Saturday, June 11, 2016

a challenge...

For those involved in ministry - of any sort - I have a question:  how do you negotiate the
challenge of living into the spiritual commitments of Christ's grace in your heart as well as your actions when they come into conflict with the habits and practices of the marketplace? Grace, as I understand it, is fundamentally paradoxical.  We use the creative metaphor of God as Holy Trinity to suggest this multi-dimensional reality. The marketplace, however, is built upon binary thinking and even a veiled cynicism.  And herein lies the conflict - especially when the love of God must call into question the ethical paucity of our  commercial biases.

This question, of course, draws upon part of the Hebrew prophets' objections to the status quo of their day.  Isaiah 55 is unambiguous: For my thoughts are not your thoughts,nor are your ways my ways, says the  Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. But the call of the prophet is vastly different from the call of a local church pastor, yes?  We must nourish community, we must build trust, we must proclaim the Gospel and share God's grace.. And yet, as much as individuals ache for the open ended mercy of the Lord in their private lives, so much of our experience is shaped by marketplace bottom lines that we tend to leave grace behind when it comes to planning, budgets and administration.  Here's how I see this predicament:

+  In the kingdom of God that Jesus articulates in the Gospels - and the spirituality of the Cross conceptualized by mystics of all varieties advocates - the present moment is never the end of the story. To paraphrase Meister Eckhart, "Reality is the will of God and it can always be better, but we must start with what is real." A theology of the Cross posits much the same thing: the Passion is real, the Crucifixion is equally real, too; and yet in God's time and way, so is Easter. That is why we confess: now we see only as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. In this moment, we hope against hope; we trust a love beyond what is obvious; we accept what cannot be changed, claim the courage to change what can be changed and welcome the serenity given from knowing the difference.  In the realm of grace, we win only after we lose. We find wisdom and peace by dying to the self - in the Cross - a symbol of death and powerlessness that trusts that God's love is greater than our fear and even our death.

+ In the marketplace, however, what you see is what you get.  Our choice is rarely both/and but mostly either/or: either you want this loaf of bread or you don't - either you have the money to buy that car or you don't - either your credit is sufficient to close the deal or it goes south - either you win the race or you lose. And what complicates this dilemma in a church context is how much the marketplace despises losers. Every night the PBS Newshour includes a summary of how much the Dow Jones has gone up or down. There are monthly new job and unemployment statistics offered regularly, too. And since the fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been no credible intellectual constructs available for critics of the marketplace in the West to counter the limited moral vision of our binary vision. The Marxist paradigm has failed. The social democracies of Western Europe are ensnared in a cultural clash that pits homogeneity against diversity and Enlightenment values against fundamentalist ethics.  And racial fear and misogyny are so virulent that they often are used to manipulate anxious populations away from caring for the common good.  Donald Trump's presidential candidacy is simply the ugliest and most recent example of this fact. 

To be sure, everyone of us is a complicated combination of both grace-filled hopes and market driven expectations. Like St. Paul testified:  all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That means ministry in community is always a compromise - always a work in progress - always a teachable moment.  It also means, however, that the community is open to moving beyond the binary vision of business into prayerful conversations about the practical application of grace.  As Douglas John Hall put it:  we must be willing to honor that living into God's love impels us to reject self-centered acts of power. 

Love negates many things as Paul makes so plain in the famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.But I think that what must receive priority here is power: “Love does not insist on its own way.” “Power or control is the antithesis of God’s love. The crux of the cross,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr “is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over human beings is derived not from control but from the self-imposed weakness of God’s love.” God freely chooses to suffer in order to strengthen love and this is complicated for all to accept if we think chiefly in terms of power, omnipotence, almighty-ness. If God is love, however, then the divine power must accommodate itself to divine love and not vice versa – that is basic. 

Power and control are the antithesis of God's love - especially in community - and THAT is the key to this conflict. How have you approached this in your ministry? What tools have you found to help you live in both the present reality even as you move towards a better future? What resources/insights do you embrace to sustain your love of God within the complexity of real human community?
I suspect that part of my challenge is a function of age: when I was first ordained I had all the time in the world to be patient. Now, with much less time ahead of me than behind, I don't want to become impatient, I just want to savor whatever time remains in boldly loving ways. There is no joy in spinning my wheels. Or arguing over institutional matters. There is blessing in listening carefully to one another or holding up hard and sometimes complicated truths to God in hope of clarity. There is blessing, too in profound but compassionate disagreements. But not power plays. Or disrespect. Or substituting the unforced rhythms of grace for bottom line solutions that are convenient but not compassionate.

Nouwen once wrote something that causes me to shut up with these judgments:  I  learned afresh that friendship requires a constant willingness to forgive each other for not being Christ, and a willingness to ask Christ himself to be the true center of the relationship.  It seems that I am at that place again - only significantly older - and not a whole lot wiser.

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