Saturday, February 18, 2017

songs of compassion, resistance, feasting and tenderness...

As I reflect on the wisdom of Bonhoeffer for this era - especially his call to a "religionless Christianity" - my new semi-retired, part-time ministry makes more and more sense. Let me be explicit: I wanted this change as much as the congregation needed to start saving resources. It is a win/win wherein we made "poverty our friend." That is, we found ways to match my change in call with our financial challenges. This isn't always true for congregations. All too often when dollars become tight compassion and vision go out the window as formerly liberal Christians become fiscal fundamentalists. Not that we didn't have to wrestle with this tendency, too. Nevertheless, we were able to craft a change that both empowers me and creates now possibilities for ministry among the faithful.

It would be incomplete for me to speculate about what our new reality will mean for the faith community beyond this year. Better that this be left to an intentional discernment process that I pray will come into being over the next few months. As for me, a few insights are ripening:

+ First, sharing the music and poetry of compassion and resistance. 
I have long known that hearts can be opened through beauty and passion. They can be manipulated, too so I am on-guard against such a violation. The joy of shaking your booty, the ecstasy of dancing and laughing in community, the nourishment of careful listening, however, are not incidentals to our addiction to busyness: they are essential for new life and true health as they become prayerful communion in a most incarnational way. It might be Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road" ensemble, John Coltrane's improvisational jazz, Joni Mitchell's exquisite playfulness with poetry infused with melody and rhythm, Carrie Newcomer's commitment to encouragement and solidarity in song, Mary Oliver's spirituality of words, Beyonce's enfleshment of female wisdom or... whatever else breathes life into your soul through the arts, yes?

The quest is to awaken us to living for love. Bonhoeffer made it clear that this cannot be sentimental or superstitious: both render religion to the dust bin of history - and rightfully so. What religionless Christianity does is live into the realities of contemporary life fully as women and men of compassion. "Wherever you seek the will of God," he wrote, "look for the Cross of Christ... for the Cross is all we can know of God." Where are innocent people being violated? Where are our neighbor's most vulnerable? Where are the cries of the poor? The arts have a unique way of opening our hearts and minds to truths deeper than ideology, habit of convenience.
+ Second, celebrating the fullness of life's beauty even in the presence of the brokenness.  To live like Jesus is to bless the wine at the feast, break bread often in the company of others and share the full joy of the incarnation with all our senses. Bonhoeffer taught that true repentance - metanoia - is NOT about asceticism or denial, but rather confronting our selfishness and exercising discipline and maturity in pursuit of compassion. He said, "Repentance is putting our whole lives at God's disposal." It is about growing-up and getting over ourselves by loving. By sharing. By being fully alive.

Too often, however, religion is somber and fear-based. That is why it is part of our conversion to practice honoring our sensuality for what we do not know ourselves we are unable to make flesh for others. Henri Nouwen hit the mark so sweetly when he wrote:

We all need to eat and drink to stay alive. But having a meal is more than eating and drinking. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another's plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body. That is why it is so important to "set" the table. Flowers, candles, colorful napkins all help us to say to one another, "This is a very special time for us, let's enjoy it!"

At this moment in time, therefore, I find myself returning to the kitchen as my prayer station. I have been working through two books, The Gaza Kitchen and Jerusalem, to savor the flavors and to experience in my flesh the joy of creating and sharing beauty. Last night, we took a break from the Middle East, however, so I could work up some maple braised pork chops. After years of utilitarian eating on the run, it is a blessing to slow down and chop, taste, simmer and bake the delights of creation. Soon I will be sharing these feasts with new guests, too so that the bounty is

+ And third, going deeper into a spirituality of tenderness. I am sometimes overwhelmed at the cruel and callous disregard for life the current regime celebrates. I am not saying they are the only purveyors of pain - that would be naive and stupid - I am simply noting that their selfish disregard for the vulnerable and Mother Earth are the antithesis of tenderness. Already the proposed cabinet if filled with those whose stated goal is to dismantle what we have achieved over the past 70 years. Even Senator McCain called out his homies over their abandonment of Western values.  And don't get me started on how the forgotten working class patriots of the heartland will be skewered by health care policies that make the rich richer and curtail social services to those most in need.

But the sickness runs deeper: it is an idolatry of selfishness. Niebuhr used to say that original sin was a theological way of talking about vanity and selfishness.  When we put ourselves at the center of the universe, we create suffering. And the more suffering we create, the more we must struggle to keep the consequences of our acts out of sight and mind. That is why Brueggeman insists that the prophetic church must help us break through our illusions and denial.
Bonhoeffer made it clear that only small acts of disciplined love connect us to the presence of the holy in our world. In 1944 he put it like this:

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur – as if there were no God – coming of age means that God lets us live in the world without the working hypo-thesis of God who solves all our problems… in truth, God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. There we see God as weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way – the only way – in which God is with us and helps us. Christ makes it quite clear that love comes not by virtue of Christ’s omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

I am grateful for the time and chance to embrace this more deeply.

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