Thursday, July 26, 2012

Facing Questions and Accepting Limits

In the movie, The Help, Aibeleen Clark is the maid who is the first to volunteer to share her stories with Skeeter, who writes a book about their experiences. At the end of the movie, Aibeleen says: “God says we need to love our enemies. It’s hard to do. But it can start by telling the truth. No one had ever asked me what it feels like to be me. Once I told the truth about that, I felt free.” The truth really can set us free—free from having to be someone we are not, free from having to conform to other people’s expectations. It begins by being honest about who we really are and what we really feel.

One of my most liberating experiences, an “aha” moment, though I came to it only gradually, was when I gave myself the freedom to be honest about what I was really thinking and feeling about God and the spiritual life. I gave myself the freedom to question things that I was taught by Christian pastors and leaders should never be questioned.

Is there a danger going down this path? Yes. A few people lose all bearing and reject any possibility of believing in an Absolute. A few walk off the deep end and do not come back. A few get lost and wander about for a while. But most find a balance. Honestly confronting the questions that well up from within teaches us how to live with Mystery, a key component in any healthy religious faith.

The honesty needed to explore critical questions, rather than ignoring, dismissing, or suppressing them, is crucial to authentic spiritual growth. So is the honesty needed to face our limits, which can be very humbling. Maybe we are not as strong, capable, and brilliant as we think we are.

I was recently amused by a comment, our son, Jordan made. My wife, Melissa, and I were in a conversation about the house we own in Flatwoods, Kentucky. We have been leasing it since 1996, when we moved to Waldorf, Maryland. Our conversation revolved around the topic of selling it. The house has baseboard heat and window air conditioning, and we raised the question: Should we install central heat and air before we attempt to sell it? We know it would make it more marketable, but would we get the investment back, that was the question. I mentioned that it would probably be very expensive installing the duct work.

Jordan, our son, a senior in college, happened to be home that afternoon and jumped into the conversation. He chimed in, “I could do that.” “You could do what”? “What you are talking about: Installing the pipes.” “You mean the duct work for the heating and air?” “Yea, I can do that?” “Really?” “Sure. No problem. It’s all good.”

I honestly can’t recall seeing Jordan ever drive a nail or tighten a screw. I suspect that here is a young man who has not yet honestly faced his limits. Why do you think the military starts recruiting kids while they are still in high school? They tend to have an inflated sense of their limitations. It usually takes some experience and suffering to confront us with our limits.

But then, on the other hand, when we tackle the difficult or encounter trials and hardships we may discover that we are stronger and more capable than we thought we were. We may learn that we can actually handle some things that we thought we would never be able to do. It works both ways.

When Jesus sends out the twelve to preach the good news of the kingdom of God and do the kingdom works of healing the diseased and demonized, he does not permit them to make preparations for their journey. They are not even allowed to take food. They are simply to go, trusting in and depending upon the welcome and hospitality of the people in the villages where they are sent to minister. 

What is Jesus doing? Certainly this is no model for doing missions. In one sense, there is an urgency to get out the message, but in another sense, this mission functions for the twelve as their initiation into the way of Jesus. Jesus is teaching them that if they are to be his coworkers and partners in the work of the kingdom, they must minister from a place of vulnerability, not superiority. How often in the history of the church have we reversed that?

Jesus tells them what to do when they are rejected: shake the dust off their feet and move on. Jesus knew they would experience rejection. That was part of their initiation. Jesus was making sure they knew their limits and learned how to serve from a humble, vulnerable place.

I don’t think it’s possible to experience much growth in spiritual consciousness or much development in character transformation without:
* honestly and humbly confronting and accepting our limits, and
* honestly exploring our deepest questions as we learn how to live with Mystery. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Learning from our Sufferings: Avoid the Question "Why?"

In 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to what he calls a “thorn in the flesh”—not a little prickly thorn, but a damaging, debilitating thorn. Paul mentions it as part of his defense of his apostleship. Apparently, his apostleship was being questioned by self-acclaimed super apostles who were making inroads and gaining influence in the Corinthian congregation (see 2 Cor. 12:1–10).

Paul does not name or explain it, probably because whatever it was, the Corinthians knew exactly what he was talking about. It was probably some sort of physical ailment or disability that could not be hidden, but we don’t know. The interesting part is how Paul interprets it.  

