Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Treat Others as you Want to be Treated

In his (tough, but brilliant) book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard describes a "Community of Prayerful Love: How to treat others as you want to be treated."

It's a great vision not only for us as individuals, but for us as a church.  

It's also impossible for us, or for a church to actually live this way. 

Absent the Holy Spirit's help, that is. So as a way of continuing our series on the Holy Spirit, I want to offer Willard's observations.

A "Community of Prayerful Love" behaves in at least three ways:
  • Not condemning or blaming those around us;
  • Not forcing wonderful things upon them; and
  • Asking what we want from them...and from God.
The first part -- not condemning or blaming others - is of course based on Jesus' command in Matthew 7:1-3 not to judge.

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

Or as the old saying goes, "whenever you point a finger at someone, there are three pointing back at you..."

Willard says that if we (as individuals and as a church) really want to help those close to us, and if we really want to live together with our family and our neighbors in the power of the Kingdom, "we must abandon the deeply rooted human practice of condemning and blaming. We should and we can become the kind of person who does not condemn or blame others." As we do so, God is more available to guide.

Could we, Willard wonders, really negotiate personal relations without letting people know we disapprove of them and find them to be in the wrong? Well, look at what is happening when we condemn others:

First, condemnation is the plank in our eye. "Condemnation, especially with its usual accompaniments of anger and contempt and self-righteousness, blinds us to the reality of the other person," Willard writes.

It's important to note that giving up condemnation is not the same thing as giving up "judging" in the sense of separating, making a distinction between, or appraising, as a dentist or doctor does. We still distinguish and discern, we still hold people responsible, and we still even discuss their failures with them and hold them accountable. But with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we do this "without attacking their worth as human beings or marking them as rejects."

It's true, Willard says, that "some people, so desperate for approval, with little or no sense of themselves as spiritual beings, or their place in a good world of God, regard any negative appraisal of what they do as condemnation of themselves as persons. 'I am my actions,' they say, 'how can you say you disapprove of my actions but love me?' This can be a manipulative device to get you to approve everything I do."

But what we need to realize is that "what we are actually doing with our proper condemnations and our wonderful solutions, more often than not, is taking others out of their own responsibility and out of God's hands and trying to bring them under our control." (p. 230) 

Willard's most brilliant observation is this: "As long as we are condemning others, I am their problem. They have to respond to me, and that usually leads to their judging me right back. But once I back away, maintaining a sensitive and nonmanipulative presence, I am no longer their problem. ...As I listen, they do not have to protect themselves from me, and they begin to open up. I may even appear to them as a possible ally and resource. Now they begin to sense their problem to be [not me] but the situation they have created, or possibly themselves. Because I am no longer trying to drive them, genuine communication, real sharing of hearts," becomes possible.

And then -- through the power of the Holy Spirit -- God's Kingdom can come, and God's will can be done, in and through us.   

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Long Firework Displays on Independence Day?

Here's a whole new way to think about the reason we have long fireworks displays on Independence Day: 

As anyone who has raised a teenager, tried to break off a bad relationship, or free themselves from an addictive behavior can tell you, separation -- even healthy separation -- does not come quickly or easily.  

In other words, independence is a long and explosive process.
Why long fireworks on Independence Day?
We mark July 4, 1776 as the day we celebrate our Independence, because it's the date the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. We need to remember, though, is that the Declaration of Independence didn't start the American Revolutionary War. As important as the Declaration of Independence was, it was only a document.

That sheet of paper, by itself, didn't bring independence to anyone.

Love this version, showing edits
That's why a couple of other dates are important. One is April 19, 1775. That's the day (fifteen months earlier) that the Revolutionary War started, as the first shots were fired in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The other date is September 3, 1783. That's the date (eight years and five months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord) that the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally ending the Revolutionary War.

In other words, by the time the Continental Congress declared our independence from Great Britain, we'd already been in armed conflict for over a year, and the fighting would continue for a total of almost eight and a half years.

