Twin discoveries from our life of love group: 1. Every week the topic of “loving ourselves” has come up, and 2., I have some inner resistance to that phrase. Oh, wait: discovery three: If I loved myself in the way that God loves me (or if I, in other words, allowed God to lead me in how I think about myself, feed myself, forgive myself, etc. etc.), I and everyone around me would be better off. Ouch. “Let me ‘splain; no, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
Have you ever said to someone who was in some destructive habits, “Take care of yourself” and really hoped that they would? I think that’s what God is saying to all of us, at least that’s what I’m hearing at our LOL group. Think of Jesus crying out to Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings! But you were not willing!” And I am apparently part of the “unwilling.” Yes, I am at least somewhat inwardly opposed to believing that God desires above all to just let him (through some of our own choices) take care of us. I’m reminded of how the NT teaches husbands to love their wives as they do their own body, “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.” Really? No one ever hated his own body, Paul? Paul obviously didn’t live in the modern West or grow up in the churches I grew up in. But seriously, did you catch that? The logic is obvious: Paul assumes and affirms that we would “love” our own bodies; that we’d feed and care for them, and not disdainfully on the one hand or indulgently on the other, but as Christ does the Church. If your spirit just says, “Of course; duh, T!” then count yourself blessed. Cuz I’ve not been trained to think that Paul would affirm folks “loving” themselves, certainly not their bodies–we’re supposed to hate/tolerate our bodies in Christianity, right? Apparently not. But you know, I freely admit that I need progress in love in the way of Christ, and it turns out the first place God has highlighted has been accepting his love for me in greater measure, and seeing more clearly how he does “love.”
God busted me as I was contemplating a typical food choice the other day: “If I loved myself the way God loves me, I wouldn’t just eat whatever I want, I’d take care of myself through eating; because that’s what God wants to do–take better care of me.”
What’s really going on here is the depth and scope of my belief, or disbelief, in the grace of God toward me. Again, I’ve been programmed to hear “grace” as “forgiving my sins” but God’s grace is all the undeserved kindness that God wants to show me, all the ways he wants to take care of me, merit notwithstanding. It’s too easy for me when I hear that we are to pick up our cross and follow Christ to even unconsciously say, “Yes, yes, because I deserve some hardship for my failings; and God wants to give me some.” But that’s not the cross that Jesus picked up, nor the one he asks us to bear.
God wants to care for us, and the whole world. He’d like to pull us into that vocation, even as it concerns our own selves. Yes, God wants me to “love myself” but not the way the world loves, so that I just give myself whatever I want, but to “care for and feed myself,” to seek to do good to myself and even my body, because that’s God’s desire for me.
In my experience growing up in evangelical circles, generally speaking, repentance was understood as an individual choice that was done or not done in a moment. The power to make this choice came, if at all, directly from God (the Holy Spirit) to the individual. That’s simply what repentance was and how it happened. One sealed the deal by walking an aisle, or raising one’s hand (with all heads bowed and eyes closed) or telling someone about our decision. Then it was up to whatever measure of individual, God-given willpower one had to “walk it out,” just me and Jesus.
One of the things that I have come to deeply appreciate in 12-step/support group wisdom and practice is the recognition that repentance–real change of one’s life that sticks–is generally neither instantaneous nor ‘lone-ranger’ style; it’s slow and, more importantly, communal. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 12 steps are themselves 12 “steps” to effective repentance and that the meetings are there to “support” each person in this most challenging of all processes.
Here’s my question to my fellow church folk out there: How do you do repentance? Solo or communal? Do you have a Christian community, large or small, that actually encourages you to admit failures and take steps to repent/change without shaming you? In other words, do you have a community to run to for help as you are faced with your failures, or do you generally attempt to implement/pursue change alone?
I’m entering into a “looking back/looking forward” series of posts regarding the Vineyard, inspired in part by the guys I mentioned in the last post (check there for links).
