Thursday, April 24, 2008

Service as a Spiritual Discipline

In the eight months since I completed the Two Year Academy I've had a growing understanding of service as a Spiritual Discipline. This is an important distinction for the church to make. In some traditions service is an obligation that the community carries as a burden. In other traditions, service is a metric by which that community measures it’s self. Still other traditions engage in service with only the vaguest notion that somewhere in Scripture Jesus expects us to do good things for other people. Make no mistake, when the hungry are fed, the naked clothed and compassion made tangible these are all Kingdom tasks.

However, when service is rooted only in a temporal reality, that is, when our motivation for doing ministry is only about the need that is immediately in front of us, we miss an important, longer view of the Kingdom of God. The deeper question of what drives us into these Kingdom acts is a vital question for Christian spirituality. Are we simply about doing an ethical approximation of what Jesus is reported to have done in the Gospels? Approaching service as a spiritual discipline has helped me distinguish this difference.

This wasn’t an overnight change for me. In fact it happened over many years as I wrestled with the nature of Christian service, the call to discipleship and a yearning for a deeper relationship with God. Since I began my ministry in the local church, I’ve been fairly certain that the work of Christian ministry was more than just going through the motions of “doing church”. I’ve known that there was a “being” component to this work that was rooted deeply within a relationship with Christ. Over the years I think I’ve grown in my ability to bear witness to that distinction and to draw people more deeply into a way of serving that was more than rote and more than doing something simply because I asked them. There was still something missing. There was a connective piece that I couldn’t quite get my hands on.

I realize now that my conversations, my preaching, my teaching and my leading were more academic than experiential. I knew that I was on the right track. But because I lacked the experience of service as a spiritual discipline, it was difficult to lead others there. A couple of months ago I could feel a shift in my spirituality. Through the time of the Academy, much of my focus was internal. My disciplines were very inwardly focused. A couple of months ago I could feel the focus shift. I began to see ways, open doorways through which I could go into the world and express in tangible ways the grace that I had experienced in my inward journey of spiritual formation. I began to experience what I’d been saying and preaching for some years…that serving others as Christ served is not simply the matter of the right task list. To serve as Christ served is rooted in deep and life giving relationships…first with God and then with others. The intimacy of His relationship with God the Father and the intimacy of His relationship with the disciples and those whom he served was the pathway of effectiveness.

The lesson for me is that the metric for faithful discipleship is not the quantity of tasks that we are able to check off at the end of the day. Rather, faithful service is measured by the quality of all of our relationships and that they are in effect means of God’s grace poured out in the world. I know that my ability to serve in this way begins with the time I offer to God…to know God…to hear God…to simply sit in silence with God. If I’m not engaged with God in this way, I’m just “doing church.”

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Reflection Rather Than Reaction

We live in a culture in which Christian discipleship is becoming increasingly difficult. We are treated as consumers whose value is assessed in what we are able to buy. We are marketed to based on age, gender, ethnicity and spending power. We are given very little credit in this culture as rational, thinking, reflecting people. In fact, in the marketing game, the people doing the marketing don’t want us to think; they only want us to react. We are to go on impulse. Don’t think about whether or not you really need a given consumer item…if you want it, buy it.

This philosophy runs across the board. From consumer items to politics we are marketed to not because we have something substantive to add but because we have something that someone else wants…a dollar or a vote. OK…I know that this sounds pretty cynical. I suppose to a certain extent it is. However, I want to elevate the discussion. Each one of us is more, far more, than our spending power, our demographic category or our party affiliation. Each one of us has a life that is a sacred gift from a Creator who loves and values each person. Our life has meaning far beyond our utility. Each one of us is an instrument of grace through whom God works to reveal God’s love, grace and purpose. Through our relationship with Christ we are able to see that purpose and engage that purpose in meaningful ways as we work with Christ to reveal God’s reign in our midst.

