Monday, August 27, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think (Mother Teresa Edition)

1) Years ago during my Goshen experience, I preached a sermon that in it's ending, invited everyone to come and suffer for Jesus. It emphasized that the end of point of Christian discipleship may not be happiness or wealth or good health or overcoming every problem (which is more the norm for the sermons we hear), but rather a willingness to take on the darkness and emptiness of the world just as Christ did: ending his life on the cross forgiving us all while also expressing his sense of total abandonment ("Why, Father, have you ignored and left me?"). After the service I got a smattering of varied responses, but the strongest actually came from my father, who looked visibly shaken and disturbed.

"Suffer?" he said. "Did you end that service by calling people to suffer? To feel lonely and broken? Why on earth would I want to do that? Why would anybody?"

Good questions, and at the time all I could say was that this was the idea that I had drawn out of the scripture: Jesus not focused on people receiving multitudes of good things, warm fuzzy feelings, a sense of happiness, healing, and wholeness. Jesus focused on sharing his suffering with us.

2) This sermon, and my father's response has always stuck with me. In an age where Time Magazine publishes excerpts of Mother Teresa's letters detailing her 45 years of spiritual emptiness, and an article openly wondering of TD Jakes was the next Billy Graham, so goes our schizophrenia as American Christians: the place where our spiritual heroes are a woman who lived and died as a suffering servant, and a pastor preaching a health-and-wealth message who wears tailored-suits costing thousands of dollars apiece.

I don't labor under the illusion that this "spiritual suffering v. prosperity gospel" division in the Christian world is simply an American phenomenon. Both in Seoul (at both Kwanglim Methodist and Yoido Full Gospel) and in London (at the pentecostal church, The Glory House, which was made up entirely of African ex-pats living in London) we heard variations on the same prosperity gospel theme that if you stay properly faithful and positive, God will reward you with material blessings and good health. People are looking to get ahead everywhere. It just that appears to me that less prominent have been messages calling us to empty ourselves out on behalf of others. They seem fewer and far between.

3) I think thought that the argument that God desires something more for us than simple abundance of stuff and good feelings could be made, and I think is in the New Testament. It boggles the mind, for example, when I hear people rattle off the visualization techniques written about in "The Secret" or the numerous instructions Joel Osteen uses in his book on how to simply asked God for something so it will appear before your eyes, as blueprints for their own spiritual progress. I mean, didn't Jesus tell us that we can't serve God and Money, or that love of money was the root of all evil, or that unlike the popular perception of his (our?) day that it's harder for rich people to get into people than those who were poor?

Of course you can't paint people with broad strokes without slandering their character. Both Osteen and Jakes have undertaken substantial ministries to try and improve the plight of the poor. And I don't really know about Rhonda Byrne, the author of The Secret, or even read the book for that matter, but the impression of the mega-ministries I'm getting is that the "pouring yourself out" part of ministry seems to be kind of a "oops, we really do care about more than making money here at this church, so here are these ministries to help poor and oppressed people" approach to alleviating suffering. And none of them teach suffering as anything more than something a person has to endure for awhile until they are rewarded with blessings. The leading edge of their focus and teaching is how you are going to be blessed, while somewhere on the backside the idea of how you might use those blessings to help others is suggested.

And why not... that's the way people get hooked. John Wesley preached Jesus first and foremost, but because he called people to "work all they could, to earn all they could, to save all they could, to give away all they could" and it didn't take long for Methodism in Britain to become a "middle class phenomenon". Wesley dismayed late in life that it was prosperity of his followers that was helping influence the growth of the movement, and feared it would be its undoing (and one might argue in this age as our denomination careens downward that he ended up being right).

4) But this view we're getting of Mother Teresa's faith is incredibly different than that of the "Prosperitors" that dominate the American Christian scene. Maybe it was because she wasn't raised in the secular west but rather in an older-world Eastern Europe. Or maybe its the influence of so many other mystics who have worked and lived in monastic communities over the ages, but Mother Teresa doesn't appear all that interested in material success. In fact, if her recently released letters are to be trusted, Mother Teresa actually took on a greater degree of emptiness and sense of despair as the success of her order and her own visibility continued to rise. She considered it ironic that so many people in the world sought her advice while she herself seem less and less able to experience the passionate, mystical interaction with the living God she had encountered before she started her order serving the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa's darkness of the soul, in fact, ended up becoming her proof that she was, in fact, becoming more like Christ, in that she was experiencing in her work the same kind of abandonment he experienced on the cross.

That emptiness.... that darkness... that despair.... that was the reward Mother Teresa received for following Jesus to the work he asked her to do.

How on earth do we compute this?

5) A number of people have suggested to me that Mother Teresa was, in fact, tormented and tempted by the Satan in an effort to break her will and abandon her faith. Their thinking follows the idea that the Devil saves his best stuff for those who are the most faithful. And this would be, I suppose, mainstream thought on how evil and good work. Forces of evil sew discord and foster temptation in every imaginable fashion as a means of trying to get good, faithful people to backslide, fall away, and return to sinful ways.

