Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bird Habits

We put a new bird feeder out in our yard recently. It replaces a feeder we’ve had for years that’s mounted on a pole set in concrete. After all these years, the squirrels have discovered they can jump to the feeder from the fence. Since both the feeder and the fence are not easily moved, we decided to abandon that feeder completely and replace it with a feeder that will exclude squirrels by closing when a squirrel (or a heavy bird) sits on it.

Because we haven’t taken the old feeder down (remember, it’s set in concrete), the birds are not moving to the new feeder. I have watched for several days as birds continue to land on the old, empty feeder, looking for seeds where there aren’t any. I have watched nuthatches go around and around the feeder, checking every opening over and over again, looking for a seed, when a feeder full of seed is only a few feet away. They are having a hard time breaking their habit, and the result is they are not getting the food they want. They can see the new feeder from the old, but have not explored it because they are fixated on the old feeder.

A friend of mine often speaks of the insidiousness of habits. We get into certain patterns of life and end up going through them mindlessly. Certain habits are good, such as tooth-brushing, but often our habits numb us to possibilities for something different and better. Often, whatever discipline we take on for Lent, whether it is giving something up or taking on a new behavior, reminds us how habits can define us and control our lives. Sometimes, our Lenten discipline becomes a new habit, replacing a current habit with a more beneficial practice.

Isaiah 42:20 is a verse that speaks to the numbness that can come with habits:
You have seen many things, but don’t keep watch.
   With ears open, you don’t hear.

Even spiritual habits can become ineffective. We may go through the motions of morning devotions or Bible reading and find that Isaiah’s description fits us. We read but do not comprehend what we read, or we listen without absorbing what we are listening to. James describes this so well as he warns his readers not to simply go through the motions of discipleship: You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t so the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. (James 1:22-24)

Our habits can be the stumbling blocks to our growth in discipleship. Habits can strangle Christ right out of our lives if we fail to take stock of their influence over us. We can miss the ways Christ is at work in the world and prevent Christ from working in us when we are so committed to certain habits.

If Lent can be a time to break habits, we may discover new ways to experience God. God can only enter us through our broken places, and broken habits can open us to new ways of paying attention to God. We can shake off the numbness that habits can bring and see and hear how God is at work in the world and in our own lives in new and fresh ways. I don’t want to be like the nuthatch that keeps going around and around a place where there is no food. I want to be aware of God’s Spirit speaking to me. I want to see the opportunities for discipleship open all around me. Come Holy Spirit! Blow away the numbness of mindless habits and fill the space with You!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Roots and Fruits

The survivors of Judah’s family who have escaped will put down roots and bear fruit above. 
        Isaiah 37:31

Fruit does not come without good roots. The outward signs of discipleship result from putting down good roots in the love of Christ as Paul says in Ephesians 3:17-19:  I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.

If you have ever had a potted plant, whether a houseplant or a potted flower, vegetable or herb for your garden, you are familiar with root bound plants. When a plant cannot spread its roots because it is confined to a pot too small for it, the roots will grow more and more entangled. If the plant gets too root bound, it dies. Even if a root bound plant is planted where the roots can spread, the damage may already be too great to reverse. I have pulled up dead plants in my garden only to discover that the roots had never recovered from being root bound.  The problem with a root bound plant is that the damage is not visible from looking at the plant.

In the church, we often put more emphasis on the fruit than the roots. We encourage service, generosity and hospitality. We send people on mission trips and recruit greeters and feed and clothe the poor in our communities. We serve on church committees and teach Sunday school and sing in the choir. All these are fruits. But without a good root system, the fruits dry up due to burnout, or lose their sweetness due to resentment or become diseased and poisonous due to lack of faith. With little attention given to the roots, the fruits are no longer beneficial. Like a root bound plant, the damage may not be visible to the casual observer.

How much time do you give to reading the Word, praying the Word and living the Word? Does study of scripture and sacred texts happen for you on a daily basis at a regular time and place? Do you give your best attention each day to growing in intimacy with God, or is your attention haphazard and irregular?

When I hear people talk of being burned out on “church work,” I know that they have failed to attend to the roots. When I hear someone mispronounce a common Biblical name, it saddens me because they are missing out on the joys of familiarity with God through the scripture. When I see church leaders anxious and fearful, I sense that their roots are shallow and weak.

In many churches, much time is spent talking about how to increase numbers of members and contributions. We look at fruit, but we fail to devote attention to the roots. We talk more about evangelism and relevance than we do about spiritual formation, which is how our roots are made strong. We give our attention to doing rather than being, falling headlong into our Western belief that productivity is king.

