Monthly Archives: August 2012
I may jump around a bit today, just wanted to get that out of the way. Now to prove it true…
Politics has well and truly ramped up pre-election so our normally divided and polarizing rhetoric has clearly been upgraded to DEFCON 3. Let’s just face it – we aren’t very nice people some of the time. And while this has probably always been true I’m going to say that for me this election has become overtaken by a culture of fact-checking. Words like truth, and lies… and hypocrisy are flying all over the place.
That’s the one I trigger on. I trigger on it for many reasons.
It’s a word of attack and counter-strike, it’s not a word that is used to build bridges or seek understanding across strongly opposed views and perspectives. When you call someone a hypocrite you are not seeking peace, but violence.
It is also almost always used by hypocrites about other hypocrites. This is tipping my hat a little – I’ll come back to it later. But suffice it to say it’s a word used when you do not intend to engage in self-reflection or growth. You are only interested in pointing out other’s faults. (This might be a good time to talk about logs and specks ala the Gospel of Matthew but I’m not going to do so other than to say please note that in that text that the writer is not saying do not judge at all… but makes sure you look at yourself first, and then makes sure that your judgment of the other is in the interest of building them up, not tearing them down. And that is a bit of freedom of interpretation but it is how I read it.)
I could go on but it’s time to jump again.
You see here is my big issue. We are all hypocrites. Okay – maybe not all, you have to have a strong (almost creedal) sense of purpose in order to be a hypocrite. Someone without proclamation doesn’t run the risk of living in contrast to their stated vision or mission or identity. But I’m turning now to reflection on discipleship from the perspective of one who seeks to follow after Jesus Christ. That is always my purpose at some point in these blog posts. And while I think some of what I say here is true beyond those who share such conviction, my thoughts are targeted to people who share that perspective. People who aspire to follow Jesus are hypocrites. We just are – and if someone tells you otherwise, then they are in need of serious log-in-eye removal.
I read a great reflection that helped me see this a long time ago by Martin Marty from the University of Chicago. But sadly I can’t find it anymore. He basically took us back to the Greek roots of the word hypocrite. That the word had its root in theater (amazing how much theology traces its roots to Greek theater), and as I recall it the word was used of someone who was playing a roll. You were a hypocrite because you weren’t actually that person – you were just trying to be seen as that person.
Do you see where I’m going with this? As followers of Jesus we are trying to be like Christ, we are trying to live in such a way that people see Christ living in us and through us. We are trying… but none of us fully live up to the full image of Christ.
And that is good.
We cannot call it good only when we attain perfection or 93% of it as the case may be. To try – to aspire – to yearn for our better selves is good… very good. We are – follower of Jesus Christ – aspiring to the life of Christ. I will say this part for myself alone and leave you to your own reflections.
I fall short.
My life is a dusty and dinged version of the life of Christ. Or maybe it’s the other way around… I’m reading the James a lot in preparation for this month’s sermons and it’s very clear there that we are to work (not just think, not just talk about.. but actually put our lives out there working towards our vision and mission) on behalf of the poor at the expense of the rich. (I’m not trying to go political with that, but it’s hard not to at the moment.) My life looks far too rich for James’ liking. I’m aware of that. It’s a part of my hypocrisy. I’m also okay with it. I still believe Jesus looks on me and calls me good – just as God did that first day… second day… third day…. every day.
I’m a hypocrite and most likely, you are too. Thanks be to God, so be it.
Almost eight years ago I was moving to Florida to begin my first call as an Associate Pastor. I was coming off of a yearlong chaplain residency at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta that was… difficult. Provocative – formative – meaningful? Yes all of those and more. I wouldn’t trade the experience in for anything. But it wasn’t easy… not even close. There were twenty-four hour days, and forty-eight hour weekends. A lot of disease, and poverty, and death. I recall one particular weekend where I was awake for two days straight and was assisting a family with the death of their loved one (the ninth such situation I had been a part of since I last slept). I recall early in the year sitting vigil with a family next to their brain dead sixteen year old son… who sadly wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Or another young husband who, because of one poor split second decision would never wake up again… or become a father. I remember more mundane stories as well… a lot of hospital gowns, and people grateful to talk, and one gentleman who simply lifted his hand to say stop and pointed towards the door. I remember great colleagues who I couldn’t stand some of the time but made that whole world livable.
In the midst of this world I was also struggling with a continued journey with Caroline to have our first child… it was a long and hard journey also. It will filled with disappointments and what I came to call the 28 day rollercoaster. (If you know me you realize that eventually this wasn’t a problem, three kids with a fourth on the way I will simply say of it now that I had reproductive surgery and it was radically successful.)
