Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 is the fastest year for music in 27 years

LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" and "Sexy and I Know It"
were two of the most upbeat hits of 2011.
The year 2011 is the most uptempo year for pop music since 1984. In a study of the beats per minute of the biggest hits of each of the past 42 years, I discovered that 1983 and 1984 were the most uptempo years since 1970. But the year 2011 took pop music back to a level of tempo it has not achieved in the past 27 years.

My original theory was that the disco era would prove to be more uptempo, though not as uptempo as 2011. I had guessed that 1979 would come in second to this year. But some of the grooviest beats of that year, such as Chic’s “Le Freak” and the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” were not exceedingly fast. It was, instead, the synthesized beats of the mid-1980s that were the tempo champions.

The fastest big hit of the year 2011 was “You Make Me Feel …” by Cobra Starship, at 132 BPM. The average tempo of the 40 biggest hits of this year was just shy of 112 BPM. Other fast hits this year included “Till the World Ends” and “I Wanna Go” by Britney Spears, “Party Rock Anthem” and “Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO, and “On the Floor” by Jennifer Lopez. While the fastest hits this year were not as fast as the champions in the 1980s, we saw a uniform trend this year in which many big hits fell into the 124-132 BPM range.

"Let's Go Crazy": 196 beats per minute!
In 1984, the 40 biggest hits averaged 114 BPM. The fastest hits of all were “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins, “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club, and at a breakneck 196 beats per minute, “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince & the Revolution.

One year earlier, the style of music was markedly mellower, but that year proved to be the fastest of all, with its forty biggest hits averaging 117 BPM. Among its biggest hits you’ll find “Mickey” by Toni Basil, “Maniac” by Michael Sembello, “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson, “Love Is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar, and that year’s fastest big hit, “Tell Her About It” by Billy Joel.

If we factor in not only speed but also texture and intensity, I think it’s safe to say that 2011 is the reigning champion. So if you figure out how to compute this “feeling” scientifically, please let me know.

What was the slowest year? I didn’t dig deeply to find this out, only calculating BPM on the 10 biggest hits of each of the years that were not clear contenders for the fastest. But based on that data, the slowest year was 1998, with an average of only 84.89 BPM. Many of the year’s biggest hits were ballads, including “How Do I Live” by LeAnn Rimes, “Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden, “You’re Still the One” by Shania Twain, and “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. Even the dance hits, like “Too Close” by Next, were only midtempo.

What were the fastest and slowest hits I measured? The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” (1987) was the speediest, at a whopping 206 BPM. The slowest was “Separate Lives” by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin (1985). At only 50 BPM, it did its part to drag down that year’s average.

Check out my main website to look up the #1 song on any day in history.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Listening through the static

I had the pleasure of preaching this sermon at St. Thomas three years ago this weekend. It feels especially relevant again.

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Christmas industrial complex has cranked the volume up to eleven. But I, for one, am having a hard time hearing anything. Clearly I’m not going deaf. It’s just that, in all this noise, I can’t hear the one thing I’m listening for.

It’s like I’ve tuned in to a radio station a hundred miles away, and I’m desperately straining through the static to pick out the most important, life-changing words in the universe—the words that matter right now.

But there’s another radio station on an adjacent frequency. This one broadcasts from my own backyard. It uses many of the same words, but it doesn’t do them justice. It twists and distorts them. It sings of cheeriness and confuses it with joy. It assails me with information when what I really want is wisdom. It trumpets the benefits of belief but mistakes it for experience. It gives me both “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas,” but the two phrases are fighting instead of wishing each other peace. And it ties it all together with a cacophony of shoulds and oughts, most of which have to do with spending money I don’t have.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s a third signal on top of the others, and this one is the strongest. Now obviously, in order to listen, you have to not speak. But how can I quiet my mind? My own shoulds and oughts are bumping up against the shoulds and oughts from the other dominant station, leaving me with a severe holiday migraine.

Bishop Jeffrey Lee of the Diocese of Chicago said recently, “It is so easy to be listening intently to what I presume is God and instead be hearing only my own interior monologue, mistaking it for the still, small voice that’s the genuine article. God seems to delight in hiddenness, obscurity, mystery.”

But does God have to remain so hidden so much of the time? I guess so. Apparently, that’s the only thing that ever works. It worked in King David’s time, and it worked because Nathan was listening.

In our story from the second book of Samuel, King David is getting his life in order. His enemies have been squelched. The land is at peace. Now David can finally carry out the reforms he’s been wanting for so long. And his first step is to build a temple for God.

Now, this is a most appropriate, pious plan. It’s both honorable and innovative. David wants to thank God for the military victories and the good fortune of the Kingdom of Israel. Finally, after all these years, the Promised Land has been conquered and settled, and David is not going to take it for granted. The king is going to build a monument to God’s sovereignty, grander than the royal palace. How countercultural! What a bold demonstration of faith!

David runs the plan by the prophet Nathan, his closest advisor. And without blinking, Nathan says, “Brilliant! Go for it.” Nathan has his own internal monologue in which, of course, God wants to have a huge, glorious temple! God is so great, we should be obligated to do our best for Him! Certainly God’s house should be far grander than our own. And it’ll be a real poke in the eye at all the nations we’ve just defeated.

