Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Balanced Life

For a long time I have been fascinated by those rare individuals who are able to balance the contemplative and the active life—otium et negotium. People like Sir Thomas More, literacy advocate and mystic Frank Laubach, and N. Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Saviour in DC, are in this elite group. Most of us default either to a life of action or reflection, and more people gravitate naturally to the former than the latter. I’m not sure why, but it’s easier for most of us to do than to reflect, meditate, pray, or just be. We like to move, not sit still. Someone needs to remind us, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” The Lord did when he said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).

We hear a lot about how self-serving we have become in our modern society. The consumer culture has perpetuated a me-centeredness that leaves little room for generosity and service. Yet, ironically, with all of this self-indulgence we have done ourselves a disservice by not doing more for ourselves. The needs we are trying to satisfy superficially can only be met in the depths of our being. I remember the homey way a Baptist deacon in a country church put it, “You can’t make hunger go away by rubbing a hamburger on your belly.”

One of the many books I’m reading right now is Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward. It seems to me that loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as yourself requires both a vibrant devotional practice and a life of service for others. But how can you pull it off when you have a demanding work schedule, busy home life, and a dissertation to finish?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Go Navy!

I'm giving up doubting for Lent. Whenever I used to daydream about schools I’d like to teach at, the U.S. Naval Academy was always at the top of my list. Last fall I applied for a teaching position there and prayed very hard I'd get it, yet I convinced myself I wouldn't. 

Well, it’s official now. I got the job, beginning in July. I’m not going as part of the chapel staff (though that wouldn't be bad either!) but as a history instructor. It’s a three-year recall, which means I’ll be on active duty, serving in uniform and drawing my full pay and allowances as a Commander.  My family and I will have good income during hard economic times, and I'll be doing something I love and am passionate about.

Above my desk at work I have the following Bible verses: “Delight thyself also in the LORD: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4-5). 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Descending Way

A wise person (I don’t remember who) once said, “A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice because a surplus of virtue is unchecked by the constraints of conscience.” Think about that for a minute. A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice. It sounds counterintuitive—like Jesus’ paradoxes (e.g., the last shall be first)—but it’s true. Inside each of us is the desire to dominate, to lord it over another. And the more we are convinced of the rightness of our cause, the more we feel justified in wielding power over those whose cause we deem less holy than ours. Yet this desire to dominate does not come from God. It’s part of our sinful nature.

Many of my conservative friends and former students are political activists. They want to lead the nation and shape society for Christ. They are cultural warriors who see their mission as restraining evil and promoting virtue in the world. And they seek to do this by obtaining positions of power and influence in government. I know their motives are good, but their methods are questionable, even worldly. It’s how the world promotes its agenda.

Jesus’ plan for social change was not through political activism but radical social action. He didn’t seek to serve in places of power. He exercised power by service in the lowliest of places. Following Jesus means giving up our quest for upward mobility and trading it for downward mobility.

Jesus repeatedly chose the descending way over the ascending way. He came down from heaven to earth, trading his heavenly glory for an earthly life of service and self-sacrifice. “For the son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). After being lifted up on the cross, he went down to the tomb, then down to the depths of hell. Down, down, down—the descending way.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (
The Cost of Discipleship). The way to glory leads through the cross, and we will all be judged by what we did, or neglected to do, for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).

We sometimes sing the hymn
Higher Ground, which begins, “I’m pressing on the upward way.” Maybe we should change it to the “downward way.” If we did, would anyone believe us?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Christianity and Borgism

Marcus Borg’s well-written, thoughtful book The Heart of Christianity has become a manifesto of sorts for progressive Christians of the postmodern age. When I finished reading it, I found myself asking the question, What’s new? Universalism isn’t. Neither is pantheism. Or Arianism. And there have always been those who denied the divine origin of Scripture.

Cutting the doctrinal heart out of the Christian faith and still insisting on calling it Christian is also not new. In 1923, J. Gresham Machen published his classic polemical work Christianity and Liberalism in which he argued that there is so much difference between orthodox Christianity and modern liberal Christianity that they are, in fact, two different religions. The same applies to traditional Christianity and Borg’s faith, which he calls the earlier and emerging paradigms, respectively. In my mind, the differences are so vast that they are two different faiths, despite their common heritage, vocabulary, and liturgies. Truth in advertising would seem to require a different name for this newer faith. Borgism, anyone?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Four Loves

The love for equals is a human thing—of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.

