Monday, November 24, 2014

A Spiritual Path to Gratitude

Brother David Steindl-Rast has contended in his writings that gratitude is foundational to a healthy spiritual life. If that is true, and I believe it is, then how might we expand our capacity for gratitude?

Perhaps some reflections drawn from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23 can lead us along a path to gratitude. Moses says,
 “If your presence will not go with us, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The sense here is that Moses is requesting some sort of visible presence – like the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke that accompanied Israel in the wilderness. For in this way, Moses says, we will be distinct from all other peoples.

I read this as an example of first-level spirituality, which is a necessary part of our spiritual development and growth. We all need to feel special. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandkids over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges reminding them that they are special - yes, but not that special.  We grandparents get to focus almost exclusively on the special part.

My youngest granddaughter, Addie, is two-and-a-half and loves to hear stories about herself. When she was one-and-a-half we took her and her sister, Sophie, who was three swimming.  Melissa, my wife, had to take Sophie to the restroom, so Addie was left with me. Well, she didn’t like being left with me, she wanted her Nan and, so she started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her close, which she at first resisted, and then I began telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were, and then I told her stories of some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how special and how loved she was.

All of us, however, need to hear that we are loved. All of us need to feel special. It’s part of a soul’s healthy development. But there comes a time when we need to move to the next level of spirituality. We need to feel distinct, special, blessed, but . . . there comes a time when it is important for us to realize that we are all in this together, that we are all loved by our  Abba, our Compassionate heavenly Father, Mother, Friend and Liberator. We (as individuals and communities of faith) are parts of a greater whole and participants in a larger story.

According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations would be blessed. I believe that our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread a message of chosenness to everyone we can, so they will know that they are chosen too. And Jesus made it quite clear that we are to share this message while serving our sisters and brothers as equals. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church too often has been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity.

Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways he and his faith community had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks over the previous twelve months. 

But while he was waiting to go on the air, he overheard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said,

“No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”
The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says,

“I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”

First-level spirituality claims God’s love for one’s self and one’s community, but second-level spirituality realizes that everyone else is loved too, and we are responsible for sharing that love and working for the common good. First-level spirituality can become toxic and even deadly if we never expand beyond our own belief and belonging systems to embrace others as God’s daughters and sons. Dualistic, “us” versus “them” thinking has wrought enormous damage in the world.

In Exodus 33 Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you . . . Show me your glory.” In response God says,

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’. . . . But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. . . . See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Seeing the backside of God may be a way of talking about the glory (presence, reality) of God in the visible, material, physical, tangible world. The great perennial truth that the Christian religion has brought to the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation, which really began with the Big Bang when time and space and matter first erupted into the making a new universe. God engaged a creative process that in time would bring forth life and then in “the fullness of time” become particularized (for Christians at least) in the person of Jesus, the Christ.

I’m convinced that God is incarnational. God is hidden in the visible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things, which is why God resides in the depths of our souls.

Paul, the mystic, perceived this when he said, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Or when he said, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  The true Self is actually God, who we know as the Christ, living in us and through us. Our false self is what we are when our ego is in control.

Sometimes we use religion (our scriptures and traditions) to avoid any real God encounter in the depths of the soul.  A common temptation for all of us is to use a belief system or a belonging system to substitute for any personal or life-changing experience of the Divine. It is easy for us to make belonging to the right group, believing the right things, or practicing the right rituals a substitute for genuine God encounter. Authentic God encounter always leads us into the depths of our souls to face our inconsistencies and contradictions in order to change, to grow, to become more loving and compassionate persons and communities. 

If God is incarnational, if God hides in the material world, then all the world is God’s temple, and the world is a sacred place. We can find God everywhere and anywhere. Every event, experience, conversation, every place where we are present God is present and presents us with a potential God experience/encounter. Third-level spirituality is the capacity to see, sense, and experience God anytime, anyplace because we know that God is present in all of it.

This is true of terrible and tragic situations too. In the tsunami and earthquake, the hurricane and tornado, where acts of violence and terror are performed, where persons are wounded and killed, in the children’s ward where kids are dying with cancer, in one’s darkest moments – God is there. God, of course, is not responsible for any of these things, but God is there. God is suffering and hurting and dying too.

And on the flip side, God is on the beach where waves are rolling in and the evening sun is casting an orange haze over the water. At the birth of your child or grandchild, or when your daughter or granddaughter reaches up and squeezes your neck as hard as she can and tells you that she loves you and you think it just can’t get any better than this – God is there. In the best of times and worst of times God is there. God is at one with the world and at one with each of God’s children, whether we know it or not.

