Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Communal Relationship with Jesus Christ

Eugene Peterson tells a wonderful story of growing up in Montana which I believe is worth retelling—particularly if you were one of those kids like me who refused to fight and usually wound up pummeled by the school bully. Peterson had a similar experience in the depression-era West, being accused by Garrison Johns, his local tyrant, of being a “Jesus-sissy.” Like most of us, he tried “finding alternate ways home by making detours through alleys, but he stalked me,” Peterson says, “and always found me out. I arrived home every afternoon, bruised and humiliated. My mother told me that this had always been the way of Christians in the world and that I had better get used to it,” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 135).

But, one day, something unexpected happened and little Eugene turned into a Christian soldier: “For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. . . I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. . . At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again—blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. ‘Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!’ A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them. . . I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out of me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, ‘Say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”’ And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert,” (Peterson, 136).

Now, although we might like to think otherwise from this narrative, many of us might even go so far as to defend Peterson’s pugilistic activity because, after all, in the end his actions produced the all-important salvific outcome in his victim. “Doubtless you have heard the saying,” South African theologian, Michael Battle, suggests, “that, in order to be a Christian, you must have a personal relationship with your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And surely you have heard it preached that, if you were the only one alive, God would still come and die for you. You have heard these things—but these ways of naming Christian life are individualistic and unintelligible to the way that Jesus taught his disciples to live,” (Placher, Essentials of Christian Theology, 281-282). That is, that which we have dared to label the sine qua none of evangelical Christianity is, at best, a mistranslation, and, at worst, a bastardization, of the faith delivered to the saints. The result, Battle claims, is what he calls “baseball spirituality,” a belief that “as long as you can verbalize the formula of Christian salvation, then all requirements of the Christian life are accomplished.”

The dangers of such reductionistic, privatistic thinking are all around us in Western culture and pervade the sub-culture of generic American evangelicalism. We have so distorted Christ’s call to death and discipleship, that “many people practice a form of spirituality in which there is no conceptual space to confess that there is someone who is and should be greater than one’s self,” (Battle, 290). “What we often call a personal relationship with God is shorthand for my own version of God,” and, “instead of seeing ourselves made in the image of God, we, like the great sociologist Emil Durkheim, see that God is made in our image,” (291). This “fulfillment of personal salvation” makes itself manifest in a variety of ways, from an overemphasis on the theory of Christ’s vicarious atonement to our conception of heaven as some kind of individual, existential bliss. What kind of theology is this that transposes the New Testament vision of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom into some kind of idiosyncratic “get out of hell, get into heaven” ticket?

Perhaps, Battle maintains, we should begin by asking one another, “Do you have a communal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I would like to propose that what we need is nothing less than a radical reorientation in the way we think about God, so that we can begin to break out of our cultural conceptions of the person and work of Jesus which are so separated from any understanding of the importance of relationship. Because, in the Kingdom of God the great mystery which confronts us, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains, is that we need others in order to know both God and ourselves. We discover God only in and through the community of faith and, in order to minister, we must be taught important lessons through that community.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Meditation on Feet

One of the worst things about growing up in the Ozark hills for me was the fact that the children went barefoot. For poor folks who live down south, going without shoes used to be a way of life. While my feet remained tender and unsuited to the sharp stones and cockleburrs, the unsuspecting copperheads and rattlesnakes that hid in the rocks, my younger brother liked nothing better than going outside and stomping in the mud. During this time of year, the teens at camp all trudged the trails without shoes and socks. Sitting there in the big tabernacle on the campgrounds, children would build whole cities with their bare feet out of the sawdust that lay four or five inches thick on the ground. Feet would swing in unison between young lovers and, even occasionally intertwine.

There is something very human about having your feet exposed. Our feet reveal our humanity. They get dirty and dusty and smelly. And, when you think of it, feet are really quite unattractive. Whenever I worked the graveyard shift and would venture down into the morgue during my hospital days, feet were always the first thing you saw. You would open the door to the refrigerated area and there you would see rows of corpses covered with sheets from heat to ankle with only the feet protruding. And, just as you see in the movies, on the end of the big toe would hang a tag with the person’s name and identification number on it. Those tagged toes come as close to representing our mortality as any other image I can conjure up.

But, after all, feet were not created for their beauty. They are, also, the most utilitarian of our body parts. Feet were made for walking and the scientists tell us that our feet and our ability to walk erect are one of the few distinguishing characteristics that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our feet are made to take us from place to place—nothing more, nothing less. I have yet to be in a crowd of teenage boys whose eyes pop out of their heads and to hear one of them say, “Wow! Look at those! Doesn’t she have great feet!” Or, when I ask a group of adolescent girls what they look for in a man to hear, “I want a man with attractive feet—well-shaped, firm, strong feet. If he’s got great feet, then I know that he’s the man for me.”

