Thursday, December 27, 2012

Some Personal Reflections Toward a Theology of Incarnation as it Relates to Jesus and the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth

Warning: Not to be read by the doctrinally certain. These thoughts reflect where I am right now in my thinking on the incarnation of the divine in the person of Jesus. This could change next week.

An incarnational theology probes into the nature of God’s presence in the world and in particular the degree to which God’s presence became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Apostle Paul and the Gospel of Mark, the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ life, say nothing that would suggest that there was anything miraculous about Jesus’ birth. Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel to be written (probably around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.) and he begins with John the Baptist. Either he wasn’t familiar with the tradition of a virgin birth (probably because it had not yet appeared) or he deemed it irrelevant.

The seven authentic letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans) were written even earlier (likely in the 50’s) and he says nothing about a virgin birth. One could argue that his letters are not essays or treatises on theological themes, but occasional documents, penned in the midst of a very industrious ministry, aimed at particular problems, issues, and concerns in local congregations, so we shouldn’t expect him to speak to this theme. While that is true, in Galatians 4:4–5 Paul says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Paul uses the common word for “woman.” If he knew or believed in a tradition of virgin birth he could easily have used the Greek word that meant “virgin,” but he didn’t.

In Paul’s opening introduction in his letter to the Romans, he summarizes “the gospel of God” as “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3–4). In Paul’s view, it was Jesus’ resurrection that gave him his divine status as Son of God and Messianic Lord. Paul was apparently unfamiliar with any tradition about a miraculous birth.

Paul’s view of Jesus’ divinely appointed lordship is similar to the view reflected in the early Christian preaching as expressed by Luke in the book of Acts. According to Acts, God raised up from the dead the man Jesus whom the religious establishment crucified, exalting him and appointing him Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:32–36).

Ironically, this writer also has a story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in his Gospel. According to Luke, Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and is therefore called Son of God (Luke 1:35). Luke’s Son of God theology is different than Paul’s. In Luke, Jesus assumes the title Son of God at his birth, whereas Paul says that Jesus is declared Son of God at his resurrection. But both Paul and Luke equate his exalted status as universal Lord and his saving role as the Jewish Messiah with his resurrection.

Paul used terms like Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ interchangeably (Rom. 8:9) and clearly believed that the resurrected/living Christ functions in a divine role as mediator and redeemer. But it is also evident that he believed that Jesus had a very human origin and acquired divine status by virtue of his resurrection/vindication by God. Paul considered Christ in his divine role to be clearly subordinate to God. In his discussion of resurrection and the eschaton in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul envisions Christ handing over the kingdom to God the Father. He concludes by saying, “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one (God) who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (see 1 Cor. 15:24–28).  

The Gospel of John, written at or after the turn of the first century represents a more advanced stage of Christological development. But even in John, the Son occupies a subordinate role to God the Father (John 14:28).

The notion of a virgin birth was apparently unknown to the earliest Messianic communities and was not deemed a necessary component of Jesus’ elevation to divine status. I suspect that it developed in a manner similar to the way extraordinary births were imagined and attributed to pagan deities and important historical figures in the ancient world. It was their way of acknowledging and proclaiming Jesus’ unique incarnation of the divine that was experienced through his life, death, and resurrection.  

I do not, therefore, believe that the teaching of a virgin birth is in anyway necessary to an incarnational theology. An incarnational theology could also be developed without regard to Jesus’ resurrection, but it would not be an incarnational theology connected to New Testament tradition. For the first disciples, God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was central to their understanding of God’s involvement in and engagement with the world.

Though I do not believe in a historical virgin birth, I do believe in a historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. By historical, though, I do not mean that his actual physical body was resuscitated and somehow shaped into a new form. But I do believe that the historical Jesus who was crucified appeared alive to the disciples in some spiritual and, perhaps, physical or tangible form. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was an extraordinary human being whose communion with God expressed his deep understanding and experience of his union in God, that he uniquely and definitively incarnated the divine presence. I believe that on account of Jesus’ incredible spiritual awareness, faith, and compassion, because of his unique mystical and spiritual life, God was able to act through Jesus in unprecedented ways.

I’m not a true pluralist even though I believe God acts through many different mediators to reveal and communicate God’s will and redemptive presence. The reason I am not a true pluralist is because I see in Jesus of Nazareth the quintessential mediator and the archetypal image of what it means to be fully human incarnating the divine presence.  

I do not believe that Jesus is God, but I do believe that he is a mediator unlike any other. So while I believe in the saving efficacy of other mediators and other religious traditions, I see Jesus as the prototypical, ultimate embodiment of the divine, the exemplar reflection of the image of God.

At the very least, this is how the early disciples perceived Jesus. It is understandable then that these early disciples would begin to equate the image of the living Christ with the Divine Spirit/Presence/Word. It’s not possible to know what they were thinking, but I suspect the connections they made were more spiritual than literal. I’m not sure they even thought through the implications of attributing divine status to Jesus. Later, that line of thought evolved even to the point of calling Jesus God, which becomes the basis for the metaphysical, Trinitarian formulations in the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds.

While I do not literally regard Jesus as divine or make Jesus equal to God, Jesus of Nazareth functions in my faith as the great quintessential image of the divine and as the definitive, unique expression of authentic humanity. I see Jesus as the embodiment of the kingdom he proclaimed in both its present and future aspects. I view Jesus as the supreme revelation of the grace and truth of God (key elements in John’s incarnational theology). I see the image of the living Christ as the goal for humanity—what we are destined to become. I interpret the New Testament image of the indwelling Christ/Spirit of Christ as a metaphorical way of speaking about the divine which resides within each of us and the potential that human beings possess to actually become what we are, the daughters and sons of God.

Therefore, to know Christ is to know God, though I do not equate Christ with God in any metaphysical, ontological, or literal sense. To live as Christ involves a relationship to the divine presence/Spirit whereby the character of Christ/God is formed in us. This is what it means for Christ to live in us (Gal. 2:20), for Christ to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and for us to walk/live in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–26). The living Christ is actually the Spirit of God/the divine presence at work in us. Christians know the divine presence as Christ; other religious traditions will know the divine presence by different names.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Way of Peace

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78–79)

Years ago a soldier who had fought in the trenches in France in the First World War explained how one Christmas a truce was made for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A British soldier broke the quietness of Christmas Eve night as he began to sing a familiar Christmas carol. Then, across the way, a soldier from Germany familiar with the hymn joined in, singing in German. The two voices beautifully harmonized.

Early on Christmas morning, some British soldiers climbed out of their trenches into no man’s land carrying a football. Even in war, the British took their teapots and their footballs. It wasn’t long before some German soldiers had joined them. Right in the middle of the bloody battlefield in France they kicked that ball around and had a pick up game.

