Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What is love?

I have been thinking lately about what love is, and how God loves us. It is a simple issue, perhaps, but it is not an easy one.

We take love for granted, of course. Those of us who grew up in supportive environments have heard "I love you" enough to know that love is a good thing, that we are loved and that we should love, but what does that mean exactly? I know that I am supposed to love, but how am I supposed to love?

Love is easier witnessed than explained, so we look to those who love us to discern some things about what love is. I think about my parents' sacrifice, their encouragement, the giving of their time.

I also think about their vulnerability, which is a strange thing to say about love, but as I reflect upon my own marriage (and as we prepare for our first child), I am reminded that being vulnerable is a vital part of love, and it may be the very hardest thing in life. If I am not vulnerable--if I do not share a part of myself with you--I do not respect your humanity. I am treating you as an object, an "it," rather than another being (a "thou"). You cannot love without sharing of yourself, any more than I am really actually loving when I say that I love barbecue. Yes, I enjoy barbecue, but love is something else, a feeling of shared being. The theologian Howard Thurman shares it this way: "If I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and you see the genuine in you, I can go down in myself and end up in you."

As a private person, I can tell you that this kind of sharing--this kind of vulnerability--is not easy. When I love, I am forced to pull back the armor that guards the deepest part of my heart in order that it may be exposed.

This is well and good, but if you and I are doing battle, and you sense an opportunity to strike, you are going to go straight for the exposed part. There is nothing more dangerous in battle than having a part of the body exposed, especially such a sensitive part. Love means that I am so invested in you that even though I recognize that you are capable of doing damage to that most hidden part, I am willing to share it anyway in the high hope that when I share my hiddenness with you, you will feel able to share your hidden heart with me.

This is difficult stuff, love, and there are no guarantees with this kind of vulnerability. The list of things that could go wrong is miles long, and yet, when I love, I am willing to risk those complications. I pull back the armor anyway. I grab hold of the curtain and pull it aside, exposing that which lies at the Holy of Holies, the very image of God within me.

It is hard enough to love one person, to love a small community of people. I can only imagine how God must feel, how it must feel to deeply love every person who has ever lived, to love all of creation.

It means that God is vulnerable.

I do not say this lightly, for I believe that God's great authority that stands above everything else. But I also believe in the power of weakness, and I believe that God's weakness--God's vulnerability--is powerful in and of itself. Think of the cross, that great matter of obedience, the Christ who was so vulnerable that he was willing to die. There is power in vulnerability.

Think of creation, the matter in which God said, "Let us create humankind in our image," a sharing of God's self with all of humanity. There is enough electricity in that statement to power of all of creation, to create something from nothing.

But vulnerability is not easy. For another account of creation shares that one of the first acts of humankind is to abuse that vulnerability, to strike God directly in the exposed area of God's deepest heart.

Still, knowing that the strike is possible, God shares that heart in an act of deep vulnerability, and it is a wonder to me that all of creation does not break down from the frequency of God's cries. Instead, God keeps desiring more from me, keeps wanting to meet me at that genuine place.

This, of course, is love: that God keeps desiring relationship, that God is vulnerable, that God shares God's heart with me and expects--even pleads!--for me to share my heart with God. This is a holy responsibility not to be taken lightly, for it is a high honor to be invited to the high holy place in which God removes the armor and invites me to remove mine.

The incredible power of that vulnerability, at least as I see it, is that even in the face of sin, of broken relationships, of the foolishness I do in the name of being a modern person, God still loves. That love--that weakness, that exposed-ness--is far more powerful than a simple command to love. You cannot order love, any more than you can easily define it. Love only happens when you are so deeply moved by the exposed-ness of another's heart that you are willing to pull back the armor and risk the strike.

Love is a holy responsibility. But it is so desperately needed in this, our world.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The kingdom of heaven shall be compared to a fast food chain?

