Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Who for Our Sakes Became Accessible

"For your sakes, he became poor..." - St. Paul

This Advent, I thought about how much God gave up to enter our world in the person of Jesus Christ. I also thought about why He did it. He did it to become all people. To do that, he had to become one of us, and not just the "one percent", but the "ninety-nine percent". He had to choose the lowest common denominator. To that end, he had to enter the world poor. To be poor is to have neither resources nor status. God gave up both. Christ was born in a barn, with animals. He was born as a refugee.  In many respects he was born in circumstances similar to what a great many displaced people experience in the modern world.

To be poor is to be denied access. Access to food, housing, medical care, a safe environment, dignity, and social standing. There were many barriers to access in Jesus' day. Being a Gentile, Being diseased ("unclean"). Being a foreigner. Being a woman. These barriers were used by the elite to keep out the undesirables. However, it seemed that everyone who was barred from approaching God by the religious elite was welcomed by Jesus. In fact, breaching social and religious barriers was a hallmark of Jesus' ministry. 

From what we know, Jesus grew up as the son of a tradesman. For most of his life, he worked in the family business. His first recorded public appearance was submitting to John's baptism. This was certainly an act of humility, as the religious leaders of the time would not submit to John's baptism. This public act of humility was the first of many. Subsequent acts of humility would have the dual effect of distancing Jesus from the religious elite and drawing him closer to the poor and outcast. Jesus did not exclude the elite. But the elite excluded themselves: either they admitted no need of the prophet from Galilee or would not risk their social status to associate with him.

The birth of Christ was announced with the message of unrestricted access: "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people". Despite the message of open access, subsequent church history has more than enough examples of walls being built. Today, the same people-groups are excluded along with some new categories: race, gender-identity, the elderly, and the undocumented. However, the greatest barriers come from our comfortable but isolated first-world lives, our technology, and ultimately modernity itself. Differences of belief and social status still separate us as human beings and from God.

So if these barriers trouble us, what are we to do? This Christmas, might I suggest something different, non-traditional, and non-religious. Reach out to those who are otherwise forgotten. Buy a cup of coffee for the bell-ringer outside your grocery store. The person inside the gas station booth. Public safety personnel working the holidays. The homeless person holding up a sign at the intersection. Nursing home residents and workers. Acts of kindness chip away at the barriers, the walls separating people from each other. If you will permit yourself an open mind, ponder the meaning of Jesus' words: "If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it to me". Beginning with simple acts of kindness, you might find Jesus in the place you least expected to find him.

Merry Christmas

Monday, September 2, 2013

Taking the Exit - Why I left the Institutional Church

This past July I attended my last Sunday morning service. Most likely it is the last institutional church I will ever be a member of. I had been coming to this point for a long time.

I have been a Christ-follower for 40 years. I started out Catholic but left my faith when I was 14. I returned to faith in a small Evangelical church when  I was 18. In all I have been a part of four different churches. Of the four, two had moral failures of the leadership and one had a culture clash and power struggle that decimated the church.

At first glance, these problems would appear to be the weaknesses and failures of men. However, I realized that the failures were structural. Because of the power structures in place, the failures of men became the failures of institutions. I realized that the power structure itself was the problem.

I have always wondered how we went from Christ's teaching "call no one master", "do not Lord over others", and "you have one teacher and you are all brothers" to the hierarchies we see today. I finally found the "tipping point" in history. It occurred between ~100 AD to ~150 AD. St Clement taught obedience to a hierarchy (bishop, presbyter, elder). The result was a passive laity totally subordinate to clergy. After that, Ignatius of Antioch sealed the deal by affirming this arrangement in his writings before he was martyred. At that point the church became a power structure. Despite major and minor attempts at reform, the power structures of the institutional church remain until this day.

But is that what Jesus intended? Was His kingdom meant to be another earthly power structure? Or was it to be a place with only one head, Christ himself?  A place where all men and women are brothers and sisters. A place where everyone is empowered to serve one another. A place with no agenda but the well being of another. I had been looking to the institution to reflect this kind of kingdom and found it wanting. I might hope to find Jesus' kingdom in another institution, but that would be like panning for gold in the shower. It is possible in theory, but just not likely.

