Christmas Ornaments: A History of Life

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Like many, when the Christmas holiday season rolls around, the house is adorned with decorations with the centerpiece being a Christmas tree. Once the tree is placed in the appropriate spot, it’s time to carefully extract a container holding lights and ornaments to be placed on the tree.

Our ornaments are wrapped in paper like a little gift; each little bundle waiting to be unwrapped from the previous year, almost as if the peeling away of paper is but a rehearsal for Christmas morning.

I own a number of tree ornaments we call “fillers” but there are some ornaments dating from previous generations. My favorite decorations hold memories for me as a child as they hung on my parent’s tree; still some are older once belonging to my grandparents.

Christmas ornaments are a gift, and deserve to be wrapped carefully because they represent layer upon layer of life. Though inanimate, they contain the joys of children’s laughter, the recollection of intimate moments, and the delights and sorrows of life quietly accepting all manner of memories. In my collection, I have two decorations nearing their 100th anniversary having once belonged to my father’s parents.

One decoration is a fish, and the other ornament could be best described as an acorn, and it is this acorn which holds much value. You see, an acorn is the nut of an oak tree containing a single seed to propagate life. As it hangs on the Christmas tree, it serves as a metaphor of immigration and the birth of new life.

Jakob (pronounced Yah-kob) Keller immigrated to the USA in 1921 from the city of Novi Sad, on the banks of the Danube (formally the Austro-Hungarian Empire) now the second largest city in Serbia. After the devastation of World War I, the region was caught up in chaos after the fall of the Hapsburgs as each ethno-faction within the former empire began to assert itself claiming autonomy. The tumult  produced the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia).

This region in central Europe, mostly filled with Croats and Serbs, was also populated by ethnic Austrians named Donauschwabens (Danube Swabians) who were given means by the government to populate this area in the mid-18th century by Empress Maria Theresa. Though Serbian was the lingua franca of the city, imported Austrians continued to speak their own German dialect, and held to their own customs. After all, it was Emperor Franz Joseph  who held power, and was the dominant force.

With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbs in the area began what could best be described as ethnic cleansing making it very difficult for Austrians to live in the city. Fearing for their lives, Jakob, through the help of his cousin, immigrated to the United States in 1921 with his wife, and child, my father. After landing at Ellis Island, Jakob became known as Jacob, and Franz (my father) was renamed Frank.

The Christmas tree ornament in the shape of an acorn represents the hopes and dreams of a family fleeing a post traumatic war torn central Europe seeking sanctuary in a new land filled with opportunities, a land which provided a family a safe place to live, and grow.  It is the same acorn which heard a family struggle to learn a new language, an acorn absorbing the baby cries of two more children, and after a move to Southern California from Ohio, found its way to a new home with more life, and all manner of the messiness surrounding new holidays. It is the same acorn that now resides in my home, which I hope might make its way to one of my brother’s children.

Christmas trees and the things we hang on them are visual reminders of various chapters in the history of humankind, and all we need do is look at them and listen to what they have to say. Do your Christmas ornaments have a story? If they speak, can you take the time to listen?

Stepping Aside

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national-coming-out-daySince wrapping up last years’ service celebrating National Coming Out Day a question kept entering my mind: do we need to continue offering a special service like this when much of what GLBT people asked for has come to pass?

My initial answer was both yes and no – not a solid footing entering discernment. If the focus for some is about the equal rights, then yes…this type of service is no longer needed. With the help of humanity, and the wider Episcopal Church, GLBT people have gained support to be afforded the opportunity to flourish and thrive.

This was not the case when the GLBT ministry at St. Wilfrid of York, Huntington Beach first offered the service in 2004. The election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire caused a fire storm of imbalance. As a lay person, I had to find a way to help change hearts, and one of the ways was to turn the tide of dehumanization into a liturgy which engaged the church through personal stories interspersed with prayer, and music. Little did I know that this service would become an annual event spanning 11 years? Read More

Theology and the Pledge of Alligiance

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Pledge

During this campaign season we sometimes see candidates standing in front of what seems like a barrage of United States flags. When each candidate speaks, the symbol of the flag looms large. I suppose that’s all well and good, but I wonder if candidates and their public relations handlers have thought about the theology surrounding our flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance associated with our country’s flag.

