In-Sight: Becoming Children

When Jesus says we must become like children in order to be part of God’s Kingdom, I have usually probed his words by thinking of positive childhood traits.  I would then meditate on the extent to which they were present or absent in me.  And to be honest, this has been a good way to study Jesus’ exhortation.

But recently, I saw his words from a new vantage point.  I saw Jesus saying, in effect, “Do not let your becoming an adult lead you farther away from the life God wants you to live.”  And that started me thinking in a new way.

The journey into adulthood is comprised of many acts designed to help us fit into and become successful in the culture we grow up in.  Most of these qualities are necessary and beneficial. 

The problem is that part of the patterning process shapes us to be conformed to the world–something Paul warned us against in Romans 12:2.  Becoming “adult” in a fallen-world system includes learning how to be shrewd, successful, and status-conscience.  The journey into adulthood, viewed from this angle, is a journey into multiple manifestations of egocentrism. 

When “having it my way” becomes the core value, my adulthood will bless attitudes and actions that eventually collide with Gospel values.  If faith even matters at that point, the only option is to become a divided soul–a secular self and a spiritual self.  This is usually accompanied by secrecy, so that our religious friends don’t know we are secular, and our secular friends do not know we are religious. We keep our two worlds neatly separated and clean from cross contamination.

Problem is, the divided life destroys the wholeness (what ‘salvation’ literally means) God intends. Becoming adult in these ways has meant losing the “hidden wholeness” (Parker Palmer’s phrase) we are meant to have.

And so, Jesus says, the way Home is to become like children–not childish, but singular–whole people who shape their identity and behavior by the Gospel.  To be God’s child is to be shaped by the example of Christ, and then to express the Christlike life in ways akin to the fruit of the Spirit, and in ways that enact the two great commandments.

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Journey: Relationship & Responsibility

Read: Being Human

Someone has said, “Humanity is God’s best idea.”  And Brian McLaren weaves the two creation stories together to confirm that idea.  Placed in the cosmos, we are made in the image of God, with the capacity for relationship (with God,  with others, and with ourselves), and placed in the garden, we are stewards with the responsibility to care for ourselves and the rest of creation.

God defines life in terms of the union of relationship and responsibility.  Separate them, and life goes haywire in some way.  Relationship without responsibility turns us into spoiled children; responsibility without relationship turns us into toy gods.

The Fall separated relationship and responsibility, and left us as spoiled children who think we are gods.  Or to say it a bit more formally, the originating sin produced egotism (a blend of imago dei and imago homo sapien), and the never-ending roller coaster ride between good and evil.

But…humanity is still God’s best idea.  We are still God’s beloved.  By grace, God still offers us life, and our embrace of it restores the union of relationship and responsibility.

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For the Bride: Partisanship

I believe historians may look at our generation and name partisanship as the largest contributive factor to our local/global gridlock.  Whether in civic or eccesial societies, our inability/unwillingness to get together has all but killed our ability to come together.

I personally believe partisanship is a manifestation of the “darkened mind” which Paul says happens whenever idolatry (self-glorification instead of God-glorification) takes over.  Partisanship is the contemporary term for what the Bible calls haughtiness, and Scripture is clear that this spirit is sinful, and that it prevents us from being part of God’s Kingdom.

In his list of evidence that we are living in the flesh rather than in the Spirit, Paul includes “group rivalry” among other things (Galatians 6:20 CEB). There is no way for us to justify contentiousness or judgmentalism. Partisanship is antithetical to the will and way of God.

Partisanship is found when winning is paramount and where procedures are in place for determining who is in and who is out.  And when that outcome is couched in language of righteousness and unrighteousness, partisanship will endorse whatever it takes to be victorious “in Jesus’ name.”

Partisanship is egotisim existing within a system where what should have been conversation becomes contentiousness–where compromise that could lead us to a better place is declared to be dangerous–where what might have been sharing deteriorates into shunning. Partisanship uses battle imagery, justifying warfare because the cause is worth it.

Partisanship undermines the fruit of the Spirit, replacing it with opposite attitudes and actions that leave us praying “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” when the truth is, we are exactly like them.

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In-Sight: Margins

When I began elementary school, our teacher had us purchase notebook paper.  On the left-hand side were two little blue lines running from top to bottom.  We learned that it was called the margin.  We were not to write to the left of those lines.

We also learned not to write all the way to the right-hand side, or to fill up the page from top to bottom.  It was as if there were invisible margins all the way around the page.  If we honored them, our page looked neat and balanced.  If we violated them, the page looked jammed and messy.

Faith is like that.  We are supposed to have margins.  Two of them are especially important.

(1) The margin for Mystery–we simply do not know everything about the nature and activity of God, the nature and activity of the church, or the nature and activity of our lives, etc., etc.  If we violate this margin, we turn Christianity into explanations, answers, and certainties with respect to some things we really have no idea about.  If we honor the margin, we cultivate faith: being able to say, “I do not know how this works, but I know that God is good.  I leave this to God.” The saints give us this witness through holy unknowing.

