Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Forgiveness Resources for Faith Communities & Families

On this Valentine's Day, I'm reminded of the best marriage sermon ever. It's a 10 point sermon with just one point: forgive. While Jesus' words in this coming Sunday's gospel about loving enemies may instinctively call up imagines of political opponents and/or citizens of countries we fear, the best marriage sermon ever reminds us that marriage, also, is one of God's gracious means of giving us enemies to love. 

I mean that last part humorously and truly, but not cynically. After all, to call someone my enemy is not to say that it is their fault and not mine we are enemies. Our conflict may expose my own difficulty in loving that which I don't control or loving beyond the boundaries of my personal self-interests. Moreover, to take Jesus seriously, to call someone my enemy is to clarify the nature of a faithful response to them; it is to commit to love them. 

Most people don't want to have enemies, much less love them. But if the naming of enemies is the first step toward love and forgiveness, maybe our reticence to have enemies is a kind of guarantee that they stay that way. Maybe the naming of enemies, in the spirit of Jesus' commandment, is a kind of moral achievement, if it calls us back to the work of forgiveness and love. 

Dietrich Bonhöffer and Jean Vanier have both said that the main work of the church, the community of faith, is to forgive and be forgiven. But it is sometimes hard to know how to prioritize this work. Remarkably, Dr. Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, is working to help faith communities, schools, and families normalize and constructively engage the good work of forgiveness. With his permission, I am sharing links to some of his resources at the end of this post.

If you or your faith community would like to commit to cultivating a culture of forgiveness in your context and utilizing aspects of Enright's work, would you comment here or otherwise let me know? I am working with him to help communities of faith become "Forgiving Communities," which is to say communities that publicly express their intention to live forgiveness, so that we can become resources to one another and others who might benefit from the example of those who are a few steps farther down the road.

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All resources by Dr. Robert Enright, shared in the hopes of identifying faith communities that might resource one another and others:

The Church as Forgiving Community: An Initial Model is a wonderful resource for developing a culture of forgiveness within a church.


Curricula







Thursday, February 9, 2017

Beautiful Beards (& Other Good Things that Grow By Doing Less)


My barber makes sure I don't get a big head about my beard. "You know," he says, "people will tell you you're growing a beautiful beard, but the truth is you've just decided to stop not growing one. It's weird that the verb goes to the person who has decided not to act. I mean, it's the clean-shaven look that takes the daily commitment to do something, but nobody ever says to those folks, 'Hey! I see you've decided not to grow a beard today!'

Of course, my barber is right. Growing a beard has become a source of humility for me, just to the extent that people are impressed by something I decided not to do. I didn't grow the beard, I just stopped not growing it.

Paradoxically, "stop" is a verb, too, and ceasing action is a kind of action. Still, that "stop" might be the most important action one can take to make room for a beautiful, new thing is a profoundly humbling realization.

I know it's true, though, when some action of my kids pushes me over the edge and I nearly lose it, or I do lose it, but then I stop my verbal exasperation, drop to their eye level, ask their forgiveness, and we embrace. I know it's true when, after a friend has finished talking, I stop the standard back and forth pattern meant to ensure we will each fit approximately the same number of words into the conversation and instead double down and say, "It sounds like you're hurting. Tell me more about that." I know it's true that when you play fewer of the strings for a given chord, that's when you hear the harmonies most clearly.

"Stop" is a verb, and ceasing action is itself an action. And some stopping can be fruitful.

If the beautiful, new thing born of non-action, requiring non-action, is humbling, in 2017 it is also heretical. Most of us carry powerful computers in our pockets to make sure that we do not have even a single unproductive moment. We want to change the world and make things better. Never mind that this approach carries with it an impossibly high opinion of the things we produce; whatever it is must be better than an empty moment, right?

Maybe.

Some friends and I were talking about the idea/commandment of sabbath the other day. We talked about practical considerations; for example, keeping the sabbath allows introverts time to recharge and acknowledges that human beings aren't as productive over time when we work without rest. But we also talked about some of the more challenging (i.e., less obviously productive) aspects of sabbath keeping:
  • Times of intentional rest confront us with the extent to which we find our identity and worth in our work and call us back to trust of God's love for us and the identity in God we receive as God's gift.
  • Sabbath locates our narratives within the larger narrative of God's work and action; we remember that we are prophets of a future not our own.
  • Visibly trusting God's love for us makes us, also requires gentleness with one another. 
We did not mention it that day, but I feel like Walter Brueggemann would insist on including the truth that, scripturally speaking, sabbath keeping has always been about the land, too. Imagine the beard the earth might grow if we weren't always cutting it back as far as the blade can be pushed.

