Archive for August, 2010

Good Work

Posted in Uncategorized on August 30, 2010 by yhcreligiouslife

Prayer is by necessity connected with good works, because a thing that is not good to be looked for is not good to be prayed for. . . . If you care for prayer know that it is not performed by words but by the choice of a virtuous life and by the love of God and diligence in one’s duty.
–Theodore of Mopsuestia

If work is about doing something and if ethics is about doing the right something, then, good work is a way of describing appropriate actions. However, what is good work? One way of understanding works as “good” is by identifying those works that connect our living with our purpose, our essence, our very selves. This kind of connection entails our turning to discover who we are at our very core and determining actions relative to that “core” understanding of self and life. For the Christian faith—and for many faiths, that core is understood to be God-shaped, implying a connection between who we are to be and our worshipful attendance to the Divine.

Said another way, good worship—orthodoxy (right praise)—leads to good work—orthopraxis (right actions).

There does seem to be a connection between our prayers and our life, at least there should be. In addition, that connection is more substantive than simply our praying for what we want or need or are worried about or challenged by. As Theodore of Mopsuestia suggests, the very structure and occurrence of our prayers should be/is bound to our moral commitments and our moral formation. In other words, how we pray and the substance of our prayers shapes our moral vision, discloses that vision, and fashions our moral selves. Importantly, what I am suggesting as “worship” while including what happens in a given building on a specific day of the week is a much broader description of a life engaged in prayerful attention to the Divine, to the Sacred.

Both Christian scripture and church tradition presume this connection. For instance, the first and second creation stories from Genesis craft a vision of the moral life that binds together worship and the moral life. In the first creation story—Genesis 1, often we say that God created for six days and then rested on the seventh day. However, that is not entirely correct. The seventh day was, also, a day of creation. On the seventh day, God created a restful space to be filled with worship. Said another way, the crown of God’s creation is not humanity but Sabbath. The pinnacle, the point of creation is to be in right relationship with God and the rest of creation. That right relationship is defined by the harmonious, cooperative, communion imbued throughout the vision of life captured in our picture of the Garden of Eden. That leads to the complimentary vision described by the second creation story—Genesis 2.

In that second story, we find the creation of the first people and, ultimately, their fall. Those first people in the Garden, again, are defined by their harmonious existence with their fellow creation and God. The first disruption of that existence happens when humanity attempts to reorder creation by replacing God with themselves, i.e., by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, thus, assuming God’s position as the arbiter of right and wrong. Taken together, the first and second creation stories remind us that we are created to concentrate our lives on the Divine and when we fail to do so, the consequences are disastrous. God ceases to be our focus and, more often than not, we become our own center, devolving our lives from ones focused beyond ourselves to lives obsessed with ourselves. Said another way, there is a direct connection between worship—i.e., our focus on the Divine, the Sacred—and our moral lives. If we worship well, we will, also, live well; if we worship poorly, we will, also, live poorly.

Within the church’s tradition, the same emphasis permeates. The love of God is presumed to be paired with the love of neighbor. The first table of the law, i.e., the first part of the Ten Commandments, and the second table of the law, i.e., the second part of the Ten Commandments are thought to echo this dual-love mandate. Encoded within the United Methodist book of law, i.e., The Book of Discipline, the church articulates a direct connection between personal piety and social justice. These represent just a few of many examples that might be offered.

Emphasizing this point, ethicist Harmon Smith notes the inherent connection between worship and the moral life: “So there is actually no need to bifurcate teaching and celebration, or even make that division attractive or desirable. Truth be told, they go together. Liturgy both reflects and teaches us the kind of people we are and are meant to be.” (x, Where Two or Three Are Gathered). In fact, the word “liturgy” literally means the “work of the people.” That work is begun in worship but continued in the world beyond our worship because it is thought to shape its practitioners.

