Christ Says – Hate Your Father and Mother

clayThis Sunday’s Gospel is a tough one.  Like many ministers, my first temptation is to say, “Well, Jesus didn’t really mean what he said.”  However, I have to remember I’m “NOT” ordained to rewrite the Gospel, my role as a minister of the Gospel is to proclaim it and let it say what it intends to say.  Here are the hard words we hear from Christ this Sunday:

“Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

These words trouble me.  They echo in my mind over and over again causing me great spiritual unrest.  They’re like a piece of sand or a small piece of wood finding its way into the sole of your shoe.  You can’t remove it and with every step you feel it rub against your foot.

Instead of “explaining away” these hard words, perhaps we’re better served letting them convict us of the radical nature of Gospel living.  Perhaps we need to let these words unsettle us so we can truly understand the radical call of discipleship Christ asks of those who follow him.  Living the Gospel requires the following way of life:

  • The Gospel life is one of radical love and there’s no room in our hearts for any God other than the one true God. Relationships, possessions, security, and a myriad of other worldly things cannot be enthroned in our hearts along with God.  What we enthrone in our hearts shapes us and therefore it can be nothing other than Christ dwelling within us.  We must have a radical love for God above all other things
  • The Gospel life is one of complete trust in the promises of God. While we might think we’re giving up tremendously valuable things to follow Christ, the truth is his promises are greater and more valuable than anything we cling to.  The Gospel life requires radical hope in what God has promised and what he promises is a life like no other.  He promises an eternal life in the company of the God of love, grace, mercy, and peace.
  • The Gospel life asks us to exercise radical faith. We’re required to see the transcendent life in the midst of the world.  We walk toward that which others can’t see, we embrace truths that go beyond logic and reason, and we see in the simple things; in bread, wine, oil, water, fire, and a myriad of other natural elements the one who is holy, beautiful, and true.  We exercise radical faith which fosters profound belief.

This is a life that takes courage and a commitment to pour yourself out for the life of others.  You have to empty yourself of “you” and fill yourself with Christ.  And if that’s not challenging enough, you have to know you cannot live this Gospel life by your own efforts.  You must surrender yourself to the grace of God and let him tear you down.  That my friends can be a painful and difficult process.

Jeramiah the prophet gives us a wonderful metaphor explaining how the Lord does his work on us when he describes the Lord as a potter.  He writes, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

From this passage we understand God takes us in our unformed natural condition and uses his strong hands to pound us into shape.  He pushes on us, kneads us like bread dough, and gently reforms us to be more like Christ.  His strength bends us but his gentle fingers also refine us and when he’s done we’re remade in his image and likeness.

My friends, let the words of the Gospel trouble you.  Recognize the radical nature of love, hope, and faith demanded of you as a follower of Christ.  Then, with all abandon, embrace this new life releasing yourself of the old allowing God to transform you into an instrument of his grace, mercy, love, and peace.

The Marks of a Christian Life – Faith, Hope, and Love

marks_christian_thumb-320x202When one truly embraces the Christian faith, being deeply moved by its holistic nature, they find their way of life is not so much a religion as a way of existing.  The Christian fellowship I serve (Emmaus Fellowship) has been exploring the experience of the Christian life anchored in core Christian virtues.  I wanted to share some of my reflections with all of you for your contemplation and perhaps practice.  It’s my belief grounding our spiritual lives within three solid virtues helps us move closer to the intended way of life express by the early Christians; one which seems to be slowly slipping from the memory of modern Christianity.  We need to recapture these “marks” of Christianity to be more effective witnesses to all that is good in Christianity.