God’s presence in all of it is grace. The Exodus text calls this “goodness” – “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” This goodness is passing before us every day - in the sunshine and rain, in the air we breathe, in the touch of our lover’s hand, in a thousand ways. God’s goodness, God’s grace is not an add-on, not something doled out on the churched or religious, or a prize won for believing or doing the right things. God’s goodness is what sustains and is inherent in all life.

I believe that a healthy, holistic, and transformative spirituality will move us along a path where we first recognize that we are loved with an eternal love, that God holds us close and never lets go, for we are that special. But rather than claiming this all for ourselves (which leads to an unhealthy, toxic kind of spirituality), we realize that God loves all God’s children this way. We then sense a connection to all our sisters and brothers and are compelled to work for the common good. As we grow in love, the blinders come off, and we are able to see God’s goodness and grace everywhere. As we drink from this reservoir of boundless grace gratitude fills our hearts and overflows into all the outlets and places where we live our lives.

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift
Make me live gratefully
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive,
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing. 
             --  Brother David Steindle-Rast

Monday, November 17, 2014

Making the Most of What We Have Been Given (A sermon on the Parable of the Talents - Matt. 25:14-30)

I don’t know if there is any truth to it or not, but the story is told that when Britain faced a critical shortage of silver during the days of WWII Winston Churchill launched a search of possible sources of silver. They discovered some sterling silver statutes of saints in some of their churches and cathedrals. When Churchill was made aware of this he said, “Well, it’s time to put the saints into circulation.” 

This parable is about saints in circulation. Jesus is addressing his followers. In Matthew’s Gospel there are five major discourses attributed to Jesus, this parable is part of the last teaching block that begins in 24:1. Jesus and his disciples had just come out of the temple. His disciples were admiring the beautiful buildings when Jesus warned of the temple’s coming destruction. Then they walked over to the Mount of Olives and Matthew says that the disciples came to him privately with their questions about the destruction of the temple and end of the age. That is the setting for these parables. This is private instruction to insiders. The judgment parables of Matthew 25 are not directed to the crowds, but to his disciples.

There are some troublesome elements to this parable that do not quite square with Jesus’ earlier teachings in this Gospel and the ways in which he spoke of God. One difficult part is verse 30 where at the end of the parable the unfaithful servant who failed to use his master’s money wisely is cast into “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I read this symbolically of course, but still the language seems unusually harsh.

Another troublesome aspect of the parable is the way the unfaithful servant is described. He is called “wicked,” “lazy,” and “worthless” - descriptions that are totally uncharacteristic of the Jesus Matthew has described for us in his Gospel. I suspect (and not just me, but others as well) that these descriptions were likely added to the parable either during the oral transmission of the story (when Jesus’ followers retold these stories in different settings) or when the writer composed this Gospel. Of course, there is no way to be sure.

In the parable a master passes out money to his servants – actually a considerable amount of money – and puts them in charge of investing it while he is away. To one he give five talents, another two talents, and still to another one talent. A “talent” is a lot of money. One talent was equal to 30,000 denarii and a denarius was equal to a day’s wage for a common worker. So the servant who was given one “talent” was given more money than a common worker could have earned in a lifetime.

We are also told that to each one of the servants the money was given according to his ability. The ability belonged to the servants; but the money belonged to the master. This is the master’s money.

I love the story of the elderly woman who had just finished shopping and returned to her car. She found four men inside. She dropped her shopping bags and drew a handgun. She pointed the gun toward the men and screamed for them to get out of her car. They flew out of there like crazy. Somewhat shaken, she put her gun away, picked up her bags, and got into the front seat. But for some reason the key would not fit the ignition. Then it dawned on her; this was not her car. Her car was in the next row. So she found her car and drove down to the police station to turn herself in. As she told her story the officer behind the desk who was about ready to fall out of his chair laughing pointed her to another desk where four men were reporting a carjacking by a little old woman with a handgun.

She thought it was her car, but it really belonged to someone else. We think what we have is ours – we earned it, we worked for it, it’s ours. Except that it isn’t. It’s God’s. All of it. We have been entrusted with it to put it to use for God’s good purpose in the world.

Remember, this is a parable taught by Jesus to his disciples. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept responsibility to use whatever we have in the interest of God’s kingdom. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept the reality that it all belongs to God. We have been given resources of money, ability, and time and entrusted with the responsibility to use these resources for the good of God’s kingdom, for the good of our sisters and brothers and the good of society.

The parable prompts me to ask myself where fit in the story? If I am honest I have to admit that I am not completely like the two servants who doubled the master’s money, nor am I completely like the servant who did nothing with it. I am somewhere in between. Sometimes I am like the two faithful servants, and sometimes I am like the faithless one who did nothing with the master’s money.

