Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Choosing the Starting Point

When my older son was small, he enjoyed Disney’s Winnie the Pooh cartoons. There was much to learn from the behaviors of the different characters. Pooh’s simplicity, Tigger’s energy and Piglet’s winsomeness give us a glimpse of the positivity and pitfalls of various character traits. The character whose personality seemed to me the least desirable was Eeyore, the donkey who seemed always to see doom and gloom.

How we choose to approach life says much about our discipleship. When our starting point is doom and gloom, distrust, name-calling, or other forms of negativity, we hinder, if we don’t block completely, the ability to be transformed ourselves and to be transforming agents for God’s kingdom. Like Eeyore, if our initial response is negative, we are like horses wearing blinders. We only see what we want to see, and we miss the invitation to grow.

When others around us begin with the negative, it can be a drain on community. I’ve worked with folks whose initial response is critical—of others, of the situation—or who are distrustful of others within their community—be it work, or church or neighborhood. There are times when criticism is warranted, and where discernment leads us to be wary or distrustful of others, but that should only come after a process, not a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s better to choose gratitude, hospitality and openness as one’s initial response. The damage done by leading with a negative, critical, distrustful attitude can be difficult to repair. It certainly affects our ability to be effective representatives for the faith we profess. When we label, exclude, name-call and denigrate others, we hurt ourselves, we hurt others, and we break God’s heart.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What Matters

Today’s liturgy for Morning Prayer in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals described the life of Franz Jagerstatter, of Austria, who was the sole conscientious objector in his village to the annexation of Austria to Germany under Hitler. Jagerstatter was not part of any resistance movement, just an individual whose Christian faith could not be reconciled with fighting for Hitler’s army. Religious leaders in his village encouraged him to conform and serve, but Jagerstatter maintained his faith, and was imprisoned and beheaded for it.

Jagerstatter was simply a person who loved God and chose to live (and die) guided by that love. That we know of him at all, because he was a peasant laborer, is surprising. Through the centuries, there are those who choose the unpopular way of Jesus, choosing to live lives motivated by love, by powerlessness, by foregoing the values of the culture and instead surrendering to the downward mobility of the gospel message. Because they understand that real power comes through weakness and that strength comes through surrender to the way of Jesus, they are the unseen, unspectacular yeast that works its way through the dough and rises, despite efforts to suppress them by those who put their faith in power, influence and riches.

People who know what matters do not have to shout or threaten others to be heard. A friend once told me that silence speaks louder than criticism, name-calling and moralistic diatribes. What matters is to live outwardly congruent with what is in one’s heart. True authenticity is not motivated by what others think about you; it is living an undivided, singly-focused life. The courage to be faithful and authentic, even when authenticity and faithfulness is unpopular and misunderstood, will stand the test of time, long after power, influence and riches fall away.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Living Up to Our Capacity

For a lunch and learn at my church, I’m facilitating a series of some of the words we use in our faith. The inspiration came from Amazing Grace, a book by Kathleen Norris. One of the words we discussed was perfection.

When you read Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect, you may dismiss it as an impossible mandate. But in a devotional by Laurence Stookey, he points out that we should think about perfection as capacity. A pint jar can be as perfectly full as a gallon jar, though each holds a different quantity. So then, what Jesus may be challenging us to do is to live up to our capacity.

To live up to our capacity, we have to be aware of our capacity. Many of us are trying to live a life that we are not equipped to live. We have a certain image that we want to project, and we fail to do the introspective work needed to know for what we are gifted or not gifted. Thus, we fail to live fully because we are trying to live someone else’s life with someone else’s gifts to meet someone else’s expectations of us. We are trying to fill a jar that isn’t our jar.

I like that capacity and capable are so similar. We are capable of living up to our capacity, but to do so, we need to strip away the masks we hide behind to seek approval from others. We need to learn to see ourselves as God sees us, to live the life God dreamed for us to live when we were being knit together in our mother’s womb. When we understand and embrace who we are with all our gifts and our limitations, we joyfully desire to live to our capacity. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Butterfly

Nothing of the old remains.
A life utterly new, not a rebirthing
but birth, a first birth—
like all first births, painful,
bloody, forced upheaval marks
its occurrence.
The caterpillar’s soul longed to fly.
What seemed an impossibility
instead is deep truth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Threat of Silence

Many people I know have a difficult time practicing silence and stillness. They’ve bought into the myth of our Western culture that we are what we produce, that our worth is based on our busyness. Sadly, I see many in the Church who do not value silence, some who even laugh at it as if it is trivial, silly or nonessential to one’s spiritual growth. Yet I have seen some of these same people anxious, reactive and rootless, changing like a chameleon to please whatever audience offers them approval.

