Archive for November 2013

The Fantasy of the Ideal

More often than I would care to admit, I have allowed my personal fantasies about the perfect community to distract me from the beautiful, real-life community that is right in front of me. I’ve found that making community an abstract ideal is the enemy of real, flesh-and-blood fellowship. The idealized community seems so much bigger, so much purer, so much more cohesive and well-defined. Real human relationships can never live up to the expectations of the imagined community that we dream of.

Nor should they. Our ideals of community are so appealing precisely because they have more to do with our own desires and personality than with the needs and personalities of others. I imprint my own image onto the community, imagining it to think and act just like me, only bigger. My ideal community adopts all my ideology, loves all the same rituals I do, and feels called to the same work as me. The community of my imagination is not a community at all. It is my self writ large.

At least I’m not alone in this. The projection of one’s self onto others seems to be a general human problem. Stanislaw Lem expresses the dilemma in his science fiction masterpiece, Solaris. He writes, “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.” There is nothing quite so seductive as an image of the world that reinforces everything about who we are, never confronting us with the lives of others.

We live in an age where the fantasy of the ideal is possible in ways never known before. Both in person and electronically, we are free to fill our lives with an à la carte collection of sub-communities. One may be centered around a shared love of tennis, another around photography, or chess, or Russian literature. Most of us belong to dozens of interlocking communities, each of which focuses on one particular interest or aspect of life. How easy it is, in this age of pick-your-own communities, to avoid ever truly encountering the fullness of another human being!

With the possible exception of paid employment and immediate family, many of us have very few relationships that require us to truly bear the burdens of other people – to be confronted by the ways in which others fail to live up to our expectations, and to continue in relationship with them anyway. Even our faith communities tend to follow this same micro-culture pattern. We gather together on the basis of a shared interest in a particular form of spirituality, but there is often little holding us together beyond our projected ideals. When serious conflict arises, or when it becomes clear for whatever reason that the community does not live up to the individual’s expectations, we often simply disconnect. The faith community is a voluntary association after all, and if it is no longer meeting my needs, then I can go somewhere else!

Yet, I’m increasingly convinced that that God is calling me to be part of a spiritual family that does not simply dissolve every time we make each other uncomfortable. I want to be part of an authentic, holistic community – one in which I am confronted by the real lives of others. I want to be truly known, and to know others, though this will inevitably destroy my projections and fantasies about how life should be. When relationships get messy and my first instinct is to run, I want to be part of a fellowship that doesn’t let me off the hook and holds me accountable.

In this age of unprecedented individual choice, it is a radical thing to unconditionally bind one’s self to others. Yet, when I examine the yearning of my heart and the witness of Scripture, I do believe that this is the work that we are called to as followers of the risen Jesus: to live together as one body, united not in our own fantasies of the perfect community but by the amazing love and power of his Spirit in our midst.

Time To Dive In!

Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down into the Seed which God sows in thy heart, and let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion… – Isaac Pennington

In the Quaker community, we talk a lot about releasing our own personal desires and allowing God’s unexpected will to be done through us. Because of this emphasis, we may sometimes harbor a certain amount of skepticism towards those who are actively working for a particular goal – especially a goal that makes us uncomfortable. We may wonder: Is this project the result of a leading from God, or an ego trip?

It’s a fair question. Often, especially in the early stages of a leading, it can be hard to tell the difference between God’s leading and temporary emotional states. When faced with an uncomfortable leading, it may often seem safer to wait, delaying action and seeking greater clarity. And, sometimes, watching and waiting is exactly what is called for.

Unfortunately, in a community that values listening spirituality as much as our does, we are often tempted to allow numbed passivity to masquerade as discernment. There are times when, if we are truly hearing the word, we must act on what God has spoken. Our failure to act can be just as damaging as our refusal to wait.

For me, as someone who has been steeped in the practice of silent waiting, this is an important realization. While it is crucial that I wait on God, refraining from action until I have been shown the way, this is not an invitation to chronic spiritual constipation! If I find myself endlessly waiting on a word from God but never changing the way that I live, it may be that the word has already been spoken to me. Having heard this word, I am being called to live it with boldness.

In many cases, we know very well what God is asking of us. We wait and wait for further confirmation because we are terrified of what it would mean to act on the revelation we have already received. We are like children, putting our toes into the pool to test the temperature of the water. We would do better if we simply mustered the courage to jump in!

There is a time for listening in passive stillness, but a time also comes for a hearing that results in risky action – action that may look crazy to those around us. If we’re really walking with Jesus, we’ll know it soon enough: We’re going to get into trouble, just like he, the early church and the early Quakers did.

A true listening spirituality consists not only of breathing in, but also breathing out. Many of us have been breathing in for so long that we are about to explode. Are we ready to step out of the silence and into the real-life struggles of our world? I, for one, have tested the waters for long enough. It’s time to dive in, yelling cannon ball!

Love Matters

This weekend, I took part in a Quaker street outreach in downtown Philadelphia. We arrived early Saturday morning, setting up camp in the “free speech zone” near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. We were there for most of the morning and afternoon, holding public worship and engaging with people walking by.

