Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Passion vs. Sanity

Yesterday I read a purpose statement from a committee at a church.  The purpose statement included a line that said that its deliberations would be conducted in an atmosphere conducive to dispassionate discussion. I looked up the definition of the word “dispassionate” at dictionary.com. This is what it said: free from or unaffected by passion; devoid of personal feeling or bias; impartial; calm.

I also read yesterday a meditation on the death of Adolf Eichmann, written by Thomas Merton. It’s long, but thought-provoking:
                One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing. If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, well-balanced, unperturbed official, conscientiously going about his dark work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well. . .
                The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.
                It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea, aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep hem far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chains of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake.
                We can no longer assume that because a man is ‘sane’ he is therefore in his ‘right mind’. The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by his disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted’. God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself. . .
                I am beginning to realize that ‘sanity’ is no longer a value or an end in itself. The ‘sanity’ of modern man is about as useful to him as the huge bulk and muscles of the dinosaur. If he were a little less sane, a little more doubtful, a little more aware of his absurdities and contradictions, perhaps there might be a possibility of his survival. But if he is sane, too sane. . . perhaps we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally without anxiety, totally ‘sane’.

I wonder if sanity and rationalism is too highly valued in the church. To consider that a committee might have dispassionate discussion worries me. Should we not be passionate about that which pertains to the body of Christ? What if Christ had acted sanely and dispassionately? I mean, what he did made so sense—dying when he could have used his power to bring about a new kingdom right then and there. Instead he spoke to people on the outskirts and he died just as he was becoming known in Jerusalem. His passion for God, and his passion for us motivated him, not numeric goals and strategic plans.

Until our churches are driven by a mad, passionate love for Christ, the Christ who loves us madly and passionately, I’m afraid we will continue our decline, despite all the “dispassionate” planning we do. Churches in Africa, China and Korea are growing exponentially. Until we get away from the secularized business model and instead become led by the Holy Spirit and by our passionate love for Christ, we will continue to wring our hands and wonder why we are dying.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spending or Saving

“I was afraid I would lose your money . . .”   Matthew 25:25a

The story of the master who entrusts three of his servants with his wealth is a familiar one to students of the Bible. Recent reading I’ve done caused me to look at this story differently than I have before. Usually, I’ve focused on the idea that we are to use the gifts God gave us, not to bury those gifts. In What God Wants for Your Life, by Frederick Schmidt, the author says that the gifts we are given by God are to be spent and risked. That caused me to consider the risk the two faithful servants took by investing the gifts their master entrusted to them.

By investing what they were given, they risked losing everything. Certainly in our current economic climate, I see that as more possible than I might have in more prosperous times.  They were judged faithful by their master, not for playing it safe, but for taking chances. The cautious servant was condemned for playing it safe!
The faithful servants’ faithfulness was embodied in their act of spending and risking what they were entrusted with, not the fact that they doubled their investment. How does this play our in my life and in the life of the church? I’m afraid that too often, I am more like the third servant, playing it safe rather than spending and risking what God has given me. And I’ve sat in enough church finance committee meetings to know that churches often do the same thing.

Yet our example for how to live, Jesus, spent and risked everything for me and for us all. He did not run away from a risky situation, but instead went to Jerusalem, where he knew people were out to get him. In fact, in Luke, this story of the three servants is immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday.

I don’t believe God gave me material gifts so I could put my trust in them instead of in God. I don’t believe God gave me talents and abilities, even life itself, for me to use for my own benefit. The question for me is, will I spend or save what God has given me? What Jesus wants me to do is abundantly clear: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Facing Myself

It is so much easier to be busy and surrounded by noise than to be still and silent. Yet silence is essential if I am to draw closer to God, not so much because I need the silence to hear God, which I do, but because before I can draw closer to God, I have to confront the noise within my own life, and that is a frightening process.

As long as I fill my days with noise and busyness, even good busyness, I postpone the hard work of coming to know myself. I may recognize that there is dissonance in my life, but I am too distracted to examine what is causing that dissonance. It’s like taking aspirin because my leg hurts, but failing to take the time to determine that my leg is broken. In our inner lives, the brokenness often exists for years because our “aspirin” of busyness keeps us from reflecting on what is really causing the pain in our lives.

In silence, I confront the broken and the ugly parts of myself. I must force myself to do this, because no one will make me do it. Some will argue that there’s too much work to do, too much need in the world for me to occupy myself with myself. I would argue that I cannot embrace the brokenness of the world until I come face to face with the brokenness within myself. A life without self-reflection leads me to judgments of others, a certainty that I am always right, a propensity to criticize rather than offer compassion.

Coming to grips with my own brokenness teaches me compassion. When I see another stumble, I can accept it because I recognize within myself my own failures. It is what Jesus spoke of when he said that adultery includes lusting after another and murder includes calling someone an idiot.

Immediately after Jesus was baptized and God called him his beloved, he spent forty days in the wilderness. In the silence of that place, I believe he had to confront who he was before he could accept his belovedness and embrace his mission. I wonder if our own pain and insecurity, our own unwillingness to accept that we are beloved is because we cannot or will not be silent long enough to recognize the masks we wear and know why we wear them. Instead we cover over the parts we don’t want to face with another coat of activity, an added layer of busyness.

Jesus said: “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.’ (Matthew 7:21-23a) The first step to knowing Jesus is getting to know myself, the kind of knowing that can only come out of silence and stillness.