Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Liberate Christians From Themselves

It is probably helpful to break down the pseudo-divide between the secular and the sacred. Especially when it comes to churchwork. As a pastor it is too easy to believe that my churchwork is not worldy work. But in reality, my work as a pastor through the church is just as much of the world as collecting garbage or managing an ER or waiting on tables in a chain restaurant.

"Work puts human beings in the world of things. It requires achievement from them.

Christians step out of the world of personal encounter into the world of impersonal things, the "It"; and this new encounter frees them for objectivity, for the world of the It is only an instrument in the hands of God for the purification of Christians from all self-absorption and selfishness.

The work of the world can only be accomplished where people forget themselves, where they lose themselves in a cause, reality, the task, the It. Christians learn at work to allow the task to set the bounds for them.

Thus, for them, work becomes a remedy for the lethargy and laziness of the flesh. The demands of the flesh die in the world of things. But that can only happen where Christians break through the It to the "You" of God, who commands the work and the deed and makes them serve to liberate Christians from themselves."

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pg 75 [from A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Daily Meditations from His Letters, Writings, and Sermons]

My work as a pastor is in the world, with people of the world. I read, write, speak, plan, ponder and work with all the tools of the world. The one sacred work I do is pray to Christ. And even that task is in the world, often on behalf of the world. In breaking down the illusion that my work is sacred, I can perceive how worldly my work really is. The dismay of this acknowledgment gives way to relief.

Work in the world is a gift of God. In the beginning God blessed work, intended that our work in the world would result in a carefully stewarded Earth that was a blessing to all Creation. Work in the world has obviously been corrupted and a tool of abuse and terror.

But for the Christian, we remember the original blessing of work in the world. And my work in the church could be, as a pastor, as a Christian, a way to reconnect with work in the world as a blessing.

Unfortunately, instead of work being a tool of God to remedy my self-absorption and selfishness, I, like too many people, have merely let work become an avenue for it. The gift of work has become a form of self-enslavement to my vision and desires for achievement rooted in my selfish ambitions.

Indeed I need Christ to liberate me from myself. By the work of my hands I led myself into enslavement, and by the work of my hands, good works that Christ designed for me to participate in, I will I find myself liberated from myself.

I am tempted to squeeze too much significance out of my work. Either to satisfy my insecurities or to fuel my ambitions. The invitation by Christ, though, is to remember the embedded blessing of work itself.

Entering into the work for what I can get out of it is a corrupting action. But participating in the work that I deem is commanded by God, well that kind of work becomes liberating. It becomes liberating because if flows out of simple obedience to Christ, and I am trusting that He is the one using the work for his redemption of the world.

My work in the world is part of the renewal of all things when I let it renew me through my obedience to the tasks set before me by Christ. He saves me in part through the work he gives me to do, which requires my trust and obedience.

In looking ahead, I am hopeful that the work assigned to me in the world will be a form of purification for my self-absorption and selfishness. There is a relief in trusting that through the worldly work God assigns me, he will liberate me from myself. Much to the delight of those who work with me!

Monday, February 25, 2013

When We Humble Ourselves...

In my striving to be like Jesus, and in my desire to focus on what I'm getting right, I fail to pay attention to how "infinitely far away we are from resembling him." I nurture a toxic spiritual pride when I ruminate how far I have come in following Jesus and trying to be like him. I end up belittling the actual teachings of Christ and gloss over my many sins. Like pride. Or anger.

"It must be firmly maintained that Christ did not come to the world only to set an example for us. If that were the case we would have law and works-righteousness again.

He comes to save us and in this way be our example. His very example should humble us, teach us how infinitely far away we are from resembling him.

When we humble ourselves, then Christ is pure compassion. And in our striving to approach him, he is again our very help.

It alternates: when we are striving, then he is our example; and when we stumble, lose courage, then he is the love that helps us up. And then he is our example again."
~ Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations, pg 223

The striving to be like Jesus will produce a profound humility in us, for we will only understand how profoundly and "infinitely far away we are from resembling him" as we seek to do that very thing.

Like Peter attempting to walk on the water in the effort to imitate and follow Jesus, it was his stumbling over the stormy waves, losing courage and needing the strong hand of Jesus to save him from drowning. But Peter got out of the boat! And when he began to sink fast, he did not hesitate to call out in fear and anger to Jesus to rescue him!

What does it mean to be humbled by Jesus's example to us? And how do we approach him?

I suppose we must first take Jesus example to us very seriously. Apart from Jesus, we will have no inclination to believe or obey his instructions or follow his Way. It is too difficult. It requires too much courage and truth and love.

