Thursday, July 10, 2008

Summer surprise

The trouble with a lot of religion is that it is so predictable; there is no room for surprise in it. Sam Keen, a theologian-philosopher and a very creative thinker, has written about the absence of surprise and wonder from most conventional religion and from life itself. Keen thinks surprise—and wonder—are at the heart of religion. In one of his books he remembers an incident that always makes me smile, because I can remember it too. He’s sitting in Mrs. Jones’ elementary school classroom practicing what used to be called penmanship.

Mrs. Jones’ classroom always seemed dark, but on this particular day it was more depressing than usual. For an eternal afternoon I sat practicing my penmanship exercises, listening to Mrs. Jones’ monotonous: “Make your ‘i’s’ come all the way up to the middle line. And don’t forget to make your ‘o’s’ nice and round. Circle. Circle. Circle. Period. Now repeat.” Caught somewhere between boredom and despair I struggled against tears and settled in to wait for the resurrection—the 3:00 bell.

And then it happened. A movement in a tree outside the window caught my eye, and there, in the sweet and redeeming light of the springtime world, was a summer warbler building a nest. Caught in wonder, I followed the progress of the nest construction. . . . My “i’s” and “o’s” were forgotten until Mrs. Jones materialized over my shoulder and demanded to know why three lines in my penmanship book were empty. Instinct warned me that no serendipitous warbler could provide an excuse for the neglect of my educational duties. So I bit my tongue, cherished my wonder in silence, and stayed in after school to make up my lessons.

“Mrs. Jones won more than the day,” Keen says. “Schooling became a habit for me, and I remained in the classroom for twenty-five years and five degrees without seriously questioning the maxim that private enthusiasm must be divorced from the educational task” (To a Dancing God: Education for Serendipity, pp. 38–39).
Sam Keen went on to write some important theology. In Apology for Wonder, he argues that the experience of wonder is at the heart of all true religion and all true education, that there is altogether too little of it in our churches and schools. Both religion and education, he says, strive to make everything predictable, conventional, certain, nailed down—that is to say, to eliminate the possibility of surprise, unpredictability, novelty, mystery.
The Bible, on the other hand, is full of surprises. Faith in this God is not predictable. Faith is an openness to the startling, amazing, surprising grace of God coming at us, to us, in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, faith is not about knowing everything there is to know about God. It is knowing that there is plenty about God that we don’t know. Faith is not certainty. Faith is acknowledging that God will not be reduced to the limits of human understanding. God will be God, and there will always be surprises. “God will make a way where there is no way,” Martin Luther King Jr. used to say. God will make a way through the sea. God will bring freedom out of oppression, justice out of injustice, life out of death. It’s not that God will do everything we ask, give us whatever we think we want, as the prosperity gospel preachers promise. It is that God is God and God will do God’s will and it will be a surprise when it happens.
The scientists know that discovery grows out of humility and openness to surprise. The enemy of science is certainty—the sense that there are no surprises, no mystery, that we know everything there is to know. But you and I are resistant to surprise and far prefer predictability.Edmund Steimle was a great preacher and teacher of preaching in the last generation. Commenting on the text “God’s mercies are new every morning,” he said, “At my age, the promise of newness every morning is at best a mixed blessing. I have come to the point in my life when I don’t want anything new in the morning. I want my slippers right beneath my bed where I left them the night before. I want my orange juice and bran flakes for breakfast as normal. At my age, I can do without a lot of newness, especially in the morning”
The Bible is full of surprises from beginning to end. A God who time and time again comes to his people when they have given up, when they’ve concluded that God has forgotten them—if God even exists in the first place. A God who comes particularly when their backs are against the wall and their hearts are full of fear. A God who comes quietly, steadily, to be with them, to bind up their wounds, to strengthen their hearts and arms and legs, a God for whom nothing is too wonderful.
Christianity is about a God of surprises. What, after all, could be more surprising than God coming into the world in the birth of a child, another child, this child born of humble parents in an insignificant village called Bethlehem? What could be more surprising than that?

