“In Remembrance of Me:” A Maundy Thursday Sermon

Communion Elements
19He took bread, gave thanks and broke it–giving it to his disciples and saying,
“This is my body, given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22)

Opening Joke:
Three sisters living in the same house together:
First one, preparing to bathe, puts one leg in and stops–asking, “now, was I getting in or out of the tub?”
Second one goes up the stairs to check on the first. Halfway up, she stops: “now, was I going up or down the stairs?”
Third sister, still in the kitchen thinks about the other two. Rapping on the table with her knuckles, she exclaims, “Knock on wood I’m not like my poor sisters… Now, let me see, was that the front door or the back door?”

I thought it was a funny joke and acceptable for a sermon. 

That is, until I saw the tears of one parishioner whose mother was in the throes of Alzheimer’s.  It was one more lesson of how dangerous humor can be. 

It drove home the pain of forgetfulness, the pain of our potentially forgetting who we are and whose we are.

Mindful of our ability to forget as humans, mindful of the sad and painful consequences of our forgetting, Jesus commands us in this evening’s text to remember.

But what does that really mean: “do this in remembrance of me”?

1) Sadly, we’ve belittled the meaning of remembering. We turn it into mere thinking, mental recounting. To be sure, that’s a good and necessary start. Part of what we do tonight – indeed, this Holy week – is recount the movements of Jesus and the disciples. Physical movements, yes, but also emotional and spiritual movements.

2) However, as there are pronounced differences between the Western way of thinking and Middle Eastern ways of conceptualizing things, we should not be surprised that there’s more to remembering than narrowly recounting past events. In the Greek, as the Hebrew, the words we translate “remember” suggest more than a transport of mind but, more, a transport of being – so that what’s being remembered is actually being re-experienced. It’s not just someone else’s story that we are recounting but a story that which is ours — a story we are in.

“Memorial,” “commemoration,” “remembrance” all suggest a recalling of the past, whereas the Greek word [anamnesis] used by Jesus is practically untranslatable in English. It means making present an object or person from the past. Sometimes the term “reactualization” has been used to indicate the force of anamnesis.
–The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, p. 45

Even so, when Jewish people today celebrate the Passover at a Seder, they do not recall the Exodus in terms of what happened to an ancient “them” — the Hebrews of old.  Instead, they do so in terms of “we”: “on this night we were freed….” It’s their own personal story: the present being informed by the past, the past infiltrating the present.

a) This kind of active reminiscing begins with our identifying those things in the evening to which we can relate and identify. You know, the kind of things where we say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”:
 “Yeah, I’ve been prideful—seeking a better position than others.”
 “Yeah, I’ve been frustrated when others have sought a privileged position above me.”
 “Yeah, I’ve been confused by Jesus… and his words… and his actions.”
 “Yeah, I betrayed Jesus and tried to sit at the table like nothing was wrong.”

b) But here, the reenactment, the “re-experiencing” goes much deeper! Truly, there’s more going on in this meal than we can think or imagine.  Here, I am mindful of our Church’s teaching about this Sacrament in a document entitled, This Holy Mystery:

Jesus Christ, who “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3), is truly present in Holy Communion. Through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, God meets us at the Table. Christ is present through the community gathered in Jesus’ name (Matthew 18:20), through the Word proclaimed and enacted, and through the elements of bread and wine shared (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). Holy Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, yes, but this remembrance is much more than simply intellectual recalling. It’s a dynamic re-presentation of past gracious acts of God in the present–so powerfully as to make them truly present now. Christ is risen and is alive here and now, not just remembered for what was done in the past. This sacred moment is more than a remembrance of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Through this Sacrament, the divine presence is a living reality and can be experienced by participant.

Dear Friends, more than some transportation of our minds to far off events, this meal is a transportation of the Divine Presence of Christ into our very midst so that we are active participants in a feast which spans the centuries – even until “Christ comes again and we feast at his Heavenly banquet!”

