Thursday, October 21, 2010

To Will One Thing

One of Soren Kierkegaard’s famous lines (also the title of the book) is: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” A person who is “pure in heart” is undivided in his or her intention. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8).

In a wonderful scene in the movie “City Slickers,” Curly (Jack Parlance), the tough-as-nails, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world, trail boss, asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he wants to know the secret of life. Curly says, “It’s this,” holding up his index finger. Mitch retorts, “The secret of life is your finger.” Curly, never batting an eye says, “It’s one thing. The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”

According to Jesus, the one thing his disciples are called to pursue is the kingdom of God. In a context where Jesus tells his disciples not to be anxious about how they appear to others, nor about their daily needs (what they will eat, drink, and wear), he says, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, and all these other things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). In other words, everything else in life will find its place around life’s central priority—the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God as embodied and proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospels relates to this world, not a different heavenly world. Unfortunately, a lot of popular Christian preaching and teaching emphasize that the world is not our home and that we are just passing through. That’s partly true. Christians are a pilgrim people. And certainly we are going to die and enter a new stage of existence. While Jesus believed in an afterlife, he taught that the kingdom of God has to do with God’s good, gracious, just, and peaceable will being done “on earth” as it is in that dimension of reality called heaven.

I’m convinced that we will always be a pilgrim people, a people on the move. Whatever may ultimately be involved in the realization of God’s kingdom on earth, this will not be the end of our spiritual journeys.

As children of God, I believe that we will always be growing, developing, and becoming in God’s unfolding plan. (I can’t imagine living forever in some heavenly mansion singing endless praise songs; well, maybe if Bob Dylan is the writer/singer). Perhaps there are new worlds, creatures, and universes yet to evolve in which we will have some part.

My point is that, for now, this earth is our home and we are charged to be good stewards of it. (Some Christians are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good). Here, on this planet, is where Jesus envisioned a flourishing world of justice, peace, and abundance for all people.

Eternity is right now; it is what we are living at this moment. God expects us to learn how to love one another and take care of one another right now. What else does it mean to be the body of Christ—the presence, the hands and feet of Christ—in the world? Disciples of Jesus are called to be collaborators and partners with God in God’s project to heal and redeem the world, right now!

Jesus promised that those committed to this cause “will see God.” Throughout the Gospels “seeing” is a way of talking about understanding, perceiving, and grasping the truth in a transformative way. It’s the capacity to see through our many deceptions, illusions, and subtle lies, and recognize what is real, true, and good. No one will ever see the essence of God, but we can see the beauty and goodness of God in one another, in life’s experiences, and in creation.

As we give ourselves to the healing, wholeness, and well-being of others, we will find our own redemption. We most certainly will become “more” and “better” than what we are now when we truly “see” God in ourselves, others, and the world.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Let justice roll

Some years ago popular speaker and author Tony Campolo helped initiate a master’s program at Eastern College that trains students to enter Third World countries, as well as impoverished sections of American cites, with the express purpose of starting small businesses and cottage industries with the poor. Campolo was once part of such a micro enterprise in the Dominican Republic that produced durable footwear out of discarded automobile tires.

Campolo says, “When we talk about Jesus, we make it clear that he is not just interested in our well-being in the afterlife. He is a Savior who is at work in the world today trying to save the world from what it is, and make it into a place where people can live together with dignity.” This, I believe, is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice), for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6).

The word translated “righteousness” can also be translated “justice.” Justice in the Hebrew/Christian tradition differs significantly from what many folks today mean when they use the term. Justice, as employed by the prophets and by Jesus, does not mean “getting what one deserves.” According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, the meaning of “justice/righteousness” is principally about actions that sustain and improve community well-being, particularly those that show special attentiveness to the poor and needy. The Hebrew prophets railed against religious and political leaders who spurned justice, but yet were very pious and religious (see Amos 5:21–24).

Author Robert Pirsig refers to a clever method used to capture monkeys in southern India. A hole is drilled into a coconut, then the insides are hollowed out and filled with rice. The coconut is chained to a stake driven in the ground. The hole is just large enough for a monkey to insert its paw, but too small for it to remove its paw once it is filled with rice. The monkey, unwilling to let go of the rice, becomes effectively trapped. The irony, of course, is that it is trapped by the very thing it believed would sustain its life.