W. H. Auden, the great poet, captures it in his Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being.” At the manger, the shepherds say —

We never left the place where we were born . . .
walked thousands of miles, but only wore the grass between work and home.
But . . . music and sudden light
have interrupted our routine tonight,
and swept the filth of habit from our hearts.
O here and now our endless journey starts
(“For the Time Being,” W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, p. 294)

What could be more surprising than the incarnation, God coming to us in that child? Only one thing actually: that child becoming a man and teaching so amazingly and clearly, healing so lovingly, reaching out to the marginalized so graciously, dying so courageously, and then, the greatest surprise of all, defeating death on Easter. A God of beautiful surprises, who makes a way where there is no way; a God who, precisely when we are afraid, literally scared to death, resigned and without hope, comes with new possibility; a God so surprising that death itself becomes the occasion for new life; a God for whom nothing is too wonderful.
So take time to be surprised this summer. Get a late night cone at the dairy queen. Feel the sand between your toes. Watch the children’s laughter as they splash near a pool. Take time to be surprised by God.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Truth and Compassion

Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birthpangs of the church. The first sign the church was filled with the Spirit was that the disciples were able to speak the truth. Three thousand people were so convicted that they joined the church. The second sign the church was filled with the Spirit was that the church became a compassionate community. So the two characteristics we are given here of a Spirit-filled church is that it is known for its truth and compassion.
It is never enough for a church to proclaim its truth Sunday after Sunday. There is nothing distinctive about an organization claiming it has the truth. Competing political organizations all claim the truth. Non- profits try to convince you of the truth of their cause. Advertisements peddle their products as the true answer to your needs. Most of the conflicts in society are between people who claim to have the truth. What would be distinctive is if the truth made people loving.
“All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need . . . with glad and generous hearts.” In Acts chapter four, we are told that Barnabas chose to sell a field he owned, and he laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles that they might care for the needs of the church. Can you imagine belonging to a group of people who cared so much about you that they would sell their possessions to take care of your needs? Not because they had to, but because they got to. Because they had glad and generous hearts. Well, you do belong to such a community. Over the last year as I have talked with so many about their commitments to our church’s campaign to build community, I have been moved by the Barnabases living among us. Those who have caught the vision for what we are trying to do have told me they will be traveling less, putting off buying a new car, or selling off their stock, all in order to give to you. It’s not because they have to. It’s because they get to. And it’s because they have glad and generous hearts.
The need that we are trying to meet with this campaign is the great yearning for community today. After decades and decades of rampant individualism, self-constructed lives, lives unteathered to the great claims of a holy tradition, and each of us seeking to enlarge his or her own borders, what have we found? Some of us are successful but lonely and so very confused about the holy purpose to life. Others around us are not so successful. We would love to make a difference for them but don’t know how. We need to be a part of a community that will help us remember who we are and whose we are. And we need a community that will allow us to be loving to those who have so little.
Too often we are dominated by the self. We worry about our jobs, our money, our health, our future. When we don’t get a promotion, we wonder about our dreams. When we get home and the family doesn’t rise to salute, we wonder why they don’t appreciate me. When we get stuck in traffic, we ask, “Why are they doing this to me?” After a week jammed with anxiety about me, by the time we get to church on Sunday, if you are like the rest of us, you are sick and tired of the self. You are ready for someone who has a better story going than you. That’s why we just keep talking about Jesus Christ here. He saves us from ourselves. He fills our lives with holy mission. And he gives us love for them.
Those who get the deep truth of that, like Barnabas, are just so glad. And glad people are always generous. This is what the text means in claiming they “had glad and generous hearts.” So if you are not glad and generous, you don’t get the deep truth because our truth makes us loving, glad, and generous. It is for this reason that we have not marketed this building campaign, or our church’s community, for what you will get out of it. It would be easy to look at our plans and to say, “I’m not getting much out of this.” It would be easy to look at our ministry and to say, “They are not meeting my needs at the church.” You may be right on both accounts. But that is because our focus is not to appeal to your dreams but to the dreams Christ is unfolding among us. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Nothing is more dangerous to authentic community than our dreams for it. For we will always love our dreams more than community, which is not a human idea but a divine reality.” That doesn’t mean it is perfect. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have dreams. But our dreams are not the dreams for a community but the dreams of a community. Dreams for a community are about what you want it to do for you. The dreams of a community are about what the community dreams.
One of the dreams of our community is that everyone who enters here would encounter Jesus Christ not only in worship, but also in education and in hospitable fellowship. That is why we have to make changes to our facility. We don’t just need better accessibility for those with disabilities, a better way to receive visitors. We also need to encourage two or three to come together, even over coffee, because Jesus Christ is in their midst. One of the glorious dreams of this community is that we would be known for our glad and generous hearts. This may be the most important reason for our campaign. Again, truth is manifested in love. And people who love most want to give. We need to commit to this community because giving is what we do when we are at our best. You, too, can be Barnabas—not because you’ve got to, but because you get to. Because your heart is glad and generous.


TWELFTH NIGHT/EPIPHANY      I read this line in a interview with Christian Wiman in Christianity Today:   "Jurgen Mol...