Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Seeing the World Through The Eyes Of God

This Sunday, our Pastoral Intern, Tim Bowyer, urged us to see in the sacrament of communion a startling reality, a face to face encounter with God. Drawing on the important work of theologian, David Ford, Tim helped us to draw on the many rich metaphors from Scripture of salvation in the face of God. Maybe, Tim will post his notes here soon.... I’ll ask him. Tim, are you reading this?

God is always facing us and he is always inviting us, even to the point of wrestling us, to turn our face towards him. This is the way God is. He is always facing every human being made in his image and inviting her or him to be fully alive, to flourish as a human being. In spite of our wrestling to turn our faces away from God, his gaze is always there on us, wishing to impart love and forgiveness to us. We are the bearers of his image and he has attached himself to us in love and hospitality.

This is an important thing for us to keep in mind as we think about the meaning of these words of the Lord’s prayer: your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. These words are to meant to be a petition on behalf of all of humanity - an agonizing cry for each human being made in God’s image to be made fully alive to God’s love and forgiveness. And when we remember that this is what we are praying and not just for ourselves or our churches but for all human beings in all circumstances - well, that begins to help us see the world a little bit more as God sees the world and a little less like we would see it if left to our fears, our prejudices, our self-righteousness, and our pure selfishness.

When we think of this petition in this way then we pray for and give thanks for human flourishing in all of its manifestations. We pray for all people to come to know and experience the love that Christ has shown for us and we will also pray for our Muslim neighbors to enjoy the same freedom of worship that we do. We pray for the child soldiers in Sudan - that they come alive to God’s love and grace in Christ and we pray that the efforts to bring psychological healing to their trauma will bear much fruit whether that care comes from a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew or an atheist. The prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven is a prayer for the coming of shalom on this earth, a state of peace between human beings and each other and human beings and God; in the world to come the peace between people and each other and people and God will be in full fruition because, to quote St Paul, Christ will be all in all. However, in order to represent God as generously as he represents himself in this in-between-time some Christians, most Christians, you and I must repent of reducing our understanding of human flourishing in this fallen world to a matter of already actualized conversion to Christ. We must pray for human flourishing to come in all of its forms and celebrate it wherever it occurs and mourn it whenever it is absent.

In speaking to a group of Bishops of the Anglican church in Africa last month, Rowan Williams , archbishop of Canterbury said this in his homily of the role of a bishop and I think it is in a sense the place where all Christ followers should want to stand: “We have the responsibility brothers and sisters of showing the world how precious a thing is a human being – and a special responsibility to show the world the preciousness of those who are hated or neglected by others or by society at large.”

When we the affections of our heart are shaped by daily praying for others to come to understand how precious they are in God’s sight we are praying in line with the Lord’s prayer: your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Questions for discussion:

1. Respond to the Williams quote above. Can you think of one person you know who you ought to help understand more fully what a “precious thing it is to be a human being”? If not too personal, can you share a bit with the group?

2. During the remarks leading into communion, Tim Bowyer, drawing on David Ford’s work, invoked the story of Jacob and the angel. Do you ever sense that you are wrestling with God? Do you think that wrestling with God is a normal part of a healthy relationship with God?

3. "Salvation in the face of God": what a wonderful metaphor. Why and how is it helpful to think of our relationship with God in metaphors?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God in whose image?

What is below is really only a partial recap of the homily. I have intentionally left for next week the discussion of God’s power with regard to the phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come”. Stay tuned.....!

This past week, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an essay entitled, The Gospel of Wealth. In typical Brooks style he employs his sarcastic wit to critique what he thinks is a malaise of our day: the lack of ability to restrain ourselves from being addicted to the more and the bigger - a refusal to never be content (my words not his). But here are his: “Maybe the first decade of the 21st century will come to be known as the great age of headroom. During those years, new houses had great rooms with 20-foot ceilings and entire new art forms had to be invented to fill the acres of empty overhead wall space. People bought bulbous vehicles like Hummers and Suburbans. The rule was, The Smaller the Woman, the Bigger the Car — so you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders. When future archaeologists dig up the remains of that epoch, they will likely conclude that sometime around 1996, the U.S. was afflicted by a plague of claustrophobia and drove itself bankrupt in search of relief.”

