Practicing the Better: Deliverance

Nothing could be worse than to have the desire to please God, but be unable to do so.  So, just as the creation gave us the capacity to serve God (via the imago dei), so also the Covenant gives us the capacity through the motif of deliverance.  Both forms of capacity are because of grace.

We must not miss the fact that God made the Covenant with Israel after their deliverance from Egypt. Their capacity for obedience came because they were free.  Paul later wrote of this in relation to Christ, “Christ has set us free for freedom” (Galatians 5:1).  In the same way, the liturgy reminds us that we are freed “for joyful obedience.”

It is deliverance which further confirms that our love of God and others is not a “pay back.”  We do not practice the better to insure our account with God is “paid in full.” We live by the motive of delight, not the mandate of obligation. Gratitude is an outflow of grace, not a prerequisite for it.

Deliverance from bondage does not get us all the way to the practice of the better, but there can be no achievement of the better until we are free to love out of faith, not fear.  To be set free means that our choices to practice the better arise from compassion, not coercion.

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Practicing the Better: Obedience

Of course, God includes in the Covenant the expectation that we will obey it.  Every relationship is honored, made real, and strengthened by obedience. Our relationship with God is no different.

But in the Covenant (that is rooted in God’s love for us, and our loving God and loving others) obedience is more than doing our duty.  It is expressing our delight.  Duty can be minimalistic (e.g. “what’s the least I can do and still be accepted?”), but delight never can be.  In the delight of knowing we are God’s beloved, we look for every opportunity to enact the two great commandments.

But there is still more.  The root of obedience is listening–listening with the intention to put into practice what we hear. God is constantly speaking and showing (revelation), our task is to be constantly listening and looking (response).  This is why attentiveness is considered to be at the heart of the spiritual life, why Jesus wanted us to have seeing eyes and hearing ears (Mark 8:18), why Jean-Pierre de Caussade spoke of “the sacrament of the present moment,” and Henri Nouwen wrote that we are to live ” here and now. ”

Study the saints of the ages, and they tell us, “Every moment is a God-monent.” Francis and Clare related to everyone they met as if the person were Christ. Macrina Wiederkehr reminds us that every tree is full of angels.  Richard Rohr emphasizes that each day is sufficient to reveal God’s presence and to ignite our service.  We recognize by practicing what Walter Brueggemann calls “deep listening,” –what we refer to as prayer.

Obedience is action born of contemplation.  With respect to the practice of the better, it means we need never look elsewhere to do good.  We do not know whom we will meet next, but we do know what we are to do when we meet them. Love them.  This is the essence of obedience.

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Practicing the Better: Commitment

One of the first things we learn about Covenant is that it is not strictly speaking a contract.  It has elements that are contractual in nature, but it has one significant difference–it is not null and void if we default.  God does not foreclose because the Covenant is a relationship, not a regulation.

The phrase for this is “steadfast love” (hesed), and it runs across the pages of the Old Testament, becoming agapé in the New Testament.  Unfortunately, one of the biggest misinterpretations of Scripture is the allegation that the Old Testament is about Law, and the New Testament is about Love.  No, no, no–it is Love all the way through: hesed/agapé from cover to cover!  This is seen in Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18, the two passages Jesus combined to show the essence of the Covenant and of the Christian life (Matthew 22:34-40).

Walter Brueggeman has repeatedly pointed this out in his writings, that the Torah was a love document, not a law code. [1]. After the fall in Genesis 3, it was the way God sought to turn things around and stop the downward spiral created by the originating sin of egotism/ethnocentrism.  God initiated the redemption.

The Covenant is, of course, based in mutual commitment. The phrase, “I will be your God, and you will be my people” shows this.  And when mutual commitment is in place, life works the way God intended–just as it did in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  Mutual commitment via the Covenant is a “new Eden,” not located in one place, but wherever God and humankind live together in love.

With respect to the practice of the better it means we do not act as we do to appease an angry God or to avoid foreclosure, but as our response to grace.  It is not about “pay back” but about what people call “paying it forward”–as Jesus put it, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).  The practice of the better means we consider it a privilege to care for others in keeping with the ways God has cared for us.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Disruptive Grace’ (Fortress Press, 2011.  He speaks to this more than once, particularly in the section about “Torah.”

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Practicing the Better: God, God, God

The most important thing to say about Covenant is that it is created by God.  Just as God made the world, God made the Covenant.  The great danger in life is to forget the God-grounded nature of all things.  Covenant is no exception.

Eugene Peterson has written powerful words to remind us of this, “First God. God is the subject of life.  God is foundational for living. If we don’t have a sense of the primacy of God, we will never get it right, get life right, get our lives right. Not God at the margins; not God as an option; not God on the weekends. God at the center and circumference. God first and last; God, God, God.” [1]

Without this, the ego has enough room to create empire–“the kingdoms of this world,” which compete with and/or conquer the Kingdom of God.  Boiled down to its essence, the Covenant’s first and foremost message is, “I am God, and you are not.”. Far from being an oppressive message, it is actually the word that sets us free  (from our egotism/ethnocentrism) to live in God and for the glory of God–which is what being created in the image of God is meant to be.