We really had two things going on at the same time. First of all, there was a circle of folks engaged in silent, waiting worship, beginning shortly after we set up the space. Worship continued for the rest of the day, with individuals cycling in and out of worship as they felt moved. At the same time, some of us were out on the sidewalk, engaging with folks who wandered by. There were lots of tourists, but also many local residents who we got the chance to interact with.

To catch people’s attention we put up a sign that said “Quakers?” and we approached people and offered them little red “diamonds.” We explained that our friend, Josh Jank, is dying from complications related to cycle cell anemia, and that his dying wish is to see 100,000 of these little red, plastic diamonds distributed. The purpose of the diamonds is to serve as a reminder: They are red because love matters, and they are diamonds because God does amazing things under heat and pressure.

This message of love and hope was deeply moving for many of the people we talked with, and it opened up a space for deeper conversations with many. I am grateful to Josh for his message, and the way that this very tangible reminder could bridge gaps between people and make connections on the streets of Philadelphia. Josh has given us a unique way to share the good news of God’s love, and open ourselves to strangers in a way that heals and forms community.

After this experience, I am wondering how we might continue to reach out to strangers with God’s love. I was touched by how many people I met this weekend who I never would have encountered if I hadn’t gotten out into the streets and handed out little red diamonds. There is something beautiful and liberating about reaching out to others, not to sell them anything or convince them to adopt my perspective, but just to let them know that God loves them, and that there are communities of people who love them, too. This is good news!

Come and Die

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that, “when Christ calls [a person], he bids [them] come and die.” This is a message that Jesus repeats time and again: no one can follow him unless they are willing to take up the cross. The way of Jesus is one marked with unspeakable joy, but also with tremendous suffering. When we choose to follow him, we are baptized into his life, but also into his death.

Genuine community is a place where our hopes and dreams come to die. Living in the cross of Christ together, we must reckon with life and human relationships as they are, rather than as we wish they were. If before we held out hope that one day we would find the ideal human community, the presence of genuine community in Christ shreds any such expectations. Real community is messy, frustrating, beautiful, hard work. Such community forms through conversations about dirty dishes left in the sink; taking out the trash or vacuuming when no one asked; and staying up late talking with a friend who had a hard day.

Authentic fellowship is found only in our willingness to accept one another just as Christ has accepted us: as sinners whom God loves deeply, despite all odds. If God can forgive us the mess we have made of his world, surely we can bear the burden of living with our fellow human beings who let us down.

  • What has been your experience of life in community – whether with a scattered collection of friends, a congregation, or a household?
  • Can you remember times when your desires and ideals for community clashed with the reality of shared life?
  • What does it look like to embrace a gentle, serving spirit, rooted in the cross of Christ?

Idols and the I AM

I am fascinated by the often dysfunctional relationship between God and Israel. In Exodus, God appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and provides the Hebrew people with a hope and a future. For reasons known only to God, the Lord chooses an insignificant group of Egyptian slaves and promises to guide them to freedom, peace and prosperity in their own land. Repeatedly, throughout their flight from Egypt, their journey through the desert and their new life in the Promised Land, God works miraculous deeds to protect and guide the Hebrew people. All they are asked in return is to put aside other gods and follow the Lord alone.

This should be a no-brainer, right? In exchange for justice, prosperity, love and stability, wouldn’t you think that a people could be convinced to give up other gods and follow I AM alone? This deal seems so good, that it can be difficult to understand why the Hebrews consistently broke their end of the bargain. Time and again, they worshiped other deities – fertility gods, power gods, national gods – subjecting themselves once again to the horrors of slavery that God had delivered them from. Why would the Hebrews give up such a beneficial relationship to go fiddle around with idols?

At first glance, it’s easy for me to miss the relevance of this spiritual history. After all, no one I know literally worships idols of carved wood, stone or metal. This type of polytheistic worship, while not unheard of, is relatively uncommon in my nation. It is certainly not a live option for me. I have never been tempted to set up an altar to the fertility goddess Astarte or the power god Ares.

Yet, even in 21st-century America, we still worship many things that are not God. It takes a bit of imagination to make the connection between ancient idol-worship and modern-day substitutes for reality, but when I finally do see it, the Old Testament stories are transformed. No longer are they quaint, mostly irrelevant tales from the distant past. Now, they ripple with brilliant color and life. I can see that not only is this same story playing out today, but that I myself often participate in the faithless idolatry that so often got the Hebrews into trouble.

There are many ways that my loyalty to God can get divided. Worries about money or career success are a big one. It’s one thing to say that I trust God to provide for me; it’s another thing entirely to act as if it were true! How often do I pay homage to the god of Success, rather than the I AM who provided for the Hebrews in the wilderness?

In reality, the dynamics of human faith (and faithlessness) are not so different now than they were 3000 years ago. The gods of wealth, fertility, hedonism, and power are all alive and well – and actively sought after. Their names have changed, of course, and most of their devotees would not conceive of their veneration as religious. But worship does not have to take an explicitly religious form to be real. Whatever we give ultimate meaning and priority to, we worship.

