Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Way of Being in the World

I’ve been thinking about how we live our Christian lives, and wondering what has been most helpful to me, this past year, in shaping a praxis that accurately reflects the good news of Christ.

First stop is a definition of “praxis.” There are spiritual disciplines, there are “things we should do.” But praxis is a word that has surfaced in Christian community lately that for me seems to go a bit deeper. In the world of education, praxis means “applying what you’ve learned,” or “putting theory into practice.”

In the world of faith, it’s been interpreted as “reflective active,” “living what you believe,” a combination of thought and action lived in community with others who share the same understanding and vision. N. T. Wright describes it as “a way of being in the world." The term praxis carries the idea of conversation lived out consistently with others, a shared understanding of God and active faith that informs the way we worship, work, and care for one another.

From what I can see, Christian praxis can only happen in conversation with others. So one question I’ve been asking of friends and family, in hopes of spurring conversation, is this: what book have you read recently that has most impacted the way you live your Christian life?

The question grew out of my own awareness that much of what I read rarely finds its way into practical application. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline impacted me strongly, and continues to shape the way I walk out my faith, but I first read that thirty years ago. What has impacted me in the decades since?

Another book that came to mind was Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. That prompted discussion of finances, budget, and visions for the future at a time when we and our friends were just starting careers, beginning families, thinking through what would matter for the years ahead.  Sider’s vision and practical application have had a lingering influence on our giving, tithing, planning, and financial values, but again, my husband Whitney and I read that about the same time we read Celebration of Discipline - in our very early twenties.

Two recent books that came to mind for me were worlds apart, yet helpful in praxis in ways that many books I read are not:

The Better World Shopping Guide, by Ellis Jones. Thoughtful friends gave me this as a gift. I received it as a loving challenge to live out more faithfully questions of justice and economics. It’s a guide for socially responsible shopping based on questions about how corporations treat employees, demonstrate care for the environment, contribute to justice or injustice. Its helped us to rethink how we spend our money, a reminder that every act has consequences and that small changes can have far-reaching impact.

Sabbath, by Dan Allender. I’ve mentioned this book before, but continue to be surprised at how Allender’s discussion of Sabbath has challenged much of what I think about work, time, schedules, goals, relationships, worry, rest. The practical application of Sabbath, I’m realizing, reaches into every corner of our lives. Sabbath is a way to set aside anxiety, disengage from the values of the world around us, and step into a place of quiet where God can begin to transform us from the inside out.

Other books suggested by those I’ve talked with:

Living Like Jesus. Another book by Ron Sider, this one challenges individuals to be conformed to Christ, while reminding the church to provide “a little picture of heaven,” in relationships, economics, politics, service, stewardship of the earth. I had forgotten how quietly practical this book was, and agreed immediately when it was suggested.

Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance, by Bob Buford. My husband Whitney recommended this one as a practical encouragement for men in mid-career to rethink their values, reaffirm identity in Christ, and use resources, opportunities, and experience strategically for the kingdom of God. I haven’t read it, but like the questions it raises: What am I really good at?  What is most important to me? What do I want to be remembered for? I find myself wondering if there’s a similar book for mid-career women.

Not the Religious Type, Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist, by Dave Schmelzer. Again, I haven’t read this, but plan to. Here’s part of a review on Amazon that caught my attention: “Schmelzer makes the case … that each of us has cultural baggage, Christian, secular or otherwise, that can be detrimental to following Jesus, but that rather than fighting over issues of one culture over and against another he argues simply for the experience of God wherever a person may be.” This sounds like an effective pastor’s personal story of his experience of living and sharing the gospel, a helpful demonstration of faith in action.

It’s been interesting to me how many of the people I asked about books and praxis had nothing that came to mind. I rephrased the question several times: What’s helped you in your Christian walk? What’s challenged you to change in some way? What might you give to someone wondering what it means to live as a Christian? What have you read in the last year / recently / that you remember that has made a difference in how you live?

I know there are good books out there. I’m assembling a list gleaned from my favorite book blog –heartsandmindsbooks.com - to share in my next blog post and to read in the year ahead.

But I'm still asking the question: any books you’ve read that have shaped your praxis, challenged your practice, brought new energy to your walk of faith?

If so, please share them! Praxis is a conversation.

I’ll close with one last suggestion offered by one of our daughters - Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, by Wendell Berry. I’ll quote most of it, since it’s a great reminder and challenge as we start a new year:

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
. . . Practice resurrection.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Hope

When I was a kid, my Christmas hope was small: I hoped we’d have a tree.  For some reason, I took that seriously, and it often seemed to be in question. Times were hard, and trees cost money; adult energy was in short supply, and trees took time and effort to buy, wrestle into their stands, and decorate. We had quite a few “miracle” trees, but also some sad Christmases without.

Another Christmas hope, of course, was for presents. I knew there would be at least one, but that one would be practical (a coat? boots? pajamas?) So I hoped for an extra present – something fun? Would that be too much to ask?

Later, my hope turned to family: would I make it home for Christmas? would any of my siblings be there? would the larger family gather?

In young adulthood, hope seemed beside the point, as I slid into the Christmas dash of presents, decorating, cooking. Add cards, stockings, late-night wrapping. Did I mention cooking?

Looking back, I can see that my hopes for the Christian life were also rather small. Did I have my ticket to heaven?

I can hear objections. No. Of course that isn’t small. Eternal life is huge.

And yet. . . . My understanding of eternal life, of “salvation”, I’m afraid, was small. Very individual. Very far off.

As I grew older, my understanding of the Christian life was expanded, slightly, by the keeping of lists: things to do, things to not do. Ideas that fit. Ideas that didn’t fit. Did I mention things to not do?

I hear more objections. No. Of course those lists have nothing to do with eternal life.

And yet . . . What else were we up to, if not making sure we believed the right things, did the right things, didn’t do the wrong things?

Somehow, when I consider the words of the Old Testament prophecies, and the proclamations by John the Baptist, and then by Jesus, that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” it’s with a deep certainty that we should be hoping for more than eternal life somewhere in the distance.

