rocky ground...

Over the past fifteen years, an essential truth for me involves "the foolishness of the Cross." Not only has this insight helped give shape and form to my activity, but it also has provided me with a window into the meaning of life.  Fr. Keating writes that the purpose of our lives is compassionate sacrifice. Fr. Rohr suggests that it is falling upwards so that humility and love become our foundation rather than selfishness.  St. Paul notes that Christ Crucified is God's mystery revealed:  

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For (some) demand signs and (others) desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to (insiders) and foolishness to (seekers),4but to those who are the called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  (NOTE:  these changes are mine and are intended to broaden Paul's insight beyond the theological polemic of his day.)

For my ministry, the foolishness of the Cross has encouraged both my downward professional trajectory rather than an obsession with upward mobility; and, the challenge of sharing this wisdom in a loving and tender manner with 21st people of faith.  The fundamental disconnect here is simple:  the totality of bourgeois culture is grounded in self-centered advancement.  A brief listing of popular advertising slogans is illustrative:  Be a winner.  Make a name for yourself.  Be all you can be.  Addictivity is good. Embrace the luxury class. Free to be you.  The heart and soul of our efforts involves greater accumulation, increased productivity, and a commitment to doing it all by ourselves. How does Burger King put it?  Have it YOUR way! Such egocentricity is pervasive and insidious - and unless you retreat to an island or a forest, there is no escape.

Two of the multiple implications of our addiction to market place ideology for ministry must include:

+ The stunning absence of alternative metaphors for the meaning of life. When the Soviet juggernaut collapsed under its own oppressive inefficiency in the 90s,  Marxism was discredited and cooperative socio-political experiments discarded..This meant the West lost a mode of offering a critique of greed as the driving energy of social activity. It also meant that our metaphors for meaning were simultaneously constructed upon market place terminology and infected by the limitations of our truncated imaginations.  "Bottom line thinking" became the norm for measuring value as all manner of self-help imagery ascended.  It is not coincidental 
that the so-called "gospel of wealth" grew in popularity and power given the absence of a social gospel alternative. 

Contrary to the conclusions of conservative economic historian, Frances Fukuyama, in The End of History, the collapse of communism did guarantee the triumph of Western liberalism but rather the rise of religious fundamentalism as a sacred alternative to the naked greed and oppression that became normative in our realm.  As one Al Qaeda spokesperson said in the still smoldering sadness of our post-September 11th reflections: we hate what the West has become - a dog eat dog existence of greed - so we do not want any of this for our children, our women or our men.  Without a vibrant and creative alternative to capitalism on steroids, however, the best Western Christianity could come up with was a call for "compassionate conservative" values.  It should be noted that even these were more about manipulating voters for the Right through the strategic use of the culture wars whenever an election looked too close to call.  

And so, two or three generations came of age in the church without the necessary language to question the vicious excesses of the market and precious few cultural options to brighten our imagination. I would suggest that U2 and Springsteen did their best to create a communitarian vision for the 21st century, but pop singers can only seed our collective imaginations.

+ The  insistence that business models are appropriate for the body of Christ.  This could become a rant with very little effort:  how many clergy have been demoralized and diminished by church leaders insisting on using business/performance based evaluations that both ignore the foolishness of the Cross - clearly an objective failure by any business model - and dismiss the untold hours of prayer and pastoral presence given to God and hurting people in love? But recognizing a congregation's abuse of their clergy (and staff) is not the focus of this observation.  No, what I want to highlight is how the goal of winning has corrupted our vision. When business metrics became the standard for understanding church dynamics, we let the wisdom of the Cross stay buried in the tomb and ignored the dynamic connections between Good Friday and Easter.  

We came to believe that only human effort could revitalize our congregations. We gave up the time-tested insights of the Paschal Mystery - that God's love can triumph in human failure - for short term profits like a spike in financial giving and/or a rise in Sunday morning attendance. I am not saying that more money and people is bad.  Never. I am simply observing that most of our folk have so little connection and trust with the foolishness of the Cross that it never enters our conversation when making plans about the future. We almost regularly fail to grasp God's blessed potential in times of crisis and get caught up in our own fears and desires to "fix" the problem instead of listening for what the Spirit is saying to the church. 

Our addiction to the market place is one reason why this is pervasive:  if we can't fix it, it should be thrown under the bus so that our efforts can produce more satisfying results. As middle class and wealthy church members, most of our experience is grounded in control. We chart our own course in life. We tell our employees what to do. We write our own ticket. Even in our personal engagement with physical activity, we want to be in charge. Small wonder that running and the use of treadmills are so popular - and not just to increase health and attractiveness. These are activities we can do on our time table. Having it all our way has become a standard by which our lives are measured and judged.  We are obsessed with control. 

Should we be unable to control a situation - or problem or reality - if for some reason we are unable to correct a problem, we have so little practice in letting God's presence fill this vacuum, that we go into crises mode. Everything becomes filled with frenetic drama rather than the non anxious presence of God's Holy Spirit. Either that or we walk away from what we cannot fix saying, "I no longer care." And our modest incomes and habits give us the illusion that we are disconnected.  We may love that Forrest Gump used "Turn, Turn, Turn" in the soundtrack - and nostalgically sing along, too - but apply the wisdom that "to everything there is a season... even a season beyond our control" and that we must wait for the Lord rather than control the moment...? Well, that is just absurd. Untrue. Impossible.

When I first entered ministry over 35 years ago as an urban intern, my mentor, the Rev. Dr. Ray Swartzback, said to me:  Man, we have to figure out how to make the church a real alternative of love in our urban areas where the problems of real life are naked and obvious. Because if we can't do it here - were everything is out on the line and visible - then we'll never be able to do it in our suburban places where the facade of control rules the dayMore prophetic words were never spoken about the challenge of living into the foolish wisdom of the Cross and encouraging middle class and wealthy people to trust it. 

We can read about it in the words of the Bible and still refuse to let it shape us because disembodied Bible study has become a product not a life standard. We can hear it in our hymns over the course of 80 years of worship and still push it away. because our congregations have forsaken accountability for the illusion of being nice.  Like Rohr says, only when we ourselves fall into the valley of the shadow of death - and let God come to us there rather than fight our way out on our own terms - do we get it.  

Please understand I haven't figured out how to hold this challenge together in ministry. I haven't figure out how to consistently let go of my own yearning for control either. What I am attempting is to name the challenge clearly and then try to trust God for new patience and insights. The old teachers used to say that the theological virtues of faith, hope and love cannot be acquired - they are gifts - and always beyond our ability to control. So, as I enter into 14 days of vacation time, I'm going to take a break from writing here and sit with this observation. I need to listen in the silence for the still small voice of the Lord and see if I can discern where God's love is calling to me. 

See you in a few weeks...


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