Monday, November 26, 2012

Jesus Smiles

Have I said anything with a stern look or manner, especially on religion? 
   - Evening Self Examination, 30 Days with Wesley 

That self-examination is normally a serious subject is why this question about a stern countenance catches me totally off-guard. In the most traditional liturgy for Holy Communion, we pray that we "bewail our manifold sins and wickdeness." 

If that isn't a prescription for a self-condemnatory scowl I don't know what is. But just because self- inventory is important doesn't mean we have to start aping the judgement scene from Michelangelo's The Last Judgement.

If you believe that the power that transforms us resides in God's love in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit that is poured into us, then any and all self- examination is a means to greater self knowledge, healing, holiness, and sanctification.

But that movement is blocked when we think we can somehow improve on God's creating us in God's own image and likeness. No amount of moral effort or super seriousness can outdo God's prior gift of conscience placed in us when we were, in love, called out of nothingness into life.  

Thomas Merton wrote of "the spiritual man," who "contrives to bully those he thinks inferior to himself, thus gratifying his own ego." The true saints of the desert renounced this approach, he argued. They put both punishment and revenge aside.  Both of these can come in the form of sternness in our appearance and speech.

Self-examination begins and ends in God's love, and when we are not gentle and merciful with ourselves, the practice is side-tracked and becomes an exercise in accusation and self justification. A tool intended to bring us shalom thus ends up becoming an excuse for more self-hate-  or another way to project our sicknesses onto others.     

John Wesley's wrestling with self-condemnation and harshness with others like his brother Charles,  whom he felt wronged him, was the shadow side of his zeal for attaining holiness of heart and life in Christ. It was softened, not obliterated, after his heart was "strangely warmed" by God's love and forgiveness.


Friday, November 2, 2012

God's Generosity Doesn't Run Out

Why are there so many acorns this year?

"The farmer, without preparation, just went out and began to sling the seed. This is farming Jesus style...The Master seems to find more joy in careless sowing, miraculous growing, and reckless harvesting than in taxonomy of the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the worthless, the saved from the damned." Will Willimon, Why Jesus?, p.78.

It's a rare autumn in Houston. Everywhere we walk, there's the crunch of a live oak acorn. They remind me of the larger ones seen every fall in my native Ohio. They're  so plentiful there that my buddies and I could fill trash cans and buckets, then spend the rest of the day chucking them at each other.

The wonder is how in the world do any of these odd little nuts turn out to become anything at all! But they do!

Richard Lischer, who well chronicles his first pastorate in Open Secrets, sheds light on this parable of Jesus from Matthew 13. Lischer served a rural parish where the calendar was set by the corn harvest. The earliest planting came from seeds first dedicated and blessed in church, and with pomp, processed by church members out to the field, then planted in the ground. 

Like acorns scattered all over the place and landing where they will not grow, farming Jesus style starts with abundance and generosity- not efficiency. Church usually knows better, deciding that the farmer could really do a better job of projecting favorable results, controlling risks, and being fruitful.  If the sower only knew that so much of this seed will not make it to maturity. After all, there's only so much there.  

But when Jesus got around to talking about actual seed growth, he referred to the marvel of life sustaining more and more life! (Mark 4: 26 ff.) Unlike the one-talent servant who is dead wrong about the master reaping where he did not sow (25:14 ff.), God is always sowing everywhere, and God gives life to all creatures. (Psalm 104) And God pours life and love- Holy Spirit- into anyone, anyone who simply asks! (Luke 11: 13) 

The real miracle- and our purest joy- can be that God, in the love of the Trinity, never ever runs out of giving life- to all, here, now and forever.            

Oldies but Goodies