Here is the problem with the whole Chick Fil-A business: it is a cop-out. I don't want to get into the sociopolitical aspects of the thing (leave that to the politicians to argue about), but I do think the church has something to say about all this, though it might not be quite what you think.
Let me first offer two complicating factors. The first is that, in our usual modern way, the whole conversation about Chick Fil-A is much more complicated than we are admitting. Questions about business and ethics are rarely clear, which is part of the reason "business ethics" sometimes seems like a paradox (it is also the reason, I think, the recent financial crisis ended up being so difficult to diagnose. Business is complicated). Chick Fil-A is a francise business, and it is certainly the case that not everybody who relies upon Chick Fil-A for livelihood shares Dan Cathy's opinion on gay marriage.
The second complicating factor is that as far as I can tell, the conversation about Chick Fil-A is not about traditional vs. gay marriage as much as the media is making it out to be. I do not care what the owner of the restaraunt at which I buy my lunch thinks about marriage equality; there are no gay chicken sandwiches. The conversation, at least as far as I find myself interested, is that profits from Chick Fil-A have been sent to Exodus International, a group that does much more than oppose gay marriage. Further complicating is that only a very small portion of the money spent on behalf of Chick Fil-A went to Exodus International as compared to the overall spending of the Winshape Foundation, the Cathys' charity. Even so, and this is just me talking, any amount of money spent on so-called "reparative therapy" is troubling, for these methods have been largely discredited and can, in fact, breed "prejudice and discrimination."

But neither of these complicating factors are the real issue. They are smoke screens for the real issue, for the issue is this: rather than confronting the issues at hand (homosexuality, the nature of the relationship betwen business and church, the way in which we treat our enemies), we are transferring our anger to a fast-food chain. Rather than working this out in the church, we have transferred our own responsibility to a chicken sandwich chain, as if the way in which we are called to live our faith is expressed most clearly in our fast food preferences. Those in favor of marriage equality have decided to boycott Chick Fil-A. Those opposed have decided to buy extra fast food on August 1, Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day.

I am not in the habit of speaking for God, but I have great trouble believing that God cares all that much about where you eat lunch. I don't think that the best way to show your support for an issue is to buy fast food.

Now, issues matter. I feel passionately about this particular issue, so I have found myself, at times, swept up in the hype. And as far as the Chick Fil-A issue is related to matters of personal integrity, it is an intereting exercise. Should you support companies that take public stances with which you disagree? How can you be a person of faith in a complicated world? These are important things to think through.

But the conversation is not about integrity: it is about Chick Fil-A. The conversation ought to be about the issue itself, not about Chick Fil-A. The problem is that it is WAY easier to get steamed about fried chicken than it is to work to advance an issue. It is much easier to complain about someone's money than it is to involve your own. I wonder how many people--on both sides of this issue--who have taken public stances on Chick Fil-A have put any of their money where their mouths are.

It is true: talk is cheap. Working to advance the Kindom of God is difficult (and, in fact, expensive).

Support marriage equality? Fine. Work for it. Spend your time and money advancing the issue. Forgoing a chicken sandwich is fine, but it is hardly a sacrifice befitting Christ, our Lord.

Disagree with gay marriage? All right. Work for it. Go buy a #1 if you want, but don't pretend you're doing church. Church is something else entirely.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Playing church

Stacey and I are headed up to Lake Junaluska tomorrow for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, the quadrennial meeting at which business is done and bishops are elected. Neither of us are delegates, of course, and I no longer work for a jurisdictional agency. We've had a couple of folks ask us why, considering we have no business at Junaluska, we plan to go.

I think my answer is this: we have busted it the last few days, working ahead and preparing to travel, because it is important to see the church at work. Yes, most church work happens in the local church, which is the chief vehicle for disciple-building. I wish we talked more about the local church in those big expensive meetings, too. But while I am not so silly to think that the church only works at big denominational meetings, I am also not so naive to pretend that these meetings are not important, that a God-something does not happen there. After all, if we do not believe God is actually at work in our deliberation, in our elections, in our consecrations, then what are we doing besides playing church?

I am fascinated by church business for the same reason I am fascinated by politics: because it matters. The decisions we make have significance far beyond the moment of decision. It is not that these things are only important in and of themselves. The business matters because it changes the course of what is to come. It is important to see God at work, to be a witness. After all, if you have not seen, how can you witness?

So I will geek out a bit this week, but more than this, I'll be in prayer. I hope you will be too. For it is not the meeting that matters, but what comes after, for God's church is bigger than one meeting, and Sunday is coming.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Your best life now?

I have several litmus tests for religious books, but the strongest and clearest is this: if you can find it in a grocery store, don't buy it.

