Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent - Bridging the Gap Between Us

"Something burns in our hearts that would gladly come out.  Something often flames up in our soul that we would like to call out to all people — a question, a complaint, a word of defiance, a rejoicing, a stark truth — something of the sort that a person simply cannot keep to himself, once it is there.
It saddens us to be so alone, to be unable to share with anyone what moves us....Above all it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other, that there are always such different worlds — you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine.  This is simply not the way life is meant to be, this separate life we all lead.  But with one single change we could have infinitely more joy and good fortune and righteousness among us, if we could open our hearts and talk with each other." - Karl Barth "To Believe" Advent Meditation 
Karl Barth's Advent meditation illuminates the disconnect we all feel, a fragmentation that becomes particularly acute during the Holidays. Even the prospect of reuniting with family can be overshadowed with dread because of an ongoing rift. We could go to a restaurant or bar by ourselves or even wander into a church. We might be welcomed cordially, because that is what businesses and organizations are supposed to do to. But we really don't expect the relationship to extend beyond that context.

The reality is that most of our relationships derive from utility. We are cordial enough obtain what we need from others. But we cannot, we dare not share our hearts with each other. The fear of rejection and lack of connection are overwhelming. Even though we ought to be of the same heart, we don't believe or trust that we are.

Because of the distance between people, any attempt to nudge us in a certain direction ends up utilizing the psychology of the masses. To our ears, to my ears, it feels like manipulation. Which is exactly what happens in the culture at large.  Marketing. Marketing is how organizations manipulate a mass of people they don't care about. So where we should be a witness over and against the culture we end up being subsumed by it. That is what the culture believes about the church and rarely do we prove it wrong.

The Advent of Christ is the story of God closing that distance. He enters the human condition and shares it with us. The Kingdom of God moves near! We aren't just hearing a story, we are sharing the story!  Christ comes not with a list of demands, but a path that He invited us to share. It is a journey with a common destination. If we find our commonality in Christ, then our differences and distrust should fall away.

So what will we do about this? What would be our response as believers? Perhaps Barth's message can give us some answers:
Believing means that what we listen to, we listen to as God’s speech.  What moves us is not just our own concern, but precisely God’s concern.  What causes me worry, that is God’s worry, what gives me joy is God’s joy, what I hope for is God’s hope.
Imagine if everything were brought into this great and proper connection, if we were willing to suffer, be angry, love and rejoice with God, instead of always wanting to make everything our own private affair, as if we were alone.
Just imagine if we were to adopt everything that gratifies and moves us into the life and movement of God’s kingdom, so that we personally are, so to speak, taken out of play.  Simply love!  Simply hope!  Simply rejoice!  Simply strive!  But in everything, do it no longer from yourself, but rather from God!  Everything great that is hidden in you can indeed be great only in God.

We can choose to speak from faith and not fear.  We can take the leap of faith that God moves us by His Spirit and that His Spirit will resonate in others. We can live in anticipation of finding men and women of peace. We can exercise a faith that generates good will. We can make those choices and bridge the gap of mistrust and hate.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Enamored by the Stones

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” - Mark 13:1-2 

In this passage, the disciples are awestruck by the magnificence of Herod's temple in Jerusalem. They were enamored by the stones, some of which were may have been as large as their small-town synagogue. Jesus brings them back to earth by foretelling the temple's demise.

I too have been caught up in the institution of the church: it's history,  it's personalities, and contemporary examples of large (mega) churches. It was hard not be enthusiastic when one is a member of a church with hundreds,  thousands, or even millions of members. It is easy to be caught up in the momentum of a growing church, expanding in numbers and facilities. But with large size comes structures of administration and power. If you attempt to follow Jesus and take Him at His word, sooner or later, you will find yourself in conflict with these power structures.

In my journey I have often heard the argument that an inability to find a place in the institutional church is due to a failure to get along with other believers. It is true that I am flawed as much as anyone else, inside or outside the Institution. The difference is that inside the institution people have places to hide. 

The institution provides many places to hide: the offices, structure, procedures, doctrines, and statements of faith.  These stones and pillars provide places of concealment. Therefore we can remain hidden and not truly known.

The institution also provides a motivation to conform. We ought to be conformed to the image of Christ and His love. Instead we are coerced by the group politic. We fear being rejected, so we play the game. We struggle to manage our appearance, not our heart. 

But Jesus is the temple. (John 2:21). He is our shelter. We find our security in His Kingdom, not in our reputation or office. If we truly believe we are justified in Him, we no longer have manage appearances. We are fully and mutually accepted by each other with all our sins, failures, and weaknesses. We have the courage to be who we really are, sinners whose hope is in Jesus. We no longer need to be pious or to posture. We are free to be, we are free to love, and we are free to be loved.