All of this came to a head in Holy Week… I remember on Good Friday being beeped to one of my floors at the hospital for a death and I turned to a colleague and said, “How do you mediate death to a dead God?”
God died for me that day, God died to me as well.
At my first presbytery meeting (church stuff) in my first call a person came forth to make a presentation and shouted out, “God is good.” And everyone responded, “All of the time!” And then he said, ”All of the time.” And everyone responded… (You guessed it) “God is good!” It’s one of those tribal things you are just supposed to know and its fairly common but I really hadn’t ever run into it that much before, or not when I was in a place to react as I do now. That day began a habit for me… when everyone else says, “All of the time,” if you listen close you may just hear me mutter to myself, “Some of the time.” You see – I just can’t say it. I just can’t say that God is good all of the time.
Do I think that God isn’t good? Not exactly… it’s never that clear and straightforward for me. I don’t think God is evil, or amoral, or capricious (well… there are moments). It’s just that the statement “God is good all the time” is the kind of statement made of the God that died for me back at Grady. I had to kill that God… strung that God up on the cross and nailed the hands and feet and pronounced God dead. Here is the wonderful thing that occurred to me because of that experience. When I killed the God of my own creation, the God that fit my categories (like goodness), when I killed that god… the God that really is – a God of mystery and wonder and grace and life and love – was resurrected, came alive to me in ways I had not previously experienced. To borrow from Joseph Campbell I had begun to worship the mask of God created by my theology and thoughts and (most problematic) my needs rather than the God that lay beyond the mask.
I need to kill the God I wanted, that I felt I needed – the God who provides what I think I need in the time I’m convinced I need it. That is the God who is good all the time – because let’s face it, mostly I think what is good means what is good to me. When we say, “God is good all the time,” what do we really mean? Because if God is being good to the oppressed, is that good to the oppressor? If God is being good when God makes the hurricane not hit your home town, what does that mean for the people who the hurricane does hit? If God is good when you don’t get hit by random gunfire, what about the person next to you? If God is good to the person who has received great blessings and riches through faithful living, what does that mean to a person whose faithful living has led to little but hardship?
To whom, and how, and in what ways is God good all the time?
The poet of Psalm 22 names God as having laid him/her/us in the “dust of death.” Is that good? Is it bad? I was in the dust of death that week at Grady and I will be ever thankful for it (now, but not then). But I also would be glad to have not gone through such a week (year). I wouldn’t give it up – but I’d love to have learned those lessons in another way. It wasn’t good… but it wasn’t exactly bad either.
Jesus says no-one is good but God alone. And yet we use the word good about a great many things. I hear Jesus words name God as good. So there is goodness to God… but unlike the goodness of any of us, or anything else. Either use good for God alone, or don’t use it about God. Because God is not good like you and me, nor good like any other. And God’s goodness is not in our service. We are in the service of God – who is good in all God’s mystery.
This is why I do not say that “God is good all the time.” Because I think such a phrase is fraught with agendas that are beyond God… and less than God… and outside of God. And while I won’t stop you from saying it, just know that when you do so liturgically, where I’m sitting – if you listen very closely – you will hear me say… “some of the time.” So be it, thanks be to God.
So as many of you may know I spent a very significant amount of time over the last year (and particularly the last month) removing the wallpaper in the kitchen of our old house in preparation of selling it for our move to Idaho (well much of that time I didn’t know where we were moving to, and I wouldn’t have guessed Idaho – but hindsight… that’s what I was doing).
It wasn’t a fun task. It was two layers of wallpaper; the bottom layer was original to the house and almost 25 years old. To further my joy (make it complete?) the dry wall was untreated so the wall paper was adhered to the wall. In my lamenting how long it was taking (the first 5 ft or so took a good long 7 hour day to clear) and it was a big kitchen, I got lots of advice on the perfect technique to strip wall paper, or the best spray or tool or trick. If you use this trick – it will come right off.
What I know now (I’ve learned this before but its learning I try to forget, I’d rather not be known as being good at removing wallpaper) is that all of these tricks work – and yet none of them do. They are all perfect… and useless. In the end the methodology of removal doesn’t matter too much – it’s your skill with that particular methodology and the context of your removal. In some places the paper would come off easy, and I’d be convinced it’s the method that was working… only it really didn’t matter at all how – it was that particular part of the wall that was easy. In other places no matter how great a method (or all of them combined) the best I was going to do was scrap off centimeter long strips of paper.
So somewhere in the midst of this project, as I was getting pretty good at it and moving along quickly I realized that this work project spoke well to something I hear all the time. In my study of discipleship one of the things you will continually hear is that it’s not about programs. This is wisdom that is being applied to much of the church these days. Whether it’s under the name of missional, emergant, discipleship, house churches… whatever way we are talking about new ways of being intentional community together you will almost always here the speaker or writer say that it’s not about building/using/implementing programs. I’ve always had a bit of a struggle with that, because it’s really impossible to avoid program unless you are advocating randomness… some kind of creative anarchy. (And some may be recommending that but this is a rabbit trail to today’s thought so I won’t go down that road now.)
