The Liturgy of My Local Gym

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Last summer I bought a membership at my local gym and began running on its treadmills for a half hour 3 or 4 times a week.  When the school year began I terminated it but this summer I renewed it and have spent another 12 weeks making regular trips to the treadmills.

As I have spent my time in purgatory, watching the calorie tracker tick up and the clock tick endlessly down, I have thought a lot about the works of James K.A. Smith, my friend Brent Peterson and others which have helped me see the hidden liturgies around me, that is those sacraments and rituals that form and shape us in invisible ways.  The culture of my local gym has provided a fitting case study.  As I have sought to distract myself from the anguish of running in place, I have studied the surroundings and wondered about how my local gym has a liturgy that subconsciously forms and shapes us for better or worse.

To be sure there is a definite liturgy to any gym.  There is a sacrament of initiation with a catechism.  That happens the moment you sit down with a trainer and begin filling out all their forms while they quiz you about your “fitness needs” and explain to you the basics of exercise.

My gym also has sacred texts, those blackboards scattered around that tell people what workouts to perform and rules to follow to live into the good life.

As for the good life, my gym shows us icons of it.  Those are the pictures hanging everywhere of the saints who have come before.  In those pictures the saints who have submitted to the liturgy of the gym are flexing their many muscles, showcasing their toned physiques while wearing very little clothes and holding trophies.  Those pictures seem to say, “if you follow our rituals and submit to our sacred texts, you too can wear little clothes, have great muscles and earn many trophies!”

There also is sacred music playing over the loud speakers, those high energy rock songs which feed our desires to run faster, lift harder and become better toned.  Without those songs we may not achieve “the good life.”

The sacraments are not hard to note.  Those are the weights, the machines and the bars and the actions we perform with them.  They are a sign of the reality and they also participate in that reality.

Initially, the purpose of noting all of these things as I ran on that interminable treadmill was somewhat critical.  Surely this liturgies and the sacraments of the local gym were forming and shaping us away from Christ.  By working out there we were becoming less like Christ and not more.

As evidence of this I noted that despite the rock songs and the sound of the machines, there was an eerie silence in the gym.  In my gym, those exercising don’t talk to anyone.  This very morning, the sacred rock songs turned off and I discovered there was no noise at all.  I looked around and realized nobody was socializing.  Instead everybody had headphones in their ears and a screen in front of their faces.  That’s when I realized that in the church of the gym we are expected to pursue the good life individualistically, in a way that says, “You pursue your fit body in your way.  I’ll pursue mine in my way and never will we compare notes.”  I am proud to say that is not the case in my local church congregation.  Surely we are better then the gym in that one instance.

But then I took a second glance and I noticed that my gym is incredibly diverse in every way there is to be diverse.

All colors of skin are represented and that almost equally.  This is probably not true of all gyms but at the very least my gym is an actual representation of the demographics of my community.

So also, those at my local gym have diverse body shapes.  Despite those icons of the muscular life, people of all shapes and sizes gather there and feel welcomed.  Today I did pull ups next to a man who was borderline obese.  He almost dropped his weights on a girl skinnier than a stick!  And all felt welcomed.

There isn’t a dress code either.  While most people wear some form of “workout” clothes, those clothes differ drastically and every time I go, I find someone working out in jeans.  It probably isn’t wise but they aren’t judged, at least not that I’ve seen.

My gym also breaks down class barriers.  The subscriptions are quite cheap so anybody can afford it.  The aforementioned lack of dress code makes it hard to tell if someone is living in a mansion or a single wide trailer and I don’t think anybody cares.

There isn’t an age limit either.  Every time I go there are many people much older than me.  They are not pursuing “the buff life” but trying to stay fit with what years they have left.  At the end of the age spectrum, my gym has an excellent children’s ministry which is most of the reason I go.  Children are welcomed and nurtured so their parent’s can attend to their exercises and many parents can be seen instructing their children on the how to workout and the virtues of it.

So, I began this project with the goal of explaining how my gym is worse than church but now I am wondering if my gym is a better reflection of the kingdom of God than most Christian congregations…

And that means we pastors may have some work to do.

 

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Golden Globes, Football, Fiscal Years and Epiphany: A Tale of Liturgical Seasons

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My church kicked off the season of epiphany in style this morning with a fun Epiphany introductory video I made with some kids.  Then we sang the traditional We Three Kings, followed by a bunch of fun upbeat songs about “light.”   Then we read the lectionary Psalm (#29) together and talked about what it means to be in Jesus’ fan club.

