Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The "Get Rid of It" Challenge

During the season of Lent, I am going to be writing about the virtue of discipleship that is a confluence of ideas around contentment, peace, self-control and humility.  I am aware that this is a broad list and yet these ideas seem to build on one another.  Self-control and a sense of humility lead one towards contentment and peace. 

                In practical terms, our community will be experimenting with one of the greatest sources of discontent in our current age, the quest for stuff.  We surround ourselves with things, sometimes purchased by impulse, sometimes for practical use, sometimes to make us feel a little bit better.  We are surrounded by messages that tell us to be discontent with what we have and always seek a little more, the next thing, the better thing.  And if we are like most Americans, we live in houses surrounded by thousands of things, most of which we do not need and many of which we will rarely if ever use.  The growing exception to this rule is the folks who rent storage spaces so the things that they do not need are out of sight and out of mind.

                In the 13th century, the German priest and theologian Meister Eckhart declared, “To be full of things is to be empty of God.  To be empty of things is to be full of God.”  This is going to be a basic theme during the season, that the more we focus on acquisition and measure ourselves by possessions, the further we are from God’s vision for us.  Although proponents of the prosperity gospel will disagree, there is a long tradition within Christianity that believes that the things we own always seem to end up owning us.

                Although some figures in Christian history have chosen voluntary poverty as a discipline (like Saint Francis of Assisi), my hope for this series is to help people loosen the grip that our possessions have over us.  One tool that I have used in the past is the “Get Rid of It Challenge.”  During the season of Lent, those who participate are challenged to remove one thing from their lives for each day in the 40-day season.  While the stated goal is to be 40 things lighter, the true goal is to develop a discipline of removal, which can blossom into a discipline a sharing and an attitude of contentment.

                Here is an outline of the challenge.  Try it out for Lent or adopt it any season:

The Get Rid of it Challenge

Goal:  Remove 40 things from your life during the season of Lent

You can:
                Gift your thing to someone
                Sell/Donate your thing
                Last Resort – Responsibly throw it away or recycle it

What constitutes a thing:
                For this challenge, a thing is any object that you think you own: the knickknack shoved to the back of the closet, the unused wedding gift on the basement shelf, the vinyl record you no longer listen to.  As you develop this discipline, you may begin to think collectively about things (a record collection, the books on a shelf may become one thing.)

Rules and guidelines:
1.        Only one object per day counts toward the goal.  You may start sorting the papers on your desk and find forty scraps to throw away, but only one counts each day.  The point is to develop a habit/discipline, not just clean house.
2.        If someone gives you a nonperishable gift, you have to remove an extra thing for the day (apologies to everyone who has a birthday in Lent)
3.       For every nonperishable item you purchase, you need to remove an extra thing for the day.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Love and Worship

This post marks the end of the discussion of love as a virtue of discipleship.  Clearly, there is much more that could be written.  Love is an essential topic in scripture as well as theology in general.  We are all responding to the love that God showed us from the very beginning, from creation, from the first breath, from the cross.

                One of the traditional ways that Christians have responded to this love is through communal worship.  As we gather together, we turn toward God as a community with thanks and praise, grateful for what God has done and continues to do and promises to do.  In our congregation, we worship facing the cross, constantly reminded that the love that we celebrate is both grounded in and tempered by the suffering and death of Jesus.

                We also worship facing the communion table, invited every week to come forward and take part in the community meal where Jesus greets us as host and feeds us with his own self, sustaining us once again to go out into the world with love.  Some traditions have an altar call where the hope is that people will experience that one-time conversion, able to answer with a date to the question, “When were you saved?”  My Lutheran tradition invites the community forward every week to the table of grace, recognizing that our lives need conversion again and again.  We come forward to discover that Jesus has chosen us in spite of who we are and what we may have done.

                Worship has a three-fold purpose when it comes to love.  First, we encounter God’s love in word and sacrament.  I put this first because such is the nature of grace; God always acts first.  We may think that we are the primary actors on Sunday morning, with our standing and sitting and singing, but before we can crack open a hymnal, the Holy Spirit has already been singing to us, a song of creation and a song of love.  On Sunday morning (and any other time we worship together) we intentionally wade into the stream of God’s love, not realizing that it is not a stream we choose to enter, but an ocean that surrounds us like the oxygen and nitrogen in the air we breathe.  When we take the time to pay attention, to glimpse that love, we are called to respond.