But then, the next morning the carnage began again, with machine gun fire and bayonet fighting. In the words of the storyteller, “Everything was back to normal.”

That’s a telling phrase isn’t it? Everything was back to normal. The peace of the kind that the Messiah brings offers us a different kind of normal, a new way forward. The way of Christ breaks upon us with the hope of a new normal. We need more than a magical feeling or a mere pause in the fighting and killing that is our normal.

The Messiah-Jesus embodied a new normal and calls us to follow. One large obstacle we must overcome to make progress on the way of peace is that of a religious, political, social, or communal life driven by fear and exclusion. It is a great temptation because it offers some immediate rewards. It can give one a sense of being in control, of feeling superior and having secure boundaries.

A religion or politics of fear and exclusion can give us a kind of false peace. I think Jesus was talking about this when he said on one occasion: “I did not come to bring peace, but division.” That sounds like a contradiction. But what Jesus is talking about is dismantling our false sense of peace—peace based on our supposed exceptionalism or superiority.

This is one of the most difficult roadblocks to peace because it is the ultimate disguise. It allows us to feel good about our enmity. It allows us to be exclusionary and mean-spirited without any guilt because we tell ourselves we are doing it for God or country. We convince ourselves that we are standing on the moral high ground. We become just like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” This is what psychologist Scott Peck called, “People of the Lie.”

If we are to make progress on the path of peace we need to be liberated from the fears and insecurities that drive this need to condemn or control others and to realize that we are all God’s beloved children. We are each one loved with an eternal love and are all sisters and brothers in the same family.

Progress in the way of peace also requires a firm conviction that we can evolve and change. Too often we lock people up in ready made judgments that do not give them room to become something different.  

There are many factors that impact our capacity to evolve: our circumstances in life, the way we are socialized into our families and communities, our natural gifts, inclinations, and capacities, the love we receive or fail to receive from others, these along with many other uncontrollable factors affect our readiness to change and our receptiveness toward God’s grace.

Not every relationship that is shattered can be restored. But forgiveness can occur if we work at it. A woman said to her pastor, “My ex-husband has done everything he can to make my life miserable—before and after the divorce. I am so eaten up with anger and bitterness that it has affected my health. The only thing left for me to do is forgive and forget him and hope to God that I’ll be done with him and he will be done with me, so that I can get on with my life.”

Given the many ways we can hurt one another, maybe that’s the best we can do sometimes. But I believe that growth is possible for all of us on some level, no matter how much the odds are against us. We are not all in the same place on the spiritual journey. But we can all change. Not at the same rate. Not in the same way. Not to the same depth. But we all can become more than we are now.

Critical to our progress along the way of peace is our commitment to the nonviolent, compassionate, inclusive way of Jesus. It’s a commitment we must reaffirm everyday. We must, each day, say “yes” to the way of Christ in the world, even on those days when it seems foolish or irrelevant, or even after we have failed miserably and can barely pick ourselves up.

Sometimes we have to rest for a while to replenish our energy. Sometimes we lose our way and we have to find the path again. Sometimes the wind and the rain make traveling difficult. Sometimes we fall into misfortune and we have to take some time to be healed and restock our supplies for the journey. But we keep going. We stay on the path. 

There was a small Jewish town, far off the main roads of the land. But it had all the municipal institutions: a bathhouse, a hospital, and a law court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen—tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons. One trade, however, was lacking; there was no watchmaker.

In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down, and ignore them altogether. There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran, they should not be abandoned. So they wound their clocks day after day though they knew they were not accurate.

One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks. But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running—the abandoned clocks had grown too rusty.

It’s important to keep winding the clocks, to stay on the path, to keep pursuing the way of peace and practicing the principles that make for peace, just as Jesus our guide did all the way to the cross. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Signs of Advent

The Gospel reading this year (Year C) for the first Sunday of Advent was Luke 21:25–36. My Lectionary study group didn’t want anything to do with preaching that text, instead they decided to focus on the reading from Jeremiah. This text in Luke is part of a larger apocalyptic passage linking the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans with the apocalyptic discourse of the coming of the Son of Man.

If we can get past the apocalyptic worldview that dominated the first century Jewish world and the sensationalism and literalism of modern day apocalyptic interpretations like those expressed in the Left Behind books, this passage yields some profound spiritual truths. Apocalyptic language is great poetry, and if we can read apocalyptic texts with a poet’s mind and heart and imagination, these texts can bring forth life.

Jesus chided the religious authorities of his day for their failure to see the signs of the inbreaking reign of God. These were signs of healing and restoring grace that mended broken bodies and brought wholeness and peace to tortured souls. These were signs of accepting and forgiving grace expressed in such ways as an open table that welcomed all manner of “sinners”—the very ones excluded by the religious establishment.

But in addition to signs of grace, there are also signs of terror that show us that the reign of God has not come in fullness. There is much to be done. Luke mentions disturbances in the heavens and on the earth, of nations being in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea, of people fainting in terror.

Our family spent Thanksgiving in Gatlinburg this year and one night Sophie, our 30 month old granddaughter who had went to sleep lying between my wife and I, awoke crying. Well, actually she woke us crying, but she wasn’t exactly awake. Jordan, our son, was in the living room sleeping on the hide a way bed. He roused up when he heard Sophie crying.

Having studied psychology now for a couple of years, he quickly offered us his expert diagnosis. He said, “She’s just having a night terror. Lots of kids have them.” Of course, he did nothing to drive the terror away, but he was proud of himself that he could name the demon. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

There are harsher night terrors than a bad dream. There are terrors that threaten our physical, mental, and emotional health, terrors that threaten our relationships and our livelihood.

There is not just one end to the world any more than there is just one coming of Christ to look forward to. When Jesus was killed, the disciples believed their world had ended. Their dreams were dashed and their hopes crushed. When several decades later the Romans besieged Jerusalem, those Jewish disciples that were caught up in the fury of the wrath of the Empire thought their world had come to an end. In a manner of speaking, the world might end any day of the week for any of us with a grim diagnosis, a sudden accident, the death of a loved one, a debilitating injury, the loss of a job, or a notice of divorce.

When the heavens are shaken and the sea roars and the foundations of the earth split asunder, our best hope is to keep looking for the coming of our Lord. We don’t have to look far, because he is already here. The Spirit of Christ is with us and for us and among us. Christ cannot fix all our problems or stop all our pain or replace all our losses, but he can walk with us through the night terrors, through the pain and suffering. He can share the load and accompany us on the journey.

I don’t know why it is, but it seems that almost all significant growth in our lives occurs when we go through the crucible of suffering, when we find ourselves in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. It seems as though it takes a certain amount of chaos and turbulence and hardship to move us along the path that leads to personal maturity and spiritual growth.

