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