Let’s play hide the treasure

I’ve been promoted at my day job.

I think.

I was offered the new position almost a week ago.  At that time, the message was, “We don’t have the compensation numbers handy but will let you know shortly.”

Like I say, a week ago.

I went to HR at midweek and asked – nicely – if I might know what’s coming my way for stepping up in responsibility.  Basically got a get right back to you reply.

Still no word.

As I stewed about my offended dignity over the compensation non-reveal, the Spirit made me aware of a line from the wicked and slothful servant in one of Jesus’ teachings,

I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here, you have what is yours.  (Mattewh 25:25 ESV)

An excuse, an evasion of responsibility, and then a grudging effort.

I am not tolerant of my employer’s excuse (Hey, it’s a busy week), evasion (We’ll get back to you) and, when the reveal takes place, I’ll resent their offer coming from necessity rather than respect.

BUT, very often, our reactions to annoyances and even real injuries inflicted upon us reveal the very ways in which we sin against God.

Where am I making excuses for direct disobedience to God’s Word?

Where am I evading responsibilities entrusted to me by the Lord?

Where am I planning to give pro-forma, grudging efforts instead of offering my self in love to the people and work God sets before me?

That’s what I’m praying about this weekend.  A good place to start such prayer is Christ’s Great Commandment,

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

(Jesus’ words used as The Summary of the Law in the Book of Common Prayer.)

I have a feeling I’ve been pleading too busy, get back to ‘ya, and OK, did that thing you asked, burying the treasure that God has placed within me rather than investing it liberally in his service.  And I think that is being revealed while I stew about a hidden dollar figure.

Go in peace, friends, and pray for me, a sinner.

Tracts with Legs (moved by brains)

Do not let the men deceive themselves and others with the assertion that the “Man of the Lord,” as they call Him, Who is rather our Lord and God, is without human mind”…

…If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation.  For that which He has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved…

…But if He [Christ Jesus] has a soul, and yet is without a mind, how is He man, for man is not a mindless animal?

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 4th century

In the first few centuries of the church, some argued that the Christ came factory equipped with a divine mind so he automatically made the right choices, no big.  Yeah, he had flesh that could suffer and die, but the divine mind had it all under control.

Gregory of Nazianzus fought for the the position that Jesus, in order to save every aspect of human nature, assumed (took upon himself) every aspect of our humanity.  If he did not assume it, it couldn’t be healed and saved in Him.  He could not redeem our brain and transform it to know and carry out God’s will if he did not take it with him to the cross, through the tomb and back to the throne of the Almighty.

Across the millennia, Christians have from time to time disowned the mind.  Ecstatic visions, personal experience, ethnic/cultural/national traditions, feelings and other aspects of our humanity have been identified with the presence of God while the work of the mind has been discounted.

The tendency to disown the mind in our worship and service of God is a denial of the Biblical revelation of Jesus Christ.  It is to miss the reality that he saved us by taking to himself every aspect of our humanity, including our mind, with all of its challenges,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)

To divorce our faith from the work of the mind is to deny the full import of the Incarnation of Christ expressed in John 1:14,

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  (KJV)

If we infer that he did not have our gray matter, or that our gray matter is irrelevant to our life as his disciples in this world and as his transformed brothers and sisters in the next, we deny the Incarnation and do the work of the enemy,

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3 NASB)

I have a brother in Christ who is taking up this challenge in the context of contemporary American Evangelicalism, where cultural conventions and feelings-based-and-targeted techniques have disparaged the devotion of our minds to God.

He goes so far as to call this a sin needing the church’s corporate confession and repentance.

And he’s come up with a provocative approach to starting the discussion in our daily encounters…

Tracts with Legs

Give it a look.  (Even on Facebook). You might wind up a walking tract for our times.

Emancipation Population

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Random House, New York, 2017

20170627_081048Well, this novel has an endorsement from Thomas Pynchon on the jacket.  Given that, I’m sure that the world is panting in anticipation of my review.

Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over a single night as President Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young, much loved (even favored) son, Willie.  The story is a wild ride through the supernatural and paranormal – like a complex bottle of wine it has strong notes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Walpurgisnacht” from Goethe’s Faust, Wilder’s Our Town, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a hint of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (the ride at Disneyland.  Can’t vouch for the movie).

The concept of Bardo is Tibetan and refers to a state of existence between one’s initial earthly life and a rebirth to new life.  It has affinities with Catholic ideas of Limbo and/or Purgatory.

In the cemetery where the emotionally crushed President has come to be near his son’s recently interred body, an array of the dead and buried (who have not come to terms with the fact that they’re dead and buried) spend the night in their active, interim state.  Three are the primary narrators and protagonists in the goings-on; many others appear.

