Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Bible: the Good, the Bad, and Somewhere in Between

Recently in a webcast, Richard Rohr offered a simple rule of thumb for discerning, evaluating, and judging the redemptive value of biblical texts. The first question to ask of any biblical text, he said, is not, “How does this text help me, save me, guide me?” Those are questions that leave the ego in charge.

The first question to ask is: What does this text say about God? How is God imaged in the text? How does the text portray God? Father Rohr says: If the God depicted and imaged in the text is operating at a level lesser than the best person you know, then you know that the text is not presenting an authentic revelation of God. If the God portrayed in that text is not as just or loving or compassionate or understanding or gracious or forgiving or kind or fair as the best person you know, then you know it can’t be a reliable portrait of God.

When we read accounts of God ordering Israel to put an entire civilization under the ban—to kill men, women, children, animals, and destroy everything—we know that cannot possibly be the God of Jesus. When Jesus instructs his disciples in the Gospels to love their enemies, to pray for them and do good by them, the argument he uses is rooted in the character of God. This is how God treats those who do evil and we are to reflect God’s character (see Luke 6:27–36).

Those of us who have encountered the God of Jesus know that the God of Jesus would never order genocide. Some biblical texts are human projections that reflect humankind’s deepest prejudices and animosities.

The teaching value of such “bad” texts is that they show us how our prejudices, biases, fears, insecurities, and unconverted passions can shape how we see and image God. Such texts show us how easily we can be duped into using religious language to defend our egotistical attitudes and actions. Even “bad” texts have teaching value.

On the other hand, when we read texts like Matthew 5–7, Romans 8, or Luke 15 we are reading texts that reflect a highly evolved spiritual consciousness and are immensely revelatory of the nature of God.

The God imagined in these “good” texts is almost too good to be true. These texts function like breakthroughs in human consciousness having enormous potential for our spiritual development. Simply by meditating on these texts we invite the Divine Spirit to transform human consciousness. These texts lure us into relationship with a very good God and imagine an alternative world.

But most biblical texts are not that clearly distinguishable in terms of “bad” and “good.” Some biblical texts incorporate both transformative and regressive elements. One such text is Matthew 25:31–46.   

The transformative aspects of the passage have to do with the solidarity between Jesus and the ones described as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Those who extend mercy to this group of impoverished outcasts are welcomed into the kingdom of God. In demonstrating mercy “to the least of these” they were demonstrating mercy to Jesus.

The people welcomed into the kingdom are people who had never even heard of Jesus, but in serving the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable they were serving Jesus. Such a passage, obviously, has great redemptive and transformative potential.

On the other hand, the passage contains a hyperbolic, overdrawn depiction of apocalyptic judgment that is harsh and vindictive. Those who fail to show mercy to the disadvantaged and most vulnerable are cast into “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” where they are banished to “eternal punishment.” 

The passage reveals a highly developed consciousness in terms of what constitute the heart and core of true religion, while casting this message within a framework of apocalyptic dualism that seems to endorse its most retributive elements.

Scholars have observed that several judgment texts in Matthew’s Gospel are peppered with severely harsh, exaggerated retributive details. Apparently the author or perhaps an editor of the Gospel had an ax to grind.

Awareness of these various elements in the text—the good, the bad, and somewhere in between—should warn us against equating the Bible willy-nilly with the Word of God. However we may understand inspiration, the Bible is a human product. Some progressive Christians like to say that the Bible contains the Word of God. I like to say that a Scripture text can become the Word of God to us when we read it holistically, that is, critically, discerningly, and spiritually (more on that in a later blog).

I love what Burley Coulter, my favorite character in the Wendell Berry stories, says about his two young nephews, whom he practically raised after their mother died: “At first they believed everything I said, and then they didn’t believe anything I said, and then they believed some of the things I said. That was the best of their education right there, and they got it from me.” (A Place in Time, p. 104).

The two boys had to weigh carefully, critically, discerningly the things that Burley told them. We would do well to approach our sacred Scriptures the same way.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Narrative for Universal Transformation

 The story goes that General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was scheduled to deliver a message at a major convention to chart the future of the organization for the next 50 years. As the time approached, he became ill and could not attend in person; but he wired the message he wanted delivered. The people waited on the edge of their seats for the telegram.  When it arrived, the one chosen to deliver the message walked up to the platform, opened the telegram, and a confused, puzzled look came over him. There was just one word on the telegram. It was the word “others.” 
In Philippians 2, Paul exhorts the church to focus on others. He says in 2:3–4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Clearly the focus is on “others.”

