Monday, February 10, 2014

The Lenses Through Which We See

I was struck today by a portion of the second lesson – 1 Corinthians 2:1-16.  The words are some of Paul’s most familiar, but they struck home with new force today: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  He continues: “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

Paul was no dummy.  A Hellenistic Jew, he was well aware of the popular thought and philosophies which permeated the first century Mediterranean world.  He was trained as a Pharisee and knew the Law through-and-through.  Yet, it was none of that which was primary in his mind.  Something else served as the lenses through which he saw the world surrounding him.
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Many of us wear glasses.  They are necessary for us to see clearly.  I cannot read the text messages on my cell phone without them.  Those glasses – those optical lenses – are one of my favorite metaphors for faith.  Faith is the lens through which we Christians see the world.  Those lenses are not rose-colored, but they do show us different dimensions of our existence.

Perhaps the most profound for Christians is the experience of standing at the grave of a loved one.  Our burial liturgy includes these words, as we face a casket, a vault, a hole in the ground, and a mound of dirt off to the side: “All of us go down  to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

That is a remarkably counter-intuitive perspective. Our lenses of faith cause us to perceive things differently.  That is the nature of faith.

 But there is more.  And there was much more for Paul.
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 Paul had been well-educated as a boy and young man. In spite of all that he had learned, and in spite of his broad education, there were a different set of lenses through which he interpreted the world.  For him, the cross of Jesus Christ defined the world in an entirely different way.  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” The life, suffering and death of Jesus Christ – the one he had encountered in a blinding light on the road to Damascus – changed everything for him.

For Paul, the world was different.  God’s self-offering and incarnation – his emptying of self – redefined human existence and our relationship to the Divine and one another.  Paul recognized that neither he, Apollos, Cephas nor anyone else mattered at all in light of God’s self-offering and sacrificial love in Jesus Christ.  Nothing else matters.  No categories could define us any more (slave or free, Jew or Greek, sinner or righteous). We were all beloved children of God. In fact, we all are beloved children of God.

Paul’s theology springs from the deep well of awareness of God’s love that is represented in the life and death of Jesus.  His being grasped by that recognition – literally knocked off his horse by it – radically changed the way he viewed the world and the people he encountered.

Would that we could adopt that way of seeing the world as fully as Paul.  But we do so episodically, fragmentally, sporadically. We see through a glass darkly.

In retrospect, I see how my vision has been altered – even if only occasionally.  I recently was filling my car at a convenience store near my home.  As I pumped the gas, I saw a street person approaching down the street, showing all the signs of being someone looking for a handout.  As I went into the store to retrieve my receipt, I noticed he was standing off to the side of the store, staying out of the watchful gaze of the store clerk.

As I walked out of the store, I heard him say, “Excuse me, sir.” His voice was faint, and my back was to him.  I kept walking, got in my car, and drove quickly off toward my home, a couple of blocks away.

There was something that would not let go of me, though.  Was this merely a street person, wanting a handout? An inconsequential bit of human debris who should be ignored?  Or was he something else? Was he a fellow child of God, for whom Jesus had given his life?  Was he someone who is loved and cherished by the One we do not fully know, even as I am loved and cherished?

The lenses which my faith had given me would not allow me to just delete the memory of this person from my mind.  After a few minutes at home, I gathered some money, got back in the car and drove back up to the convenience store.  After a couple of passes, I saw him standing where he had been earlier.

I drove up beside him, rolled down my window and said, “I was here just a minute ago.  I want you to have this.” I gave him a small wad of cash.  He smiled and said, “God bless you.”  Fellow children of God had connected very briefly, for just a moment.

Sadly, that was a unique experience for me.  It stands out because it is different from my usual behavior. I still see the world in a blurred way – without the clarity that Paul so clearly articulated.  I am still becoming.

 I realize it now. The lenses through which Paul viewed the world – Jesus Christ and him crucified – do not allow us to see the world as we might normally see it.  His sight was forever changed.  I hope to gain that vision bit-by-bit.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Waterbugs Skittering

Bishop John Maury Allin, sixth Bishop of Mississippi and 23rd Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, is reputed to have said on his retirement, “I have spent my life helping people become Episcopalians.  Now I want to help people become Christians.”

As I relaxed on the beach at Fort Morgan, Alabama, during our family’s annual Christmas vacation, I had time to reflect on this journey of faith and this peculiar vocation. The silence was a wonderful opportunity for such contemplation.

My thoughts turned toward an aspect of Bishop Allin’s reputed comments.  Has my ministry been one of helping people become Christians?  Or has it been something else?

There is an important distinction to be made:  I am not talking about the factuality of a person being a Christian; that is accomplished, we believe, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism (justification). What I am concerned about is the manifestation of that justification in one’s life, i.e. the progressive sanctification. How does the Christian faith make any difference in a person’s life?

Likewise, I wonder about how our congregations manifest the faith which is embraced in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the renewal of baptismal vows, and the repeating of the Apostles’ Creed.  How are our congregations any different from any other community-building organization.

What difference does our embracing of Christianity make?

I’m not even sure that I have been focused on helping people become genuine Episcopalians.  And I seriously doubt that I have prompted many people to enter deeply into the Christian life. What I have offered, I think, is a variety of cultural Christianity which has more to do with reflecting the cultural mores of a slice of Middle America.  Our self-definition has been according to criteria such not a Baptist or not a Catholic or not a fundamentalist rather than the transformation of a life into a committed Christian.

I pondered what Christianity means in this culture.  I want to be clear:  The brand of cultural Christianity I’ve been hawking is not the only form of cultural Christianity being pedaled in this society.  Many of those I have encountered – I want to be sure to include myself in this – have taken an eye off the ball in terms of authentic Christianity.  I have encountered true saints of deep and profound faith, but they are rare.  Many others want to be true, deep, and authentic Christians, but they either are unaware of how to live that life, or they are afraid of what it would require (That call by Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me” is pretty daunting).

Will Campbell, the iconic and irenic figure of the 1960s, once spoke of the Eucharist being obscene.  His perspective was that the church spends massive amounts of money on providing all the accoutrements of liturgy (silver, fine linens, beautiful vestments) while the world not far from our sacred buildings is characterized by chaos, poverty, crime, abuse, racism, suffering, loneliness, grief, hunger, and other signs of a fallen creation.

In my silence and solitude, I reflected on Christianity and the world around us.  My vision turned toward the Mississippi Delta, where poverty, brokenness, illiteracy, illness, broken families, and hopelessness abound. What is the significant impact of the church there? How are our churches – and our individual members – represented there? What difference do we make?

My thoughts turned toward Uganda, the Sudan, and other places of extreme poverty, hunger and suffering throughout the world.  The images of starving children came to mind.  Bloated bellies were haunting me in my world of plenty.  The violence so endemic to those circumstances – brother oppressing brother – came to my consciousness.

 It occurred to me:  So much of what the church is and does, especially on a local level, is like a waterbug skittering along the surface of a pond. There may be turmoil, turbulence, and chaos beneath that surface, but the waterbug is blissfully unaware.  He just skitters along, not concerned what the world beneath is like.

This whole reflection may be seen as a paean to some idealized Christianity.  As such, it may not reflect reality (it most certainly does not) and may deny the limits of human nature and ability to respond meaningfully to a significantly broken world.

But I think that is the nature of Christianity.  It calls for the transformation of human limitations and the healing of a broken world.  And here is the hard part:  that expectation is there regardless of the price to be paid.

How will my life and journey change, in light of this reflection?  I do not know… yet.