[Does not this help us, in fact, to make sense of what Paul writes in 1 Conrinthians: “is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (10:16)]

3) All this leads to one more way that we “remember [re-member] Christ” in and through this meal: namely, that as we’re about the business of recounting and re-experiencing the life of Christ among us and within us, we are put together anew (reassembled, re-membered, re-gathered) by God and Spirit into the body of Christ–redeemed for a broken world.

You heard me tell the story this last Sunday (which hails from Stephen Ministry) of the young child, scared by a storm, who’s told by his parents to not be afraid, that “Jesus is with him.” To which he cries, “I know but now I need Jesus with skin on!”

Indeed, on the basis of this Holy Mystery in which we encounter the divine presence of Christ anew – and one another as divine members in His body; we become, we reassemble, we are re-membered, we are re-gathered as the ongoing body of Christ in a broken world. Remembered, regathered, together we become the “body of Christ”–Jesus with skin on!

Even so we pray in the Great Thanksgiving:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here so that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood…  Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here so that we may be. re-membered, reassembled, reconnected, regathered as the ongoing body of Christ in the world.

As I recall that terrible backfire in humor a few years ago, I am still haunted by the tears of that woman for her mother. They underscore what we all know and see: that there remain tragic diseases in this world which can rob us of memory, rob us of loved ones, rob us of much of our identity. But, even here, in this hell, there’s comfort and hope at this table of Remembrance – that, beyond all our failings and weaknesses and diseases, our is a remembering God. Yes, there’s good news that He promises to give us a spirit of remembrance. But, perhaps even greater, the Scriptures abound with reminders of a loving God who never forgets His children, who has each of us engraved on the palms of his hands, a loving God from whom nothing in all creation can separate us—even our forgetfulness!

Yes, Praise be to God!
The God Whom we remember tonight–
The God Whom we re-experience tonight:
A God who passes over our sins (remembering them no more),
A God who washes our feet – giving us an example,
A God who redeems and sustains us – putting us back together,
A God who is incapable of forgetting his children.
Amen.

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The [Biased] Chemistry of Breaking Bad

BB, all in the chemistry2
[A prefacing note or two:  Having finished a “’Breaking Bad’ binge” on Netflix [last “Fat Tuesday,” no less!], I’ve found my way into Blake Atwood’s Gospel According to Breaking Bad – referenced in my last post.  “Cinematic Contemplative” that I am, I’d fully agree with Atwood: that Breaking Bad (BB) offers a lot of food for reflection and prayer.  Up there with the Godfather trilogy, it may be one of the most compelling [contemporary] treatments of sin-pride there is – with a portrayal of the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that they [sin and pride] can suck us in and down.  While it is not overtly Christian (nor does it want or try to be), BB is, with a lot of other great shows and movies, highly spiritual – ripe for deeper and fuller discussions in which Jesus and the Gospels have a real place and value.  Do I condone the language and the violence and the promiscuity which fill BB and so many other cultural “hits”?  Of course not!  No more, in fact, than I condone the violence and promiscuity that fill so many Biblical passages!  In both cases (Biblical and non-Biblical), we have to look at and through and beyond these scenes of degradation and depravity to see truth and redemption – indeed, to see our own lives and living!  Of course, “it’s different strokes for different folks!”  I’ll fully understand my more sensitive readers not agreeing with me (e.g., about watching BB, about valuing it as fodder for spiritual reflection and discussion, etc.) – even as I hope they’ll afford me that same courtesy.  What I do hope (in writing here and perhaps elsewhere about BB [and other such works]) is that I can and will offer something for all – even those who chose not to binge with me!]
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Of all the scenes in Breaking Bad, perhaps the most revealing to me are those classroom scenes (early on, obviously… before he fully “breaks” down) in which High School teacher, Walter White, lectures on chemistry.  In many respects (both obvious and not so obvious), an understanding of the core themes and agendas of Breaking Bad is “all in the chemistry.” For embedded in Walter’s lectures are insights into the chemistry of the show… and the chemistry of his personality and its evolution/dissolution.

