Loyalty, love, and stability

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about monastic traditions, including some reading related to a recent and ongoing movement that has been dubbed “new monasticism” (see also here and the Schools for Conversion web site). Missio Dei, founded by Mark Van Steenwyk of Jesus Manifesto is an example of a self-consciously new monastic community.

I just finished reading Inhabiting the Church by John Stock, Tim Otto, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a book that explores the nature of vows in the church and particularly the threefold Benedictine vow of obedience, conversion, and stability “from the perspective of people who grew up in the Protestant free-church tradition”, as they repeatedly say throughout the book. While the first two aspects of the vow are worth exploring and highly valuable for those of us who want to seek Jesus faithfully in postmodernity, I want to mostly talk about the third now – stability.

Two biblical words that resonate throughout the whole book are the Hebrew chesed and the Greek agape. Chesed is usually rendered “loyalty”, though more traditional translations often use “lovingkindness”. Agape is, as many of you probably know, a word for “love”, rendered as “charity” in many older translations, that specifically refers to a kind of self-denying love that gives without expecting anything in return. Chesed is a loyalty that transcends concern for one’s own self, the kind of loyalty that is often ascribed to God in the Old Testament – and it is charged to Israel to be a people of chesed for God and for each other in their ways of living. It is perhaps most memorably demonstrated in the story of Ruth, who demonstrates chesed for Naomi to the point where she is willing to leave her home and lose her familial identity in order to love Naomi. Ruth’s story is one with deeply subversive potential, and I will try and blog about that more in the future, but let me say for now that most scholars see the book in its finished form as post-exilic, and so possibly written as a counter to the nationally isolationist tendencies found in Ezra-Nehemiah. The faithfulness of a foreigner bursts out of the prominent categories of Israelite tradition, particularly the traditions of the law and wisdom, and it is this faithfulness that produces a lineage resulting in King David and his messianic dynasty.

Agape is likewise subversive. In a world where we are defined as consuming beings and where all material items, people, potential vocations, services, etc. are seen primarily as objects for consumption, to love another without expecting any return, simply because of her/his intrinsic worth as a human being created in God’s image is a truly radical act.

It seems that even from our birth we are steeped in the Disney mantra “follow your dreams wherever they take you”, regardless of whether that place is near or far from home. In our Christian culture we even glorify this impulse by celebrating missionaries and individual preachers, teachers, and workers who travel far and wide to “do God’s work”. Now, I’m not saying all these people are necessarily wrong, but does it not occur to us that perhaps we have so deeply imbibed this mindset that we might be missing the riches of the Gospel in our places by looking ahead to the next? To put a new spin on an old proverb, the grass is greener on the other side because that person spends his time cultivating the lawn instead of looking around for new and ostensibly better things.

Benedictines take a vow of stability, to live in the monastery until they die, only leaving upon permission of the abbot, generally for the business of the monastery. As an oblate, I too will take a vow of stability – not to live in the monastery, nor necessarily even to be rooted to one place until I die, but for stability of heart. The other week at our oblate chapter meeting here in Evansville Father Brendan came to speak to us about the vow of stability. He made one of the deepest statements I have ever heard, and one upon which I will continue to ruminate for years to come: “If you’re not finding God where you are, you’re not going to find him somewhere else.” What if we Christians were so committed to finding God where we are that it would take the voice of God specifically calling us to send us somewhere else? What if we rejected the individual American dream of prosperity and adventure and instead processed our thoughts, feelings, and desires with a community of fellow Jesus-seekers to discern together whether a possible course of action was really God-inspired, or more of a distraction?

The vow of stability is rooted in chesed, loyalty that puts the community of believers, the body of Christ, and the voice of God speaking to us in our place above our own easily-manipulated desires, thoughts, and feelings; it is based on agape, love that counteracts the individualistic consumerist orthodoxies of our society. If we can find true stability in God the insecurities of our time will have no power over us, and we will be enabled to follow God in any time and place, if only we can follow God where and when we are now.

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Thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday hangover day”, also known as the beginning of the season of Lent. The Gospel reading for today, from the Daily Office Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, TNIV)

We’ve all probably heard this passage time and again, and it certainly is a powerful message – the uber-self-righteous Pharisee getting his comeuppance while the humble tax collector is justified. Unfortunately, we often look at it as an example of “works righteousness” versus “faith” and use this parable to justify our own Protestant theology (on the falsehood of viewing ancient Judaism as “works righteousness” that was later corrected by Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on “grace”, see the opening of my article on Galatians 3:28). We also have this tendency to assume the Pharisee is boasting of his own accomplishments for all to see, though where we get this idea that he’s bragging before other people I have no idea – the text specifically says he stood by himself.

We Americans love underdogs. Odds are, if you cared about the game, you wanted to see the lowly Giants knock the arrogant Patriots off their high horse in the Super Bowl last weekend; however, according to Vegas, if you bet on the game the odds are you bet on the Patriots. One might say we love the idea of the underdog, but when it gets down to brass tacks we want to go with the winner.