The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing—the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.

The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing—to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.

And then there is the love for the enemy—love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world. 

(Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat)

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's In Your Hands?

I read a challenging passage of the Bible this morning—Galatians 5:19-21 on the “works of the flesh.” I usually focus on the next section—the “fruit of the Spirit” (22-23). It’s no wonder. Elsewhere St. Paul tells us that nothing but nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38). Yet in Galatians he lists several sins that will do just that: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies. While it’s relatively easy to think of God sending to hell people who practice no-kidding idolatry and orgies, some of the other sins seem a lot tamer and less severe, like envy or strife. And it's clear that not everyone who does something really, really bad goes to hell. Didn’t God call King David, an adulterer, a man after  God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14)? Didn’t he choose Moses, a murder, to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt and give them his law? How can ordinary people be sent to outer darkness for doing what some of the greatest biblical heroes did? Besides, isn’t unbelief the only sin that will send a person to hell? God judges us only for what we believe, not what we do, right? Right? 

Jesus explained that at the Last Judgment the kingdom-bound, righteous “sheep” will be separated from the hell-bound, sinful “goats” based upon acts of mercy they either did or did not do (Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus said it, not me. That doesn’t mean we can earn or deserve our salvation. But it does mean that the real litmus test for saving faith is not our creed but our deeds. Belief alone, without works, is not enough. Works are the biblical evidence of faith (James 2:14-26).

When a man asked Edwin Wilson, “Do you know where you’d go, if you were to die today?” he answered, “Yes, I’d go to hell.” For almost half a century, Wilson carried a heavy burden on his soul. A white Southerner, he had beaten John Lewis, a young, black freedom rider, for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room at a bus depot in Rock Hill, SC. Lewis is now U.S. Representative John Lewis, a member of Congress. Wilson confessed his sins to God, but he also needed to confess to the one he had wronged. Good Morning America brought Wilson to Washington, DC where he met with and apologized to Lewis in an emotional reunion.  You can read about and watch this touching event here.

Southern Baptist hymn writer and seminary professor B.B. McKinney (1886-1952) wrote the famous hymn, “The Nail Scarred Hand.”  Over and over, it repeats the words, “Place your hand in the nail scarred hand.” Wilson was finally able to place his hand in Jesus’ nail-scarred hand, because he let go of his hatred—both his hatred of blacks and of himself for what he had done to them.

Another challenging Bible passage (at least for me) is Mark 10:17-30 in which a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks a good question, What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus told him the right answer, Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heavenIt’s not the answer I or most evangelicals would have given him, but it was nevertheless what he needed to hear. Tragically, even though Jesus gave him the right answer, the man went away sad and empty handed because he could not let go of his riches. You see, in order to reach out in faith to Jesus, we have to let go of whatever we’re holding onto—whether it’s money or racism or whatever.

What are you holding onto so tightly that you’re finding it hard to let go? You will never be able to touch God and other people until you let go of whatever it is.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Four Chaplains

The hero is not fed on sweets,
Daily his own heart he eats;
Chambers of the great are jails,
And head-winds right for royal sails.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

On February 3, 1943 at 12:55 a.m., a German U-Boat torpedoed the SS Dorchester, a crowded U.S. troop ship carrying 902 men. Onboard were four U.S. Army chaplains: two Protestants, one Roman Catholic priest, and one Jewish rabbi.

Panic broke out in the damaged vessel as frightened men trying to make it to safety stumbled over dead bodies and debris. Although they had been told to sleep with their life jackets on, many had taken them off because it was hot below decks and the bulky World War II life jackets were uncomfortable. On deck men ran around in the dark. Some jumped into the freezing North Atlantic water.

The four chaplains broke into a supply locker and began handing out life jackets to the men who had none until finally they ran out. Then, one by one, the chaplains took of their own life vests and gave them to soldiers lining up to get them. “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said one survivor who witnessed the selfless act.

In the 20 minutes before the ship sank, the chaplains worked to calm the frantic men, help them to safety, and minister to the wounded and dying. The four chaplains linked arms and prayed aloud as the ship slipped beneath the icy water. Only 230 men survived. Among the 672 who died were the four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3).