Perhaps I'm just being too high-minded, like the indie music snob who refuses to like anything that is popular, but I think there is a deeper reason. With apologies to those who have found such books helpful, I find that the "religious" books found in the check-out lane of the grocery store are less about religion and more about personal growth, clothed in religious language. The Prayer of Jabez, for instance, is ostensibly about prayer, but in my reading it is more about praying for (and receiving) material things than it is about praying that God's will be done. My favorite, of course, is Joel Osteen--he of the beautiful teeth--who proclaims that you can have Your Best Life Now, both in book form and in a board game.

Admittedly, I have not read read any Joel Osteen, nor have I played any of his board games. I am, however, familiar with his arguments, and I have watched him on television enough to know that the crux of what he is preaching is not what I believe. Osteen's message seems to me to be less about what God wants for your life, and more about what I want from God (I will simply note, here, that Joel Osteen does not have a seminary degree). I think I am being fair to Osteen's theology; he has said that his focus is less on God and more on "teaching people to live their everyday lives" and "the power of a positive attitude." As one who finds the apostle Paul appealing and the apostle Peale appalling, I just can't buy into the positive attitude business. I can't make it jive with "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

I have been thinking lately about this argument that the Christian religion has within it a set of principles that in fact does lead to your best life now. I am so appalled by these "Christian living" books that focus on being happy and rich that I tend to lose sight of the idea that there is a set of ethics within the Christian religion that do offer the best way of living.

Part of my trepidation is that I don't want to end up on the front cover of a book. My teeth aren't as white as Joel Osteen's, so this is a vain thought. But more seriously,  I guess I don't want to even be seen in the same universe as those who profit off of religion.

So I sometimes err on the other side. I have within me this fundamental notion that if you are really religions--if you take the Gospel very seriously--you are really unhappy. You ought to sell everything you have to the poor, and if you don't, you have to at least feel conflicted about buying things you don't need. As long as you feel conflicted, I guess you're ok.

Look, I know this is ridiculous. Writing it out makes me feel ridiculous. But I often find myself so frustrated at the state of this "feel good" American religion that I err on the side of misery.

Certainly, there is misery in religion. I don't think it is easy to sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. And this is my main critique of the "Christian living" crowd. Living the Christian life is not about living your best life in terms of getting all the things you want, or in terms of moving past doubt, or in terms of being happy at the expense of the reality going on around you. If you can walk into a slum, where children go hungry and adults can't even find a sanitary place to go to the bathroom, and be happy about it, you're probably doing something wrong.

But you can be joyful. You can have the peace of Christ in your heart, even when that heart is broken at the state of the world. You can have love in your heart, even when you find yourself surrounded by the unloved and the seemingly-unlovable. You can, in fact, have your best life, if you just change the paradigm of what that best life looks like.

Here, in my rush to judge the wildly successful TV preachers and authors, I've thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or at least the good news of the Christ child out with the mindless, pseudo-religious drivel. I am so concerned, as a moderate, mainline Methodist, about being lumped in the same category as Joel Osteen that I have nearly rejected the notion that the Christian way of living is, in fact, the best way to live! This is the place in which Osteen is most insidious: he drives the rest of us away from Christian living!

I'm sure this comes forth in my preaching, and for that, I've got to repent. The Christian life is the best way to live--just, perhaps, not in the way Joel Osteen seems to think.

The Christian life is not going to make you rich, but it will save you from the idolatrous (and ultimately self-defeating) chase for money.
The Christian life is not going to make you happy all the time, but it will save you from the meaningless ignorance that comes when you plug your ears.
The Christian life is not going to magically tell you what God wants you to make for breakfast, but it will open you up to the incredible possibilities that occur when we partner with God in God's work.
The Christian life is not going to give you all the answers, but it will invite you into a community that struggles with the questions and does its best to respond in kind.
The Christian life is not going to fulfill your every earthly desire, but it will lead you to serve others in such a way that your desires are transformed.

After all, we do not serve a malevolent God. God wants us to thrive in community with one another. God does not want us to be rich, perhaps, but money is vanity, anyway. The Christian life is, in fact, the best way to live--even if we must reframe the notion of what your "best life" looks like--and if preachers of the Gospel keep running away from this idea, we've got no leg to stand on when someone shakes our hand after worship and says, "You know, what you said this morning reminded me of Joel Osteen. Your sermon was almost as good as his was."