In all of these things, there is humility again. There is William Cavanaugh's reminder of the possibility that the assumptions that we know enough, are good enough, and are powerful enough to affect positive change do not always hold, and that "When you're standing on the edge of a cliff, progress is defined as a step back." There is, additionally, the humility that comes with trusting God and one another to meet us in the spaces we do not control and cannot fill with more of our good intentions.

Importantly, to say that God gives the growth is not an argument for complacency or passivity. Far from it! The most significant political act of the last two weeks has been a federal "stay" on an immigration order - a crucial call and action to non-action! A ceasing as doing. Part of what needs doing, says Cavanaugh, is to engage the world with the humility that knows that we are not God.

Finally, then, there is a real sense in which I am growing a beard. That is, what I first conceived of as inaction has proven to be anything but inactive: I have put down the blade. I have made room for new possibilities. I have exercised patience. I have looked for what God is doing (we're talking in metaphor here). I have asked for help when I've needed it. I have waited. I have oiled and balmed. I have received what I've been given. I have been grateful.

As it turns out, sometimes you have to move to be still. We will not find the humility proper to us by riding the raft of the society's status quo.

In addition to all the other things not shaving has meant doing, I have also grieved and remembered.

On November 11, my wife's birthday, she became concerned that she might be experiencing a miscarriage. On November 18, my birthday, the doctor's test confirmed it. At one point, I realized that the beard I had begun in July on a whim would be a year old (a "yeard" in beard parlance) about the time the baby would have been born. Though I am still not sure I will let the beard grow for the full year, remembering is why it has lasted this long. Mine has not been a melancholy remembering, but an honest one, because we faced a reality I could not change, but desperately wanted to. I was simultaneous confronted with the limits of my actions and invited in a new way into the difficult and beautiful space of humility and trust of God: the God of the cross, and the God who makes all things new.





Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Lives Our Children Interrupt (finding life and joy in Christ in spite of ourselves)


Helpful background: the Episcopal tradition I'm a part of assigns passages of Scripture for each day, and we're invited to read them as a part of morning and evening prayer, either in our faith communities or at home.

So today I'm reading the daily lectionary readings, and I skip ahead to the gospel, just to see what it is. Immediate laughter ensues. It's a two-part reading, and the second part is the more famous of the scripture siblings: it's the account of the time some people bring children to Jesus, and the disciples try to stop them, which turns out to be a bad idea. Jesus calls out his dutiful disciples in the now famous words, 
Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
These words are so famous, they usually get quoted on their own; we don't always think about them in light of scripture sibling A, which is too bad for comedy's sake. But here's the full scene: 

Scripture sibling A is some Pharisees asking Jesus what he thinks about marriage and divorce. And they're probably trying to trick Jesus, but he's taking the question seriously, opening the scriptures, setting up an impromptu mini-seminar, and it's not clear that he's ready to end it when these kids show up. And every parent knows this feeling. Every parent covets the experience of even one uninterrupted sentence spoken and heard at the dinner table. OF COURSE the marriage seminar would be interrupted by children! Once Jesus started talking, it could seemingly end no other way.


Full disclosure: I'm a parent of a 7 and 5 year old. My wife and I are constantly getting interrupted, and (I won't speak for her) I am not always gracious receiving them. We're talking going on eight years of broken communication. For comments. For questions. For spills. For bodily injuries. For disturbingly accurate (and unsolicited) assessments of our weaknesses. For fart jokes and bugs. So I laugh at Mark's take on Jesus' failed marriage seminar, but importantly my laughter is empathic, not cynical. After all, and as any parent knows, it's the interruptions that make us holy. Of course, children make their parents holy not by any of the adorable things that end up as photos on Facebook walls (guilty as charged) but by exposing and then transforming the limits of what we had formerly called our self-sacrificing love. 

The presence of children, even when the prayer for those children has been a longtime coming, inevitably (and sometimes uncomfortably) reveals the control we would like to have over those whom we love. Holy, as it turns out, is less about giving off golden auras and more about learning to love more than you'd like to. Indeed, William Cavanaugh observes that commitments like marriage, the religious life, and family are (communally discerned) choices that cut off a whole range of other choices (Field Hospital, 93) and so "make it possible to achieve the options that really matter" (ibid., 91).  Such commitments require habits for their living out, where a "habit is a way of relieving us from the burden of having to make choices. When we develop good habits - Thomas Aquinas called them 'virtues' - we don't even need to spend time thinking about whether we might steal or commit adultery" (ibid.).

