Deconstruct:Reconstruct – The Summum Bonum

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When Ben and I first drove up to Milwaukee from West Virginia six years ago, we missed one tiny split on the highway around Chicago –  it was one small lane change. Unfamiliar with the landscape of the midwest, we drove for an hour before we realized we were getting deeper and deeper into rural Illinois and were nowhere near Wisconsin.

We’ve all gotten off track before, right? A little lost when we’re trying to go somewhere new?

As Christians, our whole tradition is the practice of striking out in a new direction:
God called Abraham to leave his home and family to go to a new land.

God led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt to a new land.

John the Baptist took his rabbinical teachings out of the Temple where his father served and into the desert.

Jesus took his teachings to the outcasts of society – the tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes and Samaritans – breaking with the tradition and the holiness laws.

Paul took his teachings to the gentiles and to the people whom he would have long assumed completely outside of God’s capacity to work in and through.

And so on and so forth.

Our tradition is to set out for the unknown, going to the “ends of the earth,” so as we’re on this journey it’s prudent to stop and ask ourselves honestly, in our own lives and contexts:
Are we on track?

And perhaps we exercise the discipline of looking within ourselves, rather than taking the much-frequented route of pointing fingers and plucking splinters out of others. Let us look deeply into the mirror and search for the planks in our own eyes which blind us.

I, for one, lost the plot somewhere along the line. You know, the plot we read and study and preach and meditate on and honor in art pieces and such?

God creates the world and humanity.
Humanity chooses a path that tears apart and destroys the world and other humans.
God patiently and painstakingly draws humanity to Godself, and to a love for God and other humans.
Humanity doesn’t get it, so God becomes human to help us understand.
And when God-in-flesh is asked what is most essential rule of #alltherules,
he says this:

“Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love God.
Love others.
Love yourself.

Could it really be that simple?

A couple weeks ago my friend Tim was talking about the philosophical concept of summum bonum – or “the greatest good.”

Tim explained it this way: the summum bonum defines the whole system for a given philosophy. It is the goal, but it also defines the means by which you get to the goal. It is the most essential thing, and if at any point you lose the summum bonum the whole system is for naught.

Different philosophers throughout the ages have identified different summum bonum.  For some the greatest good is beauty, for others law and order. Utilitarians would say the summum bonum is productivity, and rational deontologists would say it is duty.

For those of us who identify a Christians, our summum bonum seems to be love.

We look to the accounts of Jesus’ life to inform our definition of what love is:

Love goes to the outskirts, to those discredited for their lack of social capital and to those despised for their unjust gain in the system.

Love goes to weep with and heal broken and the sick, and love interrupts the life as usual of those who are well and at the top of their game.

Love feeds the masses in the field, and love accepts the invitation to the exclusive dinner with the elite.

The thing I find most beautiful (and annoying) about the love demonstrated by Christ is that it was a spacious, generous love. A love that insisted on and instead of either.

When the community in Corinth was wrestling with how to live a life of love, Paul described it like this:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.  

(1 Corinthians 13, The Message)

But when I look at my life, can I say those things about myself?

Is the defining characteristic of my life and practice of the things I say I believe on target?

I never give up.
I care more for others than I do for myself.
I don’t want what I don’t have.
I don’t strut.
I don’t have a swelled head.
I don’t force myself on others.
I don’t demand to be first.
I don’t fly off the handle.
I don’t keep score of the sins of others.
I don’t revel when others grovel.
I take pleasure when truth flowers.
I put up with anything.
I trust God always.
I always look for the best.
I never look back, but keep going till the end.

We live lives inspired by the God who became Flesh and Bone to demonstrate this love, and empowered by the Spirit of God – nothing is impossible – yet we settle for so much less.

We look for evidences of God at work in miraculous, unexpected healing; in large arenas with smoke and lights and loud music.

We look for God in the interruptions, the breaks from life as usual, all the while claiming to follow God Emmanuel – God Who is With Us.

Paul starts off his statement on love with this reflection:

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 

There must be love. Above and below and overarching everything else: love.

All of the law and the prophets are summed up in this- the summum bonum of our tradition. Love.

While we look for bigger crowds, brighter lights, and more astonishing signs, consider this:

In this fractured and hemorrhaging world, what could be more miraculous than love?

