As Serious as we Wanna Be…

October 7, 2009

With Religion, there is much we take only as seriously as we are comfortable with.

 I argue that the heart of the gospel in a modern Christian sense is simply: love God, love your neighbor. I further argue this by saying that the ideal modern church can be thought of as a “social justice hub.”

 Recently I began struggling with the real heart of the gospel and the major aspects a life, career or calling in regards to it plays out. How do we love God best? By loving our neighbors, our fellow humans. How do we best love our neighbors? By acting. The “Kingdom of God” is what Jesus stressed—if we follow him, we are called to break it into present-day existence. “It is at hand.” It was then, it is now.

The Kingdom is an idealized life in which there’s always more wine at the wedding party, always a spot at the table for the “least of these,” always forgiveness, always compassion, always truth. We bring this kingdom about by doing work that seeks to set things “how they ought to be.” Work that encourages the depressed, inspires the despised, builds up the weak, makes the last become first.

Okay. Flowery language. But to get to the heart of what I’m really getting at here, I’ll say that most of us don’t really heed the call. I’m not talking about doctrine. We can argue about historicity, literality and metaphor. Whether the scriptures, the doctrines, the creeds or the church history of the gospel is factual, metaphorical, mythical or actual is pretty much irrelevant to actually “heeding the call.” We can also argue about sin: what qualifies as sin, what qualifies as lifestyle, what is ingrained, what is chosen, what is dependant on context, place, time and situation. We can argue about universality and inclusion; whether our mission is THE mission or merely a shade of the mission.

 I’ve written at length and probably will continue to do as such regarding much of these issues, but for what I’m talking about here, yet again, these things are pretty much irrelevant to “heeding the call.” What brings me to “the call,” that I stress we all seem to ignore is admission of my repetitive action of the same.

See, to digress for a minute, I tend to think of 3 aspects of a religious life, career or calling. 1) Worship 2) Action 3) Education Taking myself for example, I’m most comfortable with the “education” aspect. I can read, write, talk, debate, consider and think about religion and spirituality ad infinitum. After all, my planned profession is that of a teacher. I hope to someday teach world religion, theology and philosophy in a collegiate setting. I enjoy classes and subjects on these topics from a student perspective. I like books that discuss these things, I write about these things in various hackneyed ways. As far as the worship sector goes, it’s where I was first introduced to these concepts and ideas years ago as a child. It’s a sector I detracted from, only to find myself coming back to years later from a slightly different angle. It’s the sector with which I am growing in and struggling with to find the right meaning, balance and use of. Then, there’s Action. The more I read and learn in the Education sector, the more I worship in the worship sector, the more the already obvious becomes even more so. The real area for Christ- following is Spiritual Action and Engagement.

The “work of the kingdom” plays out in the real world. If we aren’t doing our part there we’re really just puffing ourselves up purposelessly. So, I try to devote time to that sector. From choosing student-work that I feel ties into social engagement to writing and working for needed social change, to volunteering time and money (in my case very little_) to appropriate organizations. The extent I do these things to is never the extent I should actually do though. I can even tie it in with the other aspects. For example, a book I’m slowly piecing together deals with calling on the worship sector to do more in the action sector (broadly speaking). So I use the area I’m comfortable in (education) to call on one sector to increase efforts in the other.

 Hmmm. Really though, I have to admit I only take it all as seriously as I’m comfortable with. All it takes is to read about people like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, MLK Jr., and even folks like Claiborne (who wrote “The Irresistible Revolution”) who worked in and sought to do the full deal for me to realize how little I actually do or feel capable of doing.

Reading the gospel, we can argue about the same old historicity and debate how much we really know of the historical Jesus and what he really said. We really only have the gospel text themselves to go on. But I feel that Jesus’ call to “Sell all you have and follow me,” stands out. His words to “turn the other cheek, go the extra mile” do as well. Paul’s writing of dying to self so that Christ can be all that lives through us is really clear. For if we died to self in all actuality and let Christ alone live through us we’d sell everything, go to work for peace through sacrifice and justice through non-violence.

