Random thoughts on a Sabbath morning...

At the close of my week and the start of my Sabbath, a few random thoughts have been floating in and out of my mind.  A quote from Joan Chittister cuts to the chase:  "The seduction of embarking on a spiritual life is that people can be fooled into believing that wanting it is doing it."  Hmmm... but it gets better:

They begin to believe that by traveling they have arrived. Worse, perhaps, they begin to allow others to think that by traveling they have arrived, too. They mistake the idea for the thing and perpetuate the idea.

Early in ministry, I asked my spiritual director, "What that little candle in your study represents?" and he just smiled.  It was a small, hanging "perpetual light" kind of thing set at the side of his desk.  After a moment he told me, "It is a reminder to just take small steps towards prayer and compassion - anything greater will lead to disappointment and failure - because I can't do more than one or two things at a time."  This was ages before the notion of multi-tasking hit the scene - and I was eager to make progress on the road to holiness - so I pushed back saying, "Come on, isn't that taking the way of cheap grace - not pushing yourself - and all the rest?"  (Damn was I a smart-ass!)

To which he said something like, "Look, you can try to promise God that you're going to pray three times a day - and fast every week and really love your neighbor as yourself - and wind up quitting on the whole thing because it is too much.  Or, you can light one candle to remind you of God's presence and offer prayers when you see it and trust God for the rest.  That may sound like cheap grace to you, but it is the way of Christ's rest to me."
Ouch...  Chittister amplifies writing:

There are two ways to live in the world - as if we were connected to it like a leaf to a tree or as we are a universe unto ourselves...  if we practice the discipline of curbing our own caprise, then we can develop the self-control it takes to listen to the wisdom of another when our own insights are limited... To be open to the way of those who have already gone the ground before us is potentially soul-saving.

Over the years my mentor turned out to be right:  not only did I get overwhelmed with the mostly unrealistic spiritual expectations I had set for myself, but my failure led to shame and sloth not greater rest and peace.  "Peu un peu" as the French say, "little by little" is the truth I have come to embrace at this stage of the journey - noting, too, that the journey is still not the destination.

At the same time another random thought grabbed my attention as I looked over a week's worth of NY Times this morning.  (Last week was a particularly full time of morning meetings and at the end of each day I never took the time to read the paper.  So, this morning in the beauty of a late Spring day, I sipped a pot of Irish breakfast tea and took a leisurely trip through five newspapers.) The column by David Brooks from Tuesday, June 12 really caused me to think.  It is a reflection on what America's current collection of monuments and memorials says about our souls - and it rings true to me. (check out the whole article @ http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/opinion/brooks-the-follower-problem.html)

If you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration.  Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. They are strong and powerful but also humanized. Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat. Lincoln is sober and enduring. Both used power in the service of higher ideas, which are engraved nearby on the walls.  The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds...

He goes on to make the case that Americans no longer know how to think about power and authority in healthy ways.  Why?  "Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.  Then there is our fervent devotion to equality..."

But is key insight is this:  "The main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build."

Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes. These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority. The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism.

I find that this insight is true in church, too:  in pursuit of raising up compassion and healing, we have watered down (and sometimes destroyed) any notion of God's power and authority.  We may ascribe a sanitized sense of awe to the Lord, but nothing terrifying, bewildering or even dark.  All that exists is "Sweet little Jesus, meek and mild" who only wants to hold your hand.  (Think of all the praise songs that some have called, "Jesus is my boy friend" tunes.)

Where did the primal stories of creation go that speak of God fighting back the chaos - not merely rearranging the cosmic furniture - but doing battle with the forces of evil and darkness?  Robert B. Coote in his In the Beginning study summarizes the many stories of creation in the Hebrew Bible that speak of cosmic combat against chaos - or sea monsters or worse.  Where did they go in our understanding of God's love and power?  And then there is Peter Rollins' new book, Insurrection, in which he asks:  If the Cross is the central truth of Christianity - and Christ screamed about the darkness, fear and sense of abandonment he felt upon it - why has the central message of the church become some vague blather about assurance and security?  Blessed assurance?  Bullshit!  How about:  my God, my God why hast thou abandoned me?

Then I read my friend Peter's reflection about what's missing in the current state of the church and I had to smile because this was the link between my often random thoughts:  like Bob Dylan once sang, "something's going on all around you and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"  Something IS missing - in our religion, in our politics and in our culture - something that has to do with real not watered down paradox. Brooks continues:

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I know that as I have started to restudy the ancient stories of our creation narratives, I have been knocked back on my ass at their power.  They talk about terrifying truths, a power that is simultaneously creative and destructive, a God who aches to set life in motion and preserve beauty and truth but always with the knowledge that this is a battle not a civilized debate.  And while I'm not singing, "Onward Christian soldiers" any more, I can't go for "Jesus wants me to be his butter cup" either.  I have, to be sure, experienced God's blessed assurance, but also a brutal and real emptiness that is clearly of the Lord, too. 

Perhaps one small step I can still make in my teaching ministry is to keep exploring the bewildering power of the Lord of the paradox - and why this truth is vital for health, renewal and hope.

Comments

Black Pete said…
Amen--God is God of the Peace and the Chaos both. Good reflection, James.
RJ said…
Thanks, my friend.

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