A Vision of Something Beyond Ourselves

by broman on February 5, 2010

Last Sunday at our house I spoke about a transforming vision for a community of faith. I hesitate to even use the word “church” because of all its baggage and misunderstandings of the reality Jesus Christ set forth in the world through his life and teachings. Brian McLaren, pastor, counselor, mentor, and “Christian Sherpa” (my designation) has said the Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble in our world. But Christianity itself is on the brink of exciting and world transforming power. I prefer the words “the Jesus movement” in speaking about this fantastic reality that is just begging for us to join in more fully and passionately.

Religion and spirituality is big business; that’s the American way, of course. But we are approaching the end of consumer religion with its programs and promises of wealth, health, and success. Even in spite of all this effort our culture and our own individual lives are increasingly unhappy, depressed, distressed and running faster but getting nowhere. What I hear from people is the earnest desire for an authentic, real and genuine community of faith that worships and adores the God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination.

So I offer the following thoughts as a way to prime the pump of our common conversations, reflections, Scripture encounters, all for the ultimate purpose of allowing the glory of God to flow through us and shine upon our civic community and world. By no means does the following represent a “Moses coming down the mountain” statement; it is to serve as an invitation for further contemplation and prayer. Please feel free to let me know what you think. Much of what I have written in based on my own personal experience with various faith communities, and especially the one in Taize, France, where Karen and I spent a week a couple of summers ago. I have since done a lot of reading and study about Taize, the kind of worship and prayer community it is, and what possibilities such an approach to the Jesus life might be for us.

The greatest barriers to our spiritual growth and soul’s formation are inertia, amnesia and manana. Inertia is what the ancient church called “the noonday demon,” also known as sloth, or better yet, “why bother?” A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Inertia will keep us in the ruts of our minds and hearts, unless we ask God to break us free. Amnesia is the forgetfulness of the overwhelming truth of the beauty of God’s love which has claimed us and all creation as His own. Amnesia fails to recall the importance of practicing the presence of God in all things. Manana, of course, just says “wait till tomorrow.”

Spiritual growth does not happen automatically. Over the years I have had countless conversations with people who could be described as spiritually disenchanted, or disenfranchised. Yet during the conversation it has always been evident that their dissatisfaction is centered in the forms that religion and spirituality take. There is something deep in the human spirit that desires to connect with the Divine. Recent publications speak of a “God gene,” an implant in the human soul that drives us, almost with a magnetic force, towards a power greater than ourselves. Even those who espouse no religious sentiments, even to the claim of being atheists, believe in something, even if it’s their ability to not believe in anything.

St. Augustine, a man well acquainted with spiritual alienation, wrote: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts of restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Augustine knew exactly what it meant to be searching for that deep soul forming connection with God. It only comes through direct spiritual engagement, not through any religious program nor agenda laden institution, but only through an honest community of prayer, worship and reconciliation.

The Christian community in Taize, France, is such a community. In our world it is one of the few true communities given over wholly to the soul formation of an encounter with the living God. Here is Toledo, Ohio, such a community can be formed by those of us who hunger and thirst for a Word from the Lord that transforms and transcends the usual forms of “church.” I am asking you to consider these ideas for such a community.

Reconciliation and Acceptance

The New Testament makes it very clear that Jesus’ death on the cross is understood as the act of reconciliation with God, and therefore, it makes all followers of the Jesus Way empowered to be reconciled with each other and the world. The peace of the whole world is more than a political process; it is first and foremost a spiritual reality and a moral calling for Christians.

The New Testament also teaches us that the life of Jesus Christ is actually formed into the life of everyone who trusts Him to do just that. Through the Holy Spirit the actual living, breathing Jesus is alive in our bodies. St. Paul said: “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ in me.” (Galatians 2:20) The Eastern Orthodox Church calls this theosis, the indwelling of God. If Resurrection means that Jesus is on the loose, then the practical implication is that we who call Jesus “Lord!” and are his followers, are empowered to incarnate His mission of reconciliation in the world. Jesus makes his disciples a part of his own way of life. We can love as Jesus loves.

The result of this love is the natural acceptance of others. There is absolutely no difference from one’s spiritual life and any other compartment by which we pigeonhole our experiences. God is only interested in our lives, body, mind and spirit. Reconciliation and acceptance are practiced through the art of forgiveness. I say “practice” because that is exactly how it becomes real in us. I say “art” because it will create a work of eternal beauty.

There is a saying attributed to Buddha, but the same line of thought permeates the teachings and person of Jesus himself:

The thought manifests itself as the word;
The word manifests itself as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit into character.

Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God.” This is what it means to be part of a community given to reconciliation and acceptance. Notice that this is different than arguing over what color the carpet should be in a ladies lounge or who should receive the money from the latest bake sale.

