Post #350: Abundance

Milestone post. What shall I say that speaks of a milestone in my life? There are numerous ‘a-ha’ (or epiphany) moments along the way that have changed the way I think and who I am.

Here’s one.

eggplantMy parents never spoke of scarcity or lack in our home. This is not to say there weren’t times when we had no idea how we could make it through the month.

We were not by any measure of the phrase “the upper class.” We lived amongst common, salt-of-the-earth folks in a barrio in the Philippines. All our clothes came from missionary barrels (secondhand clothes sent from the home country). We had vegetables from our own garden, cheap non-branded food and my parents often bought in bulk and froze, canned, or preserved copious amounts of whatever was in season.

One month something happened with the bank transfers from the States upon which my missionary-parents relied. There was no money. I don’t ever remember them even telling us ‘We have no money.’ We survived on eggplant–our family and the three or four students we had living with us.

Somehow, there always seemed to be enough . . . enough for us and whoever happened to be living in our home at the time.

Regardless of our family’s financial status, we were never ever made to feel that we would go without. I heard often these words, spoken in confidence: ‘The Lord will provide.’

When we moved to Australia, mum started stashing away coins in an old cookie jar. We knew that, whenever there was a need, we would always have the cookie jar to fall back on.

We didn’t know it then but, often, there was only a few cents in that jar. I can see how my parents showed that trust in God is like having a spare change jar: you don’t know what’s in it, but, when a need arises, there always seems to be enough.

This reflection happens to be the daily reflection from StillSpeaking which appeared in my inbox one day recently:

So much of our scripture is a celebration of abundance.  The first chapters of Genesis are a song of praise for God’s generosity.  With each act of creation, the divine refrain is, “It is good, it is good, it is very good.”  And it pictures the Creator saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Many of the Psalms, including the one for today, survey creation and catalogue this abundance in loving detail and with joyful thanksgiving.

Then, in the Gospels, Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes so that there is more than enough for everyone.  At a wedding feast he turns water into wine, and more wine than could be consumed at a dozen weddings.  These highly symbolic stories speak of God’s abundance.  There is enough, there is more than enough.

That’s the biblical narrative.  But the narrative by which we are tempted to live is another story entirely, a story of scarcity, where there is never enough.  In fact, we are tempted to define enough as, “always something more than I have now.” . . .

. . . Do you live out of a sense of abundance or scarcity?  That may be an economic question, but certainly it is a faith question.

(Martin B. Copenhaver)

In a day when we are well aware of the misleading abundance-preaching of televangelists and the pitfalls of embracing a ‘prosperity gospel,’ we can still say with confidence, ‘The Lord will provide.’

It is, as the writer suggests, a ‘sense of abundance.’ This doesn’t mean we will have plenty, but we will see whatever we have as an expression of God’s abundance in our lives.God provides what we need and what he wants us to share with others who need. We learn the joy of contentment and the joy of giving, all the while trusting in the abundance of God.

The Modified Christian

Vine-Branches“I am the vine; you are the branches.” – John 15:5

I’m frustrated with the many labels we attach to Christianity in order to modify its meaning. I know why we do it, of course. I do it myself. I want to explain to someone that I am “this kind” of Christian and not “that kind” of Christian.

So one might refer to “Progressive Christianity,” or “Red Letter Christians,” or “Emergent,” or “Liberal Protestant,” or “Evangelical and Liberal,” or “Generously Orthodox.”

And then there are the other terms, that sometimes get thrown like rocks.  “Bible Believing,” “Jesus Following,” “Christ Centered,” “Seeker Sensitive,” all of which seem to imply that there are other misbehaving churches that are not.

At this point, I want to throw all the modifying words out. They just don’t do our faith justice. Any of our faiths.

First, many of the terms are based in the broken vocabulary of the right and the left. Do we really want to preserve the old paradigms of “liberal” and “conservative?” They haven’t served us well in politics. Why would we think they would be anything but divisive in the church?

Next, many of the terms are about trying to be new or edgy. Every generation of the church has its reformers and they have all suffered from a certain terminal uniqueness that they are the new big and best thing to rock the church. But if they ever get a toe hold, those names will seem silly. How long can we be emerging, progressing and seeking before we just admit that we’re a church?