There are prophetic passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, that sing of a powerful new global reality breaking into the sad, dark, broken world we live in. In this Christmas season, I’ve been puzzling over this prophecy from Isaiah 9:

 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. . .
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
   and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 


Yes, it’s so familiar we no longer hear it. We read it every Christmas, and the words resonate and inspire, but we say “ah yes, Jesus,” and rarely think beyond it. Of course, the prophecy refers to the birth of Christ, and his coming kingdom. But there are parts that surprise me: what does it mean that “the government will be on his shoulders”?

And which part of the prophecy was fulfilled in Christ’s birth, which in his resurrection, which is yet to come?
Let me approach the question differently. The angel, speaking to the shepherds out in the hills, said “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Was the good news, and great joy, meant to be immediate? Or was it far off? Was it for everyone, everywhere, or a narrowly chosen few?

I’ve been thinking about how often the prophets referred to “the nations.” Isaiah and Jeremiah alone refer to “the nations” 121 times. Enlightenment Christians have been led to believe that salvation is very individual, personal, rational: “believe the right thing, and you’re set.”

But the prophecies point to a salvation that is far more communal, global, interconnected, touching all of life.
Tim Keller, respected pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, explained the two conflicting views of the gospel in a Christianity Today article several years ago.

A generation ago, evangelicals agreed on “the simple gospel”: (1) God made you and wants to have a relationship with you, (2) but your sin separates you from God. (3) Jesus took the punishment your sins deserved, (4) so if you repent from sins and trust in him for your salvation, you will be forgiven, justified, accepted freely by grace, and indwelt with his Spirit until you die and go to heaven.
Today there are at least two major criticisms of this simple formulation. One criticism says it is too individualistic, that Christ’s salvation is not so much to bring individual happiness as to bring peace, justice, and a new creation. A second criticism says there is no one simple gospel, because everything is contextual and the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations that exist in tension with each other.

I’ve been trying to put in words my own view of “the gospel,” or the “good news” that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds. Here’s my best effort to date:

God, in allowing humans freedom, allowed us to set ourr wills, our plans, our agendas, against his own, in a way that brings broken relationships not only between humanity and God, but between man and brother, husband and wife, parent and child. This brokenness brings lasting harm to creation, our physical health, our understanding of work, our experience of love, joy, pleasure. On our own, we’re slaves to having it our own way, incapable of health in any aspect of our lives.

Jesus came to clarify God’s intent for us, to proclaim freedom, to show us what it looks like to be the people God created us to be, and then, through his death and resurrection, to give us the power to become those people: forgiven, restored, equipped to be agents of the kingdom, here, now, in this present reality.

So the good news is not just our own eternal relationship with God, but friendship with God, now, right here, in a way that impacts all creations, all people, all nations. And while we will praise God forever, in some way we can’t yet picture, we’re called to bring glory to him now, as we demonstrate his power, goodness, love. That calling is not for us as individuals, but for us as a community of faith, demonstrating the reality of God’s kingdom in every area of life: care of creation, care of the poor, welcome of the stranger, concern for justice in what we buy or sell, radical kindness to neighbors, children, the weak.

The implications of this good news are massive, explosive, uncontainable.

Working with youth, young adults, committed youth leaders, deeply committed Christians in difficult places, I’ve had the huge privilege of seeing what happens when this good news is taken seriously. I’ve also seen how easy it is for keepers of the status quo to dissuade young or new believers from allegiance to this vision of the good news.

The good news always brings demands. For Mary and Joseph: risk the simple comfort of your own private love story, face public scorn, leave your homes and run to Egypt with the wrath of Herod behind you.

For the shepherds: leave your flocks, go, see, then share the good news.

For the magi: leave the comfort of your wealth, embark on a dangerous journey that grows more dangerous as you near your puzzling destination.

For the disciples, the early believers, and every true follower since: put what you know and love on the line, be willing to risk ridicule, loss, abuse, for the sake of this life-changing reality.

N. T. Wright wrote a book a few years ago called Surprised by Hope; he argues that Christians have misunderstood the meaning of heaven, the promises of the kingdom of God, and as a result, have neglected the call to live in this present world as agents of that kingdom. He insists (and demonstrates persuasively) that when we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done,” we’re describing a current reality:

“God’s kingdom” and “kingdom of heaven” mean the same thing: the sovereign rule of God (that is, the rule of heaven, of the one who lives in heaven), which according to Jesus was and is breaking in to the present world, to earth. That is what Jesus taught us to pray for. . . This, as we have seen, is what the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit are all about. They are designed not to take us away from this earth but rather to make us agents of the transformation of this earth.

Wright’s Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve 2008 is a helpful discussion of this Christmas hope; I’m tempted to quote the whole thing. I’d love to have a group of friends read it together, then sit down and say “what do we do next?”


 ‘The government shall be upon his shoulders’: that is the good news of the gospel. But the way Jesus Christ exercises his authority, consistent with the nature of that authority, is always through the healing and renewal of human beings, calling them as he called his first followers to the dangerous, difficult but glorious task of working as his agents, growing the kingdom as we say, making it happen for real people in the real world. Hence the to-and-fro between worship and witness, between what happens here at the altar and what happens down the street. With the story of the Christ-child in our hearts, and the Spirit of Jesus giving us energy and direction, we are called to be kingdom-bringers in whatever sphere we can. We have to think globally and act locally, campaigning for the big issues like debt remission and climate change, and working on the local issues like housing, asylum and unemployment. Isaiah spoke of the authority of the child growing continually, spreading justice and peace throughout the world, and it is through the work of Jesus’ followers that this is to come about, upheld and directed by what the prophet calls ‘the zeal of the Lord of hosts’.


My immediate hope is for much conversation in the year ahead about this good news, this life-changing call, and this eternal kingdom, visible in us as we choose to listen. And my deeper hope is to be a faithful part of this reality, and to see God’s kingdom lived, proclaimed, demonstrated here on earth.


May God bless you this Christmas. May He give you ears to hear the call of His good news, and wisdom and courage to obey. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mary's Song

I’ve always enjoyed reading Luke’s account of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1. It’s one of those little advent side-stories that reveals far more than we take time to hear.

