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

Monday, April 26, 2010

Grace redux

I have been thinking a lot about grace.  Grace is challenging for me, because grace is not about me.  Grace is about God, and who God does, for me, in me, through me.  I'll be honest.  I have trouble getting past myself.  I am way to self focused.  I don't like that about myself.  But its true, my self focus surfaces in so many ways.  It surfaces when I worry about whether MY sermons will touch anyone.  When it become a workaholic because I seem to think that if I don't keep working hard the universe (or at least my organization, or my church) will grind to a halt.  My self focus comes out in so many destructive ways. It comes out when I get so busy, because after all I have so many important things to do, that I don't focus on, attend to, my staff.  It comes out when all those ideas in my head just MUST come out.  How can I deprive the world of my genius?  It comes out even when I am being insecure, and assume I must somehow prove myself to those around me.
Being focused on the self is not just found on that end of the spectrum we call arrogance.  It is also found on that end of the spectrum we call humility.  Its all about me being great, or its all about me being pathetic.  Either way its all about me.  Kind of an interesting paradox.
But to continue.  When we are focused on ourselves, either because we think we can do no wrong, or think we can do no right - when we are worried about how we perform, how we are received - we are not in the realm of grace. 
Grace is about letting go of all that stuff.  It is to both accept the totality of who we are, the light side and the dark side, and to realize that the totality of who we are, good and bad is ultimately NOT what it is all about.  It is about God - and God's love.  A love that is, as Chesterton once put it, "furious".  
Grace is amazing.  Paul Tillich in his book The Shaking of the Foundations talks about grace this way.  "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness.  It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. . . It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decardes. . . sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkenss and it is as thought a voice were saying: 'You are accepted. . . ' "
Ah, if only I could take my eyes off myself long enough to honestly look to God and God's grace.  There are moments, of course when grace breaks through.  But all too often my focus returns to myself, and I miss the experience of grace.  I confuse my perception of myself for reality.  I am neither as good or bad as I think.  I just am, and the real me is accepted by God, just as I am.
But until I can grab hold of faith.  Really grab hold of it.  I will appear arrogant to some, humble to others.  I will struggle for longed for perfection, and fight old compulsions.  I will be hard to love.  And I will be unable to really focus on others.  I will talk too much, and listen too little.
And so I struggle, a bundle of paradoxes... hoping that some day, some day, grace will abound. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Visionaries Wanted

I have been reading a wonderful little book by Brennan Manning called "Ruthless Trust."  In that book he makes a wonderful provocative comment.  "Sacred scripture is too important to be left exclusively to biblical scholars.  Theology is too vital to be consigned solely to the province of theologians.  To explore the depths of the God who invites our trust, we need the artists and mystics."

To that I would add, and farmers, teachers, housewives, househusbands, electricians, and . . . . well you get the idea.  Recently some of the most powerful spiritual lessons I have gained have come not from sophisticated intellectuals, or written profundities, but from people whom I have found in my path, day by day.

The other day my brother-in-law Dan was diagnosed with ALS.  My mother died of a variant of this illness almost 20 years ago.  I know how hideous this illness can be.  And so does Dan.  On Easter Sunday I went out to have dinner with he and my sister.  We were talking and I was prepared with all kinds of theological wisdom and pastoral insight.  I asked Dan how he was doing and he replied.  "Fine.  I am not focusing on death, but Sue and I are just going to live as much as we can!"   Wow!

Later than same week I was talking to an older woman.  She has had more than her fair share of tragedy and sorrow, and for her life is never easy.  We were talking about prayer and she was talking about her many family members who are in crisis. I said something about praying "for" them, and she startled me by saying "I never pray for people."  When I hear someone say they are praying for someone, I think it means that they have decided what is wrong with that person, or their situation, and that they believe they know what that person needs.  Then they start telling God how to act and behave. I don't know for sure what a person's needs are, or what wound is present in their heart.  And it is not my job to tell God what to do.  So I just place people in my prayers.  I say 'Oh, and God, there is John, or Jane, or, whomever. Be with them.' "  Again, wow.  I wish I had learned that in seminary.

Brennan had it right!  We need the artists and mystics, the farmers, the people who have the experience of God, and out of that experience, can whet our appetite for the divine.

Thank you my friends
A supposed theologian and scholar

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lifted Up!

Well it is Easter.  And Easter of course is all about resurrection.  We typically think about resurrection in terms of Jesus and the garden.  Or in terms of the "second coming", that great moment of transformation sometime in the future.  But is seems to me that this resurrection ought to have some significance and power - now.  Paul suggests that this should be true in Romans 6 when he writes "If we have been united with him [Jesus] in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. . . Now if we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him."

Resurrection now!  The very nature of Jesus' resurrection reminds us that resurrection is very very now, very real.  Not vague past or hazy future, but concrete now.

I like what Anne Lamott says in one of her books.  "The thing about Easter is that Jesus comes back from the dead both resurrected and broken, with the wounds from the nails still visible.  He came back with a body, not like Casper or Topper, he didn't come back as the vague idea of a spirit returning.  No, it was a physical, a wounded body."

Resurrection now is earthy.  It is real, physical.  Not just in the sense that there is a real continuation of life, somehow, in some way, at some time, when we die.  But in the sense that it makes a difference in this world - now.  In this world with its brutality and death.  We need to bring the resurrection out of the realm of doctrine and theology, out of the past and future, and bring it into our lives now.  If we do not, we may well find faith ineffective, irrelevant, and powerless.

What does resurrection now look like? How do we experience it?  Paul in Romans 6 suggests it is a matter of giving ourselves over to God, being as Gerald May puts it - willing, experiencing the presence of the risen Jesus in our hearts, and being lifted up that presence into a new way of living and loving.

There are many passages in the Bible that gives us clues about what this might look like.  Be light!  Be salt.  Take care of the "least of these."  The other day I ran across these thought provoking words.  "Just look to see whose budgets are being cut these days, the old, the crazies, the children in Head Start. . that is where Jesus will be. . and that is where we should be."  Resurrection now looks like us, being with the old, the vulnerable - living out our faith, making a difference.

If the resurrection is real, we need a new lifestyle.  Well I can't speak for you.  If the resurrection is real I need a new lifestyle.  One that takes me new places, to new people, with a new focus and new priorities in my head and heart.  Perhaps I need to walk through life with that old and often misused phrase in my head... "What would Jesus do?"  Not pick up an AK-47 - that much I am sure of.  But what would that resurrected Lord do?  What should I do, if I have died with Christ and am raised with Christ, NOW.