Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Discipleship as a Taste of Eternity

In the gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  (John 14:6) I have been thinking about that three-fold description, especially how Way, Truth and Life relate to one another.  Are they disparate items as we would write on a shopping list:  milk, butter and eggs?  Or are they intended as synonyms for a single idea?  In the story, Jesus’ description is spoken in response to Thomas’ question, “How can we know the way?”  In this case Way = Truth = Life.  Jesus is the Way that is Truth and is Life.  Jesus is the Life that is the True Way.  Jesus is the Truth that is the Way of Life.

                To be a disciple means to learn and to follow your teacher as a student.  To be a disciple is to seek to walk the path that Jesus walked.  To be a disciple is to seek to follow a way of living and being in the world which is witnessed in the life of Jesus.

                Most discussions of grace in Christ revolve around the cross and resurrection.  Certainly we should look at those moments as the ultimate act and example of grace.  Yet as we talk about living as disciples, we also can talk about Christ’s example as a gift of grace, Christ’s life (between his birth and his death) as what it means to be truly alive in this world.

                Following Jesus as the Way is a gift.  Although it can shift towards works-righteousness, one image I have found helpful is the gospel as the gift of a beautiful piano.  You wake up one morning and there is a perfect instrument in your living room.  It is a work of art, lovingly crafted and always in tune.  Every time you past by you feel gratitude for the one who has given you this gift.  And one day a visitor comes and also marvels at this piano and quietly asks you, “Do you play?”  It is a natural question.  Have you taken the time and established the disciplines (note the link to “disciple”) that will allow you to make beautiful music on this beautiful instrument.  The practice is part of the gift, part of the way of honoring and responding to the gift.  Do you play?

                Following Jesus as the Way is salvation.  This is not to say that discipleship is a way of earning that salvation.  This is not an if-then situation as we proclaim Jesus has already done everything necessary for salvation.  In one of our old offertory songs before Holy Communion we sang asking that God would give us “a foretaste of the feast to come.”  The communion meal became a way of experiencing the promise of eternity, if only for a moment.  Likewise, the life of discipleship offers such a foretaste.  In my first post in this series, I suggested the disciple cultivates certain virtues in our lives: awe, peace, love, gratitude, compassion and faithfulness.  As we embody these virtues we are already living with one foot in eternal life.

                Following Jesus as the Way is shalom.  The Hebrew word is offered as a greeting and often translated as “peace.”  Yet it means much more, pointing toward wholeness and completeness.  When all the disparate pieces of a jigsaw are gathered and organized in their places, the puzzle has shalom.  When a football flies from the quarterback in a perfect spiral, arcing above the players and falling into the waiting arms of the receiver, the play has shalom.  When the sun sets over Buzzards Bay and the sky is filled with yellows and oranges and those watching are moved to silent wonder, the moment has shalom.  Again in John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) he is talking about shalom.  Real life, abundant life is complete life.  The path of discipleship leads us step by step, growing in shalom, but more importantly, the path itself is shalom.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Why Discipleship Matters

As many members of my congregation know, I am fascinated by silence and encountering God in silence.  I am by nature an introvert, finding rest and recharge in solitude.  The hardest part of any Sunday morning is not the worship or the preaching, but the fellowship time that follows.  In many ways, this move toward silent practice has been a natural progression, my own response to leading small congregations in a time of decline.  As congregations see more and more open space among the pews and as the occupants of those pews become greyer, anxiety grows.  A pastor who was trained primarily to teach and preach and lead worship  is asked to deal with financial shortfalls, tasked with growing attractive youth programs as well as occasionally trimming church hedges due to a lack of able volunteers.

                It was sitting in silent prayer that taught me not to take on the anxiety of others.  It was what the mystics called mental prayer that reestablished my connection with the solidity of God’s grace.  I rediscovered that God loved me and I could love God simply by doing nothing but being.  My identity was not found in establishing a mega-church or pretending to be Pastor Happy McSmiley, who loves everybody and whom everybody loves.  My identity is grounded on the platform of God’s grace and the greatest gift I can give to any congregation, in growth or decline, is to show others that they are already standing on the solidity of that grace.  This also means that the greatest gift that congregations can give is to introduce people to Jesus, the one who walks on water and invites everybody to step out of the boat and join him.  People can find yard sales and spaghetti suppers anywhere, but the church is the place where we can encounter Jesus in Word, in sacrament and in community.

                And this is why discipleship matters, not because it makes God happy (remember, God is already infinitely happy with you), but because it reminds us of where we are and who we are in God; because it helps us share God’s love, hope and joy with the world around us. 