Interestingly, Brooks’ jumping off point for this particular column is his acquaintance with the writing of a young Southern Baptism Minister from Alabama, called David Platt. In his book, “Radical: Taking Back your Faith From the American Dream”, Brooks notes that Platt critiques certain quarters of the Christian church in America for their complicity in idolatrous materialism.... and the first target is the megachurch itself. “Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity. Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude. “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”

I am grateful for Brooks’ calling attention to the issue and doing so within an essay where Jesus is referred to as one who can give wisdom to those who are guided by the idolatry of materialism. Critiques of excesses within any culture, though, can come easy. Offering a way forward is the tricky part. Brooks calls for a recalibration toward moderation, and identifies prophetic voices such as Platt’s as a constructive influence. Brooks finishes: “The United States once had a Gospel of Wealth: a code of restraint shaped by everybody from Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie. The code was designed to help the nation cope with its own affluence. It eroded, and over the next few years, it will be redefined.”

I thought about Brooks’ essay on and off all week as I thought about the gospel in preparation for this Sunday’s homily. It occurred to me that the question that is looming behind sweeping cultural critiques such as Brooks’, regardless of how spot-on the critique, is what constitutes a life well lived? A life well lived, according to the gospel, is a life of human flourishing, or to use the words of a leader within the early church, Iranaeus, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”. What does human flourishing look like with regard to the concerns that Brooks has raised? Well, human flourishing is not guaranteed by Hummers and MacMansions (and is made arguably harder when cluttered with such “things”), but human flourishing is neither defined by an ascetic lifestyle on the one hand, or unintentional poverty on the other. Nor am I persuaded that human flourishing is fostered as deeply as God intends by adhering to any “code of restraint” that is inherently dependant on rationalistic assertions about the good of society, etc.

I suggest that we become more fully alive when we learn to imitate God’s generosity in ways that reflect thoughtful and intentional sacrifice on our part. Our capacity for imitation of God, however, is complicated by our love of making God in our own image. One of John Calvin’s great insights was that knowledge of self could only grow truthfully when one had a proper knowledge of God. The greater the knowledge of God, the greater one can know oneself with reference to who one is and who one wishes to become. So far so good but Calvin pointed out that the grim problem in all of this is that we don’t have a proper knowledge of God on our own; on our own our hearts are idol factories, bent on making God in our own image. Princeton theologian, Daniel Migliore, puts it this way: Calvin’s insight.... “exposes a secret we would rather keep hidden. All knowledge of God, like other kinds of knowledge, is colored by our personal interests or those of the group to which we belong. We usually have no difficulty seeing this process at work in other people..... More difficult to detect, however, are the ways in which our own thinking and acting, in matters of religion or otherwise, are influenced by our own economic and social interests or those of our own community. If we are beneficiaries of the present social order, we are likely to uphold it and resist any significant changes (from the Power of God and the gods of Power)”.

So, to imitate God’s generosity requires a refreshing of our imaginations and a turning of our hearts - a conversion of our imaginations fueled from the regular and disciplined worship of the God who reveals his power and wealth in giving himself away (Philippians 2:1-11). What is needed in our lives and in our culture is not merely a code of restraint but a repentant response to the generosity of God in Christ, coupled by a life-style of sacrificial generosity, especially to those who have less than we do. The gospel cure for materialism is not a formula but a disciplined moment-by-moment, spirit empowered response to God’s generosity. In this vein of thinking, there is a striking parallel between the cure for promiscuity and the cure for materialism, two of the worst enemies of human flourishing in our time. The cure for promiscuity comes when a person’s moral imagination is captured by God’s love at work in human relationships in attractive, healthy ways; the cure does not come from simply denouncing promiscuity. Similarly, the code of restraint that Brooks seems to want will not come from a call to ascetism; it will come from a daily breaking of our stony hearts before the generosity of God and a reminder that we are called to share our wealth with others as a mark of our discipleship.

1. If Migliore is correct when he says that we will tend not to critique our idolatrous images of God on our own, what sort of things can we do in order to help us see our idolatries?
2. What sorts of decisions can you make about how you live and what you do which will make it more likely for you to have a truer image of God?
3. Do you think that the gospel calls you to make tangible sacrifices in your life-style in order to flourish as a human being? If so, what sorts of habits or conversations can you cultivate in order to gain more wisdom about how this ought to look for you?