Tuesday, March 28, 2017

where does community come from?

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I recently taught a course on Building Christian Community. We began with our own stories of community done well and community that hurt instead of helped. I heard tales of people showing sacrificial love and generously embracing differences. I also heard stories of pain from fractured relationships, and disappointment with ill-conceived directives from the powers that be. My own experience has shown me that quite often the church does not have a clear idea of what genuine community looks like. Many church communities in the West model the values found in consumer-driven, capitalist contexts, exhibiting an odd mixture of corporate sensibilities and spiritual propaganda.

When it comes to Christian community, our model is the Trinity. Speaking about three persons who are one grates a bit on the logical mind, but the idea of a communal God needs to be understood relationally, not logically. Part of the problem in understanding the idea of Trinity is that we in the Western world believe that the "one-ness" of God holds sway over the "three-ness" of God. This emphasis on one-ness can lead us down some sketchy paths both theologically and practically, because it directs our attention to uniformity instead of complexity, to authority rather than equanimity, to unifying doctrines and creeds instead of the movement of love.

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff writes: "We believe that God is communion rather than solitude. It is not a 'one' that is primary but the 'three.' The Three come first. Then, because of the intimate relationship between the 'three' comes the 'one' as expressing the unity of the three. Believing in the Trinity means that at the root of everything that exists and subsists there is movement; there is an eternal process of life, of outward movement, of love. Believing in the Trinity means that truth is on the side of communion rather than exclusion; consensus translates truth better than imposition; the participation of many is better than the dictate of a single one. Believing in the Trinity means accepting that everything is related to everything and so makes up one great whole, and that unity comes from a thousand convergences rather than from one factor alone." [1]

What Boff points out here is that beginning with one-ness (insisting on uniformity) perpetuates inadequate models of community and church. It also leaves us with problematic hierarchical forms of leadership and authority. Even more basically, our understanding of Trinity impacts how we interact with those we deem "the other." If we begin with one-ness, we are prone to trying to assimilate those who are not like us.

The mysterious specificity of a community of three is not immediately obvious, especially to those of us who live in a society which champions individuality. Boff explains, "If there were only one Unique One, only one God, solitude would ultimately be all there was. Underlying the whole universe, so diverse and so harmonious, would not be communion but only solitude." [2] If God is One and only ever One, there is no foundation or reason for community, and it makes sense that we are forever doomed to live as fractured humanity futilely trying to impose some sense of uniformity on each other. Boff continues, "If there were two Unique Ones, the Father and the Son, separation would be uppermost. One would be different from the other; and so there would be exclusion; one would not be the other." [2] Separation and exclusion are rife in our society; it is our lived experience. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, noting the differences between us and them, and as a result of these differences, excluding people from our circle of friends. The reason for three-ness becomes clear. "Through the Trinity, the solitude of the One is avoided, the separation of the Two (Father and Son) is also overcome, and the exclusion of one from the other (Father from Son, Son from Father) is overcome. The Trinity allows for communion and inclusion. ... The Trinity shows that underlying everything existing and moving there dwells an impulse of unification, communion, and eternal synthesis of those who are distinct in an infinite, living personal, loving, and absolutely fulfilling whole." [2]

The source of all community is the Trinity: three persons who give themselves to each other with such abandon that one cannot see one without seeing the other. Not one of them comes before the other, they are all first and all last. Their embrace and communication are eternal, having no beginning and no end. Their differences are not erased but celebrated through mutual surrender. "The fundamental characteristic of each divine Person is to be for the others, through the others, with the others, and in the others. Each living Person is eternally vivified by vivifying the others and sharing the life of the others." [3] This is a great and wonderful mystery. And perhaps an even greater mystery is the generous invitation of the Trinity to share in their loving communion, to be one as they are one.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Teach us what it means to live together in community, joined together by your bond of love.

[1] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity: Blessed Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), xvi.
[2] Boff, 6.
[3] Boff, 48.

Monday, March 06, 2017

what does the cross mean?




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Words which we use a lot can sometimes become divested of their depth of meaning. In the Christian tradition, we talk about the cross a lot. We see visual representations of the cross in prominent places in our gathering spaces, we wear crosses around our necks, some get crosses tattooed on their bodies. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol in Christianity, so lately I have been asking myself, what exactly does the cross mean? For the most part, the cross as portrayed in contemporary Christianity is a beautiful thing, festooned with flowers and sunsets and radiant beams of light (just google cross or cross coloring page). But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of disgrace. To the Roman empire, this ignoble instrument of death was for those who were traitors and enemies of the state. We are many centuries removed from this view of the cross as the locus of torture and death and shame. The fact that Christianity has made the cross a symbol of hope and beauty is a good thing, but perhaps we have also sanitized it from its original scandalous context. 

What I have been pondering in relation to the cross are Jesus's words to his disciples, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34, NRSV) What does it mean to take up your cross? In the midst of mulling over this question, I awoke one morning to find a Lenny Kravitz song running through my mind: Are You Gonna Go My Way? Here are some of the lyrics: 

I was born long ago
I am the chosen I'm the one
I have come to save the day
And I won't leave until I'm done
So that's why you've got to try 
You've got to breathe and have some fun
Though I'm not paid I play this game
And I won't stop until I'm done

But what I really want to know is
Are you gonna go my way?

