Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Of Mangers... and Martyrs

William Holman Hunt, "The Triumph of the Innocents." Public Domain.

The word manger almost breathes Christmas for many of us these days.  It's not a word most of us ever use in any other context than the birth of Jesus.

And so we attach to mangers, perhaps, a whole host of warm, hopeful, sentimental feelings that bleed over from other associations we have formed with the many others that have bled into our imagined Christmas built up over years of living in our culture and our churches.

Mangers may evoke a bright star and shepherds
abiding in a field, their night illumined by that star, angel choirs singing, and kings in their finest coming to bring strange gifts. Mangers may evoke snow, or at least a cold night, yet, also, the promise of warmth and security and safety ("the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay").

Of course, mangers aren't all that. They're feed bins, nothing more. Think some means to keep food for domesticated animals up off the ground high enough so they can more easily reach it and keep it from getting all over the place or getting mixed with what comes out of said animals rather than what's supposed to go into them.

Luke tells us, after Jesus was born and wrapped up in bands of cloth, he was placed in one of these feed bins. He doesn't say where this feed bin was. Perhaps it was near something more like a lean-to than the near-chalet structures nativity sets in churches or public displays have depicted. Perhaps it was just a random feed bin lying in some proximity to wherever it was Mary actually gave birth. We don't know where that was.

But we do know what mangers really are. Mangers are where food goes-- food for servant animals. And that's where Mary put the swaddled (but maybe not sleeping!) newborn Jesus.

Jesus in a feed bin, food for servant peoples.

There are no mangers in the painting above. We see a pack animal carrying Mary, but this time it's not to give birth and place her baby in a manger. And this time she and Joseph and the near-toddler Jesus are not arriving at their destination, but fleeing.

And this time they are surrounded, in oddly victorious festal array, by dead babies Martyrs. 

Yes, not just mangers, but martyrs are part of Christmas. 

In fact, a greater part. 

Christians remember the manger on one holy night of the twelve days of this season, The Eve of Christmas, December 24.

But we remember martyrs on two.

Martyrs. The word means "witnesses." Sometimes they are the bold witnesses to the name of Jesus Christ whose names we laud and revere to this day. Names like Stephen, deacon and "Protomartyr" (or "first martyr"), whom the church has commemorated in worship for centuries on December 26.

But sometimes, as in William Holman Hunt's painting, they are the nameless witnesses bearing testimony to the deadly obsession of spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers, the kingdoms of this world. Christians commemorate the untold number of the unnamed infant boys slain through Herod's madness on December 28, a day we call "Feast of the Holy Innocents." 

Jesus, spared the first Herod's madness, was not sanguine about the consequences of the kingdom of God drawing near in him. He was after all facing the madness of another Herod as his ministry began. "From the days of John the Baptist until now," he reminds us, "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent laid siege to it" (Matthew 11:12).

And so they have since.

And so they
still do.

Whether we know the martyrs' names, like Stephen, or will never know them, like the "holy innocents," we do know one thing.

They are not victims.

In Christ, they are victors.

Rachel weeps inconsolably. And we rightly weep with her every time the kingdoms of this world lay violent siege upon the kingdom of God.

We take time to weep each Christmas

But not as those who are without hope.

Because we are people who have mangers and martyrs side by side each Christmas, this season solemnizing the mystery of Word-become-flesh, God-with-us.

Feedbins and bloody victims?

To the kingdoms of this world, probably so.

But to us...

Bread of heaven, and cup of salvation!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Of Angels and Incense

Angel and shepherds. James Tissot. Public Domain.
"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not..."

Fear... near panic-attack levels of fear, actually. Fear like you hear a bump in the night, and then you hear it bumping around, breaking things and cursing as it nears your door, and then you hear it opening your door. And then it's in your room.


It's the first human response to just about every appearance and approach of God or even of heavenly beings such as angels throughout the scriptures.


And then the words, "Fear not. Do not be afraid."

It turns out the use of incense in worship may be an analog to this "Fear... and fear not" response to the Holy.