To commend this way of life—this other–centeredness—Paul draws upon an early Christian hymn that he quotes in 2:6–11. It is not likely that Paul composed this hymn, though he may have tweaked it for his purpose.

In 2:5 he introduces the Christ hymn by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In 2:2 he says, “make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

Paul is clearly not talking about being in agreement about doctrinal matters. He is talking about having the same mind-set of Christ. The NIV says “attitude,” but it’s more than that. Paul is calling for the adoption of a whole Christ-way of life, a mind-set that is embodied in tangible ways, a whole orientation and lifestyle—a way of life.

It actually matters little whether you understand this hymn in a literal way as many evangelical Christians do, or whether you read it metaphorically as I do along with many moderate and progressive Christians. What matters is the transformative pattern that unfolds in the hymn. 

This hymn to the cosmic Christ narrates the pattern for cosmic transformation. We begin with divine origin/birth and being made in the image of God and end with the universal gathering up and reconciliation of all things in Christ.

A key element in our transformation involves awareness of our divine origin. The first thing about us is not that we are sinners. That we are sinners is obvious, but we do not begin with original sin. We begin with original blessing. Even in the pre-history of the early chapters of Genesis, we begin, not with the fall, but with the creation of the human couple in the image of God.

We reflect God’s image. The Divine is within. God’s Spirit is what gives us life. We are God’s offspring, whether we realize it or not. 

But this provides no cause for pride or arrogance, or for any sense of moral superiority or feelings of exceptionalism or entitlement. This is true of all God’s children.

The Christ refused to grasp after equality with God (my understanding of 2:6 contra-NRSV) but “emptied himself” of all grasping, “taking the form of a slave.”

If we are to undergo the transforming power of God’s love and grace we must empty ourselves of any need to grasp power or control. We must relinquish any desire for prominence or prestige, so that in humility we can serve one another.

The Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, and gave of himself for the good of others, being obedient to the cause of God even unto death on a cross. He continued to love, serve, and give even though it led to his execution by the religious and political powers.

In the Lukan narrative of the crucifixion of Jesus, his other-centeredness is emphasized. As the soldiers lead him away, Jesus laments over Jerusalem. He says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” He identifies with the plight of those who will suffer when Rome besieges the city. He forgives his killers saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He extends grace and hope to one of the criminals crucified with him. At the peak of his suffering, he is still faithful to his mission of servanthood. He is thinking about and serving others.

Loving others by emulating and mirroring the way the Christ loves others makes us vulnerable, and there is no way to avoid the suffering that naturally and inevitably becomes part of our experience because of such vulnerability.

Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock. I am an island . . . A rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” True. Nor does a rock experience joy or hope or pleasure.

The suffering that inevitably comes with love is necessary to the development of our spiritual consciousness. When we set aside our little selves and conform to the pattern of the self-giving of Christ we experience a wider, deeper love and connection to all people and all creation. It increases our suffering, but it also increases our capacity to experience the beauty, mystery, and joy of life.

This pattern of transformation symbolized and represented by the cosmic Christ is how we are all gathered up into a new humanity and a new creation. So, the hymn concludes with every person and every creature reconciled to Christ to the glory of God. 

This pattern of transformation is true for everyone, no matter what a person’s religious faith or tradition and no matter what one’s context in life.

We claim our divine origin—that we came from God and will return to God. We are all God’s offspring. The Spirit indwells all of us whether we know it or not.

We realize that life is a gift—that everything is grace—and there is no place for pride or arrogance or feelings of superiority.

We learn to let go of our little self with its false values and refuse to grasp for power and prominence

We surrender the need to control others and become a servant of others, obedient and faithful to God’s cause in the world.

We embrace the suffering that comes with loving widely, deeply, indiscriminately, inclusively, and unconditionally.

We embrace death, so we can live freely, fully, and abundantly. When that narrative becomes our narrative, we become more than we are. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mary and Judas: A Lesson in Spirituality and Religion

The author of John’s Gospel develops a sharp contrast between Mary’s free, most likely spontaneous expression of magnanimous love and Judas’ calculating complaint in John 12:1-6. Mary breaks open an expensive bottle of perfume, pours it lavishly on Jesus’ feet and then wipes his feet with her hair. John observes that the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Judas, we are told, complained, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” The writer comments: “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

Scholars have argued that John’s portrait of Judas is biased and not historically accurate, that the author surely had an ax to grind. Maybe so. But that matters little to the one reading this story for spiritual guidance. What is significant is the kind of spirituality and religion Judas and Mary represent.