But I have to be honest and admit that now Christmas is over, Epiphany is one of the last things on my mind.  Instead, this first month of a New Year is weighed down by seasons of another sort.

My news feeds are saturated with stories of the Golden Globes, reminding me that for the entertainment industry this is Awards Season, a time filled with what we might call liturgies of human glory and honor.  In fact, if I was a bit more of an arrogant Hebrew Prophet I would call the awards shows worship services to the idols of vanity.

So too my social media feeds remind me that the NFL is providing another season, or rather a post season.  This week we watched the first of the teams falter in their quest for dominance, a liturgy itself of human strength and cunning.  And we watch and wait to see which team will rise to the top.  150 million will watch the last match, which is a bit more than the number of people who voted for a US President just months ago.  The angry Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those games worship services, worship to the idols of violence and competition.

Then there is this other thing weighing on my heart and, mostly, mind.  My church ends its fiscal year on February 28th this year.  With the close of a fiscal year comes a mountain high list of responsibilities.  We have numbers to crunch, vision to share, a new board to elect and goals to set, all of which will be accomplished with no less than 1 dozen business meetings.  We might call these a liturgy of institution.  The arrogant, angry and overwhelmed Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those meetings worship services themselves, worship to the idol of human control and manipulation.

Yet today was not just the first Sunday of Epiphany.  It was also the Baptism of our Lord.  The Gospel text for today was Matthew 3, that famous story where Jesus begins his ministry by entering into the waters of the Jordan River.  John the Baptist didn’t know quite what to do with Jesus in the water and I don’t either.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus had not sinned.  The waters are for the spiritually dead.  Jesus was more spiritually alive than anybody has ever been.  The sacrament is for humans.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Yet here is Jesus, wading into the waters of death, sin and chaos and beginning his ministry right where we are at.

In a way the Baptism of Jesus reenacts the incarnation.  This might be why Mark and John leave out the manger, in favor of the water.  In the baptism waters Jesus is taking on flesh again, taking on the unique position of being a human after Adam, a human represented by all humanity’s shortcomings.  This is a God entering into sin and death as one of us.  Like the manger, this is Immanuel, a God with us, a God among us, a God meeting us in our human liturgies of award shows, violent competition and financial reporting.  Here is God in the flesh, come to redeem us from the life taking, death dealing liturgies of the world and light up the better way which is the only way, the liturgy of the cross and the resurrection.

So my hope this Epiphany season is that God will enter into our awards shows, our sporting matches and our business meetings and bring new Epiphany so that our feet can stay on the path of life!

Weird Liturgies: The Happy Birthday Song

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Like all churches, my church has a liturgy.  We have a set worship structure with consistent worship practices that form and shape us every Sunday morning.  We read Scripture three times.  We sing 4-5 songs, guaranteeing a proper mix between ancient hymns and newer choruses.  We pass offering plates and listen to a sermon.  We pray about 4 times.

And we sing “Happy Birthday.”

We don’t sing it every Sunday out of the year.  But every week where someone in our congregation celebrated a birthday, we sing it.  We also note the anniversaries but nobody has yet penned a “Happy Anniversary” song so we don’t sing about that.

I usually pepper the announcements of birthdays and anniveraries with a cycle of corny jokes that I have borrowed or penned throughout my years.

“Happy Birthday Tom!  We are glad you were born!”

“Larry was born and actually lived to tell the tale!”

“Lisa turned another year younger this week!”

“Ann managed to stay married to Bob another year and that is quite the accomplishment!”

“Happy 46th anniversary Yvette and Wendell!  But watch out.  I hear year 47 is the really tough one!

“86 year old Harriet turned 29 again this year!”

“The Thompsons anniversary is on Wednesday, so if they manage to stay married until then, Happy Anniversary!”

A few people laugh, most (my wife included) roll their eyes.  I personally think they are hilarious.

Some people in our church are flattered we remembered their birthdays.  More are glad that we noted their anniversaries. Others are embarrassed.  They try to hide from me and I am always overjoyed when someone snitches on them.  To be fair, I don’t go around mentioning my birthday either.  .  .and someone always tattles on me.

Still, we don’t make the announcement and sing the song to flatter the children and embarrass the old.

We announce the anniversaries because marriage is a sacrament.  God uses marriage and the married couples to provide grace to the entire congregation.  Also, I have found that the grace marriage gives increases exponentially the longer people stay in it.