But if that's the case, why did Satan tempt Jesus with fame, political power, good health and wealth? I mean these are the very rewards we say God gives people if they are faithful followers of Jesus. Maybe not abundant fame, power, or riches, but still those are the kinds of things people seem to equate with continued faithfulness. Point out that neither Jesus or any of his disciples, were ever rewarded in these ways for their faithfulness and you get a myriad of responses... everything from "Well Jesus already owned everything so he couldn't be given anything more" to "They were blessed spiritually in ways that Holy Spirit can now reward us materially also".

It just wouldn't occur to us that Mother Teresa's 45 year darkness of the soul might be the gift God gave her for faithfulness. A gift that was so poignant and meaningful that she was willing to take it on for all eternity if Christ asked her to.

A gift, one might say, of abundant faith, which led to abundant hope and love for millions.

6) Those aren't words western corporate Christianity is ready to hear. We have bills to pay, endowments to grow, and buildings to build. The fortunes of our ministry rise and fall with the economic fortunes of our people, so we largely keep our mouths shut about suffering (outside of it being something to be endured so God can teach us something, or make a model of healing for all to admire) as the end point of faith. We preach more than one stewardship sermon as a means of taking care of the budget, but often fail to tell the mother of the severely handicapped child or the father who experiences chronic physical pain or the business person who failed, or the shut-in widow crippled with arthritis that their suffering and pain is a noble calling of God that should be treasured, nurtured, and prayed for by all.

Thus, we aren't looking for abundant faith, but rather just an abundance of that would keep our noses above water: volunteers and financial resources.

7) I get the sense that the cartoonish caricatures of preachers always with their hands out, asking people for prayer and money (and not always in that order), while trying to build huge organizations as signs of validation for their message are costing the Kingdom of Heaven more than they are building it up. They lack of the validity of someone who gives him or herself lovingly over to God to undo an egregious wrong without a sense of receiving something in return... or even the reality that whatever they've given their life to could actually, in the end, claim it entirely. Maybe that's why we only took Tammy Faye Bakker half-way seriously after the PTL club went kabluey... her compassion, which looked scripted as she built a theme park, seemed more genuine after jail time, a divorce, and public humiliation.

It's the difference between building your own kingdom, and The Kingdom.

8) God, I believe, wants to make our pain his victory. Our sense of abandonment a testament to his grace and mercy. Our darkness a light to illuminate the journey of many. Not necessarily by taking those burdens off our shoulders, but rather by gently drawing us into a greater love of Him and his people even as we shoulder the burdens that may or not have been of our own making. To not say to the world, "look, God can overcome any and every shortcoming in my life", but rather "look despite my shortcomings, God still loves and wants to partner with me in this world".

Mother Teresa wasn't tormented by Satan... she mystified the crap out of him. Who counts feeling distant from God a blessing? She did, and maybe we can learn something from her as we wonder why God hasn't taken all the pain and suffering in our life.

Now for a couple of non-Mother Teresa related items.

9) The District office is still closed, so still no word on ways we can help flood victims in Northwest Ohio, beyond sending supplies to help people cleaning up flood damage. Communication being our Achilles heel, there was no way we were able to organize a team to head north on as short as notice as we received about the work days as the three churches in Findlay that were damaged during the storm. On that note, I'm thinking the time has come for Shawnee to set up a "Mission Crisis Team" so we can quickly mobilize resources to meet needs like this one.

However, I promise that as I learn of opportunities for us to serve and contribute, I'll pass them on to one and all. I'd assume that with the District Office re-opening (it's in Ottawa, which is in the heart of the damage), we'll know more specifics very, very soon.

10) Max played in this first soccer game this Saturday. He did well, although he did look fairly lost most of his time on the field. Fortunately, a couple of other kids who have been playing for three or four years were able to direct him where to stand and in what to do, which he responded well to. While his team ended up winning big, the big winner of the day ended up being Eli who became the object of attention of a number of elementary age girls. They spent the duration of the game playing with, and essentially coddling, my two-year old. Eli, realizing that he was the center of attention, thought the girls wanted to play an elaborate never-ending game of chase... which is his favorite game. Thus, Eli and those girls ran far, far more than any of the soccer players that day, and nobody had a bigger smile on his face.

11) Sunday, I heard a fine sermon from Charlotte (who taught us that if you can't stand solitude in silence, you'll never find solitude in a busy world), enjoyed lunch with Jon Hodges (the guy playing "Jim" in our "Life Improvement" skits), destroyed my mower and my lawn while mowing in the afternoon (don't ask), and finished the day visiting with my family (including the "Official Younger Brother of From Bryan's Office", his wife, SuperUnc and his lovely wife Beth, The Great One, all the grandparents, and Radio Zac). Outside of having to buy $70 worth of parts to fix my mower (only mother nature can fix my lawn), it was as pleasant day. A day that happens less and less, and thus must be treasured more.

12) OSU football starts this Saturday! Go Bucks! Beat Youngstown State!

Youngstown State? Who do they play next? The University of Findlay? Ohio Northern? Did Cleveland State somehow slip onto the schedule too?

Today Youngstown State... tomorrow, Indiana of Pennsylvania. There's just no stoppin us now.

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