In-Sight: The Grand Synthesis

God is the love (1 John 4:8).  God is creator (Genesis 1:1).  These are two fundamental affirmations of our faith.  Each is important in its own right, but when we weave them together, an even grander revelation emerges.

Clearly, the two affirmations are segments of one reality.  God’s nature and activity are congruent.  Who God is on the inside is how God acts on the outside.  When we apply this to the creation, it means that all God has made (and continues to make) is a manifestation of who God is.  The nature of the creation is love because God is love.  From the largest galaxy to the smallest particle, the cosmos is love saturated.

Teilhard de Chardin’s writings have revived this connection for me, and a book about him has helped me see the reality of cosmic love even more clearly. [1]  His ability to make connections between faith and science is insightful, and his perspective is a much needed one, as a growing number of theologians and scientists is discovering.

Last week, I used this “In-Sight” category to suggest a few ways we need to be living in a world overtaken by divisiveness.  Of course, I mentioned living in love.  But today, I feel led to stay on this theme to further reinforce it. [2]

To the extent that we keep the nature of God (love) and the activity of God (loving) in its essential singularity, we recognize that every cell, nerve, tissue, and fiber of our being is made by and infused with love.  We move with the grain of the universe when we live in love; we move against its grain when we do not.  It is that simple–and that marvelous!

We often speak about Christian maturity.  When we do, we are referring to one thing: maturity in love. I learned this long ago from E. Stanley Jones. Through his book, ‘Christian Maturity,’ I spent a year in daily devotion exploring the ways and means of maturing in love. [3] I have recently began re-reading the book, and the experience is deeply formative for me now as it was when I first read it.

Without minimizing the complexities which are creating our divisiveness today, I am willing to say that our multitude of problems stem from one source: the failure to love. To the extent we fail to love God, others, and ourselves we can then move on to justify our harmful attitudes and actions. 

We quickly become like Cain, who (for lack of love) fell prey to jealousy, and once there could allege he was not his brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9).  The extent to which we have ceased to love is always the extent to which we claim our separation from and superiority over others.  And with that perspective in place, we become strangers to grace.  We are living in a time of vanishing grace in the society and the church, and we are paying a high price for it. [4]

God is calling for us to live in love.  Our churches must be schools of love.  Our homes must be models of love.  Our spiritual formation must be aimed toward love.  “This is my Father’s world,” and it is made to be a world of love.

[1] Louis M. Savary and Patricia H. Berne, Teilhard de Chardin On Love: Evolving Human Relationships (Paulist Press: 2017).

[2] I recommend the book, ‘Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love’ (Orbis Books, 2018), compiled by Joelle Chase and Judy Trager.

[3] E. Stanley Jones, ‘Christian Maturity’ (Abingdon Press, 1957).  This book is scheduled to be republished.  I will let you know when it is. In the meantime, you can find it through used book outlets.

[4] Philip Yancey has looked at this in detail in his book, ‘Vanishing Grace’ (Zondervan, 2014).

Posted in In-Sight

Shepherd’s Care: Time To Pay Attention

Earbuds may go down in history as one of the most insidious devices ever invented.  They draw us away from the world in which we are present into some other world. That other world may be a good one, but it is not the one we are actually in. [1]  And to the extent we become patterned to live distracted lives, we run the risk of losing touch with where we are.  One of the gifts of time is the invitation to be attentive to the present moment and to our current location. [2]

Henri Nouwen was once asked in an interview to define the spiritual life.  He responded that it was impossible to do that in a a few words.  But the interviewer persisted until Nouwen said that if he were forced to define the spiritual life, he would say it is paying attention.  

His response was in keeping with a classic notion of spirituality: attentiveness.  God invites us to use our time to pay attention. That invitation comes to us in the exercise of our ministries.  In this post I want to offer you three ways by which we become increasingly attentive as clergy. [3]

First, we pay attention prayerfully.  We clergy are quick to say, “It’s God’s church.” It only stands to reason that we would regularly check in with “The Boss” (not Bruce Springstein) about it.  We are servants of God for Jesus Christ’s sake (2 Corinthians 4:5).  Our primary attentiveness must be to God.  

