Spiritual Lessons from NECCO and Bad Cake Bakers and the Pruning Hooks of Life

Oh, NECCO wafers…necco-wafers

I’m not sure I know any NECCO enthusiasts.  To me they taste kind of like a benign version of TUMS.  Just as chalky, but not as…well…nasty.

But at the news that NECCO was going out of business, people started buying the rolls of “great flavors!” candy like they were going out of style.

Because they were.

Each little quarter-sized wafer became a bitcoin all of a sudden.

And the panic was not without warrant.  NECCO is America’s oldest candy company, and not unlike Meister Brau and Toys ‘R’ Us, the potential loss of the icon was not so much the loss of a great product, but the loss of a great past in the eyes of many.

And then the bidding war started.  Candy moguls (there is such a thing) lined up to bid on the waffling wafers, with the Metropolous family winning out in the end.

You probably haven’t heard of the Metropolous family, but if you’re at all familiar with the incredible come-backs of Pabst Blue Ribbon (once the working class coozy filler and now a “trendy American lager”), Utz, and Twinkie, you’re familiar with the fruits of the family labor.

It’s not pretty, mind you.

If the Metropolous family were farmers, they’d be known as judicious pruners.  Their trees would we short but full of harvest.  They basically take whatever a company is best at and works only on that, stripping away everything that is no longer producing.

It’s a ruthless practice in many ways, and I don’t mean to romanticize it at all.  When making a comparison between the spiritual life and the actual lives that are behind a business, we run the risk of forgetting the spirit behind the stocks.

But we can learn something here, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Because NECCO was about to go belly-up, wholesale.  A total loss.

And I talk to people all the time who are quitting the faith wholesale all the time.  In their eyes, though the faith may be the longest single anchor in their lives, it has just become untenable anymore.  They feel they have to cut anchor altogether.

But what if, instead of doing that, they “sold it” in some form or fashion?

Not for profit, but for pruning.

Prune away the beliefs and ideas that are no longer life-giving.  Prune away the dead-end answers and the non-sensical moralisms.  Prune away the ideas that “defending Jesus” might mean not baking a cake for a gay couple because, God forbid, they might have something sweet on their wedding day.

I mean, c’mon. Let’s be real here.  If your religion asks you to be a jerk, it’s not worth following.  That can’t be right…prune it away.

Sometimes religion is just a cover to reinforce people’s xenophobia.  And not just the Christian religion, but any religion.  That, too, needs to be exposed and pruned away for the dead-end life that it is.

And for those of you ready to abandon the faith because some Colorado bakers are idiots: don’t.  Stay with it.  Don’t sell it wholesale, but understand that some people just can’t be made to love, no matter how much Jesus spoke about it, modeled it, commanded it even.

If Jesus were a baker, I bet he’d bake for anyone who showed up.  And every cake would rainbow-cake-finishedt-today-160621_86a1445147f5a7eda43a54f6e86033f4.today-inline-largehave a rainbow, regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer.  Because rainbows are pretty.

Allow some beliefs to be pruned away by the knife of life, which, when lived outside a bubble, will surely present you with some situations that will expose some faith ideas as inadequate for the demands of living in a world as diverse as this one.

But, and here’s the thing, I think a wholesale abandonment of the faith will prove to be inadequate, too.

Faith does not make sense of life; it helps life make some sense.  And, when it’s at its best, it keeps us from being jerks, it doesn’t encourage us to be one.

So, don’t sell off the faith wholesale, friend. Don’t lose the great past of your faith without fighting for it a bit.  You can lose parts of the faith of your past and still retain the best.

Focus on what is working best, and foster that spiritual muscle above all else.

Allow some good pruning to happen…and bake some cakes.

Ye (Me?) of Lots of Beliefs but Little Faith…

BeleifBrian McLaren, in his book The Great Spiritual Migration, has this phrase that he used early on in the piece that caught me as being very true.  He said that some people have “many beliefs, but little faith.” (p.45)

Beliefs, he suggests, are opinions or judgments about which someone is fully persuaded. While they may not be verifiable in any reliable way, they are held as un-waveringly true by their adherents.