With respect to the practice of the better, Covenant reminds us that the goodness we seek to manifest is a fruit, not the root.  We are instruments of peace, not the inventors of it.  And because we live, move, and have our being in God we are never alone in our practice of the better. God is with us!

[1] Eugene Peterson, ‘Conversations: The Message Bible with Its Translator (NavPress, 2007), 24.  This has been retitled as ‘The Message Study Bible.’

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Practicing the Better: Covenant

We could spend more time in the opening chapters of Genesis, but the rest of Scripture awaits us, holding in its revelation pearls of great price with respect to practicing the better.  The next element is summarized in the word Covenant.  Covenant is the way God chose to restore the light, life, and love which had been lost in the Fall.

Think of Covenant as a wide-angle photograph.  It captures the whole picture.  That’s one reason both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures (which together comprise the Bible) are called ‘covenant’–the old (first) covenant and the new (second) covenant. Everything God does with us, in us, and through us is in relation to Covenant–in relation to the restoration of light, life, and love.
Obviously, this is too much to take in, so we will zoom in on aspects of Covenant which connect to practicing the better.  Even doing this we must be selective and illustrative.  But I believe there are key aspects of Covenant which are particularly helpful as we seek to be instruments of God’s peace. We will explore some of them in upcoming posts.

For today, we simply remind ourselves that God provided the Covenant to do two major things: (1) to create an alternative consciousness, and (2) to create an alternative community where the new mindset could be taught and practiced. [1] Now, as then, it takes a renewed consciousness and a restored community to practice the better. Light, life and love cannot exist without these two things. Without a renewed consciousness we have no way of knowing what ‘the better’ is.  And without a restored community, we will be disconnected individuals hoping to accomplish something we were never meant to do alone.

Covenant is the manifestation of grace in our individual and collective life–the soil in which light, life, and love germinate, sprout, and grow–bearing the fruit we are calling in this series the practice of the better.

[1] Walter Brueggemann explores these two aspects of Covenant in his book, ‘The Prophetic Imagination.’

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Practicing the Better: Formative Images

The preceding posts in this series have largely focused in the first three chapters of Genesis.  We have a lot more Scripture to explore and much more to learn about practicing the better, but from the opening pages of the Bible, we have three key images to understand what the ‘good’ life is–light, life, and love. This the progression that we see in the creation stories.  

First light.  Then the life which springs forth in response to light.  And finally, the love which emerges in the relationship between God and humanity both before and after the fall.  These metaphors tell us important things about practicing the better.

All three metaphors are actions.  Light shines.  Life emerges and grows.  Love reaches out to embrace and enrich.  Practicing the better is not merely holding correct beliefs or holding positive views, it is enacting them–what Eugene Peterson calls lived theology.  What John Wesley referred to as living faith and practical divinity.  Practicing the better is an incarnation–the Word must continue to become flesh, in and through us.

Years ago, Charles Schulz captured the inadequacy of stopping with words in a cartoon where Charlie Brown says, “I love humanity; it’s just people I can’t stand.” And there you have it–theology without performance–profession of faith without the accompanying expression of it.  Light, life and love are behaviors.

They also set in motion a progression. Light, life, and love create a divine flow.  One thing leads to another.

Jesus said we are the light of the world.  We enter the darkness to offer hope, showing through our words and deeds that darkness does not have the last word.

This light gives life to others as they come alive in response to our compassion and acts of kindness. They experience tangible relief and are helped to see themselves in new ways.

From this life-to-life exchange, love emerges.  It is impossible to enter into a relationship with others without discovering things about them we can never know if we remain aloof and separated from them.  We discover a common humanity, not an us/them dichotomy that too easily turns judgmental and toxic.

Light—then life—then love.  This is the original flow in the first creation. It is the flow which characterizes the new creation, and the progression which directs us in the practice of the better.

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Practicing the Better: The Holy Value of One

Practicing the better is enacting love in the little things of life. That’s good news because we spend most of our time living in the world of small things.  It is what has often been referred to as ordinary holiness.  Brother Lawrence referred to it as “doing little things for God.”  The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, captured it in these words,

“The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child–are of infinite worth to God.  Consider our Lord himself, who devoted himself to a small country, to small things, and to individuals–often giving hours of time to the few or the one.  Our Lord gives much time to the woman of Samaria, to Nicodemus, to Martha, to Mary, to Lazarus, and to Peter.  The infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many.  You will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child.  His authority will be given to you as you do this, and his joy will be yours as well.” [1]

We will consider many aspects of practicing the better in this series, but the words above are at the heart of it all.  We do not know who will cross our path next, but we know how we are supposed to act when they do.

[1] Michael Ramsey, ‘The Christian Priest Today’ (Cowley Publications, 1972), 42.

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