Yes, armed conflict. Yes, fighting. I'm not a war monger, and I'm no expert in world history, but it's pretty safe to say that generally speaking, masters do not cheerfully and calmly relinquish control over their subjects. There are probably instances in history of an oppressed people achieving freedom from their oppressors without any bloodshed. But right off the top of my head, I can't think of any struggle for independence that wasn't...well...a struggle. A fight.  

Independence is a long and explosive process. We don't just wake up one day and say "I'm free!" Whether it's freedom from old habits/addictions/compulsions/attitudes, freedom from financial debt, freedom from "spiritual forces of wickedness," "evil powers that corrupt and destroy," "sinful desires that draw us from the love of God," or freedom from prejudice or a -ism, independence takes time. Whoever or whatever has a hold on us is not, generally speaking, going to let go easily, or quickly.

Which brings me to another point: as much as we idolize the idea of "independence," there's really no such thing.

That's right, there's really no such thing as independence: there is only independence FROM something or another as we become more dependent or interdependent on some other one or thing.  

Perhaps "Independence Day" should be called "Independence From Great Britain Day," because in order to achieve independence from Great Britain, early American colonists had to become more dependent on one another. Not to mention more dependent on France.

The point is, no human being is truly independent.

And that's not even a religious claim: a quick study of the process of photosynthesis proves we are dependent on a pigment called chlorophyll for every breath we take.

And no human organization is truly independent. We are all dependent or inter-dependent, to one degree or another, on God, nature, and on one another. That's true of businesses, schools, churches, athletic teams, and nation-states. No one is independent.   

So there you have it: as you watch fireworks this Fourth of July, give thanks for the long, explosive process our founders went through, teaching us something about independence. And then give thanks for our dependence and interdependence on them, on God, and on others for the freedoms we enjoy.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Church is Boring, Rote, or Irrelevant? And God Never Is?

We started this series on the Holy Spirit with a reminder that the Holy Spirit is a person, and should not be reduced to merely a thing or a feeling.  Last week we were reminded of Richard Hauser, S.J.’s point that to the extent that we are open to the movement of the Spirit within us, we will be able to fulfill what many believe to be the point of Christian spirituality. Namely, we will better be able to imitate Jesus, love and do the Father's will, and love and serve our neighbors.

Some of you might be wondering why we’re spending the whole summer considering the Holy Spirit.

Part of the reason is that for too many people – perhaps for you at times – Christianity or church is boring, or rote, or irrelevant to their daily lives.

Here’s the problem with that: go through the Bible and look up every encounter that a human being has with God – whether with God directly, or with one of God’s angels/messengers, or with Holy Spirit, or with God-made-flesh in Jesus – and you’ll not find a single instance where the person thought the encounter was boring, or rote, or irrelevant.

So: is it too much of a stretch to say  if people NEVER find God  (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to be boring, rote, or irrelevant to our daily lives, but they are finding Christianity or church to be that way, it’s because people are not experiencing God there?

Or as Hauser quotes the following Eastern Orthodox prayer,

“Without the Holy Spirit, God is distant,
Christ remains in the past,
The Gospel is a dead letter,
The Church is just an organization,
Authority a domination,
Mission is propaganda,
Worship a ceremonial,
And Christian way of life a servitude.

But in him: the cosmos is uplifted and groans
            In giving birth to the kingdom,
            The risen Christ is here,
The Gospel throbs with life,
The Church is communion with the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission a Pentecost,
The liturgy both memorial and anticipation,
And human life is deified.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Pentecost Episcopalian: Why Responding to the Holy Spirit is Central to Christian Spirituality

Today - as we continue today with our theme of exploring the Holy Spirit - I'd like to share some insights from a brilliant little book titled Moving in the Spirit: Becoming a Contemplative in Action by Richard Hauser, S.J. All the thoughts below are indebted to, or quotes from that book.

Hauser points out that the person of Holy Spirit is not something "extra" about God, or some "aspect" of God that is optional...but as one person of the Trinity, the Spirit is the power of God at work in our lives and the way we experience God here in our day.

It is the Holy Spirit who leads us to faith in Jesus.

It is the Holy Spirit who allows us to live an authentic (loving) Christian life.

