Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Defined by Grace

I think it is safe to say that there are a lot of people in this world who don’t know why they have been born.  Who don’t have a clear idea of who they are, why they are here.  I see such people every day in my office.  I run into them at meetings in Salem.  I suspect there are even some people sitting here, who looking back on their lives, or looking forward into their futures, have a very blurry sense of what has brought them to this place, and where they are meant to go.  I’ve been there.  At times it has been the story of my life!

When we are in that kind of place, our natural instinct is to try and come up with some answers.  We want to define ourselves.  In part for ourselves, but also for those who are around us.  Those we live with, work with, even those we meet.  This is not a bad thing.  We need to have an understanding  of who we are.  And if we are to be in relationship with other people, especially if we are to be in relationship with other people, they need to have some sense of who we are, what makes us tick.

Paul, the great Apostle, understood this.  And so Paul starts off his letter to the Romans with a run on sentence that would make any English teacher cringe. For seven verses he goes on and on and in a gush of words he defines himself.  In what is called by the commentaries a “salutation” he tries to help the Romans he is writing to understand who he is.

We understand this tactic because we use it all the time.  Think about what we usually do when we first meet someone new!  We define ourselves.  We give that person information about ourselves, in essence we seek to shape their perception of us.

How do we define ourselves?  What is it that we place out there, in our greeting, our salutation to people we are greeting for the first time?  A lot of us define ourselves by their roles, their jobs.  I am a farmer, a teacher. . . So often it is all about what we do….We define ourselves by what we do,  our accomplishments, making ourselves effectually “human doings”?  Is that the way it should be?  Is what we do who we are?  When Paul was writing to the Romans he had to make sure they knew who he was. How did he define himself?  What did he put out there?

Paul started by defining himself in terms of a relationship.  And in terms of what that relationship meant to his life.  The relationship?  The one he had with God.  Paul was not afraid to call himself out as a follower of this God who sent his Son into the world to redeem this world from sin. The first line of his letter says, “I, Paul, am a devoted slave of Jesus Christ on assignment, authorized as an apostle to proclaim God's words and acts.” How many of us introduce ourselves to strangers by saying, “Hi, I’m a slave of Jesus Christ on assignment ...” How many of us really believe that? How many of us here today are so focused on God, so connected to God, so defined by our relationship with God, that it spills out of every pore in our body?

Why was this important?  That this was the “center” Paul put forth in his greeting?  Why is it critical that he defines himself as a “slave of Jesus”?   Because, Paul understood that Christ is the great turning point - the great intersection of God into history.  For him the reality of Christ was big, really BIG.  More than big, it was everything!  It was the “center.”

For Paul Christ is the Center of God’s word, God’ teaching, God’s kerygma to all people.  He is the heir of David, the fulfillment of the expectations set forth in the Law, and the realization of the promises give by the Prophets.  Barth in his commentary on the book of Romans’ puts it this way….”He [that is Christ] intersects vertically from above.  Within history Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as Problem of Myth (in other books Paul talks about the scandal of Christ – let’s face it, the concept of Christ is problematic).  But as the Christ, he brings the world of the Father into history… In short he brings the sacred into the common, the earthly…”  So everything points TO Christ, and, everything moves forward FROM Christ.

And as if there were any doubt in the minds of his listeners, Paul points to the resurrection.  Chirst as the Center was made manifest, obvious, real, through the resurrection.  The resurrection is THE POINT – the moment when everything shifted, when history was transformed.  At the resurrection the spiritual fabric of the world was ripped apart, and something new, something powerful was revealed…something special, wonderful, something called,  . Grace

So Paul believed that one’s relationship to Christ has to stand at the center of our self-definition, has to be THE DEFINING FACTOR.  If Christ is the defining factor, then, he believed, we are defined by what Christ reveals, what Christ brings.  And what Christ reveals, what he brings forth “in power” is grace.  So Paul reveals in his opening statement, that he sees himself as defined by grace.  If you understand grace, you understand Paul.

But what is grace?  In the New Testament, the word translated as grace is the Greek word Charis (Greek Χάρις),  The word Charis is defined this way. "Grace, the state of kindness and favor towards someone, often with a focus on a benefit given to the object." A Greek word that is related to Charis is Charisma (gracious gift). Both these words originated from another Greek word Chairo (to rejoice, be glad, delighted).  Grace means being put right with the sacred, receiving God’s charity, and being empowere in a way that makes us feel joyful.  AND  This all comes as a gift!

So for Paul his identity was ultimately all about God and God’s gift.  When he looked at himself, what he saw was the Christ in him.  Later he would write, “the secret is this, Christ in us.” 

I Paul, who had so many things he could have pointed to, his education, his accomplishments, defined himself by grace, then it seems as if that is what we should do as well. 

So, after reading this opening I had to ask… how do I define myself?  By my current roles?  As an executive director?  Counselor?  Minister?  Do I define myself by my past roles?  As a professor in a medical school?  A disaster relief worker?  Do I define myself by my degrees or accomplishments?  By the house I live in, or the car I drive?  Do I, in my darker moments define myself by my mistakes?  My failures?  But my weaknesses?  My character flaws?

