Saturday, August 13, 2011

Broken, But God Is Still With Us

(once again, some loose ramblings that will hopefully lead to a sermon this weekend)

Last week we started our third, and final series of the summer entitled, "Living Out". We started in June talking about living in accountable community while listening, hearing, and obeying God. We took time to investigate how God speaks, and the ways he might be listening to us, as well as the importance of acting on what God asks of us in accountable community so that 1) we don't act on an impulse that just plain crazy and 2) we have people to help us follow through with what we say we're going to do. This is the way we become a disciple, and the discipleship process is only completed when we begin discipling others ourselves.

In the second series, Living Up, we took four weeks to look at the nature of our relationship with God. We talked about sin as separating us from God and others, God's initiated effort to help us bridge the "sin gap" between him by making a "covenant" with us, and bridge the same gap with others by helping us understand our place in his "kingdom".

As we faithfully follow God's leading in a covenanted relationship with him, via following Jesus, these four weeks of "Living Out" are focused on bridging the gap between us and others as we live in "God's kingdom". Last week we looked at the question if God accomplishes what he wants in the lives of others by bestowing upon us prestige, power, and prosperity, or rather if He leads through our becoming a servant, broken but still faithful, ready to provide protection and possibilities for others. To understand this, we're looking at the life of Joseph, who, even though he was the recipient of his Father's preferential love - symbolized by Jacob giving him the famous "coat of many colors" - that God establishes a pattern we see again and again in the Old Testament, and then in the life Jesus, and the Apostles, of leading through our brokenness. Joseph, like us, is greatly loved, but at 17, clueless, prideful, and boastful, he sends his father into a funk, and antagonizes his brothers to the point that they use the symbol of "preferred love" - the colorful coat, now ripped up and covered with blood, proof of Joseph's supposed demise - to get rid of Joseph by selling him as a slave to Egyptian traders.

Eventually, we know that Joseph's continued faithfulness will eventually protect and provide for his family, his nation, and even his enemies. But Joseph is broken - deprived of his prestige, power, and prosperity - before he can be used by God to do his work. Such is the case with Israel, and the example left to us by Jesus, who emptied himself of his privileged position at the right of the Father, to come live with us. It's through his willingness to be like us, to point of suffering, rejection, and death, that Jesus, as a suffering servant, offers us a way back to God.

The way of brokenness and self-sacrifice on behalf of the Lord and others, is the way of Jesus. It is the way of his followers.

Brokenness and sacrifice don't sound all that great, does it? Every time I preach a sermon on this subject, if my Dad is present and listening, he always gets afterwards at lunch for sounding too much like a "debbie downer". He'd prefer I'd tell a nice story that will make you laugh, maybe make you cry, but in the end leave you with a sense of hope and optimism about you, yours, and this crazy 'ol planet we live on.

The strange thing though, is that a life of broken sacrificial faithfulness is, in the Kingdom of Heaven, not mutually exclusive to a fulfilling life. Joseph is a good example. Twice, after he finds himself in Egypt, cut off from his family and seemingly from his destiny, Joseph's life, even under less-than-ideal circumstances (he is a slave, for Pete's sake) is one that provides protection and possibilities for others. First in the house of Potipher, the captain of Pharaoh's palace guard, he proves himself so trustworthy and capable, that eventually takes over all of Potipher's "at-home" responsibilities. And then, after Potipher's wife can't convince Joseph to hop in the sack with her, in prison, once again he rises to a position of importance as chief jailor's right-hand man. Genesis 39:22, tells us that the chief jailer trusted Joseph so completely, that he had no worries cause he knew Joe would always come through... and all the while that also God remained with Joseph.

When our ego and pride are taken down a peg or two, or when we of our own volition decide to humble ourselves by offering up what we have to help others, it does, I think, two things.

First, we start to get a true accounting of who we are. Joseph who once spent his time lording his position in his father's household over his brothers, now finding himself at the very bottom of Potipher's household pecking order, changes his expectations and attitude. He discovers that he's good at a lot of different things, and when he used those gifts working hard and diligently, that he gets results. Joseph begins to discover that it wasn't because of who his father and mother are that made him a potential candidate for greatness, but rather it was through all the ways God had gifted him.

