We are stumbling in the dark…we are capable of running in the light

There’s a group of men gathering twice a month here in Norwood.  Our gathering is built around the opportunity and responsibility of deeper relationship with one another, and we are reading small digestable chunks of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline out loud to one another and spending time reflecting on what we hear.  It is a simple series of acts; conversation, listening, reflection, consistent commitment to gather. But that kind of simplicity carries significant power.  A men’s group I was a part of for five years before we moved to Cincinnati was one of the most transformative influences in my life.  We grew in how to be more committed followers of Jesus and we grew in how to be better men.  Different young men passed in and out of the group, but the group consistently got together; week by week, month by month, year by year.  For that I say thank you to Jason Suter, Abe Halterman, Pete Acker, Matt Schwartz, Jamie Hewitt, Ben Dinkle, Mike Gilbert, Andy Hostetler, Jered Simmons, and several others.  I clearly set up the order of names to reflect the sheer masculinity and crushing truthiness of said Jason Suter.  No accident there.  Beyond jokes though, I would not be the man I am today nor the follower of Jesus I am today without this group.

So I know how powerful  the simple acts of conversation, listening, reflection, and a consistent commitment to gather are.

Last night in gathering with my brothers Kenny Havens and Matthew Wheelock (a smaller group than usual, but no less important), I felt some of the same power and potential for change in our time together.  A common thread between the Virginia group and the Cincinnati group thus far has been Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline.  His writing and wise guidance has opened up my world of understanding.  In Virginia, we read through the book; then a workbook entitled Celebrating the Disciplines that led us beyond intellectual understanding and into practice, which is very consistent with Foster’s guidance and, I should say, with the responsibility of the Christian life beyond intellectual belief and into bodily practice.  We read slowly.  Carefully.

One passage from last night struck me again in a powerful way.  I have abandoned now the evangelical belief that human beings are incapable of transformation and unable to do anything other than to cry, “God, save me!”  I have embraced what I believe to be a message much more worthy of evangelizing about, which is that human beings are deeply depraved and desperately in need of God, and upon kneeling before our Creator we first hear, then practice the fact that we are very capable of faithful, joyful, consistent life!  Instead of leading me away from the Scriptures, embracing this message has led me ever deeper into the Scriptures, and I have found this expressed clearly, obviously, beautifully, convictingly, over and over and over again.

I want to quote the passage from Celebration of Discipline in its fullness so you can see how important it is too.

“There is a saying in moral theology that ‘virtue is easy.’ But the maxim is true only to the extent that God’s gracious work has taken over our inner spirit and transformed the ingrained habit patterns of our lives. Until that is accomplished, virtue is hard, very hard indeed. We struggle to exhibit a loving and compassionate spirit, yet it is as if we are bringing something in from the outside. Then bubbling up from the inner depths is the one thing we did not want, a biting and bitter spirit. However, once we live and walk on the path of disciplined grace for a season, we will discover internal changes.

We do no more than receive a gift, yet we know the changes are real. We know they are real because we discover that the spirit of compassion we once found so hard to exhibit is now easy. In fact, to be full of bitterness would be the hard thing. Divine Love has slipped into our inner spirit and taken over our habit patterns. In the unguarded moments there is a spontaneous flow from the inner sanctuary of our lives of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal 5:22,23). There is no longer the tiring need to hide our inner selves from others. We do not have to work hard at being good and kind; we ARE good and kind. To refrain from being good and kind would be the hard work because goodness and kindness are part of our nature. Just as the natural motions of our lives once produced mire and dirt, now they produce ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17).”

Foster, Celebration of Discipline pgs 8-9

Thank you, God, for the influence of all of these men guiding me from a stunted, mostly empty gospel without transformative power to a gospel that proclaims the reconciliation of all creation and the capability of humanity to leave darkness and live joyfully in the light!

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Another wise, courageous word from a primary mentor of mine…

In the video I’ve linked to below, Brian McLaren is interviewed by Scot McKnight.  Both are vital voices in the church today helping the church shake off all kinds of excess baggage we’ve carried for many many years.  Both come down at very different places theologically, depending on the issue.  The video itself is provocatively named (I would say sensationally named) “Conversations on Being a Heretic.”  I absolutely HATE that title, because the whole “heretic” thing has been used by religious border patrols and by ridiculous individuals who think they’ve found some “secret” about spirituality alike throughout history.  Brian McLaren is asking important, essential questions about the message and lifestyle of Christianity from within the constraints of a deep respect for Scriptural authority and for Jesus….and the reward he gets for such searching is vitriol from heresy-hunters and outsiders who think he’s like them.