Faith, on the other hand, doesn’t flow forth from certitude, but rather from the conviction that risking for the sake of love is better than not.  And faith, in McLaren’s definition (and in mine) is always connected with deep, abiding love.

So, according to McLaren, an individual might have a ton of beliefs, these things they are so certain about, but have little faith.  Their propositions are not rooted in a deep, abiding love that is much bigger than their human understanding of the notion.

They can spout off the Apostle’s Creed, for instance, but have no experience of the God they profess.

They can assert supposedly moral dictums, but have no understanding of the generous space from which morality flows.

They often want to impose their beliefs on others, ignoring how such coercion violates the love they want to claim they have.

Faith, on the other hand, holds the tension of not knowing, not needing to know, and not needing everyone to agree with them, well.  Faith leans into the great mysteries of God and holds loosely to the small dogmas that we’ve created about God.

Faith has no need to coerce, but rather coaxes through intentional dialogue and open invitation.

Faith doesn’t just spout off any Apostle’s Creed, but knows intimately the creative, salvific, and sustaining properties of God’s presence because they’ve made it past the life/death, resurrection/redemption, sin/righteousness dualisms that religious history has tried to make us choose between.

The life of faith lives the creed, it doesn’t just believe things about the creed.

Beliefs are so strong, like concrete.

But they crack over time, making them hard to maintain, hard to navigate, just…hard.

Faith, though, is like soil. Tillable, changeable, able to adapt and move with the uneven landscape of growth and advancing years.

And many will find faith challenging their beliefs, growing up through the cracks.  Sometimes this invasion of faith can be worrisome.  It’s hard for faith to coexist with beliefs sometimes…faith is so unpredictable, and beliefs are so rigid.

Usually a good dose of fear will take care of the faith growing through the cracks of belief. Fear that too much overgrowth will create too much upheaval and then, well, where would we be?

Lots of organized religion has centered itself around beliefs.  Just take a look at church websites and click on their “What We Believe” page.  You’ll find it all there.

But what about faith?

Lots of people, whether they consider themselves religious or not, have a lot of beliefs.

But what about faith?

So…

Do you have beliefs?  Or do you have faith?

 

What Valentine’s Day Can Learn from Ash Wednesday

vintage_blindfolded_cupid_valentines_tarot_card-r69e9e0fbe135412f893d556e955012e3_vgbaq_8byvr_324February 14th is Ash Wednesday this year.

We should all go out to eat on Valentines Day with ashes on our foreheads.

I mean, whether you’re a Christian or not, you should go ahead and do it.  Because Ash Wednesday is a day that speaks a deep truth about humanity that we all try to avoid: we’re mortal and flawed.

So no matter what kind of foundation you gussy yourself up with before that first date, and no matter what kind of aftershave you apply to make that skin smell just so-so fine, you can’t change the fact that we all share the same mortal boat.

And I don’t say this so that you will despair.  I say it just out of honest truth.

Because here’s the thing: if you give your heart to something, you will lie to yourself.  You will say, “This. I give it to this because it is worth my heart.”  But the subtext that we too often have in such an action is some sort of delusion that the things worth our hearts are perfect or incorruptible or have earned it by some sort of morally superior truthfulness or…

Look, give your heart away to worthy things, but often times what makes them worthy is that you give your heart to them in the first place.

When I speak to couples about love and companionship and sometimes even marriage, I have to work hard to cut through the syrup and sentiment to arrive at something real at the bottom of it all: love is often, in the end, a choice.

Sure, it starts out as butterflies and pie in the sky, but once that wears away you will see what Ash Wednesday shows us: the flaw, the scar, the thing that was covered under foundation and aftershave, years of perfecting a story that omits a chapter, and hours of therapy.

But it is there, that flaw is there, and that is OK.

Do you hear me?  That is OK.

Because you cannot give your heart to something perfect; there is no such animal…at least not one immediately available.  You certainly are not perfect.

What Ash Wednesday can remind us, though, is that no flaw is fatal.  It’s why Christians mark the forehead in not just any shape, but the shape of the cross, a paradoxical sign that is the embodiment of saying, “Dead things can live again…even those dead parts of you.”

