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.