Archive for the ‘Summer Reading 2012’ Category

“What is the point of all that Bible reading if you can’t even love your neighbor?”

In 2010, I set out on a quest to read the whole Bible in a year and to blog about my reading every day.  The first few weeks were more than a little daunting and overwhelming, and it was only by God’s grace that I pressed on past January.  As unsuited to the task as I felt,  however, and as overwhelmed as I often was by my own ignorance, there was also a part of me that–let’s be honest–was ever so proud of the fact that I was reading and blogging through the Bible.  My whole life, I have heard of the importance of daily Bible reading and disciplined time with God, and there was a definitely a part of me that was tickled pink at the fact that I was now averaging an hour a day at Bible reading and reflection.  This was the spiritual “big leagues,” in my mind.  This was monk stuff.  A bid for sainthood even!

I know that’s obnoxious.  I know it now, and I knew it then.  But you know how thoughts are.  They just come to you, and you’re like, “That’s so bad.”

but you still thought it.  And I found those little prideful reflections seeping in fairly regularly in my first few weeks of reading and blogging.

Source: charethcutestory on tumblr.com

For all I know, I might have gone on like that, awash in my own sense of self-importance, were it not for another thought that came, unbidden, one chilly afternoon.  I had been having a normal day with the run-of-the-mill frustrations, and some situation was annoying me, gnawing at my mind.  I honestly cannot remember what it was, but I remember that I was unduly frustrated with some person–maybe even one of my children.  And I was having a hard time reacting in a Christ-like manner.  As I was stuck in this common, human moment, my brain asked me a question.  It echoed a scene from Batman Begins, in which Alfred  chastises/motivates  Bruce Wayne when he is in a tough spot.  Wayne manor is burning down around him, and the bad guy is getting away, on his way to do some dastardly deed.  In the meantime, Bruce Wayne is pinned helplessly beneath a beam from his crumbling manor, unable to get free.  Alfred comes running and tries to help, but he, too, is no match for the heavy wood.  Frustrated, he asks Wayne, “What is the point of all those push-ups if you can’t even lift a bloody log?”

Needless to say, that rebuke does the trick, and before long, Batman is in full pursuit of the villain.

It was that style of rebuke that forced its way into my mind that afternoon, and it cut me deeply:

“What is the point of all that Bible reading if you can’t even love your neighbor??

In a second, all my pride evaporated, and I was left in a puddle of humility and even self-loathing.  What was the point?  Who cares how many hours I spend reading and studying the Bible if I can’t even treat people right?  If the Bible is not changing me into a more loving person, then what purpose does it serve??  Why am I even doing this–it’s a complete waste of time, if my actions are any indication.

In his book, The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight addresses this issue of reading the Bible versus living the Bible.  He is very careful not to couch this discussion in terms of a list of rules, however.  Instead, he emphasizes that we read the Bible in order to have a relationship with the God of the Bible.  The Bible is not God, neither is it a list of rules.  Instead, it is God’s story to us, a story told in a myriad of ways over hundreds of years by many different authors.  This story cannot be tamed or systematized or completely “figured out.”

I feel the need to say all that because without that background, his emphasis on actions could be perhaps construed as legalistic.  Again, McKnight is not advocating a “rules” approach to Scripture.  Rather, he argues that the Bible should transform us, as the same Spirit that was at work in the Bible’s formation is at work in us as listeners.  Thus, reading the Bible should empower us to live out the story of God “in our days in our ways” (109).  Because of that emphasis on transformation instead of a systematized theology, McKnight questions the idea of proper theology apart from actions.  He illustrates his doubt with a story about a student, who comes to him with the following question:

“Why does my youth pastor ask me all the time if I still believe in the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible?”  I was about to explain to him the history of the doctrine of Scripture and the battles Christians have waged over the Bible when he interrupted me with these words (and this is how he said it):  “You know, Scot?  I don’t give a d–n what my youth pastor’s view of the Bible is because he doesn’t give one frickin’ dime to the poor and he’s never met a homeless person in his life and he didn’t even know about Darfur when I mentioned it at Christmas” (94).