The church will continue to suffer as long as its members focus only on fruit. Passion for God can be ignited through service, but it cannot survive without becoming rooted, which is the work of spiritual formation. It is the heart, our passion for Christ, which produces healthy, fruitful service. When Christ is everything to us, then fruit cannot be restrained.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Shrine-Builder or Disciple?

This past Sunday we celebrated Transfiguration Sunday, where Jesus was transformed on the mountain. Here is the passage from Luke’s Gospel: About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.

As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.

Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.  Luke 9:28-36

Peter wants to build shrines to commemorate the event. We would rather construct something to signify our relationship with Jesus than to listen to him. Listening compels us to choose to follow and obey or to turn away and ignore. We don’t really want to do either, for the first requires that we remove ourselves from the throne and put Christ there, and the second makes us feel like bad people, and we don’t want to acknowledge that about ourselves.

So, left with two unappealing choices, we, like Peter, opt for a third choice—let’s build something. As we build a shrine, others will know that we’ve been with Jesus, that we are insiders. We can avoid either obedience or outright rejection of Christ by doing something, by building a shrine. Some of us build a shrine by charitable service—feeding and clothing those less fortunate than ourselves. Some build a shrine by serving on church committees, giving long hours to administrative acts for the church. There are many way we build shrines, shrines that keep us from having to listen to Jesus or reject him.

Certainly it’s not a bad thing to help others. Jesus helped others, but his first priority was obedience to God. He listened to God, and then acted out of the intimacy of his relationship with God. We build shrines when we act without listening, when we act to make ourselves look and feel good, when we avoid committing ourselves to developing an intimate relationship with Christ.

I build a shrine when I am resentful of how my service is received by others, or when I demand my own way in the church or when I withhold resources from the Kingdom because I don’t like that the church is not doing things my way. Shrine building occurs whenever we grumble and back-bite and undermine another, whenever we slay another by our words, forgetting that the target of our displeasure and venom is a child of God and loved by God.

When our service doesn’t flow from first listening to and obeying Christ, we are simply building shrines. And, ironically, the shrine isn’t built to glorify God, but ourselves. The shrine tells others that we were here and we did something special “for God.”

God isn’t into shrine-building. What God wants is for us to listen to Jesus, and then, obey. Love the enemy, give without reservation, love God and love neighbor. Die to self. Die to self-interest. Die to self-preservation. Die to self-promotion. For either we die, or we suppress the life of Christ in us. There is not room for both me and Christ. I must die so Christ can live in me. That then is my transfiguration.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Good Food

“Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you.”   John 6:27a

In A Place at the Table, Chris Seay says that he spends a lot of time thinking about what he will eat each day. I can make the same observation about myself. I give a lot of time and attention to what I will eat, from planning menus to clipping coupons to shopping and cooking and looking for new recipes. I don’t know how much time I spend pursuing food that doesn’t last (and I’m not just talking about what I eat, but all the impermanent stuff I do), compared to the time than I spend eating the Word of God, praying the Word and living the Word. How much of what consumes my time, energy and resources is superfluous?

So much of what commands our time and attention is the equivalent of “empty calories.” It is living a life that is driven by desire instead of intention. Living according to desire or craving leaves me hungry and unsatisfied, looking for more and rewiring my brain to think that I need and deserve more to be happy. We want something so we “sacrifice” and work to get it, or we go into debt to get it. But do we sacrifice and work for greater intimacy with Christ or do we expect we’ll get all we need from God by our weekly attendance at worship, occasional almsgiving and some service to others when it is convenient with our schedule?

When Cain and Abel brought gifts to God, the reason Abel’s gift was accepted was that it was the best of what he had. Cain’s gift was what he had available. Does God get my first and best time, attention and resources, or do I fit God into my already crowded schedule and checkbook, and then, only after I’ve committed my time and resources to what I want to do or purchase?

There is a certain automobile ad that has been running lately that uses the slogan, “Someday your life will flash before your eyes. Make it worth watching.” It shows a couple traveling to exotic destinations, eating at fine restaurants, walking on a red carpet, and other similar activities. Such is a life lived for desire, pursuing food that doesn’t last. A life lived with the intention to grow more intimate with God will not have the patience or interest for such desire-driven pastimes. When you’ve tasted the joy and peace that comes from growing intimacy with Christ, you cannot be satisfied with the empty calories of desire-based living.

Saint Augustine speaks of food that lasts in this quote: You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness. You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness. You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath, and I pant for you. I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.

Burning, panting, hungering for God, an all-consuming longing that makes one ache out of love and desire for God—that is not something you fit into your schedule. It is what you build your whole life around. It is the food that endures for eternal life.