(2) The margin for error–no matter how committed and devout we are, we surely get it wrong sometimes, and we never have the complete picture.  If we violate this margin, we become arrogant, judgmental, and condescending know-it-alls, who really don’t need to live anywhere but in our own heads. If we honor this margin, we cultivate humility: being able to say, “I could be wrong; you could be right.  Let’s talk and offer each other our respective light, so we can experience God’s larger Light.” The saints give us this witness through the virtue of humility.

In our spiritual formation, we need to look at our souls like notebook paper, and make sure we maintain margins.  Otherwise we will try to cram more onto the page than God intends, turning the Message into a mess.

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Journey: Creation and Wonder

Read:  Alive in the Story of Creation & Awe and Wonder.

No matter when, where, or how we begin the Christian walk, we step onto a path that goes back to the beginning of creation itself.  We can only understand our life in the context of creation. McLaren’s overview of Part One and his first chapter take us there.

I agree with him that whatever else creation teaches us (and it is a lot), it tells us God is not boring.  To journey with God is magnificence, multitude, and multiplicity.   The revelation is nothing less than romance–a Lover/Beloved relationship, which early Christians compared to a dance.

In this regard, they saw creation as a reflection of Trinity, where Father, Son, and Spirit danced in the divine nature, with the impulse to create the world to be a dancing place too.  To say it simply, the God Who is Love wanted to make a world where love defines and directs everything.

It is sad that the doctrine of creation has become a bone of contention when it was intended to be a basis for celebration.  What could be more inspiring and unifying than that we all exist because God has made us.  What potential there is when we can say, “God loves me…and…God loves everyone else too!”

The response to God’s love is wonder–a full-natured “Wow!” when the message of creation invades the totality of our being.  The  Bible word for it is “Hallelujah!”–the word which shows that we get it, and that we intend to live with nothing less that the Life God has in mind for us, and for everyone.

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For the Bride: Missing Square One

The precursor to schism is the loss of humility.  The starting point for our debates has too often been to look at those with whom we disagree and say, “You are wrong.”  And, of course it gets worse.  Once we divide over right/wrong, it is a short journey to saying “you are sinful, you are deceived, you are not Christian,” etc.

But a look at Scripture and Tradition puts the starting point at “I”–not “You.”  I am sinful, I could be wrong, I need help in finding the difference between my way and God’s way, etc.  I cannot be Christian in isolation–whether actually or ideologically.

The failure to follow the saints of the ages in this confessional spirit results in the loss of humility, And hard as it is to accept, this is nothing other than the triumph of egotism.  The thing the ego resists most is beginning with “I.”  Adam and Eve resisted it in Eden, so they blamed the snake and each other.  Peter resisted it in Jesus’ conversation with him on the seashore, changing the subject to another disciple by asking, “What about him?”

The ego creates a circus of “you’s” and then spends an inordinate amount of time, effort, and money demonstrating how “I” am superior to “you.”  But the old Gospel hymn calls out all attempts to pass the buck: “It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.  Not my brother, not my sister, but me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

By missing square one, we begin the Christian walk at the wrong place, and when the vantage point is skewed, most everything else will be skewed somewhere down the line.  Jesus starts with “me” not “you,” telling me in no uncertain terms to remove the log in my eye before I try to get the speck out of someone else’s eye.  This is what humility does, and only the clear-eyed can see what God wants us to see.

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In-Sight: We Are The Older Brother

We cannot read the story of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) without realizing there are actually two lost sons.  But because we have put so much emphasis on the younger son, we fail to discover what Jesus wanted us to learn through the experience of the older son.

The younger son is the story of self-interest turned into self-expression. The older son is the story of self-interest turned into self-righteousness.  Both are lost.  Both are portrayed as outside the father’s house–the younger in a faraway place, the older in a nearby field.  The younger son is Jesus’ story of rebellion, the older son is the story of religiosity.  Clearly, the religious leaders heard it that way (Luke 15:2, 16:14-15) as they listened to Jesus’ parables in this section of Luke’s gospel.

If we presume to follow Jesus, if we call ourselves Christian, it does not mean the younger son has nothing to tell us, but it does mean that the older son is the character we should study carefully.  We are the older brother. His downward spiral can be ours.

It began as anger because the older son felt the father was “soft on sin” and offering cheap grace.  It deteriorated into a denial of kinship: “this son of yours” (Luke 15:30), even though the father tried to keep the record straight: “this brother of yours” (Luke 15:32).  It climaxed as the older son refused to enter the house and be part of a family that not only included “someone like that,” but put a ring, shoes, and robe on him.

And that’s where the parable concludes.  Curtain down.  Full stop.  No happy ending.  Self-righteousness on the outside–not because the father refused to invite the older son inside, but rather because the older son rejected the invitation. To accept it would mean having to admit his own version of lostness and it would mean having to be reconciled to someone he no longer wanted to be around.

Tragically, when the story ends, there is still one lost son.

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