We all have some form of talent God has given us to use for his purposes. I'm in the season right now of many funerals. Among five funerals I've done since mid-July, last week I buried Ruth Wilcox, Phil's mother, and this week I'll be burying Skip Chiles. It was fascinating for me to sit and listen to all the ways Ruth and Skip's children described the talents their respective parents were endowed with by God, and all the interesting ways they used them in the interest of their family and friends. Ruth has to be the first woman in all of the years I've been doing this sort of thing, who was described as having great carpentry gifts, to the extent that she largely built the family's first house, and then radically reconstructed what became later the family home. The kids relayed a vivid story of Ruth's husband, Stubby, coming from from a week on the road as a trucker, to find the wall between the kitchen and the boys' bedroom, gone, and the boys now living in an attack which now had finished walls and a floor.

I listened too to Skip's family talk about what a tremendous caregiver Skip was. He cared for his parents, in-laws, wife, and a number friends as their lives wound down. He cared, until his death, for his son Carl. Carl was born with Downs Syndrome the same year I was born, 1969. Skip not only took care of Carl in terms of day-to-day family living, but was used his skills as an education provider and administrator by serving on the board of Marimor Industries. Skip, and a number of saints who I've been honored to meet and know in this community, were a part of a small, but determined group that were intent on giving those with disabilities of all kinds opportunities and hope that had previously not been afforded to them.

A woman who was good with a hammer, and a man who was an outstanding care-giver. It defies the stereotypes and expectations I suppose, but the natural gifts both these good folks carried inside them, bloomed under less than ideal circumstances. But it is through those experiences of brokenness and sacrifice they helped moved those they loved, and even those they didn't really know, forward. It is when we serve that we truly begin to discover what we are capable of.

Second, as we discover all of these blessings, we find out just how good God is. Both Potipher and his household, as well as the chief jailer and all the inmates at the prison, experienced God's goodness through Joseph's faithfulness. And even when Potipher's wife throws Joseph under the bus, he still never goes into a shell of self-pity, wallowing, anger, and dismay. Instead he continues to understand God as good because God has authored so many good things inside of him.

In fact, we witness just how much Joseph has grown and matured, even under difficult circumstances, as a servant in Potipher's house. As he discovers who he is and who God is, he begins to understand the demands of living in faithful obedience. The self-absorbed teenager, now confronted with the opportunity to take advantage of his place in his master's house, stands instead on greater principles than his own personal satisfaction and enjoyment. God, Joseph begins to understand, demands honesty, integrity, and humility, even when standing on these principles can cost us dearly. The bottom prisoner in a penal system has to be an even more daunting and depressing prospect than being the bottom slave in a household. But Joseph sticks to his guns, because God's good work isn't just accomplished through the gifts He's given us, but the through the character he desires us to impart through those actions. It may cost us to do the right thing, but as we discover the God who authored our gifts and talents, we discover what he's made of, and those things - integrity, honest, character, justice, grace, mercy, peace, and love - are the only things that really matter and survive.

So yes, the Christian life is a life of brokenness and self-sacrifice, but it is by no means joyless and empty. It leads, rather, to greater understanding of ourselves, the Lord, and the betterment of those around us - some whom we love and others who make it difficult for us to love. If you think about those who have blessed you greatly, how much better has your life been made through their sacrifice and brokenness on your behalf? Of what quality do you consider those who sacrificed greatly so you could stand where you are today? Did they seem broken and alone, or did they possess a strength and dignity that radiated beyond themselves to those around them?

In our tradition as Methodists, the we use different language to describe the Christian life. Instead of calling it the "way of brokenness and sacrifice", we sum up this life with three simple rules. They are in fact, the General Rules of our community:

1) Do no harm.
2) Do good.
3) Stay in love with God.

If you want to find a truly Christian person, living a Christian life in an imperfect world, you could easily sum them up as someone who does no harm, does good, and stays in love with God.