Ronald Rolheiser, the author of The Holy Longing and The Shattered Lantern, was asked after a lecture if significant spiritual growth can occur without suffering, without walking through some fiery trial. He thought it possible, but extremely rare.

He recalled the time when he was in college at the University of Alberta. A well known and well respected psychologist who was recognized in his field and had written a number of books was on campus giving a talk. After the talk someone asked him if it is possible to experience a deeper level of maturity and personal growth without going through a time of intense pain and crisis.

The psychologist, who was also a deeply spiritual man, said that it is possible in theory. But then he added that in his 40 years of work as a clinical psychologist he had never seen it happen. Apparently, it takes some degree of pain and loss to break down the walls we build around our fragile egos.

Perhaps you have noticed that this time of year many of us either begin our day in the dark or we go home after work in the dark. The daylight is getting shorter and the darkness longer. The shortest day of the year, which is also the longest night of the year, will occur on December 21. Then, after the winter solstice, the days will start to inch their way forward and our nights will gradually shorten. Advent teaches us that it will get darker before it gets lighter.  But by watching and waiting in hope, we grow up. We mature. We learn what is really important. We discover the “more” to life.

Luke says, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth.” We cannot control the roaring and tossing of the sea. But what we can do is be ready, be watchful, be awake and alert and prepared to endure with hope, so that we can escape spiritual collapse and experience the power and glory of the coming of the Son of Man.

We experience such power and glory by confronting our fears and facing our terrors with an ever growing and expanding love for all of life. The power and glory of the Son of Man is the power and glory of the divine, magnanimous, unconditional love of God radiating through our frail humanity.   

If we are watchful we can see signs of Christ’s love all around us. We see it in a child’s smile, a mother’s touch, a friend’s encouragement, a prayer prayed in heart-felt passion, an act of forgiveness. If we are awake we can see God’s love expressed in a thousand different ways. That’s the miracle of incarnation.

And what will it take for us to be a sign of God’s love to others? When, with faith and hope, or even without faith and hope, with whatever spiritual strength we can muster, we offer our time, attention, resources, and service, our very selves in the interest of and for the good of others, we become a sign of God’s glory and power.  

These signs—the roaring and tossing of the sea, the shaking of the heavens and earth, the coming of the power and glory of the Son of Man—are all happening right now. They are happening all around us, to us, through us, within us. Let us lift up our heads, our redemption is drawing near.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Living with Gratitude

The story of the landowner and the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1–16 generally leaves those who read it for the first time scratching their heads. It has a kind of shocking, subversive impact because the actions of the landowner are so not like the way things actually work in our world. The last workers hired, who are paid first and work only one hour in the field, are paid the same wage as those hired first who bore the heat of the day. A short saying that appears in several different contexts forms the conclusion: “So the last will be first, and the first last.”

The landowner chides the first hired workers who complain: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed  to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

From the standpoint of economic justice this would be a real problem, but this story is about something else. In the story, both groups are surprised because they were so conditioned to judging value and estimating worth on the basis of comparison and merit.

We live in a world where almost everything is based on competition—business, economics, education, even recreation. Consider how success driven our collegiate athletic programs have become.

This is our operating system and how we survive in the world. Especially as Americans we believe that if you work hard enough you can make something of yourself. Sure, we need some assistance along the way, but we believe that if you want something bad enough and work hard enough, you may not get everything you want, but you can do okay. And in this process of bettering ourselves, we compare ourselves to and compete with others. It’s how the system works and almost all of us are caught up in it on some level.

But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that God endorses this system or lives by these rules. This story of Jesus gives us a glimpse into a different kind of world; a world based not on a system of meritocracy, reward and punishment, or comparison and competition, but on an economy of grace where gratitude is the capital. 

Our capacity for gratitude is directly connected to our capacity to see and experience grace. If we tune in, if we are awake and spiritually observant, we can see expressions of grace popping up here and there right in the middle of an operating system based on different rules.

I see it when I see someone win with grace—with humility, with genuine empathy for the loser/s, with honesty about one’s own shortcomings and failures. When I see that I see the economy of grace intruding into our world of competition and comparison.

When I see a person break through the rules of tit for tat and quid pro quo by offering to some offender the extraordinary gift of forgiveness, I receive a glimpse of the reign of God breaking into our world. Every act of forgiveness is an intrusion of grace into a world of reward and punishment.

When I see a person go out of his or her way to embrace someone who has just made a fool of himself or herself or someone that others have excluded and marginalized, I see God’s new world erupting into our present world and that fills me with gratitude and hope. Gratitude is the capital in God’s economy of grace.

The way to nurture this spirit of grace and gratitude is by engaging in the practice of being a blessing to others and conferring blessing upon others. Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Blessing is like the spiritual bloodstream that flows through the universe. . . That blood keeps on flowing and if we tune in to the bloodstream of blessing, the world comes alive . . . Blood is alive only as long as it keeps flowing. This is true also of blessing.”

Steindl-Rast points to the Jordan River and the contrast between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea as an example. The life giving water of the Jordan flows in and out of the Sea of Galilee. The shores around the lake are a paradise of fields, orchards, and gardens. By contrast, the water flows into the Dead Sea but doesn’t flow out. Its water is so salty that it is deadly for fish and unfit for irrigation. It has inflow, but no outflow. The water stays in one place and stagnates.

We are alive. The breath that fills our lungs is a gift. Life just comes to us and fills us from this mysterious source we call God. When we “bless” others we are affirming, we are saying “yes,” we are saying “thank you” to the Source of life for the gift of life

If we desire more gratitude in our lives, we have to train ourselves to be awake to and aware of the spirit of grace at work in our world. The more we see and experience grace, the more we will be filled with gratitude, and the more we will be motivated to pass on life, to affirm and bless others. And the more we bless others, the more our hearts will overflow with gratitude. It’s a transformative cycle. That’s how God’s economy of grace works.

The good news at the heart of God’s economy of grace is that no matter how bad we mess up and fall on our face, not matter how gigantic a failure we have been, are, or will become, God loves us as much right now as God ever has or ever will. If we can’t be grateful for that, then we are almost dead. But . . . no need to despair. God delights in bringing life out of death.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Authentic Religion

Jesus says that the heart of true faith and religion is to love God with the totality of one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus clearly models and embodies what this kind of love looks like. This is why he is drawn to the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged. This is why he constantly breaks down barriers and boundaries that exclude people from God’s acceptance and grace. This is why he brings to bear on his own religious tradition a rigorous prophetic critique, even though it leads to his death.