                Another influence in my understanding of discipleship in the past few years has been sitting in meditation with a local, Zen Buddhist sangha.  I know that in sharing this, some purists will bristle, wondering about my loyalty to the Christian faith.  What would Herr Luther say?  I don’t agree with everything that Buddhism proclaims, but the understanding of the relationship to faith and life is helpful.  In the Buddhist tradition as I have experienced it, life itself is practice.  We are always growing.  We grow as we practice and we practice to grow.  There is no goal to attain.  There are no boxes to check off.  The purpose of life is to practice and it is when we practice that we are truly alive.

                As I have come to understand it, the life that Jesus lived, the span between the birth and the death that the Apostles’ Creed glosses over, is also a gift of God’s grace.  His life, walking with his students, sharing bread, healing the sick, loving the rejected, is a model for what it means to be truly alive.  When Jesus, in the gospel of John says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly, “ (John 10:10) he was not talking about some future heaven.  He was talking about our lives here and now as a reflection of that heaven.  When we are walking the path of Christ, when we are practicing our faith, both in private acts of devotion and public acts of mercy and love, eternal life begins now.

                As the church redefines itself in new era, our viability will not be found in getting our worship just so.  It will be found in walking the path of Christ together, practicing together, and living now in eternal life together.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - A Different Way

By way of introduction, I am a Lutheran pastor writing in a time of change, where the structures that once held the church fast are no longer secure.  Fewer people feel called to worship and fewer people feel guilty about not attending.  I have had a number of conversations with parents of my children’s friends who have no real frame of reference for what a pastor does, what a church is and what worship is for. 

                More importantly, I have talked with many, good, church-going folks who are ill-equipped to talk about the nature of Christian life beyond Sunday morning.  This is not to say that these people are not carrying out acts of discipleship outside of Sunday morning, but that they often do not see acts of kindness, acts of service and acts of love as a reflection of Christian life.  It is hard to talk about the path when you don’t know that you are walking on it. 

                I am writing about discipleship as a Lutheran for Lutherans but I suspect that my ideas and experiences may be found in many “mainline” traditions of Christianity.  As a Lutheran, I am compelled to start with grace.  Too often, discipleship is stamped with a seal of works-righteousness, doing things to earn forgiveness or, in some circles, doing things to make God happy (or avoid making God sad).  So let me start by saying that God is already immensely happy with you and deeply in love with you.  The next time you walk into the sanctuary and look at the cross, or the next time you put on a piece of cross-shaped jewelry, remember that this is ultimately a sign of God’s love for you in Christ.  The cross and resurrection have already happened which mean that God is already in love with you.  The mistakes we have made; the sins for which we cannot forgive ourselves, amount to throwing a snowball at the sun.

                This is the platform of grace on which the life of discipleship happens.  When you recognize that this platform is solid, it changes the nature of being a disciple.  It is not about making God happy or sad, angry or loving, it is instead about changing who we are in relationship to God.  It is about finding a deeper union with God by paying attention: to God, to our neighbor, to God’s universe.

                I will also suggest that the path of discipleship is more about addition than avoidance, more about growing in virtue than avoiding this or that vice.   Some might consider this an invitation to lawlessness or hypocrisy.  Isn’t the common criticism of the church that too many Christians worship on Sunday and act like jerks the rest of the week?  My suggestion is that this kind of two-faced living is again a reflection of a poor education in the meaning of the Christian life.  In Lutheran theology, it is also a reflection of the idea of being saint and sinner at the same time.  We are saints because we are standing on the solid platform of grace, not be because we walk on it perfectly.

                In this series of articles, my thesis will be that an intentional focus on virtue can help us break our fascination with vice.  I grew up with donuts.  In fact, donuts were one of the incentives that brought me to church every Sunday.  Every time I drive near a donut shop, even as a middle-aged man, there is a child that sets off an alarm in my head reminding me of the joy of a good donut.  But when one becomes a middle-aged man, the doctors frown at donut consumption with threats of diabetes and other dire consequences.

The solution to my donut-issue was not to avoid donuts.  That effort just made the child shout louder and jab harder at my psyche.  The solution (and I admit is not a final solution) has been much more about eating more fruits and vegetables than eating fewer donuts.  It is not that donuts are unattractive, but they are less interesting with a belly full of broccoli. 

