Sunday, July 9, 2017

you are the Lord's beloved for ever...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 9, 2017 re: spiritual discipline. We
have been practicing interrupting each day four times with a phone chime and the simple prayer: I am God's Beloved forever. Amen.

When I was away in Montreal during our shared sabbatical two years ago, I had an insight about my heart for ministry and our lives together. In a word, it became clearer and clearer to me that in whatever time remained for us to sojourn together, my​ call was to emphasize ​Christ​-ianity rather than ​Church​-ianity – for there is a huge difference. A popular meme on Facebook restates this challenge with clarity: ​let’s leave church growth to God while we concentrate on training disciples. Disciples visibly ​embody​ Jesus in the world. Disciples consciously take on the character of Christ sharing compassion and love in their ordinary lives. Disciples are committed to the unforced rhythms of grace as practiced by Jesus when he invited ​all​ who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come unto him and find rest for our souls. 

Old timers used to say that disciples are ​made​ not born; they are women and men trained and disciplined in the way of Jesus rather than self-selecting members of a religious social club. In other words, the church is always one generation away from extinction for the way of Jesus is never inherited but passed on through disciple-making.

There are two, intertwined tiers in the practice of discipleship: the personal and the social. On one we nourish an intimacy with God; on the other, we learn the habits of the heart in community. Elizabeth O’Connor likes to call this the inward and outward journey, practicing our faith personally and socially, because both are essential for those devoted to the way of Jesus. What has happened in our generation over the past 60 years – and what happens periodically in the life of the Christian Church in history – is that the personal and social ways of Christ have become separated. Divided. Oppositional rather than embracing. We have lost touch with the wisdom and practice of both spiritual discipline ​and​ compassionate neighborliness to such a degree that frenzy and angst, fear and loathing, social conflict and mistrust have become the new normal.

Old Testament scholar and preacher, Walter Brueggemann reminds us, however, that at the ​core​ of Christianity is Christ’s call to love our neighbor as we love God and ourselves: Biblical ethics ​and​ spirituality are always pre-occupied with learning how to ​become​ good neighbors.

Neighbors who trust God’s abundance, neighbors who welcome the stranger and protect the vulnerable, neighbors who practice the unforced rhythms of grace, and neighbors who know that whenever we act like we have a monopoly upon wisdom and truth, danger lurks right around the corner: ​When we live according to our fears and our hates, (our own privileges and myopic vision) our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God. If you find some part of your life where your daily round has grown thin and controlling and resentful, (something is out of whack because) life with God is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God’s purposes lead us well beyond ourselves to live and forgive, to create lives we could never have imagined” if left just to our own vision. (Brueggemann)

That is why we’re taking significant time this summer to explore, practice and wrestle with the integration of the inward and outward journeys. Discipleship, you see, is God’s antidote for anxiety, alienation, fear, bigotry, boredom and the illusion we have to do everything all by ourselves. St. Paul confessed as much in today’s passage from Romans 7 saying that when he relied solely upon himself, what?  He could not consistently accomplish what was loving or healthy: ​I do the things I hate and the things I love remain left undone.​ ​Such are the inevitable consequences of spiritual and social amnesia: we find ourselves physically weary, emotionally anxious, politically despairing and spiritually unmoored from the tender harbor Christ offers us in his unforced rhythms of grace. Brother Brueggemann reminds us that: We practice prayer because our life comes from God and we yield it back to God in our prayer. Prayer is the great antidote to the illusion that we are self-made.

So as I have done before – and will continue to do throughout the summer – let me ask you what you learned, experienced, and discerned from practicing our simple prayer of rejoicing that we are the Lord’s beloved? How did it go…?

Our loss of connection to the spiritual practices that can open us to Christ’s unforced rhythms of grace and the blessings of discipleship has a context and history. Our tradition emerged through conflict: the founders of the Protestant Reformation not only challenged the popular piety​ of their age, but also the way disciples were trained and nourished. We gave up a sacramental spirituality – using our senses to touch, feel, taste, hear and smell the goodness of the Lord – for a rigorous intellectual and doctrinal faith.

Howard Rice, Professor of Ministry and Chaplain Emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary, put it like this in his history of ​Reformed Spirituality : John Calvin taught that knowledge of the Lord is the soul of discipleship saying: “To know God is to know oneself and to know oneself is to know the Lord.” But two very different understandings of the word ​knowledge​ emerged over time. One was experiential, the other was intellectual. Calvin meant both, insisting that knowledge of the Lord was empirical ​and ​subjective, inward ​and​ outward, writing that “believers experience God as they experience – but can hardly be said to comprehend – thunder. This was one of Calvin’s favorite metaphors for religious experience. As thunder inspires us to awe, so the experience of God is so majestic and powerful that it defies expression and does not lend itself to logical explanations.”

