Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Faithfulness and Loyalty

At the beginning of this series I described the path of discipleship as one that seeks to develop a number of virtues and ideals.  For the past few weeks I have been writing about compassion and the works of justice and mercy that flow from compassion.  This week I want to start by talking about the virtue of loyalty and faithfulness.

                Earlier in this series, I wrote several posts about the virtue of love; how the love of God, especially for Christians the love of God as seen in Jesus, can inspire love within us, a love that extends from us back to God and to the world around us.  The important realization is that this love begins with God.  A common image is the Christian life as akin to the moon, shining with a light that is not of our origin, but a reflection of the love of God. “We love God because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).

                For many decades we have used the language of love as the primary description of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us.  However, for much of the Hebrew Scriptures, the primary description of our relationship with God is not about love but about loyalty and faithfulness. 

                There is a phrase that is used several times in the Hebrew Scriptures as a formulaic description of God.  For instance, in my congregation, during Lent, we prepare to hear the gospel text with a quotation from the prophet Joel:
                “Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  (Joel 2:13)

                When I was in seminary I had a Hebrew professor who strongly disagreed with the translation, “steadfast love.”  He told us that the Hebrew word (chesed) is related to loyalty and faithfulness.  He translated it with the fancy phrase, “covenant fidelity”.  Chesed is more about the nature of God keeping God’s promises than it is the warm, fuzzy feeling that sometimes gets associated with love.  Joel presents a God who will be faithful to Israel, not because Israel is great or perfect or loving, but because God is a God who makes and keeps promises.  This is a significant idea because the covenants that God makes with Israel are often one-sided and unconditional.  God does not say to Abram, “If you are good, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”  God simply says, “I will make of you a great nation.”(Genesis 12:2)  God is and remains loyal and faithful.

                In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists faithfulness as one of the fruits of the spirit.  It is more than simply holding a set of beliefs.  Faithfulness is an attitude of being invested in those beliefs.  This is not an argument for blind faith, accepting things without question.  My understanding of faithfulness is the ability to stand in faith despite questions and struggles.  For me, the image of faithfulness is the image of Jacob wrestling with the divine and refusing to let go. (Genesis 32:22-32)

                Faithfulness in practice is also well-described by many of the Christian mystics.  The 16th century Spanish nun, Teresa of Avila speaks of periods of dryness in prayer.  At the beginning of the new practice, the disciple is thrilled and comforted by the action of contemplative prayer, but one day she sits in prayer and discovers nothing: no feeling of warmth, no sense of nearness to God.  Faithfulness is what continues the practice through such dry spells.  For John of the Cross, a dear friend of Teresa, faithfulness is what allows Christians to endure the “dark night of the soul,” a period when all the trappings of faith lose their meaning.  It is the virtue of faithfulness that turns the dark night into a transition period to a deeper relationship with God.

                Unfortunately, the church moved from a message of faithfulness to a message of guilt.  Rather than saying that we take part in the practices of discipleship out of a sense of loyalty to God, the church taught that we observe these practices out of a sense of guilt or fear, avoiding an angry God.  In some ways I think we overcorrected when we then put all of our focus on love, often arriving at a place of saying, “Take part or don’t; God loves you anyway.”

                I hope that we can find a way to hold loyalty and love in balance.  Growing in loyalty and faithfulness can be a powerful way to deepen our relationship, helping us grow in disciplines which in turn help us spend more time paying attention to God.  I believe that an emphasis on faithfulness can also help create a realistic faith practice, one that does not assume that we should always feel great or we should never have doubts or things will just get better and better.  Faithfulness and loyalty are what can carry us through the troubling times.

                But love is also constantly present when we do slip up or slip away.  God’s love is always there to sustain us, comfort us and welcome us.  Like love, our faithfulness is not our own, but a reflection of the faithfulness of God, who stands waiting to receive us when we turn away and to welcome us when we rediscover the beautiful relationship that is faith. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Justice and Freedom

“…with liberty and justice for all.”  So ends the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States, a pledge I said every morning in elementary school.  If you are looking to take a stance that America is shaped by Judeo-Christian values, that could be a place to begin.  Freedom and justice.  Unfortunately, most often when people make the claim of America as a Christian nation it is more about an appeal for prayer in school or some form of biblical literalism to shape our discussions.

                Again and again in the prophetic texts of the Bible, calls for religious purity are overshadowed by calls to justice.  Again and again, Jesus chooses to set people free: free from hunger, free from illness, free from religious restrictions, free from guilt, free from death.  One can argue that the narrative line of scripture is all about being set free to set others free.

