Sometimes I think when you get a seminary education, you become a really big jerk when it comes to church-going.
You sit in the pews, and you have a really hard time not scrutinizing every word of the prayers, the hymns, and the sermon for theological integrity. You tend to use your education, if only in your mind, in a way God couldn’t have possibly intended–your inner jackal voice (that’s what we called it in a nonviolent communication class I took) judges the church swiftly and bluntly for its imperfections and inconsistencies, finding it and its people wholly unworthy. You start using theology to judge the world and its people rather than grace and love.
Are seminarians the only ones who do this?
I’m thinking we’ve all probably done it–treated church like a country club, getting out our yardsticks to measure the benefits, the clientele, the grounds by big worldly standards and finding them sorely lacking. At times we’ve probably had good reasons to reject a church or two, but do we do so with righteous indignation, self-assured conviction, or do we do it with humble grace, knowing that if God pulled out a yardstick, we’d all fall on the short side?
I’m not always the most grace-filled person.
On the Myers-Briggs scale, I’m an ENTJ, and that J for judging is pretty strong, but being at church, surrounded by not just people, but people God loves and who love one another forces me to reflect on my own need for grace.
A few weeks ago I preached a sermon at another church on one of my favorite topics, centering or silent prayer, and the sermon, based on Romans 8, was entitled “Sighs too Deep for Words.” And this week an unthinkable tragedy that took one of our church members from us, there were no words. On Tuesday night, we gathered in the sanctuary to be together in our grief.
There were no sermons, no special music, and brokenness was everywhere. And that’s where I felt God’s presence, in the tears, the sorrow, and the shared pain of a community–in a church that knew no better than to love one another and to seek God together in their grief, their sighs, and their laments.
I ask for your prayers this morning as you read about our church community that is grieving this loss. But more than that, I hope and I pray that we all stop worrying so much about the right words, the appropriate hymns, or a perfect theology, and let God be God, especially at church. And I pray that we let love be our response, to theology, whether bad or good, grace our response to brokenness, and silence, our faithful prayer when the words simply won’t come. May the God of grace guide you this day and tomorrow and the next.
I’ve all but reached the grand finale in the book of Luke. I know the events leading up to Jesus’s final hours, how he taught in the temple, and slept on the Mount of Olives, all too well, and yet things are remarkably not as the seem (21:34-38).
The wonderful thing about scripture is that our own context always alters its meaning, lifting certain moments out of obscurity.
The other morning as my friend and I reflected on the passage about the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Luke 8), she remarked wisely that Jesus responds to people with authentic need. How true that is, I think, for all throughout scripture we see people who in humbling themselves before Jesus, their hearts have already been cured in that they’ve found their way to humility, servanthood, and faith. Therefore, they are freed of their burdens, cured of their disease, and fully healed.
Meanwhile we who feel we have bigger fish to fry, we who, like the disciples, no sooner have we received Jesus’ sweet communion do we start to quibble about who among us is greatest (Luke 22:14-30) and who shall be saved, we mistakenly see ourselves as without need. Jesus famously says in the fifth chapter of Luke that those who are well have no need of healing, and that he’s come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance (5:31).
Surely Jesus was being sarcastic about those healthy, righteous people, right? Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hear the tone of some of these one-liners!
Context, my friends. And thank God for the Holy Spirit.
As I read about that Holy meal this morning in modern China, that famous last supper, what strikes me today is not only the communion Jesus offers to all of us so greatly in need, but how that last meal is tainted with the foreshadowing of betrayal. We will all succumb to the lie in life that we’re healthy, shiny got-it-all-together disciples, and only when that lie comes apart at the seams do we find ourselves crawling back to Jesus.
So today I’m praying that God would make me ever aware of my own fragility, that I’ll stick to a life of groveling, crawling, and humbling myself–in short, the life where I belong. And that the humanity of others would only make me see myself more clearly, more accurately, and that would only make me cling, in my neediness to Jesus.