Mary, pregnant, unmarried, fresh from her shattering encounter with Gabriel, hurried off to the hills to see her much older relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth, past the time of childbearing, is pregnant with the soon-to-be-born John, the John who will become the prophet John the Baptist, the John predicted to her husband by Gabriel.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.


That little paragraph stirs up so many themes:

1.      Elizabeth’s obedience to the Spirit’s prompting. She sounds a little out there. How does she know Mary will respond well to what she says? Yet Elizabeth’s obedience in sharing what she was given to say deepened Mary’s own faith and obedience, and is handed down to us, all these years later, as an example of the Spirit’s action.

2.      The importance of rich, encouraging friendship among women (and men) of very different ages. Who is reinforcing the anti-Christian idea that we should only be friends with people our own age? How many times has God spoken through me to people much older? Much younger? How many times has God used courageous,s much younger people, faithful much older people, to nurture and encourage my faith?

3.      The spiritual liveliness of an unborn child. If John, in his mother’s womb, could respond to his unborn savior, Jesus, what does that tell us about when life begins? About the spiritual nurture of preborn children? About the potential spiritual responsiveness of even our smallest family members? Interesting to consider.

But the part of the story I’ve been considering comes next, Mary’s song of praise, often called “the Magnificat.”

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. 



I’ve always been struck by the prophetic beauty of Mary’s song. Clearly these words go beyond her own understanding, as prophetic words always do. They point to God’s faithfulness across generations, and the power of his plan.

But there’s an edge to this song, as there’s an edge to any prophetic message. As God extends his mercy, he scatters the proud. As he lifts the humble, he brings down rulers. As he fills the hungry, he sends the rich away empty.

I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination, on the strong recommendation of our son. His insights into the announcement of the kingdom of God shed light on Mary’s song:

“The coming of Jesus meant the abrupt end of things as they were. . . . But surely implicit in the announcement [of the kingdom] is the counterpart that present kingdoms will end and be displaced.... The announcement carries within it a harsh criticism of all those powers and agents of the present order. His message was to the poor, but others kept them poor and benefited from their poverty. He addressed the captives, but others surely wanted that arrangement unchanged. He named the oppressed, but there are never oppressed without oppressors.”


Mary’s song of joy and praise was sung from the margins, on behalf of all those on the margins who wait with joy for the coming king. But her song was a threat to those in places of power: to Herod, to the Pharisees, to the rich, the rulers, the proud. In her song, Mary pictured a new reality.  According to Brueggemann, that’s what prophets do: help us see, and grieve, the present order, and help us imagine, look toward, believe possible, act in harmony with, the new reality that’s been promised.

Brueggemann returned to this theme in a later article (The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity):

As a little child Jesus must often have heard his mother, Mary, singing. And as we know, she sang a revolutionary song, the Magnificat--the anthem of Luke's Gospel. She sang about neighborliness: about how God brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; about how God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Mary did not make up this dangerous song. She took it from another mother, Hannah, who sang it much earlier to little Samuel, who became one of ancient Israel's greatest revolutionaries. Hannah, Mary, and their little boys imagined a great social transformation. Jesus enacted his mother's song well. Everywhere he went he broke the vicious cycles of poverty, bondage, fear and death; he healed, transformed, empowered and brought new life. Jesus' example gives us the mandate to transform our public life.


In our sermon today, Geof Morin talked about the cost of planting our feet firmly in the reality of the Christmas story. If the genealogical record in Matthew 1 is true, if the angel’s message to Joseph is true, if the coming of the savior, Jesus Christ, is true, how do we live that out? What does it cost us? How do the patterns of our daily life reflect this radical reality?

We’ll be singing lots of Christmas songs in the next week. Whose songs are they? Whose reality do they represent?

As I tally my Christmas spending, I find myself wondering: Am I one of the rich Mary sang about, one of those who will be brought low? Am I among the proud? Do I benefit from oppression? Do I quietly support the current regime, and turn from the oppressed?

As I plan my time for the week ahead, I wonder: how can I live more faithfully as a visible witness of a new kingdom, when I’m so firmly entrenched in the old one?

And what am I hoping for? That’s the question I find myself asking, as I prepare for Christmas, write my Christmas cards, finish my shopping, pull out my cookie recipes. At the end of the day, at the beginning of the day, what am I hoping for?

And what am I doing, now, to make that hope visible?

A friend, Chaz Howard, chaplain at UPenn, was featured this morning in an Inquirer article. His resolution11.org is one place to start the conversation.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fifty-Five!

Today is my birthday. I’m fifty-five, and since I was born in 1955, this seems like a significant celebration. Fortunately, 20th Century Fox decided to release the new Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in honor of the occasion, so it will be a very merry day.

I’ve been thinking about age, and how uncomfortable women can be admitting their real age. We’re supposed to be forever 29, as if that’s somehow the golden moment of womanhood. My own memory of 29 is of no sleep, no free time, and bouts of young-mother depression. Not a stage I’d willingly return to.

In most other cultures, age is considered an asset, not a liability. Social status increases with age, and elders of both genders are honored for their wisdom, experience, and knowledge.

The U.S., with its love of the individual, its disdain for wisdom, and its endorsement of eternal adolescence, continues to forge new ground in fear of growing older. Hair color sales have doubled since 2001; plastic surgery and botox injections continue to rise far faster than projections suggested.

While men are impacted by this love of youth, women seem to bear a heavier burden. How many men lie about their age? Various studies have shown that women are perceived as old, on average, ten years before men. Women are targeted far more heavily for treatments and products that minimize the appearance of aging, and are far more likely than men to feel dissatisfied with their appearance. In 2009, women received over four million botox injections, (94 % of the total number), and 7.2 million cosmetic surgery procedures (87 % of the total). 75% of women over 40 dye their hair, compared to about 5% of men.

My own hair started turning grey before I turned thirty. Pressured by friends, I bought a box of Clairol hair color and took it home to read the label. It looked like more time and bother than I was willing to spend. At the time, my concern was both time and money, which were in equally short supply. When I raised the question with friends, they had strong opinions on the wisdom of home vs. salon dying, but not so much wisdom on the question of why do it at all. Why? “If you don’t, you’ll look old!”