Jesus ministry can seem very organic and random, but he has an agenda and a program. He utters mission statements such as in Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus has a program of a sort. He has purpose, vision, and an identified way of achieving it (gathering disciples, forming them to form others while simultaneously walking towards confrontation with both the political and ecclesiological powers of the day in Jerusalem. The Gospel of John is particularly driven by the idea that Jesus intends to die on the cross, it’s not something that happens TO him it is something HE DOES… it’s part of his program).
Program isn’t the problem it seems to me. But all those writers and speakers aren’t wrong either, because what wallpaper is speaking to me is that church and community programs and best practices are a lot like wall paper removal tricks. They all work, and none of them do. Success isn’t about the right program or trick or method. It’s about the finding what works for you, and creating a context for that method to work well in and applying a lot of consistent hard work. It’s why Eugene Peterson loved the phrased, and used it for his first book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.
There is no best practice, or perfect program, or trick that makes community and faith formation easy. Searching for that trick makes us expend a lot of energy in many directions and discover little but futility and exhaustion. (Or end up with a closet full of partially used wall paper removal solutions.) Know who you are, and with whom you are walking as you follow in the way of Jesus Christ and let your program (because you will have one) be authentic to who you are and lead you in the direction you hear Christ calling you. It won’t work all the time, it will work wonders some of the time, it won’t be right for everyone, but will be – with God’s help – right for you – and it will lead you in the long obedience that Peter speaks of so wonderful when he says to Jesus (in my own fairly loose translation of the end of John 6), “Even if we wanted to, where else can we go? You are leading us in the way of the holiness and faith.”
So be it. Thanks be to God.
It always intrigues me when there is a roundly criticized practice that is never-the-less almost universally… well, practiced. I hear a lot of people criticize what they see as rewarding mediocrity by giving every kid a trophy in children’s organized sports. I don’t really recall anyone speaking in favor of doing so – and yet we still do so, continually, almost universally. So apparently the criticism is falling on deaf ears, or we like to criticize but not actually do anything to change it.
However, I’m not weighing in to merely comment on this strange practice of speaking out without actually seeking change (though that is itself an very important lesson for Christian discipleship which often does much better with what we say than with what we actually do), I’m actually interested in whether or not this criticism makes any sense from a Christian perspective. Many of the people I see who do not like this idea of rewarding mediocrity (and I’m not calling anyone out here… this is really just me working out my interior thoughts out loud) are also people who make a strong faith claim in grace – in the idea that God’s love and salvation isn’t earned, cannot be earned, but is freely given. (Almost like a trophy for every person regardless of how well they did.)
We cringe at the last place team getting trophies, and then go to church on Sunday (if we aren’t at a soccer game instead) and read about the first being last, about all the workers receiving the same pay regardless of how few hours they worked, and about the fact that we are to receive God’s love and not earn it.
Where is the consistency in our ethic? How confused are we (and how confused are we making our kids) when we say – you don’t have to earn God’s love but you do have to earn everything else and it’s wrong to reward you unless you beat everyone else. (Yes I totally agree that playing is its own reward – in fact I have some reservations about the trophy at all, first or last place, because I don’t really want to reward people for competition… but that’s maybe a later continuation of the conversation and I’m actually pretty unsure of all that in my head… so let’s not digress any further.) It’s important to know that I don’t really care one way or the other about sport trophies (in fact I wouldn’t mind if they got rid of them and they didn’t cause extra clutter in my house). I do care about the conflicting messages around competition and works righteousness and achievement.
God rewards mediocrity while asking for better, for more, for… perfection (Matthew 5:46-48). God desire us to seek to be our better selves, without it meaning competition with who is the best… and the “reward” is the same for those who come in first as it is for those who come in last. Each of the synoptic Gospels have a conversation on the greatest, and in Luke 9 the disciples even get worked up that others might be doing things in Jesus’ name. Jesus invites us (as I hear it) to put aside our competitiveness and remember that we are called to service, and our focus should be on our own service – not if we are the best, or if other’s aren’t good enough. Jesus thinks we don’t need a reward to think it’s worthwhile to try harder. Competition isn’t necessary, and we won’t simply settle for mediocrity without it. So the “reward” if you will: God’s love, salvation, acceptance… whichever way you want to name it – is given to everyone before an effort is made. We all get the trophy.