These days, I am increasingly frustrated with the modifying labels and the phony boxes those adjectives put Christians into. If anything is going to modify the definition “Christian,” it is not going to be that one perfect adjective. It will be the people. Weirdly diverse, unpredictable, saved and broken, how we treat each other will determine if the word Christian can have room for us all.

For all the odd wings and vocal varieties of church in the world, even the ones that drive us crazy . . . we pray for them all. And in doing so, we pray for ourselves. Amen.

– Reflection by Lillian Daniel from StillSpeaking

If it Weren’t for Christians, Church Would be OK

I work in a school.

My work involves a range of activities involving mostly teachers, but also students and their parents.

The going joke around here–especially at times when we’re running ragged after 7 or 8 weeks of full-on work–is, “If you would just take away the students, this school would be perfect.”

Church_CRossI was mulling over similar ideas in my head while sitting in our Sunday gathering yesterday and then during a church meeting. I know many people who have ditched the church for a more intimate spiritual search, or in response to a growing sense of duplicity and pretension which one inevitably finds in organised religion. I would never say (as I have heard said) that they have “left the faith,” or they have “returned to Egypt” (which carries another entire set of symbols and metaphors, mostly dark and negative). These folk has simply had enough of their local church and the problems which they believe are very real and embedded in its membership and structure.

Lillian Daniel writes about this in today’s StillSpeaking reflection:

It seems to be a growing trend—people who claim to love Jesus but don’t want to call themselves Christians. The latest to stake a claim for not staking a claim is Marcus Mumford, of the wildly popular Mumford & Sons, whose Christian-themed lyrics have been a source of fascination to believers and nonbelievers alike.

In a Rolling Stone cover story, Mumford demurred when asked if he considered himself a Christian. “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage,” he said. “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.”

I too want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word. I tried to make that case in Relevant Magazine. When people say they love Jesus and not the church, I hear them saying they can’t abide the people. If we could just kick all the people out, we might actually be able to do this Christian community thing. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.

The church is something you enter at your own risk. Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.

It seems to me that, although I sometimes get disillusioned with organised religion, I can’t escape the fact that there are hypocrites everywhere. I guess, like Marcus Mumford, I expect Christians to be more like Jesus than those who don’t accept that label. I suppose my conundrum is that I know many who are not Christian in name who act more out of love and grace than those who claim the Name. I understand Mumford’s dilemma–I too want to distance myself from that type of pretentious faith.

The fact that we are a community of faith does not mean that we are simply a people who believe, but a people who live that faith in real life.

Perhaps part of that living our faith in Jesus is that we accept the sinful and saintly alike, that we embrace those driven by their ego as well as those who are truly self-sacrificing, that we love the hypocrites as well as those who are genuine models of honesty and integrity.

After all, if we can do this in the 2 hours a week we spend inside the church building, imagine how this would look if we then extend our life of love to the other 166 hours we spend in the everyday normalcy of life!

Maybe, as we love as Jesus loves, we will see all these labels and categories fade into insignificance as a new awareness of our shared humanness and earthliness awakens in us a renewed and invigorated sense of belonging, togetherness and community.

Or maybe we’ll just say we’ve had enough, leave this church, and take our baggage with us somewhere else . . .

. . . where it can start all over again.

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For those who appreciate Lillian Daniel’s perspective, you may be interested to watch her sermon “Faith is Not the Opposite of Doubt” here.

Inoffensive Faith

I find friends unwilling to sing the national anthem in the name of the world jumpy and judgmental. I’ve come to find Christians unwilling to speak of Jesus for the sake of not offending others similarly narrow-minded. I’m reminded of an old Pogo cartoon where Pogo says, “I love the world. It’s people I hate.”

Thinking generally of oneself and others is easier than being particular about what distinguishes us. I’m complicit in this common phenomenon. Working now for a Muslim leader who, like me, cares about prayer, she stopped me once amid a prayer when she could tell I wasn’t going to mention Jesus. Thinking this dishonest she simply said, “Be who you are.”