In McKnight’s story, the student goes on to aver that he, in contrast, tries to read the Bible and do what it says.  Then, the student asks another question:

“What good is ‘inerrancy’ if you don’t do what God says?”  Then he asked a question that shook me a bit:  “If I do what God says, doesn’t that show that my view of the Bible is the right one?”  (94-95).

As inelegantly as it is worded, the student’s frustration echoes a frustration that I have felt many times.  It is the same frustration, in fact, that I felt when I asked myself that question about reading the Bible.  There just seems to be something pointless in studying the Bible if you don’t act on it.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus shares a similar sentiment:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Jesus’ little brother agrees with the importance of actions:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do (James 2:14-17).

I believe that this “faith and deeds” dichotomy can also be applied to “Bible reading and deeds.”

As McKnight points out in his book, Paul makes the point explicitly in 2 Tim. 3:16-17:

 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

I’ve heard 2 Tim. 3:16 all my life, but it has not always been taught in conjunction with the verse immediately following.  McKnight argues that verse 17 is the main point.  The words, “so that,” signify that the point of Scripture is to equip you for good works.  Furthermore, he argues that these good works can only occur in the context of a relationship with God and can easily be summed up in the greatest commands:  Love God, and love others.

Now, the push back I would expect to receive from this position is that it downplays “proper theology.”  Is such theology not important?  I grapple with this question often.  How much does one need to understand of the Bible to follow it?  What views are indispensable?  And even more pointedly, does it matter if your view of substitutionary atonement is askew if you sincerely love God and love others?

I don’t know the answers really.  I do know that misinterpretations of Scriptures can really hurt people and drive them away from Christ.  At the same time, I have worshiped with people throughout my life that I believe are misinterpreting Scripture, and they believe that I am, and we will probably never come to an agreement…and yet, I love God and them, and they love God and me, so does it matter?

I’m inclined to answer no.  

Maybe that’s problematic.

I’m more confident in stating the reverse of that position.  Maybe proper theology does matter more than I think it does, but I can confidently say that one’s pristine theology doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if they aren’t living out God’s love in their lives.  I’m confident that love is the most important thing, and being filled with God’s love is more important than cognitively understanding the right things about Him.

Unfortunately for me, that means that there is no point in doing all this Bible reading if I can’t even love my neighbor.

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There are all sorts of ways to push back on this.  Feel free to try out some of those ways in the comments.

Also, the quotes from McKnight are taken from:

McKnight, Scot.  The Blue Parakeet.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2008.

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Bad Shortcuts to Reading the Bible

Man, Scot McKnight really got me good.

I am still working my way through his book, The Blue Parakeet, and in chapter 3, he really lets me have it by demolishing my pet theories of studying the Bible. His book is about hermeneutics, which is really an unnecessarily ridiculous word that means the theory of interpretation. In this case, McKnight writes about how we interpret the Bible. He has his own ideas, of course, but before he gets to those, he spends some time discrediting some of our “shortcuts” to Bible reading. In chapter 3 of his book, he highlights five such shortcuts that he believes distorts the message of the Bible. The first shortcut is to read the Bible looking for “morsels of Law.” People who take this shortcut read the Bible as a rule book. The second shortcut is “morsels of blessings and promises.” People who read this way tend to turn the Bible into some kind of inspirational self-help book, a tome of positive thinking.

I really don’t see the Bible as either of those things, but that doesn’t mean I get off easily in this chapter. Whereas shortcuts 1 and 2 really don’t apply to me, shortcuts 3 and 4 hit home.

Shortcut 3 is called “Mirrors and Inkblots,” where the Bible becomes a type of Rorschach test that tells us about ourselves more than about God. McKnight definitely steps on my toes when he writes,

Some people read the Bible as if its passages were Rorschach inkblots. They see what is in their head. In more sophisticated language, the project onto the Bible what they want to see. If you show them enough passages and you get them to talk about the, you will hear what is important to them, whether it is in the Bible or not! They might see in the “Jesus inkblot” a Republican or a socialist, because they are Republicans or socialists. Or, they may see in the book of Revelation, a favorite of inkblot readers, a sketch of contemporary international strife. Or, they may have discovered in the inkblot called “Paul” a wonderful pattern for how to run a church, which just happens to be the pastor’s next big plan! You get the point–reading the Bible as an inkblot is projecting onto the Bible our ideas and our desires (48).

