Archive for October, 2012

The Righteousness of Christ

Posted in Uncategorized on October 22, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 5:17-20

Following from where we left off last week, today, we find ourselves making a seemingly counterintuitive turn. Whereas much of what Bonhoeffer has been suggesting about discipleship might have sounded like a direct refutation of the old life through his presentation of an alternative new life, here, Bonhoeffer affirms that what Jesus offers is not a replacement of the old but a fulfillment of it. Feeling a bit incongruous, this possibly unexpected development in Jesus’ message requires a closer look.

Jesus, in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, is adamant that the faithful life is not a rejection of anything established through God’s covenant with Israel. That covenant and its substantive claims remain intact. Even further, Jesus not only affirms that the substance remains the same but takes his affirmation even further by insisting that not just the substance remains but all ostensibly insignificant details remain, too, i.e., every “letter” and “stroke of a letter.”

How can that be? How can Bonhoeffer frame Jesus’ call of the disciples through Jesus’ assertion that discipleship means leaving behind the old life in order to attend to a new one—as he does by referencing Luke 9 earlier in this text—yet, here, seem to demand that discipleship is a fulfillment of the old and not a dereliction of that previous way of living? While nuanced, the answer emerges after a second reading of this Matthew passage.

In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains his position on discipleship and the law not by demanding that one life replaces another life. Rather, Jesus seems to be outlining contrasting strategies for understanding how to live the life of faith, a life already in place. These three strategies may be characterized as the intellectual, legal, or relational options represented in this passage by three divergent groups’ perspectives—Scribes, Pharisees, and Disciples.

Scribes, according to Bonhoeffer’s deliberate caricature, represent those among the faithful who seek to pursue the life of faith principally as an intellectual exercise, divorcing the knowledge of faith from its lived practice. They, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, are more interested in “teaching” the law, a teaching that will inevitably become so intellectualized that it ceases to have much connection to how we might be able to live our lives of faith in both practical and meaningful ways. Such lives are meaningful but stagnate and abstract.

Conversely, the Pharisees, in Bonhoeffer’s casting, represent those faithful who make the life of faith out to be the execution of right habits and rules, habits and rules separated from the substantive and informative shaping and filling that comes through intentional pondering of the faith. These legalistic faithful emphasize the “doing” of the law, an enacting that will ultimately loose any significant justification for why we live as those faithfully committed to God. Such lives are active and engaged but devoid of sense and purpose.

Contrasting both of these positions is the life of Discipleship. For Bonhoeffer, Discipleship is not just about teaching or doing but about teaching and doing, connecting our intellectual and spiritual lives in deep, significant, and mutually informing ways. This focus on connection highlights Bonhoeffer’s conclusion that what makes Discipleship different from both the caricatured faith strategies of the Scribes and the Pharisees is that Discipleship is first and foremost a connecting, relational category—a category of connection exemplified through the connecting of teaching with doing and embodied in the deliberate call by Jesus to enter into life together.

As a result, the life of faith is not an intellectual or legal category but a relational one. Whereas, an emphasis on teaching makes the life of faith concentrate on the data of faith, and, whereas, an emphasis on doing makes the life of faith concentrate on the habits of faith. Distinctively, an emphasis on teaching and doing highlights the importance of connection, communion through the person of Jesus as the defining and new aspect of Discipleship, an aspect that proves to be the effective missing link between our longing to and being able to fulfill the righteousness of the law.

So, what sets Discipleship apart from Scribes and Pharisees for Bonhoeffer is not what is taught or what is done but the fact that what is taught and done is accomplished by our being connected with God through the very embodied Person of God called Jesus. In other words, Scribes and Pharisees confuse the means of faith with its proper end. And, in particular for Bonhoeffer, Scribes and Pharisees become representative categories of people from all times and places and faiths, not simply the titles for certain groups of people wandering the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus.

For those embodying the persona of the Scribe, teaching by itself becomes the end of faith, i.e., teachings about God become the reason to engage in the faith rather than as an outcome of a life connected to God. Similarly, the Pharisees, for Bonhoeffer, become representative of those more interested in doing faith, embodying a kind of either latent or aggressive anti-intellectualization. Discipleship is but Bonhoeffer’s way of trying to describe those people who balance teaching and doing with a primary commitment to the Person of God. Faith, we discover, is not primarily an intellectual or legal/practical category but a relational one that leads to and unfolds in intellectual and legal/practical ways.

