What we should be telling them

It’s graduation season again, which means that parents and families will be celebrating their children’s success in getting through twelve years of school and not dying or going insane in the process. They’re also celebrating no more fights to get Junior out of bed in the morning, no more standing over them while they mickey mouse their homework, and no more teacher conferences (where, no matter how mature the parent, Junior’s behavior and achievement is a direct reflection on the worthiness of the parent). In the midst of bubbling happiness and general “you can change the world!” sappiness, we do miss a few things. Here (for the sake of completeness) are some of the things we should be telling our graduates

You (probably) aren’t going to change the world
it’s amazing how many graduates are sent out into the world with the dual message that “only you can save the world!” and “we totally made a huge mess, here’s a broom.” Big Hairy Audacious Goals are a tool that can indeed move us toward great things but some sense of proportion is needed here. The world is huge and we are small, the way things are today is the the product of our parents, their parents, and all the parents before them screwing up. Given the massive project and the massive mess (monster truck voice) Changing The World (end monster truck voice) is perhaps a bit too big for any one human to carry by themselves. This mismatch between task and probability of success leads to the next point.

You’re going to fail, a lot
in any fair contest, you are going to lose 50% of the time and while no one particularly wants to fail, what we do when we fail is critical. Louis L’amour has a stock character (always a bad guy) who has never failed and doesn’t know how to fail. He piles effort after foolishness and considers no level of cruelty as being beneath him. He is always the Big Bad in those stories and he always loses to Our Hero who has learned how to take his lumps and go on. Since we will be losing, a lot, what we do with ourselves when we lose is going to be vital if we have any hope of building actual success.

There is no finish line
In school we get course schedules, reading lists, assignments, and grades. All this goes away as soon as we leave. Sure, there will be work shifts, deadlines, and evaluations but we have to make up the schedule of life for ourselves. All of the external incentives by which we used to measure life are going away. So we will have to establish the finish lines for ourselves and be ready to cheer for ourselves when we win. We will need particularly to be ready to cheer because there’s no guarantee that other people will.

You define success (choose wisely)
Because we set the finish line and evaluate our work, we are the ones who get to define what it means to be a success. Lots of people outside us will try to define success (often with an eye toward getting us to share their measure of success and thus validate their life choices). We are however the people who have to live inside our skin so we are the ones who have sole right and responsibility to define what it means to Win at Life.

A key consideration in defining success was put forward by Epictetus (a Stoic philosopher). He said that the only contest we can be sure to win is the one where we control the outcome. In other words, if our measure of success depends on someone else’s actions or someone else judging us a success we are going to inevitably lose. If in order for me to Win I need to persuade you that I am a winner or get you to give me something so I can know I have won, I am likely to lose.

A perfect example of this is parents who define their success in life by the way their kids turn out. The parents’ evaluation of success is thus left in the hands of their children, organisms over which the parent truly has no control or direction. Thus their labor and life is entirely in vain because they win only if someone else Wins. Their happiness is entirely in the hands of another and thus their life is hostage to that other. Therefore chose what constitutes success wisely.

Consider the lilies
While most of the preceding has been pretty much a downer deflation of the purple prose and happy platitudes we use when addressing graduates, this is a bit of purple prose to balance the total downer we’ve had to date. If we aren’t going to change the world and life is going to get harder and more confusing now, why even bother? Just this, our lives and the results of our efforts are not just in our hands. We can break our hearts trying to accomplish the impossible, believing that it all depends on us or choose to trust one who is bigger than us and wants our good.

in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about birds and lilies and life. What he’s doing here is pointing out that in the great grey crazy world into which we embark each day, we are not alone. Because we have been made for each other we do depend on others for life and hope. But others, like our own efforts, can fail us. We can’t ask for what we need, they can’t give it even if we ask for it, and sometimes the random jerk factor gets thrown into the mix and everything comes crashing down. Families, lovers, and friends fail us. We fail. The task in front of us is too big for us and failure is inevitable so why put out the effort? Why try to go on when failure is our only option? Because we are not alone.

Jesus describes a God who pays attention to the sparrows, little bits of fluff and feather that for all their color and energy are tiny, almost insubstantial things. This God dresses the lilies of the field, the wildflowers that bloom in a day and then die, the grass that springs up and goes to hay within a few days. And because this God pays attention to the whole world that is in His hands, nothing really is in vain. God redeems evil for good and takes even our worst junk and makes it compost if there’s nothing else to do with it.