Mary is totally uninhibited and oblivious to how her intimate expression of love might be perceived by others. Her action surely brings a severe critique from those schooled in conventional etiquette. This is something a “loose woman” would do.

But Mary is completely unconcerned with perceptions and appearances and surface conclusions by others. She is being true to her real feelings of gratitude and devotion, and her action is an honest and authentic demonstration of love.

On the other hand, Judas is at the opposite end. For all his religiosity, he feigns concern for the poor. But his real motive is greed. Perhaps he is not even aware of his own intentions. Religious people can be very unaware of how their religious fervor springs from false incentives and illusions.

Mary is deeply spiritual and religious, while Judas is deeply religious, but not spiritual. The contrast is stark and extreme and overdrawn, which is a common feature of this Gospel. Rarely are we as authentic, free, and uninhibited as Mary in our love for God and for one another; rarely are we as deceitful, conniving, and hypocritical as Judas is portrayed. Most of us hover somewhere in between.

Each day we are faced with a choice. What kind of person will I be? What kind of disciple? It’s interesting that it is the woman, not the man, who is authentically real and sincere. That seems to be true more often than not. Maybe it has something to do with how we are socialized into our society. But gender, of course, is not the issue.

The greater issue and question is: Who are we going to be like? What sort of life force and energy will pervade our lives and relationships?

Will the negative forces of greed, the lust for power and position, the concern for outward appearance prevail? Will we continue to think and act in ways that mirror our spiritual blindness and emptiness? Will we mistake our religiosity for authentic spirituality? Will religion simply be a mechanism we use to maintain control and tout our own wishful ideals?

Or will the redemptive and transformative spirituality and energy of love fill our lives and relationships? Will the positive powers of compassion and honest awareness of our own weakness and vulnerability lead us into lives of humility and service? Will we discover our real worth in our true selves as recipients of God’s unconditional love, freeing us to gratuitously lavish love on others without concern for appearances or consequences?

Will we allow the ego to take charge, so that life becomes a game of comparisons and rewards to gain at any cost? The way Judas coldly calculated the amount of money wasted by Mary. Will we judge our worth by how much money we make, how many merit badges we earn, how much status we acquire, how many accolades we receive, or the number of vacations we take?

Or will we invest in eternity? Will we live each day to see how fruitful and rich our relationships can be, how much love we can share, how much good we can spread, how much of our abundance we can give away?  

Will we be authentically human or will we be ruled by deadly powers that diminish our true humanity? Religion imbued and infused with a genuine spirituality of love and gratitude can lead us on a path to real healing and transformation; religion saturated and diffused with greed and egocentricity becomes deadly and life diminishing.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Befriending Death to Embrace Life

In John 12, Jesus interprets Mary’s extravagant gesture of pouring perfume on his feet as preparation for his death (John 12: 7–8). Both Mary and Jesus seem to be aware that Jesus’ death is looming just over the horizon. Both are aware of how his head-on clash with the powers will end. Mary’s extraordinary expression of love is offered in light of Jesus’ impending death.

Henri Nouwen writes about a time when he was hit by a car and ended up in the hospital. He didn’t have any external injuries to speak of, but after he was carefully examined, the doctor told him, “You might not live long. There is serious internal bleeding. We will try to operate but we may not succeed.”

Suddenly everything changed. Death was right there in the room with him. He was confused and in shock, and yet in the midst of his confusion and shock, he felt “at rest” and experienced an “embrace of God” where he felt safe, that God was going to bring him home. Nouwen says that he was so much at peace that he was surprised when he woke up and discovered that he had survived the surgery and was alive.

During his recovery he began to be aware of some unfinished business. He realized he was holding on to some particular hurts from the past. He became aware that there were some people he hadn’t forgiven and some people he had wounded and he needed to seek their forgiveness. Nouwen began to feel that he had been given a gift of extended time to live his life more fully and to better prepare himself for his death. (Finding My Way Home, Crossroad, 123–26)

Perhaps if we, too, befriend death, we could all live more fully in the present, more authentic, honest, and true to our deepest selves. Perhaps we could live more attentive to others and more honest and confessional about our own faults and failures.

I believe that befriending our own death enables us to navigate better all the passages of our lives. Life is a series of movements or passages—a new school, a first date, passing the driver’s test, a first job, leaving home for college or a place of one’s own, children come, children go, then, perhaps, grandchildren, parents become ill, frail, and die. Through all these passages, we grapple with loss. 