Mark’s version of Jesus’ response to the question of which commandment is the most important emphasizes that love of God and love of neighbor is “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:33). Burnt offerings and sacrifices were a vital part of temple worship. But according to Jesus, there is something far more important.
Burnt offerings and sacrifices were a vital part of temple religion. But there was something much more important. Jesus’ answer cuts to the heart of true faith: It’s all about loving relationships—with God and with ones’ sister and brother in the human family.
The story is told of Richard Bellinger, a young boy in South Caroline who was the son of a minister. One Saturday night Richard decided to shine his father’s shoes so his father would not have to do it the next morning. The following night his father put a silver dollar on the bureau of his son’s room with a note commending him for what he had done.
The next morning, when the father put on his shoes, he felt something hard and metallic in one of them. When he took off his shoe and reached inside, he found the silver dollar he had given his son the night before. Along with the dollar was a note that simply read, “I did it for love.”
This is where authentic religion leads us—to do what we do not to receive rewards or to avoid punishment, but for love, for love of God and for love of neighbor.
A woman once asked a Spiritual Master, “Which is the true religion?” The Spiritual Master replied, “Once there was a magic ring that gave its bearer the gifts of grace, kindness, and generosity. When the owner of the ring was on his deathbed, each of his three sons came separately and asked him for the ring. The old man promised the ring to each of them.
“He then sent for the finest jeweler in the land and paid him to make two rings identical to the original. The jeweler did so, and before he died, the father gave each son a ring without telling him about the other two.
“Inevitably, the three sons discovered that each had a ring, and they appeared before the local judge to ask his help in deciding who had the magic ring. The judge examined the rings and found them to be all alike. He then said to the three brothers, “Why must anyone decide now? We shall know who has the magic ring when we observe the direction your life takes.”
“Each of the brothers then acted as if he had the magic ring by being kind, honest, and generous.
The Spiritual Master concluded: “Religions are like the three brothers in the story. The moment their members cease striving for justice and love we will know that their religion is not the one God gave the world.”
Authentic religion is not about possessing a magical ring, but about expressing divine love. It’s not about getting the answers right, it’s about living in right relationship with one another.
I’m not one who believes that all religions are the same or that all religions lead to God. Certainly, there is a time and place to have constructive dialogue about the truth claims of our various religious traditions and the worldviews that emerges from them. Not all religious ideas are of equal value or benefit. Some religious ideas can be very harmful and destructive to the common good. But what is most important to God is not what we believe, but how we live, or more pointedly, how we love. The most important thing we, as disciples of Jesus, learn from Jesus is how to love. Everything else is secondary.
Love is more important than our creeds and confessions. It is more important than a statement of our beliefs or the manner of our worship. It is more important than our prayers, praise, and preaching. It is more important than our litanies and  liturgies. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, without love it all amounts to nothing. Without love all our Christian worship and social engagement are just noise. It takes love to make music.
Basic to our experience and expression of God’s love is our acceptance of one another with all our differences. This grows out of a basic core conviction that we are all sacred, all unique, all important, all children of God.
This is the basic thesis of Jean Vanier’s wonderful book titled, Becoming Human. He says, “Until we realize that we belong to a common humanity, that we need each other, that we can help each other, we will continue to hide behind feelings of elitism and superiority and behind the walls of prejudice, judgment, and disdain that those feelings engender.”
Unfortunately, there is a large segment of Christianity today that propagates a salvation message out of a spirit of elitism, exceptionalism, and superiority. This is why Christianity needs a new reformation, a reformation rooted in the core conviction that we are all God’s daughters and sons, that we all have value and worth, that we are all special and that we are all chosen

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Do We Want to See?

It’s interesting to juxtapose the request the disciples pose to Jesus in Mark 10:35, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” with the request of  Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The request of James and John arises out of a sense of entitlement or meritocracy. They had given up everything to follow Jesus; they are looking to be rewarded for their sacrifice.

Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, throws himself on Jesus’ mercy. He calls out for help. But in doing this he violates a well established social/religious law and convention. Those around him attempt to quiet him, but he shouts all the more. They could not restrict his voice.

If we want to see, there will be times when we have to raise our voice against and above the crowd. We will have to stand against social and religious conventions and voices that try to shut us up. If Bartimaeus had listened to the crowd and followed the course of conventional wisdom, if he had settled for the status quo, he would still be blind.

Philip Gulley, in his book The Evolution of Faith, tells about a family who belonged to a Christian denomination that emphasizes the practice of confirmation. At the age of twelve, their son was enrolled in confirmation classes, the culmination of which involved standing in front of the entire congregation on a Sunday morning answering questions asked by the pastor. The boy had been led to memorize very specific answers to the questions, supplied by his confirmation teacher.

When the Sunday arrived for his confirmation, he informed his teacher that he had some doubts about some of the answers he was expected to provide. What do you think his teacher told him? He told him to stick to the script.

The boy felt very uncomfortable affirming something he didn’t believe, but was unsure what to do. He took his place in line, marched into the sanctuary with the other children, and stood before the congregation. The priest began his questioning, working his way down the row of children, each of whom gave the predictable, memorized response.

When he came to the boy and asked him the same question; the boy paused, then said, “Well, I’ll tell you how I see it.” He then proceeded to tell the pastor and the congregation, in his own words, what he believed.

This was a first for the priest, who hesitated for a moment, started to challenge the boy and then thought better of it, simply moving on to the other children. Every time it was the boy’s turn, everyone there could sense that the pastor wanted to skip him but knew he couldn’t. And every time the boy said, “Well, here’s how I see it” and shared his own faith.

If we want to see, we will have to find the courage to stand up to the thought police and start thinking for ourselves. Are we willing to move beyond our comfort zone and our fears? A lot of religion is rooted in our fears: Fear of being wrong, fear of what others will think if we question or voice our disagreement, fear of being rejected, of not being in the “in” group, the fear of being condemned by a God we have not really experienced and do not really know. At the edges of medieval maps was frequently penciled the warning: “Here be dragons.” Are we willing to face our dragons? If not, we will never move beyond the status quo and the conventional wisdom of our secular and religious culture.

In addition to our fears, another barrier to spiritual seeing is the presumption that we already see. Those of us steeped in religious symbols and traditions can be the most blind, especially when we mistake the symbol for the substance or confuse form with reality. We can become inoculated from the real thing. Our God talk can function like a shield keeping us from penetrating the Divine Reality. Instead of opening our spiritual eyes and leading us into relationship with God, our God talk may turn God into an idol quietly resting in our sacred temple.

Also, our preoccupations with our false attachments and our ego-needs can keep us from seeing. We must get our ego out of the way and move beyond the little self—its fears, insecurities, anxieties, frustrations, its need to be seen and to be in control. We have to move beyond our preoccupation with exchange value and market value, and focus rather on our inherent value as children of God.

If we want to see, we have to come to God the way Bartimaeus did. We are all beggars. We are all poor. We are all blind. It takes some humility and honesty to face and acknowledge our blindness.