What we discover through this passage is a cautionary tale. The life of faith it turns out has many alternatives with many different ways of compiling and emphasizing common bits and pieces we find essential to faithful lives. Moreover, the differences can be so minute that they become tempting options that will lead to a kind of faithful living that, ultimately, falls short because we substitute the end with a means or outcome of faith, i.e., we replace a relationship with insistence on right thinking or right living.

Faith, it turns out, is not first and foremost about believing the right thing or living the right way. Don’t get me wrong, both thinking well and living well are important. Rather, it seems that the first essential character of faith is willfully connecting with each other and God in right ways. Such a connected life will lead to our attending to right thinking and living. It is just that those two categories are secondary to our primary call to live intentional lives with God and each other. Or, as we read later in Matthew’s gospel: “‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Love, that seems like a good place to end a reflection on discipleship.

Love is at the heart of (good and holy) relationships. Love is at the heart of the gospel. And, love, it seems, is at heart of what it means to live with God, each other, and in the world. In the end, it seems to me that living without love makes our teachings self-serving and our doing lacking in compassion. So, love well. The world, the kingdom needs it. The rest will come.

See you along the way.


The Visible Community

Posted in Uncategorized on October 15, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.


‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

–Matthew 5:13-16

Today, we resume our pondering the life of discipleship where we left off last week, i.e., with Jesus on a mountain amongst a crowd.  In that same conversation with the disciples where Jesus delivers the Beatitudes, he issues this rather earthy and cryptic declaration describing the impact and the purpose of discipleship, calling the disciples both salt and light.  


Let’s unpack that declaration a bit.


First, by impact, I mean that Jesus seems to be interested in unfolding for the disciples the effect that their “blessed” lives will have on the world.  They will be salt and light in the world.  Importantly, just as Jesus emphasized through the rhetorical rhythm of the Beatitudes, here, Jesus tells the disciples what they already “are,” not what they will be or must become.  Jesus is speaking about actualities, not potentiality.  As they were described as “blessed” in the Beatitudes, in this extended metaphor they are reminded that they “are” salt and light.  As salt, disciples heal of the world, transforming the world from one state of existence to another and preserving it into the future, just as salt does.  As light, the disciples reveal who God is and what we are all called to be as fellow creatures of the Creator, brothers and sisters of our divine parent, integral characters in the narrative of life and faith.  In a literal way, discipleship is enlightening as to who we all are and whose we all are.  At the risk of being too clever, disciples are healers and revealers.  


Significantly, Bonhoeffer wants to emphasize that disciples do not offer healing and revealing through some received skills or practices by virtue of their being called by God.  Rather, they are healing and revealing.  Their very lives embody healing and revealing, salt and light, through their direct engagement with the world.  They do not offer salt.  They are salt.  They do not offer light.  They are light.  Saltiness and lightness are not commodities peddled by disciples but integral descriptions of who they are bound up in how they live in the world.  


That leads to the second aspect of discipleship that Bonhoeffer believes the text from Matthew’s gospel illustrates.  Connected to the idea that their lives provide healing and revealing, Bonhoeffer suggests that the purpose of discipleship is to serve the world through direct and real presence.  Surprising to some, discipleship is not a calling away from the world.  It is a calling into service within the world for the world.  It is not about abandonment but attachment.  It is not about distance but about discerning the purposeful role of faithful engagement and service to the world in transformation of and benefit to the world.  As it turns out, discipleship is as much about following as it is about servant leadership.  


This is all well and good.  The fact that discipleship means living lives that heal and reveal is interesting.  However, in all practicality, what does that mean for our lives and us?  What does it matter?  How are we salt and light?  How are we healers?  How are we revealers?


I think that there are many ways that our lives of faith might heal and reveal.  However, here, I want to look at a least one practical way of considering this particular reality.


