Archive for November, 2012

Love (Your Enemies)

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48

This week, after a gut-expanding Thanksgiving pit stop, we return to our walk along that trail of discipleship following Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Over this semester, by following Bonhoeffer’s tracing of Jesus’ words, we have covered considerable ground, each time pausing to assess different aspects of the faithful and faith-filled life. Here, we pause for a moment to consider that controversial and difficult dictum delivered in this text, i.e., the command to love our enemies.

Bonhoeffer builds his reflection on Jesus’ command to love from a simple idea floated at the end of this passage cited above. In the next to last verse, the writer quotes Jesus as saying: “What more are you doing than others?” In that short question, an interesting Greek word—eliciting an equally interesting theological idea—is used. The word is perisson, meaning “peculiar,” “unusual,” or “extraordinary.” This means that the interrogative from Jesus might rightly be rendered, “What extraordinary thing are you doing that others would not naturally do?” It is this idea of extraordinariness, of acting beyond convention or expectation that drives Bonhoeffer’s summation of this passage.

Here, Jesus demands that his followers go beyond conventional expectations of the faithful by loving not just those who love us but by loving those who hate us. This expectation of the unexpected serves as the interpretive model, exhibited in God’s loving us through the incarnation (and ultimately the resurrection), and prepares us for how we are to live in the world as lovers like God. It is this second step, this unusual step that separates a life of faith from a life of functional predictability.

As mentioned above, after all, even tax-collectors can love when loved. Enough said!

What discipleship demands is an extra(ordinary) step, a movement beyond where we are to where we must be. This extra step demands much effort. Love of the loveable is predictable and has the potential to keep the community of faith intact and strong. Yet, love of the unlovable, unworthy of love, threatens the community while simultaneously rendering possible the community’s expansion.

The community is threatened because the conventions of predictability are ignored and established boundaries and convictions are transcended. What was sustainable and secure is suddenly opened up to a variable future with uncertain consequences. Yet, while threatened, the community, also, enters a new stage of possibility. With conventions and boundaries breached, what were certain enemies have the new potential to become friends and what was indubitably anathema moves from outright rejection to possible acceptance as a new part of normal.

In some respects, it seems that what Bonhoeffer is suggesting is that the life of faith is more about a methodology for progressive, evolving faithfulness and community (of God) building than an accumulation of faithful doctrines and convictions. Or, to cite the final passage from this particular week’s text, discipleship seems to be a movement toward perfection, toward the goal of shared life with the entire world despite all perceived impediments, i.e., “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Such a sharing requires a set of skills conducive to breaking of norms and conventions for the sake of new living, new arrangements, and new thinking about each other, our God, and ourselves.

This season of the year that we are entering is a season all about new possibilities, new communities, new ways of thinking, and new normal(s). Extrapolating the lesson offered above, this season is about assuming a new methodology, new strategy for engaging the world, strategies that build and transform enemies into friends, invite in the rejected, and commit to being less interested in guaranteed outcomes than dedication to a process that is modeled upon God’s willingness to try something new for us, changing and challenging everything we thought we knew in the process.

As I look around, I see many opportunities to break some habits, to challenge conventions, and to press toward new practices that offer the potential to transform—personal, social, religious, political, internal, perceived, and real—enemies into friends.

At a minimum, over the next few weeks we will find ourselves standing in line for hours to fulfill our obligations to be good consumers. At a maximum, I see situations like the seemingly intractable disagreements perpetuating conflict in the Middle East that follow the same old pathways looking for resolution, only to wind up reinforcing hostilities and entrenching bitterness.

Risking being overly simplistic and dismissive of the gross disparity between these two realities, these two realities seem to bear at least one commonality driving them both, i.e., self-interest. At a minimum, what things might we be willing to do for hours over the next few weeks that require us to be good givers and sharers as much as good consumers and receivers? How might our taking in this season become a giving that moves us beyond ourselves and our families and our communities into thoughts of and actions for those who have made these inexpensive goods we purchase, assuming the season is about building a better world more than achieving the best deal on a TV or pair of jeans? At a maximum, might new ways be needed, radical, unconventional, extraordinary steps that risk uncertain outcomes but that hold the pregnant potential to birth a new community where enemies become friends?

