Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Finding Common Ground

According to Mark’s Gospel, the disciples say to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). Simply substitute “preaching” or “teaching” or some other common present day Christian activity for “casting out demons,” and we could well imagine a modern day Christian saying something similar. These days, it seems that Christians are having more and more difficulty uniting around common endeavors, let alone with other religious traditions and social groups.

In John’s Gospel Jesus prays that we all will be one, and in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is always expanding the borders of God’s kingdom, including those that the religious establishment had marginalized and disenfranchised.

In response to the inquiry of the disciples, Jesus says, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39–40). Jesus appears to be saying that whoever engages in work that advances the common good, that promotes healing and liberation is working for God’s kingdom.

The unity of God’s kingdom is in no shape or form a unity of uniformity. It is a unity in diversity. Serving one another within the human family, working for the common good around matters of peace, equality, inclusion, restorative and distributive justice for the disadvantaged, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the pursuit of the common good has the potential to bring us together  like nothing else.

The newscaster Charles Kuralt, tells a beautiful story in his book A Life on the Road. It was the spring that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and several American cites had erupted in flames. In June, Robert Kennedy was murdered. Kuralt had known them both. He was feeling depressed about the future of the country. Then, in July, in Reno, Nevada, he ran across a woman named Pat Shannon Baker.

Pat was a young white woman, the mother of three children. The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, she sat up late feeling compelled to do something. But what? She remembered a vacant lot she passed every day in the city. It would make a nice park, she thought. She went to see her councilman, who talked about their strained budget and the difficulty of passing a bond issue. So Pat Baker went to see people in the African-American community around the lot, and she went to see garden supply companies and cement companies and the heads of construction and contracting companies. Pretty soon, her idea was also their idea.

At seven-thirty on a Friday morning, a time when many Reno residents had not yet stirred from their houses, a crowd began gathering on that vacant lot. By eight-thirty, 2,000 tons of topsoil was being spread by front-end loaders operated by heavy-equipment operators not used to working for free. As Kuralt watched, he could hardly believe his eyes. 

He watched a school custodian, a roofer, a garage mechanic, and an unemployed teenager digging a ditch together. A junior high school boy assigned to saw two-by-fours to serve as cement forms sawed all day in the hot sun as if his life depended on it. A little girl carried water to the workers. Some Coastguardsmen, Marines, and Seabees came by and helped. By noon, cement was laid for a double tennis court. A basketball court was completed by nightfall. Dozens of people worked through the night.

On Saturday morning, a crowd of several hundred people showed up for work, black and white, young and old. An eighty-four year old man who came to watch spent the entire afternoon helping to plant trees. By Saturday night the lawn had been sown and on Sunday morning a sprinkler system was turned on. By Sunday afternoon the park was finished, complete with walks and benches and trees and playing courts and grass.

They named it the Pat Baker Park and asked her if she would like to say something. She said, “This was a great, big, black and white thing.”

Kuralt went back twenty years later. He said the grass was neatly trimmed and the trees had grown tall and leafy. People were sitting on the park benches in the shade of the trees. Kids were playing on the basketball court.

He thought back to the weekend the park was built. He remembered an elderly African-American, leaning on his shovel, looking around at what they had done. He said that this was the best thing that ever happened since he had come to Reno. Not the park itself. That was good, but he was talking about the building of it.  

We are our brother and sister’s keeper. We all share the divine life of God, regardless of what we call it or name it. This Goodness and Grace that is at the core of all reality unites us as one. Whether we acknowledge the Divine or not, and irrespective of the names we employ, in God we all live and move and have our being, for we are all God’s offspring (Acts 17:28). Our commitment to the common good enables us to find common ground that reminds us that we are all family.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Being Still: Why It Is So Necessary

In a go-go world, what could be worse than silence, being still, doing nothing? It is the “doing nothing” that engenders guilt and anxiety, that evokes fear.  This is precisely why we so desperately need stillness.

Stillness strips us of our illusions that we are so important life can’t go on without us. It can and will easy enough, and stillness helps us come to terms with our smallness.

Stillness often reveals and exposes the spiritual and moral emptiness of our lives. Instead of fishing in the shallows for approval, applause, and accolades, which is what we do in our busyness and constant activity, stillness sends us out into the deeper water, where we must explore the depths of our souls, where we must face the mass of contradictions we all are, where there is both terror and beauty. Only here, in the depths, can real healing and liberation take place. In learning to accept and forgive ourselves, we are able to accept and forgive others.  

In stillness we learn to stand naked before God without title or claim, without merit or demerit, without shame, pretense, or fear—just as we are—and let ourselves be loved by God, not for what we have done or haven’t done, but for simply being alive, for being a child of God.

In stillness we learn to be nourished by God’s living word, by bread from heaven, by unrelenting grace, and consequently, the need to feed on the energy of others, their praise or judgment, is diminished. In stillness we relinquish all attempts at self-commentary. We learn to rest in who we are in God, no more and no less. We begin to realize that we do not need to project or maintain a certain self-image. We see how foolish it is to compare ourselves to others and to compete—who is the smartest, the best, the greatest?—it all becomes silly games children play.

We learn to restrain our speech—to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19)—so that our tongue does not “go off” (or turn on) automatically. The discipline of stillness gives us the inner distance and necessary control to more carefully measure our words and consider our responses, rather than react instinctively.

We learn how to pay attention and actually listen to people—not just what they say, but what they don’t say. We learn to see the face behind the face and discern the real spirit often disguised by outward appearances. One of the greatest gifts we can give to someone is our undivided attention. There is something to the old adage that God gives us two ears and one mouth so that we will spend twice as much time listening as talking.

We realize that authentic spirituality has nothing to do with efficiency or effectiveness. We find a kind of rhythm in the flow of the Spirit that enables us to wait with patience with as much ease as we engage in some project or active service.

Possibly the greatest of all benefits is the capacity to live a grateful life, to be thankful, which grows in proportion to our expanding capacity to see, taste, and experience the goodness of God that holds everything together.         

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Power of Community

When we open our lives to the Spirit and the Spirit finds a home where the Spirit can express herself freely, we discover the joy, beauty, power, and meaning of community.

Unfortunately, we often read the letters of Paul from a post-enlightenment, westernized mind-set, which means that we tend to privatize and individualize much of what he says. In actuality, Paul is addressing the community corporately and should be interpreted and applied to the whole body, the church, not to individuals privately. Yes, much of what he says can and should be applied to our individual lives, but it’s important to first read Paul in a communal context.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about singing psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit “among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph 5:19). The emphasis here is on community—“among yourselves.” The dominant emphasis in this letter is on encouraging, uplifting, growing, and edifying the body (the community) of Christ.

In his book The Haunt of Grace, Ted Loder tells a wonderful story about a former parishioner. Back when The Saturday Evening Post had covers by Norman Rockwell, they also had covers by Richard Sargent. One of Sargent’s covers featured a woman singing in church at the top of her lungs, blissfully oblivious to the fact that children were giggling at her and adults were singing somewhere between grimaces and chuckles. The woman’s name, says Loder, was Marion Poggenburg. He knew, because both Sargent and Marion were members of his church.

What the cover could not show was that Marion Poggenburg had just had a radical mastectomy and the outlook for her survival was not good. She had been unable to have children. She’d lost her husband. When she first got the news of her prognosis she was depressed. But then, as she put it, “I looked my faith straight in the face, or it looked me straight in the face, and frankly, neither face was all that pretty. But I realized that I had to leave some things up to God, just as God left some things up to me. Isn’t that what love is all about, after all? So it’s up to me to get on with living my days, however many they are. The best I can. With all that’s left of me.”

According to Loder, Sargent’s portrayal of Marion in church was very typical of her. Loder writes, “She was the last of the .400 hitters—she hit about 4 out of every 10 notes of every hymn. Yet she sang as loudly as she could, even though her vibrato sounded a little like a car with a low battery trying to start on a cold morning. She never finished the verses when everyone else did. So half the last line of every hymn was a Marion Poggenburg solo. . . . She prayed the same way, only faster as if trying to drag us by the collar to the throne of grace. . . . There was no way you could come to church and pray, or join in singing the hymns, without leaving feeling better and laughing a little on your way home.”