We've known about the "Fear" side for decades. Though Clifford Guthrie may have been one of the first to document this with respect to incense and worship (in 2000),  it has been well known that the smell of something burning sets off the alarm system of our brains, the amygdala. The smell of the smoke is all it takes to put on our brains into high alert, primed to flee. We don't even have to see it.

Of course, this is of great advantage to us. If we're sleeping and a fire starts near us, it is good that we are almost immediately wakened, put into high alert, and our bodies are automatically readied to run if we need to. Without this dramatic, immediate fear response many more of us would perish in fires.

But why would such "autonomic fear" be helpful to worshipers in religious rituals? Is it only to "put the fear of God" into us?

Yet, as we've seen from the biblical pattern, that initial fear is almost always met by another word from God or the angels themselves, "Fear not!"

One more recent study of the effects in mice of incesole acetate, one of the chemicals released in fairly high concentration when incense is burned, may give a fuller explanation. It turns out that incensole acetate is psychoactive, with nearly immediate and fairly potent anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects.

In other words, the burning smell says, "Fear."

And one of the products in that smoke says, at the very same time, a bit more loudly, and for a longer period of time,  "Fear not."

And both without saying a single word, and probably without any conscious perception on our parts.

So the next time you see Christians or other religious communities using incense in worship, instead of thinking them a bit daft for burning things indoors, remember the angels.  And let this sign of the presence of the Holy have its intended symbolic, and even neuro-pharmacological, effect.

Tip of the hat to David Allison who put me onto the more recent study!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Neurotransmitters, Worship and Community: Part 2, Oxytocin

"Monogamy" Photo by Steve Jurvetson. CC BY 2.0
Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer!

What you are about to read in this post are  generalizations about brain chemistry and its implications for worship. What I am proposing here is hypothetical at best. I am seeking to present well-documented findings the "science" side of this. But so far, we lack the technology to test the release of neurotransmitters in the brains of humans in real time situations of worship in ways that aren't likely to impinge too much on the act of worship itself.

Oxytocin: One with Christ, One with Each Other, and One in Ministry to All the World

So, what gives with the wolves? In Part 1 of this two-part series, there was a diagram of how dopamine functions in various parts of the brain.

The short answer: Copyright. I only post images in the public domain or with Creative Commons or other licensing that gives permission to post them elsewhere with proper attribution. All of the images available on the Internet at this point showing the interactions of oxytocin in the brain are protected by copyright.

So I have wolves.

But in a real way, what these wolves are showing about oxytocin is just as potent, maybe more so, than the brain images. 
Because what these pair-bonded wolves are showing in this image is one of the primary effects of oxytocin on mammalian brains and bodies: reducing inhibition, enhancing trust, and building lasting communities.

Oxytocin's association with building communities appears to be because of its much longer half-life than dopamine (three to six times longer in the bloodstream) and its substantially longer "lingering effects" on the brain (hours rather than minutes). This gives oxytocin's pro-social "it's all about us" qualities a substantial leg-up to help counteract dopamine's more "it's all about me" tendencies.

That's one of the reasons oxytocin has sometimes been called "the love hormone," or even, "The Moral Molecule."

Another is the significant increase in its release during labor, childbirth and lactation. Oxytocin (or its synthetic form, pitocin) strengthens contractions, enabling childbirth itself, and is widely thought to be responsible for the bonding between mothers and their infant children.

Small amounts of oxytocin are also released through such simple acts of affection as a kiss or petting an animal. 
And it appears it may be released in group-bonding experiences such as worship as well. Indeed, one recently published study of megachurch worship and worshipers concluded that "[m]egachurch worship services may be particularly conducive for increasing oxytocin, since they combine group singing with the display of other's emotional experiences in an aesthetic context that encourages emotional expression" (see link, p. 26). 

