Sunday, August 21, 2016

How should we disciple others?

Martin LaBar posted earlier this month, giving guidelines on discipling others. There's a worthy read. He invites suggestions and so I'd like to offer mine here. I think he begins in an excellent place:
The most important guideline is to be an example of Christlikeness.
As I picture "making disciples", I wonder where to start, and here is a draft which could surely use improvement. For most items I simply list them, but on a few I've added some explanation that I hope is helpful:
  1. Cultivate love of God.
  2. Cultivate love of neighbor.
  3. Cultivate a desire to understand.
  4. Cultivate humility. Recognition of our own faults leads to compassion towards others' faults. An honest examination of our own faults is healthy -- not to cultivate guilt or shame but to cultivate humility, appreciation for others' kindness and for their insights. Knowing our own shortcomings helps to cultivate humility towards others, towards "enemies", towards the Bible's teachings, and towards people whose views we do not understand.
  5. