Companions on the journey

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 11/30/2006, based on Romans 10:11-18.)

Thinking back on the people who have made Christ known to me, I'm struck by how ordinary they were, and how my relationship with Christ has grown not through extraordinary breakthroughs but small, everyday revelations. Sure, there have been services and encounters and retreats and readings that have broken things open a bit. Overall I am amazed and grateful at how faithful God has been, providing people to tell the story and to be there for every twist and detour and dead end on this long journey.

The psalmist reminds us that God walks beside us every step of the journey, and is already where he is calling us to go in the next step, and the one after that.
I look behind me and you're there
then up ahead and you're there, too --
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful --
I can't take it all in. (Psalm 139, The Message)
I'm grateful to so many God has sent along side me along the way: to Mom for putting a picture Bible in my hands as a kid, and introducing me to church; to Bob, long out of touch, who was a kindred seeker at church camp; to Suzanne, for modeling adult faith when we were barely adults and helping me to see myself as acceptable to God; to Pastor Landis, who modeled quiet spirituality and patience amid the most awful circumstances; to Pastor Dottie, who showed me that Lutherans could have a passionate faith and work out of our hearts, not just our heads; to my spiritual director, who has helped me open up to God's love; to my friends, for challenging questions and ideas and for always having a pin handy when I get puffed up.

Thank you for being companions on the journey. I hope you know that simple acts, random conversations, doing your job, just being there has made a difference. I pray that I can do the same for you.

Lord, help me to appreciate and do better at the little things I do each day that tell others about you, even (especially) when I'm not conscious of it.


Future tense?

(I've been using the wonderful "pray-as-you-go" podcast as part of my daily spiritual practice for a while, and for Advent my goal is to discipline myself to not only listen but to write a brief reflection each day. As warm-up, this is a reflection on Luke 21:5-11 and pray-as-you-go podcast for 11/28/06.)

Christianity is essentially a future-oriented religion. Yes, the past is important -- God's provision in creation; the life, death and resurrection of Christ; the witness of scripture and the saints -- and so is the present, the time/space where God's kingdom breaks into our own worlds. But it's God's future intention for us and creation, the completeness he signals in the universe and through Jesus Christ, that gives meaning and shape to the tradition and our everyday experience of the kingdom. I encountered this thinking in a theology class, reading Ted Peters' "God: The World's Future," in which he talks about the "bowling ball" theory of creation -- God released the ball, the pins are at the end of the lane, and our job is to adjust the trajectory to avoid a gutter ball. He argues that in Christ God has revealed the world's future, and that God is pulling the ball toward the pins, and that the reality of a strike breaks into our experience from time to time along the way.

That doesn't stop us from practicing Christianity looking backwards. In the text the people are admiring their Temple, "remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts," as The Message puts it, and we -- yes, I -- sometimes do that today. It's very human to want to preserve or go back to the glory days. To the casual observer, the church today can sometimes look like a photographer watching the dying sunset waiting for the elusive green flash, the moment when the longer-wavelength red light has "set", the easily scattered blue light is diluted and the low angle absorbs the yellow energy and there is a fleeting, intense flash of green along the horizon reminiscent of the glory of the sun at full blaze. Then it disappears. (Aside: You can see and learn more about this phenomenon by going here and scrolling down to the third photograph. But I digress...)

Faith, properly understood, doesn't focus on the last radiant bursts of former glory, but rests on God's promise that there will be a sunrise tomorrow.

Like the people in the text, I am often guilty of putting my trust in what I can see and control (or so I think...) rather than in God's promise. I may have once placed more trust in institutions and buildings, but I have come to a place where, while I realize that those structures are useful and necessary and provide blessings, I see that they are not in and of themselves transforming. I am more likely to trust in what I can do (even after properly stopping down my ego to note that that is with God's leading and help) to "make a difference."

But Jesus tells us that all those things -- our edifices, our institutional structures, our imagined self-sufficiency -- are temporary: "All this you're admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble."

Then follows distrurbing talk of signs and portents of the end which, despite Jesus' clear instructions to the contrary, are often used to warn of a final cataclysm. "End" is a word with a reputation in our culture, and in this context we want to read the end as destruction, because that's what we fear most. But what if, as Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon argue in "Resident Aliens," the end is that God brings the world, through Christ, to be what it was created to be? Not nothing, from whence it came, but into the dream God dreamed into process, ex nihilo?

