Monday, January 28, 2013

Radical Community

In the Apostle Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church, he advocates something truly radical when compared to other organizations and institutions. Paul argues that while all members of the Christian community are loved and valued equally, God bestows special honor and dignity on some whom we would never expect. He contends that those parts of the body that appear to be “weaker” are actually indispensable to the health and well-being of the body (see 1 Cor. 12:21–25). We could read “weaker” as “more vulnerable” or even “less useful.” In the conventional wisdom of this world’s organizations and institutions, such “weaker” members are considered expendable.        

Paul is probably echoing the language the Corinthians were using in order to issue an implicit warning. Paul is saying: You who fancy yourselves to be “stronger,” to be more spiritual or knowledgeable, you’d better be careful. The ones you call “weaker” are the very ones to whom God grants special honor and deems indispensable to the community. These are members of the body who show us and teach us about Christ’s love in ways that we cannot know in any other way. 

What does Christ expect from his body? Tolerance? Well, yes, of course, but more than tolerance. What about acceptance? Yes, certainly, but mere acceptance doesn’t go far enough either. Paul is calling for a new, radical way of being and practicing community, where the very ones many would consider “weaker” are given special dignity and honor. The very ones other organizations would call “expendable” are called “indispensable” in the Christian community.

Paul calls for a kind of synergy of the Spirit where members share one another’s sorrows and joys. He says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Here is where a church differs radically (or is supposed to) from all other organizations and institutions.

Everyone knows how a pain in the foot or hand can absorb the entire body’s energy and attention for days. No other institution whose primary mission is to be effective or to make a profit or grow the institution would put up with that. It would simply cut off the unhealthy part of the body, the part that is causing all the pain, and replace it with a more effective member. Persons and institutions are judged by their effectiveness.

But in the body of Christ no one is expendable, and we are all called to suffer and celebrate together. When the church actually functions in this radical way, then the church becomes an outpost for God’s kingdom on earth. The church, then, gives the world a taste of new wine, of what community is like in God’s new creation.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Who Tells You Who You Are?

In his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, William Sloan Coffin says that when he was chaplain at Yale, he would sometimes get requests from seniors to write a letter of recommendation to some highfalutin school like Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School. He mostly wrote about their character and integrity rather than their academic achievements or potential, which to some students was not totally satisfactory. Coffin describes it this way: “Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate ninety-eight. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.” Coffin ends by concluding: “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!”

I think that if Jesus had not been listening to God and open to the leading of the Divine Spirit, he may have been pressured to conform to John’s expectations. According to Luke 3, John seems to have had some definite expectations of Jesus.

John, himself, refuses to let the people shape his understanding of who he is and what he is called to do. He knows his place in the redemptive scheme of things. He does not pretend to be more than he is. His work is one of preparation for someone greater.

But John clearly has some expectations about the kind of work the greater one will do. The greater one, he says, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will use his winnowing fork to thoroughly clear the threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16–17).

John was ready for the hammer to fall. In Luke 3:9 he says, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” It’s pretty clear what John was expecting Jesus to do.

Jesus’ readiness to be baptized by John could be interpreted as his willingness to embrace John’s agenda. He certainly was ready to identify with John’s movement and John’s call to repentance. Luke describes John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (3:3). Whatever one thinks about Jesus’ personal life (whether he was or was not sinless), John is calling the covenant people to renewal and Jesus is willing to take his place with his people who are turning away from their sins to God.

Here Jesus has an experience. He hears the Divine Voice say, “You are my Beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). I would call this a mystical experience. (The experience is depicted in symbolic language. All spiritual language is symbolical language. Gary Wills in What Jesus Meant puts it this way: “To believe in the gospels is to take everything in them as meant, though at various levels of symbolization. To read the gospels reverently is to keep asking, through all such symbols, what Jesus means.”)

Almost all mystical experience, no matter how diverse and unique, shares two common elements. There is generally an indescribable sense of connectedness and union with all reality and a profound experience of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.

You don’t have to have a mystical experience to know that you are loved unconditionally, but such experiences burn them into our consciousness like nothing else. I suspect Jesus had a number of such experiences.

Jesus’ assurance of being loved and affirmed by God gives him the confidence to embark upon a different path than John. He didn’t feel any need to conform to John’s expectations. He followed the Spirit down a different path.