So when I stand before God to give an account – and I thoroughly expect to do so (I agree with Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ) – I fully expect to be evaluated, to be assessed, and I expect to be both commended and judged. I suspect I will be commended for some things and judged for some things and found wanting.  

Am I worried? Not too much. And why am I not worried or anxious? Because as Lisa [our children’s pastor] teaches our kids, God is good all the time. God is always looking out for our good even in judgment. God’s judgment is not like so much human judgment that is punitive and retributive. God really does seek our good. So whatever “outer darkness” I must walk through it will function to open my life to the light of God’s love and grace and enable that light to shine through me more visibly. Whatever “weeping and gnashing of teeth” I experience, whatever suffering I undergo it will only serve to move me along the path to greater spiritual maturity, integrity, and depth of character.

I think of athletes who go through training periods that are quite intense; they endure periods of suffering and hardship for the purpose of becoming better athletes. So whatever sort of suffering or hardship God might require us to endure, I believe it will be for the purpose of making us better persons.

This is why Paul and other NT writers could speak of suffering in redemptive ways. In the little book of James, the author wrote: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Philip Yancey tells about playing chess in high school.  He was a member of his school’s chess club and studied books on techniques and strategies.  After high school Yancey put the game aside for twenty years until in Chicago he met a truly fine chess player. They played a few matches.  Any classic offense Yancey tried was met with a classic defense.  If Yancey turned to more risky, unorthodox techniques, his opponent incorporated Yancey’s bold advances into his own winning strategies. Yancey soon discovered that none of his own strategies mattered much because his opponent simply incorporated Yancey’s moves into his own plan. 

Yancey writes,
“Perhaps God engages our universe, his own creation, in much the same way.  He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design, but even as we do so we end up ironically serving his eventual goal of restoration.

If I accept that blueprint—a huge step of faith, I confess—it transforms how I view both good and bad things that happen.  Good things, such as health, talent, and money, I can present to God as offerings to serve his purposes.  And bad things, too—disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures—can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive me to God.” 

And I would add, the bad things can be the very instruments that change us, that make us more loving, caring, empathetic, and compassionate persons. 

Faithful servants entrusted with God’s resources trust in the goodness of God and so they are not afraid to take some risks. They are not afraid of failure.

The servant who did nothing with what was entrusted to him was hampered by fear. When he is called onto the carpet for his failure he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

If that is how we imagine God, we will not be motivated to take risks, we will not be compelled to give our resources and abilities and energy to serve and love others. If we are afraid of failure or afraid of God we will not invest our money or time or talents into the lives of others and for the common good of our society. We just won’t.

I heard about a pastor who was excited about taking his two visiting nephews to church.  The two boys, six and nine, had never been to church. For whatever reason the two boys were not very impressed. The younger one - in the middle of the children's sermon - raised his hand and asked, "How much longer do we have to sit up here." When the offering was passed he watched as people put money in the plates. When it finally got to him, he looked up at his aunt and said, "You mean we gotta pay for this?"

If our image of God is like the unfaithful servant in the parable then we are likely to approach service and giving to others with the attitude of the boy who asked, “You mean we gotta pay for this?” You mean we have to serve others? You mean we have to invest in this? And if that is what we think, if that is our attitude, we are more likely to stuff away what we have than to use it for the good of God’s kingdom.

But if we know the God of Jesus, if we have experienced the God of Jesus, who is the all-compassionate one, who wills our good, who wants our best, who loves each one of us with an unconditional, eternal love, then we are likely to take great risks and find great joy in investing our resources, in giving away our energy, time, and money for the good and well-being of others and growth of God’s kingdom.

Our good God, most of us here are like me. We are sometimes faithful, sometimes motivated to take greats risks, sometimes willing to give much in terms of our money, time, and ability, and others times – well, not so much. If any of us here are hampered by fear, give us a clearer vision into your nature, open our eyes to your goodness and grace, help us to know how much you love us and care for us, so we won’t be afraid to fail, afraid to take risks, or afraid to give our resources for your cause in the world. Thank you for all the good things and help us not be too upset with the bad things – but to allow them to grow us and mature us so that we might become the loving, compassionate, and caring persons you have designed for us to be. Amen. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Being and Becoming Children of God

I grew up with a theology that said all children are children of God—that is, until they reach the age of accountability. I was also indoctrinated into a belief in total depravity, that we are all born sinners and inherit a sin nature, so somehow we had to harmonize these two positions and the way we did it was by postulating an age of accountability. It’s kind of ironic because we prided ourselves in being Bible believers, yet there are no biblical texts that mention an age of accountability. We believed that a child was a child of God until that child reached a kind of semi-adulthood. When the child reached the age of accountability (and nobody really knew when that was which made for a nice loophole), then that child was no longer a child of God and had to believe certain things and do certain things in order to become a child of God. We believed that the child had to be “born again” in order to become a member of God’s family. I have since evolved in my thinking in what it means to be a child of God and what it means to be “born again” as I know many reading this post have as well.  

