Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Before-and-After: Christian Salvation Is about Transformation

There are several passages in the New Testament that describe Christian salvation in terms of before-and-after. One such text, Titus 3:4–7, was featured in the Common Lectionary reading for Christmas Eve and Day. The contrasts in these texts are perhaps a bit overdrawn, but they are nevertheless real, and they highlight what the early Christians primarily meant when they spoke of God’s salvation. 

Christian salvation means, according to these before-and-after texts, that in Christ and through Christ, we Christians are liberated from negative attitudes and behaviors that are destructive to relationships, communities, and our own souls, as we learn new ways of relating to one another in grace, kindness, and love patterned after Christ. This process of transformation is Christian salvation, not just the result of it. 

Christian salvation is not something separate from Christian discipleship. It’s all one piece. Incorrectly, Christian discipleship has been understood by many American Christians as the consequence of salvation, or something in addition to salvation. This is usually expressed as: We are first saved, and then we are called to a live a Christian life. No. Such a distinction would have been inconceivable to the early Christians. 

God calls us to a life of devotion and service in partnership with the Spirit of Christ, and God enables us to realize this calling by delivering us from all those destructive and alienating attitudes and behaviors that diminish and destroy relationships and community. Our living out this calling through the power of the Holy Spirit is what the New Testament calls salvation. When Christian preachers and teachers make salvation primarily about “going to heaven” they do the church a great disservice. 

Christian salvation (this process of transformation) is a gift, but like any gift, to be of any use it must be appropriated. According to the text in Titus 3, it is appropriated through the renewing, regenerating, cleansing power of the Holy Spirit that has been generously given to disciples. 

The experience of Christian salvation comes about, then, as we are able to surrender to the wooing, speaking, and leading of the Holy Spirit through courageous trust. It’s largely about letting go of control, and the courage to become what God wants us to be

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she volunteered at a shelter for abused children. One day she met Billy, a boy with spiky brown hair and pale eyebrows to match his pale face. The only life in him, says Kidd, was a thirsty look in the half-moons of his eyes. He’d been horribly wounded and was reluctant to go beyond the security he’d found in his room. The day of the Christmas party he shrank against the pillow on his bed and refused to leave the room. Kid pleaded, “Aren’t you coming to the party?” He shook his head. 

But then the volunteer beside her spoke up: “Sure you are, Billy. All you need to do is put on your courage skin.” His pale eyebrows went up. The thirsty look in his eyes, says Kidd, seemed to drink in the possibility. “Okay,” he finally said. The volunteer helped him put on an imaginary suit of “courage skin” and off he went to the party, willing to trust and risk beyond his secure places. 

Christian salvation is rooted in surrender to and trust in the Christ Spirit, who beckons us to join his party. Christ is the lure, calling us forward. We needed a witness. We needed to see the love of God embodied in flesh and blood. With the advent of Christ, “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” showing us the way.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent Reflection: Longing

Gospel scholars tell us that Mary’s canticle of praise (the Magnificat) was most likely a song or prayer used in early Jewish Christian worship. It is a song or prayer of longing that envisions a dramatic reversal: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:51–53). .

The overthrow of the wealthy does not come about through the rising up of the oppressed in revolution, but through the advent of a lowly, humble child, who is born in humility, if not poverty, and who, throughout his ministry, demonstrated what Gospel scholars call a preferential option for the poor. When he defined his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, he declared that his mission was to bring good news to the poor and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18–19). When he said that he had come to declare “the acceptable year of the Lord,” he was referencing the year of Jubilee, which was Torah legislation that required, every fiftieth year, for all the land in Israel to revert back to its original owners. It was legislation that sought to curb the natural growing disparity between the rich and the poor that occurs in all economic systems. Jesus pronounced beatitudes or blessings on the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted, and he pronounced woes or judgments upon the wealthy and well-fed (Luke 6:20–26). He told stories like the rich man who finds himself in Hades and the poor beggar who is carried off to be with Abraham (Luke 16:19–31), and stories about banquets and dinners where the guests are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:7–24). He embodied this gospel to the poor by healing the sick, casting out unclean spirits, touching lepers, welcoming sinners, sitting down at the table with outcasts, and dying on a cross rejected and cursed. Such is the gospel, the good news according to Luke.