On the one hand, he says that it is “a messenger of Satan” sent to torment him. Paul is speaking metaphorically of course, like when my nephew calls his little dog a manifestation of Satan, which I would not dispute. The difference between my nephew and Paul is that my Nephew is joking, Paul is not. This is metaphorical language, but still, it is strong language. Paul says that the purpose of his thorn is to torment him, to oppress him, to do him harm; it has evil intent.

But then, on the positive side, it has actually served a useful purpose. It has kept him, he claims, from becoming too elated and conceited as a result of his mystical encounters and spiritual experiences. It has served to keep his ego in check.

It seems to me that Paul ventures into dangerous territory when he starts trying to explain and interpret his sufferings. He is talking about his own experiences and not someone else’s, but still, this is dangerous terrain. I have heard some addicts talk about their addictions as necessary suffering. Some have said that if not for their alcoholism or drug addiction or whatever, they would have never found God or understood grace or experienced redemption. I’m sure that is true. Still, I have a hard time believing that an enslaving addiction, or chronic pain, or debilitating illness, or anything else of such an oppressive nature is a blessed gift from God. Though, I have to admit that I have learned more and grown more through my failures and faults, hardships and sufferings, than I have ever grown through my achievements and successes.

I am certain that we have no business interpreting someone else’s experience, and we are probably better off if we refrain from interpreting our own (the Apostle Paul not excluded). I have visited with people going through terrible suffering who say, “I know there is a reason for this.” It’s not for me to tell them that there is or there isn’t a reason. Who am I to say? If a person needs to find a reason for their suffering, I’m not going to be the one to tell them there is no reason. On the other hand, I will not assure them that there is a reason either. The fact is, I don’t know if there is or there isn’t. 

But if one were to ask me for pastoral counsel, I would say: “Don’t waste time searching for explanations. Face what is honestly and look for ways to learn and grow from it.” In my experience, I have found that those who seem to make the best use of their sufferings are those who spend very little time and effort asking why, looking for reasons, and spend most of their time dealing with their suffering realistically in faith and hope. The most redemptive and transformative response, I believe, is to simply deal with what is (whatever is is) and look for ways to grow.

What Paul and many others have discovered is that God’s grace is sufficient in dealing with all the cruddy stuff of life. What we learn from Paul and other great spiritual teachers, and if we are awake and receptive, we learn from our own experience, is that grace is just as pervasive in our world as sin and suffering, that grace is just as real and present as evil and injustice. But if we do not have eyes to see, as Jesus says, we will miss it, even when it is right in front of us. The cross of Jesus is a vivid demonstration of the power, dynamic, and wonder of God’s grace right in the middle of pervasive hate, violence, and evil.

Grace is our spiritual oxygen. It is as real and necessary as the air we breathe. It is what supports, supplies, and sustains a spiritual life. 

Paul claims that on three separate occasions he cried out to God for deliverance from his debilitating and oppressive thorn, but instead of release, he found that God’s grace provides the power to live with it. He concludes that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. He says, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul’s conclusion may seem a little over the top, but I have no doubt that he is saying something important and true. Looking for reasons and constantly asking “Why?” are not helpful strategies in dealing with our debilitating sufferings. Trusting, celebrating, and clinging day by day to God’s grace enables us to survive and possibly even thrive. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Overcoming Our Greatest Fear

If we allow them, our fears can become huge obstacles that stifle a healthy spiritual life. One of the great fears that many Christians wrestle with is named in Mark 4:38. It’s the story of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee in a storm, fearing for their lives. Jesus is on board, sound asleep. They wake him, terrified: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

In some of the Hebrew creation stories the raging sea often stood for the powers of chaos opposed to the creative will of God. The disciples are up against chaotic forces as they struggle to make it to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

We live in a world where all sorts of chaotic things can happen to us and the people we love. We live in a world of natural disasters, of hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods. We live in a world of uncertainty and unpredictability, where there is still much evil. We live in a world of war, a world filled with violence—with terrorist attacks, drone strikes, and where inexplicable acts of human cruelty are committed. We rightfully fear such perils and evils, but perhaps what we fear even more is God’s silence.

“Don’t you care, God, that we are about to drown?” What if God doesn’t care? What if God is apathetic or indifferent to our cries of distress? What if? It doesn’t help to deny this fear, for denying it or ignoring it or suppressing it just makes it more terrifying.

Mark’s Gospel has a response to this question. It’s not an answer and yet it is an answer. Jesus tells his disciples on three occasions that he is going to be rejected, humiliated, suffer, and be killed. At Gethsemane, the night of his arrest, he prayed to his Abba that the cup of suffering would pass from him, but it was not to be.