To engage this purpose we are called to do more with our life than react to the whims and the fancies of a culture that would strip us of our humanity if we would let it. We are called to a life of faith that is constantly growing and being shaped by the outpouring of God’s grace. This life is a reflective life. For centuries, Christians have engaged in reflective lives where we look at our life in terms of how and where we see God at work. St. Ignatius of Loyola practiced what is known as the Examen. At the end of his day he engaged in a reflection of all that had happened in that day through the eyes of faith and an understanding of how God was at work and where God was present. I’ve come to know the Examen as very valuable discipline in my life. I have not always followed the full pattern of the Ignatian rule, but even a basic pattern of coming to the end of the day and reflecting on the grace of God that I’ve experienced continues to draw me closer to God’s heart. Generally, I combine this reflection with journaling as a way of having a conversation with myself and with God. The times in my life in which I have engaged in this practice more intentionally are the times when I have felt less reactive in my life and more proactive. That is who we are called to be in Christ…proactive to work for and reveal God’s reign through Christ in all that we do.

In a culture where we are expected only to react, the Examen is counter culture. It is a practice of faith that draws us beyond our basest instincts into a life of openness and gratitude where we become more and more able to discern the movement, direction and call of Christ as he travels in our world and bids us to follow. The more effectively we discern God’s movement in our everyday life, the more we understand who we are and who Christ calls us to be. The Examen gives a disciple the opportunity to name the things for which he/she is thankful in the day. It is an opportunity to name the challenges to faith and practicing Christ’s presence that exist in a given day. It is a day to celebrate one of the greatest gifts that God gives us…to recognize that and where God’s grace is poured out. It is the opportunity to encounter the movement of God’s love in ways that we might miss if we spend our day simply reacting to the stimulus of the world.

When we stop at the end of our day, and even periodically during our day, we have the opportunity to see the great wealth and even the unexpected ways that God is present. The more we exercise this vision, the better we see. The better we see, the more we recognize God. The more we recognize God, the stronger our witness to God and the more effectively we reveal the Kingdom.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Hospitality as a Spiritual Discipline

The Walk to Emmaus story in the 24th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel is an amazingly rich story for growth in spiritual formation. The story of Cleopas and his unnamed companion holds a mirror up to us in our walk of faith and our efforts to make sense of the Christian faith story. Like Cleopas, we know the elements of the story of Easter and the birth, life and death of Jesus. We know the story, but seeing Christ…having a life giving and energizing encounter with the risen Christ is something that seems fleeting if not altogether elusive. The Walk to Emmaus story teaches us volumes how we can see Christ in the world and in our life.

The nuts and bolts of information weren’t enough for Cleopas and his friend. Even after the hidden Christ revealed more and more nuanced information than they had before, it still wasn’t enough to open their eyes to the Christ who stood before them. It wasn’t enough to dispel the clouds of confusion that continued to swirl around them. At the end of the day (literally as well as figuratively) it took as simple, routine act of hospitality to clear away the fog. They engaged in what was expected of them…welcoming into their home a stranger. They opened their life and their home to the hidden Christ. At the invitation, Jesus entered into their life and then gave them a gift. In an act of breaking bread at the table, in response to their invitation, the risen Christ revealed Himself to Cleopas and his friend. When they saw him they believed what they had seen and heard and then recognized how Christ had really been present with them all along.

The simple act of hospitality was the key that unlocked their awareness. Our encounter with the risen Christ is not driven by what we know, or what we think we know. We see the risen Christ when in spite of what we know, don’t know or think we know, we are willing to home our heart to him. This opening of our self and our life is an act of welcome. It is an act of hospitality. Service is one form of the act of hospitality. When in Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus remind his disciples that when they care for the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick and the outcast they care for him, the road to seeing Christ could not be any clearer for us. We find Christ in the face of those we reach out to.

The interesting and important piece of this form of hospitality is that it is not done grudgingly. It is not done with an air of superiority. It is not done in the spirit of something being done unto another. Hospitality as service…hospitality as a spiritual discipline is accomplished when one person recognizes the humanity of another, recognizes a need and then serves that need with no thought of reward or return. This becomes the quintessential human relationship. This is one person walking the road with another out of mutual love and support. This is what Jesus does on the road to Emmaus. This is what Cleopas and his friend do for Jesus. This is what Jesus does when he blesses the meal he is offered. This was how Jesus was revealed.

When we want to see Jesus today in our life and world the road is pretty clear; make room for a brother or sister you encounter on the path. Be open to not only what you can do for them, but what blessing of grace you might receive from them. When we share with one another in this spirit of love, openness and welcome, Christ is present.