There are many ways one can talk about virtue and many ways to break it down.  As I prepared to start writing I found myself grouping various scriptural virtues that seem to relate.  My discussion of discipleship will use the following groups of virtues:

1.        Wonder/Awe/Wisdom
2.       Love/Forgiveness
3.       Contentment/Peace/Humility/Self-Control
4.       Gratitude/Generosity/Joy
5.       Compassion/Justice
6.       Loyalty/Faithfulness

I will discuss how these are related as well as some of the practices that are associated with each virtue (and there is some overlap.  For instance, good worship could be seen as connecting to all of these virtues).  My hope is that, rather than being a to-do list of holiness, these articles can offer suggestions for ways to grow becauseI believe this path of discipleship is more about growth than perfection.  We will stumble.  We will fail ourselves.  We will have days when we could have been better.  Yet we stumble on that platform of solid grace, sustained in our inconsistency by the constant love of a constant God.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Reformation - 500 Years Later

The following article appeared in the Cape Cod Times, "Matters of Faith" column on the weekend of October 29, 2017.

I was asked to write this column in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation because I am a Lutheran pastor and the beginning of the Reformation movement is measured by the actions of Martin Luther.  According to the traditional story, on October 31, 1517, the Augustinian friar posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  He was hoping to begin a debate on the question of the sale and abuse of indulgences, a means which the Roman Catholic Church offered the faithful to reduce the amount of one’s punishment for sin.  In Luther’s time, the sale of indulgences was being used to fund the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
                Luther believed that, based on scripture, the grace of God could not be bought, sold or earned and that, by sparking a discussion, the Roman Catholic Church would reform from the inside.  Instead, his actions led to his excommunication from the Roman church and the beginnings of myriad Protestant traditions.  If you are part of a Christian church that is something other than Roman Catholic or some form of Eastern Orthodox, you can likely trace your religious heritage back to Martin Luther.
                For Lutherans, it is tempting to turn this 500th anniversary into a time for hero worship and nostalgia.  Thousands of Lutheran congregations around the world will belt out “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (the Reformation theme song) in many different forms.  Thousands of study groups will open dusty copies of Luther’s Small Catechism (the Reformation handbook) with their repetitive query, “What does this mean?”  In the United States, congregations that were once much larger will listen to the praises of grey-haired choirs and think about how it used to be.
                This is the challenge of a tradition begun in protest.  A great deal of energy went into the reforming movement.  A great deal of conflict shaped it and grew out of it.  Many of the different Christian denominations we see today stem from divisions (sometimes angry divisions) that spread from that original 1517 moment.  The 100th anniversary of the Reformation in 1617 was a year shy of the beginning of the Thirty Years War, a war which began as a conflict between Catholic and Protestant states and led to the death of millions throughout Europe. 
                Eventually the dust settled and congregations founded in protest wanted something more than the insecurity of reform.  We wanted comfort.  We wanted certainty.  We wanted the church to be formed and finished; a constant; a snapshot that preserved ages past.   We wanted organ music and four-part hymnody, the good old songs we used to sing.  The church became more about culture, heritage and local practice than transformative ideas, more about being comforted than being stirred.
In so doing we seem to have lost the connection to some of the fundamental ideas of the Reformation.  We have lost the sense of the priesthood of all believers and have given authority and ministry back to the professional clergy.  We have lost the sense of humility that comes from a “both/and” understanding of faith described as simul justus es peccator, justified and sinner at the same time.  We have lost the sense of radical grace, that the loving grace of God has set us free to serve all neighbors lovingly.  As Luther wrote in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian in 1520, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  
                 The Reformation impulse, which might push churches of Protestant heritage to a broader understanding of faith and a wider sense of neighbor, has become yet another means for separation, enclaves of faith often segregated by race, class, generation or heritage.  We have a much easier defining ourselves by who we are not than who we are.  It is not unusual to find Lutherans who know little of their tradition other than being “not Catholic and not Baptist.”  We have become yet another means for people to define who belongs and who doesn’t, who is inside and who is outside, the good and the bad.
                In short, the work of reform is unfinished.  We need to go back to the ideas that began the movement and not rely on the traditions that developed around it.  For many Lutherans (again, speaking from my own tradition), we need to rediscover that our faith is sparked by ideas of a gracious God rather than coffee consumption and Scandinavian sweaters.  It is also important to keep in mind that not everything about the Reformation is good.  The Reformation grew out of a culture that was sexist, anti-Semitic and assumed that social classes, including peasant and slave, were ordained by God.  We need to reexamine the basic ideas of grace, faith and service to the neighbor, and think about them in light of what we have learned about our universe, our society, our minds and our bodies in the past five centuries. 

Every anniversary is an opportunity for renewal.  It is my hope this 500th anniversary will be a moment to rediscover and share the love of a gracious God and our calling to share that love through acts of kindness, compassion, justice and peace.