Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I'm sorry I took your lunch money

I attended a psychic fair a couple of Saturdays ago with a friend. I had high hopes for some pretty extreme weirdness, but it was more "middle class boredom" weird than "somebody call an exorcist" weird. It wasn't very heavily attended by people who weren't selling things, but what they lacked in numbers that compensated for with enthusiasm.

I really did pay $5 to get into the show to look at the people and various pagan acoutrements. There were various ceremonial daggers, phallic crystals, tarot decks (for every particular occultic proclivity you might have), "holy water," and even vials of "bat's blood ink." Yeah, I should have bought that.

I often call myself a peripheral charismatic: I do believe that Christus Victor dethroned the dark powers of this present age and continues to do so. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in an empiricist's philosophy, as it were. I believe that most people are spiritually sick. I think when people get to screwing around with the occult, life can get pretty dangerous. I can say this, of course, because after 9/11 it's cool to talk about evil again.

This wasn't evil. It was really just kind of silly. Lots of old guys with white ponytails. Middle-aged women whose faces lit up when the tarot or palm readers asked them questions about themselves and really listened to them like they mattered. One of the pastoral epistles mentions something about weak-willed women laden with sins and carried away by desire. And a bit in Ephesians about "infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming."

I think I see what was meant.

The men and women there are certain there's something around them, behind them, underneath them and above them that they can't see. They think it's very important. But they play with it, because the accessories are trendy and cool.

Man, I'm glad our churches aren't like that.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

"But will it work for me?"

Our inclination to put faith in any suggestion that promises quick healing is so great that it is not surprising that spiritual experiences are mushrooming all over the place and have become highly sought after commercial items. Many people flock to places and persons who promise intensive experiences of togetherness, cathartic emotions of exhilaration and sweetness, and liberating sensations of rapture and ecstasy. In our desperate need for fulfillment and our restless search for the experiences of divine intimacy, we are all too prone to construct our own spiritual events. In our impatient culture, it has indeed become extremely difficult to see much salvation in waiting.
- Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, 129
"Jesus thrown everything off balance."
- The Misfit, in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find"
"I want what I want, and the sooner I get it, the better."
- Me, in an honest moment

Spiritual disciplines are hard not because they require a herculean effort (what does it mean to "pray really hard," anyway?) but because they require consistancy. It's not even the task of praying every day, meditating several times a week, or confessing our sins that is ultimately so daunting.

What makes it really hard is that we are called to follow after Jesus even though it doesn't appear to be "working" immediately. Meditating three hours a week on Gospel passages and sitting down to pray every day will not make us SuperChristians in a few weeks time.

The disciplines ought not to done like dieting. Everybody picks a diet, tries it for a couple of weeks, doesn't lose ten pounds, quits, then looks for a new diet. Changing one's eating and exercise habits on a permanent basis is considered a patently ridiculous idea. The idea of the disciplines, hell, being a disciple, is not to find a panacea to every expression of brokenness in our lives, but to live out a permanent change in our habits and values. That outer transformation of behavior and change of mind (what do you think "repentance" means?) put us in the way of God's transforming power.

We get crazy goals in mind. We pray hoping we'll somehow like prayer more, and read the Bible hoping we'll like it better. We do all kinds of things hoping we'll quit liking sin. How many times have I confessed sin, and actually apologized for liking it so much? Oh, when one day I get holy enough not to enjoy sin, than I'll be a really kick-ass Christian. That's just silly. Being holy means offering myself to God even though there are eighteen million other things I'll actually enjoy more. God can deal with our mixed motives. They are not, however, acceptable excuses for disobedience: "Jesus, I'll quit telling controlling people and gossiping about them when you make me not like it anymore."


Jesus' goals for our life in him aren't necessarily the same ones we come up with. Most of our besetting sins will always be fun and bring some sort of perceived respite, bad for us or not. Putting the "old man" to death and killing our pride will always be a challenge. I don't think God is so interested in greater church attendance or the hours we spend in prayer or that we're always studying more and better, but rather that we do these things to be in his presence so he can transform us. Christ must be formed in us. The things we do ought to work toward that end.

I must drop my search for the quick fix. Lives don't get transformed quickly. It will be no one conversation, or prayer, or bible study that changes our lives, but the presence of Jesus in all of the above. As Foster said, those are the ways we put ourselves in the path of his transforming work.

It'll make us like him. Will it make us more what we think of as "spiritual"? Never enjoying sin again and always enjoying the presentation of ourselves as living sacrifices? Probably not.
Pray, study, confess and fellowship anyway.

Monday, July 19, 2004

God's Model T?

I'm still enjoying my summer sabbath. I'm excited about moving back to Georgetown, though, from one guest room to another. It's like I'm the Kato Kaelin of the Episcopal Church. Hmm, that was an obscure reference.

I don't have many adventures to talk about; I've just been having good conversations with good people. The neighborhood community is bringing its own challenges. Having expectations of other people (or not) is a sure way to make or break friendships, I think.

I've been thinking about the Pauline phrase, "until Christ is formed in you." The New Testament talks all over the place about how we are positioned with God in Christ, in a right relationship so we can be transformed to be like Jesus. What should we focus on, then, in making disciples?

People need to be taught how to live in right relationships with God and other people. Not how to earn God's favor, or be continually more certain of one's eternal destiny, but how to love God, and receive love from God. Read your Bible. Pray. Sure, why not? But prayer isn't instinctual. Why else would people buy so many books about it and still not do it? I don't think it ever quits being hard. We need to pray with and for one another so we can learn that even though it's always hard, we can do it. It'll get less hard that way, but only if we do pray. What our prayer lives need not a book called Prayer Made Easy that will live up to its promises, but rather for us to stick with it.

People need to figure out how to use the Bible. It's not a rulebook, a collection of true/false propositions to which deeply analytical types need adapt our formulas for living. You can't treat it like the user's guide for your iPod. Yes, our habits and worldviews need complete conversion, but I really think the apostolic witness conveyed in the Scriptures seeks to mediate a relationship that we can really live in, not hand down regulations for proper church governance.

The Church is the prototype for redeemed humanity. We call people to get with the Kingdom program before the King returns to kick ass. We can start by calling the Christians to it. So we learn to love each other. Not perfectly, but well. Our love is stunted, and clumsy, and messy, and subject to all sorts of mixed motivations. But we can learn to love well as God changes us. He will change us.

I'm trying to focus just on praying right now. I'm not worried about constructing my systematic theology, or figuring out just what the Fathers meant by some odd phrase or another (though I am having fun with it) or even having good spiritual conversations with people. I want to love Jesus by praying the Psalms to him. I want to love him by quieting myself and letting him speak in the place normally full of neurotic activity. I want to do that with my friends, and learn to love them well, and let them learn to love me. It's not really about me, anyway. It's about us, and it's about Him. It's about learning to live that way.

Just what I'm thinking about tonight.