Monday, February 25, 2013

Servants Serve: Lenten Midweek Missal (2)

Matthew 20:17-28 (CEB)

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve aside by themselves on the road. He told them, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and legal experts. They will condemn him to death. They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be ridiculed, tortured, and crucified. But he will be raised on the third day.” Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus along with her sons. Bowing before him, she asked a favor of him. “What do you want?” he asked. She responded, “Say that these two sons of mine will sit, one on your right hand and one on your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink from the cup that I’m about to drink from?” They said to him, “We can.” He said to them, “You will drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom my Father prepared it.” Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them over and said, “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.

James' and John's mother must have not heard- or she did not want to hear- what Jesus had just said about his impending suffering, execution, and complete humiliation. I'm familiar with that kind of avoidance in myself. The truth be told, we're a mixed bag of motives and intentions akin to the good seed growing amidst thorns in the parable Jesus told in Luke 8:4 ff.  Sometimes we serve for the sake of others, and even for the sheer the joy of doing it. Other times, we serve just out of duty or to feel better about ourselves. Worse, we can serve to manipulate others, so they will conform to our image of what "they" should be, such as grateful for our efforts. 

The gap between the life Jesus intends for his followers to share and the way of everyone else (the Gentiles), is great. Our culture knows all about rank, authority, power, and hierarchy. So do churches. We're divided by our own proud polity and power differentials. So profound is our dislike of the noun servant (slave) that we have made it more of an adjective, leading to the oxymoronic, if not also deceptive, servant leadership. ???   

But Jesus didn't talk of leadership, or leaders needing followers to feel successful. Instead, he asked his followers to regard themselves as he saw himself, as One who serves instead of finding a way to be served. We want it both ways, to call ourselves servants yet to reserve the right to be served. That way leads to a religion of resentment of God for demanding sacrifice, of others for not appreciating us, and of ourselves for sacrificing too much.

As Richard Rohr has observed: "Codependents end up being just as unhealthy as the addict, while thinking themselves as strong, generous, and loving. The martyr complex reveals this false side of love, and yes I think it even applies to some of the martyrs in the church."  (Breathing Under Water, p.23)

We're endlessly inventive finding loopholes. But the opportunity is ours to hear Jesus words, and to receive them as his invitation to become free and to serve others as if to the Lord, as an act of love and worship. And mutual servants, in Jesus, become the truest of friends. (John 15:15)   

Friday, February 22, 2013

Respect God: Lenten Midweek Missal (1)

 When the crowds grew, Jesus said, “This generation is an evil generation. It looks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except Jonah’s sign. Just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Human One will be a sign to this generation. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from a distant land to hear Solomon’s wisdom. And look, someone greater than Solomon is here. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they changed their hearts and lives in response to Jonah’s preaching—and one greater than Jonah is here." Luke 11: 29-32 (CEB)

The true miracle- the opening of blind eyes
Eric Fromm, in The Art of Loving, noted that one of the main components of loving another person is respect. The Latin root means "to look at," he maintained. This is a good way to frame one of the harsher sayings of Jesus. 

Notice that in describing his current generation as evil, Jesus does so by comparing it to infamous non-Jews  like the Ninevites (who repented) and the Queen of Sheba (who traveled far seeking wisdom). 

We can all too easily end up disregarding and disrespecting the gifts and opportunities that are right in front of us.  How does this happen? Though adaptation is apart of survival, the animal brain's tendency to adjust to the good means that we, by nature,  become blind to wonder and amazement. We use a smidgin of our mental and spiritual capacity to survive- but not necessarily to revel in God's grace.

The problem of  "sign" driven spirituality is that you need bigger and better theophonies to remain interested. So while Jesus followers were anticipating Jesus to be enthroned as king, we can be pretty sure they didn't expect that enthronement would happen on a cross. Yes, flashy signs appeal to the false self and its insatiable demands that neither life nor God can guarantee.  

Repentance is akin to respect, the kind of love that heals and restores our capacity for the deepest blessings of gratitude and being present to ourselves, God and others without  conditions.  Even the simple act of breaking and sharing bread together can open the eyes of the blind to the One who in the words of John Thornburg is "engraved  on each proton of space."  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is Hypocrisy Organic to Spiritual Life?

St. Matthew
Jesus never observed Lent nor was he a Christian. Although Thomas did worship Jesus in John 20:26 ff., in none of Jesus' words in the New Testament did Jesus ever command his followers to gather every Sunday or any other day to worship him.  What he did expect of his followers is that they would engage the spiritual disciplines core to life with him, such as giving, prayer, and fasting. 

But like a prophet who teaches by telling us what excesses to avoid, what temptations we will certainly face, so Jesus' words contain the kind of warnings that are organic to the spiritual life. Long before someone like Eugene Peterson ever penned his brilliant Working the Angles, it was of course said by prophets and sages before him, including Jesus. 

Jesus seems to like to use the word "hypocrite," and its frequency in the reading for Ash Wednesday from Matthew 6 is much more than a light caution before we get on with the supposedly main business of Lent. Matthew writes a gospel to the religious about the pitfalls of the worst kind of hypocrisy, the kind thinly covered by religious faith. Did Matthew the tax collector (read: thief) hear the epitaph directed against him?

Synonyms, such as deceiver, dissembler, pretender, and even pharisee, don't carry the freight of hypocrite. So here's the definition:

Hypocrite: 1. a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs. 2. a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.

God is not the One who is hard to know or difficult to understand. God's language and name is Love. We're the ones that are complicated. And because we don't like what we see about ourselves, we get defensive and concoct self-versions that are false, untrue and yes, hypocritical.   

As the ball gets rolling for Lent, isn't it significant that there's as much about not being a hypocrite  as anything else? Is it because whenever we honestly engage the spiritual disciplines, we are met with the most severe barriers within us- the ones of our own choosing? If seeing ourselves that way is painful, it can also be deeply freeing to  finally be ourselves, created in God's love and grace. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Add Burnout to the Three B's

Jim Henderson, in Jim and Casper Go to Church, well- described the holy trinity of pastoral success as the "Three B's," that is,  buildings, budgets, and behinds- in- pew. There have been some  attempts to soften the success formula (Lovett Weems, now of Wesley Theological Seminary). 

Making the pastor's spiritual health one factor among many means that the spiritual integrity of clergy is nothing without the help of at least one of the measurable "Three B's." 
The late author and preacher John Claypool wrote a stirring spiritual memoir of his search for self-acceptance and awareness as a younger pastor. A critical part of his story was his struggle to grieve the death of his young daughter with raw honesty. 

Claypool also described living off the latest success in terms similar to an addiction. After each major pastoral accomplishment, the euphoria gradually lessened in intensity and duration until the next big success came around. The cycle finally left him exhausted and in his words, "bone weary."

Kate Bowler's searing article of fall, 2012 critiques the Prosperity Gospel theologically, but it seems timely to assess its toxic effects on the spiritual health and relationships of clergy. Prosperity churches are taught to buy into the externals as validity of the whole of the Christian faith. The preacher-and their family- must necessarily be shining examples of success in every aspect of their lives, mirroring God's faithfulness.

Once you take the pill, burnout is inevitable. Especially because the same results- or ego rewards- often require greater and greater investments of energy and attention to attain a similar emotional high. But the externals will never measure the missed opportunities for enduring joy and love. 

Oldies but Goodies