But God has something different in mind. And it’s a good thing that Nathan is listening when God speaks to him that night. God says: “Don’t build me a house. Let me build you a house.”

You see, God has led the people of Israel to victory many, many times, and always against the same enemy: fear. God has told the Israelites again and again that they will succeed, and they finally have. They’ve conquered their enemies and their fears, and now they can rest.

But the real strength of Judaism so far has been its inability to put down roots. As soon as there’s a temple, God knows the kingdom will grow complacent. Fear and complacency may be polar opposites, but they are both hostile to growth.

So God says to Nathan, “I do not require four-star accommodations. You don’t need to take care of me or defend my honor by making sure there’s a place worthy of me. You can’t create such a place, and I don’t want such a place. I just want you. I want you to be my Holy of Holies. In fact, I will build you a house, and then we can both live in it.”

Well, you can’t say God doesn’t try. Through Nathan, God stops David from building that temple. But then David’s son Solomon comes along, begging and pleading for a temple. Finally, like an exhausted parent, God gives in and says, “Alright already! Build your temple and see what happens. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

One generation later, the complacent kingdom is in disarray. The nation of Israel splits, and the two sides are both eventually conquered, first by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks.

A thousand years after David, the Israelites are still an occupied people. Now the Romans have conquered the known world. But through a combination of strict religious observances, carefully recorded Scripture, and the distinctive mark of circumcision, the Jews are still Jews—still proud, still chosen, and still listening through the static for God’s voice. But in successfully preserving their heritage, they have grown complacent again—at least, the religious authorities have.

It’s at this point in the history of Planet Earth that God says, “OK. The time has come.”

And then God raises hiddenness, obscurity, and mystery to a new level. God finally plans to start building that house … inside the body of a 14-year-old girl. And Mary, with all the bold, optimistic foolishness of a teenager, says, “Well, God … I guess you know best. Let’s do this.” It’s absolutely scandalous. And it’s the only way it could ever work.

It was the only way then, and it’s the only way now. Because today, at this very moment, Christ is coming into the world. Yes, Christ has died. And Christ is risen. (We’ll tell that part of the story in a few months … stay tuned.)

And after all that, Christ will come again … and again … and again. Somehow, we find in our Christian faith a meeting place for two seemingly contradictory worldviews: the Western worldview, in which everything happens only once, and the Eastern worldview, in which everything happens in cycles. Both/and.

The scandal of Christmas is just a regular part of our belief system now. We’ve gotten complacent, as evidenced by all the noise and rush coming out of Bellevue Square. But Christ will come again. We can’t understand that … in fact, nobody knows what it really means. It’s a mystery—hidden in the fabric of our own lives, our own stories. It’s an ever-expanding cycle of death, resurrection, death, bigger resurrection.

God is still building the house that began in Mary. And now, in the year we call 2011 and God calls 15 billion-something, God wants to live in … you. Are you listening? Do you hear God calling your name?

I’ve been trying to hear God’s call to me. And it’s rare, and it’s sweet, and it’s so full of longing I can hardly bear it. One of my favorite sages put it this way: “I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it/ It’s something that I’m supposed to be.” And one of his friends said, “I’ve never been there, but I know the way. I’m going to go back there someday.”

Do you realize what is being asked of us? We are to invite God in deeply. In fact, we are to open our very wombs to God. This is something that I, as a man, can’t completely fathom. But that’s what I hear when I really listen through the static. And if I can’t fathom it, I think that speaks well of its source.

Now do me a favor and touch that dial. Tune out the shoulds and oughts. In fact, turn off the radio completely. Practice silence.

[Stop reading this sermon, close your eyes, and be silent for a few minutes.]

Practice, practice, practice silence, and don’t give up. God is calling you right now, and God will find a way to get through on one signal or another. God plans to set up shop in you … in your body and soul.

But silence isn’t the only place to hear God. We listen by being open. We listen by turning outward to those in need. We listen by allowing the interruption to be the work. We listen by expecting that everything that happens in life is either sent by God, or will be used by God to draw us closer. We listen by shunning both complacency and fear, and deciding that we are the kind of people who pay attention.

In The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, Joan Chittister writes this about the Christian life:

It is not a year’s experience; it is not a degree once gotten and then ignored. This is not a spiritual quick fix. It is a way of life and it takes a lifetime to absorb. Nothing important, nothing life-altering, nothing that demands total commitment can be tried on lightly and easily discarded. It is the work of a lifetime that takes a lifetime to leaven us until, imperceptibly, we find ourselves changed into what we sought.

In what remains of Advent, listen through the static. And this Christmas, may Christ be born in you. Amen.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A sermon illustration: Relax and Enjoy the Party

One thing I really miss about St. Thomas is having the opportunity to preach. We seminary juniors (first-years) do not have that privilege, but we do get to hear great sermons by the seniors, and we look forward to our field education placements, where we will probably also have preaching duties.

