Monday, October 24, 2016

what are you carrying?

St. Dunstan's Basilica, Charlottetown, PEI
Disciple: pupil, apprentice, learner, follower, student.

Jesus called disciples, inviting them to follow him, learn from him, live with him, and do what he did. I have given my life to being a disciple of Jesus. In my particular case, it takes the form of prayer and mindfulness, it happens through theological formation, it is present in the tasks of leading and administration, it shines through making music and art and participating in worship, and it is woven into my relationships. I perhaps feel closest to being a disciple of Jesus when I catch glimpses of beauty in skies and trees and animals and oceans and words and eyes, when my heart knows it is too small to contain the wonders it witnesses each and every day.

But being a disciple is more than emulating a master craftsman's values and practices. A disciple also believes that the world would be a better place if others learned the ways of their teacher. In other words, disciples don't want the teachings and practices of their mentor to die with them. They want them to be passed on from generation to generation. Being a disciple, a learner, comes somewhat naturally to me, but being a disciple-maker is just plain hard. The first is primarily concerned with my own growth and transformation, but the second requires me to look beyond myself, to make significant sacrifices in order to facilitate growth and transformation in others. It is the difference between preparing a tasty meal for my own enjoyment and spending all day cooking for guests.

Being a disciple-maker is the best and the worst job I have ever had. In general, I feel ill-equipped to help form the lives and practices of others. There are days when it seems impossible and I fear that I am both a bad student and a horrible teacher. But there are also days when it fills me with wonder and joy and there is nothing I would rather be doing than helping others learn to walk with Jesus. In other words, I seem to have much in common with Jesus's twelve disciples: slow, inept, self-absorbed, yet hopeful, eager, filled with spurts of faith, and willing to try anything the master asks me to do.

While in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island last week, I stepped into St. Dunstan's Basilica for a few moments of contemplation. As I sat there in silence, my gaze was drawn to two statues. On my left was a sculpture of Joseph carrying the infant Jesus. On my right was Jesus carrying the cross on his shoulders, flanked by two men. The two images became connected in my mind: we carry Jesus and he carries us. As a disciple, I recognize that my master Jesus carries my mistakes, my weaknesses, all the places I fall short, my shame and guilt, my burdens, my worries, my doubts, my whole work-in-progress life. Jesus unburdens us, rescues us, and saves us. But he also asks us to carry him, to lift him up, to hold him in our arms, to care for him as we would a young child, to treat him as a precious gift, to always be attentive to his presence and nearness, and to take him with us everywhere we go, to the all places and the people in our lives. Even as I write this, I wonder if it is really right. The Eternal, Almighty God asking me to carry him? It is a mystery, the mystery of a God who humbly unites himself with humanity in all its fragility, being present to us in ways which undercut our narrow narratives in which we engage in endless power games, hungry for the appearance of success, hopelessly addicted to the hollow trophies of fame and fortune. Instead of giving us a way to conquer the world and become great, Jesus gives us a way to serve. We honour and serve him best when we carry him.

And this, perhaps, is another way to think of disciple-making. Instead of viewing it as the overwhelming task of convincing people that God is real and getting them to change their bad habits and making them obedient followers and teaching them correct doctrines, perhaps disciple-making is as simple as carrying Jesus wherever we go. Jesus is the one who inspires. Jesus is the one who teaches. Jesus is the one who transforms. Jesus is the one with the authority (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus is the one who promises to always be with us. We simply carry him wherever we go. And as we do, the world is changed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

what binds us together?

Image result for braiding techniques for bracelets
Image from fene4ki.ru on pinterest.com
For the past few weeks, I have been reading a book by famed psychiatrist M. Scott Peck which chronicles his travels (together with his wife) through remote parts of the UK in search of prehistoric stones. The book is part travel journal, part spiritual musings, part psychology, and part personal anecdotes. A mixed bag, to be sure, and not always a winning combination. At one point, I considered putting the book aside, not finishing it, but then Peck started writing about community. He is no stranger to the concept. He has led hundreds of community-building workshops over the years, helped start a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering community, and written a compelling book about the topic, one which greatly impacted me when I read it oh so long ago.[1]

In preparation for a course I am teaching next year, I have been doing quite a bit of study on unity and community. Once you start thinking about it, you see and hear evidence of it everywhere. (See my blog on the impact of believing in a trinitarian, communal God here.)

I have begun listening to podcasts while working out at the gym (so much better than blaring music or insipid television shows), and last night, the episode happened to be on church unity.[2] In light of all the fractures evident in the Christian church universal, especially the Protestant arm of the church, the hosts of the podcast asked: what is it that unifies us? The obvious answer is Jesus, but in practice, Christians seem to be following different versions of Christ. Some believe he is here to bring world peace, others quote Matthew 10:34 and say he is here to bring a sword. Some claim that Jesus means Christians to govern and rule while others want to separate church and state. The particular points by which Christians measure whether a person is with Christ or against him are just as diverse: for some, the stance on gay marriage delineates a true Christian from a false one, for others, it is whether one adheres to an inerrant and mostly literal view of the scriptures. Still others place a high value on loyalty to particular traditions (infant or adult baptism) or obedience to certain expressions of righteousness such as modesty or abstinence from alcohol. To be honest, these so-called litmus tests for Christianity seem a bit arbitrary, and I can confidently say that most (perhaps all) of them fail to take into account the whole biblical witness and the variegated history of the church. How did we get so good at being separatists and so bad at building community?