The Pledge of Allegiance AND theology? Yes, I say. When any statement includes the word “God” it automatically enters the realm of theology. So I thought it would be good to look at our Pledge of Allegiance, and its theological ramifications.

But first, a factoid about our pledge:

  • The pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, Baptist Minister and socialist.
  • It was written for a National School Day presented at the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • The original pledge was short, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
  • The pledge was never intended to be recited on a regular basis.
  • The words, “under God” were added by Congress in 1954.
  • The pledge used to be recited by children holding their arms in the air, but was changed after the rise of the Nazi salute in the late 1930s.

early-pledge

 

 

 

 

 

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Gari Melchers’ The Nativity

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I recently came across a painting by Gari Malchers entitled, The Nativity. This work created in 1891 combines elements from the American Naturalist school yet employs touches of Dutch realism with a splattering of impressionism. What I find interesting about the painting is how the scene draws the viewer into its subtext almost as if the painting was intended to be used as iconography.

Naturalism, from what I read, presents subjects as they are without symbolism. This differs from realism in that the artist includes obvious visual symbols intended to educate the viewer to the plight of others. The Nativity invites the viewer into a private moment not too long after the birth of Jesus. The trio is seen alone, long before visitors begin to arrive, unaware of the star making their location known.

The Nativity, Gari Melchers (1891)

The Nativity, Gari Melchers (1891)

We see Mary asleep, totally exhausted after giving birth, her head resting on an abandoned wheel. For this young woman, the day has been exhausting and hard, ending a long journey to Bethlehem only to find that there was no place to give birth, let alone rest her head.

Joseph, on the other hand, looks as if he’s been through a traumatic experience. His gaze is one of reflection and concern. Their journey was difficult, his wife just gave birth in a dirty stable, and he has to deal with the realities of a newborn infant. He seems to be thinking about their future. At first it may appear that he’s looking at the infant, but his gaze wonders off into his confused private horizon.

 

A lantern lights the scene. Here Melchers employs a naturalist tendency to discount the supernatural from religious painting. The artist suggests that the Gloriole surrounding the baby’s head could be explained by the lantern’s glow, but at the same time, the lantern light might also heighten the Shekinah embodied in the baby’s nature.

How does is this painting like an icon? I could not help but think of a line from the Magnificat:

“…for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…..”

In a dirty stable, a baby sleeps in a manger, a trough created to feed animals. From these horrible beginnings a new dawn will rise from the dirt and the muck of an unknown stable. From the dim light of a solitary lantern, a new light will reach out over all the earth bringing hope to those in living in fear, joy to those who weep, and laughter to those in pain. From this intimate scene of three individuals held within abject squalor, a Holy Night emerges to engulf humanity.

 

A New Reformation Sunday

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martin-luther-95-theses-e1268997282362On or around October 31, many Protestant churches celebrate “Reformation Sunday” which commemorates Martin Luther’s nailing of 95 Thesis to the front door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg; a college town in north-east Germany. Luther’s rant began with his theological disapproval of Paper Indulgences (a written piece of paper from the Church shortening the amount of time people would spend in punishment purgatory).

Luther had no intention of breaking away from the western church headquartered in Rome, due to the invention of the printing press Luther’s thesis was published, and the formal process of the Reformation began splintering the church, enabling the creation of Enlightenment, changing the course of humanity.

The church in Rome lost power to control and dictate thought as well as managing the future of nations. Of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant quite adequately named the process as, “the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy.”

In two years we’ll be approaching the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis, and it makes me wonder of we are losing sight of what Luther’s had begun. Martin Luther, in 1517, took on the status quo, challenging accepted sociopolitical structures as a means of life. Luther looked at doctrine, not as a means of allowing people to thrive, but saw that that the church enveloped doctrine as a means of total control not only of people, but of nations and people’s well-being.