So in my church history class, I was rather excited to be given the assignment of a "sermon illustration," an outline of a sermon citing a historical source. In this case, I chose the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, published during the brief, tumultuous reign of Edward VI as the English were trying to figure out just how Protestant they were going to be.

Because I love to preach, I went ahead and wrote the entire sermon, then backed it down to an outline for the sake of the assignment. Actually, I think this was easier than writing the outline only. And who knows? The finished sermon may come in handy on October 12, 2014. If so, I’ve never worked this far ahead in my life. This will be the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, with the lectionary readings for Proper 23A. The texts are Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14.


sermon written at VTS as an assignment for Church History with Dr. Gray
by Josh Hosler
appropriate to Proper 23A/ October 9, 2011
assignment due December 9, 2011

Toward the end of my first semester of seminary, while I was drowning in more reading than it was possible to complete, writing three papers in a week, and studying for exams besides, not to mention carrying out family responsibilities, worrying about money, and doing Christmas shopping, I came to a decision. I decided I no longer wanted to be anxious about money, or my daughter’s developmental stages, or my wife’s employment, or my grade point average. I didn’t want to worry about whether I would have energy to give to a good cause, or money to pledge to God’s work in the world. It’s a realization that I think a lot of us come to sooner or later: life is just too short to take everything so darn seriously. I’ve seen it on a bumper sticker before: “Life’s a beach … and then you dance!” The Bible phrases it differently, in a way that shows how high the price is for being anxious: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

But let’s back up a bit. First, let’s all admit that this is one confusing and unsettling parable. At first glance, it doesn’t seem at all like this parable of Jesus—given very shortly before he was crucified—could lessen our anxiety is any way. First there’s an orgy of hate, murder and vengeance, much of it perpetrated by the host of the party himself. We assume the kingly host represents God, and we don’t like God to act this judgmental. But maybe we can overlook the first part and celebrate the fact that God invites “the last and the least” to the party instead of those who are wealthy and privileged. OK. Maybe this isn’t such a tough parable after all.

And then we get to the wedding robe.

I’m sure you’re all wondering what I’m wondering. If the king had his servants comb the streets and compel the poor, the hungry and the homeless to come in, how could he possibly hold them accountable for their clothing? After all, we don’t expect the homeless man to put on a suit and tails before entering the soup kitchen. We don’t go to the teen drop-in center expecting to see expensive prom dresses. So we naturally shudder at the thought that something as superficial as clothing could make any difference to God.

Augustine of Hippo first put forward the idea that the king would have provided appropriate clothing for all his guests, so naturally it would have been a willful snub not to wear it. Some scholars disagree, although there is some evidence of the custom. But perhaps we are taking the wedding garment too literally. After all, it is a parable. Parables are not even direct allegories, but stories that are intended to turn conventional wisdom upside down and reveal surprising good news. In this way, the most shocking parts of the story become the parts we are meant to pay the most attention to.

Many metaphorical interpretations of the wedding garment have been put forward throughout the history of the church. We don’t need to worry about whether a metaphor is “the right one,” but rather, whether a given metaphor is useful to get a theologically appropriate point across. In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, published during the reign of King Edward VI, this story of the wedding banquet was woven throughout the Eucharist. In fact, if you’ve ever felt the Eucharistic prayer is too long, just be happy you weren’t around in 1552. That prayer book contained a stern warning just before the Great Thanksgiving, to be used “at certain tymes when the Curate shal see the people negligent to come to the holy Communion.” A small portion of that warning read:

Ye knowe how grevouse and unkynde a thing it is, when a man hath prepared a riche feaste, decked his table with al kinde of provision, so that there lacketh nothing but the geastes to sit down: and yet they which be called, without any cause most unthankefully refuse to come. Which of you, in such a case, would not be moved? Who would not thynke a great injury and wrong done unto him? Wherfore, most derely beloved in Christ, take ye good hede, lest ye with drawyng yourselves from this holy supper, provoke god's indignacion against you. It is an easy matter for a man to saye, I wyll not communicate, because I am otherwyse letted with worldly busines: but suche excuses be not so easily accepted and allowed beefore god.[1]

In other words, don’t skip out on the party, or God, who has prepared a feast for you, will be deeply offended.

The second disclaimer was also to be used “at the discrecion of the Curate.” Its purpose was to ensure that the parishioners “searche and examine your own consciences, as you should come holy and cleane to a moste Godly and heavenly feaste: so that in no wise you come but in the mariage garment, required of god in holy scripture; and so come and be received, as worthy partakers of suche a heavenly table.” In other words, make sure you’ve confessed your sins, committed yourself to full repentance, reconciled yourself to any neighbors you may be on bad terms with, and made restitution where appropriate, all before daring to partake of the feast. Those who still had doubts about their worthiness were to speak with a priest one-on-one so as to be brought to trust God’s grace. Only then could these parishioners receive communion. Otherwise, “For then we be giltie of the bodye and bloud of Christ our saviour. We eate and drynke our own damnacion, not consideryng the Lordes body. We kindle Goddes wrath againste us, we provoke hym to plague us with divers diseases, and sundry kynds of death.”[2]

The fact that the church saw a need for both of these disclaimers back in 1552 tells me two things: (1) the people needed a lot of education about communion at this point in history, and  (2) they really felt and expressed that the stakes around the sacrament of communion are very high indeed. If you believe that communion must be taken a certain way, but that it definitely must be taken, it’s hard not to feel extremely anxious, right? Maybe that’s why so many of us nowadays have decided it’s really not that big a deal. It’s a matter of personal conscience whether to take communion. Some Episcopal churches are intent on inviting absolutely everybody to the table, even those who aren’t baptized. Other churches would never dream of doing this, partly because it’s contrary to what we as a church have agreed on, and partly because they do believe it is possible to take communion in the wrong way and thus incur divine wrath.