When we say that in one place, like church, but then say elsewhere that it’s damaging to give everyone a reward like a trophy simply for playing… are we actually refuting our first message? Are we confusing our ethic? Are we saying that the way of Jesus works at church and in “eternal matters” but not in our sporting and working and schooling life?
This is the kind of double messaging that doesn’t work with discipleship in which we are actually seeking to follow the way of Jesus Christ in all that we do and all that we are in the world – the whole world. This means the last comes first in soccer… just as in the Kingdom of God. Because whether we like it or not – the Kingdom of God is an all-inclusive “place” and the soccer field, the board room, the class room, and our church meeting rooms are all contained within it. There is no place where our ethic is other than following in the way of Jesus Christ. Everywhere we go, in everything we do. In all that we do we are to seek to be our better selves, to realize our full potential. But not for rewards sake. And in all that we do and all that we are – we are all to be rewarded. But not for achievements sake.
We seek, with help, to realize our full potential because it is pleasing to God, to one another, and to ourselves. We are rewarded because we are all made in the image of God and worthy of love regardless of what place we come in when the whistle blows. Thanks be to God; so be it!
This is not exactly a new theme for me. Some of you will recall my sermon a couple of years ago titled, “Why stop at three?” (Which apparently was as much about God as it was my family.) If I think back farther I can recall 8 years ago being examined for ordination and being welcomed by one pastor on the examination group who dubbed me “Servetus.” (Google him, Michael Servetus, and you will see that Calvin had him executed, most any established religious authority of his day would have done the same so no bad rap for Calvin exactly. I do maybe share some in common with him, if nothing more than a penchant for questioning established “right” answers.) Servetus himself had Trinitarian issues and while I’m not willing to lump my opinion in with his whole cloth, we are barking up the same tree (so to speak).
There are many levels to my comment, “I do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity.” First of all what exactly do we believe in? As faith statements go do we believe in doctrines? …scripture? …the church? I don’t believe so (pun intended). I believe in the living God, a God attested to in Jesus Christ by scripture and hopefully through the church and its teachings. All of these things are important and to certain degrees even necessary – but the belief statement is in the living God – not the methods of revelation and the resulting wrestling with what that faith calls me to be and do in the world.
But today I’m picking on the Trinity not these other aspects of our faith in the living God. I’m dwelling on the Trinity because it seems to be dwelling on me. I don’t want to get bogged down so let me just say give the gist of my thought. I believe in a triune God – the living God – but not the doctrine of Trinity. I find the doctrine problematic on many levels. But the biggest one is this – it gets us caught up in the wrong task. It gets us caught up in naming what we can precisely say and understand about the mystery of God and the nature of God and reconciling two (perhaps) contrary claims in monotheism and the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Spirit (you know… the Holy one). Yah that’s all its trying to do… just a simple task – well… that just can’t be done. It is trying to name that which makes no sense and isn’t meant for us to be able to comprehend. It’s why the actual words of the doctrine gets us going in circles with persons and substances and being (none of which mean in English what they meant for the Greek and Latin theologians who first used them) and three in one that is neither separate or completely unified. The doctrine is a razors edge and as I see it not one worth walking. We cannot comprehend the mystery of God’s being – just let it be, just let God be God.
Rather than trying to pin down the being of God in human words what seems more fruitful is to focus our energy on precisely how the knowledge of the Triune God is a true gift to us that is missed by the works of doctrines. The gift is that God is communal in nature. Depending on how you count there are in the area of 100 – 200 names and metaphors for God in the Bible (thus the opening comment, why stop at three). What becomes clear is that God is more than any single set of words can articulate. Jesus tries some in John’s gospel… and it’s not clear what exactly he thinks he’s saying except this – the nature of God is in relationship. God is three in one – neither distinct or all one. And God created us in that image.
The Genesis language of creation says that God created humankind in God’s image. Not that God created one person as the image of one God. But that a communal God created the community of humanity in the image of God. We are created to work together – neither distinct nor all one being.
I believe in God that is attested to in many ways – a living Lord at work in vital ways in the world and whose nature is mystery beyond the simple fact that God is communal and God is love and we are created to reflect that – to be that – in the world.
There is an old understanding of the Trinity called perichoresis. (dance-around). The triune image of God is three persons dancing in a circle that emphasizes the indwelling and interdependence of being. This is a Trinity I can love and learn with – for we created to join the dance and extend the dance – an ever bigger community of God. We dwell with and within each other and God as we join in the dance of God’s being that is love. We do not need to explain the Trinity, we need to live it. This is why it is important that we do not make the Trinity into a concept that we believe in – a set of right words to intellectualize God – but rather a reality to live. For to name a triune God is to recognize that even God does not live and work alone but by God’s own nature God lives and works in community. This is the nature of God. It’s our nature too. Thanks be to God.