Practicing the Better: Jesus–Instruction, #2

The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ curriculum for practicing the better. [1]  Every word and act of Jesus was a revelation of some aspect of that Kingdom.  We can see this in the light, life, and love which came through everything he said and did.

Jesus’ light overcame the darkness, first by exposing the darkness of empire in his prophetic ministry.  This put him on a collision course with the imperialistic political and religious leaders, and it led to his crucifixion.  But for light to come, darkness has to go.  We see this particularly in his healing ministry and in his offer of forgiveness as the darkness in people was replaced by the light.

The illumination was life giving.  People “came alive” when they heard him teach, saw him minister, and personally experienced his healing and forgiveness. Jesus made good on his promise to give abundant life to everyone, and he did not withhold it from anyone.  The phrase that he “ate and drank with sinners” is the telling phrase to show the full measure of his acceptance of all and his offer of grace to everyone. The common people rejoiced, the political and religious leaders were enraged.

His inclusivity angered those who lived with an in/out mindset and whose spirituality enabled them to pray with thanksgiving that they were not like “those other people” (Luke 18:11).  They grumpled in the early days of his ministry and went on from there to look for ways to entrap him. When those efforts failed, they conspired to kill him.  Darkness and death do not applaud light and life.

All of Jesus’ instruction was aimed to establish love in individuals, groups, and the world. That was/is the essence of the Kingdom, summarized in the two great commandments.  When Jesus said he came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17), he meant “filling them full” with what had largely drained from them: the love of God and neighbor. [2]

He did this through his own demonstration of love to others, which John summarized by writing, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully” (John 13:1). And when he told his followers to be lovers, he gave them the means to do so–“remain in me” (John 15:4), and the model to follow–“as I have loved you. ”

Light, life, and love–the main elements in the Kingdom of God (fleshed out in numerous sub-topics and multiple expressions).  Light, light, and love–the inauguration of the new covenant and new creation (restoring and continuing God’s original intention). Light, life, and love–what it means to practice the better.

[1] My favorite book about the Kingdom of God is by  E. Stanley Jones, ‘The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person.’. George Eldon Ladd’s book, ‘The Gospel of the Kingdom’ is another good resource.

[2] Walter Brueggemann deals with this re-filling in a powerful way in his book, ‘God, Neighbor, Empire.’

Posted in Practicing the Better

In-Sight: Contemplation–Perspective & Power

Previously (September 10, 2018), I wrote a blog entitled, “Contemplation: Essence and Vision.” My purpose was to liberate contemplation from a limited definition of its being a spiritual practice, releasing it into the broader notion of it being an overarching experience.

Today’s post holds onto that message, but now I want to look at contemplation as a perspective and a power.  By perspective I mean that contemplation is a unitive consciousness which is formed when (to use Pauline language) “spirit, soul, and body” (1 Thessalonians 5:23) interact to produce (as we saw in the earlier post) the love of God, neighbor, and self. 

Richard Rohr recently described this perspective as “a unique way of knowing…the way you know and think of yourself [in relation to God and others] when you are sincerely praying and present.” [1]  Contemplation creates the awareness that at the core of existence is oneness, interconnectedness, and unity. [2]

It is out of this perspective that the power emerges–the power of transformation.  Contemplation is not so much an elevated consciousness as it is an engaged one.  The vision given in contemplation becomes the voyage initiated by contemplation.  Here is the outcome of contemplation’s unitive consciousness–action.

Thomas Merton looked long and hard at the relation between contemplation and action, concluding that “a certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful action.” [3]  Here again we see the root/fruit sequence, but today we see it to note we need not fear that contemplation will produce a passive interiority.  Jesus himself taught that abiding in him, and he in us, enables us to bear much fruit (John 15:5). Authentic contemplation provides a vision which moves us to action in some way.

In 2012, then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, moved this realization into our time.  Speaking of it in an address  at the Vatican he said, “To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.” [4]

The ‘deeply revolutionary’ nature of contemplation is Williams’ way of describing its power.  The fact is, there is nothing more powerful than a vision that never fades away (despite challenges and setbacks), but rather prevails to overcome evil with good.  Messengers come and go (by natural death and martyrdom), but the Message never dies.  Nothing is more powerful than something you cannot kill.

[1] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 9/16/18.

[2] It is important to note that this singularity does not mean the loss of differentiation, but rather leaving behind notions of separateness, superiority, etc.  In the spirit of Richard Rohr, everything is not the same, but everything belongs. In/out thinking is overcome so that our energy is given to finding ways to experience life together.

[3] Thomas Merton, ‘Contemplation in a World of Action’ (Doubleday, 1973), 172.  Though not published until after his death, Merton had written and arranged most of what is in this book.  Some of his other writings were added.  I am re-reading this book, and coming to think it is among his most important contributions in relation to matters of renewal, wholistic spirituality, and living faithfully God’s call in our day.