If in our corporate gathering we cannot or will not do these things, then we are still enamored by the stones. The edifice may look indestructible,  but remember that sand is just stones worn down over time. Let's make sure we don't build our houses on it.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Reflections in the Desert

It's been over a year since I left the institutional church, so I have had time to look back and reflect on the journey. The road has been one of both disappointments and unexpected joys.

Like being in a desert, being outside the institutional church can be a "dry" experience in terms of meeting a large number of people every week. For a time I missed the small talk and coffee. So to keep the tradition of Sunday coffee, my wife and I decided to meet in a coffee shop every Sunday to do a Christian book study and.... drink coffee! Ironically, we've gotten to know the proprietors quite well. The expectation of our presence is at the point where we tell them of our vacations so they won't worry about us.  Other than serving us a confection and a good cup of coffee they don't seem to have any agenda. That's more refreshing than the coffee!

We have discovered that joy comes from encountering Jesus in unexpected places. My wife volunteers and substitute teaches at an at-risk school. I spend time with young men transitioning out of foster care. Over time I have discovered that my heart has become more open in ways that would have never happened in the institution. The change we both notice is that we can be fully present with who ever God places in our path. We can be fully present because we are not physically, emotionally, and financially spent from the demands and controversies of the institution.

We learned that Jesus was where He said he would be all along, among the "least of these". We don't have to look for a weekly religious experience. We can experience God by encountering and engaging people who are made in God's image. We let our light shine by making "invisible" people visible.

It turns out that the "desert" is not devoid of life after all.  It used to look that way as we whizzed by on the highway of packed agendas on the way to the next church meeting. I am so thankful that we have slowed down, gotten out of the car, and found the oasis in the desert!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Hundred Years

Aleksandr Ogonowski
August 25 1914 - March 15, 1995

On this day one hundred years ago, my father was born in Rzeszów in the Galicia province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. World War I was just getting started. Four years later the Armistice was declared and Rzeszów would be part of a newly independent Poland. My father grew up during the next twenty years, did his time in the military, and returned to civilian life. In August 1939 he had just turned 25.

On September 1, 1939 Nazi troops began the invasion of Poland. Seventeen days later, the Soviets invaded from the east. To avoid capture he made a run for the Romanian border. On one occasion,  he recalled laying in the ditch by side of the road as planes strafed those fleeing. He felt the repeated thump of machine gun bullets impacting the ground. After the planes left and he felt it was safe to get up,  he arose to discover every other person in the ditch was dead. He just happened to be in the place that was between rounds.

He made it to Romania, then to Athens, Greece. At Piraeus he boarded a ship to Marseilles, France and then made his way up to Paris. He remained in Paris a while, employed as an aircraft machinist. When France was invaded, he had to flee again. He rode his bike to the coast and boarded a ship bound for England. Because of  the ever-present danger of U-boats, the ship took a circuitous route to England and remained at sea for days. The was no food on board. All he had to eat was a sandwich shared with him by a married couple.

He survived the voyage and made it to London. His skills quickly landed him a job in the aircraft industry. Unfortunately, aircraft manufacturing was a principle target of Nazi bombing. As a result, his company moved the operation to Canada. He then emigrated to the US, got married, had children, and now I am hundred years after my father was born.

A hundred years is a long time.  It is a full century of human history. When my dad was born, tanks were just being introduced; horse-drawn artillery was still the norm. Planes were fabric-covered wooden-framed bi-planes. Radio communication was by Morse-code. Voice telephone was in its infancy.  But decisions were being made. Decisions whose consequences are still unfolding today.

For the most part, I have been lucky. My decisions were not made under duress. Yes they were pivotal, such as whom I would marry and whether I would have children. But they were not forced decisions. On the other hand, history forced decisions on my father. Two armies invaded his country....should he stay or flee? If he had not decided to flee, you would not be reading this story. Had he stayed, he would have almost certainly perished, if not in battle, then in a mass-execution in the woods. My existence is the consequence of decisions that were made at definite points in history, a hundred and one years ago, seventy five years ago, and fifty nine years ago.

