Saturday, March 12, 2011

Can I Love God Apart From Loving Justice?

"While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted."
Flannery O'Conner

There is no doubt that the church (all Christianity) is haunted by Jesus as it struggles, more than ever, to be relevant in the modern world and its web of inter-relationships and conflicts arising from the pressing anxieties of politics, economics, freedom and justice.

Two percent of the world's population hoard 98% of the world's wealth and resources. The church strives to be relevant to the world in need, where 98% people who populate the world struggle to share the remaining 2% of wealth.

In the eyes of the suffering world, the church struggles to be more than buffoonish caricatures of cynical moralists. The church struggles with sharing political allegiances with the wealthiest and most powerful portions of the society, while ignoring the oppression and violence of poverty on the poor.

Homelessness, starvation, lack of even meager healthcare abound, and where is the church?

Where am I? Am I Christ-haunted or Christ-centered?

Poverty is not a natural state. Poverty is created, intentionally and willfully, by humans upon humans. Poverty is not a matter of fate, it is a predisposition of domination by humans over humans. The hoarding of wealth and resources is not natural, it is like any other hoarding, a sickness.

Poverty is violence upon the people of God's creation.

The Old Testament prophets condemned the priests, rulers and wealthy of ancient Israel for abusing and ignoring the suffering of the poor, the sick and helpless. The Prophets condemned them for misleading the people, equating wealth as proof of righteousness and of having God's favor.

Jesus did likewise. Jesus also ridiculed his disciples for their concerns for themselves over their serving the needs of the suffering.

As Jesus is spending his last night together with his disciples, Matthew reports an argument breaks out among the disciples over who is to be the greatest among them, who will be most righteous, most blessed, who will be closest to Jesus. Sound familiar? It does to me. So many claim to hold God's favor over and against others, because of practices or abstinences, or because they claim God hates fleshy vices more than their own particular vices, or that Jesus hates certain people over others... are they reading the Gospel?

In Matthew Jesus rebukes the disciples not only for their petty self-interests, but for still missing again the point of his earthly mission to direct us towards justice, God's justice, for all people. Because we are called to love God in loving each other, to love the world as he does, we are called to provide justice. What is justice in Jesus's directive to us?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his squabbling followers a prophetic story where the just, the righteous, receive their reward. Not so surprising, the just being rewarded. But what is very interesting to me, being raised in the western Christ-haunted church, catholic and protestant, dominated by sexually obsessed Augustinian, Lutheran and Calvinist moralistic theology, is this: Jesus makes no mention of morality as a factor for the rewards of the righteous.

What also is of great interest, and even funny, is that the just who he calls to paradise are surprised to be receiving a reward! Jesus tells them they are being rewarded for caring for him. They ask when did we care for you? Jesus tells them that by the care they provided to the poor, sick, friendless and needy was in truth their giving care to God, that by loving "the least of these", they loved God. They didn't even know it. This is the first surprise.

The second surprise is this, their acts of love weren't done so to gain a reward. They were surprised at being rewarded. Remember, they asked when did we care for you? The just weren't caring for the poor in hopes of a reward, the just simply acted with justice towards those suffering the injustice of poverty. They acted justly because it is the loving thing to do, they loved through being Christ-centered. Loving is being Christ-centered.

The Prophets and Jesus make clear to me that my true worship and sacrifice, my faithfulness, are in the living of God's loving justice for the world. How do I call myself a follower of Jesus if I don't take him seriously when I know him to say, "Whatever you do to others, even the poorest of people, you do to me?"

The challenge before me is to serve the suffering. Like Jesus, I must make petty morality the last concern and put the ending of suffering, Jesus' ethical center of me, at front and center of my concerns.

This is the calling. This is the practical functional call to answer the world's suffering injustice. God is calling us to answer the call to love God through loving the suffering. Do I then respond to God's love call by more deeply loving the world? Do I demand my political leaders to answer God's call for justice? Surely I must.