                It seems our natural impulse is like that of Jesus’ story of the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:21-35).  He is the one who is set free from an overwhelming debt to his master only to go out and find another slave who owes him something and demands to be paid in full, even throwing the other person into prison.  Too often in our history, we have celebrated freedom by looking for someone else to bind.  In American history, we can look back to the treatment of African slaves (and African-Americans after slavery), Native American nations or even current discussions of immigration.  Too often we have used bad science, bad theology and bad scholarship to treat different groups as less than human, and if less than human, not equally deserving of freedom or justice.

                The 19th century poet Emma Lazarus, author of “The New Colossus,” the sonnet that appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty once wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”  At the time, the United States was struggling with the implications of European immigration.  This idea was rediscovered a little more than half a century later by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “No one is free until we are all free.”  It was a sentiment that applied to the quest for racial equality for which King is remembered, but also applied to his stance against the Vietnam War and his work to end poverty at the end of his life. 

                Freedom without justice is imaginary.  Freedom without equality is imaginary.  Freedom without peace is imaginary.  If the Church is meant to continue Christ’s vision of setting the world free, the Church must be involved with justice, peace and equality in society.  We are missing the point of the gospel if gospel only leads us to is Sunday morning worship or a few devotional practices.  The cross and resurrection are symbols of the ultimate freedom, freedom from the fear of death itself.  We have been set free to set others free.

                What does mean in our daily lives?  There are few people who can spend all their time traveling from protest to protest or who can wholly devote themselves to people in need in Mother Theresa fashion.  First, seek to grow in compassion.  Compassion is where the work for justice begins.  Earlier articles in this series point to prayerful ways to develop this virtue.  Second, pay attention to your local situation.   Who is experiencing poverty?  Who is left out of local decisions?  What services are available and who is helping?  Perhaps there is someplace where you can volunteer some time.  Perhaps there are needs that you can help supply.  Third, pay attention to where and when decisions are being made.  There is a power in writing letters, being present and asking questions.

                Finally, do all this in love.  It is too easy to let anger at a situation turn into enmity towards a person.  All people are worthy of God’s love and our love.  The call to justice demands that we treat all people as people, even the ones we are frustrated by, even the ones who disagree with us.  It is the inability to treat people as people that leads to inequality and other forms of injustice.  In Christ we are called to share a different way, one that embraces all people in love.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Conservative, Liberal and Progressive Churches

Many books could be and have been written about trends that shape the church.  When I look at my own congregation, I see people who have been affected by many of them.  In this post, I am going to talk about three major strains within the modern, American church: conservative, liberal and progressive.  All three see themselves as faithful.  All three have strengths and weaknesses.  All three are represented in the pews of our congregations.

              The Conservative Church – The Power of Tradition.  Unfortunately, much of the conservative movement has been co-opted by conservative politics in recent years, giving political opinions an anchor among ideas of faith.  Yet the main thrust of conservative religion is an appeal to tradition.  For Christians, it is the idea that the faith which Jesus taught is a constant.  The things he said to first-century Jews are just as relevant to twenty-first century Americans.  Conservatives are much more likely to embrace a literal interpretation of scripture, believing that the text only makes sense if the whole book is true.  While this may put conservatives in conflict with modern science, their faith is strengthened by having a sense of concreteness through appealing to the text.  However, a weakness of this movement is the inability to recognize that the way we think is fundamentally different from first-century Israel.  In spite of the odd “flat-earth” movement, there are few conservatives who think the sun goes around the earth or that the earth is flat as is implied by scripture.  There are far fewer shepherds and peasants in our midst.  Conservatives often miss the fact that they are not the original audience, and even their “traditional” understandings are shaped by 2000 years of study, interpretation and progress.

              Another trend in the conservative movement that is both a strength and weakness is the tendency to focus on personal faith over outward action in society.  It is a strength because such Christians are much more willing to examine their own lives and actions in light of faith.  They are more likely to be shaped by traditional daily disciplines such as scripture-reading and prayer.  At the same time, these traditions can be less likely to be involved in the prophetic calls of scripture, those that push the church toward engagement with people who are poor or those who are weakest in society.

              The Liberal Church -Working for the Reign of God.  Liberalism is where many mainline traditions can be found.  The liberal church tends to give greater weight to passages of scripture that encourage an outward view, noting Christ’s care for the poor and the prophetic call to care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger.  In my own Lutheran tradition, which like many churches has experienced decline for the past view decades, some have argued that as our congregations begin to disappear, our tradition will continue in the many social service organizations that those congregations started.  Liberal mainline churches have been involved with social justice work, hunger relief, and peace work.  They have started hospitals, orphanages, and worked with refugee settlement efforts. 