I realize such hopes might seem rather Pollyannaish. However as someone committed to a life of faith that includes an improbable conviction that even the Divine can and will try whatever it takes to share life with the most mundane and muddled and messy, the thought that active love dedicated to imagining new-yet-to-be-dreamt ways forward that are less committed to predetermined outcomes than to finding new paths for the sake of a shared destiny seems only appropriate. What, if not precisely this unimagined new path is the incarnation about! If this season of the year is about anything theological from the Christian perspective, it is a season dedicated to the practice of imaging and trying something new by moving beyond self-interest and self-preservation at the risk of uncertain consequences but based in a hope for something more reflective of who we are created to be.

So, in this season when we celebrate improbable, audacious, extraordinary acts of love, I choose to believe and seek to practice the extraordinary, the unbelievable . . . not just as the basis for my celebrations of faith but for convictions about how to live in the world as a giver and receiver of gifts, a member of society, and a practitioner of a politics that believes in new ways of living in the world that demands creative risk-taking for the sake of building a community defined more by its bold, imaginative, convention-breaking, extraordinary love than by its rules followed and enemies named.

This Christmas, I am not asking for too much . . . just that the world change. OK, that might be a lot, but at least I know that for that world-transforming love to occur, it must begin in the only way I have any control to make it happen . . . with my willingness to risk my own conventions, convictions, boundaries, and beliefs in order to make it happen. I am not certain where this commitment will end but, like Bonhoeffer and Matthew’s Jesus, I am more confident in my fellow practitioners and risk-takers than in the outcome because their shared life of love is the beginning of the end we seek.

Shared love, that seems like a great place to start!

Have a great week, a great end to the term, a great Christmas chapel on Wednesday, and a season filled with that next extraordinary step that leads to an extraordinary life of love and loving transformation. And, remember, don’t try doing it alone . . . togetherness is the whole point.

See you along the way.

“Love Came Down at Christmas”

Love came down at Christmas,

Love all lovely, Love Divine,

Love was born at Christmas,

Star and Angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token,

Love shall be yours and love be mine,

Love to God and all of us,

Love for plea and gift and sign.


A Thanksgiving Reflection

Posted in Uncategorized on November 19, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise!
—Psalm 95:2

This week, we struggle to balance our thoughts of papers and reports and assignments with dreams of turkey and stuffing and pie. Such a balancing act is not easily done. So, in an effort to tip the scale definitively toward a dream that culminates at warm pumpkin pie topped with a freshly whipped cool cream, I offer this historical morsel I found, reminding us how we arrived at this point in our civic calendar as a day set aside for food and companionship and thanks:

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag tribe shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states.

In 1817, New York became the first of several states officially to adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday; each state celebrated it on a different day, however. The southern states remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition. In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians. Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during The Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition. In 1941, the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

As you prepare to share time and food with those you love, let us remember that the day, while a singular moment, is meant to fulfill many duties. It is a time to remember, celebrating what has transpired over the past year. It is a time to treasure, enjoying moments with loved ones. It is, also, a time to challenge, spurring us from complacency to action as our thanksgiving for what we have stirs our compassion to be concerned enough to help those who cry out for what we take for granted.

Have a wonderful week, joyous celebration, and a Happy Thanksgiving.

Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

Brother (and Sister)

Posted in Uncategorized on November 12, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
—Matthew 5:21-26

