Consider the BORG

 

A few years ago I decided I would give up busyness and worry. It would have been easier to give up coffee and red meat. I made it about three days. I discovered how much I am addicted to busyness and worry. Withdrawal is worse than a caffeine headache. I discovered what I suspected: if there is nothing to worry about, I find something; if I have a few hours of uncommitted, discretionary time, I find a project and get busy doing it.

I have internalized a cultural value that embraces busyness and mistrusts idleness. It is wired into my nervous system. I am struggling to get it out of my system. I am in recovery.

Reading Thomas Merton helps me in my recovery. In one of his journals he wrote:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

His point: to embrace this somehow tears into the fabric of our identities. We are less and less authentically ourselves, and more and more defined by what is outside of us. We become more driven by what is expected of us (or by what we expect of ourselves), and loose touch with who we might be, what lies at the center of our own souls. It is a depersonalizing act of violence. We are drawn and quartered. Worse yet, we tie the ropes onto our hands and feet.

There is much about being human that is beautiful and good, and has absolutely nothing to do with producing anything. We are so much more than the things we do. If we jamb our days till they overflow with projects, we are at risk of loosing important parts of ourselves. Do we recognize the value and importance of simply having tea with a friend, of breathing in the smell of a damp field, of listening to the rain, of simply sitting together opening to God?

Merton suggests that not only are we missing significant pieces of our human experience. We are at great risk of misdirecting our lives. Our compulsive busyness becomes a source of violence as we begin to value others and ourselves less as people, and more as objects in relationship to our projects and goals. We fail to notice and begin to pour the dark side of our personalities over each other.

Again, Merton:

“When we live superficially, when we are always outside of ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in may directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be without meaning in our lives…this inner contradiction, derived from the alienation and frustration in American life, is one of the roots of violence in our society. We seek release by fantasies and dramas of violence.” (Love and Living, Harcourt, 1979, p. 43.)

Even the church is complicit when it surrenders without critical thought to cultural models that surround it. A good Christian becomes defined as a busy Christian, purpose driven, fully engaged in a 24/7 busy church. Busyness becomes a substitute for real discipleship. People unconsciously become valued more for what they do to help the church meet its goals, than for who they are as sacred persons.

A path to recovery? Recognize and name our addiction. Reclaim the beauty and power of sabbath time, silence, listening to God, of play and idleness. Value each other first as persons, and then figure out what we might do together.

We do have much to do. We are called to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, visit the sick, to respond to the needs of others that surround us. But out of compassion, not as projects that prove our significance as an organization. And we need to keep real boundaries in place, least we turn ourselves and others into cogs in some productive machine (Borgs).

We need to recover our sacred, human center.

Consider the Dolphins

A few weeks ago my wife and I spent a weekend in Cape May. We stayed on the fifth floor of an ocean front hotel. Our balcony faced the ocean. I am not an early riser, but sunrise over the Atlantic is a thing not to be missed. So I got up early in the morning and sat on the balcony with my coffee. The sunrise was spectacular. The sun rose, a large white-pink disk. Half the sky shimmered, soft greens fading into shades of yellow and pink. Low clouds were like rose colored mountains floating just above the horizon. I listened to the waves striking the beach and the water flowing back to the sea.

Then I noticed that there were at least a dozen dolphins swimming just off the shore. One at a time, then in pairs, then in groups of three or four, blue-gray thick bodies would rise, arc above the water and disappear. They were feeding, or dancing, or perhaps just playing.

It struck me, as I watched the dolphins, that all of this beauty and the joy of the dolphins had nothing to do with me, my agendas, the things I can become so caught up in, the things I take so seriously. Yet there they were.

Since I am a clergy person, I tend to think in religious categories: yet God created them, keeps them, sustains them; for their own sake and not mine. Here is an obvious thought: God’s world is a lot bigger than mine! Yet how often I act as if my concerns are the center of God’s agenda! Or at least should be.

I wonder how much our religion is an attempt to domesticate God, or at least is an expression of a desire for a domesticated concept of god.