I tend to look at decisions from the standpoint of Luke 14: “If one of you wants to build a tower, won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” Sitting on my bed, staring once again at that box of Clairol hair dye, I pictured the hours adding up to weeks, the dollars adding up to thousands. And finally threw the box away.

When the topic came up several years later, I added concern about the health risks of hair dye: coal tar (listed as FD&C or D&C on ingredients labels) has been linked to bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma. Another common ingredient, lead acetate, is banned in Europe, since studies have suggested it disrupts heart activity, causes neurological problems, and can lead to fetal mortality. Wouldn’t the FDA tell us if hair dyes weren’t safe? Unfortunately, they have no oversight of hair dye, or any other cosmetic, cream, fragrance, or shampoo.

Add some unexplored environmental concerns: does anyone have any idea where all those chemicals go? Once they’re in our water, is there any hope of getting them out?

Time, money, health, environment. My current deepest concern is the American obsession with appearance. If women my age cave to the pressure to artificially change our appearance, what does that say to younger women, watching us? In a culture obsessed with physical beauty, in a world where digital presentations of women create impossible expectations, the pressure on teen girls continues to grow. The age of first cosmetic surgery, first Botox injection, first use of hair dye, all press lower every year. Add the danger of eating disorders, and the epidemic of depression and anxiety for girls who don’t measure up. Dove has done a good job of depicting the strain (beauty pressure / photoshopped beauty / true colors).  I’m not sure they’ve offered solutions.  

In talking with teen girls about appearance, I can’t help but refer to Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. We live in a world where corporations profit from our dissatisfaction. As we conform to the world’s patterns we internalize its values until we, like those around us, value others for their appearance, dismiss those who are “ugly” or “old,” rest our own joy on how we think we look each morning. 

We’ve been sold a very expensive lie: combine the dollars we spend on appearance each year, and we’d have the funds to solve extreme poverty. Easily.

We won’t break free on our own, but we can offer ourselves, our aging, imperfect, physical selves, in gratitude, not complaint. God made us. Short, tall, skinny, plump, wrinkles, zits, bad hair days. We can wage the futile fight against time, or we can turn our attention to more important, more eternal things:
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness;
   come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
   It is he who made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
   and his courts with praise;
   give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
   his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent Two

Today was the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday we light the candle representing peace, and read the story of John the Baptist’s baptism of his cousin, Jesus.

It’s always seems an odd juxtaposition, but this Sunday the irony of it hit me harder than usual. John is proclaiming the coming of the Prince of Peace, and calling people to prepare. He announces that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and surely expects to participate fully in that kingdom as it becomes apparent on the earth.

But anyone who knows the little bits about John we’re given in scripture would know that before long John will be in prison, wondering why the kingdom hasn’t appeared in the way he expected. And not long after that, he’ll be dead, beheaded by a petty dictator trying to impress a teenage girl.

Like John the Baptist, we live in a between time – the kingdom is at hand; the kingdom is coming. We live with disappointment, and doubt, and the more obedient we’ve tried to be, the more deeply we feel the pain of trusting in a promise that hasn’t yet appeared.

The story of John’s doubt appears in Matthew 11: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

That’s not the real question. John knew without question the answer to that one: Jesus was the Messiah, prophesied by angels, confirmed by miracles in his own life and his cousin's, affirmed yet again by a voice from heaven. The real question was one John was afraid to ask: If you’re the Messiah, and if I’ve been faithful, why am I here, in prison? Why have you forgotten me? Why did this obedience gig end up so very badly?

John proclaimed Jesus’ coming by quoting Isaiah; Jesus responded to John’s question by quoting Isaiah as well. “Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. “ It’s an obvious reference, and expansion, of Isaiah 61, the text Jesus read in the synagogue when he began his years of ministry.

None of that was new to John. But “as John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John.” After asking “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Jesus affirmed that John was a prophet, “and more than a prophet. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist . . . .”

Part of the question that rises up in us, when we’ve tried to serve, to be obedient, to live in the way we believe God has called us, is this: Did I hear it right? Was I a fool to believe it? Did God really have a plan for me, or was I just supposed to put life on cruise-control, take it easy, not take my faith so seriously?

Somehow, we’ve been lead to think that if God really called us, it would go easily. If we’re following God’s plan, things should be smooth. Doesn’t God bless us if we obey? Isn’t that what confirmation looks like? Can't we expect visible success? Problems solved?

When things don’t go well, when things appear to fall apart, when troubles threaten and friends turn away, our immediate thought is “I must have misunderstood.”

But Jesus was clear: John, you’re right on track. A prophet, and more than a prophet. Don’t second guess it because you’re in prison. Don’t let your followers, or friends, or the people around you, discount you because it looks like it’s coming to a painful end.

There’s another part of John’s question, though: Have you forgotten me? Was I faithful for nothing?

Jesus’ answer has baffled commentators, puzzled preachers, and prompted one of the most compelling, troubling works of American fiction, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away:

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.”

Jesus said plenty of puzzling things, and translation often poses an additional problem in understanding what was meant. Did Jesus mean that the kingdom of heaven is subject to violent attack? That’s one way to read it, but there are others (quick summaries of quite a few).

My own impression is that Jesus was still building on the theme he started in the teaching of the previous chapter, Matthew 10: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."

John the Baptist’s crossroad is one that any Christian struggling to serve, grow, and live faithfully will face. The choices are obvious. Some decide the whole thing was a sham from the start. If it can go this badly, obviously, there was nothing to it. Better to sleep in on Sunday mornings and set the whole endeavor aside. Others decide that autopilot might be a good alternative. Sure, God is real, but it’s not worth the hassle to try to figure out what He’s up to. Show up Sunday morning, agree to whatever “propositional truth” will cause least pain, and go about your daily business. Most pews are full of quietly discouraged disciples, who thought it should be easy, and settled for less when the going got hard.

Then there’s the path of that cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11, that path of courageous faith, sacrifice and struggle that can lead to great victory, amazing miracles, martyrdom, apparent defeat. Whenever my own path seems less than successful, or more difficult than I had hoped, I remind myself of that amazing litany:

I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—  the world was not worthy of them.