The first mark of Christianity is grounded in the virtue of love.  Love, when ordered properly leads us to live lives reflecting the divine nature.  When we love God first and one another as brothers and sisters of the same Father, we recognize Christianity is less about religion and more about relationships.  Christianity doesn’t necessarily start with a set of rules and doctrines, it begins by entering into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ and then learning to live within the context of this new and transformed life.  I’m not saying rules and doctrines are without value, only that they’re not the place Christianity starts.  I do what I do and believe what I believe because I love Christ and want to know him more profoundly and live a life pleasing to him.  Doctrines teach me about who it is I love (God) and moral rules teach me how I can live in relationship with Christ, but when you start the Christian life with rules and doctrines you introduce pure religion.   When you start the Christian life with a relationship of love, healing, and transformation you encounter and are inspired by Christ.  Yes, you need both but Christianity starts with relationships making you a part of a community grounded in radical love.  In psychology a number of studies have shown you can present the most exquisite arguments to justify why someone should change their behavior (i.e. why smoking is bad for you, why you should eat healthier, etc.) and yet people will continue to act in unhealthy ways.  This happens because people are in a loving relationship with whatever is hurting them.  Whether it’s a person, food, substances, or ideas, people don’t change their lives because of well thought out arguments, they change their lives because they come to love something else.  If you love the idea of being a smoker, you’ll never quit smoking.  You have to love being something else.  Along the same lines it’s interesting to note many studies exploring why people succeed in therapy have indicated it’s not the type of therapy or interventions therapists use that have the greatest results for clients, it’s the relationship they establish with the therapist.  Nothing matters more than how much you like your therapist.  That’s when you change.  Christianity is first and foremost about relationships with a God you come to love and people who love you as well.

A second mark making Christianity unique is the ability for Christians to see eternal things through temporal things.  We see with the eyes of faith.  I’m sure many of you are familiar with the verse from scripture that says, “We walk by faith and not by sight” found in 2 Corinthians 5:7.  Likewise, this ability to see the eternal in the temporal is captured in Hebrews:

“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering…” (Hebrews 18-19, 22)

This passage reminds us we’ve entered a place we don’t see with natural eyes but with eyes of faith.  In the breaking of bread we encounter Christ.  In the proclamation of the Gospel we hear the voice of Christ.  Water, oil, fire, bread, wine, etc. all give us opportunities to see transcendent eternal realities through temporal earthly things.  Christianity is not a faith which abhors the natural, rather it’s an incarnational faith allowing us to see eternal things with temporal eyes.  Faith gives new sight to what was once blind to beauty, holiness, and truth.

The last driving force in the Christian life reminds us Christians find meaning and purpose in their daily existence regardless of their circumstances because they accept the promises of God.  They believe God has called them to a particular vocation, a vocation of love and service to him and others.  Even through suffering and enduring daunting and dangerous situations Christians believe there’s purpose and meaning in life.  We can endure suffering because we have a hope that can sustain anything sin throws at us.  God gives us hope in something more than what’s evident in the present.  Interestingly, there have been numerous studies in psychology that demonstrate people who have a great deal of resilience also have a great deal of hope.  Hope allows people to overcome difficult situations like divorce, loss of employment, or severe illness.  Hope allows us to accept the promises of God even when it feels like those promises are far from us.

If you’ve been paying attention you realize I’ve simply stated that faith, hope, and love mark the Christian life.  I believe these are indeed the most important virtues a Christian can embrace.  Yet, I think too often Christians only intellectually ascent to these virtues and are not intentional about making them marks of how they live.  Much of what keeps us from allowing these virtues to seep into our bones has to do with how they are fostered.  Unlike natural virtues like prudence, fortitude, etc. these three virtues are gifts from God not something you can develop on your own.  We cannot “practice” these virtues directly but rather we must receive them.  To receive them we must set aside our desires and efforts and allow the Holy Spirit to infuse them into our soul.  We become more loving by merely choosing to love regardless of how we feel.  We set aside our prejudices and desires and simply love.  The more we give of ourselves the more we love and the deeper relationships become.  We become more faithful by simply allowing the temporal world to be a conduit to the eternal.  We merely choose to believe.  We allow reason to be a starting point for what faith shows us more broadly.  We must get out of the way so that God can show us the eternal reality awaiting us beyond the temporal.  Hope is less about being something we practice and more about giving up our plans for God’s.  When we no longer believe we must provide all the answers and solutions and trust God’s promises we become more hopeful.  Merely accepting that God has an eternal purpose for us regardless of the current situation allows us to become more hopeful.  By actively becoming receptive to faith, hope, and love we become more profoundly expressive of the core of the Christian life.