We love this parable for much the same reason we love underdogs – and in this case it’s a no-lose situation, because Jesus endorses this underdog. But if we understood this passage better… we might not see it in such black-and-white terms. Jesus’ audience surely would not have.

I think this parable is much better understood not as a contrast between the “works-righteousness” of the Pharisee and the “faith” of the tax collector, but rather between their ritual purity according to the Jewish holiness code. The Pharisee epitomized the utmost purity, and his sect was the most punctilious when it came to observing the law and the traditions they used to “protect” the law. The tax collector was the exact opposite – ancient Jewish literature refers to tax collectors as being no better than Gentiles. Given that they were Jews, and given the extreme importance of kinship relations in the ancient world, this meant not only that the tax collector was cut off from his immediate family but from the national life and his place as a member of the chosen people of God. Not only was the tax collector ritually impure, but he was a traitor to his people, and Jesus’ audience would likely have despised the character the moment Jesus introduced him into the story.

It is no accident that this story comes very shortly before the story of Zaccheus – whom Jesus proclaims “a son of Abraham”, which indicates that he has been brought into the people of God from being no better than a Gentile. His statement that the tax collector was justified essentially carried the same weight and would have been no less scandalous. For Jesus one’s identity is not based on national birth or on adherence to the purity code, but on the right recognition of one’s place before God and recognizing the necessity for mercy and forgiveness, receiving new life from God as a gift that enables one to participate in the world of New Creation, as a member of the family of the redeemed people of God.

This story ends here, but the story of Zaccheus in chapter 19 provides a coda of sorts to the parable – as we all know, Zaccheus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold anyone he has wronged. Zaccheus’ repentance beckons us to look back to the parable and wonder what this tax collector would have done had Jesus continued the story from that point. It is likely that Zaccheus would have bankrupted himself in the quest to make restitution, as basically his entire income would have depended on coercing people out of their money, livestock, produce, property – whatever he could get out of them. If we are to truly see the tax collector in this parable as justified, that is to say made righteous, we ought to assume he would have gone home and done the same. The Greek word translated “justified” means “to be made righteous/just” and implies not only some spiritual state he would attain before God, but a real change in his being that would affect his outward life and daily praxis. Every time it or one of its cognates is used in the New Testament, it carries the connotation of reconciliation on both the “vertical” axis between the person and God and on the “horizontal” axis between the person and other people. As John Howard Yoder says in The Politics of Jesus, it is probably not too much to say that without reconciliation there is no justification (check out his chapter on justification by grace through faith).

We like the easy association with the underdog, but stake our well-being on the one we think is going to win. We identify with the tax collector on the surface, but are we willing to follow this identification through to its conclusion? Today begins the season of Lent, the time of self-reflection, fasting, and penitence during which we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Day. Many of us associate Lent with “giving up” something, which becomes a chore to maintain, a burden to bear. I want to suggest an alternative mindset – I suggest that we do not primarily associate Lent with a “giving up”, but with the receiving of a gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit working in us to root out those places where we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ. If the tax collector was to be re-integrated into the people of God, there were many things he would have to do both to demonstrate and to solidify in his own self the new heart he had been given by God in the moment of justification. Old habits would have to be broken, old patterns of consumption discarded, old ways of thinking about people and possessions abandoned. In the same way, if we are to participate more fully in the kingdom of God and to be made more into the image of Christ as his body, we need the same.

In the season of Lent we have the opportunity built right into the church calendar to mediate on the scriptures and ponder our own selves and our relationships, especially our relationships with people and with possessions, and our nature as consumptive beings within this consumer culture. We have the solemn duty to reconsider our communal, social, and political affiliations and activity, to contemplate the ways our economic lifestyles and the ways of thinking, doing, and being we take for granted affect our neighbors, be they our neighbors across the street, our neighbors in Bangladesh, or our neighbors who will possess the earth after we are long gone from it, after our bodies have returned to the dust from which they came. “For remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

If we are to identify with the “underdog” in this passage, it is imperative that we ask God to search us in this time, to ask God to bring to our minds and hearts those ways we yet need to be made like Jesus, and to ask him to show us the habits that need to be destroyed, those things that have power over us that must be broken. We must be prepared to follow Jesus to the point of losing everything, trusting that God will raise us from the dead – and after all, if we really believe in the resurrection, what are we doing piddling around with our insane worry about cell phones, hybrid automobiles, and flush toilets? Christ came so that the dead could be raised and for no other reason. There is no other solution other than that we be put to death with Christ, and raised with him – dead to the world, to social position, to economic affluence, to political power, and alive with Christ the suffering Messiah who turned the violence directed against him around and defeated it, breaking its stranglehold on the world in the process.

