Friday, September 30, 2011

Surpassing Value

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  -- Philippians 3:7-8

Paul is sharing a powerful insight that comes with knowing Jesus.  All the things that are valued by society -- in Paul's case, lineage, education, righteousness in the law, even zeal for the faith -- count as nothing compared to the value of knowing Christ.  Since Paul is writing this letter from prison, he has lost even more than his past prestige.  He has lost his freedom.  But what he does have surpasses the loss of all these things.  He knows Jesus Christ.  And so, instead of conveying any sense of loss, the predominant feeling that overflows throughout the pages of his letter is one of joy.

This insight from Tuesday morning's reading mirrors what I am reading in Huston Smith's "World Religions" about Hinduism.  Although the paths may be different, the insights that Hindus and Christians have discovered about life are the same.  For Hindus, too, have discovered the inherent emptiness in many of the things that people think they want.

According to Huston Smith, Hindus believe there are four tiers along the quest of fulfillment.  At the first tier, people want pleasure, good times, fun.  This way of life soon falls flat, leaving one feeling unfulfilled, empty.  At the second tier, people seek power, prestige, success in work, wealth, etc.  This way can offer more substance, but eventually, this also leaves one feeling empty, wondering if there is more to life.  At the third tier, people begin to seek more meaning in their lives.  They begin to look outward, to think of their community, and help people in need.  (pg. 13-16)

This is where Huston Smith says religion begins:  "with the quest for meaning and value beyond self-centredness."  On this third tier, one "transforms the will-to-get into the will-to-give, the will-to-own into the will-to-serve" (pg. 19).  What I found surprising is that helping others has also been discovered to leave one empty.  The Hindus have learned that service to your neighbor is not enough.  Something more is necessary in order for one to feel completely fulfilled.

As I struggled to understand why this was so, I thought of Jesus.  Jesus taught us to give and serve as an act of love.  Without love, given or received, any sort of altruism would feel very hollow, especially if it is difficult.  Jesus told us to "love one another as I have loved you."  When service comes from love, it has meaning.  Otherwise, as Paul observes elsewhere, "without love, I have nothing." (1 Corinthians 13)  I thought that this must be the missing piece to the third tier of the quest of fulfillment. 

But then I learned in Smith's book that Hindu's believe complete fulfillment lies in the quest for ultimate being, ultimate knowledge, and ultimate joy.  These words took me back to the passage above.  I believe Paul achieved all three with Jesus Christ.  Paul found the meaning of life in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, and in his trust that this would be an eternal relationship.  The joy that came from this relationship was palpable.  Everything else life had to offer paled in comparison.

I am reminded of Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life...."  I see a connection between these words of Jesus and Hinduism's final goal.  Ultimate being is the life; ultimate knowledge is the truth; and, ultimate joy is the way.  Jesus embodies all three goals.  He said, "I came that you may have life and have it abundantly... and that your joy may be full" -- irrespective of our circumstances.  Perhaps a Hindu might not see it that way, but I think its worth noting.  We have in and with and through Jesus Christ the possibility of finding ultimate being, ultimate truth, and ultimate joy.

Dear God, thank you for bringing these two readings together for me.  May the similarities between us bring enriched fellowship and understanding.  Love always, Pam

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nothing Special

Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.     -- Psalm 25:8

These words from the Hebrew Scripture make me think of Jesus.  Jesus was often criticized for sitting and talking and eating with sinners.  "Why does he eat with tax collector's and sinners?" the Pharisees asked.  And Jesus, who heard them, answered, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."  (Mark 2:15-17)

I wonder what messages he would have shared with the tax-collector's and prostitutes and such.  I imagine him sharing messages of God's steadfast love and forgiveness.  Perhaps he shared examples from the past.  There are plenty to choose from in Scripture. 

The story of Jacob comes to mind, as it too was in the readings for this week.  Jacob connived to get his brother's birthright, and lied to his father in order to steal his brother's blessing.  He had to flee his home, and everything he loved, to escape Esau's wrath.  Used to living in tents, and having little work to do, he must have felt very much the hardship of being alone in the desert with only the clothes on his back and a stone for a pillow.   But God comes to him in a dream, and tells him, "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land."  With this revelation, Jacob begins to change his ways.  God's love can transform a sinner's life.

This was something the Pharisees didn't seem to understand.  They believed that only the righteous, like themselves, were loved by God.  Only those who obeyed the laws of Moses, like themselves, were acceptable to God, and the community.  Like Jonah, they wanted sinners to be punished, not forgiven.

Which is why Jesus not only taught sinners such as the tax-collectors and prostitutes, he also taught the self-righteous Pharisees.  So many of his parables are directed to those who thought they didn't need teaching.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows the "heretical" Samaritan being a better neighbor than the priest or Levite.  The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard illustrates that God's grace is not dependent on how hard you've worked.  All receive the same grace.  All are loved equally.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches both sinners and saints.  It offers guidance to the young profligate son and caution to the elder obedient one.  The younger brother takes his inheritance, wastes it all, and ends up living in a pigsty.  The elder brother thinks he has earned his father's love, that only he deserves his father's rewards.  Anything else is just not fair.  Both are thinking only of themselves.  Both need a change of heart.  The younger brother needs to trust that he is not worthless in his father's eyes; and the older brother needs to see that he is not the only one who is worthy in his father's eyes.  Both need to learn how to receive and return love.  