Brian McLaren is the single most important voice short of Jesus who has opened up space for me to breathe when I’ve felt something was horrendously wrong, when faith felt like a giant weight squeezing the life out of me.  He has led me in my spiritual quest not away from the Scriptures, but deeper into the Scriptures. He has led me not into the arms of any religious guru “because they’re all saying essentially the same thing,” but into a deeper trust in the words, example, and authority of Jesus in a way that has given me conviction beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before.  And yet Brian seems to be assailed from all sides in exploring his curiosity.  This video, in 19 short minutes, is Brian laying out in concise, straight-forward ways what he places his hope in, what structure he works within, and what he believes God’s agenda is all about.  And it. remains. beautiful.

Q | Conversations on Being a Heretic from Q Ideas on Vimeo.

Here’s some vital quotes from the video from Brian:

“I don’t think the primary question being asked by the Bible is the question, “Who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell?”  I think the primary question being asked is, “How can God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?”  I think the primary question is “How can this creation that has been damaged by human sin, injustice, evil, lust, greed, the whole shebang, how can this creation be healed and how can we participate with God in the healing of this creation?”

“You just used the word salvation.  And for so many people, as soon as they hear the word salvation, they have a whole set of definitions in their mind.  I was a preacher for 24 years.  I really read the Bible, I still do!  And what I was always troubled by, was when I read the word “salvation” in the Bible, I would import a set of assumptions about what that word meant, and they didn’t fit what I saw in the text.  So when I read the text, the word salvation starts in the Old Testament, and it means liberation.  Salvation is what God does for the Jewish people getting them out of slavery. It’s not about getting them out of hell in the Old Testament, it’s about getting them out of Egypt.  So I’m trying to be hon est about those things.”

Everyday Justice in the trenches of life…

In the spirit of Julie Clawson’s book “Everyday Justice”…

And living with Margaret Mead’s wise words “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only  thing that ever has”….

In a world where so often we feel disempowered because we don’t have money or influence or aren’t considered “important”…

I will, from time to time, be posting pictures and thoughts of the small efforts in my life toward God’s justice.

Today, I have pictures of my most recent effort.  I work at Cracker Barrel, and when I first began there, the General Manager of the store gave me the OK to use our spent coffee grounds for composting at home. After he left, I was told this could no longer happen.  I attempted to recycle aluminum cans at work where everything is thrown into the trash.  Again, I was told this could no longer happen.  Why?  Because the company’s Loss Prevention Program doesn’t allow it.  We also happen to throw away all the paper used over the course of each day.

In the face of this opposition, I have decided to do my own mildly subversive activity.  Whenever I run out my food or the food of a fellow server, I pocket the paper used and bring it home at the end of the night to our home, where I place the paper in recycling.  This results in about 100 small pieces of paper an evening being recycled.

Some persons would tell me this is just a drop in the ocean.  Essentially meaningless.
But I have been shaped by the Bible to believe that nothing escapes the sight of our observant God.
Therefore no act of faithfulness is too small.
This knowledge transforms my disempowerment into thoughtful action.

Irony

The folks I have considered my closest brothers and sisters in Christ in recent years, the Church of the Brethren, are in crisis.  Membership rolls are dropping, budgets are being slashed, and everyone has an opinion about why it’s happening.  I’m not writing here to add another opinion, though I have mine.  And besides, I really don’t have a dog in this fight, as denominations (in my book) are very secondary to the larger call of Christian brotherhood.

But I found this email interesting that I received from said Church of the Brethren.  You let me know if you find mixed messages in this email.  I’ll give you a photo montage of the place of meeting to help stimulate your imagination to see the mixed message.

The Church of the Brethren invites stewardship leaders to consider attending the “Steward Leaders in Changing Times” conference this November.

In the midst of challenge and change, congregational steward leaders are asked to provide answers and solutions. Plan now to attend:

“Steward Leaders in Changing Times”
Hilton Marco Island Resort, Florida
November 30 – December 3, 2009
The Ecumenical Stewardship Center, of which the Church
of the Brethren is a member, is sponsoring this event.

Hilton