Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Contentment and Peace

Shalom is a Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “peace.”  This is not a bad translation but it is not entirely adequate.  Shalom can also be translated as perfection, wholeness and completeness.  Often when we think of peace, we think of an absence of conflict.  Yet one can walk into a room without conflict and feel a palpable tension that is the absence of peace.   There may not be no guns firing, but being on the edge of violence is hardly peace.

                When I think of shalom I go back to a time when I was a camp counselor in northern Michigan.  Our days were very active and so right after lunch we had cabin time, also known some summers as “lie low” time.  It was an hour after lunch to relax at the cabins, play card games, read a book, take a nap (though everyone was too old to call it “nap time”).  I remember afternoons lying by the screened cabin window, belly full of good camp food, a slight breeze coming in, reading a book and feeling sort of dozy.  In that moment there was literally nothing else I needed, no place I would rather be and nothing I would rather do.  Sure, after a time it would get boring, but for that hour it was an experience of shalom.

                Contentment is how shalom feels.  It is the deep sigh of satisfaction.  It is the unforced hint of a smile.  It is knowing when enough is enough. 

                Much of our culture is grounded in creating discontent.  Marketing strategies seek to create a sense of dissatisfaction: that my cereal isn’t good enough, that my car is too slow or too weak, that my clothes are too old or too plain, that my teeth are not white enough, that my body is not thin enough.  If we can just improve and upgrade our things, then our lives will also improve and upgrade.  If we live with a sense of contentment; if we embody shalom, such appeals come as a foreign language.  My body is a gift as it is.  My little car gets me to where I need to go.  The things I have are enough to be happy and truly my happiness ceases to be dependent on things.

                Contemplative Christians talk about being grounded in the presence of God as the source of contentment/shalom.   When I spend time aware of the constant love of God that undergirds my every moment and every breath, contentment is never far away.  When the love of God is the source of shalom, I am constantly in shalom, only needing to be reminded when I forget or become distracted.

                There is, however, a danger to contentment in that it can easily turn to apathy or complacency.  The prophetic voices of the faith challenge this impulse.  I may be content with the food I have; the things I have, but I cannot ignore my neighbor who does not have enough.  The prophets invite us to be grounded in the love of God so that we can advocate for those for whom shalom is absent.

                I write this in the wake of another school shooting in America, this time in Parkland, Florida, where a young man killed 14 students and 3 faculty members with an assault rifle.  Such an event should move Christians from complacency, to advocate for and support students who now are beginning to demand shalom, safety, freedom from fear in places of learning.  We should step forward with them, asking our leaders to allow the scientific study of gun violence (The CDC has not been allowed funding to do this work since the Dickey amendment in 1996) and advocating for policies that will keep children safe. 

                In fact, I believe this is a fundamental calling of the church, to witness and advocate for shalom in the world; to live the meaning of contentment; to share so that others can have enough.  Contentment does not mean that we spend our lives in experiences akin to my camp experience, a constant retreat.  These moments are meant to ground us in contentment so that we can live content lives in a discontent world.  In Christ, we see shalom; in God, we find shalom; together, we live shalom.

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.