Jesus is “our” Lord and Savior and “the one whom God sent” as we Christians understand this. Those of different faiths or none are not hereby coerced or coopted into identifying themselves the same way. Whatever the history of Christian imperialism, we paternalize others today when we try to take care of their feelings at the expense of forgetting who we are.

Calling Jesus “the Way, Truth, and Life” makes him more compelling, at least to us – and less defensive – when we remember that Jesus’ way is “narrow” only for those who limit God’s Spirit to their way, truth, and life not that of Jesus; those who say “my way or the highway.”

Our job is not to spread the word Jesus around but to welcome God’s Spirit around, energized by the generosity we find in Jesus. That Spirit is palpable not just doctrinal; inclusive, not sectarian or monocultural. I keep discovering this the more I pay attention to Jesus and remember who I am – not when, playing God, I pay more attention to others and presume to take care of their feelings.

Anchor me in the Spirit of Jesus knowing this makes me more generous, and honest, with others. Amen.

–Reflection by William C. Green, from StillSpeaking

Why I don’t wear a WWJD Bracelet

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,  in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2:9-10 )

I have never been a fan of those WWJD bracelets, where the initials stand for the question, “What would Jesus do?” They seem to imply that we should answer that question at every turn and that it should then influence our actions. What would Jesus do? OK, then I will do exactly the same.

But here’s a news flash. You’re not Jesus. You come into contact with someone sick? What would Jesus do? He’d perform a miracle. Are you going to do that? You run out of wine at a wedding? What would Jesus do? He’d turn water into wine. Go ahead. And then try appearing in the sky with Moses and Elijah in the transfiguration, try casting out demons, try saving humanity through the resurrection. Does wearing that bracelet give you special powers? Good luck with that.

It seems to me that the WWJD bracelets are another symptom of individualistic Christianity, where it’s all about me. Yes, I know that many good people wear the bracelet to remind them to be kind and compassionate, to make good choices, often around issues of personal morality. But really, when you look at what Jesus actually did do, most of it is off limits to ordinary mortals.

And when he did engage in questions of personal morality, he said nothing about sexuality, just saying no to drugs, donating to National Public Radio or other pressing causes of our day. When it comes to personal morality, Jesus seems awkwardly stuck on telling us to give our money away, and not to the sellers of “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets. But other than that, most of what he does is sort of supernatural and crazy, and off limits to you and me, culminating in his suffering on the cross yet triumphing over death. In a world that says it’s all about you, WWJD is a pretty humbling thought.

I give thanks that there is a God and that it is not me. Amen.

Reflection by Lillian Daniel, from StillSpeaking

(StillSpeaking is a daily reflection sent by email from the United Church of Christ in the U.S. You can subscribe by going to the UCC website and clicking on the Feed Your Spirit > Daily Devotional link or by clicking here.)

Meanderings . . . Imagination, Relevance, Nonviolence & Lemonade

Jana Riess on Religion News Service posted (a few months back now) an interview with Eugene Peterson in which she asked this question:

You’ve written often about the importance of storytelling, even to the point of suggesting that first-year divinity students should read a diet entirely of fiction — Flannery O’Connor, the Russian novelists, Faulkner. Wonderful idea. How are people transformed by fiction?

“I think that their imaginations are transformed. When you’re reading a novel, you’re following a plot and character development. The best writers leave a lot to your imagination. The task of a writer is to get participation from the reader, and you can’t do that by telling them everything. The Bible is that kind of literature. There’s very little explanation—almost no explanation, no definitions. And the writers of Scripture were also, as they were telling these stories, aware of all the other voices that were in the air—Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Paul.

“Our school curriculum teaches you how to study. You learn facts. But they don’t do much to help you read in an imaginative way to help you enter the story. That’s what novelists do. So I think a basic immersion in fiction is almost a prerequisite to reading the Bible, to preaching sermons, to teaching classes. Poetry does the same thing, but it takes a different route to do it.” (Read the full interview here.)