You’re killing me, McKnight! Honestly, I really do try not to project onto the Bible…but it just happens. For example, I really, really want Jesus to be a hippie who never says anything mean and always acts gently and lovingly…but he’s just not. And I really, really want God to be all peaceful and kind and for-heaven-sakes-stop-slaughtering-all-those-people-in-the-Old-Testament. Instead, in my Bible reading last week, God appointed Jehu king, and gave Mr. Seventy-Heads-in-a-Bucket the divine seal of approval! Argh. It truly does confound me sometimes that I can’t make the Bible my inkblot.

But that’s not even the worst of what McKnight points out. After all, I understand cognitively that the Bible is not an inkblot, as much as I apparently would love to remake God in my own image. When I got to the last shortcut, though, I was really thrown for a loop. I read it and honestly thought, “Wait…but isn’t that what hermeneutics is??” Here’s McKnight’s last bad shortcut: “Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind.” He says,

For some people the Bible is like a big puzzle. Once you’ve got the puzzle solved, you no longer have to work with the pieces. The shortcut is that once you’ve expended the energy to solve the puzzle, the job is done…These people know what the Bible says before they open it up because they’ve already puzzled it together (50).

And…this is me. I have referred to the Bible as a puzzle. I’ve referred to people as puzzles. In fact, I refer to most things as puzzles; I think in terms of puzzles. Puzzles are my favorite. I puzzle through everything, which means that I find various pieces of information spread out over the pages of the Bible, or the words and actions of my friends, or in a movie or a song or a genre, or in most anything that has information…and then I put them together to form some comprehensive line of thought. I’m a puzzler; it’s what I do. To drive the point home that this “shortcut” is aimed squarely at me, McKnight says, “Think about it this way: it is one thing to pull together the social thinking of Charles Dickens from his novels,” and then goes on to explain why that method is not applicable to Bible story (51). Friends, I kid you not, that was a paper I wrote in grad school: the social theory of Charles Dickens, based on his novels. It was one of my favorite papers, and I still think about it often whenever I contemplate social problems. The bottom line is, my puzzling is one of my favorite parts of my brain; I love its ability to take large, diverse chunks of information, distill them, and then systematize their underlying theories. This is exactly what I want to do with the Bible.

So far, I have been foiled. I have tried and tried to systematize the Bible into a comprehensive, coherent code of morality that takes into account every single book and story, but I just have not been able to yet. I was still holding out hope, when McKnight deflated the rest of that balloon. Here’s why he says the puzzle method doesn’t work.

1. It presumes to have “mapped the mind of God.” (Oh, the hubris!)

2. It “nearly always ignores the parts of the puzzle that don’t fit.” (You have to, or you’d go crazy. Trust me!)

3. It is impossible. (This is where he compares it to figuring out Dickens’ social theory and points out the diversity of viewpoints in the Bible.)

4. It “calls into question the Bible as we have it.”

That last reason is what really got me, and looking back, it is what inspired my post on cranky conservatism earlier this year. I had read this part of the book over Christmas break and then forgotten about it. Clearly though, the thoughts of the book were behind that post. What McKnight specifically says about reason number 4 is,

After all, had he wanted to, God could have revealed a systematic theology chapter by chapter. But God didn’t choose this way of revealing his truth. Maybe–this “maybe” is a little facetious–that way of telling the truth can’t tell it the way God wants his truth to told…

What is the problem here? In one word, mastery. Those who solve the puzzle think they’ve got the Bible mastered…God did not give the Bible so we could master him or it; God gave the Bible so we could live it, so we could be mastered by it” (52).

Sigh.

That man speaks the truth.

The last shortcut is called “Maestros,” and when we take this shortcut, we focus solely on our favorite voice, like Maestro Jesus or Maestro Paul, and ignore the others. That is tempting to me, as I love Maestro Jesus…but really, it’s the “puzzling” shortcut that got me.

Have you ever taken any of these shortcuts to the Bible? Which one(s) are your favorites?

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Quotes taken from:

McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2008.