Our lives provide curing and enlightenment whenever we willfully enter into each other’s lives and intentionally settle down, sharing space and risk and success and failure with each other.  I am not talking about a kind of sharing that describes a kind of coincidental occupation of the same place at the same time.  Rather, I am describing a kind of existence that is deeply present, a kind of presence that involves a type of knowledge about each other that is not found in mere conversations but through shared experience and loss and joy.  Such a sharing is not shallow.  Such a sharing is found only when we take time to get to know each other’s pasts and each other’s dreams, each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses.  It takes time.  And, it takes intentionality.  Moreover, it takes a dedication to resist efforts at passive or accidental or tangential sharing of our lives and to combat efforts at habits and commitments that dislodge or dissolve connectedness.  


In a world defined more by mobility and fad than fixedness and permanence such a witness and embodiment seems all the more necessary yet all the more difficult. 


Concretely, the poignancy of that need for the healing impact of a deeply shared life seems more evident in a society blighted by a housing and economic crisis that forces families to abandon homes and communities in order to find new, cheaper places to live and other work.  The tragedy of what has happened over the past decade and the corresponding requirement of the faithful to pursue and witness to different economic and housing policies that center on building communities more than building wealth seems patent. 


Do not get me wrong.  Wealth and the building of wealth is not the problem.  Recall the proverb tucked into the First Letter to Timothy in the New Testament: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (6:10). 


Piercing it is! 


Money does not seem to be the problem.  Rather, the problem is with the assumption that building wealth (and with creating systems that enable the building of wealth) must take precedence over building lives together and over promoting polices that build and encourage community.  Wealth exists to serve our communities and us . . . not the inverse.  In many respects, we (and the systems we created) seem to have forgotten that.


In practical and profound ways, a call to be salt and light appears, also, to manifest in calls for transformation of our society to imagine the social ramifications of our policies as much, if not more, than the financial outcomes.  There must be a way of doing both, of enabling economic and communal growth, of strengthening the social fabric and the financial bottom line.  


Bonhoeffer seems to suggest that he envisions a different way forward.  The life of faith is always about a new economics, a new way of living in the household of the world.  It is a way of living more indicative of shared life than of achieved success, gracious giving and receiving than aggressive earning.  Such a life of discipleship will not be easy.  It will, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, be costly indeed.  But, as we have learned through our most recent social and economic experiences, so will the alternative.  


So, live well.  Live with each other.  Be transformed and envision the change that such transformation requires.  


Have a great rest of the week and see you along the way.

The Beatitudes, World Communion Sunday, and the KKK . . . A.K.A. My Weekend

Posted in Uncategorized on October 8, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

I had an interesting weekend.  Within a 24 hour period, I found myself sitting both a KKK rally and in the pew of a church preparing for communion.  (Now, there is a sentence I never imagined writing.)

 Let me explain.

Over the summer, a local chapter of the KKK, the International Keystone Knights, applied to adopt a portion of highway near Blairsville.  Assuming the guise of a local civic group, the International Keystone Knights wanted to provide the regular litter collection along a stretch of road, a role often assumed by local civic groups.  The Klan’s application was denied.  In response, the Klan organized a rally in Blairsville, protesting the state’s decision to deny their request. 

Late in the evening this past Thursday, I (and others) heard about the Klan’s planned Saturday rally, prompting a Friday morning phone call from a friend living locally, a call carrying the tenor of both inquiry and insistence.  Long story short, by Friday evening, a counter protest was organized and information disseminated.  Early Saturday, several dozen of us gathered in a church parking lot, drew posters to display during our protest, and rehearsed our plan:  we would walk to the courthouse, move into the crowd, sit down on the road near the front of the crowd with our backs to the Klan speakers, and silently hold our signs throughout the duration of the event. 

Now, this was my first Klan experience, so I was not certain what to expect or what I might need to endure. Somehow, I was simultaneously both calm and anxious.

At 11:45am, we gathered our things and began the walk toward the courthouse, a walk filled with that nervous chatter accompanying the unexpected.  The closer we got to the courthouse, the more cars we saw, the more police we noticed, and the larger the crowds grew, a crowd populated with the old and young, interested and curious, taciturn and tempestuous. 

My heart sank.  My anxiety rose. 

I was shocked and saddened that so many had come to the rally. 

By the time we reached the courthouse, several hundred onlookers were milling about the courthouse grounds.