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” is the unasked question driving Bonhoeffer’s continued ponderings on discipleship, here, in chapter five of Matthew’s gospel. While never explicitly expressed in this excerpt from the gospel, the gospel writer implies the question—in Bonhoeffer’s estimation—throughout the text. Also, it seems fitting that the writer should infuse the text with this question because this fundamental interrogative lies at the heart of the disciples’ community of faith. Moreover, the answer to this question serves as the bonding tie of love that holds each to the other and to God.
Let me explain.
It is important to recall the context in which this unasked question was asked. In the story of Cain and Abel from the fourth chapter of Genesis, we encounter sibling rivalry, jealously, betrayal, murder, evasion, punishment, and grace . . . all in just a few verses. In the Genesis story, Cain and Abel are born of Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel both offer sacrifices to God, but Abel’s are well received while Cain’s are not. Out of jealousy, Cain kills his brother and is confronted by God. Yet, God’s confrontation is indirect, confronting Cain through a question.
In the text, God asks, “‘Where is your brother Abel?’” And, in reply to God’s inquiry, we hear Cain’s evasive and infamous response, “‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” Now, in this exchange between God and Cain, we begin to see the reason why this question lies beneath the reflection offered by Bonhoeffer in his consideration of discipleship in this chapter from Matthew’s gospel. Because, in this encounter between God and Cain, a linkage is created between our love of God and our love of others, paralleling the connection Bonhoeffer highlights from the gospel text cited above.
In both biblical texts, love of God and love of neighbor are so intertwined that, functionally, one love can hardly been distinguished from the other, while, theologically, they are completely fused.
The source of Cain’s jealousy centers around the love his brother exhibited toward God and the love God returned to Abel. God honored Abel’s offering because Abel’s gift was the first of what he had while Cain’s was simply an offering of what remained. Abel’s gift demonstrated sacrifice, risk, and trust while Cain’s self-interest, caution, and suspicion. In other words, Cain’s lack of love for God expressed itself in a lack of love for his brother. Cain’s devaluing of his gifts from God for God is evidenced in his devaluing of his brother’s life. In this way, love of God is love of neighbor . . . and vice versa.
Like the text from Genesis, the text from Matthew assumes a direct correlation between our love for God and our love for our neighbors. Such a correlation was infused into the theology of Israel and into the church. Consider both the first and second tables of the Ten Commandments or the protestations of the prophets against sacrifices to God that do not, also, assume sacrifices for neighbors or the two greatest commandments identified by Jesus. In each instance, love of God—i.e., worship—and love of neighbors—i.e., concern for their wellbeing—are inextricably intertwined. Thus, in Bonhoeffer’s reflections, it makes perfect sense that a complaint about how we treat a brother or sister in the faith automatically evolves into a conversation about authentic worship. That evolution is exactly what happens, here, in Matthew’s gospel.
In this passage, Jesus is, again, instructing the disciples on what it means to follow him. And, there, he reiterates a central theme of this discourse. That theme is the essentiality of community. But, not just any community is essential. The essential community needed is a community bound together through love of God and of others. (And, by others, Jesus and Bonhoeffer are referring to more than just those who are part our [faith] communities. But, I am getting ahead of myself.)
For Bonhoeffer, communities are important because it is only within an intimate community of persons dedicated to each other and to risking life together that we able to chance embodying who we are meant to be and to preserver in that embodiment. Said much more simply, the disciple’s response to the implied question of this passage is “yes.” We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
When offered the opportunity to be each other’s keepers, our faith-filled reply is to engage in other-keeping practices. Importantly, these other-keeping practices are not owning practices but “keeping” in the sense of caring, as a beekeeper cares for a hive, not possessing it entirely, but only in part. Such keeping-as-caring involves a kind of mutual interiority, allowing our defined walls of self and community to become somewhat blurred, distinct but permeable. It is only in these kinds of loving embraces of each other and God that the kind of world (anticipated by a God willing to risk incarnation) may be realized.
As Jesus iterates in the Matthew text, even anger—self-righteous anger—can become destructive of both self and the other. When we allow anger to assume the defining position between others and ourselves—even if that anger is well earned, then that person ceases to be a person with whom we relate but the object of our hostility. In Bonhoeffer’s estimation, through our anger that person’s movement from subject of shared life to object of antagonism is a kind of death, a killing of a metaphorical kind, a death to life together that is replaced by a vengeful, insular heart.
It is for this very reason that Jesus immediately jumps from a statement about murder to a claim about anger to a conversation about love of God and neighbor. Importantly, the kind of anger discussed is not a fleeting impulse or reflexive response, i.e., a flash of anger. Rather, the kind of anger assumed is that festering, vindictive kind that lingers, producing an acidic soul that destroys our bonds of love and dissolves our hearts of grace. Such anger is a murdering, of a sort. That kind of anger kills our communities, kills our connections, and kills who we were, both together and individually.
As we approach another national election, I think of the significance of this particular requirement that discipleship means embodying a core of love. Further, that a core of love means the mandatory rejection of lingering anger because such anger dissolves and destroys, enacting a kind of communal murder as we destroy our connection to others as people and treat them as objects worthy of our hate and vitriol. And, our political speech certainly carries both hate and vitriol. Such a communal killing by re-categorizing political adversaries as objects of despisement rather than persons whom we love is precisely the kind of action that produces the double effect of destroying our communities and ourselves.
Given the ubiquity of those seeking office to speak ill of their opponents and, then, to seek to capitalize on their own Christian faith as a kind of political commodity, it is my prayer (and their voluntarily assumed obligation by virtue of invoking their faith into the political process) that those chosen allow love to become the currency in which we trade. It is my prayer that love repairs and restores; that neighbor love is understood as a chance to heal and not an obligation to fulfill; and that grace abounds where disgraceful speech previously purchased airtime on our televisions.
I cannot speak for other faiths. I am hesitant even to speak for the Christian community. But, I am certain that I can speak for myself as someone committed to living faithfully in community, community comprised of those of one faith, of many faiths, of no faith; of big government and small government advocates; of conservative and progressive values; of appreciation for the past and joyful anticipation of the future; of trickle-down and bubble-up economics; and of every permutation in between. I am certain that neither political party has cornered the market on being the most faithful or biblical or Godly or just or righteous or compassionate or “best hope for our future”—despite what those running for office tend to say. I am, also, certain that churches are not the Republican Party at prayer or that the Democrat Party is faith in action. What I am certain of is that love must be at the heart of who I am called to be and that such love leaves no room for the expanding reach of abhorrence, nor tolerates the acidic dissolving of vitriol, nor succumbs to the severing cuts of hate.
Communities (countries) cannot be sustained on abhorrence, vitriol, and hate. Communities (countries) require love, a love that serves as a gravity to draw us in and a love that actively binds us together “with cords that cannot be broken.”
Now, that is the kind of community that will get my vote every time.
Have a great week. See you along the way.