So now my faith journey has taken me outside of the institutional system I have been a part of for 40 years. I would be lying if I did not admit its effect on me. I had become dependent on it.
"These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized. " - Red (Shawshank Redemption)
So what will this require of me? It will require me to mature in my faith. I can no longer be dependent on someone else to set the course or to take the initiative. I will need to be more open. I will need to be more hospitable. I will need to be more receptive to God's work in the world, both inside and outside of the institution.

Taking the exit and leaving the main highway is scary when the roads do not show up on your GPS. However I have a feeling a great many others have taken the exit as well.  Sooner or later, I expect to find them. I may even find people who are willing to journey with me. Time will tell.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fathers - An Unexpected Love

I am thinking about Father's day...probably because it is June already. My father-in-law has been gone for two years now, and my own Dad has been gone since 1995. So now as patriarch of the family, I am the object of Father's Day. My boys are grown men now and live in different states. I may be surprised by a card or a gift, but mostly I anticipate a couple of  Father's Day phone calls. My sons still want to communicate with me and I claim that as a return-on-an-investment....of love.

Contrary to a father's love, a mother's love is expected. We expect a mother to nurture and show affection to her children. Open displays of affection are no problem....for a mom. We would consider it abnormal if she did not display affection for her children. However, open displays of affection are not expected from fathers. Being a man is all about displaying courage, but how about the courage to love? ....and the courage to show it? 

In the Gospel book of Luke we find the story of the prodigal son. Too often this passage is preached emphasizing the waywardness of the son. However it is the behavior of the father that we should take note of. The father who looks up expectantly and upon seeing his son runs out to meet him.  The father embraces his son and kisses him. That is the point of the story: a father who loves his son unconditionally and isn't afraid to show it. Certainly the story speaks of God's love for his children, but it also speaks of a father's love for his son.

I was brought up not to show love, because a man is not supposed not openly display it. I had to learn how to love. I thank God I was able to learn it, much of it from my wife's family. I made it a point (and still do) to tell my sons that I love them and give them a hug when I see them. The hugs are tighter now because I don't get to see them all that often.

In the last three years of his life, my father and I lived in different cities, two hours distant. My visits to his home were less frequent, but distance was a catalyst for change. Upon entering the door, I hugged my father lightly and cautiously, but my father hugged me tighter! Knowing your father loves you is one thing, but feeling it is all encompassing.

So my challenge to fathers is to love.... and be courageous enough to show it! If you are a young dad, then you have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show love to your children. If you are older, there are still opportunities to express a fathers' love.  It is never to late to learn or be open to change.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Shared Suffering

"Could you not watch with me one hour?" -Matthew 26:40

That fateful Thursday night, the night before his execution, Jesus took his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray with him. Jesus walked a few feet further and fell to his knees, "deeply troubled in his spirit". Jesus prayed and wept in agony, knowing full well what was about to happen to him. After a time, he got up and walked over to his disciples and found them fast asleep. With a sad sigh, he asked them why they could not stay awake with him just one hour.

When God entered the human experience in the person of Jesus Christ, He entered into our suffering. In fact, Isaiah said that he would be "familiar with suffering". It is part of our human experience that we will go through suffering. At those times, we wrestle with our thoughts. We may even pray. But most of all we desire to know that we are not alone. Even if we believe in God's presence, we desire human companionship. There may be no words of comfort, but the presence of another human being who cares for us is comfort enough.

We may be surprised at the concept of God's suffering. How can God suffer? How do we suffer? We may suffer due to injury or illness. But we really suffer when we love. C.S Lewis said that "Grief is the price of love." God suffers because he loves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed it this way:
This is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God's sufferings at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a 'secular' life, and thereby share in God's sufferings. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man---not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.
So are we ready to participate? Are we ready to ameliorate the suffering of a broken world? Some suffering can be fixed and we can help change things for the better. In the suffering that cannot be fixed, all we can do is make sure that someone doesn't have to suffer alone.