No. We all know such talk would be ridiculous. When teenage boys refer to measurements, it’s probably not shoe size they are thinking about! Nor is there a great stink yet being made over the transportation of pornographic images of bare feet over the internet. In fact, most of us take great care to keep our feet covered. The entire shoe industry is built around the fact that we want to show off, not our feet, but what covers them. Instead of being an image of health and sexuality, the naked foot is a term of derision, as in the phrase, “barefoot and pregnant.” The blunt reality is that nobody gives much attention to feet unless they start to cause problems. We simply take them for granted, cover them up, and put them to work.

In biblical times, feet received more attention. For one thing, people walked much more than they do now. It was not unusual for an average person to walk five or six miles every day. If you wanted to go somewhere, you didn’t jump in the car or take a bus—you usually walked. And because Nike, Reebok, and Adidas were not around then, you usually had to settle either for the standard issue sandal or for no shoe at all. So, when a guest would come to your home, one of the first acts of courtesy that you would show would be to have your servant remove the shoes and wash the feet.

Jesus was to take this act and use it as a way of illustrating what it means to be one of his followers. To wash a person’s feet was the supreme act of love and submission. When the first century Jews spoke of being “under the heel of Rome,” they did so in a derogatory manner. But Jesus suggests that as Christians we are to voluntarily assume the role of a slave, to place ourselves at the lowest and most vulnerable of positions. As usual, this is quite "counter-cultural" and stands in stark contrast to the American way of life where we are all about a pecking order and determining exactly who fits where on the ladder of success--and the last thing we want to do is get down on our knees before "the least of these." According to current American foreign policy, we should never show our weakness and be about flexing our muscle for the sake of "truth, justice, and the American way." The domestic scene is no different. Let's make sure the wealthiest are cared for and pray that the "trickle-down effect" will ameliorate the masses.

I was thinking about this some yesterday during a faculty meeting where some were concerned that we are not doing enough to "change American society." I guess I'm with the apostle Paul and Stanley Hauerwas on this one. I think it is our task to simply emulate Christ, to faithfully announce the coming of the Kingdom, and to get on board with what God is already doing in our midst. In the end, I think this is our true calling--to simply be about the business of washing feet. Whether "American society" ever gets this or not, I don't have the foggiest. I don't think "Roman society" ever really "got Jesus" either; after all, they wound up putting him to death. Should we expect anything different?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

All Saints' Day: On the Making of Saints

This semester we have been engaged in listening to one particular voice from the past, as we have considered the challenge of becoming a Christian community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was certainly a talented pastor and theologian. Scholars today suggest that he was ahead of his time in understanding how the challenges of 20th century modernity impacted the understanding of the gospel. But, typically, it is not Bonhoeffer’s ideas that are appealed to, but his example in being willing to live out those ideas. It was one thing to pen those immortal words, “Jesus bids us come and die,” in The Cost of Discipleship; it was quite another to strip off every stitch of clothing and die an ignominious death at the end of a noose for those convictions under a Nazi regime.

But Bonhoeffer didn’t wind up dying because of one big decision that he made. It was because of a long series of decisions made over a lifetime. And, as we think about those who seem larger than life to us today, we need to be careful lest we think that sainthood is something that happens overnight. Instead, those whom we most admire usually learn to embrace the cross over a lifetime of small decisions. They realize that each and every day they are called upon to make smaller choices that set the pattern for their lives. In Bonhoeffer’s case, many of those decisions came through what is oftentimes referred to in the classical Christian tradition as “the dark night of the soul”—barren times when God seems distant and when our spirits are dry.

One of my favorites is Thomas Cranmer, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, under Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. In his magisterial biography, Diarmaid MacCulloch traces Cranmer’s development from conservative Catholic, to fiery Protestant, to something in between the two. When it came time to respond to charges of heresy, the Archbishop recanted and tried to save his life. And then, reversing himself yet again, he rejected his own handwritten recantation. Set alight with dry faggots around his feet as can be seen in John Foxe’s memorable woodcut from his Acts and Monuments, the elderly Cranmer insisted on thrusting his right hand into the fire in an attempt to purify that portion of his anatomy which had committed the most perfidious act. The irony, of course, is that it is from that particular hand that we have today probably the greatest single liturgy in the English language—that which remains the essential skeleton for the Book of Common Prayer.

Cranmer is like so many of the characters that we have portrayed in the pages of the Scriptures—entirely human to the point of breaking at times, while also having that quality which allows Christ’s light to shine through. In fact, I would suggest, it is the quirks, the foibles, of our humanity which oftentimes endear us to one another and make us lifelike. When I hear students talking in hushed, almost reverent, tones about Henri Nouwen and his insightful writing on the journey of faith, I usually find myself chortling inside, remembering the little man who typically came huffing and puffing into a room, hair askew, only half-wrapped up against the Canadian winter winds, looking for his glasses while someone brought him a glass of wine to warm him from the chill outside. Invariably, he would forget where the glass was placed and oftentimes wind up knocking it to the floor, only to say something like, “O, damn. I’ve done it again!” Of such clay are saints oftentimes made.