Wellman et all, the authors of that study, primarily cite these three elements-- intensive emotional experiences, large group singing and the presence of cameras able to show individual "transcendent" responses on massive displays so all can see them and thus have their own experiences both encouraged and often amplified-- as the chief contributors to the success of megachurch worship in keeping and expanding its "audience" and in increasing the self-reported feeling of belonging and loyalty among worshipers interviewed.

And those worshipers interviewed consistently reported that worship gave them a strong emotional feeling of being one with God, closer to each other, and more ready to love others around them.

Wellman et al. add one more element they say creates the "oxytocin cocktail" they find in megachurch worship: "emotional energy" (p. 4). Group singing and camerawork alone do not generate oxcytocin at sufficient levels to account for the changes felt during worship and confirmed in subsequent interviews. The emotional intensity ("passion" we might say) is just as critical. 

But according to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, whose research is frequently cited by Wellman et al, it doesn't require massive assemblies, driving rock beats, charismatic pastors,  or high-tech cameras and displays to generate significant increases in oxytocin. Zak notes the following also have similar effects: "share a meal, make music, join a choir, introduce yourself to someone new, express personal thanks, forgive someone, pray for ten minutes 'focusing on compassion.'"

And do these regularly, he adds. Building these activities as basic patterns in our lives, repeated in reliable ways, appears to reinforce the pro-social effects of oxytocin over time, and even, Zak argues, makes us more moral.

Christian worship including Word and Table, confession of sin and sharing the peace of Christ,  in any "style," does all of these things.

And so it's no wonder we pray with gusto at the epiclesis, "By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world...."

Limitations  of Oxytocin

While oxytocin does promote pro-social behavior and lasting communities, the studies done to date on these effects tend to suggest it does so primarily if not only toward those considered to be part of the "in-group" sharing a common experience. Some studies also suggest that oxytocin may actually increase feelings of hostility toward those perceived to be part of an "out-group" (De Dreu et al, 2010). 

In other words, the very hormone that can make group worship experiences powerful for worshipers can also make the very same worship experience potentially dangerous for those who are not part of the group.

To make a thoroughly non-scientific conjecture at this point, perhaps this is part of why the actual presence of the Holy Spirit as both comforter and coach is essential whenever we gather for worship!

Possible Implications for Worship

As noted in the disclaimer above, as well as in the title of this section, what follows here are possible implications and hypotheses.

1. The basic pattern of Word and Table, however expressed, may be a powerful means of enhancing our sense of community with God, each other, and in ministry with the world. 
Megachurches may be able to enhance self-reported feelings of cohesion and commitment with big sound and cameras, but that accounts for a little less than 1% of United Methodist congregations in the US. For the 99%, that kind of experience is largely out of reach.

Meanwhile, the pattern of Word and Table as expressed in the services of our hymnal and Book of Worship are accessible to congregations of all sizes and technology levels and actually contain many more avenues for worshipers to engage in activities that also enhance oxytocin expression, and so contribute to similar levels of bonding with God, each other and our neighbors.

2. I suggested our basic ritual may provide all that is needed for most of our congregations. Emotional energy matters. While it is not essential that worshipers dance energetically, sing at the top of their lungs, or offer their worship in immersive media environments, it is essential both theologically and, it seems, to enhance oxytocin release, that we offer our whole selves to God. And that includes our bodies, minds and emotions. 

3. Part of the importance of planning worship and worshiping with our minds as well as our bodies and emotions is to do what we can to counteract the negative consequence of oxytocin released during worship, the very real potential of loving God and each other, but at the expense of others. Contrary to some claims of Zak and others, increasing oxytocin
release is no guarantee of increased morality or compassion except to people we define as being "like us" or "with us." Jesus, on the other hand, continues to call us to love enemies, do good to those who harm us and bless those who curse us. For that we need more than brains and bodies recharged with oxytocin. We need hearts and minds reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit. Careful worship planning and wise worship leadership will direct worshipers to acknowledge feelings of hatred for enemies and outsiders that oxytocin released in worship may engender, acknowledge the degree to which we still struggle with "this body of death," and direct us to seek forgiveness and renewal from Christ whose peace truly passes human understanding.