I don’t think it was the anticipation of physical suffering that distressed Jesus so much, as it was the burden of God he was bearing. Jesus, I believe, was suffering with our suffering world as only one in mystical union with God can suffer. Jesus feels the pain of God: To give oneself totally and unconditionally to your children and to be dismissed outright. To love so completely and to have that love trampled underfoot. That is the burden of God, and Jesus who is at one with God, immersed in God’s Spirit, must bear it. 

On the cross, Jesus experienced both the suffering of God and the suffering of humanity. On the divine side, Jesus experienced the suffering of the Compassionate Abba in the pain of being forsaken by those God loves with an eternal love. On the human side, Jesus experienced the pain of feeling forsaken by God. In Mark’s passion narrative, Jesus, quoting the Psalmist, cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I don’t believe for one moment that Jesus was actually forsaken, but Jesus certainly felt forsaken.

The cross is the response of the Gospels to the question, “Does God care?” God is not, as a popular song once expressed, watching us from a distance. God is as close as the air we breathe. When the creation groans in travail, God groans. God is one with us in our travail. 

God is with us and for us, no matter how turbulent the storm that threatens to sink our boat—our reputation, marriage, physical health, spirituality, career, even our very lives or the lives of our loved ones. The living Christ is with us on the boat that is being rocked by waves that could any moment overturn our vessel and leave us floundering about in a storm tossed sea. But if we do capsize, Christ enters into the water with us; he’s not going to be walking on top of it.

If we can be still for a few moments and tune our spirits toward the Spirit of Christ, we can hear the Spirit say, “Don’t be seized by panic, don’t let fear immobilize and suffocate your spirit; only trust.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Engaging Society: What Is the Church's Prophetic Calling?

Amos, an eighth century (B.C.E.) prophet, claims that he was not a prophet, nor the disciple of a prophet, but a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees (7:14–16). What he is saying, I think, is that he had absolutely no aspirations of being a prophet. Prophets lived rough lives. They were on the run much of the time. Amos is saying, “I was out tending the sheep, taking care of my trees, minding my own business, when the Word of God seized me. I couldn’t get away. I am compelled to speak the Word of the Lord.” Amos prophesied judgment on the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Amaziah, the priest who advised King Jeroboam of the Northern Kingdom, told Amos to hit the road—to go prophesy to the Southern Kingdom (7:10–13). Religious leaders like Amaziah, who have a cozy relationship with the powers in charge, are not interested in hearing a word from the Lord that would challenge the status quo.

Amos’ vision of a plumb line is a vision of what is true, right, just, and good (7:7–9). While we all come up short, Amos uses the plumb line of God’s righteousness to proclaim and expose Israel’s hypocrisy and injustice. Israel’s leaders think everything is okay because they continue to attend worship services, recite their prayers, and observe the holy days and rituals. But they are taking advantage of the vulnerable and oppressing the poor. Greed reigns in the halls of power and is expressed in their oppression of the poor.

Amos names their sins: They levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. They oppress the innocent and take bribes, and deprive the poor of justice in the courts (5:11–12). He calls them to repentance: to seek good, not evil (5:14–15). He tells them that God hates all their religious festivals, prayers, sacrifices, and songs. He proclaims: “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:21–24).

When we read prophetic texts like Amos we are compelled to ask: What is the prophetic task of the church today and how do we go about it? How do we speak truth to power and engage society in our contemporary context? What should be the relationship between church and state?

One thing should be very clear. Whenever the church tries to accommodate the agenda of the state, the church abandons its prophetic task and loses its prophetic voice. Whenever the church becomes too cozy with political and national institutions and pursues power and influence in the world, the church ceases to be the church. When the church and state become too close, the church always loses. The church, just like the priest Amaziah, becomes nothing more than an instrument to enforce the will of the powers and give the powers the false assurance of the blessing of God.

What the church must never do is conform and acquiesce to the will and power of the state. Paul admonished, in his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world,” that is, do not be shaped into the mold of the domination system, do not conform to the values and will of the worldly powers” (Rom. 12:1)

On the other hand, it is just as bad, or worse, for the church to attempt to use the state to implement a particular Christian vision and agenda. When the church becomes entangled in a national identity and seeks to extend its influence through the state, the church ceases to be the church.