In light of all this historical background, I would like to propose two seemingly contrary statements: (1) the stakes around communion are, indeed, very high, and (2) it’s nothing to be anxious about. How can I preach such a paradox? Well, for one thing, I believe, to paraphrase Augustine of Hippo again, that God is closer to you than you are to yourself. God understands why you do the things you do, and if you do something inexcusable, God will call you on it one way or another. This might come through a twinge of conscience, a talking-to from a friend or stranger, or some other occurrence. Whether it’s ever inexcusable to take communion is between you and God.

But I think the advice from the 1552 prayer book has not lost any of its necessity: make sure you’ve confessed your sins, committed yourself to full repentance, reconciled yourself to any neighbors you may be on bad terms with, and made restitution where appropriate, all before partaking of the sacrament. If you don’t feel “right with God,” come up with your arms across your chest, indicating you’d like to receive a blessing. If there’s someone in the room right now whom you have offended or toward whom you have ill feelings, approach that person at the Peace—which, after all, comes right after the confession of sin but before communion—and say, “I’m sorry.” You don’t have to go into details—just let the person know there’s something you need forgiveness for. Ask that person to go up to communion and receive right next to you. Then, if there’s more you need to discuss, be intent about arranging a time for that discussion.

What does all this have to do with the wedding garment? Simply this: that if God is throwing us a party, you really don’t want to be the party-pooper. There’s room in the party for absolutely everybody who wants to be there. As the old song goes: “People get ready for the train to Jordan … don’t need no ticket/ You just thank the Lord.” You don’t need to wear fancy clothes, but if you are going to try to crash the party with a sour attitude, wondering how all this other riffraff got in, then why did you bother to come in the first place? In this way, the stakes are very high: how can you enjoy the party if (a) you don’t believe the party is for you, or (b) you think so-and-so shouldn’t be in the party with you?

This is why belief is so important. Belief is trust, and if you trust that you are forgiven, healed and renewed—and that so is everybody else—this party is for you. Receive God’s gift humbly and graciously. And never presume that there is anybody out there whom God deems unworthy of the same gift. After all, we can’t earn our way into God’s good graces. We’re already there.

As Paul wrote in the reading we just heard from his letter to the Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:1-9)

Did you hear that? The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but let go of all your anxiety, put on your most grateful outfit, and have a drink. Don’t throw an anxiety party, like the Israelites did in the wilderness, giving up on God and Moses and, in their fear, creating a golden idol to worship instead. Relax! God is not missing. The minute you talk to God, you reveal that God is there. The minute you take Christ’s body and blood into you, trust and grace can course through your veins and give you renewed strength. The minute we put away our pride and guilt and are ready to admit that God loves us and forgives us all no matter what we have done or left undone, the party can begin. Amen.

[1] The Society of Archbishop Justus, “The Book of Common Prayer – 1552,” http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1552/Communion_1552.htm (accessed October 26, 2011), 7.
[2] Ibid., 9.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Song of Jesus: four different recordings

My Old Testament professor, Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, has written a piece about the Exodus that describes different perspectives on the text, which she calls "remixes." It reminded me of a metaphor I came up with several years ago, that I've been meaning to put in print for some time.

The Gospels are four different recordings of the "Song of Jesus":

MARK: The live version … immediate, personal, urgent, direct, and full of energy.

MATTHEW: The acoustic version … intimate, traditional, speaking to those who already understand the tradition and style from which the song was born.

LUKE: The electric version … energized, fresh, upbeat, radio-friendly, and intended for worldwide distribution. It seeks to draw a broader group of people into its catchy message.

JOHN: The extended dance remix … it's still the same song, but it's quite removed from the original. It is no less vital and creative for this fact. It will appeal to yet another audience.

Crunch time

It's crunch time. My classmates and I are all going crazy as we plunge through the final two weeks of class this quarter. Exegesis papers, historical comparison papers, papers describing various congregations, Hebrew translation exercises, and reading pages upon pages of documents ... this is what I'm up to my ears in right now.

My undergraduate period was 20 years ago. And I have two big regrets about that time -- no, three: (1) I complained too much, (2) I did the minimum amount of work, and (3) I spent more time thinking about myself than about others. I wasn't mature enough to appreciate what I was doing, at least not until my senior year. Then, just when I really started enjoying college, I hit the required number of credits and graduated.