The Challenge of The Blue Parakeet

I’m currently working my way through a fascinating and challenging book by Scot McKnight. It is called, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. I really need to blog about this one because, even though it is relatively short and simply written, there is a lot to process within these relatively few pages.

For example, take the first chapter. In it, McKnight maintains that, as much as we might claim to revere and follow the whole Bible, the truth is that

we all pick and choose the verses that we follow.

To make his point, the author highlights several examples of clear commands and examples of the New Testament that most Christians today have no trouble disregarding: the Sabbath, the tithe as “combination of spiritual support…and social service” (not just a check written to the church), foot washing, the practice of charismatic gifts, and surrendering possessions (14).

Even though I still don’t like the sound of it, I have long known that we “pick and choose”; I think most Christians would acknowledge that, even if they didn’t use those particular words. After all, even as a member of a biblically conservative tradition, I was raised regularly hearing sermons explaining why verses like “greet one another with a holy kiss” and commands about female head coverings did not apply to us, but verses on baptism and women’s roles did. It seemed obvious to me even as a young teen that anyone who had even a passing knowledge of the Old and New Testaments understood that Christians did not follow every command within those sixty-six books.

The question that was never satisfactorily answered for me, however, was how do we pick and choose? The one tool I never received from my upbringing, as biblically centered as it was, was a consistent hermeneutic, a framework through which to read the entirety of Scripture and to understand how to interact with all the verses.

As an adult, I have read a few histories of the churches of Christ and now know that “we” do have a hermeneutic, known as the Baconian hermeneutic. If you are a nerd interested in learning about the Baconian hermeneutic, you can read a good description here. The author, John Mark Hicks, sums up not only the basics of the hermeneutical model, but also identifies my problems with consciously using it as a guide for Scripture. In fact, I now realize that most of the things I have over which I have disagreed with the church have come directly from the application of that model to Scripture. If nothing else, reading the post will explain many of the “quirks” of the churches of Christ!

That said, I love my church, and I don’t foresee me ever leaving this faith tradition that has given me so much. It has given me my love for Scripture, my hunger for studying and knowing the Bible through and through. It has also given me an anti-traditional, theologically-independent streak, which, to be honest, has its drawbacks, but overall, I’m glad I have it. And more than anything else, the church of Christ has given me a great desire for the unity of all believers, for us to embrace ourselves and others as Christians only, irrespective of denomination. Over our relatively short history, I think that the actual practice of the churches of Christ has diverged from that noble goal (depending on who you are, that statement is either disrespectful to the churches of Christ or the world’s biggest understatement). However, despite our inability to live up to our own lofty standards, those standards are still very much present in my heart.

What my membership in the church of Christ has not given me is a consistent hermeneutical model, as I was never explicitly taught “our” model and as I now reject it as an adult.

Thus, I’m in the market for a new one.

And so I’m interested in hearing what Scot McKnight suggests.

Do you have a consistent hermeneutical model? If so, please share!

Wrapping up The Other Face of God

I need to conclude my thoughts on this book, because, truth be told, I finished it a few weeks ago, and am now knee-deep in The Blue Parakeet, itself a fascinating book about how we read the Bible.  I have plenty of thoughts about that book, and I don’t want to forget them.  However, there are still a few more gems in The Other Face of God, over which I simply cannot pass.  Also, I want to emphasize that this series of blog posts is in no way a substitute or a summary of what Leddy has written.  Indeed, I thought the best parts of her book were the very moving stories of individual encounters with refugees and neighbors.  I haven’t mentioned any of those because I probably couldn’t do them justice here.  Thus, I have focused on her more general observations on ministry because they work better for conversation starters.  Plus, they tend to be very timely for me as a member of a church trying to do similar things as she is doing.