The church has no right to demand that the state adopt and enact a particular Christian vision. We live in a pluralist society and we have no right to demand that our vision of faith or society be enforced by the state. The pluralistic nature of our country is becoming more and more apparent. Certainly the majority of Americans who have religious faith are Christian, but proportionately the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation and those of a non-Christian religious tradition is increasing, while the number of Americans who identify as Christian is decreasing.

Some Christians see this as a threat and attempt to exert political power and influence to reclaim and restore the place Christian faith once had in American life.

When I was in high school we had a prayer group that met before school in the Library for Bible reading, a short devotion, and prayer. Several of us who were participants and leaders in the prayer group took turns offering the morning prayer over the school intercom. After the homeroom bell sounded, a student would read the announcements, the principle would say a few words, and then I, or some other leader from the prayer group, would say a prayer. That’s how we started each school day.

Back then, in our little high school, we had two kinds of people when it came to religious faith: practicing Christians and non-practicing Christians. Today, even in small public school systems, one is most likely to find some students who claim a different religious tradition. To compel them to participate in Christian prayer would be a violation of their rights. Faith cannot be coercively imposed. Most Christians who want to see public prayer reinstated in the school system or at public events would be very upset if a Muslim or Hindu or someone of a different faith tradition prayed.

I understand why some Christians feel threatened and afraid, and long for those days again. Rascal Flatts sings, “I miss Mayberry . . . where everything was black and white.” The fact is that even in Mayberry, everything wasn’t black and white. In towns like Mayberry there is a lot of grey, which is too often ignored, denied, or suppressed.

Insisting that the governing powers enforce the agenda and will of the church not only makes for bad politics, it makes for bad religion. Jesus resisted the temptation to accomplish God’s will by the means and methods of the world, and the living Christ expects his disciples today to follow his example. The will of God cannot be extended through force, control, manipulation, or coercion. Jesus rebuked his disciples for seeking positions of power and prominence.

But don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that the church should not engage the political process. I think we should and must engage society at all points, on economics, on politics, on education, on all fronts.

Separation of church and state does not mean a separation of our faith from the political process. If the fallacy of some Christians, on one end of the spectrum, is to form an unholy alliance with the state, the fallacy of other Christians, on the other end of the spectrum, is to completely retreat and withdraw from all political engagement. The church has a moral and prophetic obligation to engage society for the common good—to work for policies of nuclear disarmament, to question declarations of war, to declare national budgets immoral, if they are indeed immoral—for the church to fail to do so is a relinquishment of her prophetic voice and task.

It’s important for the church to be honest and realistic in her engagement with society. We should not assume that our suggestions and recommendations will be heeded and implemented, nor should we even expect that they will be taken seriously. We hope they will, but we should not expect it.

Jesus offers us a vision of a new society. It’s in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s in his parables. It’s expressed in his words and deeds. It’s embodied in the way he lived and died. The way of Jesus is the way of peace and nonviolence, forgiveness and reconciliation, distributive and restorative justice. To love our neighbor as ourselves involves working for a just and equitable society in which every person is valued, respected, and treated with dignity. Jesus lived, taught, and embodied a way of life that makes for human flourishing. For Christians, the way of Jesus must determine our way of life and the vision of Jesus must shape our vision of human flourishing, of what the common good looks like.

To follow Jesus is to engage the powers from the margins, from the fringe. Prophets do not take up residence in the halls of power. Our calling is not to pull and push, to control and coerce, to insist and demand that the powers bend to our vision, because that is not the way of Jesus—the way of love. There may be times when the powers are abusive and we will have to resist. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights marchers used nonviolent civil disobedience to resist and to expose injustice, often at great personal cost. There may be times when we, too, will have to resist in nonviolent ways at great personal cost.

Our prophetic task is to imagine, proclaim, invite, and persuade with the compassion, patience, tolerance, honesty, humility, and love of Christ. We can do this in a number of creative ways: We can protest, we can write letters, we can organize, we can promote a vision of the common good in our conversations, in our public discourse and discussions as we try to persuade friends, family members, and coworkers toward a just vision of human flourishing. We can serve compassionately, give generously, volunteer, and certainly we can vote for public officials who we believe will serve the common good, not just their own interests, or those of their political party and constituency.

There are all sorts of creative, compassionate, nonviolent ways to engage society. It is part of our prophetic calling. It is not easy work, and it can be very risky work. The biblical tradition teaches us that. But it is part of who we are and what we do as the body of Christ in the world. We must never stop dreaming, never stop proclaiming, and never stop creatively doing all we can do to promote a vision of human flourishing that respects the freedom and dignity of every person, and that excels in the common good.