We tend to dismiss what we do not understand. It’s part of the reactive nature of our culture. One does not need to look far to see that this is true in this political season. But such dismissing happens within religious communities just as much as it does in politics.

Take a look at this pointed quote about silence from Joan Chittister:
Those who cringe from silence see it like the plague, fearful of its weight, cautious of its emptiness and the shock that comes with its revelations. The heaviness and emptiness we feared give way very quickly to turmoil and internal pressure for change. Silence enables us to hear the cacophony inside ourselves. Being alone with ourselves makes for a demanding presence We find very quickly that either we must change or we shall surely crumble under the weight of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves, under the awareness of what we could be but are not, under the impulse of what we want to be but have failed to become. Under the din is the raw material of the soul.

When we set out to practice silence, we soon discover that what is within us is disordered. We find that we begin to question things we had once accepted as absolute. When we get uncomfortable with the way that silence works like a spotlight into our soul, our reactive nature causes us to want to run away from the silence back into the comfortable environment of distraction and back into the moral codes we substitute for discipleship.

Without a regular practice of silence, one soon runs up against a wall that prohibits any further spiritual growth. Such a person is like a child who continues to play in a sandbox when just over the bluff is the beach and an entire ocean. We miss the immense joy of freedom because we choose to stay confined in a small, constrictive space.

The discipline of silence is essential to spiritual maturity and wisdom. The way forward is not easy and is best done with a wise spiritual guide, one who has been where you want to go. But the journey, though difficult, is the way to live a life of freedom, detachment and grace. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Unspoken Implications of What We Say

Recently I heard someone talk about a pleasant surprise she had experienced. She was making a large purchase and discovered when she was about to settle the transaction that a significant discount would be applied to her purchase. She said it was a blessing. I wanted to say “No, that is not a blessing. It is good fortune, but hardly a blessing.”

Some Christians attach the word “blessing” to capitalistic, materialistic, self-promoting ventures. I do believe we are blessed, but not when we get a bigger house, a better deal, or an award. We are fortunate to receive such things, but not blessed.

If we call these fortunate events a blessing, then what do we call it when our house is foreclosed, when the car repair costs more than we expected or when we are passed over for a promotion? Do we say that God is cursing us? That God does not find favor with us?

The other expression that carries the same weight is “It’s a God thing,” as if God really cares that we got a better interest rate than expected on the car loan for our new Lexus. God is not Tinkerbell, or Santa Claus, or a genie who grants our wishes. I think most of us know this, but we still debase who God is through our choice of words and the weight they carry.

I had the privilege of hearing someone talk about the way her faith had grown through the years. She used the word “blessing” but not to describe some fortunate turn of events. Instead she said that although her first husband had been an alcoholic, there was blessing in her circumstances because she learned to cling to God through the difficulty. Years later, she says that had she not had the struggle of that painful marriage, she would not have the faith she has today.

I’ve heard similar stories from cancer patients, from those who are financially destitute and from people who have suffered in other ways. I don’t think God causes these difficult events of life. I don’t believe the unexplainable and unexpected pain of life is a barometer of God’s favor.

What I know is that my faith has to be like the roots of a tree, firm and grounded in the heart of Christ. Seasons change, storms blow hard and break us open, sun shines and life takes fortunate turns. I’m no less blessed in the storms than I am in the sunshine.  It is not the presents of God that bless me, but the presence of God. To be content with who God is—that is a blessing for me and a blessing for God.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Leadership

This morning at Vineville UMC in our morning prayer service using Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, a proverb quoted by John Perkins was included in the liturgy. You’ll see it in the photo. 


It’s a good challenge for anyone in a leadership role, and for a leader who claims to follow Christ, such leadership shows love and respect for the people one is leading.

This way of leading recognizes that patience and listening are important, and that offering one’s best work involves much preparation, consideration of existing conditions, and grace. It also involves an absence of ego, especially as to concern about who gets the credit or who leaves the legacy. In building on what already exists, in listening to and learning from others, a leader shows humility, respect for others and gratitude for the gifts and abilities of those who have given years of faithful service to a community.

I have seen leaders who lead with forbearance and humility and I’ve seen leaders who scorch the earth as they aggressively pursue their agendas. There are leaders who lead by demanding respect and leaders who gain the respect of others because they are not above doing whatever is needed, even the most menial task. Love, not accolades, motivates their service.

When I think about humble leadership, I think of how Paul exhorts the Philippians to model their lives after that of Jesus: who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

Particularly in the Church, we need leaders who lead with love and humility, who listen and learn. And all of us, leaders or not, are challenged to follow the example of Jesus, not claiming special privilege, but serving with love and grace.