Some are welcomed, others, not so much. Some are the natural losses that come with the transitions from one stage of life to another; other losses, such as the breakup of a marriage or the unexpected death of a loved one, break upon us as sudden and tragic intrusions.

Such losses can become occasions for blame or for anger, resentment, and bitterness that can lead us to the brink of despair. Or we can allow these losses to become gateways to something new—not necessarily better, maybe better, maybe worse—but a gateway to a larger and wider life, a life oriented in the greater story of the kingdom of God.

Embracing these many deaths, both small and great, prepare us to embrace our own final passage into another realm where, I believe, the adventure of life, growth, and change continues and expands.

It is interesting how Jesus speaks of death in John’s Gospel. He draws an analogy with a grain of wheat that dies and then bears much fruit (12:24). He tells his disciples that he is going to leave them, but he will not leave them alone. He will send the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth who will lead them into the truth and peace which he embodied in tangible ways while he was with them. The Spirit will teach them how to love to another.

It’s never too late to make a difference. I believe everyone should watch The Bucket List at least once a year. It received mixed reviews from critics. Some thought its portrayal of terminal cancer was unrealistic. Maybe so. 

The final scene, however, may be one of the most powerful portrayals of reconciliation and redemption I have ever seen on film. I have watched it numerous times and every time I hear the voice of God. It grips me and moves me.

On his death bed, Carter (Morgan Freeman) hands Edward (Jack Nicholson) a letter. The letter reads: “Find the joy in your life. You once said that you are not everyone. Well, that’s true. You are certainly not everyone. But everyone is everyone. My pastor always says, ‘Our lives are streams flowing into the same river toward whatever heaven lies in the midst beyond the Falls.’ Find the joy in your life, Edward. My dear friend, close your eyes and let the waters take you home.”

As we hear the voice of Carter reading the letter, we see on screen Edward reconciling with his estranged daughter and hugging his granddaughter for the first time.

In his Eulogy for Carter, Edward begins by admitting he didn’t know quite what to say on such an occasion because he always avoided funerals. (Those who live the way Edward lived for most of his life always live in denial of death.) He says, “I hope it doesn’t sound selfish of me, but the last months of Carter’s life were the best years of mine. He saved my life.”

It’s never too late to save someone’s life in some small way, or maybe even in some large way. How might we live, so that each day of our ordinary lives will be filled with God’s extraordinary love, compassion, and grace?  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Gospel of Reconciliation, Part 2

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked out in the center to commemorate a significant event.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare came to the amazing conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and, as the inscription in St. Patrick’s says today, “undertoake on his honour that he should receive no villanie.” 

Afraid, as the inscription reads, of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his spear, cut a hole in the door, and thrust his hand through. It was grasped by another hand inside the chapter house. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” 

The work of reconciliation is the vulnerable work by a vulnerable God who calls us to be a vulnerable people. The arm that was grasped in friendship could just have easily been severed. Many arms are severed. Perhaps more arms are cut off in hostility than grasped in friendship.

In this dangerous and radical work of reconciliation, the real Easter Chicken sometimes gets served up for dinner and eaten. To be an Easter people is to be a vulnerable people as we participate with God in imploring the world to be reconciled to God. And to be reconciled to God is to be reconciled to everyone else and everything else.

How different is the gospel of reconciliation from a gospel of Manifest Destiny? How different is the gospel of reconciliation from a gospel of American or religious exceptionalism? How different is the gospel of redeeming evil through forgiveness and love from a gospel of conquering evil through violence? How different is the gospel of chancing one’s arm from a gospel of drone strikes. I’m afraid the Easter chicken has become just one more chicken.

What we need is a whole new way of thinking, a new world mentality. Paul tells us that the new creation has come. If we are to live and practice the gospel of reconciliation, then we must adopt a new creation mindset.

Paul says in 5:16, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” What is he talking about? In 5:14 he says, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” Christ is regarded by Paul as the archetypal human being who gathers to himself all other human beings. As the representative human being all humanity died with him, which means that all humanity has been gathered up “in Christ.”

Paul says of Christ, “even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way” (5:16b). He is now the cosmic Christ, the symbol of the new creation who gathers up all humankind into himself.

In theological language Paul is saying that because we are all “in Christ,” because a new humanity has been constituted through the crucified, risen Christ, the cosmic Lord, we are one people, one humanity, one family, one body, one world. Old boundaries, categories, and barriers are gone, all things have become new. We can no longer divide, separate, segregate, label, and exclude anyone. We are one people and one world.