This reminds me of something a friend shared about Alcoholics Anonymous the other day.  She said AA teaches you that You are not Special.  Neither your success in life, nor your failures, are the result of your "specialness."  You are not invincible.  Nor are you a victim.  You're not the best, and you're not the worst.  You are just like every other human being, making bad choices.  In this way, the self-destructive learn to raise their heads, and the high-and-mighty learn to lower theirs. 

Isn't this just what Jesus was all about?  A constant refrain in the readings of late has been, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last."  And as my pastor said, "Then maybe we will be able to join our hands in a circle."  Yes, for then we will know that God loves us all.

Dear God, may we learn that we are all, each and every one of us, in many different ways, both broken and blessed.  May the love you give us so generously be shared generously with others.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, September 17, 2011

To Each His Own?

The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God.    -- Romans 14:22

Paul is writing this advice to the Romans.  In this letter, his last, he expresses the culmination in his understanding after years of preaching the gospel message.  He is not settling disputes between members like he has done in so many of his previous letters.  He is not answering specific questions about women, offices in the church, or life after death.  His message is much simpler:  God justifies those who put their trust in him.  Simply place your trust in God, believe, and God will lead you along the way you need to go.

In these words above, Paul tells us to focus on our personal relationship with God.  We don't need to judge anyone's beliefs but our own; nor do we need to be convicted by anyone's judgment but our own as we live in relationship with God.  For, ultimately, essentially, our relationship with God is a personal one.   Through the study of scripture, through prayer, through living in community, and listening to God's Holy Spirit as it speaks to us, we grow and learn what it means to be a child of God.

Luther, who highly valued Paul's letter to the Romans, first coined the phrase "the priesthood of all believers" to highlight this insight, and to differentiate it from the prevailing attitude of the priesthood of a chosen few.  Luther trusted that people of average intelligence would be able to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves.   People did not need to be told what to believe by the Church, or anyone else.

The result of  such individualism, of course, is that we will come to different conclusions, about God, about Jesus, about a whole multitude of things, than our neighbor.  For, not only is the Bible, our foundational source of information about our God, full of contradictions, but our experiences of God vary from our neighbors' experiences.  And there is the rub.

For how do we love our neighbor who does not see God the same way we do?

Historically, our answer has been to judge the other wrong and separate ourselves from them, if not worse.  Luther's stance may not have started the divisions (there were divisions before Luther), but it did give Christians even greater impetus to separate over differing beliefs. And so churches, Protestant churches especially, have continually divided over differing beliefs, especially over differing interpretations of the Bible. At last count there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations.  Is the inevitable result of this attitude to someday have millions of churches of one member only?

How and why did this become the appropriate response to different understandings?

Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith became confused with belief.  Our individual beliefs about God, Jesus, and a multitude of other things, came to represent our faith in God.  Trust in God's righteousness was replaced with our righteousness before God.  Even after Luther.  This righteousness was not dependent on works so much, anymore, but it became dependent upon our beliefs -- not our faith.

But this isn't the example Jesus gave us.  Rich and poor, learned and unlearned, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, Pharisees and tax collectors, women and men -- you name it -- all followed Jesus.  Did all these people think the same way about anything?  They certainly didn't think the same way about God.  But they all had one thing in common.  They all believed in, or came to believe in, God.  As Jesus continually told them:  their faith made them well.  They just needed to trust in a loving, forgiving God.  Jesus cut threw all the arguments and sectarianism to what was really important:  love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Period.

Dear God, thank you for your wonderful message.  And thank you for the example of Jesus.  In the words of St. Anthony:  "Please grow us slowly, persistently, and deeply, Lord, to be people who watch without distraction, listen without interruption, and stay put without inclination to flee."  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

All Authority

If any judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another -- any such matters of dispute in your towns -- then you shall immediately go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose, where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case.  Carry out exactly the decision in the case....  -- Deut. 17:8-10

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed....    -- Romans 13:1-2

These readings for yesterday are both about obedience to human authority, either governmental or priestly.  Both of these passages bother me.  For one, priests -- or in my case, pastors -- disagree with each other at times about questions on faith/religion, even pastors in my Lutheran denomination.  And for another, any human authority can be wrong, if not wickedly wrong and corrupt.  The only authority that I feel I can absolutely trust is God's authority.

But where do I learn God's will?  As a Christian, I rely on the example and teachings of Jesus to show me the way I need to go, and I rely on the real presence of God's Holy Spirit in my life.  Whenever I read, hear, or see something, even something in other parts of Scripture, that runs contrary to Jesus' life and teachings then I think that way is wrong.  Whenever I read, hear or see something that mirrors the teachings of Jesus, then I am confident that way is right.