Simply put, that means prayer.  As E. Stanley Jones described it–going to “the listening post” to get his “marching orders” for the day.  Eugene Peterson repeatedly said that his primary pastoral responsibility was to pray, using the chief means of grace to pay attention. [4]. It is in prayerful attentiveness where we are given “eyes to see and ears to hear” (Mark 8:18).

Second, we pay attention contextually.  Eugene Peterson emphasized the connection between vocation and location.  This attentiveness is rooted in the Incarnation, where Jesus came to “his own” (John 1:11), and shepherded his flock, calling his own sheep “by name” (John 10:3).

The importance of locality (a specific congregation in a unique place) moved Peterson to frame what he called the pastor’s question: “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?” [5]  By paying attention to our context we discover the soil into which the seed of the Word is meant to grow.

Third, we pay attention patiently.  The soil/seed metaphor (indeed, other metaphors from nature) calls us into living and working patiently with those whom we are called to serve.  It is a patience we first give to ourselves (vs. a frenetic attempt to do too much too fast, which only leads to superficiality), and then we give it to others. [6]

Natural growth occurs incrementally over time.  It emerges in the course of a journey more than in the conduct of an event.  Like nature, it is a seed sown, germinating, sprouting, developing, and only then–harvesting.  That’s why so much of ministry is waiting (dreaming, hoping, tending, weeding), and we only wait well (Joyce Rupp calls it “walking in a relaxed manner”) by being patient. Patience is a disposition which breeds attentiveness because it enables us to find joy in little things and to genuinely rejoice in small advances.

Prayer, context, and patience increase attentiveness in us and in our ministry.  They save us from “hurry sickness” and from living distractedly so that we fail to fully realize or appreciate where we are.

[1] I am exaggerating the earbud image to make a point.  There are, of course, times when earbuds take us into a world of relaxation, a world of learning, etc.

[2] Living in the present moment is extremely important, and we today are so incessantly lured to lead distracted lives, that I have chosen “Here and Now” as the 2019 Oboedire theme.  It will appear each Wednesday, beginning on January 2nd.

[3] I am grateful to have read about all three in the writings of Eugene Peterson, and seen them lived out in his life.  I’ve been thinking a lot about him since he died on October 22nd.

[4] Peterson went on to say, live, and teach that (on the basis of his own life of prayer) his primary pastoral duty was to teach his congregation to pray. This meant individually and collectively in worship.

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

[6] Peterson wrote a lot about this in his pastoral trilogy: ‘Working the Angles’….’Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’….and, ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant.’

Posted in Uncategorized

Practicing the Better: A Final Word

​I come to the end of this series feeling like a runner who must now pass the baton to the next person in the race. This series has been an extended one, but it could easily have been longer and deeper.  The runner could keep on running, but his/her alloted portion of the race has been covered.  Practicing the better is a long-distance run by a team of runners.  Each runner is advancing the baton toward the finish line.  As this series concludes, let’s look at what the baton (practicing the better) signifies…

First and foremost, it is means living in ways that bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), the root of which is love as summarized in the two great commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).  This is the essence of practicing the better.

Second, it means locality.  Jesus said that the Kingdom is near.  We use our stewardship to financially support ministries that practice the better in other places, but we use our servanthood to be involved in ministries nearby. Practicing the better is centered in “the local,” and we can only imagine how different the world would be if each of us were invested in our respective territories. 

Third, practicing the better is limited. It is doing what we can do–adding our piece to the puzzle.  For example, in the civil rights movement and other movements for liberation–Gandhi fasted, Merton wrote. King marched. Baez sang, Day extended hospitality, Mandela was imprisoned, Romero offered eucharist and priestly care. And beyond those we can name are the multitude of others who cooked meals, kept children, provided transportation, and offered rooms for visitors to stay in. No one tried to do it all.  Each did a part, and did it for the glory of God. This gives focus to practicing the better and prevents us from growing weary in well doing by trying to do too much.  There are more good things to do than God asks any of us to do.