Or do I define myself by grace.  Do I see myself as one loved by God, called by God, forgiven by God, filled and empowered by God?  What difference would it make, it I defined myself as a person overwhelmed and enslaved by grace?  If I lived from this “center” that is Christ.

First, what difference would it make in how I looked at myself.  And talked to myself about myself.  Could I look at myself and see only my failures, my weaknesses.  Could I look at myself and say, “I am not enough?”  “I am a mistake?”  “I am bad?”  I don’t think so.  If I see myself as one called by God, into grace, I can’t go to those places.  I have to see my value, my potential, my worth.  I am worth enough that Christ died for me.

And what difference would that make in how I interact with others.  In how I present myself to them.  In what I say to them?  What would my interactions with others look like, as a person defined by grace?
If I were defined by grace would I have room for fear?
If I were defined by grace would I have room to hold grudges, anger, hatred?
If I were defined by grace would there be room for arrogance?  Selfishness?

It would change things, wouldn’t it…. There is a contemporary Christian band, 33 miles, which has a song called “What Grace Looks Like!”  The final verse goes like this:
 It’s a little bit of hope and sweet redemption
Maybe taking time to stop and listen, Just being there
Show someone that you care
It’s living a life with your hands wide open
Giving all you got to a heart that is broken

Who am I?  Who are you?  We, we are all, people of grace.  This is the big thing.  This is the great shift.  This is the defining factor.  Let’s believe it!  Let’s live it!

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Years

Isa 55:1-3
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.

It’s a long standing human tradition.  We are unsettled.  Unhappy!  Discontent.  Why?  Isaiah suggests that part of it is that we take things into our own hands.  We say to ourselves.  I am going to shape my future!  I am going to do a better job at … enter your own personal resolution here …  I am going to make it work….”

So what is wrong with this strategy?  It seems ok, right?  Wanting to be better?   But think about that.  Here we are, all wrapped up in what we will do.  So committed to shaping our future.  So intent on getting ourselves to some sort of financial, spiritual, emotional promised land.  One author, in talking about how we often function, noted that although most Christians no longer think a lot about the traditional “eschaton” the “end time” when all things become new, they have replaced it with a new kind of eschatology.  He calls this new eschatology “progress”. 

So we are committed to a future of our making, we have become addicted to the idea of progress.  And we have decided we must get to this magical place where we will all have peak efficiency, incredible productivity, an improved standard of living, more health, better relationships.

This sounds kind of good, at first glance.  But there are some interesting dynamics present in this mindset.  FIRST, it is mostly about us.  About what we will do.  How we will change.  Second there is an inherent discontent with what is.  With this current moment.  This mindset assumes that what WE are building for the future is infinitely better, more important, than whatever we have right now.  Who we might be, is much better, more important than who we are now.  Isn’t that the whole ‘message’ behind New Year’s resolutions?  That we are not where we need to be… we need to be different?  Sometimes really different?

But this leaves us with two big questions.  Where is God in all of this?  And what does this mean about this moment?  To use Biblical imagery, we are not in the promised land, we are in the wilderness, and we are in that wilderness alone.  We are on our own.   

I would submit that this is a terrible place to be.  In the wilderness, alone… striving to find our way out on our own.  Miserable because we hate the place where we are …

Wayne Muller in his book Sabbath suggests that there is something flawed about this kind of thinking.  Because it causes us to do something very devastating -   Judge this moment, judge ourselves as “not enough”.  As flawed.  We end up denying who we are now, what joys we have now, what gifts we have now, what God has done, and is doing, NOW!

Muller writes, “What if our life, rough-hewn from the stuff of creation orbits around a God who never ceases to create new beginnings?  What if our life is simply a time when we are blessed with both sadness and joy, health and disease, courage and fear, and all the while we work, pray and love, knowing that the PROMISED LAND WE SEEK IS ALREADY PRESENT.  We must, Muller suggests, remind ourselves that we are already and always on sacred ground . 

The gifts of grace and delight are present in abundance.  NOW is the time to live and love and give thanks and rest and delight.  This is the moment, this is the day.  When we listen.  When we focus on the sacred, turn to the sacred, what happens?  Listen again to Isaiah 55:
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.  AND   You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,  and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

What is Isaiah picturing?   CELEBRATION!  Joy

I believe that we must understand that we are standing on sacred ground.  We must believe that God is present, and at work now!  That the key to joy is not to be found in the eschatology of progress, not found in a bigger bank account, nicer car, better job.  Not even to be found in a more attractive body, or even a healthier body

Joy is to be found in knowing that each moment of each day we are standing on sacred ground  - because God is with us and God is gifting us. 

Our problem is that we miss this because we are so busy looking ahead, so busy making it about us, and so busy   COUNTING THE WRONG THINGS. 