Which is why these passages about human authority bother me.  As far as governmental authority goes, Jesus says:  Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. (Matt. 22:21).  And as far as priestly authority goes, Jesus says:  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.  Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. (Matt. 23:8-10).  These words tell me that my possessions (man-made and money-bought) belong to the world; they are transitory things that will pass on to someone else, or fade away.  My heart, my mind, my body, and my soul, however, belong to God.  Jesus teaches me to give my all to God, and to let no earthly authority lead me astray -- not government, not priest or pastor, not even family. 

Coincidentally, driving to school yesterday afternoon to pick up my children, and listening to a CD on "The History of the Catholic Church" (The Teaching Company), I heard examples of this very thing.  The next lecture on tap in this 33-lecture set, happened to be about the developments in Christianity in the 4th century.  During this century, Christianity changed from being a state-persecuted religion whose leaders were mostly martyred, to being a state-sponsored religion whose leaders mostly shared the power and wealth of the state.

This was the time period when the things of Caesar and the things of God were rendered together and all power resided in a few human hands.  This was the time when Christianity became militarized, called upon for success in battle by Constantine, though Jesus said, "love your enemies" and "whoever shall live by the sword shall die by the sword."  This is the time when great cathedrals were beginning to be built (St. Peter's, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), as well as palaces for clergy, from the offerings of the faithful, despite the fact that Jesus lived very simply and said, "you cannot serve God and wealth."  And this is the time period when creeds were made and doctrine developed in an attempt to unify the great diversity of understanding among far flung Christians, but which serve more to distract Christians from the simple commandment of Jesus:  love one another as I have loved you.

The coincidence of listening to this particular information on this particular day is not lost on me, which is why I have learned to trust in God's Holy Spirit.  Human authority, both priestly and governmental, and especially when these are combined into one, has often led us pretty far astray from the life and teachings of Jesus, and has disqualified the working of the Holy Spirit.  So, despite these passages in the Old and New Testament, I will continue to trust Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, whom I believe were, and are, sent by God to show us the way to him.

Dear and Wonderful God, thank you for guiding me in the steps you want me to go, for leading me to exactly what I needed and giving me the strength to carry on.  Love always, Pam

Friday, September 2, 2011

Revealing Weakness

I have been a fool!          --  2 Corinthians 12:11

I woke up this morning groaning to myself about my confession of weakness in Bible Study last night.  Why did I do that?!  Now people will have a bad opinion of me.  What I said was true, but I wish I had painted things a little better.

We had been discussing Psalm 119:33-40, which conveys a sense of the pilgrim journey we are on, learning God's way, and learning to forsake the vanities of life.  I said that I have learned a lot about vanity over the years.  I revealed that when we first moved back to Tucson, I wanted a house that would impress people.  We had saved a lot of money while we lived in England.  So, I felt we had moved up in the world.  And, I wanted a house that reflected that.  While I looked for a house that would satisfy the needs of our family, I also looked for a house that would impress.  And I found it.  I didn't care that it was slightly beyond our budget.  We deserved it.

I was as proud of this house, and as vain about it, as it is possible to be about any thing one can buy.  I defined myself as a person by this house.  I also defined other people by their houses.  If their house was nicer, I thought well of them; if their house wasn't, I felt pity for them.

Isn't this a terrible way to think?  I know it is.  I am embarrassed by my attitude back then. So, why did I make this confession?  Why did I reveal such a character flaw to my friends at church?  Especially since my attitude has changed.  I learned the hard way that all that glitters is not gold.  And I know personally how to "gain the world" and lose myself.

I feel great sympathy for Paul today.  He was certainly embarrassed after revealing his weaknesses.  Is that a foolish thing to do, dear Lord, reveal our weaknesses?  Or does that lead people to see your glory all the more when we change -- like the man who was born blind so that God's glory would be revealed when he was healed by Jesus?

I wasn't the only one making confessions.  Someone else said that he had a feeling of dislike towards a person he didn't even know, that that person's demeanor simply repelled him .  He didn't fully understand why this was.  He was aware of it, however, and was trying to sort through it.

Today, I read in Henri Nouwen's "Spiritual Direction," of his experiences living in a small community.  He wrote, "In community we learn what it means to confess our weakness and to forgive each other....  Friendships gradually developed with all the members of the house.  But these bonds of friendship were not without great cost.  I had to face the cost of recognizing my own handicaps!  I had always known they were there, but I had always been able to keep them out of sight.  Self-confrontation was the hardest battle of all." (p.117)

Reflecting on these words, God's message to me is revealed.  The pain of my confession is lessened.  For the Wednesday night Bible Study consists of a group of people growing in friendship, and trust.  We all value each others' unique contributions to the group, and treasure our weekly discussions of faith.  This is the place where we gather in Jesus' name.  And as Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel, Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be.  This is a place where the love and forgiveness of Jesus is found.

God is found in our solitude.  Jesus is found in our community.

Dear Lord, thank you so much for all you have given me.  Especially, good friends with whom to share in your blessings.  Love always, Pam