So we announce the anniversaries and make the jokes because  behind all of this is a recognition that God has given us a gift through the married couple.

Then we sing, “Happy Birthday.”  We sing it because we are one body and each of us is a part of it.  We sing it because we really are glad that the people in our church were born and are still around.

But we also sing “Happy Birthday” because we know that in our older congregation we might not get to sing it next year.  At least one or two will not be around in 365 days and while they are here, we celebrate their presence among us.

We also sing it because even in a day of great technological sophistication, still-births and miscarriages happen.  They are every bit as tragic and heartbreaking as they always have been.  So we sing Happy Birthday because we know that every live birth is a miracle and it is worth celebrating even 86 years after it happened.

So Happy Birthday to you whenever your birthday may be.  I hope you live another year.  I hope you have a congregation that loves you and loves life enough to completely embarrass you.  I hope you love your wife enough to tattle on her birthday to your pastor.  I hope the church choir hits the 3 part harmony perfectly right at the, “Happy Birthday, God Bless You” and I hope your mock surprise and red face are signs of the coming Kingdom!

Happy Birthday to You!

Why It’s Okay to Curse Others in Church

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I am spending the week preparing a sermon about why we sing songs when we gather to worship God.  This meant I spent the week falling back in love with the great Hymn book of our faith, the Psalms.

The reason I love the Psalms is because they easily shatter any box we try to put the Scriptures into.  if Scripture is God’s love letter to us, than what do we do with the 6th Psalm, which appears to be a love letter from us to God?

If the Bible is “Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth” than what do we do with the 72nd Psalm that seems to consist more in Basic Instructions for God while we live on Earth?

If the Bible is the grand narrative of God’s workings in the world (which admittedly I fall back on) then what do we do with the very 1st Psalm that doesn’t narrate anything but makes a simple and poetic comparison?

If Scripture is just meant to comfort us by God’s presence, why am I not comforted when I read the 120th Psalm which begins happy enough but ends in despair?

And if Scripture reveals to us a God of forgiveness and grace as opposed to a God of rules and laws, why is the 119th Psalm (the longest chapter in Scripture by the way) sing nothing but unashamed praises for God’s commandments?

Yet perhaps the Psalm that stands out the most is the 109th one.  It is what we call a Psalm of Cursing where the writer/singer just doles out curses against his enemies while praying to God.  Here are some of my favorite lines from this piece of art:

8 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand.  (We will taken evil guy over this guy!)

9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
    may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
    or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
    their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
    may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.

Now I must confess I have been angry at people a time or two in my life and maybe wished they would be fired from their jobs because they were lousy at them.  However, I have never gone so far as to curse their grandparents, parents, spouse, children and grandchildren.  They are singing, “God just do away with the whole lot!”

I used to work at a Rescue Mission and after reading this Psalm in chapel, a homeless man said, “Whoa, that guy is pissed!”  And he is right.  The writer of this song was pissed.

It is made more entertaining by the fact that although one person initially wrote it about one group of people, the ancient Israelites were so spiritually moved by it they decided to get together and sing it in their worship services.  Could you imagine showing up at church one morning to hear your worship leader say, “We are returning to one of the ancient greats today but it will be new to some of you.  It is hymn number 1-0-9.  Once again that is 1-0-9.  We are going to sing out the wonderful words, “Appoint someone evil oh God, appoint an evil man to accuse!”  It kind of sound like a rap song actually!

But here is the thing, this man or men, or maybe even women, were hounding to death the poor and the needy.  A God of compassion does not tolerate injustice towards the poor and needy.  And maybe there is room in our worship services to name and reject and even curse the intolerant, unjust, wicked leaders of our day.

I don’t necessarily think God answers the prayer requests, especially the one ” to make his children wandering beggars.”  In fact, I am very uncomfortable with a God that would answer that request.  But I have no problem with a God who hears us when we pray our curses, who is on the side of the poor and needy and is working to remove from power those who “hound to death the brokenhearted.”

So I think there is room in our worship to be honest about our righteous anger towards those who refuse to be compassionate.  Although I might not go so far as to write songs that curse them, I would leave room for those prayers and even scripted poems in the liturgy of our services.  It seems a Psalm like this one has a role to play in aligning our hearts to beat with God’s compassion.  And compassion has a dark side, which I call “wrath.”  And that wrath is expressed towards those who refuse to show love and care for the least and lonely.

Until His Return.