Our church (though not a Vineyard) welcomes people to receive prayer for anything at the end of the Sunday service. I’m one of the leaders of the prayer team. In fact, I just led our last training, which was very ‘Vineyard-esque.’ So I listen to the Holy Spirit when I pray for folks, and just about any other time I can remember to do so. I “do the stuff” as much as I can and the stuff is good and the stuff is very rewarding. Think woman at the well–who wouldn’t be jazzed about that? But you know what? I don’t just do what Jesus did in that story. The Vineyard legacy in my life isn’t just to “do the stuff.” It’s first and foremost a willingness to “receive”: receive the kingdom like a little child, receive the Spirit, receive help from God through others and through any other means he sees fit to give help. The priesthood of all believers and the great mercy of God means that I not only get to play the part of Jesus in that story in John 4, but also (thank God!) the role of the woman: religious but broken, and in increasing need and fatigue, plagued with some kind of pain or weight or task or shame or all of the above, and being the one largely to blame for my condition. Then God meets me, usually through a fellow clay pot who knows my pain and is full of his Spirit. Together, God and this humble pot don’t just give me big important truths (regarding the true nature of worship, for instance), but also the little known truth about me. As God’s awareness of me becomes obvious, all of a sudden my hope and faith are renewed, and instead of wearily lugging heavy jars of water over and over, springs of living water start welling up in me, and I am totally lightened, refreshed and refreshing others with quickness and ease in my steps. That’s just from receiving from God, often via a clay pot like myself. Isn’t it interesting that even though Jesus tells this woman one of the most theologically significant truths about worship–announcing to her a momentous shift in how/where worship will happen in the covenant that is now being made–it’s the little known truth he gives about her that transforms her into an energetic, believing missionary: “Come see this man who told me everything I ever did.” It’s not the big truth about right worship and temples, hot as that topic was at the time, that sent her running with joy, it was the smaller truth about her.
I have needed (and continue to need) God to talk to me that way–personalized, customised, through other people, circumstances and Spirit to spirit. Is there a greater need in the thirsty, agnostic West? It heals me so deeply. Energizes me so dramatically. Convinces me of all kinds of ‘big truths’ so convincingly. The Vineyard is going to need to hang on to and deepen that legacy and practice in the post-modern era. My main caveats would be these: 1. experiences like these aren’t mutually exclusive with more traditional means of growth and spiritual disciplines; they are complimentary for disciples; and 2. Get intentional about pursuing “the stuff” outside of the meetings. Make it missional, make it a way of life, not a way of church services or even just outreaches. The latter will rot from the inside-out, the former, the way of life, will be like a garden in spring time, teeming with more life than can be contained.
When I discuss healing and prophecy and the miraculous with Christians who have hesitations about those practices, one of the recurring objections is the concern that people who are sick or handicapped or the like not be blamed for not being healed, usually for lacking faith. This morning I was reminded of that as I was thinking through a few of the stories in which Jesus rebuked the disciples for having little faith in him. The first thing that leapt out at me as I thought about such stories was that when it came to the miraculous, it was so often his disciples — the insiders, the co-workers with him — whom he rebuked for lack of faith, not the needy folks coming to be healed. As I thought of the many times and ways Jesus did this, including when the disciples failed to cast a demon out of a person during his transfiguration, it dawned on me that Jesus does rebuke his apprentices for lack of faith (evidenced in a variety of ways), but never does he rebuke a person acutely aware of their need for healing. With those that are hurting or on the outside–the bruised reeds, the smoldering wicks–he may still discuss their faith, but he is much more gentle, even commending or praising the faith that he finds in such people. Think of the interchange which climaxes in the now famous “I believe; help my unbelief!” That’s as close as Jesus gets to correcting the faith of someone in a felt need. Of course, that interchange is so non-condemning, so honestly helpful, that it rivals if not outstrips his dealings with Thomas as the most loved among us doubters.
