Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where are the Bumper Stickers—Whimsy & Joy gone missing

For those of you who have been wondering why it's been a while since I've written—here or elsewhere, I can only say that I've been feeling like Alexander in a continuous loop of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days (if you don't know this children's book, hear it here). Mostly it's been a lot about work, stress, budget and staffing issues, but it also had to do with having to replace the oil tank ($$$) and then the computer hard drive crashing ($$$) and having to set up a new computer. Or so I thought, but I discovered that a lot of other folks are also feeling stretched too tightly.

As I got up and left the house in the dark this week, I wanted to blame the extension of daylight saving time as a contributor to the stress and sense of being overwhelmed that everyone I've talked to is bearing, from colleagues to neighbor to friend to grocery clerk. But although I don't think the early morning dark helps, it's also not the cause. It could be the economy, but at least all of the people I talked to are working, so that's an indirect cause for many of us.

So, I decided that I needed to pay attention, and yesterday on the way to work I started looking for bumper stickers. In previous reflective periods of my life, I have come to value bumper stickers for their inspirational value and as a barometer of how people are feeling about the world. My problem this week: there are hardly any bumper stickers, fun or otherwise, on cars anymore! I realize it's a limited sample, but I commute through what was at one point in the past twenty years, although perhaps not today, one of the most densely populated cities in the United States, and there are a lot of cars on the road and parked on the streets. There were two or three slightly tattered presidential election bumper stickers, one religious sticker in Portuguese (although my Portuguese is nearly non-existent, I recognize the words for God and Jesus). Just when I'd decided that bumper stickers have become useless as a societal barometer, a car pulled in front of me with this bumper sticker:

"Don't Postpone Joy."

That was the catalyst and proof. I've figured it out. The reason we're all so stressed is we don't have enough whimsy in our lives. And that bumper sticker is excellent advice.

So, what joyful, whimsical thing can you do?

Clue 1: it doesn't require money, or shopping.

Clue 2: it has to be personal to you.

Clue 3: smiles probably help and may be essential.

Clue 4: Don't stress over it, but answer the question: What brings me Joy?

Clue 5: Having answered that, act on your answer.

I also will acknowledge that for many of us our work is not what brings us joy. I don't know what it takes to change our attitudes about our current job or to change our jobs while we are in them or by leaving them (harder in this economic climate), but we need to find something more in our work that gives us peace and/or joy. I'm inspired to assert this is possible after reading this poem by Wendell Berry. I highlight the lines that caught my attention relative to my last few weeks at work. What would it take to have work that is more like Sabbath?

Wendell Berry from Sabbaths, #VII

What if, in the high, restful sanctuary
That keeps the memory of Paradise,
We’re followed by the drone of history
And greed’s poisonous fumes still burn our eyes.

Disharmony recalls us to our work.
From Heavenly work of light and wind and leaf
We must turn back into the peopled dark

Of our unraveling century, the grief

Of waste, the agony of haste and noise.

It is a hard return from Sabbath rest

To lifework of the fields, yet we rejoice,
Returning, less condemned in being blessed

By vision of what human work can make:
A harmony between wood-land and field,
The world as it was given for love’s sake,
The world by love and loving work revealed

As given to our children and our Maker.

In that healed harmony the world is used
But not destroyed, the Giver and the taker

Joined, the taker blessed, in the unabused

Gift that nurtures and protects. Then workday

And Sabbath live together in one place.
Though mortal, incomplete, that harmony

Is our one possibility of peace.

When field and woods agree, they make a rhyme
That stirs in distant memory the whole
First Sabbath song that no largess of time

Or hope or sorrow can wholly recall.

But harmony of earth is Heaven-made,

Heaven-making is promise and is prayer,
A little song to keep us unafraid,
An earthly music magnified in air.

I would be glad if you would share with me what your joyful act is, and what thing you can and will do to make your work more like true Sabbath, rather than your Sabbath more like work, something I suspect that more of us know how to do.

If you don't know the difference between work and Sabbath, I would suggest that you follow God's example to find out about Sabbath: see that what you have created is good and rest on at least the seventh day. Or perhaps you just need to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Without a doubt joy and the holy are closely related.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Future of Faith—in Review

I just finished reading The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox. Clearly this is essential reading for a blogger who writes about growing in faith, but I would highly recommend this to you all. While I can't resist saying that this is vintage Harvey Cox, given that the book is published this year as he celebrates his 80th birthday, this book is a really broad brush of the history of Christian faith. His definition of faith ends chapter 2 as follows:
The three ways we encounter the great mystery—the universe, the self, the other—all leave us with a sense of uneasiness, incompleteness, and dissatisfaction. … Faith, although it is evoked by the mystery that surrounds us, is not the mystery itself. It is a basic posture toward the mystery, and it comes in an infinite variety of forms. (p. 35)
Cox calls the era from the time of Jesus to the time of Constantine the Age of Faith, where people believed and acted upon Jesus' teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand, or what Cox teaches as the "Reigning," rather than the Kingdom, of God.
Clearly the object of Jesus' own hope and confidence—his faith—was the Kingdom of God. (p. 45)
By the third and fourth centuries CE things were much different in the Christian churches than the work toward the "Reigning of God" that Jesus had lived and taught. Central in the book are several strong chapters summarizing "the devolution from faith to belief," (the subtitle to chapter five) as followers of Jesus lost their way as People of the Way: 1) by developing creeds, 2) by agreeing to or allowing apostolic succession, and 3) by merging with empire under Constantine. [I recognize and readily admit my own, and perhaps Harvey Cox's, Baptist biases in decrying this devolution, being non-creedal, non-hierarchical, and an advocate of the separation of church and state, and as a matter of full disclosure, I note that Harvey Cox and I are members of the same Baptist church.] The next era is the Age of Belief, where
Along with the "imperialization" of the church and the glorification of the bishops, now "faith" came to mean obeying the bishop and assenting to what he taught. Faith had been coarsened into belief, and this distortion has hobbled Christianity ever since. (p. 98)
These chapters are insightful summaries of the politics, theology and history that shaped Christianity over the next fifteen hundred years.

The primary thesis of this book, however, is that the Age of Belief is drawing to a close, and a new age is dawning—the Age of the Spirit. As a part of that new age, Cox asserts "fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying." (p. 1) It is an assertion not yet proven. In his final chapter, Cox compares the changes in the "nature of religiousness" in Christianity to similar changes in Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.
The change assumes different shapes, but some of them overlap. With globalization, religions are becoming less regional. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus now live on every continent. Religions are also becoming less hierarchical. Lay leadership and initiative flourish in all of them… In addition many are becoming less dogmatic and more practical. Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines. They are also becoming less patriarchal, as women assume leadership positions in religions that have barred them for centuries, sometimes for millennia. … [But] as these changes gain momentum, they evoke an almost point-for-point fundamentalist reaction. (p. 223)
Optimistically, and perhaps prophetically, Cox then concludes his summary of the fundamentalist reactions across the world's religions by saying,
All these, however, are in the true sense of the word "reactionary" efforts. They are attempting to stem an inexorable movement of the human spirit whose hour has come. (p. 223)
I can hope that the Age of the Spirit is dawning. If it is, and we embrace some of the harbingers of that age: local congregations acting as followers of the Way—acting on the teachings of Jesus; reaching out to the poor and needy, theologically summarized in liberation theology as a preferential option for the poor; and applications of two core beliefs of Spirit-filled Pentecostalism,
that promote change and act against materialism:
conversion ("you must be born again") and holiness ("be not conformed to this world"). In political and cultural terms conversion means that people can change and that therefore fatalism—either personal or societal—is not acceptable. Holiness means that you need not buy into the latest mind-numbing fads of the commodity lifestyle. You can be "in but not of this world." (p. 211-2)
In these movements that are part of the Age of the Spirit, there is great joy and vitality. The church, at least as a global whole, is not dying, but is being born anew. People are engaging with one another, with the mystery, and with the stories that hold the tradition.

As a side note, making a connection to the power of story telling that I recently recounted, and as an ah-ha moment about my own and other fellow Baptists' secret love of ritual (a Baptist friend recently ascribed her love of the communion ritual to being a "closet Episcopalian"), Cox writes:
Most people describe the Baptist denomination, in which I grew up, as not having any rituals. Even Baptists often make this claim. But it is not true. Rituals are enactments—in song, story, visual representation, and gesture—of the narratives that inform a people's identity. (p. 39)
Certainly Baptist sermons, hymns, and Sunday school posters were and are full of song, story and visual representations.
By the time we were ready to leave Sunday school, these sagas had become permanent features in the topography of our imaginations. They did exactly what rituals are supposed to do. (p. 40)
Read The Future of Faith. Harvey Cox tells the story of Christianity and of some of his own encounters with the key movers and shapers of faith of the last fifty years, Gustavo Gutierrez and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, among others, and engages our imaginations in the possibilities for the Age of the Spirit to come.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Confronting the Powers that Be—in Yourself

Last week I "let someone go." The person was in the probation period of the new job, and we said, "You are not a good fit for this job." It was unfortunately true, despite my high hopes—somehow concepts weren't translating into results, despite my efforts to figure out why and to provide alternative approaches and explanations. If/when those alternatives don't work, I know that I can't change other people. It's not that people can't learn, but they have to be in a state of mind to do so. I can't make a person learn who is distracted by their own life's crises or problems, or who is not really engaged in the task at hand. You have to focus and pay attention and want to learn in order to translate concepts to results.