Think again about God’s response to David through Nathan the prophet, when David first proposes to build a house, a temple, for God: “Go tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD, Would you build a house for me to live in?’ ” (2 Sam. 7:5) Think how silly the idea that God who created all things needs someone to build a house in which God is to live? David’s thought is to honor God, but maybe also to harness God’s presence and power to his political agenda.

Maybe even in our churches, our desire is less to release ourselves to God, and more to domesticate God, to have God be present in this place, this time, this building, to hear and tend to our agenda.

How much richer our faith and freer our experience might be, if we were able to release ourselves into infinite sphere of God’s creation, rather than try to draw God down into the tiny space of our anxious minds, into the sphere of our churches, our goals and agendas, and even our religious doctrines.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that God is no-thing. We struggle with no-thing, so we make God into something, and then worship the something we create, not the living God. The result is idolatry. We even fight wars over whose concept of something is more true.

God and God’s realm are much larger, more beautiful, more joyful, than we imagine. God is the God of the sunrise, the oceans, the dolphins, of 100 million galaxies. Perhaps our most appropriate response should simply be awe and gratitude, that we, our neighbors, even our enemies, get to be part of it.

I’m Back

It’s been awhile, but I am back to blogging. A new look. A new theme. A new beginning.

I remain convinced that faith is about becoming more human, more alive, and perhaps even more vulnerable.

So much of what we experience can dehumanize us. Faith is a path of resistance.

It is not a path to a life beyond mediocracy. It is not a passion driven embrace of a purposeful mission statement. It does not help us move from good to great.

It is a reclaiming of an essence.

Reread Jesus’ parables. He deconstructs all concepts of what is good and what is great. He cracks open our concepts so that we might glimpse a different paradigm.

I look forward to our conversation.

Bill

A New Mind

Jesus Christ Crucifix

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Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Rom. 12:2

With this verse Paul makes a transition from writing about theology, ideas about God, to a discussion about how Christian people are to live. Finally, to be a Christian is not primarily about our ideas about God, but about a way of life informed and inspired by the reality that God has come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to be Christian involves a transformation of the mind, so that one is able to see, know, discern, and one hopes actually do, what is the will of God.

Paul writes that the mind is to be renewed, made new, brought alive. The mind here is not something located in our brains, the thing we think with.  It is the center of our selves. It is the seat of our personalities. It is where our feeling, thinking, and willing come together. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is a call to be completely changed and made new, from the inside out. Only through and inside that process, can we begin to see what is good.

Robert Barron, in The Priority of Christ, identifies three different transformations that the Spirit works in us: from fear to trust; from arrogance to humility; from autonomy to service. He suggests we are converted from fear to trust as our faith in God becomes a source hope and confidence in life as a whole. We move from arrogance to humility as we wake up to the fact that we are not the center of the universe, and the servant love of Jesus takes root in us. We move from autonomy to obedience as we realize that serving the love of God in this world brings much more joy and satisfaction than being a servant of our desires. (As Bill Coffin wrote: there is no smaller package than a person all wrapped up in him or her self.)

Paul writes, and I would affirm, that apart from that transformation, we are not able to see or do the will of God. We can only operate out of our desires, experience, and prejudices. Our biases act like glasses through which we view the world. We have our buttons and people tend to push them. This is why Jesus warns us not to try to take a splinter out of someone else’s eye; we have a bean in our own, clouding our vision. Jesus and Paul promise that God will cleanse our eyes, transform our minds, enabling us to see more clearly what is good and pleasing to God. Paul places that before us as the ongoing transformation within the life of a believer.  It is the work of the Spirit within us. It is our challenge to work with and not hinder that work.

Life in church is one important way that we help each other become transformed people. Regular weekly worship, time in prayer and reflection, time serving others, sharing in Christian conversation, all are vehicles through which the Spirit touches and renews us.  I am grateful to each and every person who has helped me in my faith walk. It is my prayer that we continue on this wonderful path together.

See you in church,

Pastor Bill

Moving Toward Easter

c. 1632

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“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!” Luke 23:42

I remember visiting a woman I in a nursing home many years ago.  It was my first visit with her. I introduced myself saying: “Hi Mrs. Smith, I’m Pastor Bill, the new associate at your church.” I will never forget her response. She turned toward me with tears in her eyes and said: “How good it is that someone remembers my name! How good it is that someone from outside this place remembers my name!”