Just before Loder left that church to accept another call, Marion took him and his family to what she called her “hideaway,” a little place called Pea Island in Long Island Sound. As they sat there in the sand, she said, “I want to forgive you for leaving. But, you know, I’ll be leaving myself soon. Truth is, I’m as ready to die as to live, and I really believe either means the other, when all’s said and done, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I decided months ago, that part’s up to God. My part is being ready and doing whichever.”

Then she went tromping off into the ocean and began splashing around. Loder looked on with tears in his eyes. After a few moments, she turned and motioned for him to come in. She was laughing. She shouted, “Isn’t this wonderful? Come on. You’ll see.” So Loder joined her in the ocean and started laughing too.

That’s the church, that’s the body of Christ, that’s singing together and making music with one another from the heart. That’s the power of community. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Spirit Craft

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs: “Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). He compares the Spirit’s fullness to drunkenness. One who is intoxicated is under the influence of alcohol and that influence impacts and affects one’s thinking and behavior. By way of analogy, the one who is filled with the Spirit comes under the influence of a different Reality, a Divine Reality, and that Reality impacts and influences one’s thinking and behavior.

This command is an active-passive command. Paul exhorts the faith community to be filled with the Spirit, yet the filling of the Spirit is not completely within the community’s control. In John’s Gospel, the Spirit is compared to wind that blows where it will. It’s beyond human coercion and manipulation. Yet, there are things we can do to set our sails in the direction that the wind is blowing and live within the flow of the Spirit’s power.

A River Runs Through It was a book from which a movie of the same title was made. It’s a story about two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian minister. Their father taught them about God and how to fly fish. One of the brothers says of their father,  “To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

What a great line: All good things . . . come by grace and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy. However we understand and apply the concept of grace, it does not in any way contradict the need for effort, for human initiative, devotion, and commitment. Grace comes by art and art is gift and ability and effort and discipline all mixed up.

We cannot control the Spirit, but being filled with the Spirit requires something of us. It is our part, our place, our responsibility to be open, ready, and receptive to the Spirit.

In the Psalm paired with the reading from Ephesians 5 in the Lectionary, the Psalmist says, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (Ps. 34:13–14). To do these things is to fear (respect, trust, obey) the Lord. Here are some ways we make ourselves ready and receptive to the empowerment of the Spirit: We avoid deception. We tell the truth. We practice honesty. We seek peace. We pursue justice. We do what is right and good. By pursuing this course, we place ourselves in the direction the wind of the Spirit is blowing.

We often use language like: “Fall on us, Holy Spirit,” or we petition God to send the Holy Spirit upon us, but these can be misleading images. In actuality, the Spirit is already upon us and within us. We already possess the Spirit, or better, the Spirit possesses us. It’s a matter of our being conscious, being aware, being in tune with the Spirit, and trusting in the Spirit, who we know as the living Christ.

I like to make the distinction between union and communion. We are all God’s children, but we are not all living like God’s children. We are all in union with the Divine Spirit, in whom “we live and move, and have our being” (see Acts 17:28). But we are not all in communion with the Spirit, we are not all conscious and aware of the Spirit’s presence, we are not all tuned in to the Spirit’s voice or consciously moved by the Spirit’s inner power.

Spirit craft requires our participation and cooperation. Unlike a piece of stone in the hands of a master craftsman, unlike a blank canvas stationed before a brilliant artist, we are living stones, living paintings, contributing to our own design and creation. Herein is the beauty, wonder, messiness, and mystery of the redemptive project God and humans are engaged in. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Letting Go Is the Way to Grow

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is approached by someone in the crowd who says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus responds, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Then Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:12–15). Jesus refuses to get involved in a family dispute, but then sets the whole affair in a larger context. The point is made that discipleship to Jesus involves a shedding of stuff, a letting go of things.

Jesus tells “a certain ruler”: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” With this particular individual, Jesus makes the relinquishment of his possessions the condition of his discipleship. Did Jesus sense an idolatrous attachment to money, power, and position? (See Luke 18:18–25). When Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector, experiences the healing freedom of faith, he tells Jesus he will give away half of his possessions to the poor and return fourfold any amount he defrauded others. In response Jesus exclaims, “Today salvation has come to this house” (see Luke 19:1–10).