And yet my striving to do so, tentatively getting out of the boat and angrily crying out for help when I sink is both humbling and a demonstration of trust. With an infinite gap between my way and the Way of Jesus, there can be no pride in what I accomplish in imitating Christ. I will only barely perceive the mystery of the infinite distance between my life and His.

And yet when I seek to love others as imitation of His love, when I do so trusting that he has initiates the work of love, and will help me do it, and rescue me when I flail in pride and anger... it is then, having been humbled, that I can choose to approach Him on the Way. "He is the love that helps us up. And then He is our example again."

Monday, February 04, 2013

Revolutionary Christianity

In focusing more and more on what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, there is some new imagination required for what that would look like in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Especially when being a pastor in a community results in potential political activity.

I am disillusioned with our political reality in the USA. And I'm disappointed in how popular Christianity as aligned itself with politics in order to protect their assets, their power, their position, and their rights.

There is within me an instinctive repulsion to pastors and politics. What's the alternative to posturing and press statements? How to think about being a pastor and involved in politics without ending up as a pawn or a prig?

In these days of searching and listening, I turn again to Jacques EllulI found the following paragraphs to be immensely helpful to me as I seek confirmation of God's leading in my life's work.My interests and skills and calling have lead me into social and political work. In my vocation as a pastor, there is some inner questioning whether this direction is appropriate.  In seeking some kind of justification or spiritual foundation for what I sense to be right, Ellul is most helpful.

"The Christian can never regard himself as being on the winning side, nor can he look on with pleasure while everyone else goes to perdition; should
he do so, he would be lacking in the Spirit of Christ, and by that very fact he would cease to be a Christian.

Bound up with the lives of other men (be economic and sociological laws, and also by the will of God), he cannot accept the view that they will always remain in their anguish and their disorder, victims of tyranny and overwork, buoyed up only by a hope which seems unfounded.

Thus he must plunge into social and political problems in order to have an influence on the world, not in the hope of making a paradise, but simply in order to make it tolerable - not in order to diminish the opposition between this world and the Kingdom of God, but simply in order to modify the opposition between the disorder of this world and the order of preservation that God wills for it  - not in order to 'bring in' the Kingdom of God, but in order that the gospel may be proclaimed, that all men may really hear the good news of salvation, through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Thus there are three directions in which the Christian ought to action the world:First - starting from the point at which God has revealed to him the truth about the human person, he must try to discover the social and political conditions in which this person can live and develop in accordance with God's order.

Second - this person will develop within a certain framework which God has ordained for him. This is the order of preservation, without which man lacks his true setting. Man is not absolutely free in this sphere, any more than he is free in the physical or biological domain. There are certain limits which he cannot overstep without danger to the society to which he belongs. Thus the Christian must work, in order that the will of God may be incarnated in actual institutions and organisms.

Third - this order of preservation will have meaning only if it is directed towards the proclamation of salvation. Therefore, social and political institutions need to be 'open': that is, they must not claim to be all, or absolutes. Thus they must be constituted in such a way that they do not prevent man from hearing the Word of God. The Christian must be ceaselessly on the watch - intelligent and alert - to see that this 'order' is preserved.

But, in doing so, he will find that he is confronted by two possible errors. The one error consists in believing that by constant progress in this order we shall attain the Kingdom of God. It is enough to remind ourselves of the Book of Revelation, or of Matthew 24, to condemn this attitude.

The other error arises out of the conviction that by achieving certain reforms we shall have reached this order which God wills. In reality all solutions - all economic, political, and other achievements - are temporary. At no moment can the Christian believe either in their perfection or in their permanence. They are always vitiated by the sin which infects them, by the setting in which they take place.

Thus the Christian is constantly obliged to reiterate the claims of God, to reestablish this God-willed order, in presence of an order that constantly tends towards disorder. In consequence of the claims which God is always making on the world the Christian finds himself, by that very fact, involved in a state of permanent revolution.

Even when the institutions, the laws, the reforms which he has advocated have been achieved, even if society is reorganized according to his suggestions, he still has to be in opposition, he still must require more, for the claim of God is as infinite as His forgiveness.

Thus the Christian is called to question unceasingly all that man calls progress, discovery, facts, established results, reality, etc. He can never be satisfied with all this human labor, transcended, or replaced by something else.

In his judgment he is guided by the Holy Spirit - he is making an essentially revolutionary act. If the Christian is not being revolutionary, then in some way or another he has been unfaithful to his calling in the world."

Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, pgs 35-37