Tuesday, August 15, 2017

God's Reign = Action

I have been focusing on forgiveness these last few installments.  This is not only because I have learned about forgiveness within the larger framing of the approaching nearness of God's reign -- thank you Martin Smith -- but also because I have also learned how we need to continually practice forgiveness on lots of levels within the web of relationships of our day-to-day lives.  

The biggest piece of my learning has been to understand the limitations of a transactional approach to forgiving.  When Jesus talks about loving our enemies he criticizes an easy tit-for-tat balancing within safe circles.  He says "Even the gentiles do that." (Matthew 5:47) and by that clearly intends for us to do more.  

Loving one's enemies is "kingdom work."  It relies on an authority larger than our enclosed circles and requires much more than a "settled accounts" stasis.  

Just as important as the scope in this reading is our recognizing that forgiveness -- principle among those actions that could be construed as loving one's enemies -- must be something done.  It requires action.  

Because it is an action involving another it will have all the appearance of being only transactional.  It will have the initiating approach of the petitioner necessarily coupled with the returning and confirming response of the one being petitioned.  Like any transaction "I'm sorry/I forgive you" it risks being understood as finished too soon and portrayed as discrete and specific to the shared interests of the two parties.  Done!

Action is required and because we are creatures of time and space action it is required again, and again, and again.

This reminds me of a conversation I had at seminary about the word torah/תּוֹרָה.  Our contemporary use is to understand the word as a noun depicting the collection of texts in the first five books of the Bible and to summarize them as largely of or about a set of rules or laws.  

This is understandable because a centerpiece story in that collection is the handing of the ten commandments to Moses.  What was interesting to learn then was that the word Torah/תּוֹרָה is built on a verb ירה which means to teach. 

The characteristics I am applying to forgiveness are at work here.  Faithful living whether determined by ancient Hebrew standards or a more contemporary Christian practice calls us to continual action.

Whether it is one discrete transaction after another, cascading or expanding into an ever widening circle or it is an aroused response of love for others begun and made near to us in God's ever approaching love of us "kingdom work" requires action!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Forgiven-ness begets forgiving-ness

There is a way to talk about the reign of God that helps to name forgiveness as of God from the beginning but even now continuously begging our practice.  The phrase is "already and not yet."

First let's not get stymied by a typical “both/and” of “Anglican comprehensiveness" in allowing two seemingly contradictory categories to coexist.  It is not a cop-out.

The possibility of human forgiveness is grounded in God and we must admit that priority. Knowing human tendencies, we are wise to be cautious about this truth to avoid presumption or taking this gift for granted.

This priority is not like an abstract argument waiting to be articulated but more like a reality entirely caught up in who God is as the "ground of our being."

You can say that we are born into forgiven-ness.  Still cautious but infinitely graced.

That's the already-ness of forgiveness as a priority from the reign of God.

But there is also a "not yet" to the reign of God because God honors our world of time and space and ". . . the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

So we revel and celebrate the life of Jesus with all the questions that come in making sense of the fullness of his divinity and his humanity; what did he know and when did he know it?

Another marvel is in imagining the timing and activity of his forgiving.  No matter what you say about it's already-ness Jesus dispensed forgiveness early and often like advertising for what was to come. 

He never withheld it but his forgiving also did not presume or rush ahead.  It waited on the moments it was given to be beckoned by creatures like us and with his pronouncements then he made the world a better place.

Forgiving-ness does not presume but waits on us as well, not only for our confessions but just as much on our pronouncements.

As much as we must stay cautious so as not to take God's on-the-ground gift for granted we must also not avoid our own part in incarnating God's gift.  Jesus showed us how. He remembered from where the gift came and he gave it away.  "As the Father has loved me so I have loved you, abide in my love." John 15:9

When we forget or presume we slip into that "transactional" version of forgiveness I wrote about last week.  We become imposters who misunderstand from where all this grace comes and measure out deals, keep accounts, punish and seldom if ever forget, "only forgiv[ing] as much as our broken human frames can hold and release.

Now instead of ledgers and grudges, shame and offenses we can do even more out of gratitude for what God has already done and there's one less "not-yet" moment in God's reign.

God's reign is "already" and we are forgiven.  God's reign is "not yet" and so we can do the forgiving.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Voluntary Forgiveness

I'm still in that reverie and marvel at what it means that the "reign of God is upon us." Thanks to so many good sources: Martin Smith, Paul Tillich, Diana Butler Bass and their lively coupling with our lectionary's guidance through Matthew's middle chapters the reverie is deep and electric.

There is another source for my musings that I must acknowledge. 

My life with you this past year. 

This starts a smidge confessional so read with me -- all the way through but -- gently. 

Last summer was not easy.  My relationships with people I love were a mess.  I was still stuck in the quagmire of being until August 12, not-yet-divorced.  I was dragging along a mortgage on a house I wasn't living in.  I had to change therapists. 

For the most part I got through those challenges, just not without lots of help. The help came in two forms mostly: volunteerism and forgiveness.  Lots of you stepped up and added yourselves to the labors.  Just as many of you forgave me on the front end of my sabbatical and made it available to me in exactly the way I needed. 