He was more blunt, corrective or even confrontational not only with his own students, but also with those who had more official training in the Jewish faith that didn’t believe, and with those communities who personally witnessed him doing signs and wonders but still didn’t believe him as “Christ.” The latter folks are given not mere correction but “Woes” and warning. But you never see Jesus being short or harsh with those who are about to lose their daughter, or just lost their brother, or in some other way are, in that moment, in the middle of experiencing some the real poverty of the human experience, even if their faith in him is weak. With them he is more gentle, even if still urging them, pulling them, to believe. It seems he is even more gentle with his disciples when they are personally experiencing loss (look at the Lazarus incident). Therefore, I think it is safe to say and teach that a practice of the miraculous that is modeled after Christ is not going to create any blame or burden for those who personally need healing or rescue from one of life’s tragedies. We might call this the “smoldering wick” principle and it seems to extend even to Christ’s disciples when he might otherwise be more blunt about their lack of faith.
But this led me to a second, related thought especially concerning his disciples. Clearly, Jesus wanted everyone he encountered, even the smoldering wicks and especially his disciples, to “believe” in him, and, what’s more, he expected their faith in him to include his power over death, over demons, over disease, over nature (and rebuked them for lacking it). And it goes farther still: he even commanded them to do the same things on his behalf and rebuked them and occasionally seemed exasperated when they lacked the faith to do it. But my question is this: Can we effectively argue (or should we even try) that Jesus wants us to have a materially different faith than that which he obviously sought to instill not only in the disciples, but in everyone he encountered? Can we read Jesus’ rebukes to the disciples and to the religious community of the day and exempt ourselves if we lack in our faith what they lacked in theirs? When Jesus tells someone in the NT that they have little faith or great faith, what exactly is the content of that faith that they lack and should ours be different?
It is obvious from the NT that Jesus wanted his disciples to have faith that went well beyond whether or not he forgave them (and whether they could forgive on his behalf). Yes, he does want us to know that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and that “if [we] forgive anyone, they are forgiven.” But if Jesus himself or the gospel writers are to be believed, God seemed at least equally concerned that Jesus’ disciples knew that he had authority on earth [and they through him] over diseases, demons, death, and over nature, as well as forgiving sins. He wasn’t happy with their “faith” when it didn’t include any one of these things and when they lacked the faith to do the same things on his behalf. He summed it up in his final great commission to them: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore, make disciples . . . [.] His authority over everything (as God’s anointed, the “Christ”) as richly demonstrated in the gospels, is the basis of the Great Commission. Our “faith”, according to Jesus, needs to include not only his authority and willingness to forgive, but his authority over all things in heaven and earth, and in our authority from him to do the same things he did, as he said that anyone who believed in him would do. If our faith in him, and the actions that flow from it, should be markedly different than what he was so insistent on his first followers having, what’s the basis? I really don’t think that’s a search with a happy ending. We’d be better off, I believe, to let the gospels transform our faith and practice than justify our own. I’ll be posting the content of an upcoming local training on that topic soon.
Like the Vineyard, 12 step groups also put an unusually high value on the practice of honesty and see it as a fundamental way to welcome God’s grace and power. In fact, in my opinion, support groups see it as more valuable than the Vineyard. The AA saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets” sums up the extent that honesty is connected to healing in recovery. The several embodiments of this value in 12-step practice are really too many to name in a blog post. They begin with step one of the twelve steps, and really never let up: “We admitted” are the first two words of step one. Recovery begins with being honest about having a problem (breaking out of denial—a form of dishonesty). The sole purpose of the confidentiality given to what is said at meetings and to sponsors is to encourage and protect this foundational practice of honesty.
In fact, it is not overstating to say that honesty with oneself, with God, with another human being are the foundation of the program. Further, this isn’t just an amorphous value, either. The honesty in which 12-steppers see God as particularly present is often painfully specific—about the totality of one’s defeat by addiction (step 1), about the addict’s inability to manage his or her life (step 1), about the insanity he or she has been operating in (step 2), and about everything the recovering person has done wrong (steps 4, 5). Steps 1, 5, and 10 actually contain the word “admit.” The steps hit their challenging high point in step 9, in which amends are made for all past wrongs. Then step 10 makes such admissions and amends a way of life going forward, as does the 12th, as the recovering addict seeks to “practice these principles in all [his or her] affairs.”
