Archive for the 'Kingdom of God' Category

Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

The Donkey-Rider’s Very Different Way

thetriumphalentryLast Sunday Christians celebrated King Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem. We remembered how he came “triumphant and victorious…humble and riding on a donkey…” (Zechariah 9:9 NRSV) We waved palm branches, the way those first-century folks generally welcomed a conquering hero. With that ancient crowd we shouted and sang “Hosanna!”, “Save us!” Jesus’ choice of transportation was a message that Jewish crowd couldn’t have missed. Conquering heroes didn’t ride dumpy little donkeys. They rode magnificent white stallions. Jesus’ alternative transportation recalled Zechariah’s prophecy. Speaking through the prophet, God  continues (this part we rarely hear):

” I’ve had it with war—no more chariots in Ephraim,

no more war horses in Jerusalem,

no more swords and spears, bows and arrows.

He [the donkey-riding king] will offer peace to the nations,

a peaceful rule worldwide,

from the four winds to the seven seas.” (Zechariah 9:10 MSG)

Hopefully last Sunday our pastors taught us the radically different nature of this king and Kingdom. Perhaps he/she chose another direction. Perhaps it was one of those services where other concerns intruded and the message got lost in the shuffle. Some of us may have gone home wondering why Jesus’ friends didn’t insist on getting him a more impressive ride for his grand entry. Some of us wondered (with desperate hope) how that donkey-riding king could make a transforming, life-and-death difference in our angry, violent world.

Monday morning the bombs exploded in Brussels. Monday morning we cried “Save us!” to our guns, our armies, our security and surveillance systems, our present and would-be future leaders—and yes, to the God whose offer of “peace to the nations” still falls on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Monday morning we were brutally reminded–again–of the climate of inescapable anger and violence in which we live. We felt the devastating grief of the victims and all who were connected to them—which is all of us. We felt the fear that mistrusts all that is unknown and unfamiliar. This fear builds walls of exclusion and prejudice against all who are “different”, especially those who bear any resemblance to the “enemy”. Those walls go up instantly. But when we realize we’ve overbuilt, or that we’ve walled out the wrong people, those walls come down only with the greatest difficulty–or not at all. Monday morning politicians and others began proposing various ways to strengthen our security. Some offer reasonable and effective steps. Others offer fear-based proposals that will intensify the hate and fear rather than leading toward healing.

When I watch the coverage from Brussels and the response around the world, I sometimes see a lonely figure moving across the screen. The man on the donkey rides past the wreckage, the hospital scenes, families coping with tragedy or celebrating reunion, stunned men and women trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, politicians and others seeking a way to use this disaster to enhance their standing. The donkey-riding king moves silently through our world. His very presence judges our fear-full and faith-full responses. His presence proclaims anew the impossible promise of “peace to the nations…from the four winds to the seven seas”. He is in our midst as we work through our shock, our fear, our outrage, our grief. He is alongside us and all his followers as we live out his way of strong gentle humility and unconditional love.

Some of our United Methodist leaders remind us what following Jesus looks like in a time like this:

  • “We are praying for all who lost loved ones and for those who are wounded. And we pray and work that we overcome fear and do not answer evil with evil…”—Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, Germany
  • “As those who follow Jesus, the crucified and resurrected One, we need to continue in doing good as much as we can, in building respectful community, in working for peace and justice, in being agents of reconciliation and never give up despite blind violence, hatred or paralyzing fear, wherever we live,”—Bishop Patrick Streiff, Central and Southern Europe
  • “[news of this attack] comes on the heels of violence in other parts of the world, including Cote d’Ivoire earlier this month and more than a hundred incidents in various parts of the world just this year…I am touched by this pain to the fabric of humanity. It’s a pain we must face and seek to heal with love and justice, but we recognize that controlling or preventing these kinds of tragedies is beyond our power alone. We turn to our God who creates justice and loves and embraces us all.”—Bishop Warner Brown, San Francisco, President of the Council of Bishops.

Our donkey-riding King invites us to share his journey as he moves through our world. He brings peace, love, healing, a sense of community that unites those who never thought it possible. He leads us into a way of self-emptying love that is incredibly fulfilling. His very different way gently and powerfully refuses to give in to anger, fear, and violence. Our crucified and risen Lord leads us toward the kind of world I want to live in; the kind of world I want my children and grandchildren, and all the children of the world, to live in. Will you help build that new world? The world where “We overcome fear and do not answer evil for evil;” where we “Continue in doing good as much as we can…; where we “…never give up despite blind violence, hatred, or paralyzing fear;” where “We turn to our God who creates justice and loves and embraces us all.”