Our religion, which is intended to enhance and sustain life, becomes a snare when we are motivated by selfish ambition, or use it for personal advancement and self-aggrandizement. Our Christianity becomes a snare when we make it primarily about the afterlife or personal success in this life. When our faith becomes nothing more than a way to eternal bliss or a way to achieve personal happiness or self-fulfillment, then we too come under the indictment of the prophets and Jesus in particular.

Our faith becomes a snare when it entraps us in personal and group idolatries. When we arrogantly assume that God’s blessing is limited to our faith, our group, our people, our church, or our nation, then our Christian practice stands under the judgment of God.

Restorative justice is not about what is legal; rather it concerns what is good, fair, and just. It’s committed to the dignity of all people and to eliminating the causes of oppression, poverty, and injustice. Its focus is the common good, not private interest. It’s centered on God’s kingdom on earth, not the afterlife. (We need not worry about or concern ourselves with the afterlife, because our gracious heavenly Father/Mother will take good care of all of us).

Real virtue is bound to the pursuit of justice—the well-being and life enhancement of the community. Without this quality our religion fails and falls under the judgment of God.

The modern prophet William Sloan Coffin reminds us that the church “doesn’t so much have a social ethic as it is a social ethic.” Without a hunger and thirst for justice, the church is not the church. For the church to be what Jesus envisioned—an outpost for God’s kingdom on earth—the church must cultivate a hunger and thirst for justice.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Meekness is not Weakness

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). According to Jesus, “the earth” (referring here to the “kingdom of God”) is the possession of the meek. Meekness is not weakness. Jesus challenged the powers that be when he intentionally pushed the edges of religious respectability through his practice of an open table (inclusivity), identification with the marginalized, healing on the Sabbath, and intentional disregard for the holiness laws of clean and unclean.

Jesus did not, however, use his charismatic, spiritual power to control or coerce others to do his bidding. He emptied himself of all selfish ambition, and both embodied and taught forgiveness, non-violence, and peacemaking.

The word translated “meek” in Jesus’ beatitude could just as easily be translated “humble.” Humility, as expressed by Jesus, did not in any way resemble timidity. It took great courage, restraint, and spiritual strength for Jesus to confront the injustice and exclusivity of the powers that be, knowing full well that his challenging of the status quo would evoke the hate and animosity of the religious and political establishment, eventually bringing about his death.

What is authentic humility? Rolling Stone Magazine interviewed Scott Weiland of the band, “The Stone Temple Pilots,” after he had been released from prison, having served a term for drug possession. (Not that I know Scott Weiland; I’m still listening to Bob Dylan and James Taylor.) In the interview he kept using the word “humility.” The reporter asked him to define the term. Scott Weiland said, “It’s not me thinking less of myself. It’s me thinking of myself less.”

In my opinion, too many Christians have overemphasized the biblical story of the fall at the expense of the story of creation. Certainly we are all flawed and broken. We have a selfish bent and a strong propensity to seek and misuse worldly power. But that doesn’t mean that we are “no good” or “no account.” Humility is not someone saying, “I am a wretch; I am a worm.” It is not debasement, self-contempt, or self-hate.

We are created in God’s image. The biblical story of redemption is rooted in our worth and value. Every person is a child of God, no matter how flawed or sinful. We are each worth redeeming, and I believe, in God’s time (it will take much longer with some than others) every one will be redeemed. I believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus serves as the ultimate demonstration that divine love will one day triumph, transforming the most evil persons into persons who will finally learn how to be good, merciful, and just.

Humility is not thinking less of myself, but thinking of myself less, so I can think of others and serve others. It is being less self-absorbed, so I can be more other-centered. It is being less preoccupied with my ego desires, so I can seek first the kingdom of God, nurture caring relationships, and work for the good of the planet.

Meekness is not weakness, humility is not timidity, and Jesus’ relinquishment of worldly power is not powerlessness. In God’s upside-down kingdom, the powerbrokers of the world will find themselves last, and the meek will inherit the earth.

(This is Part 3 in the series, “Blogging on the Beatitudes.")