This God, who knows the number of hairs on our head, dresses the grass, and cares for the birds is the same One who is with us (immanuel) all our days. So go and be bold, make hairy, audacious goals, bend your energies and your life to achieve them, be ready for when you fall, and know the hands that paint the sunset with fire and set jewels at the throat of the hummingbird are also reaching out to hold you.

World without end.

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What About the Heathen?

A classic question faced by clergy is: “What are we supposed to do with people who don’t believe?”

My first response is to ask “why are we supposed to DO something with them in the first place?” Truly, where do we get the arrogance to assume that we have the sole responsibility to Rescue The Heathen (a popular slogan from the 1800’s). Why do we assume that Only We can Save Mankind? Isn’t there some God person involved in this too? Why yes, yes there is.

But wait, you say. What about the Great Commission? Doesn’t it say GO into all the world? No, actually it doesn’t. I’ve covered this elsewhere but the short answer is that in the commission there is one imperative (command) verb and three participles (helper/descriptor) verbs. “Go” is one of the participles, thus it is more accurately “going.” So the Commission actually begins “going into all the world…”

Further, the command is “disciple” not “make disciples” because the verb “to make” is not even in the sentence. Thus the Great Commission is really about discipling: being disciples, shaping disciples, and becoming disciples. This makes the commission: “Going into all the world, disciple! baptizing and teaching…”

Our task is discipleship and it happens while we are going, baptizing, and teaching. Our task is not rescuing the lost or saving the world (Jesus has that covered) our job is discipleship. As disciples, we bring people to Christ by attraction: by being genuine, changed, going-out-to-others people.

A good way to think of this is the saying “unless we go out they aren’t going to want to come in.” People aren’t going to want to hang with Jesus if we aren’t hanging with Him and genuine, humane beings. They won’t come through our doors if we sit on our butt doing nothing. They aren’t going to care about us and the power of Christ that has changed our life if our life hasn’t actually been changed and we aren’t genuinely interested in what makes them excited.

But what about hell? What about the assumption that if they die without knowing Christ, they will be bound to hell and it will be all our fault? Aren’t we supposed to stand in the gap and act as watchmen warning the sinner to turn from their way? Um, have you read the context of those passages? Standing in the gap was about the fall of Jerusalem (which already happened) and at best is an invitation for intercessory prayer. The watchman warning sinners is the watchman TOLD by God to warn the person. So if you aren’t a prophet directly called and sent to a specific person, the whole watchman warning the sinner text doesn’t apply.

Further, since Jesus is the way God loves the cosmos and he loves the cosmos through choosing death instead of condemnation and resurrection instead of despair, it’s hard to see “no one comes to the Father” as entirely condemnatory. All of the cosmos comes to The Father through Jesus. The mechanism is not specified, but the reality is that this happens in and through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. How it works is mystery, that it works is true.

Does this mean universalism? I don’t think so because we still come to God through Jesus. It’s more a recognition that our obsession with simply explainable reasons for what happens to whom and when is “so two centuries ago” and a pointless attempt to jam mystery into a logical diagram. It’s part of the messy process of trying to take the chaotic beauty of the cosmos and pin it out to a card like a bug collection. If the whole cosmos truly is in Jesus’ hands, why are we trying to determine God’s justice?

Further, as Aslan reminds us in C.S. Lewis’ stories, “no one is told any story but their own.” In other words, God gives us commands for our life and tells us whose we are without cluttering the discussion up with gossip about other people. Thus our attempt to know “what happens to them” is a bit of snoopy meddling. It’s also just a teeny bit unbiblical.

Ultimately then, the first heathen I need to convert is the one in my heart.

I am responsible for living faithfully before my Lord and it is not my job to save others (as I mentioned before, Jesus has that covered). My task is not to “beat them into heaven with a club” as Luther snarked so very well. My calling is to be faithful and grow deeper in faith.

A big part of my job hinges on the reality that the question “how will the heathen know Jesus?” presupposes that I know Jesus. Thus if I am to do anything worthy of converting others to the love of Christ, I had blessed well better be so thoroughly immersed in that love that nothing can distract me from that love and be so free of the chains in my own life that people can only see God’s love through me.