[4] Archbishop Rowan Williams, address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, October 10, 2012.  Richard Rohr quoted a longer segment of this address in his Daily Meditation, 9/16/18.

Posted in In-Sight

Shepherd’s Care: From Impact to Investment

Last week, we looked at what Eugene Peterson calls “the pastor’s question.”  It is the question that moves clergy from impact to investment.  It is a question churches can also ask to move themselves the same way.  Re-worded for the congregation it reads…

“Who are these particular people, and how can we be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?”

North American culture is episodic in many ways.  We go in for temporary experiences that provide instant gratification–concerts, cruises, etc.  The church is not exempt from the same inclinations.  We often speak of “having an impact” on something, and we plan and conduct ministries that (like episodes in society) provide our people with temporary experiences that provide instant gratification.

Back in my day we did this with evangelism and social concern.  Evangelism was concentrated in the annual “revival” and social concern was focused on food baskets at Thanksgiving.  The revival happened in the spring, and the food basket distribution took place in the fall.  Add in summertime Vacation Bible School and a youth mission trip, and we were making an impact much of the year.

These things were not bad, and I am not suggesting that they (or any other episodic events) should be abandoned.  That’s a discernment process each congregation must work out for itself.  There are many good things you can do once in a while.

But what I am suggesting is that congregations need to discern ministry using the word ‘investment’ not just the word ‘impact.’  The missional metaphors Jesus used were salt, light and leaven.  All three are images of investment, not impact.  In fact, the truth is, the ultimate impact of each element is due to its being an investment.  Salt does not land on meat and then return to the shaker.  Light does not reach the earth and then head back to the sun.  Leaven does not penetrate dough and then go back into the jar.  None of them come-and-go; all three arrive-and-stay.

I wish I had recognized this when I was a pastor.  I engaged folks in many good episodes, and the church never lacks for them.  In fact, there are always more programs to conduct than any congregation could or should do.  We can find resources for almost any ministry.

Where I came up short was on the investment side.  Long-haul ministry.  Ministry that arrived and stayed.  Salt, light, and leaven.  As I have awakened to the difference between impact and investment, I have recognized that missional churches emphasize investment. 
 
One way to say it is that they establish relationships, not just make contacts.  They connect with selected ministries in their community and in the world—and they stay put.  They get to know the people and discover what they really need, what it actually takes for them to thrive.  The ministries are not programs, they are partnerships.  They are rooted in relationships.

The impetus for this blog came as I read an article about a popular Christmas shoebox ministry, learning from the article that many of the gifts put into the shoeboxes are things the children don’t even know what to do with. One little boy, for example, got a Slinky in his box, and the best he could figure out was that it was a necklace.  So he found a way to wrap it around his neck and wear it like an article of clothing. The box contained things the sender wanted to give without knowing what the receiver needed to have.

It made me wonder how often I unwittingly gave others things what I wanted them to have, without ever asking (or taking the time to find out) what they liked or needed.  I made an impact, but did so without investment.  And the wonderment goes beyond toys to other things we do deductively (i.e. what we think others need) rather than inductively (i.e. responding to what they tell us they need).

There are about 500,000 Christian congregations in the United States.  What if each one claimed a territory in its proximity and offered ministry in the context of needs in their zone? What if a congregation linked with one local ministry and one global location and journeyed in ministry with each one for years?  [Some churches would have the size and capacity to partner with more than two]. Think of the number of investments which would be created!

I know congregations who do this, and it is because of them that I have learned the difference between impact and investment.  Of course there are good short-term, occasional ministries to do.  And we are being obedient as we do them. But suffice it to say that when Jesus told us to be salt, light, and leaven he was wanting us to think more about investment than impact.  He was wanting us to show up and stay.

Posted in Uncategorized

Practicing the Better: Jesus–Instruction

Just as there is too much in Jesus’ incarnation for us to explore in this series, the same holds true for his instruction.  Light, life, and love run through the length and breadth of Jesus’ teaching. It all comes together in his teaching about the Kingdom of God.

Often, we begin our look at Jesus’ teaching by studying the Sermon on the Mount.  But that is not where Jesus began his instruction about the Kingdom of God. Picking up where John the Baptist left off (as a sign of his connectedness with John’s prophesy), Jesus first words were, “Repent for the Kingdom has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Before pointing toward a new world, he sought to create a new humanity. [1]

By equating repentance with sin we have narrowed the word and diminished its meaning.  Repentance is ‘metanoia’ in the original Greek : meta=larger, noua=mind/outlook.  Jesus’ instruction about the Kingdom of God can only be accepted by those who have expanded their outlook on life.  When Jesus told people to repent, he was saying, “Look at life in a new way.”