RESPONSE TO ROSEBURG–PEACE-FULL ACTION

Last Thursday shock and horror at 2015’s forty-fifth school shooting shook our nation. That’s a horrific pace of more than one a week. “Prayers for Oregon” memes flooded Facebook. A visibly shaken and angry President Obama spoke to the press and the nation about our collective failure to take meaningful action to stop this deadly trend. Self-interested parties on all sides immediately restated their long-held polarized positions. Mr. Obama’s sentiments echoed the many spiritual leaders who called challenged us to move beyond prayer to action. Sixteen years after Columbine, ten years after Red Lake, eight years after Virginia Tech, the millions of words we’ve thrown at the issue as we’ve talked around and past each other have failed to prevent 142 school shootings since Sandy Hook.          blessed-are-the-peacemakers_t_nv

Yes, for God’s sake and the sake of potential future shooting victims, let’s move beyond prayer to action. “Beyond prayer” doesn’t mean not praying. For me it means maximizing the synergy of active prayer and prayerful action. Prayer informs, shapes, and fuels our action. Action drives us deeper into prayer as we seek God’s will while we are active in many different ways and settings. A colleague of mine shared this prayer on her Facebook page: God of love, you give us minds to think, hearts to love, and a soul which longs to know you. Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen. (Rev. Sharon Ragland, 10/3/15) 

Beyond prayer to action—what action? Let us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace covenant together to return to our roots as a peace-full people. Let us take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), to love our enemies, (Matthew 5:44-45), to choose reconciliation and restoration over retribution (Matthew 5:17-48). Let us grow together into a peace-full people marked by peace-full words, deeds, thoughts, and prayer. We talk constantly about personal “peace with God” and “peace of mind”. But we haven’t learned (been willing to learn? been taught?) a robust biblical understanding of Shalom that embraces all human activity and indeed the whole creation. Peace-full people refuse to isolate personal “peace with God” from God’s continuing mission to bring peace and wholeness to all Creation. As long as any of God’s precious children are caught up in chaos and violence, my personal peace as a follower of Jesus, a peace-maker, is disturbed.

The Hebrew word “Shalom” is frequently translated as “peace”. But the word’s complex meanings include “peace”, “soundness”, prosperity”, “wholeness”, and more. Eirene” is the predominant Greek word for “peace” in the New Testament. It carries Shalom’s richness and enriches it further with insights like this: “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” (Ephesians 2:14-16 CEB) Yes, the passage speaks about the Christian community. But that process of reconciling a broken human family is God’s mission for the Church and God’s dream for all humankind (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Peace-full action by a peace-full people involves (re)discovering and (re)committing to peacemaking and “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What a stark (and welcome) contrast to “…the violence which permeates our culture…”! United Methodist Bishop Robert Hoshibata wrote to members of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference shortly after the Roseburg shooting. One of his suggested steps “beyond prayer” was Bible Study. He lifted up a three-session study, “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities”. Of course three sessions are just enough to start the conversation. But no journey begins without that first step. Let us also rediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity. It includes early Christians who found service in the Roman army incompatible with their faith; historic peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers, and more contemporary advocates of nonviolence including Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and many more. Let us reclaim our fundamental identity as peacemakers and reconcilers in the Spirit of Jesus. We will experience invaluable “on-the-job training” as we share deeply-held convictions, seek common ground and shared truth, and struggle to understand and love brothers and sisters with whom we disagree passionately.

Our beginning conversations about how we follow Jesus as peacemakers in this society will lead us into deeper dialog regarding our attitudes toward war and the military; the depiction of guns and violence in contemporary culture; about whether allowing our children playing video games (or watching us play) where the object is to kill a human being (even a cartoon) is compatible with becoming peace-full people; about capital punishment and prison reform; about how we live peacefully in our congregations with diverse and sometimes polarized opinions; and much more.

Bishop Hoshibata’s letter quoted the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory:

“Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul…”

Bishop Bob (as he invites us to call him) stopped there, but I’m sure he’d support adding the final verse:

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.

 Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore,

Serving thee whom we adore.”

May Harry Emerson Fosdick’s words open us to “…listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

 

 

“MINE!” or “OURS”?

Rufus the Wonder Dog recently welcomed (OK, tolerated) his “cousin” Callie (our daughter’s dog) for a weekend sleepover. They got along pretty well until Callie started playing with Rufus’s toys. When Rufus came to live with us last January, we got him four stuffed squeaky toys. He’s grown to love them all. He often gathers his “treasure” around himself wherever he hangs out during the day. Rufus’s vast collection of toys—three of which still squeak after months of enthusiastic use–makes him (in his opinion) a very wealtRufusToyhy dog indeed.