This is by no means a call to quietism, the idea that all I need is “me and Jesus” off in our corner together and the rest of the cosmos can go hang. It is a call to clarity within myself, for untying the knots in my life and uncloging the channels of my heart so I can channel, reflect, and show the Love I know.

I do have to go out, I have to go out with words as well as deeds and I have to go out from the strength of the love of God through me. But ‘the heathen’ are an abstraction and not concrete human beings and our calling is to concrete humanity rather than abstract ideas.

Thus to ‘reach the heathen for Christ’ (as the old slogan goes), I need to reach out to and care about the heathen inside myself and reach out to and care about the heathen I meet in the street. “They” will not care about “us” until we show real care for them as them and not them as ‘heathen.” And that is what I believe the church must “do with the heathen.”

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Priesthood Calling!

1 Peter 2.2-10

We’re used to the notion that priest-y stuff is done by Special People (i.e. Not Us) and yet here in 1 Peter we get this list of all we are and it includes the line “royal priesthood.” Even more fun is that the Greek makes clear that this list is entirely equivalent, A=B=C=D. Or in other words the picked genus, royal priesthood, holy ethnoi, and special crowd are all the same. The chosen genus is the royal priesthood is the holy ethnos is God’s own crowd. All of them are different names, different aspects, of the same thing: you, all of you.

People focus on the chosen and selected part of this text, making the point that we are special (and probably superior) to “them,” “those people,” “the folks who are not us.” The problem with that is that doing so focuses on the negative, on what we are not rather than what we are. The underlying dynamic is attending to what we are fleeing from instead of what we are reaching toward and like driving while watching the rear view mirror, it is a prescription for a wrecked life.

So what are we called for? What is our priesthood reaching toward?

We are called to exevangelo (a compound of ex “out,” ev (an alternate spelling of eu)”good” and angello “bring a message” [and yes, that is the word behind “angel,” a being that is a messenger]). In other words, our calling, selection, priesthood, is intended so that we bear a good message out to others.

And what is that message? It is to tell about the one who has called/summoned/invited us out of darkness into the wonder/splendor of the light. That’s it. There’s no mention of the sinner’s prayer, the Roman Road to Salvation, particular doctrinal statements, or even a specific religious premise. The message we are given to hand to others, face to face and heart to heart, is our experience of the Person who saw us in darkness and pulled us into light.

It’s that simple and that complex. “This is who God is to me and what God has done in me.” That’s the whole message and it’s hard to share because it combines God’s acting and our own experience of that action. There’s no room here to waffle on about antiseptic theories and abstract doctrines. (These can be very helpful, mind you, giving shape to our stories and a framework on which to hang our experience but they are not the good news we bear out to others).

In addition to the “you mean I have to talk about my experience?” terror, there is a cultural challenge involved here because American spirituality has very specific views of what this darkness can be. It generally describes darkness with a capital D and insists that the darkness from which we have been called has to fit certain parameters of personal awfulness. The chains on our soul do not however have to include Great Sins or stereotypical Evil. We are very often bound up in chains of systemic racism, power and privilege, and family history which are chains of bondage even if they are not recognized as such.

Lives are not interchangeable and what weighs me down may be a feather for you. There is however, still darkness involved in what weighs on each of us. Arguments about how my darkness is darker than yours or how those aren’t really chains, is pointless. Plus, the argument distracts us from seeing how God has called us out of that darkness and then telling others about the light into which we are living. Even worse, we waste a lot of time trying to dig through the darkness, as if understanding the dark will help us experience light.

So instead of digging into the darkness or comparing our darkness with others or even setting criteria to determine if our darkness is really dark or just grey, let’s walk out of the darkness through the power of Christ-in-us and then tell each other about our walk. That’s the good news, the euangelion (gospel) we have to offer to the cosmos. It’s not specific points or statements of faith, it’s the experience, strength, and hope we have found on our walk into the light and that’s something we all can share. That is the priesthood to which all of us are called.

Ding-Dong! Priesthood Calling.

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Mothering

In spite of the commercial song and dance we get from Hallmark, being a mother is no simple, gooey, happy thing. It is complex and difficult and challenges one’s bodily integrity with (for instance) the reality of an organism growing inside you. Plus, there’s the real identity change and the complex process described (with some humor) in the School of Life video entitled “The Horror of Children.” Sure, they’re oversimplifying it, but there’s a real truth in the midst of that message.