By making this invitation he was asking, “Do you believe I can show you this new kind of life?” To those who responded, “Yes, ” he then said, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19, 25). At that point he began to teach them through instruction (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, parables, etc) and by his actions (e.g. healing, forgiveness). For Jesus, practicing the better was divine show-and-tell.  Every word…every deed…was aimed to make all things new, beginning with people. A new world is only possible by grace, and there will be no world without a new humanity who sees, hears, and lives differently. 

[1] I am indebted to E. Stanley Jones for this insight in his book, ‘The Christ of the Mount’ (Abingdon Press, 1931).

Posted in Practicing the Better

Editorial: Willful Ignorance

The United Nations report on climate change came out a few days ago, drawing on scientific evidence from more than thirty countries to say (once again) that the problem is real, and if it is not addressed, we are in for global trouble. This time, the report attempted to “turn up the volume” on the crisis by stating we have only about a decade to take steps to reverse the trends.

No sooner had the report come out than the climate-change deniers resumed their “junk science” mantras, despite the fact that for decades data has been gathered to prove the reality of the problem.  Sophisticated findings have come from experts, and yet there are those who can sweep such evidence aside with anecdotal assertions, caricatures and stereotypes.

It is the most amazing act of personal and public denial we can point to in our time.  And sadly,  POTUS is the face of the denial, which seems to justify the rest of the deniers.  “If Trump said it, it must be so” is a frightening conclusion in the face of facts he has likely not even read.

Climate-change denial is in itself bad enough, and it boggles the mind to think that anyone (much less the government) would minimize, or in some cases dismiss, evidence that could point to a crisis of survival agriculturally, environmentally, demographically, etc.  Why would anyone put future generations (i.e. children and grandchildren) at risk?  How can casually setting aside a dire warning be considered a better approach than paying attention to it?

The answer is larger than climate change, or any other specific issue.  The answer is willful ignorance, most often rooted in short-term economic gains for corporations, at the expense of the common good.  The already-rich and privileged prosper even more, earth be damned.  The problem is, by the time we realize we’re wrong, it will be too late to do anything about it.  But in the meantime those who choose to “make a buck” will have garnered their billions.  And somehow, certain folks see that as the way to go.

A book that just came out on October 2nd stares this madness square in the face.  It is entitled ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis.  On multiple fronts he addresses the danger of willful ignorance.  A reviewer summarizes it in these words,

“Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters.  If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost.  If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand the hard problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge.  Knowledge makes life messier.”

But even more deep than willful ignorance is the sign that many have adopted a motive of self-enhancement above what reality is telling us–going for a “win” in the face of a pending larger “loss.” This is where willful ignorance becomes an observable and dangerous spiritual problem–the expression of egocentric and ethnocentric thinking and acting.

It harks back to Cain’s attempt to deny his murder of Abel by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The first sin after the Fall was to deny accountability and responsibility for others.  And Cain’s question arises anytime and about anything when we lose our sense of oneness with the rest of the human family and with the rest of creation and live by a “what’s in it for me” view of life.  

Denying climate change is just one example to show that we can murder our brothers (children and grandchildren) in more than one way.

Posted in Editorials

In-Sight: Acedia

Today, I am writing a “note to self.”  You are welcome to read it.  And as they say, ” If the shoe fits….. 

_______________________________


Christianity was barely off the ground when soul-drain began to take its effect.  Paul called it “growing weary in doing what is right.”  He felt the depletion in himself, and wrote about it to two church groups (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13).  Some time later, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews referred to it as well (12:3). [1]

By the fourth century a.d. the condition had a name: acedia. [2]  It was seen to be so serious that it came to be included in the “Seven Deadly Sins.”

Like every other condition, it has degrees.  On a simpler level, it appears as discouragement, listlessness, and sluggishness.  Who of us has not felt this way? But if that were the extent of it, acedia would never have come to be viewed as sin, much less a soul-killing one.

The trouble is, there are times when acedia takes us farther down–down into a spiritual state of apathy where we think, speak, and act in ways that define our state as one of “not caring.”  It arises in our worship and work, manifesting itself in a myriad of specifics–all pointing to a deep sense of depletion when we have done everything we know to do….and nothing (or very little) changes for the better.

Acedia becomes a soul avenger, when we turn the feeling toward God–as people of faith–and pray, “God, don’t you care?” [3]  Nothing wearies us more than to wonder if our  “I could care less” spirit is God’s Spirit too.  Going back to the way Paul described it, if “doing what is right” yields diddly squat, why stay in the game?

And right there is where satan wants to get us–to turn us into spiritual “dropouts,” who adopt the mantra, “the world’s going to hell in a hand basket,” and in our depletion, we are willing to sit on the edge and watch it go over the cliff.

