Sunday, February 16, 2014

Faith's Tensions (Part 2)

It is easy to conclude from Paul’s correspondence with the church at Corinth that numerous tensions were present in that congregation. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Paul mentions jealousies, quarrels, and divisions where members were posturing around certain leaders. Some said that were followers of Apollos; others claimed to be followers of Paul. And apparently they were jealous of one another and bickering back and forth.

It is quite possible that Paul and Apollos had some real differences in matters of theology and in the practice of that theology. We don’t know, but that would have not been surprising. There was a great deal of diversity in the early Jesus movement.

Here Paul tries to sublimate their differences within a wider perspective. He says: “What is Apollos? What is Paul? We are just servants in God’s field. I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the growth.” Paul argues that if there is any growth at all, it is ultimately because of God, the divine life and energy that pervades and saturates the community. Planting and watering are important, there is no reason to downplay these activities, but no growth occurs unless there is life in the seed. God is the author and sustainer of the mystery of life in all its dimensions. (How this all works together is, of course, a mystery. Theologians have been struggling with the interrelationship between divine grace and human cooperation for years without any resolution of those tensions.)

Paul says that the one who plants and the one who waters share a common purpose, namely, the growth of the field, the growth of the community. Paul doesn’t define the kind of growth he is talking about, but from what he has written thus far in this letter, he obviously is talking about growth in the wisdom of God.  

The church at Corinth was obviously not living by the wisdom of God, because if they were, they would not have been polarized over personalities, they would not have been characterized by bickering and petty jealousy. Paul calls them “unspiritual”; he says they are acting like infants who can’t handle solid food; he says they are “people of the flesh.”

What he means when he says they are “people of the flesh” is that they are people being governed by the little I, the ego, the small self. They are acting out of their own selfish interests, out of their own little stories and agendas; not out of concern for the wellbeing and the spiritual growth of the body/community.

Let’s be clear what spiritual growth in the wisdom of God looks like. Perhaps the best description of it occurs in chapter 13. In that passage, Paul says that the ultimate purpose of the spiritual life is not about exercising the most sensational gifts, it’s not about possessing the most extraordinary faith, it’s not about expressing the most radical sacrifice, rather, it’s all about love, suffering love (13:1-3). Then he goes on to describe in one of the most beautiful passages in all of literature what love is and what love does. Healthy spirituality is measured in our capacity to love well.

Our failures at love create tensions within all of us who aspire to be disciples of Jesus. Paul, himself, was not outside these tensions. 

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul emphasizes the love ethic over the law. He says that love is the fulfillment of the law of Christ (6:2). He declares that love is the fruit of the Spirit against such there is no law (5:22-23). In other words, you cannot regulate love with laws and stipulations. As disciples of Jesus we don’t ask: What is legal? We ask: What is the loving thing to do? Paul argues that the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love (5:6). And yet, in that very letter where Paul put’s such emphasis on love, he calls down a curse of damnation on those Christian teachers who were insisting that the Galatians live by the Jewish law (1:8-9). One gets the impression from such inconsistencies that Paul peeled off his letters on the run and maybe if he had paused to read some of what he said back to himself he would have self-corrected. I can think of a number of times in the course of my ministry I have said, “I wish I could have a do-over on that one.”

In his letter to the Romans Paul said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15). Unless one has no conscience, no self-awareness, every one should admit to feeling the inner tension of failing to live up to one’s ideals of love.

All these tensions that we experience in our faith and spiritual life, whether they are tensions in our tradition and theology, in our relationships or faith community,  or in our own psyche and inner life, do not need to be stifling and polarizing. If we let them, they can move us forward, they can drive us to honest confession and humble trust in the divine grace that holds us all up.  

I recently watched a wonderful British film called “Song of Marion” released in America as “Unfinished Song.” Marion, though terminally ill with cancer, continues to participate in a very unconventional senior’s choir led by a young lady named Elizabeth. Arthur, her husband, loves his wife and she loves him, but somewhere along the way he checked out on life and became a very angry, bitter person. And somewhere in that downward spiral he became alienated from his son. The movie is about Arthur’s journey back to life after the death of his wife.

Arthur makes a promise to his dying wife to take her place in the choir. After her death, he reconsiders the promise, but is pulled into the choir by Elizabeth, the young choir leader, with whom he develops an unlikely friendship. His friendship with Elizabeth and his participation in the choir draw him back into the flow of life. This creates tension for Arthur as he comes to face the truth about himself, particularly his failures at being a father. The key to his redemption is when he decides to deal with the tension and contradiction of what he had been in light of what he had actually become and what he knew he should be. It’s a beautiful story about Arthur coming to face these tensions and being changed in the process.

We are not gods. We are imperfect human beings. We have very few if any answers to anything. What we have is a great big God who cares deeply for this “bent planet” and everyone and everything in it. What we have is one another— our love for and commitment to one another, which comes from God who is love. What we have is our selves—our messed up, mixed up, screwed up selves—and no matter how many times we have fallen and failed, God still loves us with a wasteful, inexhaustible love. 

If we can face and hold these tensions, if we can live with them honestly, without denial and excuse, without blame and withdrawal, these tensions (whether it’s the tensions in our belief system, in our relationships, or in our own souls) can become the very instruments that save us, that bring about our growth and transformation into the loving communities and persons God has called us to be. And as the movie “Unfinished Song” beautifully depicts, it’s never too late.



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