During WW II Britain was trying to figure out how to look at how things were going economically.  They wanted to know what resources they would have to fight the war.    They came up with a method where they combined the values of all goods and services bought and sold in that year, and used that figure to calculate the overall wealth of the nation.  This method, this measurement is what we now know as the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.  We often, in our way of looking at ourselves, at our lives, use a measurement that is much the same.  Kind of a personal  GDP.  Have I increased my wealth?  Have I spent my money wisely?  Have I improved my looks so as to be more successful?  Have I become more proper by cutting back on how much I drink, or dropping the habit of smoking?

But really people.  Are those really the things by which to measure life?  Are those the targets we should aim for in our “resolutions?”  Is focusing on such things the way to find happiness?  Become satisfied people?

Muller puts it this way.  “Consider” he says, “ a woman in Somolia who rises early to walk two miles to the nearest well to get water for her family, returns to feed her children and ready them for school, spends the morning working the soil of the family garden, the afternoon tending to the sick and infirm of her village, then in the evening cooks and sings songs to her children and nurtures them to bed.  As measured by the theology of progress this woman has no value.  And yet  -  can we say there is no value in that life?

So often we fail to understand what truly brings value.  And we look in the wrong places.  And we try to find satisfaction in the wrong way.  So this new year I have a radical idea for a new year’s resolution

That we stop counting.  Think about it!  You can count lbs, drinks drunk, cigarettes smoked, money saved, net worth, toys accumulated.  But how do we count friendship or laughter?  How do we count the value of honesty or bread from the oven?  How can we count the sunrise?  The trusting grasp of a child’s hand, a song, a tear, a lover’s touch? 

We should stop counting, and make room in our lives for what can only be called Sabbath moments.
What is a Sabbath moment?  An old Jewish Rabbi once, when talking about the Sabbath talked about Moses at the burning bush.  “Why” he asked “was it important for Moses to remove his shoes?”  Not, he said, as a sign of subservience.”  No, the Rabbi insisted it was simply because it was Holy Ground, and Moses needed to feel the ground directly through the skin of his feet.  He needed direct contact with the divine.  He needed to be grounded. 

We need to take time to place our feet on the ground.  We need to recognize that in this moment, in every moment we are standing on holy ground.  And we need to stop our rushing and our working, our striving – stop, and listen, and look, and turn to God, and experience that grounding

How often do we do that?  What do we so often hear when we greet another these days, and ask him or her how things are going?  We might hear “FINE”, and we all know what that means.  But so often we hear “I am busy”  We say this almost with pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy.  Not good.  Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us that the Chinese pictograph for “busy is composed of two characters,  “heart” and “killing.”

Our busy –ness is heart killing.  And so this year, I am challenging myself, and you to take Sabbath moments.  Sabbath moments don’t happen just on Sunday.  Nor just in the morning.  Sabbath time , may be an afternoon, a morning, an hour, a matter of moments.  Sabbath may be a ritual, a time of silence, meditation, a walk.

Sabbath is not just the absence of work - It is not just following some set of spiritual, religious rules.  It is any moment when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is within - to listen to the sacred - to pay attention to the forces of grace, or spirit, or love that sustain and heal us.  As Rab Zalman says it, Sabbath is a matter of “pampering the soul”.

In the Buddhist community of Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk periodically rings a Mindfulness Bell.  Upon hearing the bell, everyone stops, and takes three silent mindful breaths.  Then they are free to continue their work, awakened every so lightly by the Sabbath pause of mindfulness.  Wayne Muller suggests we can do the same thing.  We can pick anything as a cue -  one common act each day to serve as a Sabbath pause.  Every time our hand touches a doorknob… or the phone rings. . . When this event happens all one has to do is stop, take there silent breaths, and then move on…He admits it may sound crazy, but insists it would change us if we took these tiny Sabbath moments each day..

For these are the moments when we remember that the Kingdom of God is already here.  It is within us, and among us.   This is true!  Why do you think Jesus said, do not worry about tomorrow?  Do not wait to be joyful, Jesus is saying, grab hold of the extravagant gifts of God now… take your rest and savor the fruits of the kingdom.”  Now!  This day!

So here is my challenge, for you (and of course for me), take time this year for Sabbath moments.  Take a walk an notice the warmth of the sun, sit quietly and watch children play, close your eyes, and focus on your breath

And think about not what you should be doing, or how you should change.  Think about what you have, the gifts God has placed in your life.  The gift of sunshine, breath, children, coffee, touch…

We are on sacred ground each moment
We don’t have to seek for something else
We don’t have to count
Or worry about the future

A woman was once at a retreat and told the leader that she had devoted her whole life to seeking.  She had done everything - gone to workshops and retreats, she had read books, listened to speakers.  There had become some fruitful times she said, but admitted that for the most part she just felt tired and weary.

The workshop leader said simply,  “You have been a seeker for so long.  Why not become a finder.”
She thought for a moment, and then suddenly started laughing.  She had always been so focused on the search she had never taken time to rejoice in the blessing.

This year let us take the time to see what is already before us,  what is in our hands… the gift that is there for the receiving.  Let us take time for finding.

Let us seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.  Let us STOP seeking and start receiving.  And then?  We will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.