Separating the crowd from the courthouse doors was a line of Georgia State Patrol cars, parked end to end, creating a makeshift fence barring those gathered from those about to speak.  It was into this crowd of hundreds with our backs against the patrol cars and our signs facing those gathered that our silent line of protesters marched, sat down, and waited. 

And, then, it came. 

A bullhorn crackled.  Then, it whined.  Just after 12-noon, the first of a handful of speeches began, packaged as an incoherent string of hate-filled phrases made that much more surreal and buffoonish once hear through electronic distortion. 

A second thing happened.  The gathered crowd shouted back at the speakers.  It turns out that most of the crowd had assembled not to support as much as to deride.  And, deride they did.  As my perception of the crowd changed, so did my anxiety about our circumstance and my concern about our community and that day’s outcome.  I no longer worried, as I did when initially seeing all that had gathered, that our community somehow supported the Klan.  I no longer worried, after having heard the speakers’ ill-conceived diatribes, that our community’s disenfranchized or undecided might be convinced of the Klan’s claims.  My worries abated, replaced by introspection and observation.

In the midst of shouting and counter shouting, our silent protest seemed that much more poignant, a punctuating silent witness to the fact that sometimes words only contribute to the noise and confusion and that the still quietness of life lived in common witness might sufficiently supply the needed message.

After 45 minutes, it was over.

Then, on Sunday, I found myself sitting in silence, again, a silence offering its own message.  This time, my silence was not found sitting on asphalt but sitting in a pew, prayerfully preparing for World Communion Sunday.

Sunday was World Communion Sunday, a day set aside in the Christian calendar year when all churches around the world are encouraged to celebrate communion—i.e., the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist—on the same day.  It is a gesture meant to serve as a reminder that, in the church, we believe we are connected to each other no matter our locale or language, limitations or largess.  Importantly, World Communion Sunday is more than a common action of a common people of a common faith; it is an exercise in reminding us of our common humanity, regardless of action or ethnicity or faith.  

World Communion Sunday is not just about Christians reminding themselves that they are connected to each other.  (It is that.)  But more than that, World Communion Sunday is meant to remind Christians that we believe we are all connected to each other by virtue of our being creatures of a common Creator, brothers and sister because of a shared Divine Parent, joint heirs to a common humanity’s common destiny and purpose. 

Silence linked my days.  My Saturday connected with my Sunday because both were filled with silence, a silent testimony to a commitment to our common humanity, a humanity “woven together in a single garment of human destiny.” 

And, in many ways, my experiences from this past weekend serve as a microcosmic expression of our often disjointed and seemingly incongruous lives.  Often what happens, what we experience, and what we encounter does not make sense.  What gives life its continuity is our living into a framing description that what we experience is not our own but known and lived in common, in communion. 

This commitment to common, shared lives defines, as Bonhoeffer sees it, the life of discipleship.

Recall his reflections on the Beatitudes (or “blessings”), my summation from a few weeks ago. 

In the Beatitudes, we are still near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus has just called his disciples, identifying 12 from amongst the many in a crowd who were following.  Now, Jesus pauses to instruct these twelve and others who find themselves within earshot.  Importantly, the fact that 12 individuals were called is significant as it suggests that Jesus is looking to identify a group to serve as a representative body for the entirety of Israel, a nation composed of 12 tribes.  In so doing, Jesus’ selection of the 12 disciples repeats the earlier selection of Israel as a representative people, a people who were representative of all peoples. In other words, Jesus calls a group of disciples to serve as a reminder that a larger community of people was called to represent all people called into existence and relationship with the Creator of all peoples.  This means that what makes the disciples (and all people) “blessed” is not this specific event but the simple fact that they have been called into existence at all and that such a calling includes a connection with the God of existence. It is this call into existing-connection that produces a blessed or happy state, a state belonging to, endowed in, gifted to, descriptive of everyone.

In other words, the Beatitudes are a reminder that we are all connected and meant to live lives of common concern for our common life and to resist and witness against counter expressions and actions that seek to divide.

