November 25, 2009

Spring Will Come Before We Know It

by Ragan Sutterfield
I have been shopping for trees lately—apples, figs, maybe a few persimmons. It will be couple of years before the trees bare fruit and now, as we move into December the trees are dormant, reserving their sugars to live out a time when the sun won’t be around enough to power their life. The trees are moving to their reserve supplies; they are waiting until the spring. But at some point, when the conditions of rain and sun and a myriad of other factors come together, there will be a moment, one moment, when the trees will shoot forth leaves again. This will happen simultaneously for trees of the same species, in the same area, at similar elevations.

The same will begin to happen with other plants. Seeds planted in the cold ground of February will begin sprouting in March and as a farmer, if I’m not ready for the work of weeding and tending and watering, I’ll be in trouble in a hurry. The garden will suddenly spring to life and I better be prepared to meet its bounty and challenges. Though winter is a slower time, beware the farmer that slacks off for three months when she’s not actively growing food.

In the agrarian world of Jesus’s peasant audience in Luke 21:25-36 this picture of watching for the signs of a new season and being ready to respond would have made a great deal of sense. Jesus uses this idea of watching for the “signs of the times” to point to a new sort of spring—the coming of his kingdom of righteousness. It is a time that will bring woe to those who have not prepared to meet the coming spring, but a time of coming abundance for those who have.

This same reality is echoed in Jeremiah 33:14-16. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.” Justice and righteousness will soon spring forth. The messiah is coming.

So how do we spend this time of winter? How will we ready our selves so that the day of Christ’s coming will not “catch [us] unexpectedly”? The answer comes in the Epistle to the Thessalonians: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” We prepare for the coming of Christ through building up of agape communities, communities that grow from the Church but spread that love to all.

To return to our agricultural metaphor we might think of the Church as soil and of agape as a soil amendment like fertilizer or lime. If you take a pasture of grass in a place that has soil that is slightly acidic (a pH of 5 say) and add enough lime to raise the pH closer to neutral (pH of 6.5) then amazing things begin to happen to that pasture. New plants will begin to appear as dormant seeds are brought to life through the new condition of the soil, legumes that are rich in protein to feed cattle and sheep will begin to grow and build the soil by fixing nitrogen, grasses that offer animals no nutrient value will begin to decline and the field will begin to flourish in an idyllic deep green.

When we increase agape in our communities this same flourishing will take place. The soil will be ready to grow the seeds of justice and righteousness that will bring Christ’s presence into our particular communities and places. So let us grow in agape love, spreading it in our hearts and communities, that we might use this time of winter to prepare for the welcoming of God’s kingdom that is already present and springing forth.


November 17, 2009

Ultimate Imagination

by Doug Lee
Daniel 7:9-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-38a

Some years ago, a friend of ours who was a major player on the Nigerian political scene nearly met an untimely death but survived. After confronting his mortality—his end, Takai abandoned his ascendant career trajectory and told his children that they would receive no inheritance from him. Their inheritance would now come in the form of a ministry he would establish to care for needy widows and orphans. Today that ministry cares for and brings together hundreds of Christians and Muslims in fractured northern Nigeria. Takai’s confrontation with the end unleashed imaginative energy for discipleship and ministry.

Admirable as it is, Takai’s story makes little sense to us because we believe something entirely different: it’s a world without limits that allows for creativity and life at its fullest.

“Your world. Delivered.” So boasts AT&T, would-be savior of the world. Through technology, such powers claim that we can possess all the world’s knowledge (omniscience), obtain all the world’s goods (omnipotence), and be continually connected to people everywhere (omnipresence). What we are being sold is a life of limitless possibilities. We can have it all, anytime, anywhere. We can keep our options open forever.

But while we celebrate seemingly endless opportunity, isn’t it paradoxical that we also feel trapped by our limits? We say, “I had no choice. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what else to do.” Even as we boast of our freedom, we are also tortured by our finitude. We exercise very little creativity. Instead of living imaginatively, our lives are full of a sameness that betrays our lethargy.

Why does this paradox exist?

Among possible reasons is that our freedom is built on the interlocking myths of a global economy that can grow endlessly, a world of unlimited resources, and a security apparatus that can maintain these conditions.

In AD 90, the Roman Empire boasted of establishing a similar world order and deemed itself worthy of a new name—Imperium Aeternum. The “Eternal Empire” claims that what currently is, has always been, and always will be, forever and ever. Amen.

It is the role of an empire to erase any memory of anything that came before. Empires survive by creating a myth of being limitless. And by sustaining this myth, empires nullify any attempt to think of anything that could come afterwards.

It is the apparently limitless power of our modern day Eternal Empire that saps our capacity to live courageously. In a world without limits, the need for imagination has come to an end. How can we imagine or want more when we already have everything we want, when we already live as kings and queens?

The gospel tells us that what we see now isn’t the total reality. But we struggle to gain traction against such forces. We ought to be able to do more and do better as disciples, especially given that we possess so much. But we fight feeling powerless.
But instead of fighting against our finitude or seeing it as a sign of failure, what if we saw it as precisely the way God opens up for us to be faithful? Instead of assuming that we can do what is ultimate, what if we gave ourselves to embracing the basic, the flawed, and the provisional as the way forward?

Christ the King Sunday, at the end of the Christian calendar, gives us texts that speak of finality as an antidote to our boasts of ultimacy.

First, we jump into the middle of Daniel’s fantastic dream. Earlier Daniel saw fierce beasts representing four empires: a lion with eagle wings as the Babylonian Empire; a bear-like Median Empire; a leopard embodying the Persian Empire; and finally, the dreadful beast with iron teeth and ten horns standing for Alexander’s Hellenistic Empire. The last beast sprouts an eleventh horn that boasts about its god-like power.