Mothers are human, have lives and interests outside of their children, and are guaranteed to get the whole thing wrong. After all, only a perfect person can be a perfect parent and only a person with perfect parents can become a perfect person (“chicken, meet egg; egg, chicken”). Thus all parents (and all kids) are each crazy in their own way and our ability to make some peace with our craziness is the best we can hope for as we grow older.

This legacy of craziness is part of what makes Mother’s Day such a challenge both for the mother and her family. We need to honor the great and difficult work done while also acknowledging the wounds dealt out and the craziness we share. But in the midst of this difficult process, there’s another group of women who get completely shoved aside and we’d do well to remember them too.

Consider the following people I know:

  • A friend whose epilepsy medicine would kill any embryo that might form.
  • Another whose auto-immune disorder means she cannot carry a child to term.
  • Another who had a hysterectomy in her 20’s because of horrible medical problems.
  • A dear friend whose mother convinced her that pregnancy would kill her.
  • Friends who wanted children but did not find a partner with whom to build a life.
  • A family whose twins just died in utero this past week.

Amid the Hallmark confetti and mandatory chirpiness of the day, what are we to say to these mothers who are not? Do we just accept that if one is not a mother of the body, one is not a mother at all? Do we gently say “this isn’t really for you, dear” and go back to celebrating as society demands? Do we say “be warm and well filled” to people who are oh so subtly considered “less than” because their womb did not bring life into the world?

I truly deeply and desperately hope we do not.

My hope instead is that we grieve with and accept these beloved sisters and daughters who are not mothers of the body. That we celebrate those who are mothers of the heart as well as those who are mothers of the body. And that we bless all the mothers who struggle to be ‘a good mommy’ in the midst of their own history and confusion. And last, I hope we bless those whose mothers hit them, neglected them, and abandoned them and in doing so damaged what these children think of when we say “mother.”

Embracing all of them is the complexity of love, the humanity of mothering. And I will testify to you today that the God who loves the cosmos through a concrete, touchable, huggable, living being, is a God with Everlasting Arms to hold and bless us in our grief and in our joy. This is a God, in short, who can mother us, not as our mothers mothered us, but in the perfect way that God can mother.

So, blessings to the mothers of the body and mothers of the heart. Comfort to those who grieve. And a tender gentleness to those who hear in this day a cruel and subtle condemnation for their childlessness or a reminder of violence past (and somehow still present). May the one who broke the chains, lift and bless and keep us world without end.

Amen

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That Rude Spirit

Acts 8.26-40

One of the challenges of spiritual life is dealing with that mystical, ineffable, obnoxious Holy Spirit. In part this is because the spirit is undefined, invisible, and curious, another part is because the Spirit is invoked as a sort of gauzy something or another whose actions are undefined and inexplicable. Even traditions which emphasize the action of the Holy Spirit tend to have a less than clear image of what the spirit actually does. The one thing none of the literature talks about however, is how unutterably rude the Spirit really is.

The spirit sends an angelos (Greek for “messenger”) to Phillip. The messenger says “Go to the Gaza road” so Phillip goes. There’s no explanation offered, just go. Then while Phil is standing there probably feeling a bit dumb for just standing around, the Spirit says “go to that chariot,” and he does. Then the interaction with the eunuch takes place and at the end, the Spirit just picks Phillip up and dumps him unceremoniously in Azotus. This is just flat out rude. There’s no preparation, no explanation, no simple steps to follow. Through it all Phillip just goes along, following these half hints and oddball nudges and by tradition, the eunuch he taught became the first missionary to Ethiopia.

So Phil stumbles about in this world of hints and nudges with no more clue of the overall plan than a carrot. But he hears enough of the voice of the Spirit that he is able to do a mighty work. The first part sounds very much like my (and possibly your) life. The problem is dealing with what one author calls “a wild cocktail party” in our head, the chaotic voices and noises which render us nearly deaf to anything God might be saying.

This is not a new problem, over the ages people of faith have tried different practices in order quiet the inner noise so they may hear more clearly. The techniques and ideas have gone in and out of fashion, been forgotten and remembered, filled some lives with joy and light and been for others a deep drudge. (I for one, move farther away from God while journaling but others find it rich and deep). This is actually OK because lives are not interchangeable so a practice which is good for one time, place, and person may well not be helpful at all to another.