                For this reason I put our response as the second purpose of worship.  When we have encountered the love of God it is fitting to take time to admire and celebrate that love, like a beautiful work of art the draws our attention, or (as with the discussion of awe and wonder) a dramatic sunset that stops us in our tracks.  We respond with prayer, praise, song and speech.  We respond with words of thanks and words of peace and words of good news.

                Unfortunately, the valid criticism of much of Christianity is that this is where it seems that the purpose of worship ends.  We come in the building.  We praise an hour.  We go out until next week.  With that attitude, it is no wonder that churches get bogged down in the minutia of worship and liturgy, worried about the style, worried about the proper form, worried about getting it just right.  Should it be entertaining?  Should it be traditional?  After all we only have this hour to convince people to come back for another hour next week.  And isn’t it the purpose of the church to get people in the doors for that precious hour?  We miss the point of worship when we forget a fundamental purpose of worship.

The third purpose of worship is to get us out of worship.  It is what happens when we leave the building, the hymnals, the organs and praise bands behind.  In my tradition, the formal service ends with a declaration of dismissal like, “Go in peace!  Serve the Lord!”  The idea is that the love we encounter in worship should send us out into the world to share that love, live that love and model that love.  The love we show for others is the consequence and continuation of our worship.

We can debate about the nature of the best worship in our day and age.  Worship styles have shifted and changed over the past two millennia.  Liturgy is attractive to some.  Praise music and PowerPoint slides may be attractive to others.  Another group may be more attracted to contemplation and quiet.  None of these are wrong, but all of them miss the point if they fail to send us out in love.  The measure of good worship is not found in the numbers who return, but in the Christians who are inspired to go out and share good news through acts and words of love.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Love and Forgiveness

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. – Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. – Psalm 103:11-12 (NRSV)

Forgiveness is an essential part of love and love is an essential part of forgiveness.  It is when we start talking about forgiveness that we begin to consider the limits of our own love and wonder about the limits of God’s love.  The idea that God loves everyone (and so should we) seems good and beautiful.  I have talked before about the understanding that God’s love is a constant, the ground of being on which we find support and strength as we walk the path of discipleship faced with the natural uncertainties of life.

It is a beautiful idea until, as with most ideas, one takes it to the extremes.  If God loves everyone, then God loves Hitler and Mussolini.  If God loves everyone, then God love despots and dictators.  If God loves everyone, then God loves abusers and molesters.  Can God forgive the Holocaust?  Can God forgive someone who steals the innocence from a child?  Can God forgive the serial killer who has no ability to feel remorse?

I suspect this question is more about “should” then “can.”  Ultimately, as God is infinite, then God can forgive whatever God chooses to forgive.  It is more proper to ask, “Should God forgive radical evil?”  As we look at the span of history as well as current events, it is not hard to find actions that are reprehensible, for which forgiveness and love would be difficult if not impossible.  Should God forgive such actions even when there is repentance?

There is no satisfactory answer to that question.  Attempts to answer it have led to reams of rabbinical texts, volumes of academic theology, stunned silences in the midst of adult Sunday school.  If the answer is a clear, “Yes,” then forgiveness seems somehow cheapened, an easy out of guilt for the worse humanity has to offer.  If the answer is a clear, “No,” then we are struck with the uncertainty of acknowledging a limit to forgiveness.   Somewhere between little, white lies and genocide there is a boundary which, once crossed, excludes forgiveness.  Perhaps we rarely reach that boundary; perhaps we cross it with frequency.

At the heart of a Christian discussion on forgiveness is the image of Jesus offering forgiveness to those who nailed him to the cross.  The love of God is seen most clearly in the experience of radical evil by Jesus himself.  Jesus goes to the cross as an innocent; suffers as an innocent; dies as an innocent, and still offers a word of forgiveness.  Could we do the same?  Or perhaps the image of Christ’s forgiveness from the cross points out that the love and forgiveness of God is broader than we want to admit.

And again I think that the extremes of forgiveness may distract us from the heart of the matter, our learning to be forgiving people.  If we want love to be more than a platitude, we have to learn to forgive, to restore relationships that will inevitably be strained.  But when we talk about forgiveness, we need to start with the small annoyances that are part of our daily lives rather than starting with radical evil that we cannot begin to understand.  We need to learn to forgive the ill-timed word and the impatient response.  We need to learn to forgive the petty disagreement and the unintentional slight.  Once we take a deep breath and learn to forgive smaller things, then larger offenses are no longer insurmountable.