Jesus’ mission would not be one of separating the wheat and the chaff as John hoped, but one of breaking down the barriers that separated the wheat from the chaff. Jesus would welcome and embrace the chaff and invite them to eat at his table, much to the chagrin of the religious establishment and to the disappointment of John (see Luke 7:18–23).

Jesus’ sense of belovedness and chosenness that sprang from his intimate experience of God as Abba did not make him feel more precious or valuable than others. Rather, it was his experience of divine love and affirmation that assured him of everyone else’s chosenness and belovedness too.

Instead of making us feel superior or more valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen and loved by God unconditionally opens our eyes to see the chosenness and belovedness of all people. This is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that everyone else is chosen too. God’s love is not only unconditional, it is inexhaustible.

These mystical experiences of the Divine do not cause us to retreat into ourselves, rather, they send us out into the messy business of daily life to be a blessing to others.

Surely parents and grandparents can do this for their children and grandchildren. I was reading a book to Sophie, my granddaughter who will be three in June. I stopped reading for a minute just to give her a big hug and kiss and say, “Pappie loves you so much.” I could tell she delighted in being so loved, but then out of the blue she said sort of apologetically, “I love Nan better.” She loved me, but she wanted to come clean. She couldn’t help it, but she loved Nan better. I said, “That’s okay, honey, you can love Nan better and still love Pap.”

Sometimes when I am quiet before God and invite the Spirit to allow me to share (to what degree I am able) in the passion of the Divine for our world, I sometimes think of all the little children who will be so severely hindered and wounded in life because there was no one there to be the Voice of God telling them how much they are wanted and loved.

Maybe we can find ways to be the Voice of God to one another. From time to time we all need to hear the voice of God saying to us, “You are my beloved daughter or son. You are loved with an eternal love.” We all need to feel and know in our deepest core that God’s love is not earned or achieved, it’s freely given. God’s love is greater than all our sins and failures. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Learning from the Magi

The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition invite us into the human struggle for truth. They are not perfect from any angle and some texts should trouble us. The scriptures reflect the faith journeys and struggles of faith communities, therefore, we should expect to find in our scriptures contradictions, paradoxes, conflicts, and inconsistencies. When we struggle with the sacred text, we struggle with God, and that provides us with an opportunity to grow up, to evolve in spiritual consciousness.

Creeds and doctrinal statements are basically distractions that invite people to avoid the struggle and, as a result, avoid real growth and transformation. My assessment of such documents is obviously biased, springing from the impact they have had on people I know. Creeds and propositional statements of doctrine offer single sentence answers that end the questioning and hence, the thinking, searching, and struggling with questions of faith.

In the Gospel story of Matthew 2:1–12, the chief priests and teachers of the law offer King Herod a quick answer. They quote the creed; they quote scripture. But they do not know nor do they even care to know the truth.

By way of contrast, the magi are truth seekers. They are not of the Jewish tradition, nor are they interested in converting to Judaism, but they are drawn to a strange land among a strange people by a star. The star is a symbol for what is true and real. They are willing to pursue the truth wherever the truth is to be found and they are ready to embrace the truth whatever the truth might be.

It is important to note where the star did not lead them. It did not leave them to the Temple. The Temple had become a place of exclusion. There were boundaries clearly marked and strictly enforced that signaled levels of holiness and worthiness. Women and Gentiles were relegated to the outer boundaries, while the sick and impure were completely excluded from the Temple precincts. Temple religion was commonly marked by self-righteous pride and one-upmanship.

The star led the magi to a place of poverty and humility, where they were warmly welcomed and their gifts gratefully received.

The chief priests and teachers of the law are leaders who wield religious power with more important things to do than go wandering off on a spiritual quest for truth. They are the guardians of the status quo, boundary keepers who have a lot of ego to protect. They quote scripture and offer a quick answer to maintain the power structure and the pecking order.

The magi have nothing to protect. They are willing to leave all behind, journey to an unknown place, and give away precious treasures all in the interest of knowing the truth.

The pursuit of truth leads us into a struggle with our sacred scriptures. In many ways the Bible mirrors our own spiritual struggles, our advances and setbacks.

The Jewish leaders danced to the tune of the dominant power exhibited by King Herod and did not have the spiritual acumen to discern that they were moving backward rather than forward. This is when religion turns destructive and deadly.

The choice before us is whether we will settle for easy, quick answers that support the status quo and draw narrow lines defining who is in or out, or whether we will follow the star into previously unknown lands that welcome all humble seekers of truth.