The best news is, "It is the Holy Spirit who leads us from seeing Christianity as the conscientious performance of external actions - living in conformity with external laws and rules - to being faithful to the law of love that arises within us."

In fact, "responding to the spirit in our lives" can be seen as the primary goal of Christian Spirituality.

As Hauser points out, there are many (quite valid and Biblical!) primary goals of Christian spirituality:

1.     Imitating Jesus. Here the focus of the spiritual life is to get to know Christ through studying the Bible and then imitating the example of Jesus in our personal life. See, for example, Mark 8:34 - "Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'" or Luke 6:46 "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?"

2.     Being faithful in doing God's will. Here the focus of the spiritual life is to make every effort possible to discover what God is asking us to do and then trying to do it - to fulfill God's will for our life. And for sure, Jesus taught this "thy kingdom come, thy will be done. This also seemed to be focus of Jesus' own spiritual goal: see for example John 6:38 - "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me."

3.     Loving and serving others. Here the focus of the spiritual life is in being faithful in helping other people, especially those who are most in need. See for example Matthew 25:34-36: "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'"

4.     Responding to the movement of the Spirit. Here the focus of the spiritual life is our cooperation (with God's grace) with the movement of the Spirit within ourselves. (This of course assumes that the Holy Spirit was not only sent to the Christian community back in Biblical days, but is still quite active and still lives in the church collectively and in us individually today.)

But here are the reasons Hauser (and I) believe responding to the Holy Spirit is central to Christian Spirituality:    

The Holy Spirit is central to any effort to imitate Jesus; the more open we are to the Spirit, the more we will be like, or apprentice ourselves to, Jesus; and 
Because Holy Spirit is sent from God the Father (see Romans 8:15-16 - "those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.And by him we cry, "Abba,Father."), it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to be faithful to doing the Father's will; and 

When we receive the Holy Spirit, by definition, we receive the Spirit of God, and since God is love, the primary effect of the Spirit in our day-to-day life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (see Galatians 5:22).

So, "to the extent that I am open to the movement of the Spirit in me, I will

1.     Imitate Jesus,
2.     Love and do the Father's will, and
3.     Love and serve my neighbor."

Again: "It is the Holy Spirit who leads us from seeing Christianity as the conscientious performance of external actions - living in conformity with external laws and rules - to being faithful to the law of love that arises within us."

And THAT is nothing short of a reformation...a re-forming of our entire attitude about, and our entire approach to, the Christian faith.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Love: a Series of Courageous Vulnerabilities

Love: a Series of CourageousVulnerabilities
A sermon preached Trinity Sunday (June 15, 2014)
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church Virginia
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector

Trinity Sunday is a day set aside in the church calendar to recall our belief that God is One, and that this One God reveals God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One God, revealed as
God the Father Almighty, as
God’s son Jesus Christ, and as
God’s Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.

Now, already at this point this point in my sermon, I am glad I have a rule for preaching, a rule I keep in mind when I am writing sermons, which is this: I try to imagine a bored tenth grader, sitting about ten pews back, rolling his or her head back  thinking or saying “so WHAT?!? Who CARES?!  

So: to you bored tenth graders and to the bored tenth grader in all of us: Why should you care that God is One God revealed in a trinity of persons? 

Because you are desperate for love.

I am. You are. We all are.

And as desperate for love as you are, you haven’t even begun to comprehend love.

You don’t – I don’t – none of us understand love. We don’t “stand under” Love, we don’t stand on Love, we don’t feel surrounded by Love, we don’t feel motivated or pushed forward by Love.

You may – I may, we may – occasionally feel glazed by Love, but rarely do we feel marinated in Love, inseparable from Love, tasting and tasting of Love.

And that – people so thoroughly marinated in love that they give off the flavor and smell of Love everywhere they go, everywhere we go, is what the world craves the most and needs the most.

Love is what will first heal you,
and then heal those closest to you,
and then heal this city, and the the world.

But Love starts with God and your image of God.

God is not only IN relationship with the world,
But that God IS relationship…
God is, God’s self, relationship.

