Thursday, July 28, 2011

Taking God's Name in Vain

I was reading a book earlier this week that brought up a point I’ve heard before: “The ancient Hebrew prohibition against using the name of God in vain is not about using God’s name in profanity, nor simply about frivolous vows. It is a caution against living as if God does not matter.” (From What God Wants for Your Life by Frederick W. Schmidt)

I have been thinking about the ways I live in which God doesn’t matter. It’s disturbing to think about how I rush through life without considering God in my decisions. For every decision I make carries with it the opportunity to live as if God matters. From the choices about what I eat to what I wear to my driving habits and spending habits, I am in every choice deciding if God matters to me. How I interact with anyone I see during the day is a statement of whether God matters to me. My decision to speak or be silent says whether God matters to me.

It can be overwhelming to consider all the effects of the decisions I make each day. It could almost paralyze me from making any decision, but even that is a decision in itself. Yet I consider a line of a prayer by Thomas Merton, which says: ‘I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.” Rather than throwing up my hands and giving up, I want to persist in being increasingly attentive to the choices I make, trusting that even when I fail to make the choice that honors God, God’s grace envelops me and encourages me to continue on the journey.

The greatest tragedy is to know the right decision and then choose deliberately to take the easier path, the socially acceptable path, the culturally encouraged path. I do this far more than I would like to think I do, whether it’s for my convenience or comfort or simply because I really do want to eat that barbeque sandwich made from a pig whose life was worse than death. When I put my desires first, I am taking God’s name in vain.

Even if my steps are only baby steps, and they are, and even though I stumble and give in to the culture around me, I know that I cannot just shrug my shoulders and do nothing, for that would be choosing to live as if God didn’t matter. I pray that my desire to please God will grow beyond desire and into action.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Downward Mobility

I first encountered the term “downward mobility” in the book Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross by Michael Gorman. It was a term Gorman used to describe the life that Jesus chose to live, using Philippians 2:5-11 as his reference:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God,
    he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
   by taking the form of a slave
   and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
   he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
   even death on a cross.
Therefore God highly honored him
   and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
   in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
   Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
(from the Common English Bible)

Downward mobility is not something to which we aspire. Our society is built on upward mobility. Our heroes are those who have excelled in sports, in Hollywood, in war, in politics or in business. Someone who gives himself for others might make the second 10 minute block of the local news, as long as it’s a slow news day and then, only if anyone actually finds out about the person (which is unlikely because such people don’t give themselves for recognition but out of love).

Our society functions through consumerism, or so it seems. We gauge the strength of the economy by spending habits. As individuals, we define ourselves by what we own and by our work (but only if our work gives us status). We attach worth to others by these same measures.

Jesus owned nothing except maybe the clothes on his back—no house, no land, no donkey. His disciples gave up their life’s work to follow him, and on occasion, speculated as to what reward they would get for doing so, showing that they were still focused on upward mobility.

In the Philippians passage above, Paul tells us that we are to adopt the attitude that Jesus had—emptying ourselves, humbling ourselves, not exploiting our status. The path of downward mobility is not an easy one. It is the narrow path that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:14: “But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.”

Sharing these thoughts seems hypocritical, because I write them in my upwardly mobile home surrounded by the trappings of my upwardly mobile life. But while I am not comfortable with the challenge given by Jesus and by Paul, I am less comfortable with my current surroundings. So staying where I am is not a good option. The question for me then is will I, out of love for Jesus and those for whom he died, take the path of downward mobility, the narrow road.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Surrendering My Agenda

I’ve been reading in Galatians this week as Paul exhorts the Galatian Christians to stop trying to follow the law and instead return to the grace they received when they accepted Jesus. I’ve been using a Bible reading plan found in This Day. Just a couple of days ago, I realized that I have gotten off track and am actually reading Scriptures for some week in June rather than July. It has distressed me greatly, and as I read Galatians this morning, I realized, in my own way, I was living under the law rather than under grace as I beat myself up over reading in the wrong place.

I like order and predictability and rule-following. Paul is certainly speaking to me as he tells the Galatians that they cannot be saved by the law, otherwise it would not have been necessary for Jesus to die. Surrendering myself to Christ means surrendering my affinity for order, predictability and rules—the law in my life.

In the daily message from My Utmost for His Highest earlier this week (I AM in the right place in that book) Oswald Chambers says that when we plan without God, God has “a delightful way of upsetting the plans we have made.” When I fail to live by grace and instead try to live by the law (aka my agenda) I can tell because I do become upset when my plans fall through.

It’s a real lesson in trust for me. Do I trust God with my agenda? Can I trust that God does know the plans God has for me (to recall a verse from Jeremiah) and that those plans are for good, actually for my best? It takes a radical reorientation for me to abandon my agenda to God, but I realize that unless and until I do it, I am keeping God’s power and plans for me in a sealed box. I pray for help to release my grasp.

Friday, July 1, 2011

In Training

My husband thinks I am obsessed with exercise. My early morning walks are special to me, and are spiritual as well as physical for me, especially this time of year, when the sun is rising and the birds are singing when I’m walking. Maybe I am obsessed. I do know that morning exercise has become part of my daily routine, as much so as brushing my teeth or my morning devotional time. If there was a “Rule of Ann” (like the rule of St. Benedict) I’m pretty sure it would include exercise as the day-beginning activity.

In 1 Timothy 4:8, Paul tells his protégé: Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come. Am I as obsessed with my training for godliness as I am my physical training? I do have my devotional practices, but how well do I live out my faith in the world each day? Would others consider me spiritually fit?

Last Sunday in his sermon, our pastor Tommy Mason asked us whether others would call us Christian. He referenced the church at Antioch, where the believers were first called Christian, not by themselves, but by those who observed them. They were in training for godliness and it showed to others.

How exactly do I train for godliness? It is a question I have been asking myself this week. I know how to create an exercise plan for physical exercise, but I am wrestling with how to create an exercise plan for godliness.

I do know this—without intentionality on my part, I can become spiritually flabby just as I can become physically flabby if I don’t have an exercise plan and stick to it. Practicing John Wesley’s means of grace is likely a good starting place. Training for godliness includes the inward works of piety and the outward works of mercy. Using these, I can develop a training plan, and I pray I will become more obsessed with training for godliness than with physical training!