I know that this has been the case for me. Those who I look up to the most are those who do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. Dr. and Mrs. Becker. Pat and Helen Price. Gerald Goodwin. Gene King. Stan and Betty Weller. Don Johnson. Melva Mumma. The list of saints from our little community here at Shawnee Community who have made an imprint on me were all people who in their own way, as they sought to faithfully follow Jesus, did their best not to harm others (and were quick to admit their fault when they did), did good whatever way they were able, and found new ways to stay in love with God.

I remember stories at his funeral of patience treated by Dr. Becker when they had no money to pay his fee. I remember Pat Price ripping a group of teens for playing instruments too loud in a worship service, and then the next Tuesday at their rehearsal apologize with a pizza and some root beer. I can remember Gene King lovingly explaining to us all what it was like to be a person of faith and carry the memories of what being a soldier in Korea demanded of him. I remember Gerald Goodwin working crazy hours to crack a case as a detective to bring someone to justice, and then stand in a hot kitchen with Buzz Alder to get the hot dogs and chicken sandwiches ready for sale to support missions, and all on no sleep. I can remember Stan Weller taking money out of his pocket to install pluming for a woman who had none as he suffered the heat of the South Carolina day and a group of teenagers less than a third his age. I can still see Helen Price, in her seventies, willing to do an intense Bible study and then go on an Emmaus walk because she wanted to stay in love with God, and pass it on to others.

Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. This is the way God calls us to begin to repair damage sin has done in our relationships and in our world. And it's accomplished by people who have, through own their own brokenness, and then personal sacrifice, understand that they have been called by God for this work. A God who remains ever faithful, and teaches us that faithfulness as we seek in our lives to not do harm, do good, and intentionally stay in love with God, regardless of our circumstances. This is the way that leads to riches and treasure that cannot be stored on earth, but are only multiplied in the Kingdom of Heaven, now and forever.

Joseph discovers that the character that the Lord forms in him while he uses the gifts he's received for God's glory is what will sustain him as he offers himself to be used to save Egypt, his family, and all the known world. But he learns that character as a slave and a prisoner. Not exactly the education or work experience we would think of for producing servant leaders that bring justice and peace into the world, is it?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Groomed for Greatness

"Through the repeated hammer blows of defeat, destruction, and deportation, interpreted by the faithful prophets, Israel has to learn that election is not for comfort and security but for suffering and humiliation."
— Lesslie Newbigin

It's good to be back after some time with the family. For a week the most earth shattering decision we had to make was mac and cheese or ramen noodles for dinner. Everybody needs a week like this every so often to keep their sanity. Some ramen noodles, afternoons swimming in a lake, and some time wrapped up with a book.

Or in my case, thanks to the Kindle app on my phone, books.

Kindle is fantastic. At your fingertips you have now available thousands and thousands of books. Some are fairly expensive ($10-12), but most aren't. Many are three bucks or less.

So after reading John Grisham's latest (again), Sammy Hagar's autobiography (in the end, he owns a bar in Mexico.... that's all you really need to know), and a murder mystery with a Christian twist ("Beyond Justice", by Joshua Graham), we still had a few days left so I searched around to find one more book. For three bucks I could pick up "The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical" by Shane Claiborne.

So I did, and now it's messed me up, but good.

If you don't know who Shane Claiborne is, he's become the face of what being called the "New Monasticism" movement. These are folks who have decided to try practicing ekklesia (or as we call it, the church) in what would seem to be new forms (as opposed to church building, denominations, ordained pastors, administrative boards, and Sunday Schools) but are actually very old forms of doing the Christian life together that pre-date what most of us understand to be "how to do church". The "New Monastics" don't really have one form. Some live in small communities that look a lot to outside observer as "hippy communes". Others gather for "simple church" or in a "house church" that gathers in a living room, or a some building that could be picked up cheap and rehabbed.

They are all committed to the poor and oppressed, working in numerous ways either on their own, or in partnership with other churches, not-for-profits, foundations, and social service agencies to address these issues. They are largely urban movements (although not entirely) and are more often than not concentrating their efforts in cities that have been devastated by years of changing economic fortunes, the ongoing legacies of race riots in the late sixties and seventies, and the crack epidemic that hit in the 80's.

