Monday, September 19, 2016

Doing Good vs Being Good

For the next few weeks, I’m facilitating a study at my church on the book Jesus for President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. As I’ve been reading their description of the Biblical prophets, I’ve thought about the difference in doing good and being good.

As Claiborne and Haw note, “The prophets are weird. They set themselves apart from the normalcy of civilization and its pattern of destruction and war. Their vocation is to interrupt the status quo.” When you think of some of the things the prophets did, you realize they were less concerned with appearances than many of us who call ourselves “church folk” are.

Hosea married a prostitute. Isaiah walked around naked for three years. Ezekiel cooked over human dung, which violated Israel’s purity codes. They would not have been called “good” by the culture in which they lived. But they lived lives of obedience to God, in contrast to the “good people” who fit in by following “the rules.”

The prophets focused on doing good. They were in close communion with God, and they trusted God even when God called them to do what put them at odds with those in positions of power. Claiborne and Haw say, “It can embarrass us to read of their antics, but what they do is not nearly as embarrassing as the things we do, which their actions expose so we can see that another future is possible.”

We become desensitized to evil when evil promotes our “good” agenda. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says: “To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode, to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” We rationalize all sorts of things when it serves our purposes to do so. Cheating in business can be excused as needed to take care of our family. Slandering another may be our way to preserve our reputation so we can continue to use our influence “for good.”

The prophets, ancient and contemporary, remind us that when pride, power and self-preservation become our gods, being good becomes more important than doing good, and whatever good we actually accomplish is not pleasing to God, who honors the powerless, not the prideful.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Letting Go

I have a hard time remembering that I cannot control much (if any) of what happens to me. It’s one of those things I know, but I still get frustrated when things don’t go as I think they should.

It hit me last week. One of those “A-ha” moments as I recalled the most familiar part of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

There is more to the prayer than these lines, but there is plenty here. And while it is a prayer I am familiar with, last week it went from my head into my heart.

The persistent theme of my life lately has been letting go. In my reading, journaling and in multiple instances of life I have encountered the prompting to let go. Suddenly last week, the beginning lines of the Serenity Prayer hit me like something I was hearing for the very first time.

To accept what I cannot change, not grudgingly, but with peace, is a challenge. When I get frustrated at another’s behavior, when the actions I’ve undertaken with pure motives are misunderstood and criticized, being able to let go with serenity requires discipline.

In a recent discussion I was reminded of one way Jesus did this. When a rich man comes to find out what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. The man goes away sad.

Jesus lets him go. He does not run after him, even though Mark 10:21 says that Jesus loved him. Jesus lets him make his own decision, even though the man’s decision is to walk away. Sometimes love looks different than our expectations. One might think that if Jesus loved the man so much, he would run after him and try to make sure the man understood the cost of his decision. But Jesus gives him the freedom to make his own choice.

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen contrasts attachment and commitment. I think what she says is relevant to being able to let go, to accept what I cannot change. She says that attachment closes down options, while commitment opens them up. Attachment leads to entrapment, while commitment leads to greater degrees of freedom.

Jesus was committed to the rich man, but not attached to him. The rich man was not committed, but instead was attached to his reputation as a moralistic rule follower and to his possessions, and this limited his options. He was entrapped by his image and his stuff. Jesus loved the man enough to give him the freedom to remain attached. This way of love may not seem like love to us, but time and again Jesus gives people the openness to choose for themselves. If we love as Jesus did, our hearts and lives and love become more open, and we may be better able to let go and accept what we cannot change.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Slow Small Steps

One of my favorite stories of the desert abbas and ammas reminds me of the slowness and smallness of progress in spiritual growth. A hermit told a brother who was discouraged about his lack of progress in keeping the monastic rule about a father who told his son to clear a field. The son, discouraged at the amount of thorns and thistles, lay down and slept instead. His father found him asleep and asked him why he had done nothing. The son said the task was larger than he could do, but the wise father said that if he would clear only the place he slept each day, the work would advance slowly and the son would not lose heart.

We sometimes think we are not progressing because we don’t clear our inner field all at once. The spiritual journey, however, is not a sprint but a marathon. The thorns and thistles have to be cleared away a little at the time. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In chapter 6, Paul encourages the Galatian Christians to not grow weary in doing good. As I reflected on that verse this morning, I saw within myself the thorns and thistles of a lingering resentment. My first inclination was to berate myself for the resentment, but then I thought about story about clearing the field, and I realized that this was the “patch” that needed my attention at this moment.

We live in a culture that does not value slowness and smallness. Consequently, we get discouraged when the only way forward is through slow, small progress. I’ve seen it with folks who are recovering from surgeries or health issues and I’ve also seen it in people who have had a significant spiritual awakening. We tend to grow impatient and frustrated when healing is prolonged and when the spiritual high has descended into ordinary time. And when we come upon an inner patch of thorns and thistles, we may choose to shrug our shoulders and go to sleep, preferring to numb ourselves against the acknowledgement that we are not all we imagined ourselves to be.

I’m grateful that God’s expectations of us do not move at our Western culture’s go-go pace. Grace is about slow, small progress. I won’t even say it’s about steady progress, because the journey of spiritual growth is not linear. It happens in its own time, but it only happens if we keep at it.