When we come to God out of our poverty, when we let down our defenses and open our souls to God, then that which is Really Real becomes more clear. Truth shows itself. Seeing requires a certain amount of honesty and humility about the human condition.

Jesus uses several mixture images like the story of the wheat and the tares to convey spiritual truth. What we have typically done is made the wheat our group, our faith, our tradition, while labeling as “tares” those who are not in our group or faith tradition. We are the saved, they are the lost.
The truth is that we are all a mixture of wheat and tares, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Healthy faith/spirituality enables us to hold these two opposites together in one field of life.   

At the heart of spiritual illumination is desire. Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus, “Rabbi, I want to see.” We have to face the question seriously and honestly, “Do we want to see?” Are we willing to let go of our fears, presumptions, and preoccupations? Are we willing to change? Seeing means bearing more responsibility and shouldering a greater burden for others. Many of us might prefer to remain blind.

The conclusion to the story is insightful. Mark says that Bartimaeus received his sight and then followed Jesus on “the way” (10:52). The way is the way of discipleship, it is the way of the cross, the way of love and service for others. Faith is primarily a way of life. Discipleship to Jesus and spiritual illumination go hand-in-hand.

We tend to think that a new way of seeing precedes a new way of living, but maybe the opposite is true. Richard Rohr likes to say that we don’t think our way into new ways of living, we live our way into new ways of thinking. I tend to think that it works both ways. Sometimes the seeing comes before the living and sometimes the living precedes the seeing. But both are essential.  

The reason spiritual disciplines and practices are so important is because they serve to keep us awake and alert, so that we can stop sleepwalking and break free from the spiritual hypnosis our culture puts us under. Then we can see what is true and real, which always leads us into more loving relationships. Spiritual disciplines teach us how to love. We are seeing clearly when we love well.

Transformative faith/spirituality/religion is always about love. When we commit ourselves to love others, when we engage in acts of forgiveness, compassion, and social justice, our vision is enlarged. Loving others in concrete, tangible ways goes a long way in dispelling our fears, presumptions, and preoccupations that keep us from seeing. Love increases our capacity to see.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

True Freedom

The dispute among the disciples arising from their aspirations for greatness in Mark 10 begins with a request posed by James and John to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (10:35).  

Before we get too critical of them it is important to be reminded that they had left everything—their fishing business, family responsibilities, all other commitments—to follow Jesus. Now they are looking for some reward.

The question reflects, perhaps, where most of us begin the spiritual journey. Many of us come to God out of our need or want or some deep longing for meaning and for what is real. Sometimes we come to God out of our desperation. The bottom line of the gospel is that most of us have to hit some sort of bottom before we begin the real spiritual journey.

We always need God—God’s forgiveness, grace, and provision for life. But if we are to grow and become more of the persons God longs for us to be, then we must move beyond preoccupation with our wants and needs. Sometimes our needs are too great due to circumstances beyond our control. God understands. But for many of us whose basic needs are met, we must move on to the next stage of spiritual development.

In Mark 10, Jesus is lifted up as our model and means for real liberation. After Jesus rebukes the disciples for coveting positions of power and prominence, calling them “to be servants of all,” he says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom [model or means of liberation] for many” (10:45). Jesus is our model for true freedom and liberation as the quintessential, archetypal human being.

The conversation James and John have with Jesus clearly reveals that these two disciples (as well as the others) are preoccupied with rewards and benefits. Their focus is turned in on themselves. They are still enslaved to selfish desires and passions and personal aspirations for greatness.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie, Becket, where Becket, after spending several years as a libertine, living strictly for his own pleasure and advantage, assumes the office of Archbishop. In the process of divesting all his earthly goods to the people gathered in the cathedral, he looks up at the image of Jesus over the altar and says, “You are the only One who knows how easy this is! Everyone else thinks it is difficult!”

That is true liberation. But how can it possibly be easy? Didn’t Jesus say to the disciples after the wealthy official walked away, unwilling to part with his earthly goods, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”? Herein is another of the paradoxical tensions of the gospel.

It is hard because Jesus’ call to relinquishment runs counter to all the desires and expectations we are socialized into. We are taught from childhood to be competitive, to compare ourselves to others, from which process many of us determine our worth and value. We are conditioned to aspire for position, power, and prestige, to consume and acquire more and more—it is the American way. It is a real struggle to break free from such constant and pervasive conditioning.

True liberation brings rest to the soul, but we enter into true freedom only after we have struggled with our little, ego-driven self and its insistence on its own importance and greatness. Our recognition of and contention with our spiritual bondage and captivity precedes liberation. The struggle points us to the Son of Man, the fully liberated one, whose life and Spirit lure us into the realm of freedom from these entanglements.  

We begin to enter into the liberation of Christ when we no longer feel the need to prove anything, when we get to that place where divesting ourselves of our goods and relinquishing the need for position and power comes easy and natural. We want to give back to the world. We want to get rid of unnecessary baggage and live more simply. We find joy in living simply so others can simply live. We need less, so we can give more of our resources and invest more of ourselves in relationships and service that enhance the lives of others.

At this stage in our spiritual evolution God becomes so much bigger. God is no longer the small, punitive, tribal God we once imagined God to be. Now we see God through a wider, more expansive and gracious lens. We discover a God who loves all God’s children, not just those who are like us or embrace our particular faith or doctrine or way of life. We experience a relationship with God that empowers us to live gratefully, generously, joyfully, and lovingly with all God’s children. We experience a new respect for creation and reverence for all of life. We begin to see how silly so many of our disagreements and disputes are.

Jesus, as Son of Man, leads us into such a life of liberation and freedom. He embodies for us and teaches us what it means to be truly human and to live an abundant and good life. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Who Represents Christ?

There is something to be said for saying plainly and clearly that the good we do as disciples of Jesus we do in Christ’s name. That is, we intentionally and lovingly represent Christ and trust in the compassion and power of Christ. But what about the good non-Christians or people of other faith do?

One need not be a Christian to do a good work for others or serve others compassionately and gracefully. One way to understand a good deed, work, or service rendered in the name of Christ is to recognize such work as work that Christ would want done. In other words, a work or service done in the name of Christ is one that is in harmony with what Christ stands for. One could do such a work without any reference to Christ at all.

When I was pastor at First Baptist Church, Greenup, Kentucky, I was active in the ministers association. On one occasion, we were talking about doing some charity work in the community. Someone said that he thought there were other organizations already doing some of the work we had mentioned and maybe we should contact them, find out what they are doing, and then talk about how we could assist them. 

Another minister spoke up, “We need to remember that other organizations and groups do some good things, but the work we do we do in the name of Christ, and so we need to keep ourselves separate from those organizations.”