As we end this series, I can think of no better summary for the phrase “the practice of the better” than the prayer of St. Francis.  May it be a living prayer in each of us…

Lord,

Make me an instrument of your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love,

Where there is injury, pardon,

Where there is doubt, faith,

Where there is despair, hope,

Where there is darkness light,

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled

     as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Posted in Practicing the Better

Editorial: Racism Amplified

With the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to largely end protections afforded to minorities by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there was an immediate resurgance of racism in our political system.  Even before the ruling states began to implement restrictive policies, and within one week after the Act’s overturning, fifteen more states either restored previous restrictions or enacted new ones–bringing the total doing so to 24. [1]  This reality alone revealed that the Court’s 5-4 decision to effectively end federal protection for the voting rights of all people–based on the allegation that “the country is different now”–was not correct.

Voter surpression of minorities has been documented in some way in every election since 2010.  Last week’s mid-term election is no exception.  Reducing the number of poling places in minority locations, putting new locations far from public transportation routes, devising an exact match scheme (which poling officials are authorized to interpret and enforce), and requiring a voter’s ID to have a photo and/or a street address are only a few examples of regulations that covertly diminish a minority groups’ ability to vote. 

Such policies are part of the larger revival of racism in our country often referred to as The New Jim Crow. [2]  And sadly, segments of the Christian church have been in the middle of the resurgence, falsely alleging that such restrictions are in the best interests of the nation and are taking place with God’s blessing. [3]. Racism is amplified in our nation today through white natiinalist groups and their media that daily spew misinformation and vitriol against those unlike themselves.  The fires of prejudice and anger are burning more brightly because of their words and deeds, some coming from political and religious leaders in high offices.

Nearly a century ago, H.G. Wells named racism the evil that it is, “I am convinced myself that there is no more evil thing in this present world than race prejudice, none at all. I write deliberately—it is the worst single thing in life now. It justifies and holds together more baseness, cruelty, and abomination than any other sort of error in the world.” [4]

Theologically, E. Stanley Jones called it a sign of self-starvation; that is, the ego’s turning in on itself through a deadly allegation of superiority over and separation from any other human beings.  He went on to call racism snobbery, describing it as an ungodly way to live. [5]

So it is, and so it has always has been.  The identification of any other human beings as less-than and the accompanying enactment of restrictions against them because of who they are is not the expression of law, it is the violation of it.  We must continue to call out the sin of racism (and other form of person-based discrimination) as Jesus himself did (Matthew 25: 40, 45), and as his true followers have done ever since.  

[1] Data from the article “New Voting Restrictions in Anerica” available on the website of The Brennan Center for Justice.

[2] Two award-winning books describe our national racism in detail: Ibram Kendi, ‘Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America’ (Nation Books, 2016)…and…Michelle Alexander, ‘The New Jim Crow’ (The New Press, 2012).

[3] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, ‘Reconstructing the Gospel’ (InterVarsity, 2018) is a powerful exposure of the historic attempts of some Christians to interpret and enact the Gospel in racist ways.

[4] Quoted by E. Stanley Jones in his book ‘Victorious Living’ (Whitmore & Stone, 1936), Week 23, Sunday.  The book is still in print as a paperback book and ebook from Abingdon Press.

[5] Ibid.

Posted in Editorials

In-Sight: Now What?

With slightly less than a week behind us since we voted, we see the reality of a divided nation, and already we are feeling the renewed tensions which go along with our differences. It is a spiritual formation question to ask ourselves, “How then shall we live? ” In this post, I offer a few thoughts.