This time around, I'm not making that same mistake. Sure, I'm tempted to complain about the workload from time to time. I can't possible finish all the reading I'm assigned, but that's not the point. The point is that it's a huge privilege to be here, and it's been made possible through the efforts of many generous people. As someone who receives significant financial aid, I have to acknowledge that I don't even know most of the people who are contributing to my seminary education. And this humbles me.

So today, I want to say: Thank you. If you gave money to send me here, thank you. If you support your own alma mater, whatever it may be, thank you. God willing, and the people of God consenting, I will pay you back by being a priest in God's Church.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The LORD appeared to Joe Schmoe at the bus stop on a frigid February afternoon

I'm preparing to write an exegesis paper on Genesis 18:1-15, along with the rest of my Old Testament class; it's due Monday. And it's gotten me wondering about how (or whether) we ever talk about our own personal encounters with God. I mean, look at this sentence:

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. (Gen. 18:1)

Do you have sentences like that from your own life? Here are a few of mine:

The LORD appeared to Josh in a dream when he was eleven years old.

The LORD appeared to Christy and Josh in the second of Josh’s two apartments on 19th Avenue, as they sat on his bed reading a book at the end of a long, enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.

The LORD appeared to Josh in the parking lot of McLendon’s hardware store as he was about to buckle his daughter Sarah into her car seat.

I won't tell all these stories now; a couple of them have been told before in other contexts. If you'd like to ask me about one in particular, maybe I'll fill you in on the details.

We talk a lot about evangelism ... and we talk ... and we talk. Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California preached a good sermon here at VTS today about our endless, insane efforts at evangelism, despite which the Episcopal Church shrinks significantly every year.

I'm convinced that this has something to do with us NOT telling our stories, either because we're shy, or because we don't want to offend anybody, or because we don't want to make ourselves vulnerable, or because we honestly are not aware of God acting in our lives.

Abraham's encounter with the LORD was that three strangers came out of the desert, and then something amazing happened. I bet most of our stories also start in a similarly ordinary way.

So here's a good way to start. What are your own stories? If your life were to be told in sacred Scripture, with what sentence might you begin one of the stories of the LORD appearing to you? Overcome your shyness enough just to share the first sentence. Then consider how you might tell the rest of the story.

Occupy as an act of prophecy

Yesterday I heard the Occupy movement described as an act of prophecy. I think this makes a lot of sense. The biblical prophets did not typically lay out a list of demands, nor did anyone expect them to. They merely cried out, "Repent!" In some cases (Jonah, for instance, although his story is fictional), people listened.

Now, prophecy should never be confused with mere fortune-telling. Prophets are those who speak God's truth to the powers-that-be, whether anyone wants to hear them or not. If you Google "Occupy" and "Prophecy" together, you'll find all sorts of stuff about the "End Times," the Mayan calendar, etc. That's not what I'm talking about. When prophets are really on the ball, yes, they might well predict a coming disaster. But that's not their primary purpose. Their purpose is to help the people avert disaster. A prophet is one who wakes up the sleeping driver, not one who wrestles the wheel out of the driver's hands.

Prophecy is a lens through which to look at a broken world. When we hear a prophet speak, we are called to act. It may well lead to positive change in society, but it's not up to the Occupy protesters to fix the situation. Indeed, the movement's very existence is an emotional outburst that stems from the feeling that they can't possibly fix the situation. But they can drag the situation into the spotlight and unmask it for all to see ... and that's exactly what's happening.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Join the Conspiracy!

Advent: It's not Christmas. Not yet. The gifts haven't been purchased. The $450 billion dollars is not yet spent.

And it's time to join the conspiracy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent judgment

Russian icon of the Prophet Amos (from Wikipedia)
Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals - they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. - Amos 2:6-8 (NRSV)

Advent always begins with judgment ... and we are always found wanting. Not much has changed in the 2,700 years since the Prophet Amos lived in Judah.

Yet how else can anything new begin, but with an assessment of the way things are right now? An alcoholic receives an intervention: this is a judgment. An overweight person steps on the scale and decides to begin dieting and exercising: this is a judgment. A child is sent to her room for being rude: this is a judgment. 

Thousands of people pitch tents on Wall Street and throughout the streets of America, not to get a jump on a new movie or on Black Friday sales, but to attempt to force a change in the way America's financial systems work -- or, rather, don't work. This, too, is a judgment.

In this way, Advent is like Lent. We give an honest look and judge ourselves, and then we begin to make a change. We hear two particularly common pieces of advice in Advent: (1) Stay awake. (2) Slow down. These come from two logical judgments: (1) We've been asleep. (2) We're going too fast. Perhaps we've fallen asleep at the wheel. If so, the time has definitely come to follow this advice.

Most Americans have a very negative view of judgment. Yet how else can change ever begin? Today, take an honest look at yourself, not in the interest of self-help, but in the interest of helping others. How have you been asleep at the wheel? What blocks you from thinking of others before you think of yourself, especially the strangers in your life? How can you help them this Advent?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent begins ... with the Hope for Africa Children's Choir

Last year I kept a daily Advent blog that included links to YouTube videos, one for each day of Advent. I won't be doing that this year for two reasons: (1) I couldn't possibly come up with 24 new songs (and besides, it's all here in the archives of my blog if you really want to review it), and (2) being a seminarian, I can't promise I'll have time among exams to actually do it justice. But I do want to set a goal of posting something each day of Advent. It's a discipline for me to slow down to that degree.