Of course, I say that from the position of being the person doing the hiring and firing, that is to say from the position of power and privilege. I've had to do this before and it always makes for sleepless nights, nausea, and other feelings of discomfort. The day I stop being discomfited about firing people, is the day I need to stop having that kind of power.

As often happens, my friend Bob sent a timely reminder in his morning scripture reading a couple of days after my exercise of power.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
I would like to think that I exercised my power in the interests of others, given that my agency receives public funding, and we need to be accountable, but surely at least one person was probably not happy at the results.

Then, as if I hadn't been confronted about my own power and privilege issues enough, this link arrived in my email box: On "Real" Christians and Christian Privilege. Click the link to read the whole, but here is a sample.
Christianity, at least (and especially) in America, is a privilege—and, like any privilege, it can be uncomfortable to face the ugly reality of what other members of a privileged class can do to non-privileged folks, even if you don't do it yourself. I'm white, I'm straight, I'm cisgender: I understand the impulse to distance oneself. But as a white person, I am obliged to acknowledge that the history of white supremacy in America is one of slavery, of lynchings, of segregation, of sundown towns, of internment camps, of genocide, and of all manner of institutionalized racism. I don't get to say (nor do I want to) that the KKK aren't "real" white people. …

The "they're not real Christians" refrain rather quickly loses its strength as a consolation to someone barraged by hatred from people calling themselves Christians. Even the liberal Christians I know had a harder time choking out that line after watching Donohue et. al. exact their "not real" Christian terror campaign upon me, because it sounds so hollow when you're telling someone with an inbox full of prayers they'll burn in hell as soon as they die (and hopefully soon).

In this arena of power and privilege, I claim gray—it is not black and white. As a follower of Jesus, that is, as a Christian, I have been told by other "Christians" that I'll go to hell for being who I am, or I've been told that some churches would never consider me as a minister because I'm a woman.

For many progressive Christians, "coming out" as a Christian is a challenge because the label had been usurped, at least in the United States, by the kind of "real" Christians described above. In a recent sermon I challenged a congregation of "progressive" Christians to come out as Christians, following the text of David's anointing (1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13):
In mainline and especially in liberal and progressive churches we have ceded the idea of conversion to the conservatives, and I think that's an error. We are all David. We are called to be other. Like David, it doesn't mean that we are perfect after we recognize that, but God calls us out. …

Once I started going to seminary, I started having conversations with people about God, faith, beliefs, the meaning of life, but not so much before then. Going to seminary caused me to come out as a Christian. It gave me a reason or perhaps an excuse to come out as a follower of Jesus, as a believer in God. Realizing that I was other, that I was called to be other gives me a reason to claim my difference and share it.

What is your reason or excuse to come out and share with someone outside of these walls what this faith community means to you, or what our prayer time means to you, or what God is doing in your life or how you hear a story from the Bible reflected in your own everyday life? When you do the work of social justice that so many of you are called to do, do you tell people about the faith that motivates you to do so, and if not, why not? It's one thing to be called to be different, to be other; it's quite another to figure out how you really need to live that out and speak out about our difference. When we are called out, how do we live faithfully as other, as different?
We don't want to be different. We want to enjoy our privilege. But with any exercise of privilege there must be corresponding responsibilities, and that's where we need to pick up this conversation. What are our responsibilities as Christians?

Yes, there is privilege in being a Christian in a nation where Christmas is a national holiday, but Yom Kippur and Ramadan are not. But does the story of the birth of a child to homeless refugees make us take action to help refugees, or to help those who are homeless? If not, what did you really learn from the Christmas story? We must act and call our sisters and brothers who are Christian to action.

Yes, there is privilege in being a Christian in a nation where the Lord's Prayer is part of our Presidential Inauguration, rather than a Jewish Sabbath prayer or the Muslim call to prayer, adhan/azzan, or Hindu or Buddhist prayers. But then our responsibilities as Christians then lie in listening to this prayer and in forgiving our debtors, as we ask God to forgive our debts. How might we do that? One idea that recently caught my eye: Common Security Clubs.

Yes, there is privilege in being a Christian, and yet are we following Jesus in having compassion, taking care of the sick, giving the hungry something to eat, as Jesus did when he fed the 5,000?
When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Matthew 14: 14-16
Food pantries are in great need now. If you can afford it, take five cans off your shelves and give them this week, and buy five more cans so you can do it again next week. Many local grocery stores have donation bins.

Equal access to health needs to become a given, not a privilege. We who are privileged with health or access to health care: let your representatives know that extending access to health is something that Christians want.

You have power and privilege simply because you are able to read this.

May we each claim our power to work for change, acknowledge our privilege and act upon the responsibilities that go with privilege.