Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Follow the Rules

While watching old home movies of my wife's family I witnessed an early religious lesson. When asked what we should do because Jesus loves us, this five year old answered, "obey him." In thinking about it, obeying was the first religious lesson I can recall as well. It might not be universal, but it's certainly common that our earliest lesson for our kids about God is "follow the rules."

Something about that seems off to me.

Of course obedience is a great lesson for kids - we want them to obey us and other appropriate authority figures, so obeying God fits right in. But is that the kind of relationship we want our kids to have with God? Is that how we want to introduce them?

It might make no difference in the long run. I'm no expert on how adolescent development works (I took sociology in college to get out of those classes). There might be no lasting effect. However, as an adult, the admonition to obey implies something unnatural about the obedience. You may want to do other things, but you need to do something different because God says so.

While technically correct, I think it misses out on the beauty and depth of God's relationship to creation. I'm sure I'm over-thinking this, but isn't "obey God" the first step down the road of a vengeful God, just waiting on you to slip up so he can hit you with the lightning bolt?

We might even have to back up a bit, there. How do we know God loves us? Well, Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and was raised again. Great! Why? So you can obey God. Really? God went through all that so I can follow a set of rules? Doesn't sound too much like love to me - certainly not something to be thankful for.

I was reading this book someone gave me the other day. It's on Celtic prayer and spirituality. I was excited about it; I love that sort of thing. The introduction went something like this: "I've spent 20 years studying Celtic prayer and I've broken them all down into seven types - through the course of this book I'll examine each type, explain its scriptural and theological significance and teach you how to implement these valuable resources into your life."

I put it down quickly.

I love Celtic spirituality because it's rooted in a Christianity before institutionalism, before Constantine, before Christendom. Celtic spirituality is rooted in creation itself, in the beauty and mystery of life. In the Celtic tradition, faith in Christ is something you put on like a robe, not something you input like lines of code.

This is the essence of spiritual formation, right? That is really how things work. God so loved us that Jesus came to live, die, and be raised again. So? So we'd know how to live in this crazy universe - something we're all pretty excited to discover. But it's not a list to check off or a plan to follow or even a program to download.

You can't order the Christian life to go.

Ok, ok, so obedience is a part of it. We have to listen to the leading of God's Holy Spirit in our lives, following the example of Christ, to develop those practices that work to change us, transform us into the kind of people God created us to be. But it's still not a list (at least I haven't found the list yet). A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about this. The word I came up with was abiding.

We need to abide in Christ, not obey. What's the difference? I explained it this way:

I've been taking care of our daughter for a couple of months now - all by myself, while the wife is teaching. I knew enough not to schedule things too strictly; babies don't really worry about the agenda too much. I did, however, make the mistake of listing each morning the things I wanted to accomplish during the day. My nights kept getting shorter and there seemed to be more to do after she went to bed each night. I couldn't keep up, no matter how much I cut from the list from one day to the next.

I figured it out pretty quick. I have to abide with her. I have to learn the rhythms and practices that make her life run. I have to figure out the signs and the signals she's sending and I have to be ready to move at a moment's notice. I have to be more focused on the mission (keeping this infant alive) than on the specific steps to achieve it, because they're changing all the time.

Who knows, when she's two years old and screaming her head off if she doesn't get her way, maybe I'll revert back to the old "obey" line; it seems to work, especially for oldest children who want to please everyone. I'd like to think I'll choose "abide," although I'll need to come up with a simpler explanation by then; this one is way over the head of a two year old.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Which Team?

The other day, one friend described another as being "an observer in the system, rather than a participant." He also used the word apolitical. What he was describing, in my opinion, is someone who doesn't choose sides in the election process.

I don't mean that to say he doesn't vote. This isn't about voting or not voting; it's about being invested in the outcome.

I like this image of observing the election rather than participating in it. As I have been wrestling with my own thoughts (and those of others) - and also as I've been thinking about Election Day Communion, I've been trying to put into words the appropriate position for Christians to take in a process such as this.

I don't mean which candidate a Christian should vote for - or even whether they should vote at all. I don't think there's anything more to be said on the matter. Christians of all shapes and sizes will choose what they think most satisfies their conscience.

I am more concerned with how we approach the general topic of power in society, and the process of bestowing power.