What has remained clear is that somewhere in the messy mass of history, the people of faith have found ways of living which have given them the ears Phillip had. Furthermore, the history of the people of faith shows that being able to hear the movement of the Holy Spirit in our life is not solely the province of the Great Saints but is instead well within the reach of all faith holders. The key that I have seen, and that many saints through the past have confirmed, is getting our thoughts to shut up long enough to be able to listen.

There are many great resources that introduce us to the smorgasbord of practices, communities of practice that teach their different experiences, and even books filled with the reflection of other crazy, complex, confused people who have somehow experienced grace upon grace. In all of these we find ways to quiet our hearts and listen. Phillip was so quiet within himself that he was able to hear the messages which drew him to the Gaza road, that chariot, and that pool of water that day. It was a prompting which reached the eunuch that day and sent him on his way rejoicing.

Ultimately, it is a prompting all of us can hear given time, effort, and trust in the One who gave us life again. And sometimes, it’s a prompting to get up and dance.

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Breaking the Chains

Psalm 116.16
1 Peter 1.17-21

The NRSV use of “loosed” in translating psalm 116.16 is valid and correct. But saying “you have loosed my bonds” is just a bit too timid for the work of God breaking our life loose from bondage. The contrast is more obvious in Hebrew. This is because Hebrew changes the meaning of verbs by altering its stem. Some stems make the verb passive “I have been lifted up,” others turn it causative “you caused me to rise.”

The simple (qal) stem of the verb is “open” as in “I open the door” but that is not the stem used here. Here it is the intensive (piel) stem which points not to the gentle opening of doors for invited guests but instead to the active, forceful work of ripping doors off hinges and tossing them broken on the ground. While this may seem a bit too aggressive and violent, there is an event in the life of the church which is very consistent with this sort of forceful opening.

It’s the harrowing of hell and the best image I’ve seen for this is in the Orthodox icon of the resurrection. Jesus in his glory is central to this image and he is pictured taking a man and woman by the hand and raising them to stand up again out of their coffins (by tradition these are Adam and Eve). Also by tradition he is standing on a pair of crossed doors. These are the bronze doors of hell itself which have been torn from their hinges and tossed on the ground. Surrounding them are the broken chains and locks of hell and in some icons you will find a single broken key prominently displayed. This is the key to hell which has, like the doors and the chains, been broken forever.

These chains, key, and doors are the broken power of sin, death, and the devil. They are also part of a larger breaking free into life. We see this more clearly in the letter of 1 Peter where we are reminded that the resurrection of Jesus has ransomed us “from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.”

The futile ways could also be called “fruitless” as in “the ways of life which bear no fruit for life.” To be even more general, these could be called the ways and habits of life and heart which do not give life. They range from the endless stream of busy nothings which clog our days all the way out to the assumptions of life which trap us in futile patterns of living and even addiction.

And from where did we pick up these habits? We learned it from others. In fact, the Greek makes it clear that we were given this by others. The verb is paterdidomi, a compound of pater (father) and didomi (to give). Thus at its most basic, this is the stuff our fathers gave us. But let’s not blame fathers for all of this, because Greek lumps everything together as “from dad” even when dads are not actually part of the process.

Thus these futile ways of life from which we have been ransomed by Christ are in fact, the compound of all the ideas, attitudes, and experiences which we have received from everyone in our life, not just our dads. But Jesus does not ransom us from our entire past because (in spite the definite assurance of all teenagers) not everything we learned from adults is stupid, dumb, and pointless.

What Jesus has done is ransomed us from the fruitless (that is “that bear no fruit/life”) things we inherited, the unspoken assumptions of life and the childhood convictions based on insufficient evidence. Not everything is fruitless and his resurrection is our opportunity to stand up again into life. So what are we to do with all this?

The first thing to understand is that the power of the resurrection has ripped down the doors of hell and broken the chains which bind us. The second is to continue the practice of reviewing our life, sorting through the assumptions we have received and testing to see which ones lead us into Christ. Because of the power of Christ in our life, we can test what we have received, let go of what drags us down, and embrace the new life we have.

You have been ransomed with preciousness, you are valued and valuable, you can therefore let go of a fruitless past and embrace the fruit filled future of life in faith.

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