Rarely is our attachment just to our money or possessions. Our greed is inseparably bound up with all that money gives us: pleasure, power, position, prestige, and prominence in the community.

The spiritual masters tell us that we can spend our whole lives climbing up the ladder of supposed success and when we get to the top, we realize it's leaning against the wrong wall and there’s nothing there. To get to the place of real spiritual abundance, we have to let go of all our false, unrealistic goals, our selfish agendas, and our passing self-images. The spiritual life is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. It is as much about letting go of things as it is about acquiring new attitudes and passions.

One of the great errors of framing Christian faith in terms of reward and punishment in the next life, about heaven and hell, is that it allows us to deemphasize the present and the necessity of “working out our salvation in humility and trust” (Phil 2:12, my translation). Whatever salvation consists of, it is happening now or it is not happening. By making salvation into a transaction, rather than a personal and communal process, we have given ourselves permission to hold on to all the stuff that actually prevents us from living a healthy, transformative spiritual life. We hold on to power and control, to money and possessions, to judgment and retribution, to bitterness and resentments, to the need to win and be applauded. We even use our Christian faith in ways that boost our private ego and feelings of superiority. 

In the spiritual life: Less is more. It’s a strange kind of mathematics. Reduction results in increased spiritual vitality and development. I am struggling to learn this. It’s not easy in a culture that constantly pressures us to acquire more and tells us that we need more to be happy. 

“The sage never tries to store things up. The more he does for others, the more he has. The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.” – Lao Tzu

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Forbearing and Confronting: Finding a Balance

Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and other works, once wrote about a time when he came upon a cocoon resting in an olive tree. The infant butterfly was just starting to break through. The young Kazantzakis moved ever so close and breathed on it. The warmth of his breath caused the butterfly to prematurely emerge from the cocoon. The butterfly’s wings, however, were not adequately formed. Unable to fly, it soon died. Kazantzakis had impatiently intervened and interrupted a process he didn’t understand, thus preventing life from adequately forming.

Sometimes our lack of tolerance, understanding, and patience prevents life and character from adequately forming, thus doing great damage. I can think of relationships in my past that have been damaged and ruined because of my impatient interventions. A healthier result would have ensued had I pursued the proper course of exercising patience and restraint.

In writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul says, “Live worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:1–2). We live and embody Christian love when we patiently bear with one another in humility and gentleness.   

I am not suggesting, however, that we should never intervene. Paul, in this same passage, talks about the need to resist deceitful schemes and to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:14–15). This is the other side of forbearance. There is a time to confront and speak, to say enough is enough. The key is knowing when—when to refrain and restrain oneself, and when to engage with the appropriate words and actions.

This is a constant struggle for me. How do I critique toxic Christian teaching and behavior (in all reconstruction there has to be some deconstruction) without condemning and demeaning the person or persons who believe it and teach it?

I believe Jesus struggled with this. Jesus embodied a great love and taught us to love our enemies, praying for them and doing good to them. Yet, according to some accounts that appear in different forms in the Synoptic  tradition, Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, children of hell, blind guides, and white washed tombs full of dead bones.

It’s a real test of character and spiritual discernment to do this right, to speak the truth in love, especially when you are speaking truth to power. And even when you do get this right, you will most likely be accused by someone of being arrogant and condemning.

Recently, several high profile political figures accused President Obama of demonizing (that is the very word they used) small business owners, because the President said that no one who has succeeded in our country has done so without some help. In context, he was referring to the freedoms and infrastructure government has provided, such as bridges, roads and public access. He could also have referenced the numerous government grants, subsidies, and loans made available, but he didn’t. By misrepresenting the President and twisting his words, the President’s political opponents demonized him.

It’s inevitable that those who speak and work in a public context will be, at some point or regarding some point, taken out of context, and their words will be misrepresented and subverted. This is why it is so important for those of us who represent the living Christ to not get caught up in the name-and-blame game the world plays. As followers of Jesus, we should be showing the world what public discourse for the common good looks like and sounds like.