I think we need to get beyond the cliches flying around (especially that bumper sticker claiming "God is not a Democrat or a Republican") that seem to put God within our own political processes.

It's most clear with Saul, but it's evident even to the beginning of scripture that God has told us "I'm in charge; I'm your leader - follow me," and we've chosen other leaders - whether it's ourselves, a King, or a President. God has been gracious to grant us our request. God allows us to choose who rules over us.

Of course, that allowance also comes with a caveat - those we choose to rule over us will use us and abuse us and we'll inevitably want someone new, who will do the same thing. When we hear that oft-quoted verse from Chronicles, the healing of the land is not about spiritual condition (at least not exclusively) - it's about proper authority. In times of trouble and great distress, we call to God, but we look to new leaders.

I hope, as Christians, we can look upon elections without giving in to the prevailing narrative that salvation (political, economic, ideological, or otherwise) comes from new leadership.

I don't want to denigrate the ways in which our collective will (that being the definition of democratic government, after all) can produce positive results. But at the same time we must recognize that, as Christ said, there is none good but God - and the collective will of not-good people doesn't ever equal good.

I firmly believe the purpose of the Church, the reason Christ commissioned his followers for a specific purpose is not to save souls. I believe the purpose of the Church is to serve as a community of reconciliation, to be the tangible presence of redemption as God restores creation to its intended purpose.

I believe our call is to model the kind of world God intended all along. Not mistake-free or otherworldly holy, but a messy, dirty, sticky model of how God's love can truly bring about peace.

As a reminder to myself, one prone to be far too involved in places of power, I choose not to vote for President. It helps keep me focused on the task at hand, of loving those around me and trusting in God. It also keeps me from putting too much faith in politicians or from worrying too much about the calamity they might bring.

At the same time, many of my fellow followers of Christ vote carefully and conscientiously. I applaud them. There are so many people, throughout history and around the world, with no say over the conditions of their own lives - our exercise of this privilege can be important.

At the same time, I hope to challenge Christians everywhere to stand outside the system. Favor one candidate over another, sure; make wise choices. But please don't join a team. Don't buy into the name calling and denigration that so inhabits out election process. Don't buy into the myth that a President or a Senator or a Congress or a Supreme Court can be the answer to life's troubles.

I hope we can stand alongside our civil society as the Church, as an example of how to get along with one another. Over time elections have proven better than authoritarianism - perhaps we can demonstrate how holy love works even better.

If you want to vote, please do. If you just can't stomach the idea, don't feel obligated. But be observers of the process and not participants. In the waters of baptism we chose our team - no need to join another.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Motivating Factor

One of the politicians running for local office near me has built his campaign on securing "happiness, success, and fulfillment" for his kids and mine. A fine goal - one likely to appeal to everyone. It's the sort of thing we just take for granted - everyone wants happiness, fulfillment, and success.

We see the same in education. When I was growing up and now when my wife talks to er students, there's just a general understanding that basic education is the key to all the good things we want out of life. Why do we send our kids to school? Why do we pay for them to go to college? Why do I have to learn geometry or the capitals of African countries? The answer has always been the same - to put you in the best position to succeed, find happiness, or be fulfilled.

As a Christian, however, none of those things are a motivating factor for me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that happiness, success, and fulfillment are bad things or dangerous things or things to be avoided. I'd rather be happy, successful, and fulfilled than not be - I'm just saying they can't be the goals or the motivation behind our actions.

The more I think about it, even that idea of success, for ourselves or our loved ones, is a bit too self centered to make much sense in the Kingdom of God. Perhaps our better motivating factor is the Kingdom itself. We are to live with the goal of making the Kingdom more evident in the world.

My dreams for my daughter are not that she'd be happy, successful, or fulfilled (although those things would be nice), but simply that her life would point towards Christ - that the things she does would benefit God's redemptive mission in the world.

What does that mean, exactly?

Well it means we're not our own. Christian freedom is entirely different than the civic definition that gets tossed around so cavalierly these days. We're not individuals. When we step into our role as followers of Christ, we step into a larger people - we assume our intended place in a created order that was meant to function as one.

We're not in it for ourselves anymore.