When we first arrived in China, many of my posts took the form of earnest prayers that God provide security to us in this unknown place. I struggled to trust God’s faithfulness when our apartment flooded, when the visa process loomed large and complicated, or when my dissertation research just seemed too impossible to complete.
And I’m thankful for a community of supportive readers who hear me out when I fear and when I complain, and the process of writing through these feelings and the fears has been immensely important and meaningful to me.
But it’s nothing compared to what many in the world face everyday.
When I listened to This American Life‘s radio show on Americans in China, when I visit with my foster families who are struggling to make ends meet, and when I remember that despite China’s growing wealth, half of the population lives on a dollar a day, I am reminded that we in America, for the most part, are on the side of the rich and powerful. Even I, as a graduate student, am rich by most Chinese standards.
I recently met with one of my Chinese friends who is struggling with these dichotomies. “I notice a lot of missionaries come here and live very comfortable lives, all the while speaking loudly of their sacrifices, in order to keep a steady stream of support from abroad for their kids to go to good schools and so the parents don’t have to work,” she observed. “But meanwhile it’s the Chinese people who are working in the trenches, making the real sacrifices, spending their own money and time, on top of their bills and their full-time jobs, and much judgment from their foreign partners who chide them for worrying about money and not spending enough time with their families.”
This whole partnership and solidarity thing is tricky.
And rather than a drastic move across the world or an elaborate ministry to the poor, I think any effort at solidarity or partnership with others first requires us to admit how powerfully our own wealth distracts us from the Gospel and hampers our ministry, and based on this realization, agree to play a minor, humble part that is based on listening, rather than a major one in doing God’s work.
Rohr goes onto specify the types of questions we need to ask if we are to be free of ourselves, namely, “In what sense are we ourselves rich? What do we have to defend? What principles do we have to prove? What keeps us from being poor and open? The issue isn’t primarily material goods, but our spiritual and intellectual goods–my ego, my reputation, my self-image, my need to be right, my need to be successful, my need to have everything under control, my need to be loved.” (Rohr 168)
It seems we’re quite incapable of welcoming Christ because we’re so stuffed full of ourselves. The real thing we have to let go of is our self. We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves.
But that’s the beauty of this challenge to be vulnerable with one another, to craft a life built on the promise of abundance, sacred things, and mutuality. As Rohr writes, “But Jesus doesn’t offer us any certainties; he offers us a journey of faith. Jesus doesn’t give us many answers; he tells us what the right questions are, what questions the human soul has to wrestle with to onto Christ and the truth.
Our formulations determine what we’re really looking for. Our questions determine what we ultimately find and discover. Answers acquire power too quickly; they often turn our words into ammunition to be used against others. And answers make trust unnecessary, they make listening dispensable, they make relations with others superfluous. Having my answers, I don’t need you in order to take my journey. I need only my head, my certainties, and my conclusions. It’s all private. But Jesus said we have to live in this world so as to be dependent on one another. The real meaning of a poor life is a life of radical dependency, so I can’t arrange my life in such a way that I don’t need you. We can’t do it alone.
–Rohr Simplicity p. 162
And isn’t that the bare bones of solidarity and partnership–that we can’t do it alone? That dependence on others requires us to rearrange our lives around one another, however inconvenient, humbling, and excruciating that process may be?
I have a confession– I don’t think I’m there yet.
But I desire to grow in Christ, and I pray that I am growing, not just with every year spent here in China, or every realization of the Gospel as seen through the eyes of my brothers and sisters here or in America, but in the quietness of my heart, where I admit that my wealth and my power have led me astray, where I find the willingness to ask questions and really listen, rather than rely on my own answers, and where I discover that I am my own worst enemy, that my needs for recognition, power, and control pale in comparison to the a life of dependence on Jesus and my neighbors.
And perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s not so much about me and my rising above all this, but about the faults and the wounds that I carry, in which others may recognize their own humanity, and we might begin to tear down these walls that divide us.