Over the years, the Protestant church in Europe entered into the fray, and slowly but surely fell into the trap of telling people how to think, and how to act, turning once Catholic countries into nations espousing Protestantism, thereby creating a circle of religious freedom into nations just as tyrannical as the preceding regime led by Popes. Self-imposed infancy once again became the norm, not from a centralized church in Rome, but by individuals claiming to know the truth, using power and might to impose yet another theocracy all in the name of “Scripture Alone.”

We, the Protestant church in the United States, though protected from a theocracy by our Constitution and Bill of Rights, has worked its way into the establishment of society sometimes afraid to speak out for fear of losing wealthy members, and our jobs and pensions.

I suggest on Reformation Sunday, the church once again should take it upon itself to present  to each community it inhabits making known what they stand for, not in religious terms, that’s too easy, but to name what is preventing society from flourishing, and to say we stand against this inadequacy.

Here’s my list:

  1. People should be paid a living wage (Matt. 20, Parable of the Vineyard Workers)
  2. Fair Distribution of food so that people are not starving (Mark 6, Feeding of the 5000)
  3. Respecting human dignity (Matt. 25, Parable of the Sheep and Goats)
  4. Helping to eliminate homelessness (Isa. 58:6-8)
  5. Helping our neighbors (Mark 12:28, the greatest commandment)
  6. Abhorring violence in all forms (Romans 12:9-21)
  7. Welcoming the stranger (Jeremiah 22:3)
  8. ?????? (Keeping adding to the list…mine was just to get you started)

The Protestant Church should once again become the protestant church, not waging war against each other, but waging a campaign to remove the yoke of violence, hunger, pain, iniquity, and pestilence. I think that is a group good people might want to join, and then they can find out that we are meant to participate with God to bring about a new world.

Let’s Dump Columbus Day and Create…….

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PETITION-ABOLISH-COLUMBUS-DAY-124626215443Almost anyone with a decent education already knows that Columbus did not discover America. Almost everyone knows that the Vikings were the first to set foot in what is now North America in the year 1000, about five hundred years prior to Columbus’ landing around a group of island south of Florida now called the Bahamas.

We know that Columbus and those who followed should be seen as insensitive to the nations they met, and reeked havoc with the people who greeted them with hospitality, or at least curiosity, soon finding out that the people from a far off land with wooden ships were arrogant and greedy souls who had the audacity of claiming land that did not belong to them. Imagine a group of people stepping off a private plane landing in a meadow in the middle of Iowa who after stepping from the plane claiming the land around Dubuque as now belonging to another country; it’s almost laughable, but that’s what happened by people we call explorers. It’s one thing to explore, but its another to exploit. It’s a bad legacy.

There is a recent movement to rename Columbus Day to something paying honor to the indigenous people inhabiting the United States. Though we have much to answer to regarding colonialism, and claiming land killing off a nation of peoples, I’m not sure re-framing Columbus Day is the answer.

Anthropology has said that the people who inhabited North America are best termed “First Nations” because these early travelers came to this land via the Bering Strait when Siberia and Alaska were connected. DNA research says that migration happened in three waves as far back as 25,000 years ago. So, by the time Europeans came into the picture, First Nation peoples were here on this land, and were quite well established. The important fact is that all who came here, no matter what point in history, are immigrants.

I think its time to lay Columbus Day to rest, and to recognize the importance and value of the United States as a nation of immigrants. All of us in this land are immigrants who came to this land over time, and from various waves if migration. My family came to the USA after World War I when Austria-Hungary was broken apart due to war and aggression. Similar stories such as mine can be found over various periods of history.

We, as a people, must set aside a day to recognize the value and importance of immigrants, and to realize that we, as a nation, is strong not from our independence, but our conglomeration of nations who chose to make this land our home, the ever mingling of people of different traditions, and ethnicity which makes us a beacon to the world.

Let’s end Columbus Day and call for a celebration named Immigrant’s Day. Immigrant’s Day, a time to reflect on how we came here, and how we can best serve, and open our hearts and hospitality who seek to make this land their home.

 

 

Liturgical Dance and Three Grecian Urns

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three grecian urnsWhen people know of my background in dance, I am often asked about Liturgical Dancing. I am asked if I’ve ever choreographed dance as liturgy, or would I have interest in forming a liturgical dance troupe? The answer is no to both. I have, however, danced twice as a solo as a part of two different services; a memorial, and the other as part of a Pentecost Sunday moment.