As a pastor professionally I have been living through a tremendous period of tumult in the American church. Mainline denominations have continued to decline (because, some say, they forgot the Bible, while others believe it's due to taking the Bible seriously). The non-denominational (and the many denominational churches pretending to be non-denominational) "megachurch" has exploded. And all the while church attendance and involvement have continued, as a whole, to decrease, and markedly so, from generation to generation.

At this point I've cast my lot with the mainline Christian experience. You know you're pretty much "all in" when you've been asked to consider becoming the new chairperson of your denomination's Board of Health Insurance and Pensions. You couldn't be any further inside the belly of the beast of the organized church than I am. The idea of selling everything I own, forming, and living out into some Christian commune where we grow our own tomatoes and invite the homeless to come live with us sounds to me, at best, "romantic", and in real terms, "impossible".

To Shane Claiborne and all the other v2.0 monks, that's a sad statement... and maybe on some level, personally, I feel a little sad too. Like the rich man, who Jesus feels sorry for when he leaves conflicted, unwilling or unable to sell all he owns, give it to the poor, and follow the Master. Maybe movements filled with people who share in common while building relationships with their neighborhood are the future of the Christian movement in this country. A way to make life sustainable and even more important, good, in places that right now are the very definition of hell on earth.

So I'm not a candidate, I don't think, for new monasticism. I think I'd get laughed out, or tossed out of my congregation if I suggested this was the new direction - putting the "Commune" in "Community UMC" - we were heading.

But the church, not just us but most every church, in this great nation of ours, just like the Roman Catholic Church confronted by the v1.0 monks, led by St. Francis of Assisi, should be challenged by what the monastics are trying to do.... simply live out the words, literally, of Jesus. Their example should humiliate us a little. Challenge our understanding of what a church is and what the church should be doing with its time, energy and resources. Maybe what they are doing may seem absurd, or maybe even foolish, but aren't the hungry being fed, naked clothed, and peacemakers celebrated? Jesus said the Lord uses foolish things to confound the wise of the world to give them some idea what kind of upheaval the Kingdom of Heaven might entail and how far away their lived-out version of that wisdom was from that Kingdom.

That's what has got me all messed up. I'm worried about paying the light bill and the carpet while Shane Claiborne and his buddies are sleeping on the street with the homeless whom they just fed in the hopes their presence will begin to get the ekklesia, the church, thinking of dealing with the homeless issue. To some they may look like troublemakers or fools, but that's what has me so concerned....

Maybe we're so concerned about maintaining an air of respectability that we are no longer capable of holy foolishness? Or worse, maybe we're the wise the foolishness is meant to convict.

I'm wondering if God just doesn't want us to sit up and take notice, but actually become increasingly foolish, as we're able, ourselves?

I mean, I get it... nobody likes to look foolish. That's the reason you hide all those old photos they took of you back in the 80's. Teased, feathered hair. Pegged pants. Spandex and leg warmers. Skinny ties. There's plenty of evidence as to how ridiculous those of us from that era looked as kids. I must have owned a dozen rugby shirts, each one looking a little more ridiculous that the last. Nobody likes to play the fool.

But throughout the Bible, God's people, sometimes of their own volition and sometimes due to circumstances, often have to experience a profound change in their expectations through profound experiences of humiliation and brokenness, so that something which appears foolish can actually bring great transformation, not just for one, but for many, some friends and other enemies.

This is a great theme that runs through out the Bible, one reinforced many times over. It's certainly Joseph's story.

Everybody knows who Joseph is thanks to countless Vacation Bible Schools, that song Dolly Parton wrote about her "coat of many colors", and Andrew Lloyd Webber writing a musical about his life which then made Donny Osmond relevant again. Or at least they know about his coat of many colors. The coat his father, Jacob, who would be renamed Israel, gave him because he loved him so much more than all of his other brothers.

Joseph, thanks to his father's preferential love, got a little full of himself. Genesis 37 tells us that he flaunted his privileged position among his brothers, and even his family. He talked openly of dreams he was having where his brothers most of whom were older than he was, bowing before him. Jacob gets so frustrated with his son's behavior, that at one point he scolds his child for acting like a spoiled punk, and then begins to brood over the monster he's created.