First, we must revive our commitment to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). This does not mean being silent or passive, or agreeing to anything and everything, but it does mean praying to be instruments of God’s peace, as per St. Francis’ prayer.  It means rooting ourselves even more deeply into being those who live the two great commandments and manifest the fruit of the Spirit in ways which remove walls that divide.

Second, it means what Richard Rohr calls “the practice of the better.”  As some of you will know, I felt strongly about this a year ago and decided to make “Practicing the Better” my 2018 Oboedire theme series.  The need to do this remains and intensifies.  We must constantly be looking into, through, and beyond current reality to discern means for overcoming evil with good.

Third, we must concentrate on the things we are “for” rather than on the things we are “against.”  Life energy is spent on the things we are drawn into, and we quickly become full of whatever we are stuffed with.  If we stuff ourselves with negativism, we will become bitter and cynical people.  And we never build anything positive on a foundation of negatives. Now is a time to follow St. Paul’s counsel to “think on things which are above” rather than the baser instincts and ideologies of life ( Colossians 3:2, Philippians 4:8).

Fourth, we must do all things in the spirit of Jesus, who when reviled, did not revile in return (1 Peter 2:23).  Put into today’s context it means living nonviolently. Thomas Merton believed that Jesus’ beatitude about meekness was his call to live nonviolently.  In the past couple of years (and even before that), we have seen anger erupting into acts of violence–many with tragic outcomes. We must not enact our frustrations in harmful ways.  For many of us, myself included, this means being educated in the ways of nonviolence. [1]  But while learning more, we must enact what we already know with respect to having the peace of God ruling in our hearts (Colossians 3:15).

These four things do not exhaust what we must be saying and doing these days. But each of them is an overarching principle that proliferates into many specific attitudes and actions.

The days ahead will challenge all of us in the nation.  We will see Jesus’ words played out, “by their fruits you shall know them.”  We must give ourselves to the sowing of seeds that are Christlike into our lives, into our communities, and into the overall environment –living in our character and conduct, in our words and deeds (as Oswald Chambers called it) our utmost for God’s highest.

[1] I recommend the ministry and resources of Pace e Bene as an educational medium, especially the books by John Dear.  There are also opportunities for ongoing, hands-on involvement in nonviolent activities.

Posted in In-Sight

Editorial: Mass Shootings and Religion

Sitting in the deep sadness that drapes our national soul when we experience another mass shooting (307 this year)**, we once again hear the cries and calls from a nation whose voices are hoarse from repetition, whose eyes are red with tears, and whose spirits are weary in the renunciation of evil. And as before, we hear the deep laments for the loss of life, and the accompanying pleas for better mental health and gun-control laws.

All this is as it should be. We must be for anything which reduces the likelihood of future acts of violence. But with every good effort, I find my soul still troubled. Another question haunts me, “What role has religion played in this?” I wrestle with even forcing myself to ask it, and I realize the question lacks a means for arriving at any measurable response. Nevertheless, the question persists. Two thoughts guide my meditation, leading me to think that religion is also culpable in creating the whirlwind of our dismay…

First, the growing perception that institutional religion is unnecessarily negative, mean-spirited, and toxic. These impressions have generated the none/done phenomenon, and it means that the role of conscience-making traditionally ascribed to religion (and also to home and school) has declined. Fewer persons are involved in formative religious communities where they have an opportunity to learn the life of love, which is the core teaching of all religions.

This leaves a growing number of people to be loners in the world of value shaping, left to their own minds to figure things out as they go along, or to be influenced by peer groups who are similarly adrift. To the extent that religion turns people away, it plays a deformative role in society with respect to the development of ethics in new generations.

Second, the rise of religious fundamentalism, which fuels the fear of and anger toward designated less-than others, and practices discrimination against them based on notions of superiority. Richard Rohr nails it as he reminds us that once we define others as less than, our minds find ways to justify what we say about them and do to them after that.