For example, it is so easy to become overwhelmed when I begin to fathom the amount of need in some of the kids at our church.  And I’m not really talking about physical needs; many of them have more gadgets and toys than my own children have, despite the fact that they are materially poor in other ways.  No, what overwhelms me is the depth of emotional need, the deep holes that come from not having a dad or a mom be there for them, or the needs that stem from abuse or neglect, or the heartache that comes from bad decisions and bad lifestyles.  There are so many scars that seem impossible to ever heal.  And so I get overwhelmed.  In her book, Leddy eloquently sums up the nature of this type of ministry, as well as the position that you have to take in these situations:

Yet, to really face another person who is in great suffering is to live with great risk.  The suffering can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of great powerlessness…

It seems like a risky way to live, and it is–unless, unless–we remember that there is a third person in the equation.  It is not only me and the refugee; it is not only me and the child…

There is the Spirit in-between us, walking along the border.  There is the Christ who lives between us and sustains us both. I think the most important thing we can do at the beginning and the end of the day is to place all those whom we will meet that day and ourselves into the hands of Christ, who holds and sustains us both.  And at the end of the day, turn over all the cares, works, and sufferings of the day into the hands of Christ.  Then go to sleep in peace  (125-126).

That’s so true to me.  I am only able to rest when I realize that I am not the Physician, the Shepherd, the Savior of these people.  Instead, we both rely on Christ to save us.  Only by putting myself and Him in proper perspective am I able to have peace in ministry.

Leddy also provides a simply call to neighborliness that I think echoes Matthew 25 a bit:

The invitation to be a good neighbor, to live beyond the forced opposites of friends or enemies, is open to all of us–clergy, religious, and laity.  Indeed, it is an invitation that makes all of these churchy categories somewhat secondary.  Perhaps there is only one distinction that matters:  those who are learning to love their neighbors, and those who remain indifferent to them.

The weaknesses of the church, of each of us, are usually quite obvious.  It is rather remarkable how accepting people are of most of these weaknesses.  However, I think there is one weakness that people cannot accept and that is indifference to suffering.  The church that walks by the one suffering by the side of the road has nothing significant to say about the meaning of the gospel (133).

Even though I do think those outside the church are often more critical than Leddy suggests, I definitely agree that we cannot be adequate witnesses to the gospel while we turn our back on suffering.

Speaking of being a good witness, I simply adore Leddy’s closing words about the nature of our witness for Christ.  I’ll end the post with these words because they so ably sum up my whole view of what it means to preach the gospel.  They provide a fitting end to a wonderful book:

Ultimately, the preaching of the good news today will have to rely primarily on the text of our lives, on the witness of those whose lives give weight to their words.  There is no shortcut, no easier way to make “sense” of the gospel message.

In the midst of the dissatisfied cravings of this culture, the witness of people living with gratitude, with a joyful sense of having enough, is a powerful statement.

In the midst of the weakening structures of political meaning and purpose, the testimony of those who nevertheless have a sense of meaning and purpose is powerful, persuasive.

In the midst of the clutter and fragmentation of the times, the witness of lives that are concentrated and whole is simply eloquent (139).

Quotes taken from:  Leddy, Mary Jo.  The Other Face of God.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011. 92.

“Nothing unifies like a common enemy…”

“We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude.”

–Chocolat

These words from the final sermon in the movie, Chocolat, resonate deeply with me.  Part of the reason why, I guess, is because it seems so inherently logical.  One can not define oneself by negativity, by what one is not.  For example, if I were trying to define a tree, I would not start by listing all the qualities that a tree doesn’t have; that would be silly!  How much easier and more precise is it to define the tree by the qualities which it possesses.

I think that’s one of the many reasons I am bothered when Christians define themselves by what they are not, or by what they don’t do.  It’s fine to oppose certain things (I oppose all sorts of things!), but should opposition really be the essence of our being?  Shouldn’t there also be something that we do, something that we are?

In her book, The Other Face of God, Mary Jo Leddy offers further insight into the danger of defining ourselves in terms of our enemies instead of in positive terms.  Here’s what she says:

It is a sad and simple truth that we become like what we fight against.  It is simply true that if we look at an enemy long enough we begin to replicate its patterns within ourselves.

When we spent decades fighting the materialism and lack of freedom in communism, we became more materialistic and less democratic.  So too, in fighting terrorism, we become more accustomed to disregarding the innocent, in justifying torture.

This dynamic, in which we become like what we fight against, is also (let us confess) present in groups working for justice and peace.  In our struggles against racism, there is a good chance we will become racist.  We may struggle against patriarchy and become more dogmatic than the pope.  If we are simply against violence, we are likely to replicate patterns of violence within our groups.  What a difference to be not only against violence, but also for peace.