Flannery O’Connor, discussing The Violent Bear it Away, wrote to a friend: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

As the days grow short and the weather cold, a big electric blanket would be nice. But even in this advent season, when we’re tempted by calls to every convenience and teased with visions of ease and plenty, Jesus calls us to be on guard, to stand firm, and to look to him as the example of what this life of faith will be. As he said again, not long before his own death: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Generational Sabbath

Sixteen years ago the Kuniholm family gathered for a two-day Thanksgiving celebration, a combined family reunion/ lock-in at a church where one family member was pastor.  That initial event turned into a long run of bi-annual Thanksgiving gatherings, with wheel-chair races, impromptu plays, endless rounds of hide-and-seek, and plenty of amusing stories I’m not at liberty to share.

When job changes made the church gathering space unavailable, the tradition faltered, but the discovery of an affordable and available retreat center opened new possibilities. This year, from Thanksgiving until the Saturday after, twenty-five Kuniholms gathered at the Welcoming Place, a simple, beautifully-executed, environmentally-friendly Mennonite center.

Dan Allender, in Sabbath, says “To practice eternity on the Sabbath, we must give way to curiousity, coziness, and care.” It’s hard to explore those in a fast-paced holiday dinner, with half the crowd worrying about gravy, half wondering which team is winning, one eye on the weather, kids shy around relatives they haven’t seen in months - or years. Spread the time a little, though, and much deeper connections become possible.

When we started our Thanksgiving gatherings, we had one set of grandparents, four siblings and their spouses, and seven grandchildren. We’ve added five more grandchildren ,and one grandchild has married, adding another member of the “cousin” generation  and two small great-grandchildren, just two years behind the youngest of the cousins

Pie is a strong family tradition – and we had twelve: pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No one counted the pots of coffee, but there were many. Hide and seek for the small ones gave way to impromptu charades, then a silly sliding game across the radiant concrete floor. Fast-paced Dutch Blitz, contentious Settlers of Catan, Set, ping-pong and carpet pool kept older cousins and parents occupied, along with excursions to the Lancaster market and to an area rec center.

There is something about multigenerational play that helps create a sense of belonging, that lowers barriers between generations and creates shared laughter and memories. After dinner one night, one of our teens suggested a game he’d learned in his youth group, and soon we were laughing and sending crazy signs around the room.

More memorable than the games, though, were the conversations. It was exciting to hear our oldest family members sharing new experiences in contemplative prayer, encouraging to hear the stories of God’s financial provision through the past two difficult years, exciting to hear new directions God has taken some of us, to share our own sense of what God is asking, and to hear that affirmed in the responses of others.

What a luxury to have time for questions beyond the obvious. We had time to ask “What books have been shaping you and your thinking?” “What’s next on your reading list?” Time to ask “What do you want to accomplish in the year ahead?” A surprise question prompted good conversation: “If you had to try a new job – for a year – and it didn’t matter if you were good at it, or prepared, what would you like to try?”

Much has been written about how today’s adolescents are segregated and cut off from older generations, and the damage done as they try to navigate life without the example of an extended community of elders. Chap Clark’s Hurt explores this in depth, observing “We are a culture that has forgotten how to be together,” to the great harm of our children.

But the harm extends beyond children. All of us need to be reminded of our value in God’s larger family, and all of us need to see, in the lives of those we come to know well, the continuing work of maturity.  We are not alone in this walk of faith; as the generations are woven together, God’s care, purpose, and provision become clearer.

Our family gathering was one form of generational Sabbath, and treasured more deeply because we weren’t sure those gatherings would continue. I’ve also experienced that kind of Sabbath on some of our youth retreats. Youth ministry, at its best, can provide that same expansive opportunity to see God at work across generations. Our spring retreats often offered a similar sense of play, care, gratitude, excitement. Our legendary Golden Fleece games allowed adults and teens to face each other in play, while ample free time allowed more casual groupings of older and younger adults, college students, older and younger teens. In large and small groups, as we shared our stories, we could see the ongoing work of God in different personalities, different stages of life. And as we shared repeated retreats together, we could look back at moments when we had seen God move powerfully, and look ahead to what he would continue to do.

In an odd way, our mission trips to Kensington, an inner city neighborhood in Philly, have provided generational Sabbath as well. I was most conscious of this this past summer, knowing the trip would be my last. I went into it feeling physically tired and spiritually drained. I had just started reading Sabbath, and was wrestling with some of Allender’s ideas: division surrenders to shalom, destitution surrenders to abundance, despair surrenders to joy.  I began to pray that God would allow me to experience the trip as Sabbbath, not sure what that would look like.

What I saw and experienced surprised me. For the team, the week, despite the work and challenging circumstances, provided a kind of multigenerational fellowship rarely experienced. Team members from their sixties (the vicar of our partner church) down to early teens played games together (Apples to Apples - endlessly), told stories, worshipped together late into the evening. We shared uncertainties, prayed about challenges, told stories of our own walk with Christ, discussed what we were reading and thinking.

Each evening, from five to seven, the team went into the neighborhood to create a Sabbath space for children, teens, parents, grandparents. The fenced church yard became a place of shalom, safety, fun, for everyone who gathered. As we shared, from our different ages and our own unique experiences, our view of God’s goodness at work in us, and in the world, as we shared our knowledge of what God is doing, now, and our hope of what he will do, tomorrow, next week, on into the future, we were all enriched, strengthened, encouraged, fed.

“Sabbath calls us to act against division and destitution – defying it through the celebration of peace and abundance. We are invited to write the script for our character each week, to act on the stage of Sabbath a new play of redemption. We are to pretend, to play as if the new heavens and earth have dawned and all despair and death have been swallowed into the glory of the resurrection. For Christians the Sabbath is the day we play in the light of untrammeled freshness.” Allender

During our trip, instead of using my daily “rest and reflection” time for rest, planning, weary prayer, I found myself reflecting joyfully on God’s goodness, and writing poetry for the first time in years. The challenges hadn’t changed – my perspective had. Which is what Sabbath is about: taking time to shift perspective. Taking time to see from God’s point of view, rather than my own. Taking time to sit with others, older, younger, further along in the journey, just starting.  Taking time to listen for the cries of justice, the whispers of blessing. Asking God to make us more fully alive in fellowship with each other.

