Monday, November 29, 2010

Hope, Seen and Heard

The season of Advent has begun, and I couldn’t be any more excited! This is the fortieth Advent of my life, and yet I am discovering new things this year, just like every year. Such is the mystery of this season; God reveals new understandings and insights, no matter how many previous Advents you have experienced.

On my fortieth Advent, I am learning more about the effects of God’s presence on my attitude. Or maybe I should say, I am learning that when I am able to recognize God’s presence around me, it really affects my outlook, demeanor, and state of mind. I find myself smiling more for no apparent reason. I hear a Christmas song that in previous years I may have thought to be a cheesy ball of schlock, and I actually begin to tear up a little bit. You know, stuff like that.

And so I ask, is it because it is Advent and God is at work on me in some deep and powerful way, or is it because I am forty and getting sentimental in my middle age?

Who knows? As the prophet Isaiah says, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” Because let me tell you, if we did that we’d be in pretty big trouble, wouldn’t we? Our eyes see some pretty discouraging things; our ears hear some ugly stuff. If that were the limit of our perception, there would be no hope whatsoever.

But God has given us other senses with which to perceive the Divine Presence, spiritual senses that are tuned in to God at levels both underneath and above our consciousness. And that gives me hope.

Too often we limit our perception to what our eyes see or what our ears hear. Actually, we frequently limit it more than that. A lot of the time, we limit our perception to what someone else tells us it is. I mean, it IS easier that way, after all. A lot less thinking for myself.

But the perception of the one described in Isaiah 11 is informed by something deeper than mere physical senses - namely, God's righteousness (Heb. tsedeq). Perception shaped by God's righteousness leads to a special consideration for the poor and the meek, and a radical transformation of the world such that predator and prey dwell together in peace. Simply put, you just don't see things the same way anymore.

This Advent, may we all see and hear with the spiritual senses that God awakens within us. May righteousness be our filter as we wait for the coming of Emmanuel.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Peace Out

As the season of Advent begins, I've been pondering some things.

Is it possible to “fight for peace”?

Can an armed force ever truly be called “peacekeepers”? Or we might ask, is what they are keeping really peace?

It is said so often that it has almost become cliché to say that God’s peace is more than just the absence of conflict. Shalom is life without fear, a way of being that is comprised of justice and mercy, grounded in the everlasting love of God, cultivated in the presence of the Holy Spirit, and manifest in the person of Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

In our human fallibility, we tend to equate peace with everyone pretending to get along with one another. But that’s not peace. There’s more.

You know those family gatherings where there you avoid broaching certain topics because you know the ensuing conversation is not going to be pretty? And then you think that, if you can just avoid the given topic for a couple hours, it will all be over and you can go home? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about … well, that’s not peace. Even if everyone is pretending to be cheery, you know you’re all thinking about the thing you’re not going to be talking about, wondering who will slip up and say something first, and then how the lovely dessert that Aunt Ethel worked so hard on will just be ruined, thanks a lot you.

No, pretending to be cheery for Aunt Ethel’s sake is not peace. Peace is the way that you handle the issue, not the resolution. Peace requires you to address the conflict with love, understanding, respect, and graciousness. You might resolve it, you might not. That’s not the point. The point is in the way you approach it.

Expand that example outward to talk about churches, or communities, or nations. What if we reconceived everything, to think of peace as the way we approach any given situation, rather than the resolution of the situation one way or the other. How would that be? What would that look like?

Beating swords into plowshares would be more than just pretty poetry, it would be a weekend activity. There would be “Spears Into Pruning Hooks” courses offered at High Schools all over the world. War would be something that we learn about in history books, not something we learn how to do in combat training.

Peace within one’s self – peace in our personal relationships – peace in our communities – peace in our world. God’s peace is a way of living that ought to impact every level of life. If we are serious about the presence of God being everywhere, all the time, we need to reflect that in our actions, everywhere and all the time.