Peck has some helpful thoughts on this. "We are all equal in the sight of God. Beyond that, however, we are utterly unequal. We have different gifts and liabilities, different genes, different languages and cultures, different values and styles of thinking, different personal histories, different levels of competence, and so on, and so on. Indeed, humanity might be properly labeled 'the unequal species.' What most distinguishes us from all the other creatures is our extraordinary diversity and the variability of our behavior. ... The false notion of our equality propels us into the pretense of pseudocommunity, and when the pretense fails, as it must for any intimacy or authenticity, then it propels us to attempt to achieve equality by force: the force of gentle persuasion followed by less and less gentle persuasion. We totally misinterpret our task. Society's task is not to establish equality. It is to develop systems that deal humanely with our inequality - systems that, within reason, celebrate and encourage diversity."[3] Peck rightly observes that we have mistaken submissive compliance (don't rock the boat) and a flattening of differences to equate unity. Unity is not achieved when everyone believes or practices the same things. In fact, thinking of unity as an achievement places it in a performance-based paradigm instead of a relational context, and unity is, above all, relational.

Rachel Held Evans notes that when people question her in order to ascertain whether or not she is a true Christian, whether she is on the team or off the team, they always ask what she believes. Rarely do they ask if she exhibits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. She comments that people ask about our opinions/beliefs on things when, in contrast, Jesus teaches us that Christians can be identified by how they love one another and how they love others, even their enemies.[4] Genuine Christian community is birthed when love transcends all differences. But how do we get to that point?

Based on his research, Peck divides the building of community into four stages:
1) Pseudocommunity: This is something that looks like community but isn't. It is a group characterized by good manners and glossing over differences. This behaviour has its place, offering primitive tools for coexisting peacefully, but it is not real community.
2) Chaos: When differences inevitably surface, the group disintegrates into chaos. The natural response is to try to make everyone the same, to convert everyone back to pseudocommunity. Unfortunately, the pressure to revert to a superficial unity can become progressively more and more forceful until the group self-destructs in conflict (war) of some sort. Nevertheless, chaos is a step closer to reality and a stage which cannot be skipped in moving toward peace.
3) Emptiness: This is the hard part of becoming a community. Peck says, "Pseudocommunity and chaos come naturally to us humans. Emptiness does not. But it is crucial (if you'll pardon a not so accidental pun). In the stage of emptiness the members of the group will sacrificially empty themselves of whatever it is that stands between them and real community. The list of 'things' that must be emptied can seem almost endless: fixed expectations and rigid agendas; prejudices or simplistic instant likes and dislikes; quick answers arrived at without listening; the need to heal and convert or 'fix' others; preset positions and notions of what winning might look like; needs for certainty and control and looking good; intellectual equanimity and the appearance of sophistication; excessive emotional detachment; sexism, racism, and other 'isms'; a fondness for fighting on the one hand and a desire for peace at any price on the other."[5] In other words, the only way out of chaos is surrender.
4) Community: When participants have emptied themselves enough, Peck notes, community just happens, like a miracle. A marked shift is noticeable in the group and they begin to speak authentically and concisely. Space is made for silence and people listen well. What was irritating becomes endearing. In essence, the group operates in sync, like a beautiful piece of music. Peck observes, "Some experience it as if the door had suddenly been thrown open and God had walked into the room. Even more commonly that moment is felt as the entrance of a palpable spirit of peace. Peace - pure, deep, soft, ever so gentle peace."[6] The peace that accompanies genuine, loving community is a peace that originates in the communal God, the God who loves his enemies enough to die for them. This peace rewrites our simplistic definitions of unity and transcends our feeble and often forceful attempts at conflict resolution. Quite simply, peace surpasses our understanding of what it means to live in community.

I think most of us would agree that we want to live in peace with others, but sometimes we are unwilling to do the hard work this requires. As stated above, humans are good at pseudocommunity and good at chaos. Not so good at emptying and peacemaking. Even after a group has entered into genuine community, there is no guarantee that it will remain there. Community is not a once-for-all state. Like peace, it requires tending and nurturing and ongoing work in order to avoid devolving into pseudocommunity or lapsing back into destructive chaos. We must always be willing to do the work of emptying, of surrendering our quick judgments and unrealistic expectations, letting go of the need to fix or control others, sacrificing our desire to win. This is the hard work of peace. This is the relentless work of community. This is the large, demanding work of love. This is the ministry of Jesus.

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[1] M Scott Peck, MD, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York: Touchstone, 1987).
[2] "Church Unity," Episode 4, September 9, 2014. The Liturgists Podcast. Available on iTunes.
[3]  M. Scott Peck, MD, In Search of Stones (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 254.
[4] Rachel Held Evans, interviewed on "Church Unity," The Liturgists Podcast.
[5] Peck, In Search of Stones, 249.
[6] Ibid., 250.