Scripture scholar Richard Vinson observes that in Mary’s Magnificat the hard words are spoken to us: “We must face the truth: we are the bad guys in this story . . . If God chooses the poor, we are doomed. If God scatters the rich, the proud, and the powerful, we will be dust in the wind.”

Mary, herself, is an example of God’s compassion: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant . . . for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:46–49). Mary is the quintessential example of God saving the poor and lifting up the lowly.  

How did Western Christianity miss this? And we certainly have missed it. Prominent Christian leaders on both the right and left speak of salvation in very private, narrow terms. Norman Vincent Peal and his legacy of positive thinking expressed God’s salvation in very individualistic language. Much Western spirituality today, both Christian and non-Christian, focuses on self-help and emotional fitness. Those on the right made salvation mainly about the afterlife, about going to heaven when we die. This is the legacy of the fiery evangelists like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.

I believe that both of the above components, in their more sensible and balanced formulations, are part of God’s salvation. I believe that the spiritual life in God we nurture now continues after death, and I believe that God cares about our psychological and emotional wholeness. But neither of these components were primarily what Jesus had in view when he announced the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus envisaged a new kind of world; a world that he embodied in his ministry to sinners, to the poor, to the marginalized, to the blind, broken, battered, and beaten down.

When our spirit becomes infused with the Divine Spirit, the Spirit of the living Christ, then we, too, long for a new world, a more equitable world, a more just world, a world of peace and nonviolence, where all (not just the 1 percent, or 20 percent, or even 80 percent, but 100 percent) have enough of this world’s resources and spiritual resources to live a flourishing life. 

Maybe you have seen the cartoon that pictures God looking somewhat distraught, saying, “I think I have lost my copy of the divine plan.” When we look at the state of the world, I’m sure God will forgive us if we find ourselves wondering if God ever had a plan. We have seen the holocaust, and the genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia. We have seen the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the killing fields and purges of evil tyrants. Our own nation has amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the world several times over. Countless people have suffered untold misery as a result of war, injustice, oppression, and exploitation.

But that isn’t the whole story. There is a brighter side. We, who believe in resurrection, surely believe that evil will not have the last word. There are pockets of resistance. Not resistance, though, through fight or flight, which are the world’s methods. Resistance, rather, through courageous nonviolence, as incarnated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We have witnessed Gandhi, King, Romero, and Mandela, and there are millions of people on this planet living quiet lives of love and heroism in the pursuit of peace and justice. Bishop Tutu has said that these heroes are often among the poor and disenfranchised: “When you go into informal settlements and meet up with people in shacks who, living in such dehumanizing circumstances, it’s really always such an incredible experience. What you see is the humanity, the humanness, the dignity, the capacity to laugh, the capacity to love, to rear children, in circumstances that by right ought to make all of that impossible.”

This Christmas, we will spend time with our church family, with our friends and loved ones, and we will enjoy the food, fun, and fellowship that mark the season. We will be deeply grateful for the relationships that enrich us and for the material resources that sustain us, enabling us to live flourishing lives. I hope, that at some point, we will allow our hearts to cry out to God for all the people on our planet who do not have adequate material and spiritual resources. I hope that our gratitude for all that has been given to us (by luck of the draw, not by merit or worthiness) will be punctuated by moments where we allow ourselves to ach for all those who suffer from disease, malnutrition, oppression, and injustice.

May God, the All-Compassionate one, fill our hearts with empathy and move us to do what we can do, where we live, to bring us a little closer to a world put right and made whole.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent Reflection: Waiting

Children longingly anticipate Christmas day when they can open their presents. They wait with excitement. Not all waiting is filled with excitement. Sometimes our waiting is punctuated with anxiety and fear. Such is often the case with those who are unemployed, waiting for meaningful work. Or with the one waiting for the results of a full body scan after enduring a grueling round of chemotherapy. Or the waiting of a childless couple who so much want to start a family. 

When the prophet addresses the covenant people in Isaiah 40, there were those in Israel who had been waiting for the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the return of the glory of the Lord to the land of Israel. Many had died in exile, without seeing that hope realized, but they clung to the promise that one day their suffering would end. 

All true waiting is a waiting with a sense of promise. For Christians, it’s a promise that we already, in part, have entered into. The Apostle Paul speaks of the Spirit as an earnest, a deposit, a promise and pledge of fullness of life to come, but a fullness that we have already partially experienced. What Paul calls eternal life is simply the continuation of life in the Spirit begun now. Henry Nouwen put it this way: “Waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.” 