Posted in Uncategorized on November 12, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5:33-37

I swear this was an interesting iChapel to write.

Pardon the pun, but it allows for an useful way into this passage from Matthew’s gospel that we—along with Bonhoeffer—are about to consider.

Bonhoeffer begins his reflections on the passage from Matthew’s gospel with this summation: “The Christian Church has until now been strangely uncertain about the interpretation of this passage. Since the time of the Primitive Church, commentators have oscillated between a rigorism which rejects every oath as a sin, and a more liberal position which rejects only frivolous oaths and downright perjury.” In his reflection, Bonhoeffer attempts to address the gospel writer’s interaction with the text from Isaiah (7:14) imbedded in the Matthew passage, the writer’s apparent rejection of the prophet’s text, and how that text’s rejection or reinterpretation fits into his developing understanding of discipleship. In the end, Bonhoeffer is keen to avoid the pitfalls of both literalism’s ridged and uncritical reading of the text and liberalism’s metaphorical and ostensive dismissal of the text all together. Rather than choosing to consider the balance between oath-taking read literally or metaphorically, Bonhoeffer pivots to read the text theologically, considering any theologically instructive notions emerging from it. In other words, instead of just asking what the text meant when the gospel writer put pen to paper, Bonhoeffer wants to know what the text means for us, today.

First, we need to consider what oaths tell us about the world before determining how well they fit within our world.

Oaths seem to indicate, or more precisely the need for oaths, a frailty inherent to our social systems. For an oath is but a declaration that what is said at a given time on a given subject is to be taken as truth, suggesting that what is said at other times on other subjects is not to be taken as truth. In other words, there is a dual nature to oaths. Positively, oaths mean that some statements may be taken to be true and trustworthy. Negatively, oaths create a space where lies might exist, defining a barrier between times of truthfulness and times where truthfulness and lying might mix. An implied question emerges, Does the presence of oaths serve as a reminder that truthfulness is not always present or does the presence of oaths actually create the possibility that lies might have space to operate? (A classic chicken and egg debate.) Regardless, oaths seem to mean that lies and truth awkwardly interact within our lives and that we must develop strategies to deal with such a muddled world.

Theologically, Bonhoeffer sees a value in oath-taking, as a compromise or middle position, a position taken along the way from one state of communal living to another. Oath-taking’s compromise is a witness to the community that while lies and truth might intermingle most of the time, we are, also, capable of living together as truth-tellers when we put our minds and hearts to it.