So Jesus commanded us then as now to love our enemies.  He understood that otherwise we will become like the enemies we struggle against.

Now, I think she paints history with a really broad brush there in the middle, and I for one can not speak to the accuracy of her statements on communism’s impact on our society.  However, I can say that I have been appalled by the things that have come out of Christians’ mouths in defense of torture as a legitimate means to fight terrorism.  Sometimes I shudder to think of the effect that the terrorist threat has had not only on our safety, but on our nation’s collective soul.  In that way, her words ring true to me.

And they remind me that my goal is not just to “fight” brokenness; my goal is also to seek, to embrace, to model wholeness.  I am not simply to stand against child abuse and neglect in “our” neighborhood; I am also to love the children in our church and at Y.E.S.  My job is to make them feel like the cherished, special, remarkable people that they are.  I can’t just be against child slavery; I should also be for more education and resources to vulnerable areas of the globe.

This line of thinking helps me because darkness easily overwhelms me.  The other day, I made the mistake of reading a depiction of some of the horrors that go on in Uganda.  Naturally, the idea of a child being forced to kill his mother with a hammer threw me into a pit of despair.  What helped me recover functionality was not to fixate on how much I hated that that happened.  Instead, what helped me stop hyperventilating was to click over to Amazima’s website and read about the positivity and light and love that was flowing from that organization into Uganda.

God knows I have seen some darkness in ministering to teens.  There were times in college that I would leave Y.E.S. and have to pull over before I got home just to cry at the heartbreaking things I heard from those kids.  I will never forget some of their stories.  However, if I fixated on the hate and ugliness and despair that I heard in their stories, I know I would have become hateful and ugly and despairing.  Instead, I had to focus on the positive.  I had to keep my eyes on God and on His will for these kids.

One more little sidenote to these thoughts:  Part of the problem of spending all my time “fighting darkness” is because usually I try to do so by externalizing it, by putting it into the “them” category of “us and them.”  In the meantime, I ignore the obvious truth that my own heart is full of darkness.  The title to this post is from a Derek Webb song that illustrates that truth quite well:

“Nothing unifies like a common enemy
And we’ve got one sure as hell
He may be living in your house
He may be raising up your kids
He may be sleeping with your wife
Oh he may not look like you think”

Change the gender of the speaker, and you get a picture that is closer to the truth than the idea of “darkness” being “out there.”  So ultimately, I can’t fight darkness without destroying myself.  Instead, I have to seek, and to be, light.  That’s how you take a stand against darkness.

At least, that’s my current theory.

What’s your theory?

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Leddy, Mary Jo.  The Other Face of God.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011. 92.

The Struggle to Embrace Limitations

Last week, I shared an excerpt from The Other Face of God, in continuation of my summer reading project.  The excerpt praised the notion of a limited ministry; indeed, it maintained that such a ministry was rooted in reality.  After all, we can’t go everywhere and do everything; it is time for us center-worlders to embrace the fact that, like everybody else, our abilities to change the world are limited in scope.

I get that.  I really do.

And yet, sometimes my actions seem so tiny…too tiny.  They are so insignificant that they make me want to scream at my own impotence to do anything of of worth.  For example…

…on Friday, I had plans to watch my niece, who was in town with her family at the same church camp my husband was attending.  I was to babysit her while her parents taught one of the classes.  Then, Greg, Anna, and I had big plans to go see Brave, as all of us wanted to see it except for Luke, and he was out of town with grandparents.  Those two plans were supposed to take up most of my morning, and I was looking forward to them.  I hadn’t gotten to spend any real time with my niece, Tatum, in so long, and I was excited for the chance.

Then.

The night before, I got a text from a young mom of  a newborn daughter.  This mom does not have transportation and has been needing rides to the hospital downtown for doctor’s appointments for her baby, who was born with complications.  At this time, I don’t really have a relationship with the mom, but she has asked me several times for rides to her doctor’s appointments.  And I can never do it.  This was the third or fourth time she had asked, and she needed a ride for the next morning.  She usually calls me last minute, as I am a bit down on her list.  Thus, I get the call when others have backed out, leaving her stranded without a ride.