This end, this eschatology, is "the very basis for Jesus' ethical teaching," they write. But in this end, it's not "be afraid and straighten up, or else!" Wars and insurrections are not divine rumblings but indicators that we are not yet who God wants us to be. Plagues and famines, AIDS and Darfur are not retribution from God but wake up calls that we are not treating creation and each other as God intends. We live and act in the tension that what will be has been revealed, but we are not there yet. As Hauerwas and Willimon put it:
If the world is really a place where God blesses the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted for righteousness' sake, then we must act in accordance with reality or else appear bafflingly out of step with the way things are. ... It makes all the difference, in this matter of ethics, what we are looking at.
Ultimately, the place to look is not at ourselves, at our dreams and abilities, at our fears, at our comfort zones or safe structures. It is to the cross ... and to the empty tomb.

Lord, grant me the grace to let go of my preferred future and look at the world through your future. Amen!


The Big Moo

I've never read any of Seth Godin's books, but I've seen enough of his stuff on the web to know that he offers some useful insights into what's going on in our culture (not just business and marketing). I just came across again a summary of 15 ideas from his business guru book "The Big Moo," ( ht: Steven ) and there are a couple worth pondering (followed by my comment):

2. Wanting growth and attaining growth are two different things ( Preface xv ) - Companies usually end up paralyzed by trying to focus on how they'll grow instead of actually growing. (Sound familiar, church?)

Those who fit in now won't stand out later ( Page 5 ) - It's difficult to change once you get into a rhythm of mediocrity. (In a culture of change, playing it safe has some risks. In a time when people are looking for the church to take a different role in society, clinging to the old, Christendom concept could be a recipe for irrelevane.)

You can't predict the future ( Page 55 ) - ... (my crystal ball is certainly in the shop)

A product is what the customer thinks it is ( Page 131 ) - How many times have you gotten pissed at a user of your software for "using it wrong" ? (Or at someone whose vision of / value of the church isn't your way?)

Don't let the seeds stop you from enjoying the watermelon ( Page 134 ) - The world is grey. Every solution, product, feature is the result of several trade-offs. (Been here, done that... I'm working at seeing the fruit, not the seeds, but it ain't easy.)


Out of context

I post a lot of stuff that I read to my del.icio.us bookmarks. But you probably don't take the time to click through those links, so I'm going to occasionally post pointers to the best stuff I'm finding:


pray-as-you-go: Figure the Cost

How do I feel about Jesus' words in Luke 14:25-33 -- "Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters -- yes, even one's own self! -- can't be my disciple."

My head knows that this is the proper order, so I don't hear this as a threat any longer. There is even a sense of freedom in letting go of all these claims on me, and letting go of my own need to control things, to be part of Jesus' bigger picture. Yet my heart has trouble. Especially with letting go of myself. I'd like to connect with Jesus while retaining my relationships and prerogatives. Later in the passage Jesus talks about not being ruled by our possessions. I like that theory, too. But I also like my Powerbook, and the newly re-painted and furnished home office I'm typing in, and...

Of course, Jesus is not saying to absolutely cut off relationships or wholesale sell off my net worth in order to be a disciple. But he is saying to me that I need to be more tightly attached to him than I am to my family, my self and my stuff. I need to be more generous and less selfish. I need to be willing to work in the interests of others even when theirs conflict with mine; as Luther would say, to be Christ to my neighbor. When God invites me to the banquet (see v. 15-24) I need to not be too busy and preoccupied with things that don't matter. When God asks me to let go of what is in the way, I need to do it. That's scary, yet strangely freeing the more I struggle with it.

What about the examples of figuring the cost? Do you lead with your head or your heart?

I'm a dreamer at times, and I often prefer to follow my heart rather than my head. This relates to me because I can, at times, get so excited about an idea or new project that I don't plan it well enought to really succeed. This is a great reminder that good soil is prepared and ready to nurture growth in its natural time. Flourishes of energy produce excitement but don't necessarily have lasting fruit.

In the example of the king preparing for battle, I hear a word of wisdom for the Church. It is not that we should capitulate to the Enemy. No, it is that we should be realistic and strategic about the situation we are engaging. In the culture we find ourselves in, that means hearing those who are outside our church bubbles -- the poor and marginalized in society, yes, and those who have not rejected God but what they have seen of Christians. (Read this blunt critique, if you don't know what I mean. ht: Dave Wainscott) I think it also means being willing to let go of our cherished church possessions when they get in the way of the Gospel. Not throw them away for the sake of the throwing, but in the sense that we have to let ourselves take a back seat sometimes to truly be disciples.