrate Pentecost as the birth of the Early Church. In fact, Pentecost may not be a significant Sunday in the life of your congregation at all. But I’ve been a part of some churches that sing “Happy Birthday” during worship and even pass out cupcakes during the children’s time on Pentecost Sunday, and this year I’m wondering: “Why?”

Why sing “Happy Birthday” to ourselves as the Church? What impact does it have on our daily & spiritual lives to celebrate the Church’s birthday? Do our modern birthday habits contribute anything to our understanding of Pentecost? And how (if at all) does the Church’s birthday celebration convert us year after year?

The Pentecost story that we celebrate as the birth of the Early Church was a dramatic, wind-rushing, flame-throwing conversion experience:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

On the birth day of the Church, something changed. Those disciples changed: their fears changed to audacity, their tongues flowed with fluency. The community around them changed: it multiplied and bridged divides as the story of Jesus was heard in many languages.

In our Pentecost birthday celebrations this coming Sunday, what do we expect to change?

Anything?

Despite my personal apathy toward birthdays, I think there’s potential value in using the Pentecost birthday theme in worship as a mechanism to love on ourselves a little bit as the Church (especially as we strive to respond to the statistical decline of American Christianity), in order to change & ease the Church’s anxieties and to nurture our joy so that we might dare more brazenly to be Church.

Notice: in order to. In order to inspire change. If we’re celebrating Pentecost-as-birthday, a pastoral & liturgical purpose beyond chocolate cake is worth identifying.

So perhaps Pentecost-as-birthday emboldens the Church toward change. But regardless of cake and candles: What will be different — in our personal living, in our congregational living — because of this year’s Church birthday? How will Pentecost convert us this Sunday? 

  • Will our bones be turned loose and set dancing? (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
  • Will the beauty and glory of God finally undermine our arrogance until we kneel to care for the earth? (Psalm 104)
  • Will we believe at last that the Spirit is boundless in speaking through the young men and women who are protesting in the streets, who are dreaming new dreams via social media — and, believing that the Spirit is at work, will we finally trust & follow the leadership of these new prophets? (Acts 2:1-21)
  • Will Pentecost bring a conversion of the Church to hope, to possibility, to faith? (Romans 8:22-27)

Birthdays may not be days of guaranteed change in our individual lives, but Pentecost celebrates and continues to call the Church to conversion. How will we celebrate and change this year?

Sunday Prayer: Sanctified

To what can we compare your glory, O God?
By what measure can we examine your abundance?
How can we begin to praise your faithfulness?

sun-and-field

We are chaff in the field
and you the wind that sweeps us about.

We are wilting trees
and you the flowing stream for our roots.

We are half-sentences and mumbles
while you are the living word.

We are weary routines of death —
you are new patterns of life.

wooden-chapel

Have mercy, O God,
for the sake of your reputation.
Have mercy, by the abundance of your grace.

We continue to live in death though you
have taught us the ways of life:
we continue to justify violence and bias;
we continue to covet our own security above all else;
we continue to want for ourselves more than we want for one another;
we continue to be mired in the shadows and distracted
by navel-gazing, forgetting to look up
so that we might see you.

As you have always done, as you will always do,
speak to us once again of life:
of the beauty of planting our roots in your ways,
of the joy found in knowing and animating your story,
of the peace that comes from trusting that
our names are written on your heart.

Pilgrim Firs

Confuse our convictions
with the foolishness of your love.

Deepen our faith
by the frustration of your mystery.

Sanctify our lives
with a calling of hope.

Amen.

Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.

“It is not for you to know”

Let me stretch out
this bit of prayer on the
pavement in the spring rain:

I do not know the time
for the seed to break open
and wend its way through the soil,
for the wound to cease throbbing and
begin the slow work of healing,
for love to finally confound
our defensiveness.

In the middle of the night,
I wish I knew, but stretched out
in the peace of a spring rain
I’m willing to simply be
without knowing.

And without knowing,
while being, I can bear witness:
to the soil that is good and hospitable
for new growth, to the body’s ability
to live with fresh scars, to the
holy inevitability that
love will
unsettle us
over and again until we
concede all that we do not know.

(And really, I just completely don’t know.)

So I bear witness
and I pray in the rain
for the soil and the seed,
for the body in its wounded living,
and — most of all — for love
to be the mystery that
we don’t know
but yet
the very mystery
by which we have being.

a prayer on Acts 1:7

Monday Muse: Portrait of a Survivor

“Cheap reconciliation generates further injustice. True reconciliation implies accountability. True reconciliation means recognition of genocides and reparations.”
~ His Holiness Aram I, speaking at the National Cathedral earlier this month

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a decades-long operation of death marches, massacres, torture, and extermination exacted against the Armenians of Turkey by the Ottoman Empire from the 1890s into the early 1920s — more than 1.5 million murdered and more than a half million exiled in all. The night of April 24, 1915, is remembered as both the height and the representative snapshot of the genocide’s horror, when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and professionals in Constantinople were arrested during the night — imprisoned, exiled, tortured, and killed — an action repeated across many towns throughout Turkey that night.

It’s been my intent this year, mindful of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, to learn this history in greater depth than the synopsis I’ve just stated … which is, already, more than I learned in middle & high school about the genocide. I’ve been reading, slowly, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response by Peter Balakian, a professor at my alma mater, Colgate University.

IMG_20150511_163501But closer to my heart — and more accessible than a history volume — is Portrait of a Survivor by Florence M. Soghoian, gifted by a dear friend and sitting too long in the “waiting to be read” pile. Portrait of a Survivor is a wrenching narrative, the true stories of Ms. Soghoian’s mother’s and grandmother’s suffering through and survival of the Armenian Genocide.

How to tell you that you should read a book that includes a story of a mother’s son being beheaded on her lap … of a seminary being torched with all of its students inside … of women and children watching their family members die of starvation along death marches?

How to relate to you the impossible hope conveyed in one colorful hair ribbon, or the depth of caring manifest in a handmade afghan?

How to convince you that the stories of our collective history — especially the personal narratives of historic events that are otherwise abstractly outlined within (or omitted from) thick history books — need to be told & heard continuously so that our ears remain open and our hearts remain necessarily broken & committed to the kind of justice that comes from truth-telling?

In 1939, Adolf Hitler said, “Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” One hundred years after the Armenian Genocide, I encourage you to speak of it — but first, to hear of it — through stories like Portrait of a Survivor that have been passed down by those who know that the story must not become silent history.

IMG_20150511_164618

Sunday Prayer: For Love

For the love of all that is holy,
O Most Sovereign God,
you are faithful and mighty,
and we worship you gladly.

For the love of all that is earthly,
O Magnanimous God,
you plant your love in us to take root and bear fruit,
so that the Spirit might reap a harvest that satisfies all people.

For the love of all that is beautiful,
O Creative and Lyrical God,
you teach us the rhythm of trees clapping
and the pulse of mountains dancing.

For the love of all that is broken,
O Sorrowing and Salving God,
you hold us like a mother cradling her child
who has been shot in the streets, and you echo her wail.

For the love of all that is possible,
O Ultimate and Eternal God,
you claim victory even while restoration is far off,
and we pray hard for the justice that is still to unfold.

For the love of all that is life-giving and heartbreaking,
O Most Foolish God,
you call us “friends” and do not hold back your welcome.
Would that we would do the same in the name of Love!

For the love of all that is holy,
O God our God, by Jesus Christ
you reconcile us to yourself and to one another.
Let your marvelous deeds never cease!

Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.