Scott Daniels talked about marriage in a sermon once - he said his advice for those young couples who come doe-eyed to his office to announce their engagements is something like: you don't get married because you love each other, you get married because the Kingdom will be better off if you do.

It's a challenging remark for marriage, but it applies equally in other areas of life. Are we doing what we do because it will make us happy or because it will make the Kingdom more evident?

It's not an easy answer. I mean, has your reading of this post made you happier? Has it made the Kingdom any more evident in the world? Can the same questions be asked of the time it took me to write it?

Last summer, my wife and I spent ten days in California. It was our first real vacation together in our seven years of marriage. (Real vacation meaning that we were not on our way to some place else and visits to family were not involved.) I was called out, point blank, by someone asking - "you're always talking about sacrifice and humility and caring for the poor - how can you justify the expense of a vacation like that?"

It was a good question. It still is.

My response that day (and I can only chalk my presence on mind up to divine intervention - more evidence that the vacation was appropriate!) was that we're not here to run ourselves ragged making things right. Justice is God's business. We are supposed to be living into the Kingdom - and celebration, relaxation, rest, is a part of that.

Our vacation transportation was provided by frequent flyer miles, we rented the smallest, most fuel efficient car possible, stayed half an hour from the beach, made our own meals half the time, skipped almost everything with an admission cost, and stayed the second half of the trip at the home of friends. I feel like we did our best to avoid self-indulgence (although beachside mahi-mahi tacos was walking a fine line) and to focus on rest.

Is that the right answer? I don't know.

Is the Kingdom more evident in the world because we took that trip? I don't know.

I hope so. Education isn't wrong. Success isn't wrong. Happiness isn't wrong - we just need to keep the proper goals in mind. Whether it's a mathematics degree, advanced training in spiritual direction, or a lifetime of hours on the serving line at the soup kitchen - we need to be shaped and formed and prepared to participate in the Kingdom in the ways God created us to participate. We might not all need Calculus to do it - but occasionally we need blog posts and vacations.

Saturday, October 06, 2012


Yesterday, the Atlanta Braves were eliminated from the Major League Baseball playoffs, thus ending the 19 season career of Chipper Jones. His career has been both remarkable and unremarkable. Remarkable in that he ranks among the best switch hitters and third basemen in baseball history by the numbers. Remarkable that he played his entire career, from draft to retirement, in one organization. Remarkable that he'll be one of the few players from the recent past to enter the Hall of Fame without talk of steroids.

That also makes him unremarkable in a way. Few people will think of Chipper Jones when asked to discuss the best players from the past 20 years. He'll come up, but it won't be first. He's been a strong, solid, consistent performer for a very long time.

At first I didn't think much of his retirement. I've never been much of a National League fan and I haven't followed baseball that closely for years. But there's a special connection I have with Chipper Jones. It's as if we grew up together.

I was the oldest child in a non-sports family. I came late to a lot of things. It was 1990 when I really began to get into baseball. One of the first baseball cards (because back then baseball cards were still something kids bought and collected) I got was Chipper Jones' draft pick card. He was selected first overall, right out of high school and he was a can't miss prospect from the very beginning. He made the majors a couple years later at the start of the Braves' dominance.

I didn't follow Chipper closely. I wasn't a Braves fan - I didn't even realize how impressive his career numbers were until I saw them in an article last week about his retirement. He's just always sort of been there.

I grew up a Yankee fan - I recognize the oddity of such a statement, and let me alleviate your concerns: the stereotypical understanding of Yankee fans just didn't exist in northern Vermont at the time, the Yankees were terrible and most people had never been to a game in the Bronx to have personal experience - I loved the history and nostalgia of the club. The pinstripes, the championships - my favorite baseball player, to this day, remains Lou Gehrig.

George Steinbrenner drove me away shortly after college. I just watched baseball to enjoy the purity and atmosphere of baseball itself. Then things got convoluted. Steroids and performance enhancing drugs were everywhere. MLB, like every other sports league, became more concerned with money and celebrity and ratings (and money) and much, much less about the game. Few people in attendance even knew the rules on the field anymore, let alone the unwritten rules of watching from the stands.

It just wasn't fun anymore.

I hung on a few more years playing fantasy - getting lost in the numbers and buying the occasional ticket when one of the dwindling number of my childhood heroes was in town. The last few years, I've just been out.