Using a rhetorical rhythm, each of Jesus’ eight declarations of blessing are meant to act like the hammer on the bell of our theological alarm clocks, awakening us from the drowsy slumber of our distracted lives and, one by one, systematically removing the layers of night from our eyes.  This awakening removal opens our eyes to our real existence, more a calling to a new consciousness of our already real existence with God and not the formation of some new, previously nonexistent connection. Said another way, it seems that Jesus’ call in the Beatitudes is an awakening to life as it is and not into life as it will or could be.

We are connected.  We share a common life.  We must live into this reality, rather than create it or deny it. 

This is the good news of the gospel, no matter our locale or language, limitations or largess . . . faith or background or color or class.

If anything, Bonhoeffer reminds us, discipleship is always a call.  In this case, it is a call off the sidelines and into the action. 

Be bold in faith.  Be faithful in witness.  And, witness in real, material ways to our common life.

Welcome back to campus.  Welcome back into the good, common fight.  Fight it well.  Fight it for your brothers and sisters.  Fight it for a life and society more reflective of that good kingdom, beloved community meant for us all.

See you along the way.

Rest Stop

Posted in Uncategorized on October 1, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

This week, we take a slight detour along our discipleship journey, pulling off the road and pausing for a time of rest. Being a journey, discipleship requires regular moments to reflect and rejuvenate. And, with Fall Break upon us, today proves the perfect time to remind ourselves that faithfulness and restfulness are necessary and appropriate traveling companions. Wayne Muller’s writing on Sabbath presents a helpful way to frame our thoughts for this restful moment.

The following is an excerpt from “The Tyranny of Choice” in Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives. My prayer is that some portion of this week proves to be a “break,” if not from work then at least from routine, for all of us.

Suppose that a warrior forgot that he was already wearing his pearl on his forehead, and sought for it somewhere else; he might search through the whole world without finding it. But if someone simply pointed it out to him, the warrior would immediately realize that the pearl had been there all the time.
–Huang Po

Sometimes it is necessary to stop one thing before another thing can begin. The traditional thirty-nine prohibitions against working on the Jewish Sabbath gave birth to what one scholar calls “the most precious, inestimable pearl” of Sabbath tranquility. Similarly, most of the Ten Commandments begin with “Thou shalt not.” These prohibitions against stealing, lying, killing, and the like, if practiced with a fullness of heart, set us free to turn our energies to other things more precious—to honesty, fidelity, generosity, and love.

But progress promises us the endless expansion of choice; we chafe at any restriction to our capacity to generate options, and we revolt against any concept of prohibition. We equate choice with freedom, but they are not the same. If we exercise our choice to covet or to steal or to live without rest, we will soon feel trapped and unhappy. We equate choice with nourishment, but a dozen different soft drinks, potato chips, and candy bars provide no vitamin C, iron, protein, beta carotene—or any significant nutrition at all. Regardless of how many choices we pile one upon the other, it is still a big, fat, empty meal.

Freedom of choice can be as painful as it is precious. We want to be able to choose whatever career, spouse, or neighborhood we wish, but how do we decide, what should we look for, should we go to school now or later, have children now or later, stay home with the children and rick getting passed over by more aggressive colleagues, or push a career now and hope that day care is a nurturing option? How do we decide which partner we love, whether to change our neighborhood or political party, or start exploring new spiritual traditions?

Freedom of choice can suffocate us; we drown in a sea of options. With so much else we could have chosen, how do we ever know we have done the right thing?

The Sabbath is a patch of ground secured by a tiny fence, when we withdraw from the endless choices afforded us and listen, uncover what is ultimately important, remember what is quietly sacred. Sabbath restrictions on work and activity actually create a space of great freedom; without these self-imposed restrictions, we may never be truly free.

(Over the coming week) choose one pleasurable activity that is easily done and takes little time. Leaf through a magazine and tear out a picture that you find appealing; put it somewhere you will see it, and notice how you respond to it throughout the day. Write a short poem about nothing of any importance. Put a new flower in a cup by your bed. Take a walk around the block. Sing a song you know from beginning to end. Do something simple and playful like this every day. Take a crayon and make some simple drawing of your bedroom. Let the power of simple act of creativity stop you, slow your pace, interrupt your speed. Notice how willing you are to be stopped. Notice how it feels when you are.

Have a great week, great break, and some great rest, making our journey that much more pleasurable and fecund . . . fecund–isn’t that a fun word!

See you along the way.