Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jesus’ Life Offers a Model of Contentment

We live in a restless and discontented world. Each day we are confronted with problems and circumstances that test our peace and contentment. We worry about financial problems, health problems, and family problems. We are anxious about raising our children, succeeding at work, and maintaining a certain standard of living.

Moreover, the pace of our daily lives, the demands of nanosecond technology, and the drive to outdo others are only a few of the factors that contribute to our anxiety and restlessness. We never have enough time or enough money to do and buy all we think we need. We are a discontent and stressed out generation.

Why are we discontent? Why are we restless? Perhaps the most challenging obstacle to finding satisfaction in life is that we are constantly in want. We live in what someone has called the “prison of want”. We always want what is bigger, nicer, faster, and newer. We want a new job, a new car, a new house, a new gadget, and new clothes because we believe that such things will provide lasting contentment.

We want because we live lives of comparison. We see what others have and we want something better. We see what others become and we want to become something better. We are in a constant pace to keep up with and even out do our neighbors.

We also want because the illusion of comfort convinces us that we will be happier with more stuff, with a new job, with a new car, and many other things we desire. We want possessions and prestige because we have the false impression that these will take away the pains and disappointments we experience in life. Yet, unhealthy wanting only leads to lust, jealousy, anger, resentment, failure, and sadly, a life that never finds contentment.

So what is the secret of contentment? How can we live lives free of anxiety and filled with satisfaction? How can we overcome the desire to want? We find the answer in the model of living that Jesus gave to us. Never wanting or desiring that which was not given by God, Jesus, though continually living in the shadow of death, found contentment in his relationship with God and others. Three primary characteristics of Jesus’ life demonstrate this very idea.

First Jesus found contentment through living in God’s presence. He was in constant communion with God, being led by God’s Spirit to do the will of God. Through living in presence of God, Jesus found satisfaction and peace. The famous Psalm 23 captures the essence of what Jesus knew to be true; living in God’s presence and looking to God for the needs and blessings of life leads to a life of peace and contentment.

Second, Jesus found contentment by living in God’s present. We are always looking past today to tomorrow, and we rush through life without appreciating the present that God has given to us. Jesus’ life, however, reflected his command, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” He embraced the present time that God had given him as an opportunity to embrace the will of God for him. In this he found peace.

The Psalmist of Psalm 118 reminds us that each day is “the day that the Lord has made” and we should “rejoice and be glad in it.” Instead of rushing through our lives of stress and strain, hoping that each day will be better than the previous one, we ought to live in the present that God has given us, finding God’s grace for today even if our circumstances are painful.

Lastly, Jesus found contentment in relationships with others. Though spending much time alone in communion with God, Jesus was not insular. Indeed, we might say that his time alone with God resulted in his intentional act of creating relationships with others. In those relationships, though often disappointing, Jesus found friendship, community, and contentment.

To find peace and contentment, we must cherish our fellowship with God’s people. The greatest gift we have is not the things, the possessions, the prestige, or the popularity we find in life. The greatest gifts we have in life are the relationships God has given us. Instead of replacing these relationships with busyness, superficiality, and isolation, we should ensure that we give priority to building loving relationships with the people God has placed in our lives.

We will never find contentment in the things of this world that rust and decay. Nor will we experience peace through the things of this world that bring fleeting pleasure. True contentment is experienced through living in the presence of God, the present God has given us, and with the people God has led into our lives, even as we live in a world that is so discontent.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Religious Doctrine Must Not Serve As a Weapon

When I was in seminary, the institution I attended experienced a radical shift to the far right. During those days I witnessed a theological battle that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On one particularly rough day, my Hebrew professor came into class and made one statement that has stuck with me ever since. “Theology is never the issue. It is always the weapon. Power is the real issue”

I have often pondered those words, and particularly when I witness or hear of Christians using theology, and by this I mean what they consider orthodox theology, to oppress and exclude others by denying people their rights as human beings and their full participation in the body of Christ. While I could write in general concerning the violent tendencies of religious ideologies in all religions, including Christianity, I want to address here a more underlying and yet ever present force that some use to strengthen their long held prejudices.

In his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, religious scholar and Baptist theologian Charles Kimball lays out five warning signs for when religious perspectives have gone too far and are on the brink of becoming evil. I don’t have the time or space to detail each of the five warning signs suggested by Kimball, but the first in order is what he defines as “absolute truth claims”. By absolute truth claims, Kimball means, “particular interpretations…which become propositions requiring uniform assent and are treated as rigid doctrines.” Kimball goes on to argue that once we have established such truth claims, we can then justify our actions, any of our actions.