So we who are disciples of Jesus are charged with the task of being ambassadors of reconciliation. We are called to be peacemakers, to extend our arms in vulnerable acts of forgiveness, to implore our world to be reconciled to God, to each other, and to all creation.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Gospel of Reconciliation, Part 1

In Corinthians 5:14–21 Paul presents a totally nonviolent God who has acted in Christ to reconcile the world. God acts in Christ to bears the violence of the world without returning the violence.

Paul says in verse 19 that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Jesus, as God’s mediator and agent of reconciliation, bears the hate and animosity of the world, absorbing it—exposing it, yes, but also absorbing it through an act of preemptive forgiveness—refusing to retaliate and return the violence. Our world knows about preemptive military strikes, but very little, if anything at all, about preemptive forgiveness. 

In verse 21 Paul declares that God made him “who knew no sin” (who was blameless of any of the charges brought against him by the religious and political powers) “to be sin,” that is, to become and bear the sin of the world—the hate, bigotry, cruelty, viciousness, and maliciousness of the worldly powers (powers that we are all complicit in, by the way). God made Jesus who was blameless to bear and become the hate and cruelty of the world (Jesus bears the judgment of the world, not the judgment of God), so that in him (Christ) we might become the righteousness of God, so that in Christ we might become what is good, right, just, whole, loving, gracious, and forgiving.

That’s radical enough, but then Paul calls the church to become ambassadors of this radical message. To the church, the body of Christ, has been committed the message of reconciliation (5:19–20). This means that we who are disciples/followers of Jesus must be willing to bear the hate of the world, too. This means that we, like Jesus, must be willing to absorb the world’s animosity in our own souls and bodies through preemptive acts of forgiveness in order to exhaust it, so that cycles of hate and violence can be broken. Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating, and he calls us to do likewise.  

If I had clearly understood the implications of the gospel of reconciliation when I first heard a call to ministry, I probably would have run like Jonah. There are days I wish I didn’t believe this. There are moments I wish I still preached a dualistic gospel. It was so easy and simple then, so clear cut, so black and white. I felt no real obligation to forgive or love the person most offensive to me. I spent most of my time in those days praying and preaching that people would become just like me so they wouldn’t go to hell.

But thankfully there are more days now when I take seriously the gospel of reconciliation, when I realize that the person I dislike the most, no matter how offensive, is my sister or brother. There are more days now when I really do want to understand my own sin and failure, when I truly want to be more forgiving and compassionate, and more capable of bearing the world’s hostility without returning it. And all I can tell you is that in those moments I somehow come under the influence and power of the gospel of reconciliation.     

In Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will tells about a conversation he had with his friend P.D. East. P.D. had long since deserted and disavowed his upbringing in the Methodist Church of his foster parents,  had tried being a Unitarian, had taken instruction from the local rabbi and was considering declaring himself a Jew. He referred to the Church as “the Easter Chicken.”

Every time Will Campbell would see him, P.D. would say, “And what’s the state of the Easter Chicken, Preacher Will?” He was trying to goad Will into an argument. Will figured he would wait him out. One day, P.D. decided to let him have it.

“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”

Will interrupted, noting that white was the liturgical color for Easter, but P.D. ignored him. P.D went on, “That Easter chicken served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one heck of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.

Will said, “I think I see what you’re driving at P.D.” P.D. retorted, “No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.” P.D raved on.

“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like heck. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t let it get on the roost with them.

And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man it would fight back, peck the heck out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time.

Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”

Will knew P.D. wanted to argue, so Will said, “Well, P.D. the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?” That’s what P.D. wanted him to say. P.D. said, “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that?  And the Rotary club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs” (Continuum, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ed., 218–20).

We may not want to admit it, but P.D and his Easter chicken are hard to argue with aren’t they? If we take this gospel that Paul preached seriously, this gospel of reconciliation, we will not only be different from most of society, we will also be different from most Christians, too. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

An Unlikely Teacher

The late Henri Nouwen is one of the most celebrated spiritual writers of the modern era. He taught at Yale and Harvard and wrote over 40 books, but for the last ten years of his life he lived with physically and mentally challenged people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada. In their little community, there were six people with disabilities and three other assistants besides Nouwen. None of the assistants were particularly trained to work with people who were mentally and physically challenged, but they received much help from doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, and behavioral management people in their city.