There are his words in the pilot episode. They are, we’ll see, fitting words for one who will change, dissolve, decay before our eyes – being transformed into a wholly different (and fascinating) character:

Chemistry is, well technically chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well that’s … that’s all of life, right? It’s just …   It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.

You can watch the scene here:

Or, again, even more revealing and powerful are his words in the second episode.   Here, we are given a central and crucial metaphor for the mutation of Walter White into his chiral opposite, Heisenberg:

So the term “chiral” derives from the Greek word “hand” — being that just as your left hand and your right hand are mirror images of one another; well, so, too, organic compounds can exist as mirror-image forms of one another all the way down at the molecular level.  But although they may look the same, they don’t always behave the same.

For instance…  Thalidomide.  The right-handed isomer of the drug thalidomide is a perfectly fine, good medicine to give to a pregnant woman –to prevent morning sickness.  But make the mistake of giving that same pregnant woman the left-handed isomer of the drug thalidomide and her child will be born with horrible birth defects.  Which is precisely what happened in the 1950s.

So chiral, chirality, mirrored images, right?  Active, inactive, good, bad.

The use of thalidomide as an example makes the chemical metaphor complete and perfect–hinting at and foreshadowing, as it does, Walter’s  “horrible” and defecting potential as the chiral (viral?) Heisenberg.

Or finally, there’s his classroom lecture in episode 6 of Season 1–a lecture whose purpose is two-fold:  1) it sets up the use of fulminated mercury in Walter’s explosive showdown (at episode’s end) with the drug lord, Tocu and 2) it foreshadows the volatility and fallout embedded in Walt’s radical and rapid change.

Chemical reactions involve change on two levels: matter and energy. When a reaction is gradual, the change in energy is slight. I mean, you don’t even notice the reaction is happening. For example, when rust collects on the underside of a car. But if a reaction happens quickly, otherwise harmless substances can interact in a way that generates enormous bursts of energy. Who can give me an example of rapid chemical reaction?  [“Like an explosion?,” a student interjects.]  Yes, good, explosions. Explosions are the result of chemical reactions happening almost instantaneously. And the faster reactions (i.e. explosions, and fulminated mercury is a prime example of that)…  the faster they undergo change, the more violent the explosion. Explosions. Okay why don’t you start reading on your own from the top of chapter seven, alright?

What’s interesting to me is a fourth class lecture scene which was deleted by BB’s Producer, Vince Gilligan, and his editors–a scene I stumbled across on youtube:

[In the event that the youtube video is inaccessible, I have created a mock script of the scene.  Click here to see pdf.]

Of course, we’ll never know why the scene was deleted.  (Who knows if Gilligan and his crew can even fully say!)  Some argue that it was cut because it displays poor chemistry–something anathema to the laboratory purist which is Walter White.  Hence, for example, one post on reddit: “That’s why it was deleted…. A chemistry instructor would kick anyone who ingested chemicals out of the lab. Damn lack of realism.”  Still others argue that it was cut for time constraints.  When you have 47 minutes per episode, every scene has to count.

Yes, every scene has to count!  Which brings me to my own theory about why the scene was deleted.  In a nutshell: “Walt’s Demonstration” works against the explosive and disintegrating chemistry of those scenes, referenced above, which did make it past the cut – scenes which are more congruent with the destination Gilligan and gang have in mind, scenes which feed a plot more attractive to viewership and ratings.  To speak of emulsifiers that work to reconcile the un-mixable is to present a possibility for Walter that works against the flow and tenor of the story’s ultimate, published plot line:  “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.”  (That is Gilligan’s clearly published intent- – as conveyed in a host of articles out there.  See this CNN article as one example.)  To posit that there is some way that Walter [the right-handed, oily Mr. Chips] and Heisenberg [the left-handed, vinegary Scarface] might be “reconciled” to one another — and, thereby/therein, be “redeemed” — does not make for good explosions and cliffhangers.  Better to have chiral opposites in which there’s destructive,  explosive, and irreconcilable conflict between black and white!  In this case, “gray matter” does not get the ratings.  In this case, 12-Steps that work do not create nearly the tantalizing and provocative and compelling scenes and storylines of 12-Steppers gone wild.  (Not to mention that it’s a lot harder to convey the emulsification of Chips and Scarface into one whole than it is to portray a personality totally falling apart and breaking bad.  Yes, there are possibilities for developing that storyline in/with Jesse Pinkman.  Sadly, though, that possibility is never fully pursued or established.)