Blue Christmas? Or Longest Night Communion?

Blue Christmas Tree, Christchurch, New Zealand. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Over the past ten years, it seems that "Blue Christmas" services have been increasing in number and gaining in popularity as part of the round of Advent/Christmas schedules of Christian congregations in the United States.

Often  scheduled on or around December 21 to correspond  with "Longest Night," the beginning of the winter solstice and so the darkest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, Blue Christmas services offer a contemplative respite from cultural and perhaps even ecclesial expectations of a "happy Christmastime." Blue Christmas services also give space for communal rituals of grieving and mutual support, especially for those who have experienced significant loss or are dealing with difficult situations in their lives.

All of this is valuable and good.

But is "Blue Christmas" the best way to frame it for Christian congregations? And is a separate service focusing on grief and loss the best we have to offer?

I raise the question because many of the framers of the "Blue Christmas" idea seem to propose that December in general and Christmas in particular (or Christmastime in the wider culture) is indeed focused exclusively on happiness and joy and does not deal much, if at all, with the realities of pain, suffering and loss in our lives.

Perhaps in congregations or traditions that do not celebrate Advent or use the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during these weeks, that would be true.

But for those who do, quite the reverse may be the case.

Consider the gospel readings for this year, 2012. On December 2, we heard Jesus warning about cataclysms to come and calling his disciples to pray for strength to avoid the temptation to anesthetize themselves against the pain, but rather to stand faithfully before the world in the midst of it. On December 9, we hear of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist, who calls for repentance, and sing Zechariah's song which acknowledges the painful realities from which we cry out to God for deliverance. On December 16, we continue the story of John the Baptist and hear perhaps some of his sharpest preaching prophesying a final destruction of and release from the corruption and death that surrounds us on every side. And on December 23, we sing Mary's song, in which she and generations of Christians pour out our hope in the One who "puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the lowly."

This same pattern of readings for the four weeks-- end of the world, John the Baptist, and the revolutionary and challenging path of Mary-- happens every year of the three year cycle, though using different readings to embody it.

Given the nature of these readings I wonder whether an additional "Blue Christmas" service in our Advent schedules is necessary, and in some senses, even helpful.

Specifically I wonder...

1. How do you use these readings to focus on the realities of grief, suffering, and loss week by week in worship and other ministries of the congregation?

2. Is worship in December where you more "programmed" by the "media" version of December as "the most wonderful time of the year" than the actual Christian observances of Advent and Christmas? Might that be a reason you may actually need to consider a separate service that does address issues of suffering, grief and loss in this season? And if so, might you consider re-orienting December to the Advent texts instead going forward?

3. Which is better for congregations and for people attending them seeking solace at this time of the year? Is it greater solace for us all to rehearse and confess our needs as part of our worship as a community together, perhaps with special attention to those suffering in our prayers and in other acts of worship week by week, or to create a separate service primarily intended for those who experience that suffering?  (Before you answer this, go talk with those who are suffering first, and ask them! Are they asking for "special attention" or are you providing it because you think they "need" it?)

4. What approach to the questions of suffering, grief and loss in this season bests helps your congregation function as those who "surround them with a community of love and forgiveness" as we promise at every service of the baptismal covenant?  

I do not propose any one right answer to these questions. I simply raise them for you to wrestle with in your particular context.

If you do decide to offer a service on Longest Night, let me suggest you consider offering it as an Advent evening service of Word and Table, fully integral to the work of the whole church during this season. Two of the three readings of the  Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings for December 21 this year are particularly appropriate, both for the themes of Advent at that point, and for those who are suffering. Psalm 80:1-7 refers to the bread of tears and asks, twice, for God to restore us. Hebrews 10:32-39 encourages Christians to support one another and be supported by the Spirit in the midst of their suffering, remembering who we are, persons of faith who are being saved even in such times as this.

A new resource for Longest Night based on these texts is now posted on the GBOD website, along with  links to our other Longest Night/Blue Christmas resources. Thanks to Robb McCoy for this newest addition!