And sometimes, Beloved, all it takes is a little love to make the dead places in us rise from the grave.  Scars fade. Flaws smooth.

Just because something is dead in this life does not mean it will always be dead.

And nothing is ever perfect, mind you.  Even Jesus’ own resurrection came with scars from the hurt and the pain of the fight two nights before.

But that body walked again, by God.

This year we have this fun juxtaposition: Cupid and Christ.  Cupid blindly shoots and we romantically think we fall in love.

Christ, though…well, Christ’s love isn’t blind.  God’s love isn’t blind to all our hurt and pain and wrongs and ego and all that mess.  Christ’s love is visionary, illuminating all those shadowy parts of ourselves, exposing them for what they are: flawed but not fatal.

And that person you fall in love with?  Perhaps we should stop imagining Cupid shooting blindly and start embracing a Divine love that sees all and still finds a way to keep the arms open, the welcome present, the love intact.

Not that you have to fall in love with someone to be whole.  And even more so, sometimes the love we thought would last does not…cannot.  Sometimes our flaws do push us apart in the end. Which is when we need to lean even more into the story of Ash Wednesday and a Christ whose love is visionary and completing (rather than competing).

Because it is not a flaw to not be partnered. Sometimes it is a calling.

And it is not a flaw to be divorced. Sometimes it is a necessity.

But when it all feels like a flaw, keep in mind that the deep truth of everything is that it has an expiration date.  Feelings, life statuses, and even life itself.  Things will not always seem and be the way are today.

So embrace the truth of the situation: we are dust.  Glorious star dust, the stuff of the cosmos, wonderful and beautiful and sparkling, and yet, dust all the same.

So risk the date, fall in love, eyes wide open.  Or be single and loving it, giving your heart to many other worthwhile things.

But remember that things aren’t worthwhile because they are perfect; often they are worthwhile because you love them.

And how do I know?

Because you and I are not perfect, and yet we are loved by God.  And others.

And we’re worth it.

“Christian Weddings Should Be Deeper” or “What I Learned at a Hindu Wedding”

(Let me begin by saying: I’ve paimagesrticipated in many beautiful and full Christian weddings that have been rich in depth and meaning.  The following is in no way a commentary on weddings that I preside over, but rather a general reflection over the state of Christian weddings today)

I had the pleasure of co-presiding at a Hindu wedding this last week.

She’s Hindu.  He’s Christian.

Love, it seems, doesn’t know religious affiliation…though many religions think they have exclusive knowledge of what love is.

The Christian ceremony of marriage is beautiful and rich in meaning, in flow, in design.

But in function, well, more often than not these days a couple wants a short service (at which they’ll wear thousands of dollars worth of material to show off for 20 minutes and in pictures they’ll rarely look at again) with a hefty price-tag.  “Make it simple,” is the common line.

A ceremony can be simple and still take a while…

And think about it.  Think about what the abbreviated service says. Families process in separately.  The Father of the bride exchanges her for a handshake with the groom.  There are readings, a short reflection, vows, the giving of rings, candle lighting (or some other symbol of unity), and then a kiss and applause.

It says that love is simple.  Lord knows that’s not true.

Of course a marriage ceremony is, in Western culture, largely utilitarian.  None of the above is necessary except for the presence of an official who witnesses two people make vows to one another.

But that utilitarianism, which is largely a product of law and right order, has so greatly influenced a religious understanding of marriage, which is in itself a huge symbol of Divine love for humanity, that we have religious weddings occurring with little depth of meaning past “I wonder how much she spent on that dress.”

What are we saying about love here?  That love is individual.  That it should be acted upon quickly.  That its extravagance is seen primarily in material expenditures.  And, assuming there is a reception, that it should be seen almost exclusively as party.

If that is what we’re trying to say about love, then there is certainly no problem with a short ceremony and long party.  In that case, a couple really should go to the courthouse to get married.

But that is not what the Christian faith says about love, and not what the Christian marriage ceremony says about love at its fullest.

I didn’t really have reason to reflect on it, though, until I participated in a Hindu wedding.