I can’t remember how that turned out, but the conversation raises a significant question: Does one have to be a Christian, or does one have to mention Christ or be conscious of Christ to do a good work in his name? I believe a person can represent Christ anonymously. That is, one can do a good work in the name of Christ and not be conscious of it.

In the apocalyptic judgment text of Matthew 25, those who were welcomed into the kingdom did not even know Christ. But they were told that when they served God’s little ones (“the least of these”) they were serving Christ (25:37–40).

Some of us need a wider lens through which to see the world. We need a larger view of reality. Jesus’ vision of God’s shalom, of a world healed and made whole, gives us a window through which to see God at work on a much larger scale than most Christians perceive.

I think of Gandhi, who was not a Christian and did not claim to be a follower of Christ, and yet he embodied the way of Jesus better than the rest of us who are Christians. Gandhi was deeply respectful and appreciative of the life of Jesus and his nonviolent lifestyle. He built on that teaching when he proposed a strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience as a peaceful strategy for social change. He laid the foundation for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights marchers in their struggle for civil rights.

When I was pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Waldorf, Maryland I had a conversation about Gandhi with a young man whose mother was a member. He was probably around 20 years old and had been indoctrinated into the faith by a former deacon of the church, who had left our congregation because he thought I and the church were too liberal. This young man was in the worship service that morning and I had referenced Gandhi as an example for Christians in my sermon. He did not think it was appropriate because he believed Gandhi “was not saved” (his language, not mine). I had called Gandhi a child of God in my sermon and he considered that to be a false claim. In our conversation around lunch, I conceded, of course, that Gandhi was not a Christian, but I did not concede that Gandhi was not saved. I argued that Gandhi knew God far better than he or I knew God. I didn’t convince him, but I have no doubt that what I argued is true.

Gandhi said, “I believe in God, not as a theory but as a fact more real than life itself.” I have no doubt that he embodied the truth and compassion of God in a powerful and beautiful way— the very truth and compassion that we Christians have come to know through our experience and knowledge of Christ. Gandhi claimed, “If we have listening ears, God speaks to us in our own language, whatever that language be.”

We need to be very careful what we say about and how we treat those who are doing good work but may not believe what we believe or, for that matter, claim any Christian connection. Let’s join them and work for the healing, reconciliation, and peace of the world and stop squabbling about beliefs.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Story that Never Ends

In the epistle of James, the writer calls his readers, who are Christians, to conversion. He indicts them for their conflicts springing from their covetousness. He calls them friends of the world and instructs them: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:7–10).  

Conversion is no “one time-that settles it” experience. It is a process. It is also a spiral, not a straight line. It’s both forward and backward. There are starts and stops. One conversion experience is not sufficient. We need many conversion experiences.

Sometimes the conversion process is so subtle and gradual it’s hardly observable. It’s the result of many small decisions that set us on a trajectory of positive change.

It’s like the growth of a tree. You plant a small tree in the ground. You cannot see it grow from one day to the next. But one day you stop, pause, and take notice. The trunk has increased several inches. The branches are longer and fuller and the tree is several feet taller. It’s grown without you seeing it grow. This is how life works in God’s kingdom.

We set our course on the way of Jesus. We adopt some new disciplines and practices. We participate in the faith community—in worship, study, fellowship, and service. We become more conscious of being instruments of grace in the world. Then one day we realize that we are not the same persons we were two or five or ten years ago. We’ve become more aware, more grateful, more compassionate, more Christ-like. When did it happen? We can’t pinpoint one experience or one encounter or one decision. There have been many experiences, encounters, and decisions.

Perhaps a modern day parable of conversion is reflected in the movie Dances with Wolves. Lieutenant John Dunbar becomes a Sioux Indian. But it doesn’t happen all at once. Dunbar finds himself drawn to the lifestyle and customs of the tribe. He spends time with them, and after many experiences and encounters, he becomes one of them. There are some pivotal experiences in the story that shape him and move him in that direction, but no one single experience brings about his full conversion. 

Conversion is a life long project. I believe it is an eternal project. Personally, I don’t think we will ever arrive. To be human is to be on a journey. I believe there will always be ways to grow, evolve, mature, and become more. Our story is a never ending story. When we arrive at the end of one phase of our journey, a new one lies before us. 

Conversion is both the hardest thing in the world and the simplest thing in the world. It’s simple because there are no hoops to jump through, no merit badges to earn, no races to win. We simply come to God like a little child, in humility and trust. We make ourselves available to God and invite the Spirit to change us. Change, however, takes time. To employ the language used in the epistle of James, it’s difficult because we are so easily seduced and shaped by the world’s wisdom. This conventional wisdom, which James describes as “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” rooted in “envy and selfish ambition” (see James 3:13–18) is entrapping. It can become ingrained in our thinking, reinforced by habitual attitudes and reactions. It is no easy task breaking free from its patterns and entanglements. 

Conversion is always contemporary. It’s always about what we do now. In the film, Unknown, Dr. Martin Harris and his wife Liz arrive in Berlin for a biotechnology summit. At the hotel, Martin realizes he has left his brief case at the airport. So he takes a taxicab back to the airport. The cab crashes off a bridge, and Gina, the taxi driver, an illegal immigrant from Bosnia, saves him from drowning. She then flees the scene to avoid the police. Martin is in a coma for four days. When he wakes up he has no memory of who he is. The movie is about Martin trying to recover his identity and all the twists and turns that journey takes.

He tracks down Gina, the taxi driver, and enlists her help. They become friends and she becomes his ally. Reluctant at first, she finds herself attracted to Martin. In a dramatic scene where people die, Martin discovers his identity. He realizes that he was in Berlin in order to kill a man.

After the incident, he and Gina are seated on a bench. She asks about the information in his passport. He says, “I made it up to kill a man I never met.” There is information about other people in his briefcase. She asks, “Who are these people? They can become anyone.” He says, “They? We are assassins.” He tells her that Prince Shada of Saudi Arabia is going to be assassinated that very night, that there is a bomb in his suit and that he is the one who put it there.

He then says to Gina, “You should have let me drowned.” Unflinching, she says, “Martin, what matters is what you do now.”

Conversion is always about what we do now. The decisions we make today. The attitudes we adopt today. The lives we live now. Conversion is about living in the eternal now. Today is the day of salvation, let us harden not our hearts. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Social Implications of Our Discipleship

Dr. Colin Harris, who is a professor of religion at Mercer University, has written a very perceptive article that appeared at titled, When Good People Happen to Bad Things (a twist on Rabbi Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”). I encourage you to read the article, but here are a few excerpts:

“Humility, of course, counsels us all not to claim absolute truth or goodness for any of our partial understandings, but it is disconcerting when people who epitomize compassion and generosity on so many levels align themselves with positions and policies that seem to contradict their basic commitments.”