When I had my college dance company, I choreographed a few works which might be seen as sacred. My first piece created for my company was based upon the music of Vangelis “Heaven and Hell.” The concept was not so much a representation of heaven or hell, but had to do with light and dark. One year I staged a dance version taken from the Christmas portion of Messiah, and another time a quartet of dancers moving to the music of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. I also staged Stravinsky’s “L’Histore du Soldat” a tale about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil, and finally “Chronos”, a work starting with creation, and walk of humanity on the road towards self annihilation.

The works created for my dance company were meant to entertain using the medium of movement performance art as metaphor. Since dance and music are both abstract forms, symbolic meaning, and abstract metaphor can walk hand in hand, or main dans la main.  This is why I struggle with dance incorporated into liturgy. Liturgy is not performance though it may share similar traits and dance is not liturgy even though it may attempt to share, through movement, the symbolic meaning. Unfortunately, when I’ve seen a few attempts are liturgical dance executed by well intentioned dance ensembles, I can’t help but think of the bevy of lovelies from The Music Man performing their tableaux entitled “Three Grecian Urns.”

Years ago I was asked to lead a workshop engaging movement within spirituality. I called the workshop “Movement As Prayer.” The workshop was designed for non dancers so I had to find a way to get people moving in ways which added deeper meaning to the group experience, linking movement with a sense of prayer. One way to do this was to teach physical movements attached to the spoken word without music; this removed a level of abstraction. For example, when a congregation speaks The Lord’s Prayer, a natural flow of speech of rhythm flow occurs. This, I believe, can be used as the basis for movements which enhance and magnify spoken prayer.

Linking movement with the spoken word is not new. In the mid-nineteenth century as missionaries bludgeoned the culture of Hawaii, and as corporations raped the nation of their identity, Hawaiians began to forget their language, they were unable to chant their ancient prayers. From 6 basic movements modern Hula was created as a means to teach their heritage to those who had lost it due to suppression, or had forgotten its deeper meaning. Using hula, words were attached to arm movements as a means to magnify the word making it stronger, and holy (set apart).

Here is an example of the power of movement as a means to amplify words. What you are about to see is powerful. The Hula is named “Kaulana Na Pua” which is the text of a document protesting the takeover of the Hawaiian Nation by the United States. It is a dance of protest. The performance is in both English and Hawaiian, and shares the story, amplified by movement. It shows human dignity in the midst of a people’s absorption. It recounts a petition signed, at that time, by every single person within their nation. Here is the power of movement, and it’s not three Grecian urns:

 

 

 

Pondering & Wondering…an eclectic series of thoughts

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For some time those who follow religious trends have heard from Phyllis Tickle, and most recently Diana Butler Bass addressing a new awakening within the religious landscape in United States.  Both thinkers suggest religion is on the brink of something new which will eventually bring about a fresh new understanding of faith in our time. Oxford church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that throughout its long history, Christianity has managed to reinvent itself, adapting to new challenges morphing into a new existence. At present I wonder if we experiencing an awakening, or are we caught within a theological nightmare, unable to forge a new understanding because we can’t figure out what path to take?

A wise professor in seminary offered his concise subtext for the Hebrew Bible suggesting that the reason for its writing was to demonstrate why they (the Hebrew people) failed. What started out as a loving relationship with (notice I said with) God eventually dissipated into a misguided history of power, greed, and personal gain. One reason the writings found within the Old Testament remain is that the words continue to speak to faithful communities because humanity continues to deal with the effects of power, greed, and personal gain.

Great thinkers such as the late Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan teach, among other things, by looking at socioeconomic, and anthropological underpinnings found within the early Christian movement we can recapture a better understanding of what Christianity is meant to be; something more than a promise of prosperity, the naming of sins, or telling people how to think, and act. In 325 C.E. Christianity entered the religious landscape as Empire itself, with the original message dedicated to socioeconomic change clouded by power, greed and personal gain.

