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From the moon to the Twitterverse

Short, sweet, contentious -- belief takes many forms

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The passing of Neil Armstrong, Pussy Riot protests, Twitter-friendly religion -- these are some of the things on my mind in these last dog days of summer.


One giant leap of faith for mankind

The death of astronaut Neil Armstrong last month prompted many memories of that first moon mission, including one about the first communion on the moon.

It happened on July 20, 1969, the day that Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

Aldrin, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, performed the short communion ceremony, also called The Lord's Supper.

"This is the pilot," Aldrin said into his microphone, "I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."

Aldrin then served himself communion, using a kit provided by the pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, Tex.

In 1970, Aldrin wrote of the experience. "I opened the little plastic packages, which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, 'I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.'

"I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements."

According to a 2009 story in the Washington Post, Aldrin had hoped NASA would broadcast the service worldwide. But the space agency decided against it because of a lawsuit filed (and later dismissed) by atheist Madelyn Murray O'Hare after Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas.

The small chalice Aldrin used for the wine went back to Webster Church. Each year on the Sunday closest to July 20, the congregation celebrates what it calls Lunar Communion.


What would you do if Pussy Riot came to your place of worship?

The recent sentencing of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot made me wonder what people of faith in Winnipeg might do if a similar act of protest occurred in their place of worship. Would you consider it blasphemous or sacrilegious? Or just inappropriate and rude?

It might depend on how you view your church building. In some Christian traditions, churches are considered sacred spaces. A punk rock protest, like that performed by Pussy Riot, might be considered sacrilegious there. In others, the meeting place is no more holy than any other building on the street. In fact, more and more churches today don't have their own building at all -- they meet in movie theatres, pubs and coffee shops.

For the Russian Orthodox Church, a church building is a sacred space -- that is why it reacted so strongly to the performance. One correction is in order, though; contrary to many media reports, the band did not play on the altar.

In Russian Orthodox churches, the sanctuary, where the people sit, is separated from the nave, where the altar resides and only priests can go. The wall separating the two spaces is called the iconostasis. The nave, with its altar, is the holiest part of those churches. Pussy Riot performed in front of the iconostasis, not in the nave.

In other words, the band was not standing on the altar, or communion table in Protestant churches -- something that most Christians would consider very inappropriate, if not sacrilegious.

But back to the question: If a group like Pussy Riot came into your place of worship and performed a protest song mocking your faith, what would you do? If you called the police, charges could be laid, as happened in Russia. According to the Winnipeg Police Service, the band could be charged with public mischief, causing a disturbance or trespassing.

The whole thing reminds me of another famous disturbance in a place or worship. It happened about 2,000 years ago, when Jesus stormed into the temple, overturning tables, scattering money, whipping people and yelling about how it had been diverted from its true purpose of worshipping God. That protest made it into the New Testament, and is a staple of preaching today. I wonder if Pussy Riot's little tirade might one day be viewed in a similar fashion?

The Christian message in seven words or less

In his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell -- the plainspoken author of The Cotton Patch Gospels -- wrote about the time he was challenged by a friend to come up with a simple and succinct definition of the Christian message in ten words or less.

Replied Campbell: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway." His friend responded: "If you want to try again, you have two words left."

That exchange prompted the editors of the Christian Century to come up with a challenge of their own for today. They want people to sum up the Christian message in seven words or less. In this age of Twitter, that seems only fair.

Here's what some of American church leaders and others came up with.

"God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow," said church historian Martin E. Marty.

"Divinely persistent, God really loves us," said Donald W. Shriver, president emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary.

"In Christ, God's yes defeats our no," offered Beverly Roberts Gaventa, professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary.

"We are the Church of Infinite Chances," added American poet Mary Karr.

"In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation," said author Brian McLaren.

"Israel's God's bodied love continues world-making," said Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.

What about you? Can you sum up your faith in seven words or less? Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism -- whatever you believe, or don't believe -- send your succinct definition to, or post them online in the comments section for this article.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J13

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