C.S. Lewis points out that all sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that 'God is love.' But [the expression “God is love” makes no sense unless] God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person.

That is important because it helps us to see the true nature of God – as a relationship of love, love between Father and Son, Son and Holy Spirit, and Holy Spirit and Father.  

This love that flows within God’s own self is a “missional love” and by that I mean that it is a love that cannot be contained!

Missional love is love that overflows its banks, spills out into the world!

Now let me stop here a minute and back up to define Love.

Despite what we often think, “love” is not primarily an emotion, or a feeling.

(“Oh, great, happy Father’s Day!” you might be thinking: “on a day we’re supposed to express our love or our appreciation for our Father’s love, here’s the preacher saying love is not primarily an emotion or a feeling.”)

But it’s not. And that’s good news. Because if Love is not primarily an emotion or a feeling, what is Love?

Love is a series of courageous vulnerabilities.

Let me repeat that: Love is a series of courageous vulnerabilities.

I get that from the Bible (and from reading the modern prophet Brene Brown). I get that from the story of salvation history.
God’s goodness and love are not a secret. God’s goodness and love are “made known to us.”

As one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it, “God’s goodness and love are made known to us” in the courageously vulnerable act of creation, the calling of Israel to be God’s people, God’s Word spoken through the prophets, and above all, God’s courageous vulnerability in the Word made flesh, God’s becoming one of us.

Creation: We heard the story of God’s missional love this morning in the creation story. God not being able to contain God’s love within God’s self so God’s love exploding out in creative creation.

Created in the image of God, in the likeness of God, who is a relationship of interdependent love, we are created not to be alone, not to strive for independence, but to be in relationship. In relationship with God with creation, and with other human beings. Interdependent.

You see? An acknowledgment of our interdependence requires vulnerability. Interdependence requires us to say, “I’m not complete by myself; I need others.

Here’s the thing: Only strong people can admit their vulnerability. It takes a lot of strength, a lot of courage – sometimes more strength and courage than we have -- to say, “I can’t make it myself. I need help.” 

But Love is a series of courageous vulnerabilities…starting in creation, moving on to God’s calling of Israel to be God’s people: a love that is as often rejected as returned.

God’s missional love continues as God speaks God’s Word through the prophets, beckoning and calling us back. (God’s prophets throughout history aren’t treated so well. Beginning with the biblical prophets and continuing in our own day, God’s prophets are often ridiculed, marginalized, and even murdered. But Love is a series of courageous vulnerabilities.)

And above all God’s goodness and love was made known to us in God’s Word made flesh, God’s becoming one of us, Jesus.

Jesus, a human being fully marinated in God’s love, God’s love walking among us, teaching and preaching and healing and leaving us a meal.

Talk about courageous vulnerability. Love as courageous vulnerability is not always returned, and sometimes it is opposed.  

This morning we heard the Biblical creation story. Some of you will recall that back in early Advent, I read to you another creation story, one of my favorites. It’s the story told in Gordon MacKenzie’s book titled Orbiting the Giant Hairball, written as a kind of guide for artistic people to keep their creativity in a major organization.

Gordon MacKenzie relates this story near the end of his book:

“Before you were born, God came to you and said:

Hi there! I just dropped by to wish you luck, and to assure you that you and I will be meeting again soon. Before you know it.

You’re heading out on an adventure that will be filled with fascinating experiences. You’ll start out as a tiny speck floating in an infinite dark ocean. Quite saturated with nutrients. So you wont have to go looking for food or a job or anything like that. All you’ll have to do is float in the darkness. And grow incredibly. And change miraculously.
You’ll sprout arms and legs. And hands and feet. And fingers and toes.

As if from nothing your head will take form. You nose, your mouth, your ears will emerge.

As you continue to grow bigger and bigger, you will become aware that this dark, oceanic environment of yours – which when you were tiny, seemed so vast is now actually cramped and confining. That will lead you to the unavoidable conclusion that you’re going to have to move to a bigger place.
All of this will be what the big people on the other side call being born. For you, it will be only the first of your new life’s many exploits.

