Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Spiritual Blindness

. . . it is possible for some Christians to live and work in a shockingly unjust society, closing their eyes to all kinds of evil and indeed perhaps participating in that evil at least by default, concerned only with their own compartmentalized life of piety . . .
                                                                                --Thomas Merton, in Life and Holiness

We who are financially secure first world Christians can easily fall into the delusion that we are “good people” because we avoid what we think of as big sins, such as murder or theft. We can fail to see that we are part of systematized injustice because we are often so far removed from the injustice as to be unaware of our economic contribution to unjust practices.

We purchase food and consumer items made or harvested by people who are not paid a living wage. We support businesses that exploit the environment. We overspend on ourselves and balk at providing assistance to others, arguing that they “deserve” their difficulty and that we “deserve” our luxury.

We can become desensitized to the ways we mistreat others while priding ourselves on our service to the church, our work in the community, on our morality, or on the compliments we receive for the work that we do.

I’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul admonishes the Galatian Christians for losing sight of the grace they have received and relying instead on their own morality as measured by obedience to the Jewish law. Paul says “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4) He points out how they “bite and devour one another.”

When we are more concerned with image than substance we can easily become blind to the ways we participate in evil. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is preceded by what we might call the fruits of human nature. Here’s what Paul says: What human nature does is quite plain. It shows itself in immoral, filthy, and indecent actions; in worship of idols and witchcraft. People become enemies and they fight; they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups; they are envious, get drunk, have orgies, and do other things like these.

The temptation is to look at this list and say, “I don’t practice witchcraft. I don’t have orgies or participate in indecent actions.” But read the list again and consider some of the other items like ambition, anger, jealousy and separating into groups that exclude others. When we combine prideful morality with acting according to human nature, we blind ourselves to our need for grace.

We grow spiritually as we are able to receive the gift of grace and respond in gratitude by choosing to live in love. Grace invites us to see ourselves as we really are, and to know that God loves us as we really are. Grace is the cure for spiritual blindness.

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.