Her request brought me face to face with my limitations.  I could not spend time with Tatum and take her to the hospital.  And I could not keep saying no to her in her hour of need and still hope to form a relationship.

I thought about it, and I decided to see if Greg could cover for me, since he was already at camp, and then I would take the woman.  He could.

The next morning, I dropped Anna off with Greg so that at least one of us girls could have some Tatum-time, and then I went to pick up the woman.  The next two hours of my time was spent taking her to the hospital to fill out some insurance forms and then taking her back home.  And…it felt so useless.

For one thing, when it was all over, it turned out that there was a miscommunication between her and the hospital, and she didn’t actually have to go and fill out the forms.  Thus, I sacrificed my morning for a pointless trip.  Useless.

And here is where I’m supposed to tell you that it was all worth it, though, because of the great conversation we had in the car on the way, right?  All that relationship-building that happened made it worthwhile, you know?

Except…we didn’t really have great conversation on the way.  Or much of any conversation, despite my best efforts.  I guess she was in a quiet mood.  I did try, though.

But, but…it is the effort that counts, right?  Mother Teresa says that we can do no great things, but just small things with great love, you know?  So as little as my effort was, as little as it amounted to, I did it with love in my heart, which brought me closer to God.

Except…I didn’t really have love in my heart.  No, I was more perturbed by the ruffling of my well-laid plans, to be honest.  I tried my very hardest not to let that show, and was very cheerful throughout the whole process, but in my heart, I was not exactly filled with warm-fuzzies.

And there was a moment, while I sat in the hot car and waited for her to be finished inside, where I looked around and pondered my own finite nature.  I thought about all the kids starving around the world, all the orphans, all the injustice, and atrocity that just breaks my heart.  I thought about my new favorite verse in the Bible, Jesus’ prayer that God’s kingdom come, His will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.  I thought about my earnest desire to do something, anything to help bring that kingdom, as impossible as it is.  And in all those big-picture thoughts, this silly little effort seemed so…useless.  So fruitless.

I know that here is where there should be a “but.”  Here is the place where I explain to you that it wasn’t fruitless, that it was somehow meaningful.  And I could say something like that, if I wanted to.  But I wouldn’t believe it, so what’s the point?  The truth is, I am so limited in what I can do.  So finite.  I can sacrifice a morning, sacrifice time with loved ones, and see no dividends at all from it.  It happens.  But we don’t really do things for “dividends,” do we?  We do things because they are the right things to do.  And we trust God for the rest.

Those rather morose reflections bring me to my excerpt from Leddy today.  Here, she speaks about the hard, slow, laborious work of trying to minister to a specific community.  My insignificant actions on Friday was part of that process for us.  In light of that experience, I find her passion-tempering thoughts here to be helpful:

There are many books on community development, and I have read some of them.  However, I now know that it does not work the way it is usually described in the books.  The literature on community development makes it appear as if it is possible to go into an area, identify an issue, and organize around it, and voila, a neighborhood.  According to the experts, this can be done in a year or two.

Wrong and wrong.  Building a neighborhood takes a very long time.  It takes at least twenty years and then some.  It takes every day.  Like a garden, a neighborhood must be tended regularly and by many people.  There are seeds to be sown, little plants to water.  And yes, every day there are weeds to be pulled, small problems to be solved before they overwhelm what is good.  It is a humble task, and it is never over.  There are days when you think the slightest storm could blow all this loveliness away.

From my own experience working in this neighborhood in college and now, and from the church’s collective experience of the almost ten years we have been here, I generally agree with Leddy’s assessment.  Building a neighborhood, a community, takes a long time and a lot of effort–lots of little and big sacrifices, by lots of people.  And yes, some of those efforts seem wasted.  I’m not saying that Friday’s effort was a waste, but it definitely wasn’t rewarding in any way.  And that’s okay.  That’s how ministry is sometimes.  That’s how it is when you are trying to do something of worth in this world.

I am glad I had read this book, though, because it gave me a framework in which to process my disappointment.

And on the plus side, we did get to see Brave.

Have you ever been disappointed in your efforts to help others?