At the same time, I don’t believe that Jesus expects us to have the level of forgiveness that he showed on the cross.  I believe he gives us an example of forgiveness to strive toward, a direction on our path.  God has offered us forgiveness so that we can become forgiving.  The ability to let go of offenses is as important on our walk as seeking to avoid causing offense in the first place.  We will have impatient days.  We will meet people with whom we simply do not click.  We will be offended and we will cause offense.  We will need to be forgiven just as we will need to be forgiving.

Anyone in a long-term relationship can tell you that forgiveness is essential to love and love is essential to forgiveness.  God has chosen to be in an eternal relationship with us, requiring an eternity of love and an eternity of forgiveness.  Thankfully in God we find an abundance of both, enough that we might also learn to grow into loving and forgiving people. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Love in Community

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! – Psalm 133:1
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:35

              It is hard not to fall in love with numbers.  When budgets are balanced and seats are full we proclaim success.  When deficits are posted and pews are empty, we mope in failure.  Most of the worries of the modern church has can be broken down into two categories:  not enough people and not enough money.  Numbers are dwindling.  Dollars are in decline.  We are compelled to add a coda to Julian of Norwich’s hopeful line, “All will be well.”  All will be well, only if we have more people.  All will be well, only if we have more money.  It is true that ministry has more options when we have more resources, but it doesn’t make ministry impossible, especially when we rediscover the guiding principle of all ministry.

              “Love one another.”  This is the place where the church should measure its success or faithfulness.  Yet the annual report that I file with the larger church never asks “What is the level of love?”  Again, I sit down with budget reports and usher totals, proclaiming the year a success or failure based on numbers.  How would one quantify the level of love in a place?

              Jesus begins his ministry satisfied with a dozen and even those dozen struggle to love each other, squabbling about who forgot the bread and who should be in charge and who should count the money.  “Love one another” is an easy command to hear, even to begin to comprehend, but it is a challenge to live out and obey.   We need only do a cursory reading of 1 Corinthians to know that, from the very beginning, the church has struggled to love one another.  Paul didn’t give his beautiful statement on love, “Love is patient, love is kind…” because the people in Corinth understood love and modeled it for one another.  He offered this teaching because they didn’t get it; didn’t want it; used the church for personal attention and satisfaction.  If we cannot even manage to love in Christian community how can we expect to carry that love into the world?

              As I have mentioned before, I see the virtues that I have been discussing as virtues to be learned and in which to grow.  Love is a virtue that we as disciples study.  The church, the Christian community, is our classroom.  We gather together and are united, ideally but not perfectly, apart from considerations of family, clan and national allegiance.  We look at a Christian whom we have never met and proclaim, “Here is my sister.”  We share the peace and an eighty-year-old says to a toddler, “Here is my brother.”  We are united in the love of Christ.  We are united through the love of Christ.  We are bound by the love of Christ.

              In a previous article, I wrote about how learning to love yourself and learning about yourself are part of the process of learning to love your neighbor.  We all have individual quirks and triggers.  We are unique and we can celebrate that uniqueness as a gift of a loving God.  Yet in Christian love, the rubber meets the road when we begin to deal, accept and embrace the quirks, triggers and uniqueness of a neighbor.  To love someone fully is to love and respect the pieces and places that are different from you.   You may not love all the ideas and actions of this person.  But, following Christ’s example, can you simply look at them and love them?  Can you disagree without degrading?  Can you debate without dominating?  Can love be the place where you start and the goal of your interactions?

              We are students, learning to love.  We will not always get it right.  Sometimes we will be dismissive.  Sometimes we will be ignorant.  Sometimes we will be downright rude.  The constant nature of God’s love, the promise of grace, is that we have the chance to try again.  We can forgive and be forgiven.  We can regret and repent.  We can apologize and try to restore our relationships. 