The brilliant subtlety of the book is the interplay of spiritual bondage with the historic reality of “The Great Emancipator,” who is bound up in personal grief and the overwhelming national crisis.

All of the denizens of the cemetery are bound – bound by their lack of insight into the fact that they’re dead (back to my bottle-of-wine simile; here’s a taste of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave); bound to whatever dominated them at the moment of death (they manifest with physical exaggerations, such as one character who lived so much through his sensual appreciation of the world that he appears as a living mass of eyes and hands); bound by past excesses requiring acts of atonement; bound by the iron fence of the cemetery and by the arrival of daylight; bound up in the ultimate illusion that continuing fruitless old habits will result in a hoped for outcome.

Lincoln and Willie are arresting figures who break through the binding boredom of the Bardo.  The cemetery residents are as taken with the Lincolns as is the divided nation.  Coming first to gawk at them as a diversion from the nightly routines, the spirits are moved by the Lincolns, and, to the very limited extent that they are able, move them.

This sets the stage for a wild matrix of possible liberations.  Can the spirits accept the feared burst of light that hearkens a new existence?  Can Abraham and Willie Lincoln, if only for a moment, reach some kind of peace across the separation of death?  Can the nation out in the dark beyond the cemetery emancipate those it oppresses and free itself from its devouring battlefields?

The book unfolds almost as a play, with the narration carried by succeeding character voices, and scenes set by historical quotes from Lincoln contemporaries and subsequent historians’ works.  Saunders’ distilled breadth of reading on Lincoln and the culture of the times is a treasure within the other riches of this novel.

Saunders does a masterful job of leaving open the spiritual questions while engaging them with refreshing respect.  A key Christian character must grapple with the fearful mystery of a sovereign God, yet never doubts the tenets of the faith and… well, I need to stay away from a big spoiler on this.  I’ll just say that while this is not a Christian novel, a Christian operating as a Christian has an honorable impact upon what unfolds, and what unfolds honors his faith.

This is a great novel on so many levels, including imagination, history, spirituality, engaging characters (even the plethora of minor ones who show up), emotional punch (I was reading it in the break room at work and had to hide that I was weeping at one point) and wit.

Once you follow Lincoln into the Bardo, you’ll be hard put to do anything but keep reading.

Don’t click away just ‘cuz it’s about “love”

As I reflect upon Sunday’s Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary, I think that Televangelists with great hair are a better testimony to the majestic power of God,

And even the hairs of your head are all counted,

20160529_091828<<<<< than am I. Oh well. Just a musing, not my main point.

Back to Sunday’s Good News,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

It is a troubling passage. After all, the Lord also says that our love of others is part and parcel of the Great Commandment, as necessary as loving God if we are to please God. Sure, he calls love of neighbor the “second” but it is “like the first.”

Love for others is fruit of the Holy Spirit, by which Jesus says those who truly represent him can be identified.

The Apostolic letters of Christ’s New Covenant command love within families and among church members.

We can wax glib (which really means we’re on the wane, IMO) and say, God first, family second, work third.  But such slogans run the risk of Christ’s rebuke, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

The Father’s will is revealed in the Greek word for love that Christ speaks here.  It is philon, the word for affection between equals, as between siblings or friends.  It’s not about passionate feeling or over-the-top sacrifice or miracles,  but about the work-a-day bonds of life that manifest our priorities.

This is continued in the Apostolic teaching of James 4:4,

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship (philia) with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend (philos) of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Leading “normal” life attentive only to the people and stuff we enjoy, without attentiveness to Christ as a friend alongside us, is the adulterous friendship with the world against which James is warning.

So our ueber-friendship with God is not to plunge into religious zealotry, manifested in public displays of piety or “spirituality.”  Rather, it is to take up the cross (daily, as Luke reveals), walking in sometimes uncomfortable friendship with Jesus with the same attention to efforts, empathy and reactivity that we invest in family relationships and friendship bonds.  It is to treat our friendship with Jesus with at least the same intensity that we have for those we enjoy most in this world.

It is to be “on” all the time, not in some “religious” venue apart from the rest of our daily lives.  This friendship with Jesus is loaded with honor,  support and practical direction supplied by the Word of God, 

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philouos), for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

I bolded that last love because in this verse Jesus uses the term agapate, escalating from simple friendship to affection that manifests as self-sacrifice.  As Sunday’s Gospel puts it, Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The Good News is that if we walk as friends with Jesus, his power, not our anxious, straining will and effort, can take our love for other people to a supernatural level.