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Quote taken from:

Leddy, Mary Jo.  The Other Face of God.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011. 80.

The Beauty of Our Limited Ministry

Yesterday, I related Mary Jo Leddy’s analysis of the “center of the world” mentality of North Americans, which, in her opinion, even permeates our spirituality.  This analysis, which she relates in her book, The Other Face of God, is somewhat critical of the way North American Christians…well…the way we tend to see ourselves as more important than we are.  And honestly, I’m okay with critical…IF there is a constructive element to the criticism.  Thankfully, Leddy’s book contains that positive corollary.  In contrast to a delusional, “imperial” spirituality, she portrays a Christian life that is aware of its limitations and that seeks to act within its sphere of influence.  Here is what she says:

What form of holiness is appropriate for this moment?  What can make our lives whole, can save us from the empire of self?

The search for such a spirituality will have to begin with more modesty, more humility, with the willingness to accept the limitations of what is possible at an in-between time such as this.  And to find this worthy and significant.

My reflections thus far suggest that we must listen for the calls that summon us out of our self-centeredness:

  • The cry of a child.
  • The call of the stranger and the newcomer focuses our lives.
  • The call to do good work.
  • The craft or art or sport that can discipline a life and shape it according to its material.

A spirituality that saves us from an imperial religion will have to involve a spirituality of limits, of modesty and humility.  This will not be easy, for it goes against some of our dearest dreams:  the hope of becoming better, the hope of more, the hope of changing the world, the big hopes for the transformation of the church.

To become centered and focused is also to choose limitations joyfully, willingly.  It is the choice to locate your life.  Not just for a moment, but forever, it seems.  Your life can no longer float around the universe, jet around the globe in the name of justice or peace or “the environment.”  It is easy to walk away from justice as a cause but much harder to walk away from the person who has knocked at the door (67-68).

In many ways, this passage stepped on my toes, and in other ways, it gave me great comfort.  Her comment on our dearest dreams falls in the toe-stepping department; the fact remains that I do  hope to become better, and I do think that God has prepared good works for me that do have a purpose and that will make a difference.  At the same time, I really believe that I understand the limits of idealism, even though I am sometimes “accused” of being an idealist.  I maintain instead that I am a realist, albeit one with idealistic yearnings.  I long for God’s kingdom to come, His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  I fantasize about it, I pray for it, I try to imagine what it would look like.  However (and this is where her comfort comes in), I am learning to content myself with my little lot of life that God has given me.  I find great meaning in my physical church body, in our little neighborhood of saints and sinners, among our wonderful, rowdy “Y.E.S. kids.”  It is so small, just a little wisp of Nashville, but embracing this limited, physical neighborhood has helped center my life.

Furthermore, even though she tends to focus on a physically limited sphere of influence, I also think of my few little Compassion kids in the same way.  Even though we are spread out among the Americas, I see our choice to sponsor them as embracing my limitedness.  Of course, I would love to save all the children, and I do pray for all the children.  But since I can’t save all…since I can’t save any, in fact…perhaps I can make a small bit of difference for three.  And while I pray for all the children, I will sponsor three.  While I dream wonderful dreams for all the children, I will write letters to three.  It’s tiny (sometimes I even believe that it is too tiny), but more and more these days, I rejoice in the fact that I can do this little bit.

Leddy goes on to describe the life and philosophy of Wendell Berry, a man who has greatly influenced her beliefs.  She sums up his outlook this way:

What he has articulated is a spirituality of knowing our place in the world, in creation.  It is a spirituality of being in place, of knowing one’s particular contribution, of seeing oneself as part of something greater, as a participant rather than as a master and captain of the universe…

This is not someone who is out to change the whole world.  It is someone who remains faithful to a particular place and a people.  It is a slow way.  And it does make a difference (70).

I love that description of ministry.  Like Berry and Leddy, I long to “remain faithful to a particular place and a people.”  I don’t mind that it is a slow way.  And I do believe that it makes a difference.  My prayer to God is that our little church in our little neighborhood can be that place and that people for me.

And if I can also help a few kids in other countries along the way, that would be great, too.

What is your ministry?

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Leddy, Mary Jo.  The Other Face of God.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011.

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