This week, our focus is on changing work. As we approach Labor Day, my hope is to reconsider all our work, especially the re-focusing of our lives on the ultimate work, i.e., the love of God that inevitably leads to the love of neighbor. In addition to changing our notions of work, this week we will change the location of our chapel service. We will worship alfresco under the open sky in the amphitheatre behind Enotah Hall.

See you at chapel.

My Change

Posted in Uncategorized on August 23, 2010 by yhcreligiouslife

The other day, our four-year old asked for a snack. Taking her to the pantry, I listed a series of options from the pantry, asking her to choose the snack she wanted. Dismissing my suggestions, she slid over a few steps in the kitchen toward the treat drawer, pulled it open, and began rummaging through the various pieces of candy lining its bottom. I explained to her that treats are OK to have occasionally but that we should choose healthier snacks most of the time. (I wasn’t being overly Draconian. She had already had a lollipop earlier that day. She just didn’t need another.) Ignoring my “sage parental” advice while her hand dug through the miscellaneous suckers, packets of M and Ms, and gum, she withdrew another lollipop, saying, “Sometimes I just want what I want.”

Truer words have never been spoken!

How often do we just want what we want, regardless of propriety or projected outcome? Our daughter knew the consequences of getting a lollipop after having already been told “no” but reached into the drawer nonetheless. Now, she is not some rebellious delinquent rejecting all authority to advance anarchy. (At least, I don’t think she is.) My guess is that she is successfully being a four-year old.

Such behavior is not limited to four-year olds. If we are honest, we all seem tempted to act against propriety when what we really want conflicts with what we should do. It is almost natural. Seemingly unconscious, something inside pulls us toward self-satisfaction and away from right actions. The Apostle Paul, in addressing sin with the Romans, makes a similar observation. He says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Romans 7:18b-19

Paul’s conversation is found within a larger discussion of the role of the law as a gracious indicator of right and wrong actions rather than liberation to act rightly. (Incidentally, liberation he argues is found through the person of Christ.) That discussion of the law’s beneficial function is not my concern, here. For that reason, I am less interested in Paul’s theological treatment but his observation about our propensity to will what is right but not do it.

This notion that we are prone to act inappropriately is a recurring theme throughout scripture. If I were to cite each of those occurrences, your attention would lapse and my fingers would cramp. Rather, the importance of those occurrences is the two patent conclusions that may be drawn: (1) the consistency of our failure to choose the good when given the option speaks to this tendency’s somehow apparent commensuration with what it means to be human and (2) the capacity to reverse the trend and choose the good more regularly than not begins externally rather than internally. (This is not to say that a commitment to choose the good does not need to be internalized. It does. I am simply saying that such internalization presumes an external origination.)

For instance, Noah did not simply get a notion to build an arc but was called to do so; Abram and Sari did not simply want to wander across the desert leaving family and friends behind on a whim; the disciples did not follow and then get invited; Paul did not stop persecuting and then have his “road to Damascus experience.” The consistent narrative of scripture is that God moves and we respond. In fact, we have designed the entirety of the worship liturgy to repeat this narrative rhythm each time we gather. People are called, God moves toward us in the revealed Word, the people are challenged to respond, and, finally, the gathering is returned to the world to repeat the narrative of grace and love in every part of their lives. By regularly worshiping under the (re)shaping capacity of this narrative exercise, our lives are re-narrated into the story of God’s life and grace. The story of God’s grace is a story that is just that, a story of grace. Grace begins externally and moves toward us. We miss the profundity of the story if we think we initiate movement toward God, toward the good, toward change.

As we continue our theme of change this week, our focus is on “my change,” i.e., how do I change? To examine the desire for personal transformation to become who we desire to be, need to be, are called to be, we will turn to the story of David from the Hebrew scriptures, considering his initial calling, his wandering, and his returning. Throughout our consideration of that narrative, we will attend to the recurring struggle between internal impulses and external re-directive grace. In the end, our hope is found not in our ability to change but, first, to be changed so that we might change ourselves and become change for the world.