Reflections on Retail

After a catastrophic season of burnout, I stepped away from parish ministry and took an available job in retail to help maintain insurance and pay the bills.  And to see if I was the POS (pardon the coarse self-reference, but it’s what I felt at the time) I’d come to perceive or if I really did have anything worthwhile to lend to other people and organizations.

Long story short, I’m back to active ministry within the structures of the church, and I’m still with the retail gig.  I’ve received a good bit of healing.  God’s had a hand on everything in this strange passage of my life.

Working in a retail environment provides considerable insight that helps me better understand and witness to the message of Christ.  This week, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints a portion of Matthew 9, including

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

customer-e1278861373711
Lifted from here.

Working in retail camps me out among the harassed and helpless, for whom Jesus feels compassion.  It’s helps me “sit in the pews,” mentally, recognizing more of the stresses and strains that people bring to church.  I still don’t like the toxic ways in which they act them out, projecting them onto the clergy in particular and very often onto the other lay people, rather than receiving the transformation that Jesus offers them.  But I have more compassion than I did a couple of years ago.

I know what it is to give a long week’s effort for a few hourly bucks.  Yes, clergy are way underpaid – but so many folks in the “secular” workplace toil under more stressful, less uplifting conditions for longer hours for as little or less compensation.

I recognize that it isn’t only churches that that suffer busts having little to do with the quality of their efforts.  Folks in retail can do sustained, quality work only to watch hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars leave for a flashy, cheap or geographically convenient place that opens up a few miles away (or on the internet).  And I see how the “losers” in such shifts are helpless against harassing feelings of failure.

I watch managers in the retail setting and realize how much more harassed they are than I was as a congregational pastor.  Pressure from “corporate” to bring in more sales; pressure from customers aggrieved by this, that and the other thing; pressure from well intended laws and policies that force them to be accommodating to even their most lazy and incompetent employees; the normal human pressures from within themselves and their relationships.

I’ve gained respect for the South Sudanese members of one congregation I serve, many of whom work in a meat packing plant for long shifts and still manage to clean up and get their families to church.  I know more of how a work week can exhaust people, and what a precious offering working folks make to take part in worship, let alone all kinds of mid-week church stuff.  And retail is especially guilty of the diminution of Sabbath in our culture – we’ve turned so many aspects of not working into a feeling of added work.

Then there are the experiences that give me thoughts like, “OK, maybe I went a little nuts, but it’s not like the church isn’t a bit of a crazy-maker.”

There’s the reality that “I’ll pray for you” means more when I say it to folks in the retail store than when I said it as the expected (and often unappreciated) thing in church.  I used to keep a discipline of calling church members on their birthdays and asking, “What should I be praying for in your life?”  It became one of my most deflating and eventually abandoned practices, as time and again the reply was something like, “Oh, nothing.  You save those prayers for the people who really need them.”

Now, when I offer to pray at the store, I find myself and the person who wants the prayer huddling between teetering pallet loads of merchandise as our sanctuary.  I see tears in others’ eyes.  I hear sincere “God bless you”s in return for my fumbling words.  I got a heartfelt “God bless you” just this morning for doing a minor favor to help out a coworker.  The apt sharing of Scripture seems to reach people at the store whereas it often bounced off of people in the church.

This Sunday’s Gospel goes on to reveal that where people are harassed and helpless is exactly where Jesus wants his church,

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Working the retail job seems to drop me in that harvest field in a way that the church itself resists.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not rejecting the church; I believe that it is Jesus Christ’s body at work, the Holy Spirit’s Temple on the earth; the royal priesthood ministering to the Heavenly Father. Christians affirm the church as an expression of the reality and mystery of God in our Creeds, and I’m not finding excuse to deny that (which would be heresy on the way to apostasy).

I guess what I’m saying is that this retail job continues to raise questions even as it gives fresh perspective.

I welcome your prayers that I see and speak more of what Christ calls forth, and that I do so as a living member of the church he desires.

Defective Elephants

 

“Elephants never forget.”  There might be some truth in that:

African Elephant Amboseli Kenya
From the linked article.

Their superb memories help elephants stay alive in ways that go beyond just recognizing threats. Matt Lewis, a Senior Program Officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s Species Conservation Program, tells mental_floss that one of the best examples of elephant cognition “comes from desert-adapted elephants, where the matriarchs remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to water over very long distances, and over the span of many years. This is a pretty clear indication that elephants have a great ability to remember details about their spatial environment for a very long time.”

Humans have impressive memory as well.  Just have a fight with your spouse, and marvel at your ability (and your spouse’s) to remember every bad thing (and many good things reinterpreted as bad) over decades of marriage.  We use our memory to exalt the self rather than build the common good. We are like defective elephants.