Christianity, at its most basic level, is a gathering of people meeting over a shared meal dedicated to an effort bringing about a just world filled with diverse mutuality.With recent events in Baltimore, and other cities feeding an escalation of violence, with religious groups fighting for dominance with regard to marriage, and the continued disparity between rich and poor….I wonder about the church, and it’s crop of teachings which may have contributed to failures within society, inadvertently supporting socioeconomic realities, and the continuation of violence both physical, and verbal. I wonder:

  • Has the church spent far too much time teaching about an after life, when we should have stressed justice and peace in this life?
  • Has the church wasted too much energy arguing about creation myths when we should have been teaching faithful stewardship of our planet?
  • Has the church focused far too much time, energy and theology about who is in or out, when we should have placed greater energy celebrating diversity and mutuality?
  • Has the church taught a vertical hierarchical model when it should have stressed a linear-circular reality?

Before outreach can become effective, maybe it’s time for in-reach; a reexamination of the Rabbi from Nazareth who taught a monotheistic message of diverse mutuality, equal distribution, devotion to neighbor,  and good will towards all. Maybe the true teaching of the church might be to take back the world from power hungry, greedy bullies. Maybe its time to think of worship as a means of support for progressive action, enabling a gentle transformation, and subtle modulation of each local community around a church, focusing on the resurrection of human understanding and dignity for all.

Easter for the 21st Century

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Palm-Cross

On the last Sunday in Lent, I preached about domination, and the symbol of the cross. I compared the lives of Jesus of Nazareth living under the domination of Rome, with Archbishop Oscar Romero, living under the domination of a the ruling elite, and military dictatorship in El Salvador. The comparison is but a jumping off point as it speaks to all forms of domination be it in the workplace, within our cities, governments, or society.

During Lent at St. George’s, we only use the frame of our cross, here you see it pictured above from our Palm Sunday service.  I directed people to look at the space inside the cross frame…..it’s nothing but air; and that’s what God thinks of those who dominate. I think it provides an important metaphor: Domination systems come and go; to God they are nothing but air.

The form of the cross represents human suffering at the hands of things which dominate our lives. The cross frame reminds us that we, who may suffer from forms of domination, are to take part, with God, in the transformation of the world.

If, on Easter Sunday, we merely shout, “He is Risen”, we are only talking about resuscitation. Resurrection, on the other hand, speaks of global transformation without a system of domination, breaking free from the chains preventing us from living into fullness.

How?

It was Oscar Romero who said, “You can, you are.”

Indiana’s Slippery Slope

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Indiana-Flag-blog

A little over two thousand years ago a radical religious teacher organized a protest designed to mock and malign an authoritarian occupying force holding his country hostage. So one day, just after the military governor rode into the city on his great war horse ahead of his soldiers, the radical religious grassroots leader rode into the city on a donkey with his people waving palms instead of spears. He did this to tell the authoritarian occupying force that they may have control, but they only do so because they are bullies. He and his followers staged a non-violent protest ridiculing their power by force.

The next day he made his way into the courtyard of a large religious institution to a common area which served as a way for merchants to sell items used for worship. His goal was to disrupt religious practices that day to show the rest of the people that the leaders of this institution had collaborated with foreign invaders pointing out that they had become mere puppets of those at the top of political power, and that a hierarchy of authority had become an idol surpassing that of God. He taught that God’s message was to call all people into unity.

Their leader was an accomplished community organizer because he knew he could not do things alone. One of the names for his movement was called “The Way”, and he trained and sent his people out into various communities to start small conclaves to show that they were not forgotten, that they were loved, and that his people would serve their needs, not rule over them. He showed that the message of God was about community, not authority. He taught that they should love God with heart, soul and strength, and to be committed to their neighbor’s well being.

He pissed off both the occupying army governor, and the ruling class but since he staged his protests with lots of people, he thought he might get away with his demonstrations, but his plan was thwarted by one of his students. He was captured, and eventually executed by the government. These are some of the events many churches in the land will focus on in what is known as Holy Week; the time between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday on April 5.

I hope this overview exposes the blatant falsehood surrounding the creation of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by  Gov. Mike Pence. Just as in the early first century, religious authority was used as a means to circumvent the well being of people, this act signed into law sets into motion all manner of ways people can use personal belief as a means to idolize bigotry in the name of God. Read More


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