              The common weakness for these traditions is the failure to share why these actions should be done.  No one will argue that feeding the hungry is a bad thing.  Yet liberal Christians cannot always give a faith-centered reason as to why Christians specifically should be doing them.  As part of a mainline tradition, I can say it sometimes feels like we are feeding others while neglecting to feed ourselves.  Or as one my colleagues put it, we are serving ourselves to death.  No wonder the number of “dones” (folks who used to be part of a church but have walked away) is increasing.
              The Progressive Church  - The Reign of God Has Come Near.  The progressive movement is a newer movement within Christianity that seeks to be a middle way between liberal and conservative.  Its critique of the mainline, liberal tradition is that they have made themselves largely irrelevant by forgetting the personal nature of faith, ignoring the call to personal commitment and devotion.  Their critique of the conservative tradition is both its general ignoring of social justice issues and its inability to define itself apart from power (the religious right) and money (televangelists, multi-million-dollar buildings and the prosperity gospel).  Author Roger Wolsey describes progressive Christianity as "Christianity for people who don't like Christianity."

The progressive church emphasizes the radical nature of the gospel message both in terms of how it impacts one's personal life as well as society at large.  Progressive Christians will take on environmental stewardship as a spiritual discipline.  They may take on simplicity as a way of Christian living.  They also seek to be intentionally inclusive, for instance, asserting that the radical nature of Christ's love and inclusion is more important than any texts that would exclude people in same-sex relationships or the LGBTQ community in general.

This leads to some of the weaknesses of the progressive movement.  While most progressive Christians agree on the spirit of the scriptures, there is not a united interpretation of what that means.  Some progressives emphasize radical community, especially with the poor; others, radical inclusion; still others, radical environmental stewardship.  There are several mini-progressive movements, each with something interesting to say, but not necessarily speaking with a united voice.

Perhaps those unique voices can have impact on the liberal and conservative traditions.  Perhaps progressive conservatives can challenge their church bodies to become more focused on the church's calling to care for those in need.  Perhaps progressive liberals can encourage mainline churches to grow in personal acts of devotion.

Where do you see yourself in the scheme of things and how is the Spirit calling you to grow?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Working for Justice

Working for Justice

And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8

                In talking about discipleship, it is very easy to get caught up in the work of the  individual.  Many traditional acts of discipleship are about a single person establishing habits and practices: pray every day, meditate, say a grace at meals, read scripture.  Even as this series has sought to think of modern acts of discipleship, whether it is stewardship of the body through diet and exercise or determining a faithful way to deal with money, it is still often about the individual making decisions and creating habits, habits which other people may rarely see.

                Compassion begins at an individual level but expands outward.  I have suggested some practices for deepening compassion, but compassion is about the individual getting over him or herself and paying attention to other people.  Likewise, seeking justice pulls Christians from private observance to public witness.  Certainly we can talk about praying for justice as Christian communities, but the prophetic voices of scripture and history and the witness of Jesus himself challenge us to get out of the building and into the world.

                There are a variety of ways to work for justice.  My experience has been that some assume that justice work only involves placards, protests and demonstrations.  Sometimes this kind of action is important and necessary.  There needs to be a physical presence that both supports the one in need and visibly challenges the one in power.  To be completely honest, as a strong introvert, these kinds of events are personally draining.  I am not discounting their importance, just saying that they are not my personal first impulse.  Thankfully, I have many extroverted colleagues who are ready to assembly on the town green at a moment’s notice (and provide the nudging that will drag me along).

                But nonviolent protest or civil disobedience are not the only actions necessary to work for justice.  One of the first things that needs to happen is compassionate listening to the one who has been harmed.  If you want to confront racism, you should probably be listening to people of marginalized races.  If you want to confront sexism, you should probably be listening to women.  If you want to confront homophobia, you should be listening to people in the LGBTQ community.  If you want to confront poverty, you should be listening to people who are affected by poverty.  Not only does this give you the opportunity to hear the stories of how people have been affected by injustice, you may also get a greater sense of where and how you might be called to help.  I am a middle-aged, straight, white guy.  It would probably be inappropriate for me to be the primary face of a group advocating racial equality but it would be appropriate to help as I am asked and to stand as far in the background as necessary.

                It is also appropriate to contact people in power.  Letter-writing, phone calls and emails may feel like a minor gesture, but they can bear a cumulative weight, challenging leaders to pay attention to their constituents.  My advice is always to write in Christian love.  Compassion begins with acknowledging that every person you interact with is a child of God.  The senator from the political party from which you disagree is a child of God just as the person you are advocating for is a child of God.  Communicate honestly, but not smugly.  Acknowledge your anger or sadness, but not through personal attack. 