This morning I attended Holy Eucharist at Christ Church in Alexandria. It's a very lively parish, but the big highlight for me was a visit from the Hope for Africa Children's Choir. This group of Ugandan children, ages 9-15, is touring the U.S. while the kids are on their summer break (that is, October through January or so). They were amazing. Their harmonies were impeccable, their drumming was delicious, and their style was everything I could wish for from an African choir -- think Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but much younger. And not only did their music fit well with the First Sunday in Advent, but it was also perfect for World AIDS Day on December 1. They also performed after the service in the adult forum, and in more than one song, they sang candidly about AIDS, calling it "the mother of all evil." Some of the kids are HIV-positive, and all of them have lost loved ones to the disease. They smiled and charmed the pants off us, but it wasn't the kind of charm one could laugh about, because they were singing about tragedy. Their music was full of a joy so deep it made me want to laugh and cry all at once.

I so wish this group had a CD out. I understand there's one in the works. I did find a couple clips of them on YouTube, but nothing of very good quality, and certainly nothing that comes close to capturing their spirit.

After church and the forum, I waited for a bus to take me back home for lunch with my family. I resisted the automatic urge to put on headphones, especially since I still had the Ugandan kids' music in my head and didn't want to lose it quite yet. It was 65 degrees and sunny -- the perfect day, and unusual for late November. I thought, "Now, this is a great way to start a new church year."

In the afternoon, Sarah and I hunted for and finally found four blue Advent candles. At Holy Cross this morning, Sarah and Christy had made a styrofoam wreath with a few greens on it. I added our new candles, and we lit the first one over dinner tonight.

This Advent, I want to stay awake. Just like Mary Poppins urged, but without the irony.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

the emerging: suites for advent

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation
Thanksgiving is upon us. I’m looking forward to the break, although I’ll certainly have my share of reading and writing to do for school during this time.

And then, on Sunday … Advent begins! I’m one of those who prefers to mark this season with dark blue instead of purple, but blue Advent candles are not easy to find, especially tapers. Any leads around Alexandria?

Many people treat Advent as a penitential season, and this isn’t wrong. But it’s not Lent, either. Instead of focusing on our sins, we’re anticipating the birth of someone who is eternally arriving.

I first compiled these Advent musical suites in 2007 and have revised them from year to year. They are mixed into suites by theme, based on the Church’s ancient tradition of  “O” Antiphons. Right-click the blue header to download the mp3 of that suite. And please: if you like something you discover here, go buy it! 

R.E.M. - It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)
Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
George Michael - Praying for Time
Mary Poppins - Stay Awake/ Sufjan Stevens - Year of the Sheep
Peter Hallock - Let My Prayer Come Up as the Incense
Godspell - Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord
Sufjan Stevens - O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1)
Peter Hallock - O Sapientia
Sixpence None the Richer - Sister, Mother
Martina McBride - Love's the Only House
Sting - Love Is the Seventh Wave

Peter Hallock - O Adonai
Sixpence None the Richer - Anything/The Waiting Room
Hooters - All You Zombies
Coldplay – Us Against the World
Sufjan Stevens - O Come, O Come Emmanuel (2)

Peter Hallock - O Radix Jesse
Toad the Wet Sprocket - Pray Your Gods
Aimee Mann - Save Me
U2 - I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Herbert Howells - A Spotless Rose
Seal - Love's Divine

Peter Hallock - O Clavis David
Mr. Mister – Kyrie
Sufjan Stevens – Chicago
Bad Religion – Sorrow
Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah

Peter Hallock - O Oriens
The Beatles - Here Comes the Sun
Sixpence None the Richer - Waiting on the Sun
The Polyphonic Spree - Light and Day
Sufjan Stevens - O Come, O Come Emmanuel (3)

Peter Hallock - O Rex Gentium
J.L. Hosler - You Heavens Above
Simon & Garfunkel - Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream
John Mayer - Waiting on the World to Change
John Denver & Robin - When the River Meets the Sea
Goo Goo Dolls - Better Days

Peter Hallock - O Emmanuel
Joan Osborne - One of Us
Isaac Everett - Expectation

Sting - Gabriel's Message
Conductus - Ave Virgo Virginum
Franz Biebl - Ave Maria
J.S. Bach - Magnificat in D, BWV 243, I: Magnificat
St. Mark's Cathedral Choir - O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Isaac Everett – Incarnation