If we approach our scriptures like the magi, open and receptive to the Divine Spirit, then we can see in the Bible a general progression, an evolution of spiritual consciousness born of struggle.

It is a movement from violence to nonviolence, from manipulative, coercive power to relational, persuasive power, from the divine right of kings to servant leadership, from exclusion to inclusion, from patriarchy to egalitarianism, from preoccupation with right doctrine and cultic ritual to the pursuit of inner humility and integrity, from retribution and pay backs to forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemptive justice, from laws of purity enforced by religious power to the law of true liberty, the law of love written on minds and hearts of compassion.

It is a slow process. I like the parable of the mustard seed and the growth parables in the Gospels because they give me hope—hope for myself when I seem to keep making the same mistakes and hope for the world when we seem to be moving in the wrong direction.  

For Christians for whom the Judeo-Christian scriptures are central to their faith, the revelation of the character of God reaches its peak and pinnacle in the revelation that comes through Christ. It takes us a long time to get there. But in Jesus we meet a completely nonviolent, compassionate God. Of course, even after we arrive at Jesus, we still have the problem of living with that revelation. So there are regressions still, like the kind we see in the book of Revelation where the nonviolent Jesus of Paul’s letters and the Gospels is made into a violent, blood shedding heavenly warrior.  

As we struggle with our sacred scriptures, the magi remind us that transformative truth can be found. It’s not likely to be found in short answers, Bible quotes, and creedal definitions. It requires a journey that leads us into new places as we leave behind familiar surroundings to embark upon a humble, sincere quest for what is—for what is real, true, and life changing and for the God who is more than we can ever think or imagine.   

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Social Justice is Nonnegotiable

A healthy Christian spirituality includes both an internal life of integrity that is developed through a personal relationship with Christ and an external life of ministry that is expressed through self-giving service for the good of others. 

The life of service includes both personal and communal acts of mercy and compassion, as well as social justice and peacemaking. 

In the Gospels, Jesus makes care for the poor a priority. Jesus says, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you back and repay you. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; then you will be blessed (Luke 12:12–14).” This is not a liberal agenda item; it is a nonnegotiable characteristic of discipleship to Jesus. In the judgment parable of Matthew 25:31–46, treatment of the poor and disadvantaged (“the least of these”) becomes the criterion for the final judgment. 

We care for the poor through acts of personal and communal charity and through acts of social justice. Both are essential. The following story highlights the difference. 

Once there was a town built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river. 

One person was dead so they buried that one. One was alive, but very sick, so they put that person in the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they  placed with a family that cared for the child and took the child to school. 

From that day forward, a number of bodies came floating down the river and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to the hospital, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead. 

This went on for years. Each week brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each week, but developed more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some even gave up their jobs so they could devote themselves to this work full-time. The townspeople began to even feel a certain healthy pride in their generosity and care for them. 

However, during all those years and despite all their generosity, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from sight what was above them, and find out why all those bodies kept floating down the river. 

Herein is the difference between private charity and social justice, between doing acts of mercy and confronting systems of systemic injustice. Private charity responds to the needs of the homeless and the poor, but social justice tries to get at the reasons why there are homeless and poor people in the first place and offer constructive solutions. 

While charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about trying to change the system so that nobody has excess bread while some have none. Charity is about helping the victims of war, while social justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war. 

Social justice tackles such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, heath care, violence, immigration, and the environment and takes on huge, blind economic, political, social, and religious systems that dis-privilege some even as they unduly privilege others—systems in which we are all complicit. 

It is easy to understand why many present day Christians have relinquished this responsibility and redefined the gospel so that it is not about social justice at all. Social justice is challenging, difficult, risky work. 

And yet the church has a history of engaging in social justice. In our country Christians played a large part in the acquisition of voting rights for women, in the overthrow of slavery, in the abolishment of segregation laws and the passing of civil rights legislation, and in the establishment of rights for and improving the conditions of the most vulnerable in our courts, prisons, schools, and everywhere else. There is a movement today among the more progressive mainline and evangelical Christians to once again make social justice an integral and nonnegotiable part of what it means to live the gospel. 

The challenge we face is the same challenge Jesus faced in preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to the captives, giving sight to the blind (helping people become aware of their responsibility), and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). The “powers that be” will seek to stifle our efforts. Will we settle for the status quo or will we live the gospel of Jesus?