Of course, history has shown this to be true across the religious spectrum, as all kinds of atrocities have been executed in the name of religious truth claims. But even within the bounds of contemporary Christianity, and particularly conservative Christianity, we have witnessed beliefs and acts that though not violent, they are nonetheless mean-spirited and harmful forms of exclusion and repression.

One pertinent example is the prohibition against female pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as in other denominations. This represents a form of exclusion that denies one gender the right and privilege to serve a calling from God that is as equally valid as that issued to males. While those holding a position that forbids women from serving as pastors claim that their position considers women as equal in essence to men, they deny that females are equal in the role they play in the church, particularly in leadership positions. But such religious chauvinism has not stopped at banning women from the pulpit.

In recent years there has been a robust and calculated push to put women under the rule of their husbands. Instead of affirming the biblical egalitarian view that sees husbands and wives as equal and co-submissive to each other, this position claims that even in the modern world men should rule women and specifically in the confines of marriage. Tragically, one Southern Baptist theologian recently suggested in a sermon that some spousal abuse is the fault of women who do not submit to the rule of their husbands. His rationale is that when a husband’s leadership is threatened by a wife who is not submissive, that husband may respond with abuse. He clearly places the blame on the woman.

Gender inequality in the home and in the church, as well as other issues of inequality and repression, represent the idea that theology can be a powerful weapon of authoritarianism. While we can and do disagree on theological issues, they should not be used as litmus tests of orthodoxy and should not be used to deny persons their rights to live as they believe God intended them. Neither we nor our narrow authoritative interpretations of Scripture can stand in judgment of others. Only God is our judge.

Asserting absolute truth claims that are not central to the faith and that lead to the exclusion and repression of others is not the witness of the gospel to which Jesus has called us. The gospel’s truth cannot be communicated through propositions or prohibitions, especially when such propositions and prohibitions shackle people. The gospel is best communicated through acts of love and compassion and through attitudes of openness and humility. Love is the fulfillment of the law of God and love bears witness to the grace of God that calls all of us to put down our theological weapons and relinquish our power over others.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Good Samaritan Teaches That There Are No Limits To Our Community

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar and beloved parables told by Jesus. Yet the danger in knowing the story too well is that we have often understood the story apart from its original social context, leading us to miss the shock the parable had on its first audience. While the parable can stand on its own as a good story about one person showing compassion to another, hearing it as the first hearers did opens to us the real sting of the tale.

Luke, the only evangelist to tell the parable, narrates that a man approached Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Underlying the man’s inquiry is an attitude of self-service, for it appears that his question sounds more like, “What is the least I have to do to ensure that I have eternal life?” The man’s motivation appears not to be a desire to love God or others, but rather a need to satisfy his own eternal security.

In response to the man’s query, Jesus invites him to answer his own question by asking, "What is written in the law?" The man replies with theological accuracy, quoting what every Hebrew knew from childhood, that the law is summed up as a dual command to love God and to love one’s neighbor. In response to the man’s answer, Jesus affirms his orthodox statement and assures the man that if he does this he will indeed have eternal life.

The man’s next question, “Who is my neighbor?” seems innocent at first, but since Luke tells us that the man was seeking to justify himself, we might presume that in asking the question, the man desired to limit his neighborly community. In other words, the man’s real question might be, “Who am I required to love in order to gain eternal life?” It is this question that prompts Jesus to tell his shocking parable.

The tale begins with a man traveling on the treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he is attacked by robbers and left for dead. By chance, a priest passes by the man without helping. Likewise, a Levite sidesteps the victim. The man who questioned Jesus is probably elated that neither of these religious officials stopped to help, for he himself is not a priest nor a Levite; he is a lawyer and not a temple official.

Yet, the man knows that to resolve the story there must appear a third character and perhaps he thinks that this third character in the story should be a person like himself; the one that would stop and help his fellow Judean. Yet, to the dismay of the man, the third character is a Samaritan. Why does Jesus choose a Samaritan, and how does this shock the audience?

The Samaritans were considered by most Judeans as an inferior race. They were believed to be descended from Israelites who had intermarried with other nations after being exiled to Assyria in 722 B.C.E. While Samaritans claimed the Torah as their law, Judeans did not view them any better than they viewed Gentiles. In the minds of Judeans, Samaritans were half-breeds.

The shock and offensiveness of Jesus’ parable, then, is that the unlikely hero of the story is not a racially pure Hebrew, but a member of a people believed to be lesser and impure. Indeed, the man is so shocked by this turn of events that in response to Jesus’ question, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man?" the man cannot even utter the word Samaritan, but simply replies, “The one who showed him compassion.”