My friends, we have the opportunity to allow these three marks of the Christian faith to profoundly change how we live.  Every day you have the opportunity to be beacons of grace in a world of effort and striving.  When you show the world it can trust in God’s promises, that it can see eternity in the temporal, and that it can love in a way that gives life to others and doesn’t selfishly consume them you have shown the world Christ.  Be the face of God in a world struggling to find peace.

Indifference and Intolerance Breed Sin

woman_9“When we’re indifferent to the conditions of those around us we demonstrate a lack of investment in their lives. Indifference says “I don’t care enough to even dislike you.” Sin doesn’t start with hatred, it’s bred from the marriage of indifference and intolerance. Once married these two spiritual conditions cause us to ignore the common humanity we share with the poor, the imprisoned, the lonely, the sick, and the dying. To be more Christlike is to choose lover over indifference, selflessness over selfishness, and a true desire to show others the face of God in our humanity.” – http://www.dominickhankle.com

Are You Over-Invested in Your Spiritual Practices? St. Benedict’s Comments

body_hardworkWhen you want to excel at something you work hard at whatever needs done.  Athletes exercise and practice for hours every day.  They study their sport, implement strategies to improve their performance, and practice, practice, practice.  Some of you may recall Malcolm Gladwell’s reference to the work of Anders Ericsson who spawned the 10,000 hour rule.  This rule states if you practice something for 10,000 hours you’ll be an expert (or as Gladwell calls you an “Outlier”).  While not absolutely true, the key to success is practicing something for 10,000 hours while making adjustments another skilled individual identifies and coaches you through.  You need to perfect what you’re doing, not just do it wrong for an extended period of time.  If you continue to play the wrong notes in a song for 10,000 hours the song will never sound any better.  Yet, when a more proficient musician coaches you through your mistakes and you adjust your performance your continued practice provides you with the opportunity to become exceptionally proficient.  So to really excel at something you need to practice and invest yourself in the task at hand while being open to suggestions and changes offered by those more proficient.

While one can garnish many benefits from this type of effort, there’s an ugly side to this level of commitment.  Over-investment, meaning the huge amount of time, money, education, etc. we put into a task can keep us from listening to other experts.  It can keep us from trying more effective approaches for achieving what we want.  Psychologists have identified when we invest a great deal of time and effort into something we’re less likely to stop what we’re doing in order to do something totally or even moderately different, even if it will help us achieve better results.  We get so attached to our effort we become blind to better options.  Over-investment also causes us to be preoccupied with results leading to anxiety, worry, and an actual decline in performance.  Instead of focusing on mastering the task at hand we become preoccupied with the end result.  This focus on results causes us to ignore the means of getting there.  My wife is a personal fitness trainer and often remarks people frequently ignore their form and focus too much on weight loss, performance, etc.  What she means is instead of focusing on doing the exercise right and perfecting the body movements they’re more interested in how much weight they lost or how much they can lift.  By ignoring the method to achieve the end result they never reach the optimal level of perfection possible.

Our spiritual life can have similar consequences when we become overly invested in practices and disciplines.  What we see in the bodily world can be inferred in the spiritual life.  Because Christianity is a sacramental (incarnational) religion we come to know the transcendent through the temporal.  I’ve often worked with people in spiritual direction who become over invested in their spiritual practices leading them to focus on results instead of perfecting methods.  Additionally, I’ve seen people become so committed to one type of spiritual exercise or discipline when it’s suggested they try something different they claim doing so would be impossible.  Instead of hearing what the Holy Spirit is suggesting they remain overly invested in the particular practice they “know” because they’ve read a great deal about it, spent money on retreats where the practice was perfected, and have performed this discipline for many many months.  Is this a healthy view of the spiritual life?  Not at all!