Oh yes, the sleepover. All went well until Callie started playing with Rufus’s toys. Rufus grumbled a bit, but didn’t mount an attack. His 12 pounds are no match for Callie’s 50+ pounds! Rufus has learned to pick his battles. He uses his wits and quickness to level the playing field. He watched closely (jealously?) as Callie played with one of his toys. At the first opportunity, Rufus snatch it back and reasserted his ownership. If you listened carefully, you could hear his inner dog say, “MINE!” He maintained constant vigilance as he reclined amidst his “wealth”. No, he would not share. All those toys were his. The snatching and sneaking-around went both ways, of course. Then both dogs began bringing toys for us to toss for them to retrieve. We knew better than to send two dogs after one toy. So my young grandchildren and I developed a strategy. We counted down and then “launched” the toys in opposite directions at the same moment. Nevertheles, we still had some canine confrontations over “simultaneous possession”. No-one got hurt, but both dogs displayed great fluency in language their mothers taught them never to use!

I don’t pretend to speak fluent Dog, but I understood clearly the most frequently-used expletive in their Toy Wars—“MINE!” Granted, their possessiveness was rooted in primitive survival instincts. We humans have similar primal instincts. But we’ve learned to discipline those instincts–sometimes. We’ve also discovered through painful experience that life together is better when we share power and resources, even when I don’t always get My Way. [Please don’t let my wife read this!] People of faith believe that life is lived best cooperatively with others following God’s guidance as we discern it.

But MINE!’s seismic shocks still shake our common life:

  • “This car and my driving are MINE!’ says the “remarkable” driver you just barely avoided. “I’ll drive my way regardless of others on the road.”
  • “This lush landscape is MINE!” say rich Californians who flaunt their wealth as they ignore drought-related water restrictions. “I’ll use all the water I want. I can afford it.”
  • “This nation is MINE!” say the leaders of nations refusing to participate in global climate-change solutions. “I’ll do what I want. I don’t care how our actions affect the rest of the planet.”
  • “Truth is MINE!” assert dogmatic political and religious leaders across the ideological spectrum. “Truth and Right are on my side . It’s my way or no way.”
  • “Victory is MINE!” cry athletes, coaches, and team owners. “We’ll do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes, and follow the only rule that matters–‘Don’t get caught’.”
  • “My comfortable lifestyle is MINE!” say millions of affluent folks like us in the developed world, “and I really don’t care who or what gets harmed in the maintaining of my pampered existence.”
  • “Absolute unrestricted gun rights are MINE!” asserts the gun lobby every time another senseless mass shooting hits the headlines.

People of faith believe that God’s intent for Creation is not “MINE!” but “OURS”. The story in Genesis 1 describes the creation of life on earth with the intent that humans will “…have dominion…” (Genesis 1:26, 28) over other forms of life. One common interpretation of “dominion” concludes that natural resources are “MINE!” for humans to exploit freely, often with disastrous long-term results. But deeper study suggests that the concept includes a sense of stewardship and care for creation. “Dominion” describes a king’s rule, which includes care for the poor and vulnerable in his kingdom. So one popular translation says, “God created human beings… reflecting God’s nature…God blessed them: “’Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible…for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28 MSG) God created and trusted humans, whose nature “…[reflects] God’s nature…” with responsibility to care for Creation as the Creator intended.

“MINE!” poisoned human life when Adam and Eve sampled the one tree in the Garden that had been declared off-limits. (Genesis 3). “MINE!” continued to poison relationships between individuals, between nations, and between humans and God. We could read the whole Old Testament as the story of “MINE!” versus “OURS”.

Fast-forward now to Jesus. He embodied the way of “OURS” with striking clarity—so clear that the powerful forces of “MINE!” engineered his execution. Jesus’ followers set out to finish what he’d started. Jesus had shown them a generous, giving God; a welcoming, bringing-together God. Following him meant eliminating that greedy growling “MINE!” from their vocabulary–and ultimately from our human vocabulary. One early witness says of those early Jesus-Followers, “The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, ‘That’s mine; you can’t have it.’ They shared everything…not a person among them was needy.”—Acts 4:32-35 MSG

The evidence mounts daily that “MINE!” is a toxic lifestyle. It poisons every nation, every culture, every institution, every human relationship. We fight over the toys and growl “MINE!”. Unless we change, the poison will finally destroy life as we’ve known it on this beautiful planet. But how can we achieve massive global change? So It was hard enough in earlier, simpler times. It’s exponentially more complicated now with 7 billion people sharing our planet.

How do we get from “MINE!” to “OURS”?The same way the early Jesus Movement did. Eat the elephant one bite at a time! Start where we are, with those who share our lives. Share this vision in families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, communities, and especially our churches. Turn gradually but consistently away from “MINE!” toward OURS. Let your family and/or faith community become a live demonstration of OURS—what Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God.” Learn together to stop growling at other dogs and start sharing your “toys”. Let the Spirit of our generous, giving, welcoming God create that unity in which “…not a person among them was needy.” (Acts 4:32-35 MSG)


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