So here I am today, one hundred years after his birth. My life going forward will be the product of my decisions, the decisions of others, and circumstances over which I have no control. I will pray that the circumstances over which I have no control, I will respond to with grace. When I do come to the "forks in the road", the points of decision, I will pray that my decisions will "tip the scales towards the good" as Maimonides put it. I believe that the little acts of cruelty and the little acts of kindness multiply over time. Of all the stories my father told me, the story of fellow refugees sharing their sandwich with him is the one I remember most vividly.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Passing the Baton

Being a youth volunteer has expanded my horizons to include new experiences such as test prep tutor, chauffeur, and attending track meets.

Track meets consist of numerous events but the ones that caught my eye were the relay races. I noticed that certain teams passed the baton flawlessly. I also noticed that other teams fumbled the hand-off. Finally I noted times where the baton was dropped and any chance of a respectable placing was lost.

It occurred to me that the human story is also a relay race. Each generation passes the baton to the next. Individually to our children and collectively as a society.

Approaching 60, I have become acutely aware of my age. I can hear the clock ticking. I can see  the waning days of my career. I have also begun to think in terms of how I will spend my remaining "good" (healthy) years.   I also think about how I can make this world a better place before I leave it.
I am also aware that I live in a youth-obsessed culture. 30 is the new 60.  I have observed,  rightly or wrongly, that many in the second and third decade of life are just extending their adolescence.  Experiences are all that matter.  Our individual behaviors are magnified in the aggregate. Somehow our society carries on, but it is sensitive only to immediate needs and pleasures. We are oblivious to what will happen to the next generation.
"Without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruin. " - P. D. James (Children of Men)
The investments in life that should be made now are not being made. Few seem to care that as they age they will reap a barren harvest. The investments that our society should be making are being neglected as well. What will we all harvest from the generation to come?

So that is the reason I am a youth volunteer. I am obliged to those who went before me.
"A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving."  -Albert Einstein
I am obliged to those who will come after me.

I am also a youth volunteer because of my faith. My faith tells me that God cared enough for this world to enter it. My faith also tells me that any kindness done to another is a kindness done to God himself.

Find your motivation whatever it is. Find a way to invest in the next generation. Not only will your eyes be opened, but your heart will be as well.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Gospel of Which I am not Ashamed

Periodically, I am challenged to "like", "honk" or otherwise acknowledge that I "am not ashamed of the Gospel" (St. Paul's quote). As I thought about it, I realized I might just be ashamed of the Gospel. So what exactly is the "Good News" I should not be ashamed of? Was it the Evangelical "Roman Road"? Getting people to "accept Jesus"? Or were these classical definitions in fact not the good news at all? Perhaps these definitions represented religious ideology.  Was faith was reduced to a past sacrament or agreeing to a list of assertions? The definition of the "Gospel" was critically important to answering this question. Whether or not it was "good news" depends upon how it would be received by its' hearers.

Is it good news only to those with wealth, status, or those of a certain ethnicity? Is it more about being right rather than compassionate?  Is it about hate rather than love? Is it concerned about being "left behind", but not about those being left behind by inequality and injustice? Is is about the Kingdom of God in the here and now and not just in heaven?

In Evangelli Gaudium, Pope Francis described a Gospel which is indeed "good news." It is a message that can be claimed by all Christians. Moreover, it is accessible to everyone. It expresses the full scope of the Gospel to meet all human needs, emotional, physical,  and spiritual. It is the Gospel that I have been looking for and longing to hear expressed so clearly.

Evangelli Gaudium is a scathing criticism of the current economic order where the preeminence of finance, profit, and trade are assumed. Destructive side effects are accepted without question. It is a system of economic Darwinism that knows only the survival of the fittest and destruction of the weak as the cost of doing business. A human person is only a consumer or producer, an object to be discarded when they are of no further value. It is a system that American believers bought in too easily; it was a system that I had accepted too readily.

The Gospel, the "Good News" that Jesus' disciples were instructed to share was the nearness of the Kingdom! The proclamation to the people was that the "Kingdom of God is Near". It was embodied. First by Jesus himself. Then by his disciples. The message was not a definition of the Kingdom; it was the presence of the Kingdom! Embodied first in Jesus, then by His disciples, and ultimately those of us who have chosen to be His followers.

A Gospel of which I am not ashamed, thereby one I can be "proud" of, is one that is embodied. It is made near by my presence as I follow Christ. It must be radically inclusive, radically accepting, and radically gracious. Since I cannot be perfect, it must be radically honest, quick to accept the blame for failure, and even quicker to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Since others cannot be perfect, it must readily accept that imperfection, whether accompanied by an apology or not. It must forgive because people do not realize what they are doing. It must manifest love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. It must be radically generous. That is the Gospel of which I am not ashamed.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Forgetting and Remembering Again

Those who know me know that I don't talk about my mother much. Actually I don't talk about her at all. My most vivid thoughts are about her final years and those were not pleasant to recall. Somehow I came to believe that those final years represented the totality of my mom. I had forgotten all the good things my mom brought into my life.