St. Benedict (The founder of Western Christian Monasticism) lists a number of different types of monks in his Holy Rule. I think these four types of monks reflect what happens when we become either overly invested or uninvested in spiritual practices.  In chapter 1 of the rule we encounter the Cenobites, Anchorites, Sarabaites, and the Gyrovagues, different types of monks he encountered when traveling through Italy.  The first two practice the spiritual life well however, the second two demonstrate poor spiritual discipline.  Let’s review the second two in order to understand how being improperly invested in the spiritual life is a problem.

The Sarabaites are described by Benedict in the following way:

“Not tested as gold in the furnace by any rule or by the lessons of experience, they are as soft as lead.  In their works they still keep faith with the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God.  They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s.  Their law is the desire for self-gratification: Whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; whatever they dislike they regard as unlawful.”

Sarabaites are like individuals who won’t invest in any particular spiritual discipline for any specific period of time.  While over-investment is a bad idea, having no spiritual root is a bad idea as well.  I’ve worked with some Christians who simply decide whatever spiritual practices they want to pursue are good and therefore regardless of my counsel they’re going to move forward with them.  They will not acknowledge the authority of Holy Scripture and therefore pick and choose spiritual practices as they like even if they contradict what the Christian faith has found to be holy, true, and good.  I find this group interesting because they’re overly invested in being uninvested or overly invested in how they “feel” about things.  Benedict’s description of these monks speaks volumes about their methodology of spiritual development.  Benedict says, “Whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; “whatever they dislike they regard as unlawful.”  If we don’t ground ourselves in the authority of Holy Scripture and choose to follow our own mind we end up in a bad place.  If we practice that particular spiritual discipline for “10,000 hours” we will certainly only grow in our own sin instead of becoming more like Christ which is the end result of the spiritual life.  The spiritual life needs an authoritative voice in it to challenge us (or coach us as noted before) and the most sure voice is that of Sacred Scripture.

So if the Sarabaite is a master of being overly invested in being uninvested, the Gyrovagues must be an even worse sort of monk.  In fact Benedict remarks after a short description of their failures, “Of the miserable conduct of such men it is better to be silent than to speak.”  What did they do to make them worse than that Sarabaites?  Benedict says this:

“They spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time.  Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their  own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony…”

So, along with being overly invested in being uninvested, these monks use their identity as “holy men” to take advantage of others and indulge in their desire to feed their bodily passions.

I share all this to remind those interested in the spiritual life that we must be careful of two things.  First, in our zeal to grow spiritually we cannot become overly invested in the practices we perform.  We must be ready to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit and follow his direction.  The spiritual life is not one in which we should focus on the end result but the grace emerging  from the practice of spiritual exercises.  Focus on the experience of the spiritual practice and the grace it provides, not about how holy we’re becoming.  Secondly, don’t become a soloist  when it comes to the spiritual life.  While some people are equipped to be more hermetic (Benedict discusses them in his rule but states “Those having learned by the help of many brethren how to fight against the devil, go out well armed” reminding us the Anchorites did not just decide they were going to be hermits, they were spiritually formed in a community.), most of us need to be accountable to others.  Remember what I said at the beginning of this post, if you practice the wrong thing for 10,000 hours you just become an expert at what’s wrong.  By being accountable to other solid Christians who are accountable to the Holy Scriptures we can refine one another’s spiritual disciplines and help each other discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us.

 
In the end the spiritual life is a life of grace.  While we talk a great deal about focused spiritual disciplines and practices the truth is the spiritual life is one in which the practitioner responds to the promptings of the Holy Spirit while being a member of a faith community.  It’s not about what you do and how long you do it, it’s about how you respond to a relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another.  If you focus too much on the end results and become overly invested in the practice you miss the grace filled moment when God breaks through the temporal world to give you a glimpse of eternity.  Invest in the God relationship which compels you to love others and you will come to know holiness in a profound way.