Jung would argue that, in the process of individuation, there’s a greater integration of conscious and unconscious – so that, at least, one part of what ego accepts and acknowledges and learns to live with is the “shadows” within.  (At least, that’s how I read and am beginning to understand Jung and his writings.)  Christianity adds that Christ is a key “emulsifier” in this individuation and integration process – this “reconciliation” not just to God and the world but to ourselves.

In its own way, “emulsification” points to possibilities and promises of the reconciliation,  redemption, and authenticity I ache for in life and living – and which I seek to dance with in this blog.  It hints at a third component which can enter into our seemingly immiscible lives – transforming, integrating, reconciling, healing.

In its own way, by leaving this notion of emulsification on the cutting floor, Gilligan and Breaking Bad underscore how, too often, our culture can be more attracted to tragic stories of humans falling apart than the good news of humans coming together.  If BB is any indication, ours is a culture more fascinated by the extremes of breaking bad than by the possibilities of breaking good.

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“It’s Gospel, My Dear Watson!”

sherlock

Close acquaintances know my penchant for good movies and television.  They are a “means of Grace” (sources of reflection and spiritual formation) for me. 

Unconventional, perhaps, are the things I can “land on.”  Some, for example, might be surprised at (scandalized by?) my fascination with and attraction to Sherlock – a fast-paced, creatively written contemporization of the Arthur Conan Doyle classics by PBS.  (If, in fact, there is some scandal or shock with that line, I guess I better not even mention that another read on my night stand these days is The Gospel According to Breaking Bad!  [When finished, it will join others on the shelf in that category: The Gospel According to Disney, Finding God in the Lord of the Rings, The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix, The Gospel According to Tony Soprano,…])
   
A recurring line spoken by and a dynamic personified by Sherlock is that most of us “see but do not observe.”  He is, you see, the contemplative par excellence – at least, when it comes to the physical realm.  Every episode has at least one brief foray during which the observant sleuth reels off a whole chain of accurate deductions about a person or a situation – deductions based on the briefest of encounters and examinations.

Here, I can not help but believe that he models for us a most fundamental and important virtue/discipline of life and living: the gift/ability of perceiving/studying/reflecting… beyond merely seeing.  (It’s akin, I am thinking, to our really “listening to” someone [i.e., really absorbing their story and discerning deeper themes and stirrings] and not just “hearing” them.)

on lookingRecalls to me a book I saw reviewed as a must read from 2013: Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. (Honestly, I am not sure that I’ll engage the full book.  The book review is, in many ways, enough to spin my head!)  Writes Maria Popova):

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates — and it can be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes — a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages… 

The review continues with a line that surely would have made Sherlock Holmes proud:

The book is her answer to the disconnect [between what she’s narrowly attended to versus the more that is there to be taken], an effort to “attend to that inattention”…   It is an invitation to the art of observation.

“He who has ears [to hear], let him be listening and let him consider and receive and comprehend by hearing”: that’s the way Jesus put it. (Matthew 13:9)  Here, I believe he had Ezekiel 12:2 in mind: “you dwell in the midst of the house of the rebellious, who have eyes to see and see not, who have ears to hear and hear not, for they are a rebellious house.  Equally, then, could he have said (as many often attribute to him), “The one who has eyes, let him see.” 

Altogether, it argues for a contemplative approach to life and living: “The one who has eyes, let him observe and perceive and understand.” 

All said, it would appear that, if there’s a recipe for understanding, there are a lot of subtle and discrete ingredients – demanding, for most of us, a lot of attention and simmering in a “slow cooker” – as opposed to, say, the “microwave” processor of a Sherlock Holmes.

Sad thing is, though: most of us lack the patience to really observe and listen.  Yes, as Browning put it, we don’t have time and patience to acknowledge the Holy ground we are ever and always standing on:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

In the dance of and in the dance to authenticity: stillness, observation, contemplation,…  all have an essential place.

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Dancing in the Swamplands

dante, midwayIt was a roundabout path which led me to the discovery of one my now favorite authors and “reads.” (It happens more often than not: various streams combined to carry me to a [sweet] destination I never anticipated.)

  • My position in Lubbock was not nearly anything it promised to be.  (See related post, Taking a Step Down… and Moving Up! (Part 1?))  (Ironically, it was one year ago, this week, that I left Houston for that job.)
  • A certain “dark night of the soul” ensued – surrounding what could/should probably be classified as a “mid-life crisis.”  (Used to be, I’d feel shame and embarrassment at such a confession.  “Mid-life crisis” was a label that felt cliché and shallow: “Save it for the guys with gold chains and chest hair sticking out the top of their open shirts… as they ride around in their convertibles!”  Now, I see it as a necessary and meaningful passage in life – if it is, in fact, just one passage!  Maybe that’s what happens on the other side of any crisis: what was once shameful is accepted and embraced.)
  • Seeking a path forward, I sought greater understanding of the Soul – its contour/”geography” and the nature of its pilgrimage to healing and wholeness and fullness.

In the mix — confluence of these streams, I discovered the writings of Jungian psychologist, James Hollis.  In his  Swamplands of the Soul, Hollis seeks, among other things, to reframe the value and importance of suffering and loss as they relate to the pursuit of real life and full living:

There is a thought, a recurrent fantasy perhaps, that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness. After all, even the Constitution of the United States promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Who does not long to arrive some distant day at that sunlit meadow where, untroubled, we may rest easy, abide awhile and be happy?

But nature, or fate, or the gods, has another thought which keeps interrupting this fantasy. The split, the discrepancy between what we long for and what we suffer as limitation, has haunted the Western imagination…

The litany arising from the gap between hope and experience is endless. Whether to suffer it stoically, react heroically or whine about one’s condition seems an onerous yet unavoidable choice. But Jungian psychology, and the disciplined practice of personal growth it promotes, offers another perspective based on the assumption that the goal of life is not happiness but meaning…

The thought, motive and practice of Jungian psychology is that there is no sunlit meadow, no restful bower of easy sleep; there are rather swamplands of the soul where nature, our nature, intends that we live a good part of the journey, and from whence many of the most meaningful moments of our lives will derive. It is in the swamplands where soul is fashioned and forged, where we encounter not only the gravitas of life, but its purpose, its dignity and its deepest meaning.

[For a fuller rendering/sharing of Chapter One of Hollis’ Swamplands, click here.]

To be sure and clear: the pain of things falling apart in Lubbock and the related, though independent, search for peace and fuller meaning continue.  Hollis has not provided any quick fixes.  But, that there’s purpose and meaning in the journey – even (and especially) through the  “dark woods” (as Dante labeled them) – is a pretty valuable and encouraging word.

It’s certainly grounds for some meaningful dancing in this Soul – not just a dance between my Faith and Hollis/psychology/Jung… but a dance in and with the Swamplands I once sought to avoid!

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The Bible: “It Isn’t ‘Safe’ But It’s Good!”

neverending storyMost folks know of my love of the movies — especially those with obvious (and, sometimes, not so obvious) spiritual undertones.  (See other related posts in this blog — as, e.g., My/Our Life in Film: A “Sacred Romance” Montage and Reel to Real.)

This clip, from The Neverending Story, is a great set-up to tomorrow’s morning’s reflection on the Scriptures. 

C.S. Lewis’ description of the Christ-figure, Aslan, is most fitting here in regards to the Bible: “it’s not safe but it’s good” — promising transformation for those who are willing to risk and to find their way into the neverending story it reveals!

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