Wednesday, July 31, 2013

hope: part 3

In my previous two posts on hope, I wrote about hope that comes from seeing the spiritual community built by followers of God's Spirit and then Jesus across time--the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, those in all times and places who have seen a vision of shalom and attempted to live in it, including many Friends, and including prophets who were willing to look quite strange in order to follow the Spirit in radically peaceable ways.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way for the whole world to actually become more like the Kingdom of God—I’m not a proponent of the Social Gospel and its ideology of progressivism, which would have us believe that we’re on a historical trajectory toward a world with less injustice. In some ways this leads me to feel like all my desires for justice are futile. It makes me want to give up hope, to just be grateful that I’m comfortable and my needs are taken care of and not worry about anything else. It’s so tempting to just leave it at that. The Marxist aphorism that “religion is the opium of the people” is correct to some degree, but I would say the true opium of the people is comfort. Perhaps it’s religion that makes us comfortable, with the promise of a hereafter, or perhaps it’s achieving the American dream of a decent house, car, family, disposable income. I find myself falling more easily into this trap the older I get. I see the Baby Boomers, who believed so passionately in fighting against war and for civil rights that it defined their generation, and now where are they? Mainly, they’re living the American dream, or striving toward it. It’s easy to think, “Idealism is for the young,” and to become practical and realistic as I age, acquiring a mortgage, kids, schedules to keep and retirement to think about.

I’m not THAT old yet (although people who haven’t seen me for a while keep commenting on my gray streaks of late), and I’m not yet willing to give up on idealism. Hopefully that means I will never be too old for idealism.

Right now, I’m convicted that I don’t look “strange” enough. This is not to say that we should go out of our way to look different, but if someone looked at my life, comparing it to the life of other Americans, without being able to hear or read my words, would they see much that was different? They might see that I bike more than most Americans, that I spend more time at my meetinghouse than the average American, that I eat fairly healthily and grow some of my own food, and that I generally wear used clothes, but these (besides the meetinghouse part) would not be considered particularly strange for an Oregonian. Am I willing to make the real sacrifices that would be involved in following any of my senses of prophetic calling fully: eating and wearing only fairly traded and/or local food and clothing, fully refusing to support the oil industry for which we go to war and keep whole nations in subjugation, working actively against immigration injustices, building relationships across racial and/or socioeconomic boundaries, standing up against the policies of war and gun sales, refusing to pay war taxes, hosting soup kitchens….

I’m taking baby steps, but I fail all the time. I want a community to do this stuff with—a community in this time. I see people across time who have followed their passions and their convictions, who’ve listened to their Inward Light, who’ve taken baby steps, failed, and built or joined a movement. I pray for the grace to be one of those people, and for the grace of fellow travelers.

What keeps me filled with hope? The prophetic voice of my spiritual community across time, a heavy dose of tenacity and a refusal to let my fears define me. I choose to keep my Center as God, my true reality the Kingdom of God within. While I can’t create the Kingdom of God on Earth or a perfect spiritual community in my time, I can cultivate that Kingdom in myself, and allow it to break out into human history.

How about you? Would someone see from your actions that you have any particular prophetic calling?

How about us as a denomination? How are we living out any particular communal calling right now? Are we listening to the voices of the prophets in our midst? Are we speaking truth to power with our lives first, and then our voices? Are we oozing hope into our communities by sheer force of meditative will? What is your part in this? Are you willing to look strange in order to follow a prophetic calling? What do you sense that that would look like for you?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

hope: part 2

Time has a way of getting away from us, doesn't it? I started this "series" about three weeks ago, even though I've had all these posts written for months. That's what happens when I don't "schedule" them to post. In the spirit of this post topic, I "hope" that forthcoming posts will be more timely. In my first post on hope I shared about how, as a Christian, I know the answer to "What gives you hope?" is supposed to be, "Jesus," and that may be true to some extent, but I find incredible hope in seeing the work of Jesus and his Spirit across time, in the people and in the glimmers of the shalom Kingdom of God I see through their lives. Here's a bit about why.

Looking at the past, it’s all too easy to see why, for some, it provides the opposite of hope. Human history can seem like an endless litany of wars, political rivalries, genocides and betrayals.

And yet, there are glimmers of hope throughout history. I find my spiritual community as I learn about people who have heard and spoken about God across time. One of my favorite things about being a Bible and church history professor is rehearsing each semester the long human history of ways God has broken into human history in profound and life-changing ways. Yes, the Bible and church history have their share of recorded wars and political intrigue, legalism and petty quarrels, but they also show us a picture of a God who shows mercy, grace, righteous anger against injustice and who promises deep relationship with those who will walk in God’s ways. The prophetic and wisdom texts of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) remind us of the true center of faithfulness: acting in ways that uphold justice for the oppressed, even when it doesn’t feel like there’s any meaning to life. Jesus comes and offers the hope of the Kingdom of God here, now, and coming to fruition in new ways all the time. And in church history, right alongside the Crusades we see monks and nuns with a mystical bent like Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis and Clare of Assisi and many others who connect with God intimately and passionately, and who are called toward right action for the lowly of their society.