Right now I’m attending a church with a mainly immigrant population.  One of the groups there was asked to leave because they were getting into violent confrontations over issues in their homeland.  Both factions remembered all the details of the division – interpreting them differently, of course – vividly enough to demonize the other group.

Now that they are gone, the remaining group (a different ethnicity) is encountering the same problem.  My charismatic friends would suggest there is a malign spirit at work in the place.

Maybe so, but all that spirit would need to do is exploit our existing capacity to use our prodigious memories for evil.  Although made in the image of God, we are fallen creatures, as much as much contemporary thinking feeling would like to deny that.

We need to look to God, who has the ultimate memory but also a great capacity to forget.

God remembers with love:

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;
    the Lord has forgotten us.”

 “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?
    Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
    I would not forget you!
See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.
    Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.
Soon your descendants will come back,
    and all who are trying to destroy you will go away.
Look around you and see,
    for all your children will come back to you.
As surely as I live,” says the Lord,
    “they will be like jewels or bridal ornaments for you to display.  (Isaiah 49:14-18, NLT)

And God is practiced at forgetting bad stuff,

For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:12, ESV)

Christ Jesus uses his cross as an eraser so that much is forgotten,

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross… (Colossians 2:14, KJV)

Let us pray that our memory be surrendered to the One who willingly forgets our sin and remembers us with loving favor.

 

Oh whining victim, open mouth

The great thinker Thomas Aquinas expressed his devotional spirituality in hymns, one of which included,

O saving Victim, open wide
the gate of heaven to man below;
our foes press on from every side;
thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.

Aquinas here appeals to Jesus as the “Victim,” using the old sense of the word, which means a sacrificial animal killed to appease the gods.  Jesus, in Cranmer’s Communion Prayer, is

a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

Jesus is the unique Victim.  Yes, in the contemporary use of the word, one on the bad end of an injustice or tragedy is a victim with a small v, but none should capitalize that and try to move their experience to the center of the universe.  To do so is idolatry, displacing the cross and the one true Victim offered there.

A now departed Anglican Priest I knew used to warn newly ordained clergy to Remember that you are AT the altar, not ON it.  That is, don’t confuse yourself with Jesus.  See your hardships and sufferings as part of his work, but not equal to or, God forbid, some kind of replacement for what the Son of God uniquely suffered for the sins of the world.  We all suffer as victims but are not the Victim.

tantrum
Picture from here.

I think that the polarized, tribalized politics Americans roll around in today are just that kind of idolatry.  Even Christians, who should know better, have taken up the cant.  Here’s an example from a left-wing commentary, which is manifestly hostile but admits my point in the very first line quoted here,

Claiming the mantle of victimhood is so politically potent that religious-right leaders are going to do it, no matter how untrue it is, because, to be blunt, they’re not held back by any moral interest in honesty. Getting Grandma to think she’s going to lose her church is a great way to get her to sign her Social Security check over to your organization.

And here’s a piece by a Christian disgusted by our tribe claiming victim status,

Sure, some people don’t like me for my faith, but look around at the other people groups who have it worse. What in the world do I have to complain about? Christ has made me a conqueror and he’s named me as such.

The victim->Victim political game is showing up on HBO in a serialized rendering of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I read the novel when it came out in the mid-80s.  It is a well done work of story telling, very hard to put down once you start reading it.  Atwood is a very good writer whose words can conjure unforgettable images, which I’m not sharing here so as to avoid spoilers.

But reactions to the story, which envisions a dystopian future in which a fundamentalist Christian putsch has deprived American women of all human rights and dignity, are all about I am Victim hear me roar.  When I was first reading it as a student, a female classmate walked up to me and said, Now you’ll see what life is like in the real world.  Current social media and other commentary on the upcoming production are full of that same angry anxiety.

But the situation of American women seems to be improving in the years since Atwood’s book came out.  More jobs are open, including military command and combat roles.  Women are the majority in higher education and thereby increasingly the people with access to better paying professional careers.  In 2015, 44% of Federal government jobs – the careers populating the wealthiest cluster of counties in the nation – were held by women.

Like American Christians, wailing about being Victims while Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places are slaughtered in their church gatherings, contemporary American women waving The Handmaid’s Tale as some kind of new Uncle Tom’s Cabin should strike us as at least silly, if not in need of psychological help.

But such is our politics.  With Christianity and it’s central Victim displaced as a unifying assumption, we find each and every group wanting to sit at the right hand of God without bothering to go by the way of the cross.

Christianity holds that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but that God in love has sent the saving Victim in whom There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).  Our politics today holds that me and mine are the Victim and you and yours are the problem.  And me and mine and you and yours want to grab that central power in DC to avenge ourselves on each other.

In so doing we help create the realities we claim to foresee and despise.