The first thing, the most obvious thing was that my mom brought me life. If it wasn't for Mom, I wouldn't be here. The next thing was that my mom worked outside the home to help support us. But Mom's best quality was that she knew how to enjoy life.

Mom instilled a fun ethic. If it was not for Mom, I'd be all work and no play. Mom took us to the zoo, Bob-Lo (an amusement park island), and the art institute. Mom orchestrated holiday trappings that made those days a child's delight. As I got older, I recall having some nice heart-to-heart conversations with Mom, conversations you can only have with a mom.

I had to reach far back in my memories to recall good times with Mom. I have had to cross barriers of some very unpleasant stuff to do so. There are so many ways that parents can disappoint or fail us. We can look back and try to understand, to attempt to find a satisfactory explanation, but there may be no answers except one, that they were human.

So take time to appreciate your mom. Hopefully you will have many reasons to do so. If you can't think of any, there remains one: the fact you are here on this planet. I have recounted many reasons to appreciate my Mom's life. Unfortunately my opportunity to express appreciation are long gone. Except perhaps in this blog.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Resurrection of Forgiveness

Recently I read the story of Iranian parents who forgave their son's killer and removed the noose moments before the condemned man's execution. The man was allowed to go free in accordance with Sharia law.

For that condemned man, the family's forgiveness was his resurrection. For us, forgiveness is new life as well.

We equate life with existence. Humans exist only in relation to other humans. Without someone to hear our voice, see our expressions,  and read our words, how do we exist? How are we alive in a way that matters? "Eternal life" is a religious abstraction if we cannot find a way to live in peace on this earth.

Yet we may not want to acknowledge the existence of others.  We may find others irritating or worse. This is  particularly true of the person who has injured us; the one we consider our enemy. Bonhoeffer states it succinctly: "with our hearts burning with hatred, we seek to annihilate his moral and material existence". This is the hatred Jesus equated with murder.  Instead Jesus modelled a new response to insult, injury, and betrayal: "Father forgive them for they don't know what they are doing." He not only modelled forgiveness,  he expects forgiveness from anyone who would seek peace with God or man.

Eternal existence is only apprehended by faith. This is the same faith through which we know that peace is found through forgiveness.  The parents who forgave and pardoned their son's killer understood this. Their faith led them to forgive and find peace. In the end, the families embraced. What a picture of the kingdom of God!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ministering in Weakness

"See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey"  - Zechariah 9:9

This verse came to mind as I was reflecting on this past week. It has been a week where my presence seemed to offer very little. I became reacquainted with my own vulnerabilities. Then I thought about Palm Sunday.

This verse predicts Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, but it certainly is an oxymoron. A king? Riding on a donkey? In one sentence we have a picture of both strength and weakness. Perhaps that's a picture of Jesus' followers: strength and weakness. 

As a follower of Christ, I'd like to think that I was always helping, always ministering from a vantage point of strength. As an educated professional, a male of European descent, it is too easy to fall into this conceit. But Jesus demonstrates another way. He deliberately chooses his ride. A peasant's borrowed  beast. A symbol of weakness. 

The Western Church, ("Christendom") has only known how to operate from a position of strength. It is the legacy of Constantine, who made Jesus the patron of Imperial Rome. But now the Western Church has found that strength fading. It finds itself less welcome in halls of power. And if it is accepted at all, it is to legitimize civil ceremonies and war. But mostly, it finds itself irrelevant and bereft of power. 
"For more than two centuries [Western power] has provided the framework in which the Western churches have understood their world missionary task. To continue to think in the familiar terms is now folly. We are forced to do something that the Western churches have never had to do since the days of their own birth – to discover the form and substance of a missionary church in terms that are valid in a world that has rejected the power and the influence of the Western nations. Missions will no longer work along the stream of expanding Western power. They have to learn to go against the stream. And in this situation we shall find that the New Testament speaks to us much more directly that does the nineteenth century as we learn afresh what it means to bear witness to the gospel from a position not of strength but of weakness." -Lesslie Newbigin
So this Palm Sunday, we are all reminded of weakness: our own, the church, and perhaps most importantly the weakness Jesus deliberately chose to manifest as he entered the world. It was out of that weakness that he most clearly identified with us, atoned for us, and changed the world. Not through the coercion of power, but through the vulnerability of love. That is where we will find our strength.