But many who followed in the Reformed Protestant tradition after Calvin broke the experiential apart from the intellect. “Too often,” Rice observes, “knowledge of the Lord has been interpreted as rational and dispassionate so that to know God is to be able to describe God’s qualities correctly.” This is the doctrinal path – the composed and detached theology born of the mind – wherein our creation in the image of the Lord is to be found in our ability to think rationally. This is one of the reasons spirituality and disciple-making has fallen out of favor in our part of the church. The other is that since the early 1900s, we have taught that mainstream faith is a synthesis of science and ethics, reason and ritual, culture and theology.

Ours was a religion that opposed fundamentalism. In 1925, when Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes in the so-called Monkey Trials of Tennessee, the social elites and growing middle-class in America rejected the “old time religion” that abolished nuance and metaphor from religion. We joined churches that gave glory to God rationally. We affirmed a synthesis of intellect alongside the poetry of Genesis, casting off the God who literally created the world in seven exact days for one who set in motion the rational process of evolution.

By the late 1950s, however, this world view was losing influence – and by the 1980s it was no longer the dominant heart of American Christianity. Truth was now relative as the hard science of physics destroyed any notion of “timeless, objective veracity.” White privilege, male sexism and middle class morality were turned upside down by the proliferation of liberation movements around the world. And our abstract assumption “that God was too preoccupied with the cosmos to get involved in the nitty-gritty of personal intimacy with believers” no longer brought solace, hope or rest. In a word, our worldview collapsed.

And while this collapse is currently unnerving, it is also exciting for we are now living through the third great reformation: a time without theological consensus that is simultaneously pregnant with compassionate albeit diverse possibilities. Hence my emphasis on spiritual practices – discipleship – a return to the heart of piety that let’s God sort out institutional problems and church growth while we nourish the personal and community practices of following Jesus in our generation. I submit to you that the more we experience from the inside out that we are God’s beloved, the more we can act like it within our souls as well as our society. Knowing – trusting – celebrating that we are God’s beloved is the foundation upon which everything else is built – and this leads me to three insights from today’s gospel according to St. Matthew.

+  First we read that in Matthew’s day that there was an internal disagreement about what it meant to be a disciple​: Matthew uses a comparison and contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus to make his point. At the start of chapter 11, Matthew quotes Jesus speaking to his disciples about himself as well as the difference in the Baptist’s ministry and his own. He paints John the Baptist as a fierce, bold and judgmental prophet from the wilderness. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at” he asks? A reed shaken by the wind? Someone dressed in soft robes? No, you went out to see a wild and demanding prophet in the desert.”

Then Jesus speaks of himself in contrast:​ “When asked by John the Baptist whether or not I am the Messiah, Jesus replied, go tell the prophet what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor experience hope.” Do you grasp the distinctions being made here? Matthew is clarifying for his community that the way of John is over​ for Christians and the way of Jesus, the coming one, is breaking into history. For the community of Christ, the way of the Baptist is complete and now a new way of living for God is to be incarnated.

Second we’re told that because ​both​ the way of the Baptist as prophet and Jesus as messiah are of the Lord, they upset the status quo : ​paraphrasing a Jewish wisdom text Matthew says that society is much like a group of fickle children in the marketplace too distracted and noisy to pay deep attention. Jesus came playing a flute with an invitation to the dance and the feast and he was slandered as a drunk. John came wailing and mourning calling us to the burial of the status quo and he was labeled a demon.  Judgment is inevitable for those who follow either path. For Christian discipleship we must pay more attention to God’s love than the carping children complaining in the market place. ​Matthew wants us to know that​ ​the way of Jesus is not always obvious. It is confusing. Like John locked in a prison cell, the way of Jesus often seems baffling especially in a culture like our own. So we need to pay attention to the fact that the Baptist asked questions about the way of Jesus, ok? We all have questions: personal questions and ultimate questions, questions of what it will cost us to pick up our Cross and follow Jesus, questions of what following Jesus looks like in our own era. Questions are important?