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“The unfaithful witness is the one who simply transmits the conventional and familiar, unchanged and undigested.  He is unfaithful, in the first place, because he is lazy.  For the labor of interpretation and contemporization, the work of ‘translation,’ is grueling work and it is never done without abortive trials and breath-taking risks. . . . He who simply repeats the old phrases takes no risks; it is easy to remain orthodox and hew to the old line.  But he who speaks to this hour’s need and translates the message will always be skirting the edge of heresy. He, however, is the man who is given this promise (and I really believe this promise exists): Only he who risks heresies can gain the truth.” (Helmut Thielicke, inThe Trouble with the Church).

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I’m told that the word “nonviolence” did not exist (at least in the English and German languages) until the 1950s. There’s a reason for that: the notion didn’t exist in our consciousness. We didn’t create a word for it because we didn’t get it yet! When Gandhi came along, he pointed out that every religion in the world knows that Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived nonviolence except one religion—Christianity. In very short order, after Gandhi, this became obvious to many wise people throughout the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the one who most influenced our American culture regarding nonviolence. That’s why I speak of it as a recovery of nonviolence. We had it, but we couldn’t hear it, especially after Christianity became the imperial religion. When you’re imperial, you can’t hear any talk of nonviolence. You have to be violent to be an empire. So after 313 AD, we pretty much lost the nonviolent teaching of Jesus and it was not recovered until the twentieth century. It’s sort of unbelievable, but in between, nonviolence was almost universally forgotten, denied, or ignored as Christianity needed to justify its own violence. (Richard Rohr, from CAC daily email)

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In an age of information overload, when a vast variety of media delivers news faster than most of us can digest – when many of us have at least two email addresses, two telephone numbers, and one fax number – the last thing any of us need is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run  frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their  bodies. Not more about God. More God. – Barbara Brown Taylor:

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A Reflection by Donna Schaper

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16)

Many of the best stories are stories of origin.  The best conversation-starter is how did you meet?  When did you meet?  How do you know each other?  The second best is how some kind of problem turned into some kind of opportunity.  People love reversal stories.  The letter to the people at Colosse is very much one of origin and of reversal.  The invisible, original God became visible and present in the now.

I love the way some English-speaking people have funny language for things.  Like the way a thrift shop in Australia is either an opportunity shop or a reject shop, depending on your social location.  Or the way a car that we call a lemon is called a “defect” car in Britain.  A pastor tells me that someone parked a “defect” in front of his church outside London.  Because such parking is illegal and the owner of the abandoned car was being fined every day – adding poverty to poverty upon poverty – the pastor decided to push the car into the church parking lot.  A few days later, another defect showed up, followed by a third and fourth.  Clearly things were getting out of hand.  That’s when one of the laymen decided it was time to start a microbusiness at the church.  The business was fixing up cars.  The church made money, people got their wheels back and everybody knew they had turned a lemon into lemonade.

Sometimes I think this is why the invisible God became visible.  To remove the defect in our eye.  To show us a glimpse of how wonderful life could be, even after the parking tickets arrive. (from UCC’s StillSpeaking)

Blank Pages

From a recent article in The New York Times:  “Add this to the endangered list: blank spaces.”

“Advertisers seem determined to fill every last one of them.  Supermarket eggs have been stamped with the names of CBS television shows.  Subway turnstiles bear messages from Geico auto insurance.  US Airways is selling ads on motion sickness bags.”

One marketing research firm estimates that a person living in a city sees 5,000 ad messages a day.  No wonder we feel bombarded.

So, yes, add blank spaces to the endangered list.  And we need blank spaces as much as we need room to breathe or room for the Holy Spirit to breathe through us.

In the 1930s there was an Oxford don, an influential Anglo-Saxon scholar, who was quietly correcting the papers of his students.  Picture the pages before him on his desk.  Each page is densely packed.  He writes his own comments, adding to the crowded pages.  Then he turns over one page and finds it is blank.  This is something different and unexpected.  He pauses before the blank page and, for whatever reason—later he could not explain why—he writes one sentence:  “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The Oxford don was J.R.R. Tolkien and that sentence is the opening line of his famous novel, The Hobbit, the introduction to his masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He had never written a word of fiction before coming upon that blank page.

Do you have enough blank spaces in your life?

If not, do you have any new ideas about what you might do about that?

How about a very ancient idea?  How about Sabbath?

–Reflection by Martin B. Copenhaver, in StillSpeaking