When Christians make room for the interruption called children, whether in the family or in the church, old habits and orientations are challenged. Where old habits and orientations are not challenged, it can be fairly asked whether a family or church has really made room for children in any meaningful sense.  Such a determination is not a condemnation, but an opportunity to invoke new habits that would overcome our natural disposition. The difficulty, writes Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman, is that
Ignoring children in the church is an unrealized defensive act. Children present a powerful challenge to what adults conceive of as spiritual maturity....We have an unspoken theological heritage of ambivalence, ambiguity, and indifference toward children that still outweighs our understanding of children as a means of grace (The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future).
Understanding children as a means of grace means, at least, discovering a reciprocity of spiritual guidance. As Berryman puts it,
Children require adult spiritual guidance, because they need the permission and means to develop their spirituality. Adults require children's spiritual guidance, because by being who they are, children can refresh and recenter spiritual growth in adults. Without this mutual blessing children and adults are likely to lack the dynamic wholeness and authenticity they were created to enjoy (ibid.)
In all of this, Berryman aims to cultivate the ability to "speak Christian" and, with this gift, "to make existential meaning, to find direction in life and death, and to celebrate what truly matters" (ibid.) This aim to speak the faith well calls to mind a verse from the first scripture of today's appointed readings; it is God's promise to God's people from the book of Isaiah:
And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the LORD: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children's children, says the LORD, from now on and forever.
At this point, I'm hoping at least a few of you patient readers have thoughts of your own that would bless me and the others. Would you take a stab at one or more of these questions in the comments below?



  • What does formation in your faith community look like? What are the community's goals for the formation of each person? 



  • When have you been a part of a community for which children were at the center? What did it look like?



  • What makes the inclusion of children as a) whole persons and b) occasions of spiritual guidance most difficult?



  •  When have you experienced a one-way relationship turned reciprocal? What made the turn possible? What did such a turn require of the parties involved? What did you learn you had to give?



  • What habits help you love those you don't control?



  • What else? 





  • Tuesday, February 7, 2017

    4 Good Links: Toward Love of Neighbor, Humility, & Hope


    Dr. William Cavanaugh spent two days with a bunch of Christian communities on campus last week, and the timing could not have been better. The immigration ban was yo-yo-ing its way through the media and our news feeds, I was two weeks into despairing of a pastor's ability to write a sermon before 2 AM and a last twitter check on the night before the day of one's preaching. As my friend Greg commented the day before the first event, "There is almost no one alive I would rather hear explain the world right now than William Cavanaugh." 

    I live-streamed one of Cavanaugh's talks, The Politics of Humility, which I've embedded at the end of this post. The other links are resources I have come across since then, and which I think belong to the conversation, along with a brief word from me about the connection I see.


    We need each other in this moment, and we need a new imagination, increasingly even to access each other. Thankfully, God in Christ gives us both. History may repeat itself, but it is silly to pretend any of us have lived this life before. I don't think, either, that Cavanaugh pretends to know exactly what to do next. And I think that not pretending is exactly the beginning of the new imagination to which Cavanaugh points. What do you say? It'll be more fun together. 


    "The Displaced Person: Reading Flannery O'Connor in the Age of Islamophobia" 

    A timely grappling with "the radical command to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be like the Good Samaritan who sets aside deeply engrained bigotry to minister to the needy." Grateful to my friend and local poet Rita Mae Reese for pointing me to this article.

    How to Have a Difficult Conversation: 3 Practices

    In his talk, Professor Cavanaugh observed that having a conflict is a moral achievement and that our social and political moment desperately needs more conflict. This article is a good start for Christians toward taking up Cavanaugh's challenge.

    How the Family is Essential for Evangelism

    Cavanaugh spoke about unplugging from the rage machine, which named an emotional need nearly every person with whom I've spoken in the last three weeks has also expressed. It's also a need that is hard to know how to manage responsibly. After all, ignorance is not really bliss. Rightly, we recognize that the ability to unplug (depending on how we understand the verb) often correlates to one's level of privilege. However, Cavanaugh's example of what constitutes unplugging for him - he and his family weekly share meals, games, and social outings with a family of Muslim refugees in their neighborhood, whose friendship was arranged through his church - makes clear that unplugging need not be synonymous with complacency, apathy, and/or passivity. His family's experience echoes this video's emphasis on the family as a "little church," which opens up new imaginations for Christian faithfulness.



    "The Politics of Humility," a lecture given by Professor William Cavanaugh last Friday at Upper House, co-sponsored by Geneva, Pres House, InterVarsity, Badger Catholic, Upper House, and St. Francis House.