A few Kensington Sabbath poems:


Justice is this ache,
This lingering limp – this –
Silence, echoing.


God breathes, a breeze stirs
Cool air from the river, sweet
Whisper of blessing.


I will pray . . .
I will
For hope beyond this corner bar,
For joy that lifts
Beyond the salsa beat
And rains
Like kindness
Down on flat tar roofs,
For peace, a peace beyond mere calm,
A peace that sings
That blooms
That shimmers off the streets
And shines
Like sun
On sun-starved skin.
I’ll pray.
But if I pray, good God,
But if I stay
Alive enough
To care
To hope
To wait
Then meet me here
Right here
Beneath the broken light
Here, on this narrow strip
Of rubbled pavement
Meet
And teach
My tired
Feet
To
Dance




Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Grandma and Gratitude

Today is my grandmother, Elda Capra’s, birthday.  I’ve always connected her birthday with Thanksgiving, since we often celebrated both together. Eight years ago, for her ninetieth birthday, we had a grand Thanksgiving/ birthday celebration, complete with pie, her famous cheesecake, and every other celebration food we could think of. Seven years ago, just weeks before Thanksgiving, we celebrated her life, and the fact that she had been granted her wish to be in heaven before her next birthday.

She was my best example of gratitude, and a reminder, even now, of what it means to find joy in a place of obedience to God’s sovereignty and provision. By any worldly standard, she never had much. She quit school after just a few days of ninth grade, embarrassed at the fact that she had only two threadbare dresses to wear. She left home in her early teens, and supported herself until her marriage at 16 to an often abusive man ten years older. She parented four sons, then, months after the youngest started college, took on the burden of four grandchildren.

Elda grew up in rural Oklahoma, honed her housekeeping skills during the depression, never fed her family packaged cereal, baked her own bread long after, and long before, home-baked bread was popular. She worked hard into her eighties, grew her own tomatoes whenever possible, harvested wild raspberries for jam, fell several times in search of wild watercress for her much-loved watercress sandwiches.

Grandma rarely rested. But when she did, it was with a sense of celebration. When she pulled two chairs under her massive lilac bushes and poured the iced tea, it was a party. When she took off her shoes and put her feet in a stream, it was clear: Sabbath is here.  Simple picnics, with Grandma, were an occasion, a celebration, a time to pause and give thanks.

Elda believed, wholeheartedly, unreservedly, in God’s provision. She was fifty-six when her husband sold the house we lived in and she found herself piecing together a life for herself and four grandchildren. I remember her saying, when people asked how we would manage: Sometimes at night my mind gets going, but then I review scripture, and I go right to sleep.  

She had many passages about God’s faithfulness and provision stored away in her memory; they found their way into her conversation, and it was rare to discuss anything of importance without some direct quote from the Bible. Her Bible was open on the kitchen table every morning before breakfast, and most days started with some observation or question from that morning’s study. She was a gifted Bible study leader, and in her sixties and seventies led well-attended studies in homes of people she had introduced to Christ.

For Grandma, riches had nothing to do with things, money, leisure, travel. She marveled at the complexities of seeds and buds, the songs of birds, the colors of fall leaves. She loved conversation, meeting new people, looking for ways God worked in people’s lives. She enjoyed hymns, momentos of God’s faithfulness handed down across the centuries. And she treasured the Bible, every word of it, puzzling over the harder passages, looking for themes, patterns, instruction, wisdom, reminders of God’s love.

This past week, reading poems about Thanksgiving to the smallest family members, I was struck by the reality of the Pilgrim’s celebration. They had stared death in the face, they had weathered a hard winter, they knew how precarious life can be. Yet, they could see evidence of God’s goodness: unexpected, undeserved friendship; unfamiliar, filling food. They weren’t out of difficulty, but they could look back with gratitude, and look ahead with hope, knowing that, as William Bradford wrote, “they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity.”

Our extended family will be gathering this Thanksgiving, carrying on the heritage of Grandma’s pies, celebrating God’s blessings through the past years and his promise of provision for the years ahead, the beauty of his creation, the glory of his plans, the incredible complexity and richness of his work in us, and in the world. 

To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins in "Pied Beauty":
                            
    Glory be to God for dappled things—
        For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
            For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
        Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
            And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
        Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
            With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change: 

                                                Práise hím.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sabbath

When I left my position as youth director at the Church of the Good Samaritan, I planned to take three months of “Sabbath” while discerning what might come next.

It’s interesting how much discussion that simple word, “Sabbath,” sparked. What is it? How do you do it?

I’m still sorting that out. I was trained to stay busy. I can sleep late- but rarely. I can hang in the hammock – if I’m reading something useful, planning something in my head, or taking a short break from the gardening at hand.

Three months of Sabbath?

A huge help along the way has been a book named, simply, Sabbath, by Dan. B. Allender. Its part of the new Ancient Practices series; Phyllis Tickle is general editor of the series. Looking at the list of authors involved, I’ll definitely be reading more of the series.

What I’ve enjoyed about Allender’s approach is that it’s not so much about keeping the “day” of Sabbath, although that’s part of it. Instead, he suggests that experiencing Sabbath more deeply is a way to reset the defaults inside us, reorient our vision, and find our place again in the larger plan.

I’ve always thought of Sabbath as partly about rules, and partly about rest. Both, I confess, bore me. And who would want three months of either?

Allender suggests that the key to Sabbath is joy. Puzzling over God’s “rest” on the seventh day described in Genesis 2, Allender suggests “it should be obvious that God rests not because he was weary from his labor.” As Isaiah reminds us, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary.”

Seems kind of obvious. But that suggests we’ve misunderstood some key point in the rationale for Sabbath. According to Allender, “Menuha is the Hebrew word for rest, but it is better translated as joyous repose, tranquility, or delight. . . God didn’t rest in the sense of taking a nap or chilling out; instead, God celebrated and delighted in his creation.”

Allender explores this idea of celebration and delight, our uneasiness with the idea that
God desires our joy, our preference for forging ahead on our own rather than pause long enough to see what wonders God has in mind.