As much discipline and energy that we invest in studying the Word, pursuing justice, crafting apologetics, planning services, writing songs, baking casseroles and however we work out our faith – should we not also invest so much more in cultivating and experiencing the one thing that remains before and behind and beneath it all?

So the brilliant theologians will one day stop writing,
the inspiring preachers will fall silent,
the worship leaders with their lights and guitars will be stilled and this will remain:

Only Love.

 

 

 

I Heard the Bells (an introduction to why I want you to join me in re-thinking the way we celebrate Christmas)

One of my favorite Christmas carols of all time is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  It’s beautiful, almost haunting at times as the song weaves the cosmic weight of the holiday with the traditional occurrences of celebration.

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail and the right prevail
with peace on earth good will to men”

bells

 

(credit)

It’s easy to get caught up.  To lose the weightiness of Christmas in the soreness of our arms and backs from toting around shopping bags and suitcases and children strung out on one too many Christmas cookies.  But the bells still ring.  Sometimes loud and deep from church steeples and sometimes shrill and soft and chiming on registers as yet another debt collects on our cards.

“God is not dead nor doth He sleep.”

We can’t always here it.  The muzak blares. The crowds rush. Bearded men in red velvet suits call out and our children squeal out of joy or terror, or some debilitating blend of the two.

“The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, peace on earth.  Peace on earth.”

It takes effort to hear it.
It takes time to notice it.
And those are two things that we simply have not enough of around the holidays.

We have stress and headaches, heartaches and annoyances a plenty.
We so desire for it to just be perfect!  A page straight out of Martha Stewart or Better Homes and Gardens.

There are Pinterest projects galore to be completed.
Family we may or may not get along with to see.
And the gifts, oh the gifts!

Buying, wrapping, putting away, installing, organizing. MORE BATTERIES!

Target reminds us each time we rush in because we forgot to pick up toilet paper that Christmas is really only X number of days away.

This year though, let’s resolve that among us, it will be different.  

This year we will remember that our reason for celebration is that God put on skin and moved into our neighborhood.

Into our mess, our stress, our too busy, eating-string-cheese-and-gingerbread-cookies for dinner lives.

In the spirit of this season, I want to celebrate not by engaging in the lie that I need more, my daughter needs more, my husband needs more.

I want to celebrate the reminder that there is enough.  The debts are paid and we are being made whole once again, the latest, greatest and shiniest aside.

This season, I want to celebrate not by maintaining expectations and status quo.

I want to celebrate in a way that remembers the story of a Messiah who was the last thing people expected, who unapologetically broke social mores, who turned over tables in the house people had built to honor Him.

This season, I want to celebrate by echoing the declaration of Christ in the book of Luke

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Good news to the poor.  Release for those in captivity.  Liberation for the oppressed.

Rejoice!  Messiah is here!

This season, I want to hear the bells, but I want to ring them as well.

Sound it from the highest steeples, the retail cash boxes, the twinkling ornaments, the chiming of neighbors at our doorstep.

God is not dead nor doth He sleep.

No, and indeed God is making all things new

Setting all things right.

Because the Spirit of the Lord has been poured out

and a declaration is going forth to the poor, the captives, the oppressed.

Release, recovery, liberation.

This is Christmas.

Dangerous Presence – What About Bob?

This post is the second in a series discussing the book Dangerous Presence: Following Jesus Into the City by Jason Butler.  You can read more about or purchase the book here

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What About Bob?

Butler begins his second chapter by introducing readers to his friend Bob.  “[Bob is] older than most of my friends.  At seventy-five, he has a passion for engaging in systematic issues of oppression in the city…Bob has made a lot of money in his life, working his way up to CEO for a retirement community.  He knows what success looks like in the business world.”

The insight Bob shares with Butler over breakfast one morning hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Bob told me, ‘I have spent my whole life doing what I wanted to do and asking God to bless it.  I’m tired of living that way.  I want to start doing what God wants me to do.'”

How often have I done this exact thing?

I go on a trip and I pray for God’s blessing and protection.

I plan an event and I ask for God to bring people to it.

I coordinate a program and ask God to bring the participants and the volunteers.

Bless me!  Bless me!  Bless me!