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pseudo-Dionysius: A Scholastic and a Mystic Find Common Ground

by Josh Hosler 

Dr. Gray
Virginia Theological Seminary
CH-502: Church History
16 November 2011

Euclid’s first postulate is that two points determine a line segment (Keeton). He could not prove this statement, but by assuming it to be true, the ancient Greek mathematician could deduce a theorem stating that two different lines may intersect at no more than one point (ibid.). Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) endeavored to approach the knowledge of God this logically and precisely, answering theological questions in a method rather like Euclid’s geometric proofs. In his Summa Theologiae (written 1265-1274 and never completed), Thomas stated that truths revealed by God are the postulates that allow humans to develop theological theorems. These theorems are not self-evident, but careful consideration of divine postulates can demonstrate them. While the theorems are ultimately impossible to prove, they do represent the best humankind can achieve by use of God-given reason. Thomas’s divine postulates come from Holy Scripture and from the traditional teachings of the Church, all of which he understood to be truths revealed by God directly to human beings. By connecting these sacred postulates one to another and building on them in a fashion consistent with Greek logic and the scholastic method he had inherited from recent generations, Thomas sought to codify the entire realm of theology.

One century after Thomas, an anonymous English priest wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, a manual for contemplative prayer that Christians use to this day to guide their meditation practices. To a mind attuned to precise definitions and carefully proven arguments, The Cloud of Unknowing might seem hopelessly vague, employing poetic language and even seeming to call into question the value of intellectual reasoning. The anonymous author frequently quoted from the works of a number of mystical masters, including Thomas Gallus, Guigo II, and Hugh of Balma, while Thomas Aquinas preferred to quote logical thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine. But both theologians quoted frequently from the Bible and from another common source: Pseudo-Dionysius, a theologian and mystic who lived around the year 500. While Thomas Aquinas and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote in very different styles and with sharply divergent goals, their common reliance on Pseudo-Dionysius is a key to harmonizing some of their overarching theological points.

The Cloud of Unknowing is a primer on Christian meditation, but it is also a collection of what the author perceived to be the central teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius. The author is most of the way through the book before he comes right out and says so, in his sole reference to his primary source:

And now whoever cares to examine the works of [Pseudo-Dionysius], he will find that his words clearly corroborate all that I have said or am going to say, from the beginning of this treatise to the end. But I have no mind to cite him to support my views on any other things than this, at this moment, or any other doctor either. For at one time men believed that it was humility to say nothing out of their own heads, unless they corroborated it by scripture and the sayings of the fathers. But now this practice indicates nothing except cleverness and a display of erudition. You do not need it and so I am not going to do it. (Walsh, 256)

The author’s blatant refusal to cite his sources stands in stark contrast to Thomas’s clever, erudite  Summa Theologiae, which is full of citations and whose logic might well fall apart without them. But The Cloud of Unknowing is not geared toward logic or scholasticism: its aim is to connect the ordinary Christian directly with God through contemplative prayer. The author does this by speaking of God as residing in a “cloud of unknowing,” a mystical space we can approach but never fully apprehend. He stresses that the only way to approach this mystical God is to put aside every earthly distraction in order to focus exclusively on the divine. He who pursues this practice must imagine that he is placing between himself and all the created order a second cloud called a “cloud of forgetting”: “For though it is very profitable on some occasions to think of the state and activities of certain creatures in particular, nevertheless in this exercise it profits little or nothing … Insofar as there is anything in your mind except God alone … you are further from God” (ibid., 129). Later he clarifies the only instinct worthy of a contemplative’s time: “It is love alone that can reach God in this life, and not knowing” (ibid., 139).

Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, really wanted to know. He wrote: “Man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth [divine revelation]. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation” (Summa, Ia q. 1 a. 1). From this argument, it sounds as if Thomas holds that some form of knowledge, not merely love, is a crucial agent in humans’ salvation. But the knowledge Thomas found so indispensable is not the kind reasoned out by humans, gathered through their five senses; rather, it is the kind given directly by God. What might this divine knowledge be but a simple, wordless understanding of divine love? If this is the case, Thomas and the Cloud author are actually in agreement. It was in their proposed use of a Christian’s time and energy that the two theologians strongly disagreed.

Even the most dedicated scholastic cannot spend all his time thinking, nor can the earnest mystic spend all his time in silent contemplation. How should a Christian spend the rest of his time? Both Thomas and Cloud agree that virtuous acts are a primary goal of the Christian life, and both count on Pseudo-Dionysius to prove it. Thomas gets there in the process of asking whether sacred doctrine is the same as wisdom (Summa, Ia, q. 1, a. 6). His ideal Christian is habitually geared toward virtue: “Whoever has the habit of virtue judges rightly of what concerns that virtue by his very inclination towards it.” So acting virtuously spurs one on to further virtue and further discovery of the true nature of God, not merely by reading, but also by experiencing. Here Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, who in turn refers to first-century bishop Hierotheus the Thesmothete: “Not only did he [Hierotheus] learn of these matters [Jesus’ signs of divinity] … but he also experienced these divine things. Further … by his sympathy to these matters he found completion in an untaught and mystical union with and belief of them” (ibid.). So Thomas understood that, so to speak, “believing is seeing”: by living a Christian life and acting virtuously, one’s understanding of God naturally deepens, and God grants to such a holy person more occurrences of divine revelation.