This is the agape ethic of Jesus, the tangible centering of Christ, to love God in loving each other. This is for me God's call to justice, to care for those who are suffering the legion injustices of poverty. For me, for my Christianity to have any real bearing on the world, I must answer God's call to love kindness and justice, the call to live God's justice for the poor of the world. God is calling us to relevance.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What Is Lent Calling Me To?

When I was a child, Lent used to mean giving up sweets. As I got older it meant giving up alcohol or sex. Lent also carried the weight of guilt. It was the time of year when even a cradle Episcopalian, such as myself, could embrace a good healthy dose of guilt... embracing the "Catholic" aspect of my Anglo-Catholic heritage.

Even as I grew up and Lent became more about "spirituality" and fasting as a means to further "mature" my relationship with God, it still bore a notion of self-denial and lingering guilt born of the misbegotten childhood notion that My Sin was So Bad that some notion of a God requiring a blood sacrifice was needed to wash it away... so happy to have put that childish thing aside.

So as I now know, accept and embrace the perfectly loving God revealed in Jesus, who could never require a human blood sacrifice as the price of atonement, as the price of my admission into the Salvation Club, Lent is no longer the great cosmic guilt trip.

So what is Lent then if not the guilt trip to end all guilt trips?

After years of not knowing what Lent is, after it having been liberated from the guilt trip connotations of childhood, I would still go to Ash Wednesday service, still fast, and wonder about it. Then a couple of years ago at an Ash Wednesday service, the priest was smearing oil and ashes onto my forehead in the sign of the cross and a notion crossed my mind. The priest was exercising the imposition of ashes. In my mind I saw myself looking into a mirror with the ashes crossed on my forehead and realized I had taken something on.

There it was, on my forehead, an imposition, I literally had taken something onto myself. From that moment on Lent had become about taking things on instead of denying myself things. It was no longer about denying myself things because I am a sinner of countless sins. Lent was now about taking on the challenge of understanding my transgressionss as symptomatic of what was/is lacking in my life... love.

For me Lent is now about responding to God's love and God's loving call in a very focused way, in taking on self-examination but not to wallow in the guilt of my transgressions, my lack of loving towards creation, but instead to seek out what it is in my life which acts as the barrier between God's love, me and you. As Jesus answered God's call by going into the wilderness, we too can answer God's call to enter the wilderness of our fears, our shame, and examine them and their sources in our lives and how they serve as barriers from our freedom in God's healing love.

This can be very hard work, much harder than bearing guilt, which may be why we sometime choose guilt over healing. Sometimes the examination and cleansing of a wound hurts more than the wound itself, but it is necessary for healing to occur and that's what salvation is: healing.

Honestly over the years, answering the call to discipleship has involved giving-up things, attitudes and emotions. Some things have been surrendered out of necessity, but the lasting choices have been in response to God's love. The choices of these kind have been the building blocks of the lasting changes. When one ceases to make choices because they're the "right ones" or because of expectations of some reward, emotional or material, but makes choices because they are loving choices, the loving choices begin to feed on themselves in our lives and the lives of others. We begin to choose loving as the natural choice.

This way of living, responding to and in anticipation of God's love, is the promise of God's freedom and as close to heaven on earth as I've ever known. This way, the way of Jesus, is the way in which I've found healing and will continue to do so as long as I keep taking on the promise of God's love. In my often distracted life, returning to love's promise and taking on love's promise is what keeps me moving and building upon itself. It's like how a tree just keeps building and building upon itself, ring after ring of growth, one upon the other.

To me it's not about giving things up to be better, but taking on the choices to be loving, to be well. It's about taking on the responsibilities of loving in response to love, to being loved. Whether Lent means taking on a new way to serve the suffering of the community, or finding wounds to be cleaned and healed, or in some other way to express love to God in each other and creation, these are all responses to God's call to love. After all, if we are loving more, then we must naturally be transgressing less.

What is Lent calling us to this year?