The central section of Allender’s book considers “Sabbath purpose” as seen through the avenue of play. I honestly don’t remember, ever, hearing play discussed in the context of the Christian faith, yet play is deeply important to me, and I found the discussion of play, in the context of Sabbath, compelling.

I was grieving a bit the loss of play as I stepped out of active youth ministry. I have never lost my love of play – Capture the Flag in the woods, Boggle around a ski lodge table, impromptu games made up by girls in pajamas at a Girls’ Night lock-in. One of the tragedies of American adulthood is that play is so narrowly permitted. In fact, think about it – for American women past a certain age, what kind of play, if any, is allowed? Yet youth ministry has given me space to stand on my head, reenact “Three Chartreuse Buzzards,” and trash talk the opposition during our legendary games of Golden Fleece (not to mention the ongoing excuse to practice my offense in foosball).

Allender rescues play, and reminds his readers of its incredible value as a way to step outside of what is and see what might be, just as a small child might try on a Superman cape to explore a very different persona.

Jürgen Moltmann, a theologian whose work centers on the interplay of creation, liberation, future, and play, writes:

 We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo . . . the significance of games is identical with that of the arts, namely to construct ‘anti-environments’ and ‘counter-environments’ to ordinary and everyday human environments and through the conscious confrontation of these to open up creative freedom and future alternatives. We are no longer playing merely with the past in order to escape it for a while, but we are increasingly playing with the future in order to get to know it. Theology of Play

I remember playing paintball several years ago with a middle school boy who was used to being discounted. Both he and I, I’m sad to say, had been considered extraneous by our highly-competitive team. Our captain had a strategy that didn’t include either of us, and, feeling a little left out, we planned our own simple maneuver. To the surprise of both teams, my normally timid accomplice captured the flag and delivered it to the other team’s pole, while I provided cover and shouted encouragement. It was just a game, yet the alternative environment, our freedom to act, our escape of our predetermined roles, shifted things in every direction.

Allender says “Play redistributes power and gives the opportunity for convention to be reconfigured by the unexpected and the inconceivable.” This is true in games of every kind, but Allender is on to something bigger: What would it mean to play with God? It sounds faintly heretical. Does God play?

In a spiritual direction session a number of years ago, I had mentioned some difficulties and challenges I was facing. I was invited to spend some time in silence, picturing those challenges and inviting God to show me his presence in the midst of them. I imagined a long, mountainous path, strewn with heavy boulders. The terrain ahead seemed so daunting I couldn’t imagine moving forward. Then, as I invited God to show me his presence, I had a clear sense of Jesus himself, running lightly over the tops of the boulders. He motioned to me to follow and I stood, unable to move, conscious of my own poor balance, my serious fear of heights.

“What would you like to do?” he called. “Shall we dance across? Should I carry you over? Or . . .” I remember the unexpected sense of glee I heard in his voice, “shall we heave them all out of the way?”

I caught a glimpse of delight and play in that moment of meditation. My own approach to problems had always been much heavier. Yet, as I've seen so often since, to God every challenge is an occasion for him to show his grace, his strength, his goodness, an “opportunity for convention to be reconfigured by the unexpected and the inconceivable.” A chance to break through my narrow view with his greater, more joyful reality.

The path leading up to this time of Sabbath felt a bit like that path littered by boulders. In every direction lay uncertainty, challenge, difficulty, even dread. Yet, as I’ve begun to see what God has planned, I’ve experienced a sense of being lighter on my feet, less fearful of the heights around me, more eager to see what it would be like to live in a reconfigured landscape.

I have much more to process about Sabbath, and more to learn from my own Sabbath as I pass the half-way point. But here’s a start: forget about rules, rest, “retirement.” Think about delight, joy, play.

One last quote from Allender: “Imagine a friend asked you, ‘What do you most want to do, to know, and to give away in the last third of your life?’ How would you respond? Many of us would be irritated. We don’t know. We don’t have time to ponder the question.”

Sabbath is the place, time, opportunity, to explore those questions more deeply. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

As Long as It's Real

In Anthropologie, a trendy shop on Lincoln Road, in South Beach, Miami, I heard a catchy anthem for the sovereignty of self:

Say what you say,
Do what you do
Feel what you feel,
As long as it's real.
I said take what you take
And give what you give
Just be what you want,
Just as long as it's real. 

The song, by Brit Lily Allen, came out in 2006, but it’s still getting plenty of radio play. Listen to the repeated chorus a few times and it’s easy to buy the idea: say, do, be what you want, “just as long as it’s real.”

The idea certainly seems harmless enough on a bright breezy day, eating lunch al fresco under the palms that line Lincoln Road, watching the monk parakeets swooping overhead, with all the best a material world has to offer stretched out in every direction.

But come back later to see where that road ends, and review the varied definitions of "wasted". Or wander through Lummus Park, a few short blocks away, and consider how “do what you do” plays itself out in the lives of the drunks and druggies asleep under the sea grape trees, or eating what they find in the trash cans lining Ocean Drive.

Just days before my South Beach travels, a gay friend and I met to talk about faith and practice in a sexually broken, morally confused world. We both expressed deep ambivalence about the challenges of holding clear moral boundaries; both of us care deeply about messages given to younger Christians about sexuality, gender, and holiness, yet have staked out lines on the “slippery slope” in different places, and for different reasons.

“Doesn’t scripture say God gives us the desires of our heart?”

My friend’s question reminded me of all the fairy tales and fables that warn of wishing for the wrong thing, and the repeated moral: be careful what you wish for.  I know that the desires of my own heart have often headed toward dark destinations. Desire allowed to create its own context is more dangerous than we can imagine. If desire is allowed to define us, or define what’s right, we’re in deep deep trouble.

The accurate quote, in part, is this: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this.” A few verses later: "Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him."

The only safe desires are those lived out in a place of trusting God, and waiting patiently for him. If our first delight is in God, if our context is trust in him, our deepest desires will be fellowship with him, glory for his name, obedience to his word. Which brings us right back to the question of sovereignty: who gets to decide what’s best for me? Is it me? Or is it God? We are deeply in need of a theology of desire. That “I want” voice we’re all born with gets stronger every time it wins.