For this Christian-Hindu ceremony, we intertwined the different necessary expressions of the two traditions into one.  This was no easy feat.  The Hindu wedding ceremony is long and involved, spanning many days.  It is rich in meaning and symbol.  It involves the whole family on both sides of the proverbial aisle.  It involves prayers, offerings, and multiple processions.

For the wedding ceremony itself, the floor surrounding the couple was covered with baskets of fruit, symbolizing the bounty of the Earth, a habitation we all share.  The altar had statues, but also grain and coins, symbols of a world economy that the couple would now enter into and participate in as one.

The parents of the bride welcomed the groom into the family.  The father entrusted his bride to the groom by noting that she is “as precious as gold,” and that he was now entrusted with the care of their daughter who is precious to them.

They walked together around the altar, step-by-step, plotting the journey of life they were now to take together.  They were tied together by a knot in their ceremonial scarves.  The whole ceremony was done in tandem.  They exchanged necklaces, exposing their necks to one another, a vulnerable thing to do.

It was all deeply moving, and in light of many secular-Christian ceremonies, full of such rich meaning that you saw love for what it is: celebratory but serious, a family affair, a journey together through the various economies the world puts on us, primal and earthy, yet transcendent and heavenly.

The extravagance was in the clothes; yes.  But also in the time spent on the ceremony.  Also in the number of family who participated. Also in the rich use of language and chant.

The Christian ceremony, when done fully, has all of these elements…or should.

And if the elements are absent, I don’t really blame a couple.  The church hasn’t done a very good job at critiquing culture when it comes to weddings other than railing against cost (which it rightly should).  But have we spoken against form and function in the prevailing culture?  Have we spoken for order and symbol, primarily how marriage is a symbol of God’s love for humanity?

A good challenge for those of us in the church is to find ways to include the whole family in the service outside of the obligatory ushering role for a brother and the two mothers lighting tapers for a unity candle (which, by the way, is not an ancient part of the ceremony). We have bridesmaids and groomsmen stand at the front flanking a couple in honorary (and stationary) positions when we could include them as intricate parts of the ceremony, driving home the point that, as persons in this wedding party they are entrusted with helping this couple in their marriage and keeping their vows.

The Eucharist could regain an important place in the ceremony as the couple’s first act is to host a party for everyone, celebrating the great feast that God shares with humanity.  Communion is not common practice, though, at most weddings.

Generous use of prayers and music (and especially music everyone sings), a couple’s procession around the altar, an offering of treasure and flowers given away to charity (as love is charitable), families standing together at the front or doing a remembrance of baptism at the font with the whole family: these are all options for the Christian wedding and speak more fully to Love as a gift to the community, to the family,  and to the world that we all inhabit.  Marriage is a calling like the priesthood.  It is not for every individual, but it is for the benefit of the whole community.

Have a number of readings.  Use ancient vows full of meaning, but perhaps include statements of love from the couple to one another, or letters written from the attendants offering their hopes and wishes for the love they see in the couple.  Have clear, distinct rings.  The ring is a symbol in and of itself: an unending circle of love.  Today, though, we don’t look at the circle, just the rock that sits atop it.

Forgo the aisle runner, buy lilies and offer them to God or to the guests as a sacrifice of beauty, for love is a sacrifice of beauty that each person gives to the other.

I don’t know.

All I know is that we’ve created a culture of utility when it comes to Christian marriage ceremonies.

We shouldn’t speak shallowly of love.  Love is rich.  An extravagant dance and dinner is necessary; love is a party.  But love is also a solemn vow, a serious symbol for a world bereft of symbols that speak deeply.  The Christian church can do better, and we should be imaginative in doing so.  We can learn from other cultures.

It can be more.  Love as a symbol of Divine love deserves more for those who profess faith in God.

I loved my wedding. We had communal singing, Eucharist, and even an offering taken up for charity. But if I could go back in time, I’d use my family more, my attendants more, and I’d, as we like to say in liturgical circles, make the symbols big.  Really big.

I’m often a reluctant Christian because we’ve made the symbols small.

But we’ve sure enough made the price-tag big…