And as for the brothers.... well, they had long raced past brooding to all out hate, to the point that they were able to fake Joseph's death and sell him into slavery using the symbol of his father's preferential love. The same coat, a gift of unmerited grace, now torn and covered in blood, ends up sealing Joseph's fate.

And what a fate it is.

Of course if went to VBS or saw Donnie Osmond do his thing, you know that in the end Joseph's dreams of his brothers bowing low before him come true, but he's a far different person when the deed is done. Joseph's place isn't handed to him on a silver platter. He becomes an exile, a slave, and prisoner first, before improbably rising to become Pharaoh's right hand man.

Throughout the Old Testament, into the New, and often throughout church history God's people, much like Joseph, basking in the Father's preferential love, have wanted to carry out His work with a "silver spoon" mentality. Often we've demanded of God not just his preference, but power, prestige, and prosperity as some sort of by-product that would "prove" his preference for us and show the world who it was messin' with. But again and again, when we've tried to take the place of honor at the banquet table, extolling how beautiful and magnificent the covering from God we've received is, and how you'd better make a place of honor for us at your life's table so you can enjoy the good life like us, we've moved further away from Jesus who always sits at the place of least honor. In our platitudes and sermons we boast about how blessed we are, and yet someone, put off by our arrogance, is already plotting how to steal our coat and leave us for dead.

Grace is free, but it ain't cheap. When that coat of many colors is draped around your shoulders, it's not done so that we can enjoy power, prestige, and prosperity. Rather it's more like being set aside so that, so that we too can have the privilege of providing protection and possibilities for other. A privilege that will come only through a sacrifice which might require us to play the "fool".

Our Master leads by example, and that example is a willingness to be broken and humiliated. To be made to look foolish by suffering a harden criminal's fate, so as to wake us up, and shake us out of the complacent acceptance of a life and world that's totally messed up. A place where the One who we're told in John's Gospel is "the Word which is spoken to create everything" is rejected by that same creation.

Jesus, through no fault of his own, uses his place of privilege, not bring to himself power, protection or prosperity, but rather through his own brokenness and humiliation, ultimately protection and possibilities for those who he loves.

I don't think it's much a conundrum to figure out why so many Christians are increasingly feeling marginalized in society, or spiritually empty. When we've become more preoccupied with looking and acting respectable... when we use our prayer time to ask God to bring us greater power, grant us special protection, and bestow great prosperity as proof of his privilege... when we've become more concerned with the outward kind of grooming that makes us look and feel good, as opposed to being groomed to follow the way of Jesus.... if we aren't looking to walk the way of holy foolishness which exposes the ridiculousness of the way our world works, we are setting ourselves up for troubling moments of great brokenness and humiliation which we will not choose.

Just ask Joseph... better to choose the way of the fool than to set yourself up to be cast upon it.

Or to phrase it another way.... maybe we ought to take these v2.0 monks seriously? As they choose a life of self-giving, community, and the belief that they are utterly dependent upon the Lord, maybe they should inspire in us a little bit of foolishness. A sense that maybe there are some dues to be paid, or that the dues which have been paid lead to more than just a life of un-threatened comfort.

We have been chosen for more than that. And our scars are more valuable, and necessary, to bring the redemptive healing love of Jesus to those who need it most.

What the possibilities for your brokenness and suffering, regardless of whether or not you brought that on yourself or was thrust upon you?

What are the limits of the impact of your sacrifice?

What is the potential for the humiliation you've suffered either as you've made mistakes, or as you've sought creatively to show the way which appears foolish, but is actually the way of the kingdom?

Each of us has been given a coat of many colors. A gift of unmerited favor and preferential love. Whether it's been torn off of you, or you've willingly given it up to put the coat fit for a prince or princess on the back of a homeless beggar, that's the place you start to realize why God made all the fuss over you in the first place. The reason you've been groomed for greatness, which is defined biblically as being used by the Lord to provide protection and possibilities for others.