Sadly, we find ourselves in a time when religious fundamentalism contributes to a partisan mindset in our nation, one which widens the gap between our differences and exacerbates the vitriol of our divisiveness. This is harder to see when the supremacist mindset couches its ideology in a religious freedom context, and in the Christian church in a pure-church mentality. Retribution language seeds the mind and purgative/punitive actions are alleged to be of God.

Violence inevitably erupts in a culture where people are taught to view themselves as victims.  And when religion causes its adherents to believe they are religiously persecuted by whatever and whomever, the stage is set for anger to act itself out in harmful and murderous ways.

And so, I find myself unable to shake off the feeling that religion is a factor in what we are experiencing today–false religion, that is. Through it, we have sown the wind, and we are now reaping the whirlwind. Nothing could be sadder than for religion to be a co-conspirator in the fostering of attitudes and actions that debase us as a human family and degrade us as a nation.

Sitting at the gate of national tragedy, we must lament. And in biblical context, this means the repentance of our sin, and the simultaneous nonviolent resistance to any and all ways religion has played, and continues to play, in the cultivation of a world view that disposes our hearts toward evil.

**Statistics from the Gun Violence Archive website, which compiles data from across the nation to provide up-to-date statistics. They use the accepted definition of a mass shooting (when 4 or more people are wounded or killed) to document 307 of them in 2018, as of the Thousand Oaks tragedy.

Posted in Editorials

Shepherd’s Care: Time To Be With God

In his book, ‘Working the Angles,’ Eugene Peterson noted that among all the expectations placed upon him by his congregation and denomination, there was not an expectation that he pray.  It was assumed that he did (and of course, he did), but he found it strange “that among the considerable demands on my time not one demanded that I practice a life of prayer.  And yet, prayer was at the very heart of the vocation I had entered.” [1]

Far from all performance-oriented expectations, Peterson found a deeper question in play, “When is your sabbath?”  Sunday obviously wasn’t it, so the question remained unanswered.  He faced the fact that he was regularly and flagrantly violating one of the ten commandments, and when he spoke about it with other clergy, he found them expressing similar struggles.

He resolved to do something about it.  He resolved to give himself to prayer and help others to do so.  Many of us are the beneficiaries of his effort.

It is odd, isn’t it, that finding time to be with God is a challenge for pastors.  The struggle is the pull between being an ecclesial manager and a shepherd of the flock.  The two are not polar opposites, and they do overlap in places.  But they are sufficiently different to create a soul-deep tension.  

And like Peterson found himself doing, we easily find ourselves immersed in the tasks of ministry (performance-orientation) more than to the trajectory of ministry (prayer-orientation).  The former is more measurable and public (visible); the latter is more mysterious and private (invisible)–and because the expectations of others fall into the category of what they can see us doing, we easily try to meet them.  We can wake up one day and find ourselves way out of balance.  Time with God suffers neglect.

I am not writing today to propose a plan for you to follow.  This is an area where we all must “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”  There is no one-size-fits-all program, and the witness of the saints reveals there is variety in sabbath-keeping and prayer.  What we see in the saints is not a certain kind of praying, but a common witness to its centrality.

 I am writing today only to keep the questions alive: “When is your sabbath?”……….”How is your prayer life?”  These questions take us into parts of ourselves and our ministries that performance-oriented questions never do.

I see Jesus himself having to deal with the questions in Luke 5:15-16.  Luke begins by telling us that his ministry had many demands and was producing many observable achievements.  But then Luke adds the note which shows us the accompanying counterpart to his activities, “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” [2]

We are familiar with Luke 5:15.  We live in our versions of it every day.  The question is whether we also live in 5:16?

[1] Eugene Peterson, ‘Working the Angles’ (Eerdmans, 1987), 44.  His whole section on Prayer is a gem to guide us into a life of prayer in the context of professional ministry.

[2] The phrase ‘would withdraw’ in both English and Greek speaks of his regularity in doing this, with the emerging rhythm between his working and his praying.

Posted in Uncategorized