The distinction I like to make at this point in my spiritual journey is the distinction between being and becoming. I’m convinced that we are all children of God all the time and there is nothing we can do or believe or fail to do or believe to change this fundamental and foundational truth about every single one of us.

Our worth, value, and sense of who we are is not to be found in what we have accomplished or achieved. It is not based on any kind of purity system, belief system, or worthiness system. There are no papers to sign, no doctrinal statements to agree to, no creeds to confess, and no hoops to jump through. We are who we are by virtue of our humanity, by virtue of our existence in this world.

However, being a child of God and living like a child of God are two different things. We can be children of God and not reflect much of God’s goodness and grace. So how do we claim our identity? How do we become who we already are?

How we see and what we see have a lot to do with it. This is a constant theme in the biblical tradition. Our tendency is to see things as we are, not as they really are. There is much in us that clouds our sight, distorts our vision, and prevents us from becoming who we are.

Sometimes it’s bad theology. In John 9 the scripture says that as Jesus went along he saw a man blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That’s terrible theology. They saw a sinner. They saw a man under the judgment of God. They saw his blindness as a punishment. They did not see a precious child of God. Their preconceptions were misconceptions which led them to diminish and devalue a person who by happenchance, who by the unluckiness of the draw, was born blind. The irony is that the disciples were the ones who were blind, but didn’t know it.

Bad theology, fear-driven images of God, dualistic “us” versus “them” religion can keep us from seeing reality as it really is. Also, our prejudices and biases, as well as our fears, insecurities, and anxieties can keep us from claiming our identity and becoming who we are.

I believe that within all of us is a desire to love, to forgive, to pursue peace and communion with God and each other. If we nurture this desire, if we fan it into a flame, it can become greater than the desire to harbor grudges and resentment, and larger than our need to compete with and compare ourselves to others.

But how do we do that? How do we move past our fears, worries, and insecurities? How do we recognize the biases that bind us and keep us from becoming the kind of daughters and sons of God we were created to be? 

It begins, I believe, with a leap of faith. We must make a leap of trust and accept that we are accepted. We must recognize that all those voices that keep whispering condemnations, telling us we are unworthy, or that God could not possibly love us are lies and deceptions. 

But where does this faith come from? I believe it is a gift from God. And while there is nothing we can do to earn it, we can ask for it. We can put ourselves in a context, in an environment where the gift is likely to be received and nurtured. I believe a healthy, loving, accepting, affirming community of faith can go a long way in nurturing this kind of trust.

Sometimes a loving community (or maybe just one other person) that loves us in spite of ourselves can help move us from a state of alienation and disintegration to a place of belonging and wholeness.

Most sin is a form of madness that acts against our own best interest. My hope is that all forms of madness can one day be healed; even the kind of madness that creates suicide bombers and sadistic killers. My hope is that all will be made well. I believe this to be the purifying hope of the gospel, that through the process of giving and receiving love anyone can be healed and redeemed, and we all can come to reflect something of the goodness of God and share in the likeness of Christ. I hope.

Through the acceptance and affirmation of another person or a loving community we can learn to not only receive love, but to give love as well. Love is not fully redemptive until it is returned upon the one or community that freely offers it.

There are some people who are still stuck inside their little selves (their ego selves) who want grace for themselves, but not for everyone else. They want to be winners among losers. They want to know and feel loved, but they don’t want God to love just anyone.

What can move one beyond this narrow, egocentric approach? Love. And this is where, I believe, some truly loving people within a community of faith can make a huge difference in people’s lives. The more we are able to receive and give love to others, the more we are changed.

I heard about a rough around-the-edges mountaineer who was known for his readiness to fight. There were burning embers of bitterness in his life and the tiniest spark could ignite his anger. Then one day he accompanied his nephew to a school party because his parents had other obligations. He met his nephew’s teacher and fell in love. It took him a long time to get up the nerve to even ask her out. How could such a woman love the likes of him? But love is a mysterious, wondrous thing and she returned his love. The day they were married someone who had noticed how he had changed asked him why he never seemed to get angry anymore. His response was, “I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.”

The receiving and giving of love can do that. It can change us. It’s the hope of the world. Ultimately, it is the only thing that can enable us to become who we already are.