When I got back to Athens after my trip to Yellowstone my accident pushed on us all.  By being both a distraction and an inhibitor it made much of what should have happened in September and later hard and in some cases impossible to do.  More volunteerism and more forgiveness needed. 

My immobility quieted my life.  There was still an air of forgiveness and still people stepping up.  We walked through what was left of the year.  I didn't run.  We didn't run.

There's another reason my world shrank.  I was miscalculating forgiveness and volunteerism.  I was measuring them transactionally.  Afraid to ask for help, afraid to take risks, afraid to move forward because I couldn't afford to pay it back.  I took on a few things but still didn't look ahead with any confidence or courage.

That brought a fresh round of setbacks.  Mostly private and personal but still restrictive.  Still inhibiting. 

Something happened.  Maybe it was related to my house finally selling.  I really can't say but it feels like a seed was planted. 

Now our attention is much more forward focused.  We can plan, we can even imagine running.  Guess who gets to come along from those old days?  Forgiveness and volunteerism.

I understand them both now as dynamic realities begun in the presence of God.  Forgiveness means trusting God's love enough to pursue healing instead of presuming to do God's work by punishing others. It is no longer a transactional housekeeping of rights and wrongs, of debts and favors.  It is a faithful and constant response to the "reign of God [being] upon us."

Otherwise we can only forgive as much as our broken human frames can hold and release. Otherwise we "keep" track of scores and never really let go of the past. 

That happens when our worlds shrink and we forget that God is with us.  It happens when we hurt and are fatigued in our disappointment.  We just want to quit and start new accounts where there is not yet a demand for our accommodations.  Some people leave church.

Volunteerism is similarly affected.  We just don't show up and we look for benefits for ourselves before others. 

Both expand when placed into the hands of God.  Both become tools for saying thank you to God for being present with us.

Like many of the truths in my life these apply both corporately and personally.  It only hurts when I am or others are stuck in "transaction mode."  Still keeping score the old fashioned way.

But God is with us and forgiveness is our admitting to the effect of that nearness of God's kingdom.  Without it our accounts are always in danger of being overdrawn and we cannot truly move forward. 

With it?  We can forgive beyond our hoping, we can step up for each other and help each move into that future where God awaits us.  
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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Wide and Deep

"I am a waste and because God is God, a glorious waste at that.  It seems I've been in this moment for a while.  That is to say that I am learning to begin with and keep thinking in terms of God's continuing presence with us as more informative than any other truth of our lives. (Me, last week)
I started down this path when I sat with several diocesan friends and others to hear Martin Smith talk about Jesus as an "aroused arouser."  

Smith was looking for a placed shared by the "Marys and the Marthas," the contemplatives and the proselytizers, worshippers and the workers.  He saw the contemporary church as bifurcated and by way of that split undone as a means to the larger end given to it by God.

A close examination of what "turned on" Jesus or of that thing in which Jesus seemed to be most interested became for Smith the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God.  Smith included in his remarks the important reminder that because of its nearness and the places from where the kingdom arrives we can never "talk behind Jesus' back."  

He is with us as we wash the sojourner's feet and as we pray, as we stock the soup kitchen and as we sing old metrical hymns, as we live and as we die.  

It took a while for the first followers to understand this.  Paul's letter to the Romans is stuffed full with this concern and his attempts to share its pervasive wonder.  Paul says, 
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
So I'm good with it.  God is with us and is seeing to God's proximity with us because God is God. Said another more "Smithian" way, "the Kingdom of heaven is near."

"I'm good with it" but none of this kingdom glory is settling for me.  Yes, I have my anxieties and Paul's words are reassuring but the overall effect for me is more up than down, more warmed than cooled, more awakened than rested. 

Here's where I want to go with this new (renewed?) arousal.  I want to go wide and deep. I want to ask again and again the question "what is God calling me/us to become?"  

I am confident that God's proximity allows the question to become a constant refrain for us. Because God is with us we can always be asking and answering this question.  God's presence is NOT contingent on our getting the answer right.

But when it hits us that God is with us and nothing can separate us from that love aren't we encouraged to do all sorts of things that previously would have seemed too daunting, too risky?  Beyond the refrain are answers that we may have refused in the fears and doubts of our past.  Whose responses we may have deferred because we thought God wasn't already in the room. 

There's so much to do! Thanks be that God is with us!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

God is with us, still!

I'm reflecting back on last Sunday's gospel of the sower.  I have grown to appreciating the extravagant love of God in broadcasting seed on every kind of soil.  3 bad locations and one good that only renders varied results - 100-fold, 60-fold or 30-fold.  What a glorious waste!

And so am I!  That's right.  I am a waste and because God is God, a glorious waste at that.  It seems I've been in this moment for a while.  That is to say that I am learning to begin with and keep thinking in terms of God's continuing presence with us as more informative than any other truth of our lives of largely bad soil.