I still watch the World Series, but not every game anymore. Most of the players switch jerseys so often it's tough to keep track. A lot of the distinctives have been bred out of the game - what's more, most of those playing on the field grew up in this new era of numbers and money and showmanship. There's very little that's familiar - and what I see just isn't exciting anymore. When I want to teach my daughter about baseball, we'll go to high school or minor league games - where the game itself still matters.

All that being said, Chipper's retirement hit me hard. He's the last of the era. There is literally no one left. He's the last one who came in with me. I'm still younger than a lot of players, but I remember the beginning of their careers, and that beginning came after I was already a part of things.

As he retires, it seems my child-like wonder at America's Pastime is retiring along with him. There are still some things that excite me. I was really hoping for a good run from the Yankees and Braves so Jones and Jeter could each get one more shot at reliving the good ol' days of 1996. Grudgingly I have to admit that the things which excite me today are just those things which remind me of the past.

I really hope my daughter finds something to be as excited about in life as I was about baseball - to learn all the history, talk about it nonstop, successfully persuade her mother to stay up way, way past her bedtime because she can see how much it means just looking in our daughter's eyes - I want her to find that thing, I just hope its not baseball. I don't think I could take it.

Farewell, Chipper. All the best.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Gandhi III: Even Gandhier

The third social sin from Gandhi's list (Parts 1 and 2 here) is Pleasure without Conscience. This one resonates deeply in our culture today. We are a deeply indulgent society, one that has been carefully taught no to think of consequences.

Our consumer mentality has trained us to satisfy immediate desires and this has crossed over into our politics. We pass our economic woes down the line - then the other party points it out and we vote for them because we want to feel good about ourselves for caring about future generations - of course, then we expect the new party to also pass the buck... and they do.

It's a vicious cycle.

We are constantly seeking gratification. Like any addiction, we must constantly be upping the ante. Why were the three stooges so funny? (No, seriously, why are they funny? I was never much into slapstick.) People laughed at getting hit in the head with a hammer precisely because it wasn't real. Fast forward a couple generations: we only laugh if the problems are real. The outcomes of wrestling matches might be fake, but the chairs are real.

We are morbidly fascinated by The Real Housewives and The Jersey Shore because these are people living completely for the moment, completely without responsibility. It is our most intimate human drive: total self-indulgence.

Why do most people avoid such frivolity? We have a conscience. We have lives, families, responsibilities. If I get blackout drunk on a Tuesday, I get fired the next morning. If I take off for Vegas after lunch, my kid get stranded at school (and maybe spend the same weekend in foster care).

Of course we'd never actually do the things we laugh at on TV.


We might not, but our kids certainly will. Our culture is not reflected in our entertainment choices, our culture is formed by our entertainment choices. Check out this video for some insight on how MTV is actively shaping culture. It's a little dated these days, but the principles are the same.

One book I read earlier this year spoke eloquently about how our decision to become a consumer economy forces us to act like teenagers. If we weren't constantly making impulse purchases, we'd not be as well off as a society as we are, financially anyway... for those who don't actually buy into the impulse purchase game.

That's sort of the point. What's best for the top end is usually not what's best for the bottom. The election focuses on this economically, but it plays out across the spectrum of life. The partying culture works out well for those who can hold their liquor, manage their relationships, and avoid addiction - it works out terribly for people who don't have that kind of money to spend, don't know when to stop, and end up alcoholics.

It plays out in our sexual culture, our religious culture, our social culture - there is an elite who "succeed" by building, inheriting, or possessing better natural defenses. They can enjoy the pleasure without conscience because the bad stuff happens to other people.

Conscience is what turns our attention from ourselves, our wants, desires, and limits, and focuses it on others. Conscience makes pleasure less pleasurable when not everyone is in on the fun. Our society works hard to keep conscience out of the picture. It encourages anonymity and discourages intimacy. We have lots of friends, but few relationships. We can post a sympathy comment on Facebook when someone is hurting and never have to enter that hurt and suffer with another.

Is there a way for our society to make money without some ending up homeless? Is there a way for our society to enjoy alcohol without some ending up in AA? Is there a way for us to serve a God of love without some feeling rejected?

Gandhi seemed to think so; I believe Jesus would agree.