And the meetings themselves also reveal the value placed on honesty in support groups. Several meetings are devoted as venues for honest sharing of one’s experience with others, including especially one’s failures.
The opening lines of chapter 5 of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous) summarizes well the importance of the practice of honesty in the program:
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”
It is ironic that the sacrament of confession to one another–being honest to ourselves, to others and to God about our failures–is really what the support groups have fully embraced even while most Christian traditions (which gave it to the support groups in the first place) have all but abandoned the practice. It’s fair to say, in fact, that even while Catholic churches in the West still practice and hold confession as a sacrament, support groups–not churches–are the ones mining the depths of this practice for all its power—for humility, for release from the past, for relational health and encouragement, and for real growth and transformation—practicing it both widely and deeply within their ranks, resulting in healing for millions of the most broken around the world.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last post’s survey. BTW, the “other” suggestions for evangelical sacraments were “group bible study,” “communion” and “everything we do.” I kind of doubt that the results are very reflective of what evangelical churches actually practice and/or prioritize, but that’s a subject for another post. For now, I want to echo the “God is present in everything we do” comment to the poll. While this can sound simplistic, I think it contains too much needed truth in our day to dismiss it. In fact, all of what various Christian traditions have called sacraments or even spiritual disciplines or practices have availed me much more–and been far lighter in the process–when I have due respect for what many have called the “sacrament of the present moment.”
Recently I heard a description for spiritual disciplines that made me think of this issue of (evangelical) sacraments, which I raised in the last post. Here’s the description:
The spiritual disciplines are like opportunities for grace, opportunities for us to welcome God to work in and through us.
I like that. It reminded me of the definition of sacrament that I mentioned in the last post: “an activity in which God is uniquely active” or present. It also made me think this when I heard it: is there a moment in which there isn’t an opportunity for grace; is there any moment in which God is not uniquely active? I really don’t think so. In fact, I firmly believe that in every moment, God and his grace are ready, willing and able to lead and empower towards good, towards redemption, and not just in a general sense, but in a particular and customized way. Every moment is an opportunity for grace, for cooperation with God. This means, though, that the grace of God will indeed take a variety of forms. All of life, if it is a life led by God, will not be spent in the prayer closet, or reading the bible, or what have you. Certainly we are called to constant communion or prayer with God, and we will read our bibles, go to church, etc., but that doesn’t mean we are to be constantly praying and doing nothing else. It means that sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in a given moment might be to take a nap, or make love to our spouse, or do the dishes, or get in the pool with our kids–all within an awareness of and responsiveness to the personal, specific and redemptive involvement of God. How’s that for the manifold grace of God? Indeed, cooperating with God in a given moment might take the form of anything: taking a phone call, reading the bible or something else, changing a diaper, maybe even kneeling down to listen and pray (while cleaning a toilet or not). But whatever the form, I am convinced that the grace of God is always ready for us to turn and ask what He is doing and how he is doing it right now, and I suspect strongly that the variety of specific answers to that question are generally outside of what we think of as “spiritual” or “sacramental”, though they are exactly that precisely because of God’s calling and personal involvement.
If you haven’t already checked Christine Sine’s Spiritual Practices Series at her blog, give it a whirl. She’s got folks adding to it regularly. Get a vision for sacraments that are right in front of you. I’ll be talking about some of AA’s and the Vineyard’s “sacraments” in upcoming posts.
I’ve been thinking about my conversation with i-Monk, the subject of my last post. He said in a later comment that he probably should have said I was headed towards Wesleyan thinking (or just “wrong” thinking! 🙂 ), in his opinion, rather than Catholic thinking (just to avoid dragging his Catholic friends into the discussion). He also mentioned that his blog is “a zone where Lutheran understandings were going to prevail.”
