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.