Friday, November 23, 2007

Leaving Paul - Sharing In Our Present Difficulty

Well, after seven weeks, it's time to push off and away from Philippians, Paul's letter to what could arguably be called his favorite church.

Paul's fears of what might tear apart the church at Philippi - division over cultural and theological differences, improperly entitled leadership, fears of corruption, and succession issues among others - are all, amazingly two-thousand years later, problems which beset local churches and the Christian movement as a whole.

For example, in the course of doing my dissertation research, I heard this story from the retired senior pastor, Sandy Miller, at Holy Trinity (Brompton). When Miller was contemplating retirement, he contacted the current Anglican bishop of the London area to talk about the process for choosing his successor. HTB is one of the few growing Anglican churches in Britain right now, and a force for renewal within the Anglican movement in Europe. Miller knew that in his tradition, the lay-elders in his church would want the opportunity to conduct a search for a new senior pastor, but Miller knew that the only person capable nurturing HTB's unique culture (which was and is youthful, intellectual, evangelical, and charismatic) was his long-time associate pastor, Nicky Gumble. Miller told me that he explained this situation to the bishop, who was well acquainted with one of his few growing parishes, fearful that elders would end up passing over the right guy in order to select their guy. The bishop, having watched too many congregations in his lifetime let petty jealousies and power plays ruin successions in leadership, agreed with Miller's assessment that no other pastor in all the Anglican movement could understand the unique culture of Oxford-meets-Speaking-In-Tongues that was HTB. In turn, the bishop took the unprecedented step of going to HTB's elders, and simply dictating that Gumble would succeed Miller as the new rector. Now, years removed from that decision, HTB continues not only be a strong church in its own right, but is producing new church leaders to re-invigorate churches all over England and now the European continent.

That's the world we live in now. In his time, Paul's worries are simply conjecture. In our time his concerns have become institutionalized. Now a republican senator decides to investigate pastors flying around in private jets and living in homes with marble commodes (all while claiming to make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year) for possible abuse of the tax code, and the rest of us shrug and say, "it's about time". Church splits, congregations that fall apart when a pastor leaves or split when one group decides it can't live with another are commonplace in our world. For us, Paul's theoretical of what might happen, happens every day.

Even church success can breed discord among the faithful. I've a friend who is a staff person in a church in another city who was despondent when another local congregation down the street was growing at rapid pace. What should have evoked joy became a cause for great concern because the one church's success heightening in friend's church it's own failures. Such is the world we Christians live in now. A place where humility and unity and integrity are often running in short supply as decades, or centuries of holding an entitled position in the world threaten to destroy churches, and individual Christians.

And no Christian is immune to the realization of Paul's fears and concerns. In today's paper there's an article about an Amish couple from Eastern Ohio who are trying to organize and help finance other Amish farmers to raise and grow organic food. They're doing this because the within the sect, after a couple of decades of becoming less active in farming (thanks to rising farm land prices and competition from corporate farms) there is a concern that as Amish work more with us "English" as carpenters, shop keepers, janitors, and in other realms of the business world, they are becoming more like us. Eating junk food. Buying IPods. Taking vacations to the beach. Amish young people are increasingly doing less "shunning" of the world, and instead are beginning to share its materialistic vision. The hope is that in moving back onto the farm, that future Amish generations will become more self-sufficient and begin living more simply... more Amish.

Such is the world we Christians now live in. A world where the faith and values that have defined us are constantly being compromised either by life circumstances, or a willingness on our part to throw away what has been in order to help us get "ahead".

Who knows how or why Paul was able to see all that would befall us. Maybe he just understood human nature. Maybe he'd already seen how quickly the joy of Christ's grace could be exchanged for bickering over "who was the greatest". Whatever the reason, Paul warns the flourishing congregation at Philippi of what to beware of and how to deal with it. And despite the vast differences between his world and ours, never has Paul's words been more timely, or needed, than right now.

Thus, while we have explored Paul's teachings on maintaining unity and humility in the face of so many of their enemies - leadership issues, internal divisions, corruption - Paul offers one last piece of counsel.

The Christian life... the good life... is the one that knows contentment in all moments of all days an in all circumstances.

The concept of contentment is an anathema to most Americans. The same ambition that drove millions of people to leave their homes and take a chance of starting over in the "New World" is still a huge part of the culture we live in today. People in other parts of the world live in cities, villages, or in regions that go back in their family generations upon generations. And when these ancient living patters begin to get upset by the effects of globalization, pundants, professors, and politicians begin to decry the tearing of social fabrics that have held together local cultures throughout history. Meanwhile, in the US, places like Las Vegas and Phoenix grow by thousands of new residents every month as people are quick to move to find a new, better life. We're the place in the world that coined the phrase and attitude, it you aren't moving forward, you're moving backward. Contentment, we believe, is something you might to experience in moments, or if advertisements for financial planner can be believed, at the end of your life in retirement when you finally get to enjoy all that you've worked for - days to finally paint those pictures, travel the orient, live in that large home on the lake... eventually, someday, if you pick the right company to help you roll over your 401k after you've switched jobs for the seventh time, your days of contentment are coming.

But until then, in the words of the Rolling Stones, you can't get no satisfaction, but you'll try. So, to coin the recent Disney movie, "Meet the Robinsons", better not rest easy, and instead, keep moving forward.

Somehow, contentment has become our enemy.