+ And third, Matthew then adds some commentary to clarify the upside-down wisdom of discipleship in the kingdom of God: it is what later theologians call the Paschal Mystery, the foolishness of the Cross that isn’t visible to those who rely only upon their intellect, status, wealth or pedigree for it is revealed to the wounded, broken and vulnerable when all they have left is trusting God​. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden (the good news) from the wise, the wealthy, the intelligent and those too smart for their own good, but have revealed it to infants.” This is another way of saying what Jesus proclaimed at the start of Matthew’s text in the Sermon on the Mount: ​You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope for with less of you there is more room for God.

“Faith does not​ grow from testing Jesus against our rational criteria to see if he measures up; Jesus is not merely the best example of values we ​already​ have; validated on the basis of our intellect.” (Eugene Boring) Rather, the way of faith comes from the heart – from revelation and love from above – that is nourished and brought into the light of day by practicing trust not rational discourse. Those who ​know​ they are exhausted – burned out on religion to use Peterson’s phrase – emotionally, spiritually and physically fried after trying to consistently love and be open to joy in the face of hardship and failing over and over, ​these​ are the ones who are ready to come and take on the yoke of the kingdom. These are the ones willing to relearn how to live, to trust like a child again the unforced rhythms of grace, to practice spiritual exercises so that our old ways are worn down like water on a rough stone so that the new and beautiful ways of the Lord might be reborn in our flesh from the inside out.

I have often quoted from the writing of the late, great disciple of Jesus, Henri Nouwen. I love his work. I also love the fact that Nouwen was so vulnerable for most of his ministry. He eventually owned and disclosed his brokenness, but for decades tried to hide it. He was successful in the academy, revered by his students, but not an intellectual so felt shamed and judged by the elite at Harvard and Yale. When he left teaching, he travelled to Latin America to try living the life of a poor, liberation theology priest only to discover that he missed the world of the intellect and didn’t experience community with the Spanish speaking ​campesinos. He felt guilty for his bourgeois affectations. He visited with Mother Theresa in India and asked her the secret of spiritual rest but wasn’t satisfied when she told him to mostly stay on his knees in silence for one hour every day and suck it up. Nouwen was confused thinking himself a failure as an academic, a liberationist as well a monastic.

In time, the Lord led him to a friendship with Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and Nouwen began to find his true calling as the resident spiritual advisor to the Daybreak Community in Toronto. But even there he ran into his shadow which eventually resulted in an emotional and physical break down. You see, Henri was a closeted gay priest who would not openly challenge his bishop or the Pope. As long as he remained busy and obsessed over where he​ didn’t​ fit in, he didn’t have to deal much with his sexuality. But, in Toronto, in a supportive community that felt safe and unhurried, he fell head over heels in love with another man – and it wasn’t reciprocated. Not that Nouwen wished to violate his vow of chastity. He simply was over taken with a deep love that crushed his heart because his beloved rejected him.

For two years this brilliant but broken priest was devastated. “Where is God in all of this?” he pleaded in his private prayer journal. “What blessing could possibly come from such grief and rejection?” Vanier helped Nouwen get into therapy – and spend time on retreat in prayer – and after another year Henri began to discover a new life as the primary care giver to one severely intellectually and physically challenged man by the name of Adam. Nouwen came to call Adam – wheelchair bound and mostly non-verbal – his most important spiritual director. Because with Adam time as we know it stopped: all that mattered was caring for a vulnerable and loving little man. Nouwen learned to take as much time every day as was needed to make sure he loved and served Adam as one of God’s beloved.

As Henri healed, he showed his prayer journals from his breakdown to a few friends who universally agreed that they were the BEST and most IMPORTANT writing he had ever done. They were thoroughly honest about hitting bottom. They were tenderly open about questioning God’s love and existence.

And they showed how the light of grace broke through the darkness to lead Nouwen back into a life of love and service that he never imagined possible. In time Adam died and a year after that death Nouwen died suddenly, too. During what became his last year on this side of life, Fr. Henri wrote a great deal about coming home to God as the Beloved. He used the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father as his inspiration. He also wrote about what he had learned about the hidden, mysterious but life-changing grace of God that was poured into his heart when he took on the yoke of the Lord.

You are not what others, or even you, think about yourself. You are not what you do. You are not what you have. You are a full member of the human family, having been known before you were conceived and molded in your mother’s womb... God loved you before you were born, and God will love you after you die. In Scripture God says, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’ This is a fundamental truth of your identity. This is who you are whether you feel it or not. You belong to God from eternity to eternity. Life is just a little opportunity for you during a few years to say, ‘I love you, too… so choose now and continue to choose this incredible truth: claim and reclaim your primal identity as beloved daughter or son of a personal and love Creator and Lord.

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