All this to say, I believe acedia is the state many of us are living in right now.  Many people are worn out after repeated efforts to “stop the madness” of the last eighteen months–madness born of sociopathology, narcissism, nativism, populism, imperialism, supremacy, racism, religious prejudice, immigrant mistreatment, “good-old-boy” protectionism, partisanship, greed, violence, undermining respected media and journalism, the hijacking of Christianity by fundamentalism, etc, etc. The past two weeks in particular have exposed the pus festering in the open wound of our common life, and many have resisted to the point of exhaustion.

And lest you think this is a detached, academic observation–let me tell you I heard myself saying just two days ago, “I don’t care anymore.”  And when those words came out of my mouth (even though my heart told me otherwise), I knew I was in trouble–that it was time to name my acedia and refuse to give it a defining/controling place in my soul.

And that brings me to the pivot of this post–acedia can be a deadly sin, but it is not a sin we are helpless to overcome.  As always, grace is greater than all our sin!  And it is in the claiming and appropriation of that grace where renewal begins.  Kathleen Norris describes it this way, “No one is exempt from [any deadly sin]. Our job is not to deny them, but to make our way through them to the virtue on the other side.” [4]

Evagrius linked the renewal to prayer–but not just any kind of prayer–to a special kind of prayer called, “hesychia”–the prayer of quiet, the prayer of rest.  In this prayer, we interceed for no one, we ask for nothing.  We simply put ourselves into the embrace of God.  The hymnwriter described it thus, “lean weary one upon His breast, God will take care of you.”  At the core, heysechia is a prayer of trust, saying from the depths of our weariness, “God, I do not know how…but I know that…you’ve got this” (see Psalm 121).

In addition to the prayer-related renewal, there is an accompanying physical alignment.  Thomas Aquinas recommended that soul-weary people take a hot bath, drink a glass of wine, and get a good night’s sleep.  As Saint Francis would say, take care of Brother Donkey!  The soul rides on the back of Brother Donkey, and it will not go any farther than Brother Donkey can take it.

This is not selfishness, it is survival and strengthening.  It is recovery and restoration.  No athlete stays on the field all the time.  No soldier fights every day.  No saint runs every leg of the race.  Overcoming acedia means practicing sabbath and even fasting from the fray.  Our hearts will tell us when the desire to re-engage has returned.  And the sign will be when we are ready to “fight the good fight” with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

[1] the Greek is ekkakéō: to feel utterly spiritless, to be worn out, exhausted.
[2] Evagrius Ponticus wrote about it in the ‘The Praktikos,’ chapter 12.  Kathleen Norris has written about in our day, ‘Acedia & Me’ (Riverhead Books, 2008).
[3] Evagrius notably links acedia with the effects it has on our prayer life.  Norris does too.  We see questions like this throughout the Psalms.  We must never cease to pray honestly.
[4] Norris, ‘Acedia & Me,’ 138.

Posted in In-Sight

Shepherd’s Care: The Pastor’s Question

​I have benefited from the insights of Eugene Peterson in many ways, but none more than from what he calls “the pastor’s question.”  He wrote the book, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ to explore the question in detail, but here is the question itself…

“Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [1]

I am sure that if you go back into the archived “Shepherd’s Care” posts, you will find that I wrote about this question previously.  In resuming this series I found Peterson’s question at the forefront of my thinking once again.  So, now as an elder “sitting at the gate,” I offer it to you one more time.  I do this because the question shines as a precious jewel among whatever else I may have to share with you.

Most of all it moves us into a personalized ministry.  An “I”/”Them” relationship.  This takes nothing away from whatever expertise our ministerial education may have given us, it simply makes it all available in a human context, not professional one.  Theologically, it is one expression of the word becoming flesh. 

 It is also a gift that many do not experience on a regular basis–that is, having someone in their life who treats them like the beloved and unique children of God that they are.  We all need relationships like this in order to thrive.

It is also a question which roots ministry in others, not in us.  Through the question we live into Paul’s vision of ministry, seeing “ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). Institutional ministry clericalizes the church, giving the false impression that laity exist to support “the program”—and pay for it!  The pastor’s question reverses the flow, allowing ministry to arise from and in service to the laity, not the institution.  Of course, this is not an either/or option, but it is a view which restores a better perspective of why we pastors are where we are in the first place.

There’s more to be said about the pastor’s question, and Peterson says more about it in ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ and most of his other books as well.  But putting it all together, to live in the pastor’s question is to move our concept of ministry from impact to investment–what Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” [2]  Incarnating the pastor’s question enables us to unpack our bags and move “into the neighborhood” (e.g. John 1:14 in ‘The Message’), knowing (as Charlie Shedd put it), “I am where I should be.  I have been brought to this place at this moment for this work.” [3]. In that realization there is clear purpose and great peace.

[1] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’ (InterVarsity Press, 1980).

[3] Charlie Shedd, ‘Time For All Things’ (Abingdon Press, 1962), 29.

Posted in Uncategorized