I’m reminded of a passage from Lewis’ essay, “The Weight of Glory”:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

It’s not that God wants to deprive us, kill our joy, make us lonely, miserable, unfulfilled. It’s that the things we think we want, the people we think we want to be, the fulfillment we look for are far less real, far less grand, than what God has in mind. We have no idea what’s “real” apart from him.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Self and Sovereignty

As I’ve been reading and reflecting this past month, one issue that keeps bubbling up is identity, and the “sovereignty of self.” On a road trip to Cape May I listened to a great seminar by Paul Tripp, “Your Walk with God is a Community Project.” He argues that it takes an intentional, grace-filled community to help us claim and live into our identity in Christ. On our own, we slip into finding our identity in job descriptions, accumulated “stuff,” the fulfillment of desires that lead us farther from who God created us to be.

At the same time, readings in Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest have been highlighting the challenge of identification with Christ, and the call to live as totally new creations, set free from our own desires, our own prejudices, our own preferences and self-indulgences. Today’s reading focused on Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ.” Until we come to that break with the sovereignty of self, Chambers says, “all the rest is pious fraud. The one point to decide is – will I give up, will I surrender to Jesus Christ, and make no conditions whatever . . . I must be broken from my self-realization . . . The passion of Christianity is that I deliberately sign away my own rights and become a bondslave of Jesus Christ.”

In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson comes at this same topic from another angle: “We live in an age in which we have all been trained from the cradle to choose for ourselves what is best for us. . . . Our tastes, inclinations, and appetites are consulted endlessly. . . . If the culture does a thorough job on us – and it turns out to be mighty effective with most of us – we enter adulthood with the working assumption that whatever we need and want and feel forms the divine control center of our lives.”

According to Peterson, the kingdom of God has been replaced by the kingdom of self: “My feelings are the truth of who I am. Any thing or person who can provide me with ecstasy, with excitement, with joy, with stimulus, with spiritual connection validates my sovereignty.”

The sovereignty of self works its way out in how we pursue careers or calling, our use, or misuse, of Christian community, our failures in marriage, our self-indulgent parenting. It also shapes our understanding of sexuality. I’ve been wrestling with Mark Yarhouse’s very helpful book, Homosexuality and the Christian. He talks about what he calls the gay script, one rooted firmly in the sovereignty of self:

·         Same-sex attractions signal a naturally occurring or “intended by God” distinction between homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality
·         Same-sex attractions are the way you know who you “really are” as a person (emphasis on discovery)
·         Same-sex attractions are at the core of who you are as a person.
·         Same-sex behaviour is an extension of that core.
·         Self-actualization (behaviour that matches who you “really are”) of your sexual identity is crucial for your fulfillment. (p48)

This all makes sense if the self is “the authoritative text” (Peterson’s very perceptive term), but for Christians who are willing to submit to the authority of scripture, rather than the authority of self, another script is possible:

·         Same-sex attraction does not signal a categorical distinction among types of person, but is one of many human experiences that are “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
·         Same-sex attractions may be part of your experience, but they are not the defining element of your identity.
·         You can choose to integrate your experiences of attraction to the same sex into a gay identity.
·         On the other hand, you can choose to center your identity around other aspects of your experience, including your biological sex, gender identity, and so on.
·         The most compelling aspect of personhood for the Christian is one’s identity in Christ, a central and defining aspect of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (p. 51)

These scripts are a helpful way to think about gender and sexual orientation, but give insight into other conditions and desires we struggle with. “I’m just an angry person.” “I just find I need to talk about things. I can’t really help it if sounds like gossip.” At every turn, we’re tempted to the sovereignty of self, "self-actualization" that defies God's call to holiness. At every turn, we can choose to define ourselves according to who we “really are,” or we can find who we really are in our identification with the death and resurrection of Christ.

Am I seeking myself? Or am I seeking Christ? There’s a cost either way, a choice either way, and that choice defines my future. 

There’s a stanza at the end of Eliot’s Journey of the Magi that captures this reality, the death to self and “the old dispensation” that is an essential part of birth in Christ:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for a
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Story

Eugene Peterson, in Eat This Book, says “We live in an age impoverished of story.” I’m wrestling with the idea of story, of text: where do we find ourselves in the larger story? Who decides which stories are worth reading, worth remembering? What do we do with the words God gives us, with the Word God gives us? How do we live into the story God has given us?

My own story has unfolded, and continues to unfold, in ways very far from what I imagined. The adventures have been deeper, the challenges richer, the rewards sweeter, than I could have foreseen, yet I still struggle when the plot takes unexpected turns.

I struggle as well with the sense of call. I have many friends in their early twenties, wondering what God is calling them to, anxious to see the story settle into a more expected pace. Yet I’m learning calling is never complete – each day is a new word to be wrestled with; each morning the Word pulls me deeper into this story beyond my control.

In To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future, Dan Allender asks “What sort of author do you have?” My author is mysterious, wise, amusing, gracious beyond understanding. Yet, knowing that, I struggle, daily, with the longing to grab hold of the text of my life and write my own next chapter. Not because mine would be better. I know without question that whatever story I dream up for myself would be far smaller than the story God is unfolding.

It’s a question of pace: I want to get on with it. Show me the next thing, and I’ll run do it. But if the next thing is to wait, to listen, to be still and know who is God, and who isn’t, my fast-food self jumps up in indignation. I want explanations, instant assignments, obvious resolutions.

As I’ve been rereading the stories of the Old Testament, kings planning for war, women waiting for children, impatience emerges as an obvious point of temptation. More than one story takes a tragic turn out of sheer frustration with God’s apparent failure to speak or show up. Yet God’s glory is often shown in that space between desire and completion –

Section V of Burnt Norton, the first of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, describes the tension between movement and stillness, between desire and the timeless love beyond desire:
“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.  . . .  The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.”

Words matter; The Word matters more. Our stories call us, yet their importance, and our own calling, is found in the larger story. And the patterns of our lives require times of stillness as well as times of movement. At each turn of the page, as each chapter unfolds, we’re drawn back to the painful task of waiting for the author of our stories to reveal his perfect plan:

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.