“When good people allow themselves to be drawn into narratives that feature and depend on ‘bad things’ (prejudice, fear, greed, Islamophobia, homophobia and the many other forms of ‘other-phobia’), those ‘bad things’ gain a credibility they would not otherwise have that increases their toxicity in a society.”

“The silence and tacit acceptance by good people of bad things in their subtle disguises provides more fuel for their destructive work than do their outright advocates.”

Dr. Harris reminds us that when we go along with systems, organizations, policies, etc. that run counter to the kingdom of God, we are complicit in the injustice of those systems and policies.

Consider immigration reform. As disciples of Jesus, our first response should be to consider what sort of policy is most in harmony with the inclusive, grace-filled vision of God’s kingdom as embodied and taught by Jesus. If we simply go along with whatever position our political party embraces, without critique and question, we are participants in the injustice such policy perpetrates.

Our discipleship to Jesus should make us advocates of social justice issues, policies, principles, etc. that favor the common good without regard to political party. As a disciple of Jesus, I can without hesitation (based on Christ’s vision and teaching) declare that the drone strikes in Pakistan endorsed by our present Administration are morally wrong. In like manner, I can also without hesitation (as a disciple of Jesus) declare the economic plan and federal budget championed by the opposing political party to be morally wrong.

Our commitment to a larger vision and story, God’s kingdom on earth, must take precedence over all other group loyalties and commitments. If not, then we are only nominal Christians who do not take seriously the privilege and responsibility of discipleship.

I must remind myself of this frequently, for I find it no easy task (as a disciple of Jesus and especially as a pastor) living with the tension of being both priest and prophet (engaging in both priestly and prophetic work). In Israel, there was always some uneasiness between priests and prophets. Priests functioned within the established forms of religion, while the prophets ministered out on the edges and in the margins.

Churches need to maintain this balance. Too often faith communities get bogged down in priestly concerns almost to the exclusion of social/prophetic concerns. Think of how much energy has gone into forms and methods of church worship without any discussion at all taking place about just and compassionate immigration policy, health care for the poor, strategies for peacemaking, etc.

As disciples of Jesus, all our personal interests and group identities/loyalties pervaded by conventional wisdom must come under the scrutiny and discernment of our allegiance to the counter-cultural wisdom and vision embodied by Jesus.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Two Visions: Redistribution or Accumulation

We have all by now heard the video of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressing his contempt for the 47% who, he says, are dependent on government  and who believe they are “victims” and that they are entitled to government provided food, housing, etc. The Romney campaign has responded with a video of then Senator Obama in 1998 stating that he believes in some form of redistribution of resources because everyone should “have a shot” at making it in a country like ours.

Both candidates will inevitably downplay these statements, but in my estimation they reflect two fundamentally different visions based on diametrically opposed values and priorities.

My contention is that President Obama’s statement is completely congruent with the heart and core of Judeo-Christian faith, while Romney’s is antithetical.

In the wisdom and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, God is often pictured as the champion of the poor (e.g., Ps. 12:5; 14:6, etc.), and the prophets frequently rail against Israel’s religious and political leaders for their oppression of the poor (e.g., Isa. 3:14–15; Isa. 58:3; Amos 2:6–7; etc.). In this literature, the accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of the poor often go hand-in-hand. Also, it was written into Israel’s legislature to take care of the needs of the poor. The Torah made clear that it was the responsibility of the nonpoor to provide for the poor (Deut. 15:7–11; 24:10–15; 24:19–22).

One of the most striking provisions aimed at the just and equitable distribution of resources was the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10). Every fiftieth year the land reverted back to its original owner. If people had lost their land through bankruptcy, it was restored to them. This provision was designed to reduce poverty and circumvent the ever-widening gap that occurs in most economic systems between the wealthy and the poor. These people of faith believed that benevolence could not be left to the personal whims and wishes of the rich. Jubilee integrated the spiritual, social, and economic dimensions of life into one piece.

Luke’s Gospel captures the spirit and trajectory of the Jubilee legislation in a statement of Jesus’ mission, where Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth and applies the reading to himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19, NRSV).

Most interpreters agree that Jesus was not calling for a specific program of social and economic reform, but without question, he was casting a social vision based on the ethics of distributive justice within the Hebrew tradition. His announcement of God’s reign was permeated by the spirit of Jubilee and the equitable principles of justice incorporated into Israel’s covenant with God.

Jesus spoke frequently of the dangers of wealth (e.g., Matt. 6:19–21, 24; Mark 10:17–25, etc.) even pronouncing blessing on the poor and woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20–26). At least on one occasion, according to Luke’s portrait, Jesus told his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33, NIV). Jesus taught that to whom much is given, much is required.

The spirit of giving and redistribution pervaded the first community of Jesus’ disciples as depicted in the book of Acts:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45, NRSV).

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 2:32, NRSV).

When the Apostle Paul revisited the churches he had established in the Mediterranean world, a major component of his mission was to collect money for the poor disciples in Jerusalem. He put enormous pressure on the church at Corinth to contribute to this work (see 2 Cor. 8–9). He encouraged them: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (9:12). Paul was encouraging some redistribution of resources to meet the needs of God’s impoverished people in Jerusalem.

It is inconceivable that followers of Jesus would not believe in or practice some form and degree of redistribution. This is true because disciples of Christ are to be driven by compassion and love for all God’s children, especially the most vulnerable.

Any government that cares about its citizens, no matter what its economic and political system, will practice some form of redistribution. It is inconceivable that a democratic government grounded in “we the people” and pervaded by Judeo-Christian ethical principles would not practice some form of redistribution.

America has always had some fondness for the idea. Under the title “Robin Hood-themed films and TV series” ranging from the 1900’s to the present, Wikipedia lists sixty-three entries. In August, President Obama drew on this image to critique  Romney’s economic policies, which gut programs and curtail resources that assist the poor while giving tax breaks to the extremely wealthy. He said, “It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. It’s Romney Hood.” The popularity of this mythological character captures some of our nation’s hopes and dreams for a more just, fair, equitable society.

This election sets before us two visions that will, in some measure, determine who we as a people want to be. Will we decide to be a greedy people, focused on our own little nest egg, driven to accumulate more and more for our personal benefit? Or will we be a generous people, focused on the needs of others, driven to redistribute some of our resources for the common good of all God’s children?

In the video that is circulating now, President Obama (at the time, Senator Obama) says that he believes in some redistribution so that all persons “have a shot” at a flourishing life. I do too. I don’t see how a follower of Christ cannot.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Way Up Is Down

When I say “the way up is down” I do not mean to infer this as a strategy for personal success, honor, or reward.  