By both accepting the need to have oaths as a witness to who might be and by rejecting oaths as a witness to who we must be, Jesus in the gospel is declaring that a new state of existence is necessary if we are to be who we are meant to be. That state of existence is a community defined not so much by the truth of our claims but by the truthfulness of our living. In other words, discipleship is not so much about our declarations of the truth of Jesus as the Christ but our living as people truthful to each other and to God. The kingdom/community of God is less a propositional claim as a relational commitment, a commitment to God and to each other. (This idea lingers in our own language. Think about our expressions of calling someone a “true friend” or how we are encouraged to be “true to each other.”)

And, as it turns out, a kingdom/community of faith does not have room for untruthfulness, so the space granted lies in a world containing oaths is not tolerated because lies destroy community with God and each other. So oaths—while functionally useful—are not ultimately useful in a community defined primarily by relationships, because relationships must rest on perpetual, not sporadic truthfulness . . . at least this seems to be the direction that Bonhoeffer wishes to take us.

Truth-telling, it turns out, is a truth-making enterprise that builds truthful, trusting community. Therefore, it seems that this passage is not so much about oath-taking as truth-telling.

So, in that spirit of truth-telling as an essential part of who we are, I want to reflect on this season of thanks into which we are entering, telling the truth about our thanksgiving . . . or reflecting on much of my thanksgivings offered over the years.

During the coming days, there will be many occasions—occasions in which I have happy shared and often facilitated—when we are invited to express our own reasons for being thankful. With genuine joy, we declare our thanks for family and friends and provisions and plenty and health and wealth and opportunity and promise. While legitimately thankful, I am suspicious that behind our thanksgiving is a subtle conclusion drawn from a cursory judgment of others and the world around us.

Often, it seems, that our thankfulness issues from our reflections on other’s “lacking” relative to our own “having.”

Now, do not get me wrong. By itself, such a conclusion of (relative) thanks drawn from comparison is not wrong nor practically avoidable. In fact, our prayers over this season often reflect this very reality. We pray things like, “As we gather around this table, we are thankful for all that we have. In our bounty, we are reminded of those who go hungry, today.”

Delicately linked, our thanksgiving is drawn from comparison. We notice what we have by noticing what others do not, or by noticing what we have we notice what others do not. Either way, our having is linked to other’s not having. But, that linking can be problematic if we are (unconsciously) thankful only to the degree that others are suffering. In such a scenario, our thankfulness becomes conditional. With this calculation, if others cease to do without or start to do better, our thankfulness can decrease, sometimes to be replaced by resentment or jealousy.

So, our thankfulness must not be simply a relative category that produces gratitude in us. The danger with thankfulness as a relative category is that at best it can lead to complacency, i.e., our being content with the thankfulness that emerges from the simple observation that we have and that others do not. At worst, it can transform from observation to overt judgment, i.e., the generation of a negative attitude toward those without, allowing poverty to become a commentary on the character of the poor.

Rather, our thankfulness needs to be a relational category, not a relative one.

Instead of drawing the (relative) conclusion that we have much for which to be thankful by virtue of the fact that we notice that others to not, we need to understand thankfulness as a relational category, drawing the conclusion that we have much from noticing that others do not and, yet, asking the second and third questions, i.e., why and what can I do about it.

The transition from thankfulness as a relative category to thankfulness as a relational category is the simple insertion of a second step. Observation must lead to action.

When we conclude that we are thankful because of what we have and share, that conclusion must lead to a response, seeking to identify ways to have and share our lives and our reasons for being thankful with our neighbors.

In truth, such a transition from observation to action is never easy, but it is possible, a possibility made real through the simple exercise of being truthful with ourselves about how we come to conclude why we are thankful.

And, as good news, I can say that such transformations are happening across our campus, already.

Last week, students from YHC traveled to Asheville to work and share life and worship with a community of homeless and sheltered neighbors seeking an authentic, relational life of thanksgiving together. On Thursday, dozens upon dozens from our campus streamed into the dining hall to pack thousands upon thousands of meals for those in our country and around the world who are hungry. This week in chapel, scores more will bring shoeboxes to our Thanksgiving Chapel service, shoeboxes packed with good gifts to be shared with neighbors we will certainly never meet. And, this Sunday around a table, many from our campus who represent different faiths and nationalities will sit together to share a simple meal and conversation, an intimate, truthful moment of thanks for us all.
These are small, intentional steps, each one, that help to produce a community more reflective of who we are meant to be, a community more like the kingdom of God than we might ever imagine . . . I swear it!