God continues:

I was wondering, while you’re over there on the other side, would you do me a favor?
“Sure!” you chirp.

Would you take this artist’s canvas with you and paint a masterpiece for me? I’d really appreciate that.

Beaming, God hands you a pristine canvas. You roll it up, and tuck it under your arm and head off on your journey.

Your birth is just as God has predicted, and when you come out of the tunnel into the bright room, some doctor or nurse looks down at you in amazement and gasps:

“Look! The little kid’s carrying a rolled-up artist’s canvas!”

Knowing that you do not yet have the skills to do anything meaningful with your canvas, the big people take it away from you and give it to society for safekeeping until you have acquired the prescribed skills requisite to the canvas’s return. While society is holding this property of yours, it cannot resist the temptation to unroll the canvas and draw think blue pale lines and little blue numbers all over its virgin surface.
Eventually, the canvas is returned to you, its rightful owner. However, it now carries the implied message that if you will paint inside the blue lines and follow the instructions of the little blue numbers your life will be a masterpiece.

And that is a lie.

For more than 50 years I worked on my paint-by-numbers creation. With uneven but persistent diligence, I dipped an emaciated paint-by-numbers brush into color No. 1 and painstakingly painted inside each little blue-bordered area marked 1. Then onto 2 and 3 and 4 and so on. Sometimes, during restive periods of my life, I would paint, say, the 12 spaces before the 10 spaces (a token rebellion against overdoses of linearity). More than once, I painted beyond a line and, feeling embarrassed, would either try to wipe off the errant colour or cover it over with another before anyone might notice my lack of perfection. From time to time, although not often, someone would complement me, unconvincingly, on the progress of my “masterpiece.” I would gaze at the richness of others’ canvases. Doubt about my own talent for painting gnawed at me. Still, I continued to fill in the little numbered spaces, unaware of, or afraid to look at, any real alternative.

Then there came a time, after half a century of daubing more or less inside the lines, that my days were visited by traumatic events. The dividends of my noxious past came home to roost, and the myth of my life began horrifically to come unglued. I pulled back from my masterpiece-in-the-works and saw it with emerging clarity.

It looked awful.

The stifled strokes of paint had nothing to do with me. They did not illustrate who I am or speak of whom I could become. I felt duped, cheated, ashamed – anguished that I had wasted so much canvas, so much paint. I was angry that I had been conned into doing so.

But that is the past. Passed.

Today I wield a wider brush – pure ox-bristle. And I’m swooping it through the sensuous goo of Cadmium Yellow, Alizarin Crimson or Ultramarine Blue (not Nos. 8, 13 or 4) to create the biggest, brightest, funniest, fiercest damn dragon that I can. Because that has more to do with what’s inside of me than some prescribed plagiarism of somebody else’s tour de force.

You have a masterpiece inside you, too, you know. One unlike any that has ever been created or ever will be.

And remember:
If you go to your grave
without painting
your masterpiece,
it will not
get painted.

No one else
can paint it.

Only you.

Do you see why I am saying Love is not primarily an emotion or a feeling but a series of courageous vulnerabilities?  

God, who is Love, loves wildly, recklessly, and endlessly.

In the resurrection, God started a movement, a fellowship, a cause, a church, Christ’s body. 

The Body of Christ (you…me…us…) on earth, to continue God’s creative vulnerability.   

You see the impact that can have on us?

It changes the way we see God...and because God is the ultimate reality and is the one in whose image we are made, if this belief really gets inside of us, it changes our view of the world and our selves.

·        If we believe that God is a relationship of love, and
·        If we are created in the image of God,
·        Then we are created ourselves to be in relationship, interdependent, and in love,

And if love is a series of courageous vulnerabilities,

Then our “duty” as Christians – individually as a church -- is not to be perfect, or perfectly follow rules
but to be swept up into that love,
marinated in that love,
so swept up that we ourselves have a missional love

…to be so deeply convinced that we are so deeply loved 
that we are filled with love to the brim, over the brim, overflowing, out into the world,

and -- in a series of courageous vulnerabilities -- 
to paint our masterpiece.



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