Writing of that community Nouwen says, “We all have our gifts, our struggles, our strengths and weaknesses. We eat together, play together, pray together, go out together. We all have our own preferences with regard to work, food, and movies, and we all have problems in getting along with someone in the house, whether handicapped or not. We laugh a lot. We cry a lot too. Sometimes both at the same time” (Finding My Way Home, 57)

For part of the time that Nouwen lived in that community he cared for Adam, the weakest member in the house. At the time, Adam was twenty-five years old, could not speak, could not dress or undress himself, could not walk alone or eat without much help. Adam suffered from severe epilepsy and, not withstanding heavy medication. There were few days without a “grand mal” seizure that would last for about an hour and a half. Though Nouwen was Adam’s caregiver, Adam became Nouwen’s teacher.

Nouwen writes, “As I sit beside the slow and heavily breathing Adam, I start seeing how violent my journey has been. This upward passage has been filled with desires to be better than others, so marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with compulsions and obsessions, and so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, and revenge. What I believed I was doing was called ‘ministry.’ It was named ‘ministry of justice and peace,’ ‘ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation,’ ‘ministry of healing and wholeness,’ but there was disparity for me between the words and the experience” (65–66).

Nouwen says that his experience with Adam in the Daybreak community caused him to ask himself, “When I work for peace and am as interested in success, popularity, and power as those who want war, what then is the real difference between us?” (66)

Nouwen says that he learned from Adam that our identity is not tied to our doing, but our being, and that the core of the spiritual life can be found in our capacity to love. Adam taught Nouwen that real community, true peace is not constructed by tough competition, hard thinking, and individual stardom, but in simply being present to one another and working together, allowing the love of God to hold the community in a fellowship of the weak.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What to Do with Enemies of the Cross

In his letter to the church at Philippi, it is fairly obvious that Paul is concerned about some influences that were steering the church away from the teaching he had imparted and the example he had modeled. It seems that there were two different kinds of pressures being exerted upon the church. One influence pressed for legalistic obedience to rules (3:2), while the other invited a casting off of all restraints (3:18–19).

These two influences are still around and they tempt us in very subtle ways. One calls us to take part in an economy of meritocracy, of tit-for-tat. Its appeal is to the calculating mind where there are clear winners and losers.  The other influence entices us with appeals to freedom to shed boundaries that we think we do not need. Here the message is: Just let yourself go, don’t worry about the consequences, live for the moment. There is certainly something to be said for living in the moment, but living in self-indulgence without regard for boundaries is not a healthy way to experience the moment.

While these two influences move in different directions, they also share something in common. Both ways of living—living for accolades and rewards and living for pleasure and self-indulgence—are about the ego. Whether it’s conforming to rules in order to win or achieve a certain status, or whether it’s casting off all inhibitions to indulge one’s desires of the moment, both ways of living are egocentric. It’s about me. It’s about what I get, what I win, what I receive, what makes me happy, what I want.

These two influences, to use a Pauline phrase, are “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:18). They are enemies of the cross because the cross calls us to a different way of life. The cross calls us to a life of sacrificial service; to a life of compassion and solidarity with those who suffer; to a life of humility and honesty and vulnerability; to a life of nonviolence and forgiveness. The cross calls us to a path that is the opposite of a life of self-glory or self-indulgence.

Some Christians read a phrase like “enemies of the cross” and instead of looking into their own hearts in order to identify the many ways they avoid the path of the cross, they look hither and yon for someone or some group to pin it on—that group over there, those liberals, those conservatives, those Muslims, those enemies of the cross. Why do we keep looking outward, when we need to be looking inward? Why are we so stubborn? (My wife asks me that question once in a while. I usually don’t have a very good answer.)

The challenge for us is to resist the temptation toward dualistic thinking, to refuse to identify someone or some other group as an enemy of the cross. We need to look inward, into our own souls and identify all those influences that are enemies of the cross. It may be some grudge or unwillingness to forgive. It may be a bias or prejudice that needs to be rooted out. It may be envy or jealousy or some nursed bitterness or resentment. It may be an overpowering urge for applause and acclamation. It may be the need to win, to be first, to be better than everyone else, to be recognized and praised. It may be the lust for power and control, or the desire for pleasure and a life of ease.

It’s much easier to ignore these enemies living within our own tent, than acknowledge and struggle with them. It’s much easier to circle our wagons and look for enemies out there, rather than open our hearts and souls and bodies to the Divine Spirit who searches out all things and trust the Spirit to empower us on the journey that leads to the cross.