When the disciples were caught arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus rebuked them and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Jesus was not saying that downward mobility in this life is the way to acquire upward mobility in the next. Jesus was not laying out a strategy for accumulating rewards in the next life or for moving up in the pecking order. What he was saying is that in God’s kingdom there is no pecking order. It does not operate on the basis of meritocracy. God’s kingdom is not about being first or last; it’s not about winners and losers. It’s all about loving one another and being the servant of all, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Jesus was, however, expounding the way to experience fullness of life in God’s kingdom now and later. This way involves relinquishment of personal ambition and commitment to self-giving service for the good of others.

In a paradoxical teaching Jesus puts it this way, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34–35).

The way of life––life in relationship with God and participation in God’s work— is the way of the cross, the way of sacrificial service, suffering, and death. In order to find life we must lose life, we must “deny” or “renounce” ourselves.

Thomas Merton calls this the false self. We must let go of our false self in order to discover our true self. Others call this the little or small self, or the ego-dominated self. It’s the self caught up in itself. It’s the self wrapped up in my story, or my group’s story, without the balance, perspective, and compassion of the larger story, God’s vision of peace, restorative justice, healing, and life for all.

When Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about the cross, about suffering and death, in response Jesus says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but human things. You are directing your attention not on God’s concerns, but your own selfish concerns” (Mark 8:33).

That’s the false self. It’s the calculating self. The self that is into competition and comparisons, the self preoccupied with appearances—how I look to others and how others perceive me. It’s the self looking for applause and praise.

One of the ways we can tell whether we are operating out of our false self or true self is by considering how we pray. Do we pray in order to bend God to our own agenda, to persuade God to do what we want God to do, to enhance our well-being? Or do we pray in order to bend our will to God’s purpose? In order to discover what God is doing and participate with others in doing it?

There can be a very stark contrast between the actual purpose and will of God for human beings and the purpose or will that human beings have for themselves, which they tell themselves is the will of God. As long as we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is the will of God, we can feel good and guilt-free in doing it.

It’s no wonder so many of us have ignored, denied, or altered the message of Jesus in the Gospels and turned it into a message about success, self-fulfillment, or the afterlife. The call to lose one’s life and deny one’s self in order to participate in a larger story for the good of all just doesn’t sell in a culture pervaded by the philosophy that bigger is better and more is gain. The idea that less is more and letting go is the path to spiritual life doesn’t quite square with the American Dream.    

The paradox of discipleship is that gaining means losing and losing means gaining. The more we cling to the false self, to merit badges, accolades, pecking orders, and working the system to get to the top of the pile, the more we lose. And the more we lose, the more we surrender and denounce in order to embody the love and compassion of Christ, the more we gain. It’s a crazy kind of math in God’s upside down kingdom that defies human calculation and challenges conventional wisdom. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

First Impressions

Author, storyteller, and pastor Philip Gulley says that for a brief period in his life he was a Cub Scout. He joined under the false impression he would be given a pocketknife. His scoutmaster was the Pastor of the United Methodist church in town. Each week he required them to repeat the law of scouting. So they all said: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Then he would add, “Just like Jesus.”

He explained how Jesus was like a Boy Scout. He camped outside, cooked over a fire, helped people, was kind to the elderly, obeyed his mother (I might add, except for the time when Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and his parents spent several days looking for him, which, by the way, is the only childhood story we have of Jesus), and went to church. Gulley says that image of Jesus as Scoutmaster stuck with him for several years. 

Most people reading this were taught about Jesus from an early age. Many people live their whole lives with these childhood, Cub Scout, Sunday School images of Jesus, and never serious examine or question them.

Isn’t it strange how many Christians allow these first impressions of Jesus to solidify into firm convictions and dogmatic doctrines? We wouldn’t do this with other persons we first meet. We know that people are complex and that often our first impressions are mistaken. Or if we are not mistaken, our first impressions only skim the surface and never capture the fullness and complexity of the person. We know that only time and the deepening of the relationship that involves multiple encounters will reveal other aspects and dimensions of the person.

And yet, while many of us know this, and are willing to have our first impressions altered and changed with regard to persons we have come to know, we are not willing to do that with Jesus of Nazareth.  

I sometimes wonder how many people worshiping in churches across our country on any given Sunday hold to the same views, the same beliefs, the same images and ideas that were first impressed upon them by parents, Sunday School teachers, Cub Scout leaders, pastors, church training leaders, etc. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with first impressions. We have to have a beginning. We have to start somewhere. And it is certainly possible that many of these first impressions may have been positive, healthy, and transformative images of Jesus. I hope so, but then, maybe not . . . probably not.  Therefore, it is vital to our spiritual health and growth that we be open to reassess our understanding and beliefs, and our values, practices, and lifestyle based on these beliefs. 

I am no one’s judge, but it seems to me that very few Christians are open to having their beliefs questioned and challenged. I suspect that such closed mindedness is a major component in their spiritual stagnation. They haven’t grown in years. They keep repeating the same negative patterns and attitudes, they keep harboring the same biases and prejudices, they keep perpetrating the same shallow and superficial answers, and they become very defensive and protective of their beliefs and way of life.

In Mark 8, Peter, acting as the spokesperson for all the disciples, confesses Jesus to be the Christ. In the next statement Mark says, “And he (Jesus) sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8: 29–30). They really had no idea at this point in their relationship with Jesus what kind of Christ he was. While there was no standardized portrait among them, the picture of a royal, Davidic deliverer was fairly popular in the Palestinian Judaism of Jesus’ day. Their first impressions lacked understanding and depth. So when Jesus speaks about rejection, suffering, and death, they were not ready to hear it (8:31–32).

When I was in seminary in Indiana years ago, I pastored a small rural congregation and lived in their parsonage. Everyone around me had a garden, so I decided to have one too. I made a good start. I set my boundaries, tilled and worked the soil, planted, and then became totally preoccupied with school and ministry and family, pretty much in that order, and completely forgot about the garden. Well, do you know what happened to all my plants? They were overtaken by weeds, by these strange plants that came up all on their own, and they strangled and suffocated and choked out the good plants (Sounds like a parable doesn’t it?). They drew the life out of them. The good plants did not have space or room or opportunity to grow.

Some Christians have hardly grown in their relationship to God and to what God is doing in the world because they have allowed their first impressions, their early images of God and beliefs about Jesus to strangle out any new images and beliefs that could make their relationship to God and God’s kingdom more dynamic, vibrant, and transformational. Old images choke out the new. The result: Enthusiasm wanes. Dreams die. Energy dissipates. And spiritual entropy sets in. Or worse, spiritual energy gets misdirected causing more harm than good.

If the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and embodied, that Jesus called the kingdom/reign of God, if that gospel is going to heal us and change us and propel us into a new, more transformative state of spiritual awareness and consciousness, then we must lose, we must let go of some of our biases, first impressions, and childish beliefs and create some space, some opportunity for some new ones, more mature ones, to take root, grow, and flourish.