The Word of God that comes through the prophet, announcing the end of the time of suffering and the manifestation of God’s glory, is nothing less than the active power and presence of God working for our good. It is the practical equivalent of the Spirit of God working within creation, within our communities, and our individual lives—wooing us to accept and return God’s love, luring us to choose what is compassionate, good, and right, nudging us to pursue peace and reconciliation, inspiring us to forgive those who have hurt us, prompting us to lift up and identify with the disenfranchised and marginalized, and empowering us to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. 

True Christian waiting is a patient waiting for the fulfillment of a promise that we already experience through the Word and Spirit of God. In addition, all true waiting involves a waiting in humility. We know that the promise will not be realized through innate human ingenuity and problem-solving. God, most certainly, incorporates many human elements in its realization, but ultimately it is God working in and through human beings and the creation. 

Episcopal priest, Martha Sterne, tells about being in her local county Domestic Court as part of the mission of the local Ecumenical Council to have a clergy presence there, and this was her day to serve. Mostly, she says, she just sits and prays. It’s so chaotic. Trials get set time and time again. Victims don’t show up, either because they don’t want to prosecute or are scarred to. People sit in little clumps scattered around the room, and after a while it becomes apparent which clumps are furious with the other ones. She says that it is a difficult place to gather a lot of hope for the human condition. 

This particular morning, the head public defender approached the judge with some papers and said: “Your honor, I hate to bring this up, but Mrs. Smith called me and she said she was kind of wondering why she was still in jail after you said you’d let her out. And I checked around and it looks like you put the wrong case number on the discharge papers.” The judge looked at the paper and looked at the lawyer, and frowned a fierce kind of frown and said, “Well, now let me tell you that I am just mightily sick and tired of having my mistakes brought to my attention.” 

That’s a great line isn’t it? It’s not easy facing all our failures and shortcomings. Some folks find it easier to live in denial. Some become intoxicated with feelings of superiority and look down on those who just happened to have lacked the kind of opportunities or privileges they have enjoyed. Other folks can’t seem to get past their insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and wallow around in self-pity and self-condemnation. 

True humility restores to us a sense of balance. In one sense, we are all “nobodies.” Sometimes when I start to think that I am more important than what I am, I simply tell myself, “Chuck, all you are is a little shit.” It restores my balance. That’s all I really am. 

And yet, on the other hand, I am also God’s beloved. I am loved by God, accepted by God, called by God, commissioned by God, indwelt by God, and an heir of God. We all are. One of the things I love about the passage in Isaiah 40 is the chord of universality that is struck. The prophet says, “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” All true prophetic vision includes the good, well-being, and redemption of all people. We are all God’s children. Now, of course, all do not know that yet. All have not claimed their relationship with God, which is why Christians need to function as the salt and light of the world. 

When we come to experience God’s forgiveness and love, our waiting can be more open-ended. Spiritual waiting is not to be equated with wish fulfillment. When we put too much stock in our wishes, when we want the future to go in a particular direction, this almost always leads to disappointment. We get anxious about trying to manage and manipulate people and events to get the future to go our way. True Christian waiting is open to many possibilities, freeing us from the need to control people and circumstances

As one great Christian mystic proclaimed: All will be well. I don’t know how to imagine the afterlife, but I think Paul was right when he said that what God has in store for God’s children is more than we can think or imagine. 

When I pastored in Waldorf, Maryland, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, who was then Chaplain of the Senate. I asked him what he thought was the greatest spiritual need in our country. He said, hardly without a pause: For religious people to know God. There are a lot of religious (Christian) people, who are exclusivistic, judgmental, bitter, self-righteous, who think they are the only ones who have the truth and who use the Bible as a weapon to label and condemn others not in their group. (We are all a little bit like that some of the time; but some people are like that most of the time.) Do you know what they need? It’s what we all need? To experience God. They may talk about God, but they haven’t experienced God.

When one experiences God, the heart grows, like the Grinch on that day when he realized what Christmas was really about. Once we experience how wide and deep and great is the love of God, then we know that it is all going to be good, and it makes us better. It inspires us to wait patiently, humbly, openly, knowing that the Word and glory of the Lord that appeared in Jesus of Nazareth is with us and for us.