                Recently there has been a discussion of the need for a return to civility in speech.  Much of the discussion has been heavy with irony as neither side has been particularly civil or kind.  It turns out that when incivility is matched with incivility, both sides end up frustrated and angry.  As Christians, we can choose to be kind in the face of unkindness.  We can choose to be civil in the face of insult.  We can choose to be loving in the face of hate.

                This is not meant to temper the call to advocate for justice.  Rather I am thinking about justice with the voice of Paul in the background who wrote (quoting Proverbs 25) “’If your enemies are hungry, feed them; it they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21).

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Compassion and Justice

Compassion is actively putting ourselves in another person’s place.  It is listening to personal stories with full attention and awareness.  It is allowing ourselves to be touched by the emotions, the joy and pain, of someone else, accompanying that person on his/her journey.

                Yet accompanying someone can mean walking into unknown and troubling spaces.  It is one thing to express compassion when someone experiences a personal tragedy.  It is another thing to live compassionately when that person is suffering because of who she/he is and how society treats a person like her/him.  This is where compassion can lead to advocacy and seeking justice.
                Sometimes it is not enough to provide comfort and emotional care.  Sometimes we are called to expose and confront the systems of society that cause suffering in the first place.  This idea is not always comfortable for mainline Christians who want their experience of church to be happy and nice.  Why should Christians “cause trouble” and protest?   Why should Christians march for equality, social justice or environmental causes?

                First, at least in my tradition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we have to acknowledge that we have benefited from white privilege.  Many of our congregations established in the suburbs in the 1960s took advantage of white flight from the cities in that era, unable to handle changing demographics.  We have become one of the least diverse religious bodies in the United States.  While we may pass statements on racial justice and celebrate diversity, the lived experience of much of the church is very white.  This should lead us to self-examination and self-reflection about our own failure to connect more deeply with people who are not of the traditional German or Scandinavian Lutheran heritage in a changing population.

                As we begin to examine the log in our own eye, we may begin to have a better understanding about the forces that keep us separate and divide us.  We may begin to see that a cry of “Black Lives Matter” is not a call for special treatment but a call for equal treatment.  We may begin to see that, while success in life may be in part a product of good choices, systemic poverty limits the choices of many people.  We may begin to see that paying women less for the same job is simply unfair, creating a unofficial penalty for being female.  We may begin to see that expecting conformity from the rainbow of humanity that makes up the United States is not only a burden, but is simply ridiculous.

                We may begin to see that protest, advocacy and seeking justice can be acts of discipleship.  Writing letters and making phone calls to work to change the system can be acts of discipleship.  Some may read this and think it sounds like a liberal pastor being liberal, but I hope that I am writing in the tradition of Jesus who touched those whom society deemed unclean (Matthew 8:1-4), who brought good news for and identified with the poor (Luke 4:16-21, Matthew  25:35-36), who welcomed those who were different (Matthew 5:46-48), who treated women with respect in a society treated them as less important (John 4:1-42).

                While we may love that Jesus is our friend and our savior, we must not forget that Jesus also provides a prophetic vision where “the last will be first and the first will be last.”  Jesus doesn’t just welcome us into the reign of God at some point in the future; he challenges us to establish the reign of God where we are here and now.  True compassion pushes the church toward justice, freedom and equality for all people.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Listening with Compassion

One of my favorite book series is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  by Douglas Adams.  A character in the series, Ford Prefect, has been living on Earth to write an article for the Hitchhiker’s Guide, an aid for interplanetary travelers.  He develops some interesting ideas about humans along the way as you can read in the following quote from the second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

      It is worth repeating at this point the theories that Ford had come up with, on his first encounter with human beings, to account for their peculiar habit of continually stating and restating the very, very obvious, as in "It's a nice day," or "You're very tall," or "So this is it, we're going to die."  His first theory was that if human beings didn't keep exercising their lips, their mouths probably shriveled up.  After a few months of observation he had come up with a second theory, which was this--"If human beings don't keep exercising their lips, their brains start working.”

                The hardest part of listening with compassion is keeping the ears open, the mind calm and the mouth closed.  Often we quickly make a judgement about what someone is saying while they are saying it and then begin to craft a response.  We want to be prepared with an answer to avoid a gap in the conversation, an uncomfortable silence.  In so doing we have stepped away from compassion for the other person, concerned about our own desire to be smart or witty or engaging or to avoid discomfort.