The last statement, I think, is the key to my understanding why, from Michael’s (Luther’s) perspective, no command from God or Christ can be an act of grace on God’s part, even if it’s a parent seeing the oncoming car, telling his child to get out of the road. No matter how much such an act (or others like it) fits within the biblical or parental concept of graciousness or love, Luther just can’t call commands “grace” or acts of love. Commands, even from Jesus, are, to use his words, “the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.” If it’s in the form of command, it’s not love! It’s Law!! LAW!!
Given his own story, I don’t I blame him. When authority, particularly authority wearing a cross, uses its power to be condemning, to serve one’s self, to manipulate others, etc., etc., it leaves quite a mark. How many of the issues that we all have come from how we were treated by our parents? And abuse from religious authorities isn’t any better. I’m not an expert on Luther by any stretch, but I think it is fair to say that Luther got more than his fair share of religious abuse within the system of “doing penance” (rather than “repenting”) that he labored in, trying to earn forgiveness. And I think it left a mark.
Have you ever been with a child or even an animal that had been treated harshly over a long period? They can react violently to even the most innocent of “commands.” You can look at them with no expression and they take it as hatred. You can make a move to grab a cup and they think you are about to slap them. It’s a learned defense mechanism. If perfect love casts out fear, abuse multiplies it, makes it quick to respond.
Now, don’t mistake me. I’m not claiming to be a student of Luther’s history. I know some of it. What’s more, I’m really, really proud of how he stuck to his theses and his convictions at such high costs. The selling of indulgences, among other things, needed to stop. Someone needed to take a stand. “Do penance” isn’t the same as “repent” (lit., think again) and we all need to know that Jesus said “repent” in light of his kingdom coming near. The whole world, including the Catholic church, has benefitted from Luther’s stand and work.
That said, his way of bifurcating God, even Jesus, into “grace” or “gospel” on the one hand and “law” on the other (which may be news, but not the good kind) sounds more like the kind of split-view that abused children develop towards authority figures than the NT picture we have of the Father who issues a call through his son from love to love. He forgives from love and he tells us to be generous from love. He provides from love and he directs from love. Can Sin within us or others take a good command from God and not only make us want to disobey just to disobey, but also lie to us about God’s intentions, twist his command so that we only see it as some kind of threat or power-play? Does the Pope wear a funny hat?
But it doesn’t shock me that Luther couldn’t see that–I’ve known too many abused people and even my own junk to think that even ten thousand meditations on God’s grace (which I’m sure Luther did) would necessarily make all the wounds go away, all the ingrained reactions to authority. In light of his history, it doesn’t surprise me that Luther could say “sola scriptura” on the one hand, but that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul on the other. That he could only see the commands as (he thinks) Paul did, but not as (he thinks) James did, since James called the law, in Luther’s words “a ‘law of liberty’, though Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death, and of sin.”
Again, I am very grateful for Martin Luther. Thank God for him. But I’m not inclined to trust him (or even i-Monk!) when he says that no command of Jesus is given as part of his love and grace to us, even if I understand why Luther and many others have a very, very hard time perceiving any command as an act of grace. For Luther and for many, many others who lived–then and now–under abusive authority figures, I understand that cringe. But I believe that God sent Jesus to do everything he did out of love, that his whole life was an act of undeserved kindness from God, including teaching us his ways, including telling us to love each other, even though we can’t do that or anything else worthwhile apart from his help in other ways.
If that means I think more like Wesley than Luther on this point, I’m okay with that. They’re both amazing brothers. My goal, of course, is to try to learn to think like Jesus, who I still believe even told us what to do because he really loves us. I’ll likely continue to believe that until/”Unless I am convinced [otherwise] by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason.” But how about you? I’m honestly curious. Feel free to comment or just vote in the poll.