Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Speaking Metaphorically

This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)

This past Sunday we began the season following Pentecost.  As we follow the liturgical church calendar, we mark each Sunday going forward by how many Sundays it has been since Pentecost (the First Sunday after Pentecost, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, etc.).  We will do this until we reach Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas) when we start our annual journey through the church seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost) all over again.  The season following Pentecost is the longest of the year and symbolizes where we are as a community of believers—doing our best to experience God in our daily lives.  According to traditional Christian doctrine, we experience God by means of the Holy Spirit.

The problem with the Holy Spirit is that who and what the Holy Spirit is remain elusive.  The portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the Christian scriptures is vague when it comes to describing what the Holy Spirit is but quite concrete in describing the Spirit’s effects.  Although the characters in the New Testament do not know when the Spirit will visit them or in what way they will experience it (flames, strange tongues, dreams, intuitions, human fellowship, etc.), the early church grows in number and spreads geographically according to the Spirit’s direction.  Furthermore, according to the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we the readers are meant to understand the Spirit that energized the early church as the same Spirit of God who was at work throughout the history of Israel and the history of the world.  Yet even this biblical background is not enough for us to adequately capture what or who is the Holy Spirit.

As I shared Sunday, the “Great Schism” between the Western and Eastern Churches occurred among other reasons because of a disagreement over the nature of the Holy Spirit.  The Western Church insisted the Spirit originated with Christ (Christ came first!), while the Eastern Church declared the Spirit as part of the Trinity was always present as an equal “person” of God.  Each view has its strengths; theologian John Macquarrie notes that the Western view maintains consistency with Jesus and guards against extremism justified by a claim of the Spirit’s leadership, i.e. if it is not consistent with the love of Jesus then it’s not truly Christian.  Maquarrie also notes that the Eastern view, however, recognizes that God’s Spirit is at work outside the church in the entire world, even in other religions.  I figure why choose between the two?  Why not believe in a Spirit that is consistent with the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and that is at work everywhere?

As with most things with God, we humans are left to grasp for language to describe who and what God is.  We are left with metaphors.  When it comes to the Holy Spirit, the church has long spoken of the Trinity or the three “persons” of God or the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, yet each of these terms works only to the extent they help believers to understand their experience of God.  To teach about the Spirit, and thus the Trinity, I have used the metaphor of water (able to be a solid, liquid or gas yet still water) or a metaphor from physics of a “force field” (the field of energy that exists between all living things), yet those metaphors have their limits too.  Even the name “Holy Spirit” only goes so far in helping us understand the presence of God in our lives.  The experience of the Spirit must come first, and language can only trail behind trying to express what that experience was like.

In the season after Pentecost each year, the best counsel I can offer is for believers to be aware of the metaphors we use to describe our experiences of God.  To the extent that those metaphors are loose and enable you to speak of God without limiting your understanding of who God is and what you believe God can do in your life, the metaphors are healthy and good.  To the extent that those metaphors are rigid and result in you placing limits upon what God can do and who gets included in the activity of God, the metaphors are unhealthy and destructive.  As we seek to sense the presence of God in our midst, may our language allow room for what the apostle Paul named as the “fruits” of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  When our language allows these “fruits” to blossom, then we will know our metaphors are worthy of the God we claim to serve.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Resisting Temptation

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)
At the end of 2010, I wrote the following in my annual wish list for the coming year:

No Celebrity Cell Phone Pics—I don’t care if you’re Brett Favre or a mistress of Tiger Woods, I wish for a year where I don’t have to hear about anyone getting in trouble for taking a picture of a body part with their cell phone and sending it to someone else. In this case, technology is not our friend. (This wish also counts for non-celebrities.)

Ah those were the days—when we only had to worry about athletes taking pictures of their body parts and sending them out for the world to see! So much for that 2011 wish; now we have to worry about politicians. (As I write this, I have turned off the news, because I’m tired of hearing about Rep. Anthony Wiener’s stupidity. He’s only the latest politician to send pictures of himself via his cell phone camera.) What is it with guys taking pictures of themselves naked?

In the light of day (or the glare of TV cameras!), stupid choices look like what they are—STUPID. The dam-age done to marriages and other important relationships, the loss of trust and credibility, and the pain caused to so many are plain to see. Yet, our moments of temptation often do not come in such public moments but in private when we fool ourselves into thinking that our actions and their consequences need not ever meet. As I watched politicians and clergy in recent weeks stammering before news cameras, the words of Jesus kept coming to my mind: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17 NIV) Not every sin we commit goes public—at least in this life, but perhaps it would be a good idea if we lived as if it would. We may not be politicians, famous athletes or celebrities, but each of us is human and not immune to temptation. Here are my thoughts about how to resist temptation.

1. Plan ahead. When word got out that a minister with whom I’d gone to college and seminary had an affair with another staff member at the church he served despite having a beautiful wife and adoring children at home, I was shocked. I recall talking to a friend about it and saying, “I never thought he was the kind of guy who would do such a thing.” My friend replied, “He just never had the opportunity before.” Those words have stuck with me, and I’ve reflected since on how we are seldom prepared for moments when temptation strikes. Opportunity is everything. In calm moments, it’s a good thing to think about what could happen and how you will respond. Thinking actions through ahead of time results in better choices.

2. Avoid tempting situations. When addicts go to rehabilitation, they are instructed to avoid streets with known drug dealers and relationships with people who use drugs.
The same can be said for any kind of temptation—avoid situa-tions where you know your will is weak. This goes for visiting the refrigerator late at night or where you surf on the internet. Most of the time, we know where we are going before we get there, cut short the trip or don’t take it at all.

3. Community matters. There’s a reason why anony-mous groups work—they provide intimacy, accountability and safety. They are safe spaces where a person can be vulnerable and honest with people who understand yet won’t let others excuse bad behavior. We all need such places. The church is supposed to be such a place (but often unfortunately is not). Although there’s sometimes a fuzzy line between vulnerability and exhibitionism, there are appropriate ways for people to share their struggles and gain support in any healthy congrega-tion.

4. Don’t judge. Learn. The sex scandals of politi-cians and clergy illustrate how hypocrisy only increases the misdeeds. My mother always said, “Those preachers who preach about sex all the time are obsessed with it and are the worst offenders.” She was right and the same is true of politi-cians, celebrities and ordinary people too. Often the most judg-mental have firsthand experience of the bad behavior in ques-tion. Our energy is better spent taking the mistakes of others as warnings of what can happen to us in our weak moments.

5. Pray. Each Sunday at FCC, we pray the Lord’s Prayer which includes “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” We ask God to lead us away from temptations and to save us from the many evils that infect our culture—those evils include the unhealthy selfishness which is at the root of all temptations to commit destructive acts. That prayer and others like it make a difference. They stiffen our own resolve while being honest about our weaknesses before God. They tap into a power greater than ourselves—God’s power to accom-plish what is impossible for us alone. Prayer should not be un-derestimated.

We may not be public figures subject to a media-driven sham-ing, but all of us have our moments when what we have done in secret comes out into the open. Such moments are painful—all the more so because they are avoidable.

Grace and Peace,