                 Sometimes an answer is not required.  Sometimes a friend will come to you simply needing to talk, to share an experience, to let out a frustration.  Sometimes all that a person needs is your full, ears open, mouth shut, attention.   Respond when they ask or invite you to respond.  Respond primarily to clarify and dig a little deeper.  Compassion allows the other person control over their time and their words. 

                This kind of conversation may seem painfully slow in our world of pundits and talking heads shouting each other down.  Yet where has that kind of communication gotten us?  We end up with weary voices, angry and never quite feeling heard, more concerned about being on the winning side than understanding the person in front of you.  Compassionate listening is not about simply sharing ideas, but sharing one another.  It is a mutual action where I share my full self in both speaking and listening.  I am not trying to judge if my conversation partner is right or wrong, liberal or conservative, winner or loser.  I am trying to encounter this child of God in front of me in lovingkindness.

                This does not mean that I will agree with everything my conversation partner says.  I may be troubled by his or her words.  I may be offended.  Some might counter that silence is implicit approval.  Yet again, this way of communicating is not about constant silence, but patience.  If an idea offends me, can I get to the root of it?  Why is it offensive and where does that come from in me?

                The author of Proverbs wrote “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.”  Compassionate listening involves the ability to be silent, to treat words and ideas with value.  It is the ability to respond to an idea or word rather than reacting with an intellectual counterpunch. 

                In this age when world seems to value people who go with their gut and speak without thinking, God provides a different vision of communication.  We listen; we learn; we respond; all this in compassion and love.     

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Gift of Compassion

As with generosity, there are some people who are naturally compassionate.  They have a gift for reading the emotional atmosphere of a person or situation.  As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, these are people for whom “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”  (1 Corinthians 12:26).  These folks can be the heart and soul of a community, pushing all of us to pay attention, to expand our vision to include those who are on the periphery of our lives.

                Yet just has generosity is a value that can be learned, so also can compassion.  Most religious traditions give high value to compassion, that ability to notice and accompany others, that ability to pull your head from the sand of modern life and see what is happening around you.   Most religious traditions also have techniques and advice in how to grow in compassion.

                For Christianity, much of the focus has been around service to those in need.  The Lutheran tradition has a long history of organizing to help people locally and around the world.  Check out the work of the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal, Lutheran Disaster Relief or, in New England, Ascentria Care Alliance (formerly Lutheran Social Services).   This is not to mention the work of local congregations in feeding, sheltering and advocating for people in need around them.

                Such service is the product of compassion.  However, sometimes we are tempted to skip the compassion and move straight to the service.  We know the sorts of thing that the church ought to be doing.  We develop a social outreach committee and turn it into a program of doing good deeds.  However, there is a marked difference between working out of a space of obligation or expectation, doing things because we should do them, and working from a place of compassion, doing things because we can’t help but do them.    

                I would argue that the church’s job is shifting.  At one point in history, religious organizations were the primary means of social services in many communities.  The church had the food bank.  The church had an emergency fund.  Today, many of these functions are done more effectively by social service agencies and organizations, some religious and some not.  Perhaps the church’s job is not so much to provide these services but to cultivate compassionate people who might be moved to aid and volunteer for such agencies and organizations.  Is our goal to develop a Christ Lutheran Church food bank or is it to develop compassionate people who will support and volunteer at our local service center, a group that has already done the groundwork and organization to feed other people?

                One tool for developing compassion is along the lines of the daily examen meditation in the tradition of Saint Ignatius.  At the end of the day you take a few of minutes in stillness to replay the events of that day.  As you go through them, consider those moments that were opportunities for compassion.  What happened?  How did it feel?  How do you think the other person was feeling?  The purpose of this exercise is not to label these moments as good or bad, but to consider how they were handled and how they might be handled differently.  The hope is that through reflecting each day through the eyes of compassion, we might prepare ourselves to be more compassionate in days to come.

                Another important means for growing in compassion that is common among many contemplative Christians is meditation on the passion and the cross.  In our culture we often want to skip the pain of the cross and embrace the joy of resurrection.  Yet there is great power in considering what Jesus experienced as he suffered not only pain but also betrayal, abandonment and mockery.   Through the story, Jesus offers himself as an icon for compassionate thought. 

                Most importantly, through the story of Jesus, we are set free to be compassionate.  We are set free to step away from self-centeredness and into compassion for others.  We are also set free to be less than perfect, knowing that through Christ’s compassion our incomplete compassion does not disqualify us from the love of God.  Compassion is a gift that can change the world and a virtue in which Christians are called to grow.