My more immediate spiritual community is my denomination: the Religious Society of Friends. Quaker history fills me with hope. We haven’t been a perfect denomination by any means, but at our best we are a people who seek after the Living God, who intentionally look for God and are led into situations where we see a need and work against injustice: prison reform, mental health reform, abolition, women’s suffrage, fair and healthful working conditions, fairly traded products, the list could go on. I’m so grateful for the kindred spirits I see in Friends history: ordinary people taking small steps against injustice and making a real difference in the direction of human history—ordinary people becoming prophets.

It’s important to note that Friends often reject the first prophetic voice(s) on any issue for a number of years, like John Woolman. But I love that in so many cases in our history, the voice of the prophet has (eventually) been listened to and then many Friends have joined social justice efforts.

Recently I read that the original meaning of the Hebrew word for “prophet” had more to do with the strange actions of a person rather than that person’s words.[1] Prophets were people who looked different from those around them because they were focused on the spiritual world and committed to living in that world fully. These prophets looked strange because of their intentional, Spirit-led actions, and only then were they given a voice to speak against the injustice in their cultures.

But am I, are we as 21st century Friends, willing to listen to the prophets of our time? Are we willing to BE the prophets of our time? Prophets in the past lived in ways that showed up injustice, calling for their society to change in ways that might require letting go of some measure of comfort for those at the upper income levels of their community. Are we willing to make such "sacrifices" so that justice is available to everyone the world over, not just the wealthy, not just United Statesians or people of whatever country we live in? Are we willing to help build a spiritual community, the Kingdom of God, across time and without borders?

In hope: part 3, expect to hear a bit about my own story, personal challenges and questions about holding onto and living into hope, and some queries for us all.

[1] Goldingay, John, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1: Israel’s Gospel, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003, p. 668.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

hope: part 1

I recently attempted to write an article from the prompt: "What gives you hope?" I utterly failed in the attempt. It's really gotten me thinking, however, about the concept of hope. I find myself to be a fairly hope-full person. Sure, I see all the inequity in the world and all the problems, I see the insufficiencies in myself, and yet I feel so much hope each day. (Well, most days, at least.)

In some ways I feel like the kid in the following joke: A Sunday school teacher asked the class, "What's brown, furry, has a bushy tail and likes to eat nuts?" A kid tentatively raised his hand and said, "I know the answer is supposed to be 'Jesus,' but it sure sounds like a squirrel!" As an Evangelical Friend, I know the answer to "What gives you hope?" is supposed to be an unqualified, "Jesus!" And to this I say, "Yes...but...." And here's a bit of "Why." I think this will take a few posts, because otherwise you'll never read to the end!

When I began writing this article, I thought that I locate hope in history: in seeing the people who have allowed God to transform their lives in world-changing ways. As I mulled over this thought some more, I realized that what brings me hope about these people is that they provide a spiritual community that reaches across time. They whisper words of encouragement in my ear and give me courage. They cheer me on. They make me feel like I’m not crazy—although that’s debatable, since people who have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years are apparently talking to me! Despite that, I’m reminded of the passage about the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12, following the famous chapter in Hebrews 11 that recounts the story of so many strange and misfit heroes and heroines of the faith.

I realized that in their stories and the stories of so many others since then, I can see that I’m not alone in yearning for the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the utopian dream of a perfect world, a “more perfect union,” heaven on Earth, shalom. We all see it—perhaps as if in a mirror, dimly (1 Cor 13:12), or maybe even distorted like a carnival mirror—but we all know what it’s like to wish and hope and dream for a better world. Some of us hold onto this hope, and some seem to just give up, knowing it will never come and deciding it’s not worth striving for.

I’m not trying to say the Kingdom of God will come into the whole world in physical time and space (in any way short of the Apocalypse, if indeed that should even be taken literally). In some ways this leads me to feel like all my desires for justice are futile and it makes me want to give up hope, to just be grateful that I’m comfortable and my needs are taken care of and not worry about anything else. It’s so tempting to just leave it at that.

But Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you and among you” (Luke 17:21, Amplified Bible), and I think by living into that Kingdom, we’re participating in a spiritual community that isn’t bound by time. By actively seeking that Kingdom and by moving toward it, we’re allowing a portal to open up into our world, a portal of Light and hope, a window into that universally yearned for shalom. When we do this, we are living in the Kingdom of God, and we are bringing that Kingdom to others, the Inward Light of Christ pouring out into the world like a light through a clear window on a dark night. This provides me the beginnings of hope.