We’d risk everything we had to make the kingdom present now. I’ve heard friends in recent days argue that:

(1) we can’t all do that and weren’t really all called to do that. After all, Paul wrote that if you are married don’t get divorced but if you aren’t married don’t get married. So you can’t be a light to the community if there is not community and we’re all wandering around seeking to help.” To that, I answer that no, we can’t all do that and yet we are all called to do that. Working single or as a couple we can do that, but Christ realized we wouldn’t all do it. We’ve always had the choice to not listen or to walk away. Since my concept of salvation and damnation is pretty far left, my concern is not that of hell but that of not really doing what we’re called to do.

 (2) “You have to meet people where they are.” Maybe. But are we not called to lead and go where we’re called and if the people follow, great, if not, that’s okay too? Christ knew not everyone would follow. Now, if my friends recognize themselves as being the ones who said these things, please don’t feel like I’m calling you out! I see clear cut examples of how to fully marry to the spirit and work for real change, real justice, real love and the real ever present Kingdom of God. Yet I don’t abandon what I’m doing and do likewise. I have family ties; my wife wouldn’t be too keen on trekking through central America (or even East LA) on a mission of peace with me. I like my time off; I want to read a book, go to a movie, watch a baseball game, go for a swim. I like good food and drink- could I live forever eating just enough to get by? I love music—I collect records, go to concerts, argue about the greatest albums of all time. Surely that money and time could be devoted to social justice causes. I own more than one coat, more than a few pairs of shoes. I waste my share of things, from time to food. I could go on, but I won’t. The point is despite student loan and various other debt I’m blessed enough to not fear where my next meal is coming from and I’m mulling over these issues from the safety of a graduate school when a huge chunk of the world gets slim to no education. I plan to teach in a university myself where I’ll continue to address justice issues that affect the world while I myself in all hopefulness will be relatively comfortable enough to be deemed “middle class.” It seems just a shade hypocritical to me in the light of “reality.”

So what do I do? I take it as seriously as I am comfortable with. I rationalize. I think that with grace I’ll be able to call attention to the real issues in the writing that I do, that I can donate money to valuable causes, that I can volunteer a few hours a week or month and ultimately that wherever I teach I can spark a mind or two to take the plunge and do the work I was too scared to.I was talking with another friend about all of this and I said that maybe we all rationalize our religious thought as a survival mechanism. Maybe it’s not wrong to do so. Maybe it’s a vocal way of acting on an inner calling that points us in the direction we are most fit for. Perhaps our skills and the needs we can address come together in certain areas and our rationalization leads us there. Maybe it’s a survival skill. Then again, maybe it’s a cosmic hi-liter we use so that we can avoid doing what we’d really be doing if we were more devout! The call for transformative justice isn’t an easy call and it’s not one we can all take

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2 Responses to “As Serious as we Wanna Be…”

  1. dwhamby1 said

    I might be the guy who said ‘meet people where they are.’ And I love your discussion about it. As a pastor though I do feel that step 1 is meeting them where they are and then helping guiding them to where they are to go. Now if I was an activist or a prophet might be different. For me it is about being a shepherd and I can’t drag the sheep kicking and screaming and I can’t leave them behind either. So leading them by love, time, and patience is the call of a pastor. Now having said that the church also needs prophets who are not pastors! They can issue challenges in another way and they should. Tony campolo, Shane Claiborne and others come to my mind. I love to get their sermons and books in the hands of folks to really get them to think. Again I’m with you on this discussion. It’s tough. We all say the church should do better but yet we are caught in the same trap because we are part of that church. Brian Mclaren has a CD of music out (yes the preacher/teacher/author) and I love it. He has a song he wrote where he basically calls our world a ‘suicidal system.’ It’s true. But thanks be to God that God is patient and long suffering toward us. Keep up the writing!

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