Do we really want to share with others the reconciliation and new life we experience through the power of Jesus’ life in ours? Again St. Paul: “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Over the years I have marveled at the question asked by non-Christians: why are Christians so condemning and judgmental with one another? Can we be a credible witness of the Gospel message Jesus has called us to live? That message is the same as his: The Kingdom, the Presence, of God is here now.

For years I have espoused “The Mother Theresa Principle”—hang around people not like you and do something for others that can never be paid back. Then see what happens to you. Reconciliation is a conscious action toward accepting others, not like ourselves. What a Kingdom project it is to be an agent for world peace right here in Toledo, inviting our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters to sit down and eat together. Might we not be a community that dares to try this out?

Reconciliation happens then in personal relationships, between faith communities, and throughout society. Who knows what God will accomplish through us—this Jesus movement—as we take up Jesus call for reconciliation?

Freedom and Peace

Last Saturday Karen and I went to the UT-BGSU women’s basketball game. What a great contest it was, with the Rockets winning. What fun it is to watch an athletic game, especially when teams play by the rules and within the bounds of the court. That’s what makes basketball what it is, and not football. Different rules of engagement, different boundaries on the playing field. Imagine the chaos if every player could do what she wanted regardless of court lines and black and white striped officials. Within the boundaries and the rules of engagement there is room for freedom, skill, creativity and teamwork. That is what makes a game exciting and worth watching, or playing.

What are the rules for engagement for community? What are the necessary ingredients for a community seeking to allow Christ to form it and then to be in common service to God?

Recently I read, and have distributed to some of you, the book by Brian McLaren, Finding our Way Again. It’s about recovering seven practices of the presence of God that have been part of the Jesus journey from the very beginning, but in this modern day have been largely ignored (amnesia) in favor of consumerism and denominational franchising.

The seven faith practices are: Daily Prayer, Sabbath, Fasting, Sacred Meal, Pilgrimage, Times and Seasons, and Generosity. Interestingly both Judaism and Islam practice these as well; they are the spiritual heritage of the Abraham faith. (Genesis 12)

As a small faith community we can consider each of these and show one another how to practice them. Awesome things result. They in no measure try to win God’s favor; they are the boundaries in which we get to play the game of life. We will help each other in actual practice here using concrete activities. For instance, Pilgrimage, is our planned mission trip to Central America sometime in July. St. John Wagoner, along with Beth Wagoner and Mark and Beth Robinson, pioneered this work ten years ago and so we have expertise in mission management, but more importantly, have cultivated a posture of servant hood and discovery. Pilgrimage transforms those who go on one.

What results from the practice of these practices? The very presence of God: forgiveness, joy, humility, compassion, being at home in the world. We become void of hatred, malice, resentment and revenge.

So we can live in freedom: the freedom to forgive for good, the freedom to love, the freedom to embrace others as Christ has done for us.

In this faith community we can be free to move toward God at our own pace, finding the sacred space to pursue God. One big thing I learned this summer on sabbatical is that God is bigger than any idea I have ever entertained. Many of us were brought up on a diet of “it’s not Lutheran” if some practice didn’t register on our radar as kosher.

Some time ago one of Karen’s cousins called me with an urgent theological question. She and her church’s worship committee had met the night before and were planning Advent, complete with unsingable Advent hymns out of the LBW. The people on the committee rightly wanted to sing Christmas songs in Advent because, after all, the mall plays them for months before. The pastor said absolutely no Christmas carols during Advent. When asked why not, his reply was, “It’s against church doctrine.” Of course Karen’s cousin was calling me to ask—what church doctrine? There was little freedom in that church to form a sacred place of discovery.

I am proposing we form a community of faith that brings together the best of Christian traditions. Also, what can our Jewish and Islamic bothers and sisters teach us about God? Zen Buddhism brings the idea of practice to heart. Jesus taught a way of life, not a body of doctrines and beliefs. God is in search of us, that’s the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. Now we have the freedom to pursue that.

Trust and Responsibility

We are seeking something greater than what “church” offers. The simple trust of community begins with “what can I bring to our gathering?” I believe that one of the special missions this forming faith community is being called towards is to be a model for young people to see real adulthood. In a big way what we are about is taking this opportunity to resume the long delayed project of growing up, to become mature, responsible and loving adults.

This depends on becoming more self disciplined, more self aware, more in control of our thought processes and emotions. Just hoping it will happen does not work. What does are effort, determination and organization. This is our community’s responsibility—to recover the human center—a harmony with ourselves, others and the world around us. The Hebrew word for this is shalom. It calls for our complete attention to God and an open heart.

Trust grows through responsibility. Again, the Hebrew Bible, the stories of the ancient Jewish people, has much reflection on this truth. Succinctly, it’s called the Ten Commandments. In these words the whole community is built together in trust and responsibility. Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount are the inaugural address of the Kingdom’s invasion.

So it is not church towards which we strive, but the Kingdom. It’s not a matter of “doing church” or even beginning a new church, it’s about being church and a new faith community that wants diligently and intentionally to practice the presence of God.

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