It’s called good PR. Your world. Delivered.

But in contrast to the horn’s noisy arrogance, a solemn scene takes shape backstage. The main act is getting ready: a heavenly court where the Ancient of Days judges the four beasts. The first three are allowed to remain but have their authority taken away, but the fourth beast is put to death and burned up. Contrary to the illusions of an Eternal Empire, there will be a final judgment of every empire and nation. It will be final, not because it will happen at the end of time but because there is no court of appeal. The time of all empires comes to an end.

Then Daniel sees a vision surpassing even this dramatic courtroom scene. The Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven to the throne of God to receive all authority and glory. All peoples will serve him and his kingdom will last forever. Talk about unlimited power and an eternal empire!

Fast-forward to Revelation 1, and we see that the Son of Man is none other than Jesus Christ, who suffered at the hands of another empire and yet was vindicated to become the ruler of the kings of the earth. He is the first and the last, King over the beginning and the end of history and Lord of everything in between. Final judgment, final authority, Christ is King not only at the end of time but here and now.

Contrary to the arrogant boasts of our current empire, God will bring its dominion to an end. There is a limit to how much power it has and how long it will possess that power because Christ is King.

But the proclamation that Christ is King is not meant to immobilize us in a new way. Daniel and Revelation could lead us to think that we are left with nothing to do but to hunker down until the end.

No. The vision of Jesus’ ultimacy is meant to give us confidence and energize us for courageous living in the present.

Jesus models this courage in his trial before Pilate. At first glance, it appears that Pilate holds all of the cards. Jesus has no room to maneuver. When Pilate and the empire he represents dominate, there is no room for imagination, only the narrow options offered by the world’s pragmatism. But when we recognize that empires and our own lives are limited, we are in a place to act imaginatively.

Jesus is able to speak boldly before Pilate and his empire because he does not hang onto the illusion of an unlimited life that is his to guard. Instead, he lays down his life in faithful submission to the Father.

This is precisely the opposite of what we so often think. We often think submission is the narrowest of options. But Jesus demonstrates that submission to the Father is vast because embracing our humility before God opens us up to options previously closed to us. Jesus, not Pilate, is the one with room to maneuver because he is not defined by all of the limitations of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Pilate is the one whose hands are tied. But Jesus is free—free to suffer, free to be misunderstood, free to die. That’s real creativity and true freedom. Joyful self-giving (and not any of the so-called alternative lifestyles) constitutes living outside the box.

When the ultimacy of Christ’s judgment grabs hold of us, we are in a place to see through the imperial deception of an unlimited life and learn that suffering isn’t the dead-end we fear. We can go through the basic, daily, and unremarkable practices of faithfulness without demanding that they assume noticeable proportions. When the vision of Christ as King drives us, we are in a place to live out our discipleship creatively.


November 10, 2009

Religious But Not Spiritual

by Debra Dean Murphy
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25
Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together..." (Hebrews 10:24)

The SBNR website puts it like this: “Spiritual But Not Religious” describes a new worldview that is inclusive and open as opposed to separatist and closed. SBNR people desire a deep experience of life, including the mysteries of life, without the limitations and baggage of doctrine and religion.

On the SBNR home page you can sign up to have “daily affirmation seeds” delivered to your email inbox. There, one assumes, they will sprout and grow, “help[ing] you to believe in your amazing essence and bring[ing] many of your deepest intentions into reality.”

I don’t have to tell you how enormously popular such sites (and sentiments) are. I have recently (re)discovered how prevalent “Spiritual But Not Religious” devotees are on college campuses, even (especially?) church-related ones. Yet no matter the age group or demographic, this business of shedding the “baggage of doctrine and religion” is what it’s all about: snubbing dogma and its perceived strictures, rejecting all forms of religion, especially the organized kind.

But I’m with Bill Cavanaugh on this one: “being against organized religion is like being against organized hospitals.” Institutions will always be subject to corruption and silliness, fraud and ineptitude, since they are comprised of people who . . . well, since they are comprised of people.

But the organized, institutional part of religion – the messy materiality of people and practices – is its beating heart. Contra the breezy, anti-establishment tenets of SBNR (which are themselves pretty dogmatic), doctrine is simply the lived and living witness of a received tradition. The Christian doctrine of creation, for instance, is not a proposition to be believed in, a theory of how the world got its start way back when. Rather, it’s a way of seeing all things in relation to God; a way of receiving, offering, loving, and living one’s life as sheer gift.

For the past few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary’s epistle reading – The Letter to the Hebrews – has drawn us into the messy materiality of corporate religion: worship and prayer, gifts and offerings, cries, sighs, and tears. This week we are admonished to “provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.” That’s the inconvenient thing about religion: it asks you to do stuff – like worship with other people, love other people, do good to and for other people.

And to do it all regardless of how you feel about any of it.

To be spiritual but not religious, on the other hand, is to be unburdened by such stifling obligation. It is to turn inward instead of outward – to find, as the gospel according to Oprah puts it, “the god within.” This of course sounds like liberation – no commandments to obey, no debts to pay, no community to be responsible to. But it is, in the end, the worst sort of tyranny since the ruler and its subject are one and the same: the human ego.

There’s a Facebook group called “I’m Religious But Not Spiritual.” Having joined it recently, I’ve noticed that it creates a good deal of bewilderment. Is it parody? Is it serious? Does it intend to confuse? The answers, from what I can tell, are yes, yes, and yes. To be “religious” in this world of obsessive spiritual questing is to be strange indeed. For Christians, it is to recognize that salvation – abundant life in the Spirit – is mediated through mundane realities like bread, water, and wine and through a body, Christ’s body, the Church.

Because this is true, Christians – persons who are religious but not spiritual – can appropriate Martin Buber’s enduring insight: “The spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.”