(btw, cool Advent Stuff here - Its All About the Presence)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Thoughts on Growth

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”

To grow up into Christ means to become more and more Christlike in the things we say and do, to become more and more like Christ in who we are. There are many ways to express this idea in scripture, including clothing ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14), being crucified with Christ so that Christ can live in us (Galatians 2:20), and letting the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

Growth is a central emphasis of Wesleyan theology. In a sermon about Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” Wesley asks, “Are you transformed, by the renewal of your mind, into the image of him that created you? Then you cannot be conformed to the present world. You have renounced all its affections and lusts. Are you conformed to the world? Does your soul still bear the image of the earthly? Then you are not renewed in the spirit of your mind. You do not bear the image of the heavenly.”

To be transformed into the image of God is a daunting thought, isn’t it? For Wesley, humanity is created in the image of God, but sin has caused the distortion of that image. Thus, salvation is the gradual process of formation that renews that image within us. The process is known as “sanctification,” a movement that is empowered by grace and shaped by our participation with God in the process itself. It is a cooperative effort that leads us to Christian perfection, being so completely filled with God’s love that sin no longer has any place in our lives.

“…into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped,…promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

As personal growth happens, the community grows also. It is impossible to separate one from the other. Scripture contains many different expressions of this truth, also. The most familiar might be the metaphor of the body that is comprised of many members (Romans 12:4, 1 Corinthians 12:12). The community of faith is continually instructed to build one another up, to encourage one another. Acts 2 describes an initial church that shared “all things in common.”

To borrow an ancient analogy, if I am standing a great distance away from another person, and we both take a step toward the same point, we will end up a bit closer to one another, also. So it is in our spiritual growth; as we draw closer to Christ, we draw closer to one another at the same time. When we move toward a common destination, we get closer to each other no matter from where it is we start.

I think Jesus was alluding to this when he responded to the question about the greatest commandment. Having been asked to name one single commandment that would trump all the rest, Jesus proceeded to offer two: Love God and love your neighbor. He even went as far as to say that the two were similar, that they closely resembled one another. 1 John says it even more directly. If you say you love God but do not love other people, you are a liar.

And so it seems to me that discipleship growth has to be both personal and communal. The church practice that focuses on the personal is “Faith Development” and the church practice that focuses on the communal is “Fellowship.” Healthy discipleship means intentionally seeking growth opportunities in these two ministry areas.

Intentionality is important. I am not describing random tidbits that we pick up here and there. That’s always fun, and a good thing, when you just happen to hear something new, something you hadn’t thought of before or had never heard before. It’s almost always a good thing to meet a random stranger and strike up a pleasant conversation with them while waiting for the bus or standing in line at the store. Healthy discipleship calls for intentional growth.

And so, in examining your own discipleship it is wise to ask yourself what specific efforts you are making to grow each day, each week, and throughout the year. In terms of Faith Development, what books are you reading, what class(es) are you attending, what online resources are you exploring, what Bible Study(-ies) are you participating in, and so forth? In terms of Fellowship, what special church events have you attended, what conversations have you had with other disciples in your community, what new friendships have you developed, what longtime friendships have you nurtured?

And from a congregational perspective, what opportunities are being offered for Faith Development? Is there a variety of classes available, at a variety of times? Is the content of what is being offered appropriate and conducive to healthy spiritual growth? Is there a good congregational website that connects people to good online content? Is there a library of resources readily available for people in the congregation to seek out that personal growth?

And in terms of Fellowship, does the congregation value community free time in which people are able to simply be together for no other purpose than to nurture their relationships? Are there special events in the calendar planned to allow for people to really get to know one another? Do the administrative meetings of the teams and committees include times of relationship building and development of trust for one another?

Growth is always an important part of healthy discipleship. Sometimes it is hard; we seem to grow in fits and spurts. Sometimes we slip backwards a few steps before finding our footing and moving forward again. Some seasons feel totally static, like our spiritual lives have been somehow immobilized. This is all natural, and it happens to every Christian disciple from time to time.

The idea is to affirm the importance of intentional growth for Christian disciples, both personally and communally. It may not happen as smoothly as we would like, but somehow, when we put ourselves in places that are conducive to growth, we often discover that we grow. Imagine that!

Is the pattern of your life conducive to growth? How do you need to adjust it so that it is?