She was the last surviving member of her nuclear family. Her children lived a number of states away and did not get to visit with her very often. It was so important to her that she had not been forgotten, that her church, someone from her church, someone from the outside world remembered her, and called her by name. She was not forgotten.

One of the most celebrated attributes of God is that God remembers. In the third chapter of Exodus God calls to Moses from a burning bush and says: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6) God remembers all three. God remembers their names. God hears the cries of Israel. God has not forgotten them. God will redeem them. (Ex. 3:7-10)

Many years later, when Israel is in exile in Babylon, when the people of Israel feel abandoned, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isa. 49:15-16) The people of Israel have not been forgotten. Their names are carved in the palm of God’s hand. God will redeem them.

From the cross a thief cries out to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Jesus responds: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) He will not be forgotten. From the cross Jesus promises redemption. He will not forget.

There is a real difference between dis-membering and re-membering. To dis-member something is to take it apart. It is to separate the parts from the whole. To be dis-membered is to be removed from the group, the community, to be cast off, to be forgotten. The work of Jesus is re-membering. Jesus remembers, restores, redeems, makes whole.

The Gospel is packed with stories of Jesus going to, touching, healing, and remembering people who have been dis-membered, cut off, pushed to the margins of society. He touches lepers and cleanses them. He hears the cry of the poor and the blind. He heals the sick, claims prostitutes and tax collectors, remembering that they too are children of God. One of the earliest Christian hymns (Phil. 2:5-11) celebrates that Jesus takes the form of a slave, the most oppressed and forgotten of all people, so that no one is lost, or left behind, or forgotten. From the cross he promises to remember the thief crucified next to him.

We are living in tumultuous times. We can begin to feel as if we are forgotten. But the good news of the Gospel is that we are not forgotten. We are moving toward Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday, and ends with the celebration of Easter. It is the story of how far God goes to remember and restore us. Jesus goes all the way to a place so dark it is called the place of the skull. He even enters the grave, the darkness of death. And God remembers and raises him from the grave! His victory is our victory! God would have it that no one is forgotten or left behind. And that is good news!

Pastor Bill

Beginning Lent

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We enter one of the more solemn and beautiful seasons of the Christian year, the season of Lent. It begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The season coincides with the arrival of Spring, the return of warmer days, the budding of trees and first flowers.   It is a season in which we are invited to prepare spiritually to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday includes these provocative words attributed to Jesus:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where  thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)

We tend to get this backwards. We think that our treasure follows our hearts. Jesus says otherwise. He says that our hearts follow our treasure. Even when we know better, our hearts tend to cling to our stuff. So he warns us to be careful about the stuff we invest in and gather around us.

I like the way an Amish grandfather speaks to his grandson about this in the Harrison Ford movie Witness. He warns his grandson: “Be careful what you take into your hand. For what you take into your hand you also take into your heart.” So it is that Jesus warns us to be careful about what we take into our hands. He advises us to invest ourselves, our time, our resources, in the things that really matter; to build our treasure in that which is life giving, good, and eternal.

Lent is a season in which we are invited to get real with ourselves; to check and evaluate what we are invested in, what we are devoted to, what we have taken into our hands.  Are we taking more care of people and relationships than things? In the middle of all of our concerns, are we treasuring our relationship with God, who is the source of life and all that is good?

The question is not about how we feel, but about what we do. Someone said if we really want to know what is important to anyone, we should study their check books and their calendars. If we examine how we spend our time, how we use our money, what we make sure we do each day, what we put on our calendars, what does this tell us about our treasure and our hearts?

In this season before Easter, let’s accept the invitation to do that kind of reality check. Are we centering our time, resources, presence, in the things that really do matter most to us, or have we gotten a bit sidetracked? Let’s commit to investing in the things, and especially the people, who do matter most. Above all, let us return to God, who is the center of all things.  Let us be devoted to the way of Jesus Christ. Let this not be with just words or feelings, but in the things that we do each day.

All God’s Peace,

Pastor Bill