This in the vein of my previous attempts to appreciate Paul Tillich's description of God as the ground of being.  There is a depth in that claim that we miss with some many other descriptions of who God is.  For sure it suffers the same limitation that all human descriptions of God suffer.  The concept is caught up in the term analogia entis.  That is to say our descriptions of God are not to be confused with God.

Another of Tillich's colleagues, the inimitable Karl Barth pushed back against this notion.
His take was that in the revelation of God in the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus we were given the language capable of fully expressing who God is.  Barth termed it the analogia fidei.  That is to say that by faith God bestows the necessary language for us to know and express who God is.

Tillich and Barth don't really disagree here.  Both credit God with closing the gap.  Both would rely on language that identifies God as with us.  Both would understand Jesus as the means by which God speaks the language of faith through us.  Just like Paul says for us this Sunday, July 23:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15b-17, NRSV)
 For me the marvel is that we are glorious recipients of God's extravagant love and grounding presence.  Even bad soil has God as the ground of being.  Even bad soil can cry, "Abba, Father!"

This means so much in our day-to-day lives.  Bad soil cannot save itself but because of who God is we can say we're sorry and call on God who loves all soil, who sets things right and wastes his Glory on us.

God is the ground of our being. God is with us. God makes love possible. With God's presence all our promises can still be kept.  With God's presence we can learn and grow and bear fruit.  With God's presence our broken relationships can be restored again.

God does not wait but casts his love on all soil and God keeps on loving us.  Results may vary -- sounds like a warning label -- but really that just means we are different and yet still just as beloved of God.

So much is possible even though there be weeds among the wheat.  There are possibilities on so many levels because God is with us!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Other Sermons

Fred Craddock said lots of good things.  Things in sermons about the Bible, about Jesus, about sin, about God, lots of good things.  He also said some things about saying some things.  That is because he taught about preaching.

Here's one of my favorites, paraphrased,  "every preacher has a sermon, they just change names to protect the innocent and preach it over and over."

Some preachers have two sermons.  Some of the best have three maybe even four.  But all are guilty of the same "costuming."

I'm pretty sure I've got at least two sermons: God is God and you're not and that's good news.

My other sermon is something like "I once was a baptist and now I'm . . . "

I hope I have another two or three.  Craddock would say "don't be greedy."

I know this: I've never, I repeat NEVER, felt like I was being left alone in a wilderness to struggle with finding something to say.  The text is richer than what we read and the "word" does its work, often in spite of me.

This is not true for all preachers.  But what Craddock said about preaching is true for each one of us. There are only a handful of life lessons that can fit into our rule books.  We get one or two things down pat and just keep using them over and over.

Our capacity to learn and grow is always being challenged and we often just say "enough."  We retreat back to things we already knew and dress them up as something new.

Think about how many of us -- I'm the worst -- listen just enough to reply and seldom enough to be changed. Seldom enough to get to that vulnerability where change happens. Instead we load our gun with "ready, fire, aim" responses that let us stay with what we know and all our habits.

It's as if we don't trust someone.  It happens in preaching, too.

But trust is the threshold to learning.  For preaching it starts with listening.  Listening for the word that doesn't necessarily confirm what we've said before.  Listening for that truth that is bigger than the one we used last week.

With people we look for matches, shared likes and dislikes, similarities.  That's what makes Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week.

Thanks be to God we don't go to church.  Thanks be to God we ARE the church. So that wherever we go we are always being shown,  called to listen to the others in our day-to-day lives and not the same old "sermons" redressed down to our size.

Trust is the threshold of learning.  Learning to live with others who are not immediately like us. Since we've recognized the truth that God is with us always maybe now we can trust and listen like never before.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Always with us

When I worked for Fluor Daniel I was impressed with how much time and energy were spent on the creating a corporate culture.  Posters, buttons, speeches, employee trainings were all tuned-in to the most recent idea adopted by upper management.  I especially remember when I started to hear the phrase "value added."

It was meant to title all those things each of FD's employees did on top of their specific assignment to positively boost the client's experience and enhance the product.  Not just pipes drafted but pipes drafted using the latest software so that plans could be adapted electronically and jobsite work could advance without delay!  Value added!

I suppose my part in adding value to the corporate culture was to squeeze more guests into the employee fitness center without them knowing it was a problem.  That's what the "vice-president of towel operations" was supposed to do.

In the end my best efforts toward that corporate goal were to listen and accompany every fitness center user as they relieved the stress of their own efforts to add value on a deadline, to find ways to forward their fitness away from work, to encourage them when their waistlines shrank too slowly.

I'm remembering those days as a way to explore more deeply into the truth that I've read between Paul Tillich and Diana Butler Bass these last few weeks.

There are transactional structures that inform the use of "value added" language.  But some of that transaction thinking fails to grasp the effect of our groundedness in God.  We are mudlings, made from the very ground and spittle and breath of God.  We are created by God in love and only away from God by our own forgetfulness and failing.

Forgiveness and repentance aren't contracts to which God adds value.  They are our acceptance that the deal of our creation was already good enough and needed no enhancement, no buttons or posters or ahead of schedule deliveries.  No need for "value added."