Kravitz's commentary on the song is enlightening: “I’m singing lines like ‘I was born long ago’ and ‘I’m the chosen I’m the one’, but obviously it’s not about me,” he clarifies. “It’s about Christ, and it’s coming from the Jesus Christ Superstar kind of place. I’m singing in role, y’know, as if it was a musical, and the question means: are you gonna go the way of love? Let’s think about what Christ really said. His methods were all about love. So the question is, are you gonna continue to live in this way, full of hate, or are you gonna live in the way of love? Are you gonna go my way?” – Interview with Lenny Kravitz in Classic Rock Magazine (2011)

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According to the gospels, going Jesus's way means denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. So let's take a closer look at these three aspects. First, the context. Jesus addresses his disciples with these words after he performs a miracle of feeding thousands of people, after Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus tells his disciples about the suffering, death, and resurrection to come (which his disciples can't comprehend), after Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things, and after Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to stand in the way of what God is doing. It seems that being a follower of Jesus required some clarification, because even his disciples were misunderstanding what it meant to follow Jesus. 

Deny yourself means to refuse to recognize the self as source. In some way, we disown the self. In other words, it does not own us or call the shots. Take up means to lift something up to carry it, and the implication is that one must first put something aside (the self) in order to be able to take up something else (the cross). The cross refers to the actual physical cross-beam that was carried by a condemned person to the site of their execution. The cross, originally a symbol for suffering and disgrace, became a symbol of infinite love and sacrifice when placed on the shoulders of Jesus the Christ. The word follow comes from the Greek akoloutheo and it joins two words: unity + road. It means to be going in the same way as someone (as Kravitz sings). Perhaps one reason Jesus felt he had to spell this out to his disciples was because they were confused as to what going the way of Jesus looked like.

In his book, The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson contrasts the way of Jesus with the way of several high profile leaders of the time.[1] His points help us understand how radical Jesus's way was and why Jesus's followers (and you and I) find it hard to comprehend and embrace the counter-cultural, counter-self-interest, counter-power structure, counter-control way of Jesus.

Herod vs. Jesus: Peterson observes that Herod was impressive. Herod was effective. Herod was successful. He got things done by importance, bigness, and power. No one did kingdom better than Herod. But Jesus lived as if Herod barely existed. "Jesus ignored the world of power and accomplishment that was brilliantly on display all around him. He chose to work on the margins of society, with unimportant people, giving particular attention to the weak, the disturbed, the powerless" (Peterson, 204). Jesus chose to forgo the pursuit of importance and power. Instead, he focused on relationships which reflected God's love and heart for reconciliation.

Pharisees vs. Jesus: Thousands of years ago, in the face of great pressure for the Jewish people to adopt Greek civilization (laws were passed forbidding Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, temple sacrifices, etc.), the Pharisees rose up to preserve and reinforce the Jewish identity. They did so not only by pushing back against the governmental laws but by also implementing new rules and customs meant to keep the Jewish identity sharp. The Pharisees were passionate protectors, protesting anything they perceived as a threat to their way of life, but they got stuck in protect and protest mode. Jesus did not take his cue from the loyal intensity of the Pharisees. He was not obsessed with purity and precision or rules which defined and defended and regulated. His way was personal and relational, inviting participation from perceived outsiders. Instead of emphasizing purity, he showed people the love and mercy of God. Instead of protecting himself from threats and dangers, he demonstrated trust in God and talked about a kingdom which is greater than any force on earth. 

Caiaphas the High Priest vs. Jesus: Peterson characterizes Caiaphas as impatient with being a servant of God and impatient with God's people. As a result, Caiaphas took control of things. He set himself up as a manager of God's business, doling out salvation and damnation, collecting taxes, and becoming a power player by cozying up to the governing Romans. In this way he was able to enjoy wealth and influence during a time when most Jewish people were outcasts and second-class citizens. However, we must remember that the way of Jesus is not a path to privilege. When the cross-beam landed on Jesus's shoulders, it meant he was headed for death and disgrace. Most of Jesus's disciples eventually walked that same path: they spent their lives discipling others, preaching the good news of the Messiah, healing the sick, and dying horrible deaths because they followed Jesus. Peterson writes: "[Jesus] said 'Follow me' and ended up with a lot of losers. And these losers ended up, through no virtue or talent of their own, becoming saints. Jesus wasn't after the best but the worst. He came to seek and to save the lost" (Peterson, 219).

Zealots vs. Jesus: Zealots have great courage and determination, going to any lengths to aid their cause, even violence. When the opposition is identified (and labeled as evil), they will use force, bullying, manipulating, and even killing in order to gain the victory for their side (which is labelled as good). When faced with unfriendly treatment, two of Jesus's disciples (James and John) asked Jesus, "Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" Jesus rebuked them. His way was to overcome evil with good, not by using force or violence or retaliation. Sadly, church history recounts wars, killings, and devastation incited by zealots who fought in the name of Jesus. For the medieval Crusaders, the cross painted on their shields was not a symbol of sacrificial love, of giving their lives for the sake of others, but a justification for the taking of lives, particularly those deemed heretics. It is easy to condemn the mistakes of the past, but we are guilty as well. "Men and women in our Christian nation are still killing others in the name of Jesus, sometimes with guns, sometimes with words. Do we forget so easily that Jesus equated word-killing and sword-killing (Matt. 5:21-22)? (Peterson, 260). Jesus showed us a merciful and loving God, not a zealot God.

The question, "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" is one that Jesus asks each one of us who would be his followers. Will we unseat ourselves as the centre and source of our lives? Will we refuse to take on the role of protectors of purity and align ourselves with the suffering in the world? Will we offer healing and hope to others through the sacrifice of loving action? Will we stop seeking after importance and power and begin to cultivate relationships with the poor, the needy, the broken? Where we are prone to defensiveness and protest, will we join ourselves to others in a way that demonstrates vulnerability and humility? Will we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?

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[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Company, 2007).,