Feel free to respond to this post and tell me not only what you are doing for Lent, but how it relates to your own reflective process and the ways you are asking God to seek you, to confront those areas where you have not yet given yourself up to be made into the image of Christ, and give them up and be transformed. Tomorrow or the next day I will post my own answers.

New look!

As I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’re an old reader, I’ve made some substantial changes to the site look – most notably the template change and banner image.

I’ve also added several more links to the sidebar, including splitting the media section into blog and site categories and expanding several sections, particularly the equality links, consumer culture, politik sites, creation care, adding a few resistance and corporate watch sites, and starting new sections on peace, justice, and economics. The peace section consists largely of sites related to conscientious objection though I plan to add more general anti-war links. Justice mainly has to do with critiques of the prison system, though I intend to add critical links for other aspects of the “criminal justice” system as well. Economics has a lot of links to Z sub-pages with a few other odds and ends, though hopefully I’ll be able to expand it also – including links that provide more rounded criticism of capitalism and even discussion of some positive aspects of it.

I will hopefully also add links about alternative education, deschooling, and related topics in the future, as well as any other topic that seems important to discuss. Eventually I hope to have a pretty nice compilation of links on various topics related to public and social issues, as well as resources to help discuss these matters in relation to faith and discipleship.

I hope you find the linked resources as helpful and stimulating as I am!

s(l)i(gh)t/e remodeling

As you may have noticed, I’ve done a bit of cleaning and reorganizing of the links on the right sidebar. I’ve tried to reorganize the categories to reflect more accurately the sorts of things we discuss here, and I’ve added a category for links related to a discussion of equality issues. I especially plan to expand the equality links, as right now I have links to four primarily gender-related blogs (though they do often discuss other politically-related topics as well as issues of equality beyond gender issues) and one article on engaging privilege. I would like to add links to blogs and sites that discuss racial and class issues as well as an LGBT/Q – oriented site or two. I also plan to expand the sites related to corporations and add a section on the media.

Thank you for your patience as I try to build a catalog of links that will lead us to interesting and important discussions as well as increase our awareness of the things with which we ought to grapple as a part of our journey of discipleship.

Cynicism and Hope conference

I have just been asked to conduct a workshop at at the Cynicism and Hope conference in Evanston, Illinois in November.

The info:

“Cynicism and Hope: Reclaiming Discipleship in a Post-Democratic Society”
November 2-3
Reba Place Church (directions)
Cost is $30, though a reduced rate of $20 is available for those with need. They are also looking for people who have the means to contribute an extra $10 with their registration to help provide for the reduced rate.

The working title for my workshop is “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination”. I’ll probably use threads from prophetic despair texts such as Elijah after Mount Carmel, Lamentations, and then maybe some stuff from Ecclesiastes (though I can see Ecclesiastes being a pretty popular book at this conference, so we’ll see about that).

The conference is sponsored by Reba Place Church, Reba Place Fellowship, Living Water Community Church, Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes, Seniors for Peace, and the Anabaptist Network.

misc.

The Jesus Radicals conference went very well. If you weren’t able to attend, there will be CDs available of the sessions for a very reasonable price, so check back here and I’ll let you know when they’re available – or, better yet, you could join the discussion on the forums and find out first-hand!

I have been living in a cooperative housing project now for a few months, and it’s really cool. All the people I live with are great. That’s not to say we always get along, but we’re learning how to live together and find common purpose, while at the same time trying to let our relationship dynamic be as anarchistic and free as possible. A couple of us are Christians, and we’ve talked about trying to start a radical Bible study in the house. If you’re ever in Evansville, Indiana, just look up the Grand Old Co-Opry at 1405 S. Grand.

There is at this point a remote possibility I’ll be doing a seminar at Cornerstone next year. I had a nice, long conversation with Loren Abraham, an architect who specializes in developing more environmentally-sustainable projects, about the question of dominion in Genesis 1 and he said he’d recommend me to the dude in charge of seminars for a discussion on that topic. So if any news comes along on that front I’ll let y’all know.

I’m reading a pretty good book right now, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder by Richard A. Horsley. I’ll post some thoughts on it when I’ve finished reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various character-formation devices that exist in our culture. I’ve really been getting into Foucault’s idea of the Panopticon, and the roles of things such as voting, paying taxes, and media consumption as kinds of rituals that remake us into the image of the liberal capitalist societal ideal, and on how participating in the rites of the church can be a form of resistance as we seek to become conformed more and more into the Imago Dei as we were created to be. Perhaps I’ll have something coherent enough to post later, but if anyone would like to meditate on that and maybe send some comments my way that would be cool too.

And along that line, if anyone would be interested in co-authoring this blog with me, I wouldn’t mind sharing space. It would help make content creation a little more regular, and it would also make this site more than just my rants and vents – I think that would be a good thing. So if you’re interested, drop me a line and we’ll talk. I won’t just automatically approve anyone who applies, but at the same time I don’t want to be dictatorial about the whole thing. So let me know if you’re interested!

Good night, and good luck.