Have a great week, and see you in chapel, if you are able to make it.

Don’t Forget (ALL) Your Change

Posted in Uncategorized on August 16, 2010 by yhcreligiouslife

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2, NRSV)

Change happens all the time. So much so, that change appears ordinary.

Lights change from red to green. Clothes are changed in the morning. Clocks are changed twice a year. Bills are changed into coins and back to bills, again. Day changes to night. Change is everywhere. We might say that our lives are, in large part, defined by what changes.

Yet, we must not confuse common with simple. In realty, even simple change is often complex. For instance, the knowledge necessary to imagine and design circuitry and bulbs and to harness and conduct electricity just to make a light switch from red to green is amazing, not to mention the complex calculations used by traffic engineers to regulate the frequency and intervals of those changes. Consider, also, the invention of concepts, manufacture techniques, proliferation of function and style, and distribution of clothing—all so that every morning we can create seemingly infinite combinations of outfits regardless of the weather. How about being the first person to conceive that something like time could exist and, in addition, that it might be calculated and tracked? How about being the first to conjure up the potential benefits of utilizing objects to represent certain agreed values, the exponential monetary systems emergent from such a conjecture, and the creation of pneumatic dyes and printing presses to make it all possible? How about divinely imagining nothing into something, eventually dividing day and night?

On our campus, the beginning of a new academic year invites change. Professors try new teaching techniques or engage with new theories. Students change majors and residence halls. Staff and administration change offices and projects. Leaving home encourages us to reinvent ourselves, trying rather benign new things like hairstyles or nicknames to more consequential experiments like new existential commitments or ways of life. Even more, there is just something about being in an academic community that bids, almost expects change.

A college would consider itself a failure if those students who walked through its doors their first year did not find themselves significantly different when walking across the stage at graduation. Students should expect to think differently, act differently, know more, care more, and give more after spending years in the classroom, living in residence halls, worshiping in the chapel, and walking the campus. Learning assumes change. Actually, the word “educate” comes from the combination of two Latin terms, e(x) and duco, meaning, roughly, “to lead out.” This leading implies a change . . . a change of venue, of vantage, of voice, of vocation.

At YHC, in addition to change through education, we are committed to change through spiritual exploration. To deny such exploration is to deny, generally, who we are as physical, intellectual, and spiritual people. Such a denial would be to ignore a large part of who we are. To engage in such exploration is to open ourselves to the possibility of discovering who we were created to be. The encounters and challenges of college (and the kind of broad, explorative community it creates) seem to provoke inevitable spiritual examination. As recent studies demonstrate, while in college students report significant increases in their interest in spirituality and other matters of faith. If inevitable, our task at YHC is to make such exploration intentional and, finally, effective.

Just like those other seemingly ubiquitous changes occurring all around us every day—to be efficacious—spiritual change is neither simple nor haphazard. It is not simple because substantive spiritual change demands a complete commitment of self, of our time, of our ideas, of our perspectives, of our lives to the task. We cannot commit some portion of who we are to deep, probing exploration and change and, then, assume the altered portion will successfully reintegrate into the rest of our lives. Such attempted re-integrations are predictably jarring! Having been changed, undoubtedly, the changed portion will not fit unless it is changed along with the rest of who we are, too. This is why our spiritual change and exploration must be intentional . . . almost systematic . . . almost methodic. (No surprise, here. We are a United METHODIST college, after all!)

This coming academic year, our theme for Religious Life is “Don’t forget (ALL) your change.” This theme serves as a reminder that as we inevitably change this change is, also, to be spiritual and complete. Every part of who we are, what we think, what we believe, and what we do must be fair game if we are to become the inspired people the college pledges to empower.

Over the coming months, we will consider this notion of total change in greater detail through these iChapels, during worship, at programs, and on trips. Join us and be changed so that we might, in turn, change the world.

Have a great week. Have a great year. Peace.