              It is true that we have number struggles in our churches, struggles that create tension, struggles that distract from our main work and business.  The business of the church is not found in numbers, it found in acts of love.  The success of the church is not found on balance sheets, it is found in attitudes of love.  The hope for the church will never be on quantified because it is infinite; it is the love of God shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.   In Christian community we learn that love so that it might spread beyond us and change the world.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Love of Self

In his teaching on the most important commandment, Jesus lists (and equates) two:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:28-34)  Through much of Christian history, the love of self has been frowned upon, often being bundled with pride and self-indulgent ways.  Yet we cannot fulfill the commandment to love the neighbor if we do not love ourselves.
                Our basic understanding of humanity says that there is a lot to love about you.  You are a precious child of God.  You have been made in the image of God.  You are unique, holy and every hair on your head is counted and known to the divine.  In Psalm 139 the author praises God saying:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Moreover, the story of Jesus is a story that teaches how God is deeply in love with you, choosing to experience humanity for you; choosing to experience death for you.  If God is deeply in love with you, then  you can be deeply in love with you.   You can acknowledge your gifts and quirks and all the things that make you uniquely you.  You can take the time to care for your body.  You can get enough sleep without calling it laziness.  You can get enough food without calling it gluttony.  You can experience pleasure without calling it hedonism.

Much of Christian history has been shaped by the denial of the self, especially the physical self.  It seems problematic that somehow the denial of pleasure and joy has been seen as way of honoring God; that the God who created us a sexual beings wants us to deny sexuality; that the God who created the varieties of fruits and vegetables that were part of the Garden of Eden story is honored when we eat only bread and water.  There are too many stories (including that of Martin Luther) where great Christians have suffered long term illness or early death because of their efforts to control and discipline their physical needs.

To be clear, there need to be limits, which I will write about more when talking about the virtues of Contentment and Self-control.  Part of the reason that Christians have a history of calls to self-discipline is that it very easy to cross the line from self-love to self-idolization.  It is also very easy to turn our needs and pleasures into idols themselves.  Food is a gift from God, but an obsession with food can turn into gluttony on the one hand and anorexia on the other.  Sex is a gift from God, but an idolization of sex can turn abusive and controlling (as we are hearing through the current #MeToo movement).  Sexual idolatry can turn into an obsession with having sex on the one hand and an obsession with preventing sex on the other. 

Most importantly, an idolization of the self makes it impossible to truly love God or love others, because Christian love involves the giving of one’s self.  An idolization of the self blurs our vision so that we forget that while we are important and precious, loved by God, so is our neighbor; so is the stranger far away; so is the immigrant; so is the family experiencing homeless; so is the drug addict. 

It is good to celebrate who you are and how God has made you.  It is good care for yourself.  We are the stewards of our minds and bodies, given the joyful but challenging task of caring for them.  It is good to learn about yourself, how your mind works, how you learn, how you react to situations.   It is good to experience joy and pleasure, not turning them into obsessions, but participating in them as part of God’s good creation. 

And finally, it is good to give ourselves away in love.   The Christian vision of love is that a full life is found in giving ourselves away.  As the Apostle John wrote to church, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:11-12)  Loving the self is part of participating in the gift of divine love, but love find completeness when it moves beyond the self and into the world.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Gift and Task of Love

As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am not a biblical literalist.  I think that many of our stories are mythic or are mythic remembering of events.  Trying to convince people that there was an ark with  two of every creature is both an exercise in futility (this written as the son of an entomologist, whose father studied wasps that were too small to be easily seen without a microscope) and a stumbling block to the life of faith to which Jesus has called us.

                There is, of course, a danger in not being a literalist, which is that the line between myth and history becomes quite blurry.  If one doesn’t think the Garden of Eden represents a real location or the Noah story an historical account, what about the miracle stories of Jesus or the resurrection itself?  Part of the reason that literalism breeds apologists, folks writing in an attempt to prove the historical accuracy of the text, is the fear that if one part is questionable, the whole package is suspect.

                I don’t have a simple answer to the issue.  It is one with which I wrestle regularly.  Thankfully Jesus never requires us to believe in a text.  He never makes salvation dependent on our belief in crossing the Red Sea on dry land or walking on water.  The church is not called to prove the stories nor can it prove the stories.  We have no photographs of aqueous strolls or empty tombs.  Instead we are called to live in the light of the stories.  We do not have to prove the resurrection.  Instead we are called to live in the light of that resurrection.  We are called to live in love.

                Fundamentally, this is where our scriptural stories point us.  Now you may argue that stories of Israel conquering the promised land, divinely instructed to wipe out the Canaanites are not stories of love.  You may argue that the story in Acts of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) who are struck dead for failing an apostolic financial audit does not foster a community centered on love.  In fact it is a fairly simple exercise to cherry-pick the scriptures and create a vision that celebrates intolerance, obsessive purity, separation or personal growth and success as the fundamental value and goal of faith.