In response to the man’s answer, Jesus commands, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus is telling the man, “This Samaritan has set for you the example of what it is to be a neighbor to others, for he has widened his neighborly community to include someone who hates him and someone he has been taught to despise.” If the lawyer truly desires to have eternal life, he must become like the Samaritan he loathes.

What the Samaritan’s action teaches us is that there are no limits to our neighborly community. Yes, the story has been used to speak about how we are to show compassion towards others. But this interpretation only serves to reinforce our assumptions that if we do acts of service towards others, we are living out the moral of the parable. But this is only partly true.

In showing compassion to someone from a race that despised his own, and one which I am sure he had been taught to hate, the Samaritan put away those prejudices that may have caused him to pass by like the priest and the Levite, and he widened his own conception of who was his neighbor. His generous act was more than a one-time act of compassion. His good deed reflected a deeper understanding of who he believed was a neighbor in his community.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

“Patriotism is not Enough”

Several years ago, while on a family trip to London, we were making our way up from Trafalgar Square to St. Martin’s Place. As we headed toward the National Portrait Gallery, I glanced at one of the many statues that surround this area of Britain’s capital. My glance at the stone monument, however, quickly turned into an intense focus and reflection on the words below the figure carved there. The words read, “Patriotism is not enough.” The woman whose representation was situated atop that citation was Edith Cavell.

I later discovered that Edith Cavell had been a nurse in Brussels during WWI, and that she had been executed by the German army in 1915 for helping Allied troops escape German occupied Belgium. But I also discovered something about her that brought a sense of meaning to the words inscribed on her monument; words she apparently spoke to a minister on the night before her death. Edith Cavell had not only assisted Allied soldiers during the First World War, she had also given aid and comfort to German troops, the very enemy of her home country of Britain. And on the eve of her death, she expressed her rationale for doing so; “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

While reflecting on these simple words, I have often felt that Christians have become too ingrained in American patriotism that we have lost a sense of identity and mission that views God as the God of all humanity and that witnesses to Jesus’ love for all, friends and enemies. There is a great danger to the church and its bold witness of the gospel to our world if we continue to blur the lines of division between patriotic loyalty to country and faithfulness to Christ. When we do so we run the grave risk of allowing American culture to influence, weaken, and indeed, supersede the church’s prophetic witness to the state.

This is why, as I have written before, we should not have symbols of our nation, including patriotic themes and songs, incorporated into our worship or our areas of sacred space. Doing so not only profanes the sacred time and sacred space of worship, it also brings into question and confuses our loyalties. The mixture of patriotic themes with Christian worship and witness reinforces beliefs that America and Christianity are inseparable, and that America is the Christian nation.

Moreover, if we celebrate patriotism within the context of Christian worship and practice, how does such a witness affect non-Americans? A pastor once shared with me that on a Sunday before Memorial Day, at the close of the worship service, the minister of worship lead the congregation in the singing of “God Bless America.” As the congregation sang this well known song, the pastor noticed many non-Americans in the audience and he noticed that they were not singing. They were not citizens of this country and this was not their song. The worship of God in Christian unity that had characterized the service to that point, ended on a patriotic note that excluded those who were not American.

We can certainly be good citizens of both the kingdom of God and America, for Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. And in a democracy where there is the free expression of religion, the church must participate in promoting just governmental policies for all. But our ultimate loyalty must be to the life and teachings of Christ, particularly his call for justice and peace for all people, especially toward the marginalized of our society.

If we are forced, as were early Christians, and as was Edith Cavell and Dietrich Bonheoffer, to choose between loyalty to Christ or loyalty to country, will we be able to distinguish between the two?

Loyalty to Christ means always choosing peace over war, love over hatred, poverty over wealth, forgiveness over revenge, and inclusion over nationalism. True freedom is found not in preserving security through power, war, or torture, but is discovered in being bound to Christ, his cross, and his gospel that extends beyond the boundaries of nation and culture to embrace the world.

As we celebrate Independence Day, let us do so with a sense of pride in what is good and right about America. But let us also witness boldly against America when policies and practices are put in place that are unjust and that ignore the gospel’s message of peace, justice, and life for all. We should always remember Nurse Cavell’s last words, and her life should cause us to consider the dangers inherent in uncritical and xenophobic patriotism. If we are to be faithful followers of the one who came to save the world, the words of Edith Cavell must become ours. “Patriotism is not enough.”