In Cloud, persistence in prayer is the key to understanding God, and this naturally leads to a virtuous life. The author writes that there are two kinds of Christian life—active and contemplative—and that the contemplative way is qualitatively better (Cloud, 136 ff.).  To illustrate his point (ibid., 153 ff.), he uses the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) in which Jesus honors Mary’s attentiveness to his teaching and chides Martha for being so busy and anxious. We might imagine that Thomas Aquinas could stand in for Martha in this story, pursuing, as he did, a life of never-ending scholasticism and intellectualism. Cloud states:

In this, then, one can quickly understand the way of this working, and realize clearly that it is far removed from any fancy or false imagination of subtle opinion; for all these are brought about not by that devout and humble, simple, impulse of love, but by a proud, speculative and over-imaginative reasoning. These proud and elaborate speculations must always be pushed down and heavily trodden under foot, if this exercise is to be truly understood in purity of spirit. (126-27)

While Cloud has no time for those who would think their way into virtue, both this author and Thomas agree that God looks with favor on good works; they disagree on the most productive way for a Christian to exercise this virtue. But if the two are at odds on such a crucial point as this, does anything remain to unite them? Indeed, something does, and once again, Pseudo-Dionysius is a helpful reference.

The Cloud author insists on his student placing everything—even good things—into the “cloud of forgetting,” in order to focus on God alone. He imagines that his student might ask, “What about good things? May I not think about them?” The rather complex reply subdivides both the active life and the contemplative life, placing them on a hierarchy in which the true contemplative must rise above absolutely everything, even the urge to meditate on Jesus’ suffering, or on the many gifts God has given us (135 ff.). While he is quick to admit that the world is full of good things that come from a very good God, the author’s goal is to help his reader rise above everything that is not God. This must include all of God’s works and even the urge to meditate on them:

When you ask me what this thought is that presses so hard upon you in this exercise, offering to help you in this work, I answer that it is a well-defined and clear sight of your natural intelligence imprinted upon your reason within your soul. And when you ask me whether it is good or evil, I say that it must of necessity be always good in its nature, because it is a ray of God’s likeness (135).

Such an urge can be used for evil, however, when it is “swollen with pride, and with the curiosity which comes from the subtle speculation and learning, such as theologians have, which makes them want to be known not as humble clerics and masters of divinity or devotion, but proud scholars of the devil and masters of vanity and falsehood” (136). The Cloud author may well have viewed Thomas Aquinas in exactly this way. And if Thomas’s thirst for knowledge had led him to build a box large enough to entrap God, no mystic could hope to find common ground with him. But this was not Thomas’s aim. Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

In the opening discussion of the Summa, [Thomas] quickly led the reader to a conclusion which was that of the pseudonymous Dionysius the Areopagite long before, and which had become much more familiar among the theologians of Byzantium: ‘It seems that we can use no words at all to refer to God.’ (413)

Like the author of Cloud, Thomas set himself on a lifelong quest to discover what is good. From the beginning of the Summa Theologiae he asserts that God is good, because that which is desirable is good, and all things desire their own perfection, which is represented by God (Ia, q. 6 a. 1). Here again he quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes in The Divine Names: “The good is that from which all subsist and are … for they are protected and held fast in its almighty power—and that into which all are returned according to the proper limit of each being” (Jones, 136). If God is perfection and God is the original cause of all things, and if we and all other creatures strive for perfection, then God must be good. And while Thomas calls poetry “the least of all the sciences” (Ia, q. 1 a. 9), he does not scorn it; rather, he insists that poetic metaphor is essential in helping us understand God. We are not able to understand God fully, but “God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature.”

Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius to prove this point, too, from Celestial Hierarchy: “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils” (ibid.). In other words, a truth cloaked in metaphor is no less true. Some people who lack the capacity for the vigorous use of reason—perhaps some contemplatives Thomas knew?—may be better taught the same truth by a metaphor. And if poetry is less noble than science, as Thomas assumes, at least poetry is an appropriate vehicle for truth because it meets us where we are: in our human state of limitedness. Yet again, he references Pseudo-Dionysius to point out that “it is more fitting that divine truths should be expounded under the figure of less noble than of nobler bodies” (ibid.). Here Thomas is relying extensively on The Cloud of Unknowing’s primary source to prove God’s goodness logically and to point out the very limitations of his life’s work.

Had these two authors been contemporaries, we can imagine they might have looked down their noses at each other. It would not be difficult to find many other occurrences in the ensuing centuries of active and contemplative theologians rubbing each other the wrong way. But in their common reliance on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, we can see that there is an underlying logic to The Cloud of Unknowing, and that Thomas, in his own way, was something of a mystic. For Thomas Aquinas, the mysteries of God are a means to an end. In The Cloud of Unknowing, they are the end itself.

Works Cited

Fathers of the English Dominican Province, translators. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. 1920.

Jones, John D., Ph.D., translator. Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite: The Divine Names and Mystical Theology. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980.

Keeton, Thomas, ed. ThinkQuest. 1996. Oracle Education Foundation. 14 November 2011, http://library.thinkquest.org/2647/geometry/intro/p&t.htm.

MacCulloch. Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009.

Walsh, James, S.J., ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York, 1981.