The interesting thing about Paul, though, is that I don't think he'd argue with continually moving forward. I mean, this is the guy who has traveled across the Roman world successfully starting scores of churches and raising up numerous Christian leaders while also being repeatedly harassed, beaten, maligned, and now imprisoned for a second time. It's Paul who's written the words, "I know what it is meant to have plenty. I have learned to secret of being content in and any situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty of in want." The guy, who while suspecting he'll never get out of prison, in other letters is still making plans to go to what is now modern day Spain on the chance he's ever released. He's the guy who says, "I can do all things".

But for him the concept of contentment, and the idea that somehow it's connected to a moment when a person has "arrived" isn't connected. Paul says he can be connected, even in moments when going forward might actually, personally or corporately, going backwards.

"I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me."

What in the world does that mean?

It would be easy to explain this away as the words of an evangelist who has decided to shun everything else, and now simply lives to explain the Gospel, and create communities that help people be transformed by it. Paul isn't worried about making that next promotion or whether or not the company he worked 40 years for will declare bankruptcy so as to avoid paying pensions any longer. Paul isn't one illness away from overwhelming medical bills or concerned about the dirtbag at the high school trying to sell a son or daughter crystal meth or ecstasy. What does Paul really know about the perils and pressures of modern life anyway?

I think the lesson we can learn from Paul not just in this text, but as he concludes his letter to the Phillippians, is that Paul has, through Christ, found reconciliation and peace with God. With the same God that made a world that often be inhospitable, difficult, unfair, and hard. A world where we might have seemingly gained plenty in one minute, and face foreclosure the next.

Paul has found contentment in the Lord, even in the world the Lord has made.

That's contrary to the way most of us look at things in this life. We tend to hold the creator responsible for the creation, and thus our trust of the creator tends to rise and fall with our satisfaction, or dissatisfaction with that which he or she created.

For example, once you get a food poisoning at a place you went out to eat at, are you likely to go back? Or if you buy a TV or DVD player from a company, and after a couple of months it craps out on you, are you likely to go back the same company to buy another TV or DVD player?

I used to take my cars to get oil changes at a local garage, until the day the engine of the first new car we ever bought was destroyed when the oil plug that had not been properly replaced by the said garage fell out of the oil pan while Aimee was on the road headed for a class in Columbus. That was over ten years ago. The garage has probably been bought and sold three or four times. Probably none of the mechanics who worked there are there any longer. And none of the other garages who share this one particular garage's name (cause it's a national chain) were even remotely responsible for what was probably just a momentary brain fart on the part of one mechanic on a particular day. But mention that garage's name to us, or let us drive past that garage or one of its sister garages, and still from the Buchers you get sneers and slanderous accusations about the mothers of the people who work there. Here I stood last week talking about the importance of forgiveness, but give me a gift certificate to this one particular garage for a free oil change, and wait to hear what I have to say about forgiveness then...

"I'd sooner cover the most sensitive part of my body with honey, cover it with red ants for two days, and then tattoo it with Calvin Coolidge's face than get my oil changed at that place again. HA!"

And my, the world has failed us, hasn't it? Disease, war, hunger... broken relationships, the loss of people we loved, physical breakdowns.... greed, lust, anger, jealousy.... the world has taken us for a ride. And when we suffer what question do we ask?

Where is God in all of this? If he's all-good, and all-powerful, then why do children die of malnutrition and nations fight over this, that, and the other thing and evil seems to be so alive and well among us?

Paul's world, while different in many other ways, is still a world filled with suffering where the good die young and wicked prosper. But God's presence in the midst of this doesn't appear to be a source of frustration, or worse, demoralization for Paul, but rather the source of his strength. And the key to this appears to be, Jesus Christ.

For in Jesus you have God giving humanity a gift... the key to making all things right. Disease and death. Inequity and inequality. Wars and rumors of wars. Power and it's abuse by a few at the expense of many. Jesus comes as God's answer to that which vexes us. He has the power to still storms. He can create resources needed to feed the hungry. He has the power to heal all diseases. He can overwhelm depression or mental illness with hope and wholeness. He can even take the enemies of God and God's people, and win them as disciples and friends.

I mean, if you believe in Christ, you can't say God hasn't tried to remedy the shortcomings of this life, presenting to us in one man all of the resources and power to make things right. All humanity has to do is, listen, obey, and follow to learn how to live differently.

And.... we don't. In fact those who claimed to be God experts, largely advised us to put the man given to us as the answer to all our questions, to death as a dangerous lunatic.

Now, who's fault is that?

I think Paul, once he accepts Christ as God's right and sufficient response to our suffering and sin, accepts the distance between who God is and his present reality because 1) he lays our condition at our own feet, and 2) he believes it isn't hopeless because Christ is still alive.

I suspect our own hopelessness and/or self-absorption prevents us for taking sufficient responsibility for our condition. And I suspect it is our own doubt, which grows collectively the further we get away from his death and resurrection prevents us from believing that Christ is still God's answer to our predicaments in all their sundry forms.

But Paul knew... God was not silent or idle. God heard our prayers, and delivered. And God would ultimately, in the end when we were still weren't able to exhibit the kind of faith necessary to not just hear, but do, would in the end even provide us what we'd need so the doing could be done.

And too, I suspect not enough preachers over the course of history, while preaching "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" sermons, have paid sufficient heed to the next verse (Philippians 4:14):

"It was good, though, of you brother and sisters in Philippi, to help me bear those moments when I didn't have very much, and my troubles were very great."

The secret to contentment? Putting the blame for our predicament where it's due, knowing that the Creator is willing to shoulder that blame and make things right, realizing it's not too late to turn that source of healing and wholeness that will work with us to make things, and bearing one another's burdens as we seek that day where faith in Jesus is less conceptual and more actual.

1 comment:

ElleBee said...

Thanks for this never-too-often reminder that we just need to remember His grace is truly enough.