                I would argue that, for Christianity, the primary voice we need to hear is that of Jesus.  It is Jesus, who when confronted with questions of the law declared that the greatest commandment is the love of God and the love of neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).  It is Jesus who, when given the choice between ritual purity and compassion, chose compassion (Mark 3:1-6).  It is Jesus who, when given the choice between judgement and acceptance chose acceptance. (Luke 7:36-50)  It is Jesus who, on the cross, given the choice between condemnation and forgiveness chose forgiveness (Luke 23:34).  It is Jesus who shows that love is the direction of the path of discipleship.

                What the church has discovered and continues to struggle with is that the path is not as simple as it sounds.  As mainline traditions struggle with issues of sexuality, we are questioning the limits of love.  Can the direction of love move us beyond the bounds of scripture and tradition and how far?  As Christians in the United States consider illegal immigration, we are really continuing the discussion of what it means to love our neighbor.   As Christians deal with issues around addiction, we may struggle with the question of just how far love should lead us.  When does love become enabling?  When does enabling stop being love?

                Thank God that we are dependent not on our getting it right, but on God’s love for us.  God sets us in a universe formed in love.  God shows us in Jesus as example of life shaped by love.  God invites us to be loving, knowing well that we will fail despite our best efforts.  The good news is that our failures do not permanently break the relationship.  God who is love invites to love again, knowing that we will not be perfect, but hoping that we will grow.  May gift of God’s love shape our faith, our community and our conversation.  May the task of loving help us grow in love for God and one another.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Awe and Wonder in Practice

I will end the series on awe and wonder with some thoughts on practice.  Often awe and wonder can sneak up on us like coming upon an unexpected vista.  Awe and wonder can also be manipulated from within us.  Rock concerts with light shows or Fourth of July fireworks with patriotic music are examples.  I am an advocate for seeking awe and wonder as a purposeful state, that we intentionally find ways to get outside of ourselves and be taken up into that divine something that is so much larger than we are.         
                In our Sunday worship, we have played with curiosity as a means for developing awe.  Explore the world around you.  Find the life that thrives in unexpected places.  Discover an animal species you have never encountered.  We live in an age where there is excellent access to pictures and videos of creatures you will never encounter where you live.  Somehow seeing creation work in ways that are completely different from us, whether the graceful underwater flight of the blanket octopus or the wide-eyed glare of the tarsier, can be enough to elicit a sense of wonder.
                Another practice of awe and wonder is getting lost in the scope of the universe.  This can be as simple as contemplating a rock, especially one that can fit in your hand.  Feel its contours and solidity.  Pay attention to the many colors and variations, the glint of quartz particles in granite.  Consider how it got in your hand, the millions of years of pressure underground, the powerful geological forces that brought it to the surface.  The rocks I handed out in worship had also been smoothed by thousands of years of contact with Atlantic Ocean sand. 
                Then look upward to the heavens, consider the night sky, the light years between you and the nearest star, the age of the light you can see, the massiveness of the objects in the solar system.  Think of the things we don’t know or have yet to understand: black holes, comets and dark matter.
                In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept called, “single-minded focus.”  It has achieved some notoriety in these days of many distractions, as people recognize how social media and other technologies can tug on our focus.  It is the practice of learning how to concentrate on one single moment, allowing distractions to flow by.  In the Christian contemplative tradition, there  is the practice of turning ones focus fully on the divine.  The 13th century anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes a God hidden behind the titular cloud.  His advice on prayer was, “Keep your focus by staring at this cloud with a sharp arrow of love and longing, and never turn back from this work, no matter what happens.” 
                In many ways, what I suggest as practices for awe and wonder are about relearning to pay attention.  Rather than going to the zoo and saying, “I saw a giraffe,” take the time to watch and learn about what makes a giraffe beyond its long neck.  Rather than seeing a full moon, labeling it as full and turning away, take the time to notice its patterns of light and shadow, simply marveling at its, for lack of a better word, God-given moonness.

                Giving single-minded attention will take us many steps on the path of discipleship.  Such attention given to scripture leads to wisdom.  Such attention given to ourselves might lead to repentance and self-control.  Such attention given to our lives might lead toward contentment and gratitude.  Such attention given to our neighbor leads to compassion, justice and love.  It is no wonder that several times in the gospels Jesus calls us to attention with the simple words, “Keep awake!”  Wake up!  Keep awake!  Pay attention to the awe and wonder that is happening all around you.