We are often lured into believing that we serve God alone, when in fact we have many other priorities – sex, money, power, security, recognition – that are in active competition. Once we see this, it’s no longer so easy to look down on the ancient Hebrews who worshiped their various gods in addition to God. All of a sudden, the story is a little too close for comfort!

More than ever, it’s a story that we need to hear. Though our idols today are rarely made of gold, silver and bronze, they are effective as ever in pulling us away from our primary allegiance to Christ. How can we wake up to the multitude of false gods that populate our culture, and choose to follow Jesus alone? What would it look like to reengage with the I AM of the Old Testament experience, who stands as an alternative to the addictions and delusions of Empire?

More Than A Heart

And now it’s moving,
and everybody plays a part.
It’s a living breathing being,
with a brain and a heart.
It’s a living breathing being,
you can tell it by its art.
It’s a living, breathing being
just like corporations aren’t.

From Occupy Your Life, by Jon Watts

It’s hard to think of any organ more important than the heart. On a biological level, life would be impossible without it. In the absence of that vital center keeping blood flowing throughout the whole body, any one of us would be dead in moments. No part of the body can survive long without the heart.

Getting a little more metaphorical, the heart can symbolize that which is most central, most vital for us. For a Fortune 500 company, I imagine that the heart would be profit. For a hospital, it would be physical healing. And for a Christian community, ideally, the heart would be our living relationship with Jesus. Just as with a physical heart, no community can survive long without this vital center that orders and unites everything else.

This year, we in the Friends of Jesus community have put a lot of emphasis on nurturing and developing our heart together. We have worked to create a space for worship, engagement with Scripture and encouragement to greater awareness of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We have acted in faith that, if we could deepen our living friendship with Jesus, the rest of our shared life would flow out of that.

Grounded in this sense of hope, we have focused our efforts on developing intimate spiritual commuities – small groups focused on prayer, study of the Bible and contemplative worship. After lots of trial-and-error experimentation, it seems like we may even be succeeding. Our little community here in DC has found its heartbeat.

As joyful as this development is, it also introduces new challenges. We are beginning to see that, as beautiful as this new heartbeat is, we are called to become even more. Our heart is essential to the life of the body, yet without a brain, lungs, hands and feet, arms and legs, it serves little purpose. The heart does not simply beat for its own sake; it exists to sustain the whole body.

We are so thankful that God has given our community a heart. Now, we are invited into a new set of challenging questions: What does it look like to be a whole body together? Is there a life and mission that we are called to share beyond our prayer meetings and worship? What are the other body parts that need to be connected to the life that flows from our worshiping community?

Our small groups cannot exist for their own sake any more than a heart can exist without a body. What is the work, the practical witness, that we are being called to embody together? What is the air we are called to breathe, the light we are called to see, the road we are commissioned to walk?

The answers to these questions are still unfolding, but we can sense that God is calling us to share a life that is bigger than weekly prayer and worship. The only real question is: Will we make space for it?

…Come on, let’s get together.
Someone be the lungs.
Someone be the need to breathe, and
someone be the tongue.
Someone be the eyes and ears, and
someone be the hands
Someone who can persevere,
the feet on which we stand
and you’re the rock, body.
No one’s gifts left useless.
The universe needs you to do the best that you can do with
just what you’ve been given,
with everything you’ve got.
Your finite contribution fills a hole that mine does not.
And together we can stand.
Together we can run.
Together we collect our calories straight from the sun.
Together we envision all our lives combined as one,
and together we compose this bloody, bleeding, beating drum.

From Together We Compose This Bloody, Bleeding, Beating Drum, by Jon Watts

An Admirer – Or A Follower?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy impression is that many of us, including a lot of folks who don’t identify as Christians, would say that we like Jesus’ teachings. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What’s not to like? Yet from the first time I read through the gospels, I have sensed that Jesus offers something far more radical than is often assumed. He doesn’t simply dispense a set of sterile dos and don’ts; instead, he confronts me with a life of reckless abandon and risky love.

In spite of the many religious traditions that have been built around him, Jesus invites me to far more than mere intellectual assent to doctrines or the practice of religious rituals. He calls me to himself: to be in relationship to him, to follow him, to come and die with him. Jesus expects me to release my ambitions and goals, my sense of safety and comfort, and every last vestige of control. He makes no bones about it: to follow him is to suffer like he has. That’s what being his friend means!

I have to confess, I’m still not there yet. I do a pretty good job as an admirer of Jesus. I think his teachings are great, and they challenge me to live differently. But actually following him all the way? That’s a work in progress.

The thought of surrendering everything to follow Jesus is daunting. I’m reminded of how the early disciples themselves, when they heard Jesus’ teaching on wealth, exclaimed, “then who can be saved?” My thoughts exactly! There’s no way I have the strength to follow him on my own. Yet, in spite of my weakness, I trust that Jesus has the power to call me anyway. His living presence gives me hope that I can change, learning to walk with him.

What’s your experience? Are you an admirer of Jesus? Are there ways that you are living into his radical calling for your life? What gets in the way of throwing yourself completely into the dangerous path of love that he offers?