I think if we’re honest, many of us approach God in this way.  Attempting to serve and engage in what God is doing, but not within the context of God’s Lordship over our lives.  Rather than showing up as the beggars we are with open hands and hearts rendered, we show up with our list of strengths and talents, gifts and passions. Bullet pointed, spread sheeted, pie charted ideas on how we can best be utilized by our Creator and Sustainer

…or maybe that’s just me.

Butler writes about a similar experience of coming to God with all his plans and dreams, all his vision as he struggled to plant Transformation City Church in the inner city of Milwaukee.

“I remember the moment of epiphany for me.  I was driving.  I had been praying a mix of laments (‘Oh God, why is this happening to me? Where are you?’) and deal brokering (‘God, if you open up a door for another chance, I will serve you with all that I am.’)  Basically I was trying to make a deal with God to get me out of this terrible situation.”

We are often seduced by the lie of self-preservation, sometimes to the point of trying to wheel and deal with the One who knows our every thought before we dare to whisper it and our knows the root of our every need.  Yet it is only when we surrender ourselves, our wants, our dreams, our plans and our desires that we can truly identify the siren song of the Liar for what it is.

“God doesn’t really love you. God is withholding something from you. God doesn’t see or care. God doesn’t want you to be happy.”

This is the intoxicating, mind numbing, soul atrophying song of the Liar.  Listening to this song leads us to believe the most valuable thing we could do would be to protect, promote and make much of ourselves, because God certainly does not care nor is God at work.

But

When we identify the Liar’s song as what it is – a terrible lie from the pit of hell – we can begin to have our ears tuned to hear another voice.  The voice of God and the voices which God hears.

“In that moment, I started following Jesus.
For so many years, I had been listening to the voices promising personal success.  When those noises were finally silenced, things got very quiet.  I heard something new, something I had not heard before: the cry of my city, the cry of the oppressed, the marginalized, the enslaved.  And when I heard that cry, it overwhelmed me in such a way that I could not hear anything else.”

Scripture tells us over and over again that God hears the cry of the oppressed.  God sees the misery of people.

God hears. God sees. God responds.

And God uses us to do it.

For Butler, he heard the cry of the oppressed in Milwaukee.

According to the 2010 census, Milwaukee is the fourth poorest city in the U.S., it is the single most racially segregated, it has a 55% unemployment rate among African-American men, and the high school graduation rate is just scraping above 50%.

Stats like these are what brought me to Milwaukee.

Ben and I heard the cry clear in the mountains of West Virginia.

Since we moved here though, the cry has gotten closer.  It’s gotten personal.  It’s up in my business.  It sounds like my neighbors, my friends.

I’ve had single mom’s who work first and third shift and take classes in their “spare time” try to sell me food stamps so they could buy their child diapers.
…and I once would have called them “lazy.”

I’ve walked with fifth grade boys who are talented and passionate, but who cannot read.
…and I once would have written them off as “failures” and “drop outs.”

I’ve struggled with single mothers being evicted from their homes with three days notice, all because they refused to pay their rent until their landlord fixed the roof that was literally caving in on their infant child’s bedroom.
…and I would have once called her “irresponsible” and accused her of not caring for her children.

“Injustice begins to break down when someone chooses to move closer.”

But first it will break your heart, scare you half to death and make you angrier than a bull.

The write-offs become neighbors.  The drop-outs become friends.

The gang members tell their people to stay away from you, because in some weird way you’re their family too.

You get broken into, things get stolen, your space gets violated, but you realize it doesn’t matter.

Because you can’t preserve yourself, only God can do that.

You are called horrific names, the cops stop and frisk you on your morning walk for being a white person in a black neighborhood, men ask your husband if they can “borrow you.”

But you’re not scared.

You don’t stop.

Because you’ve stopped listening to the Liar.

And instead all you hear is the love song of Creator singing the high notes over you and the cry of the oppressed, a dissonant harmony that aches for resolution.

And that compels you.  That keeps you up at night.  That keeps you rooted when the world tells you to run away.  That “those people” aren’t even worth reaching.

“As everyone else flees from the pain in our cities we are being called into the city. We are saying softly, ‘God has heard your cry. Jesus is here. He’s been here all along. And because you are here and Jesus is here, we want to be here too.  We will not leave you. We will stand with you, no matter what. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t know how this will turn out, but we stand with you against whatever oppressive force seeks to tear you down.’  We may lose something in this endeavor, but we may find something as well.”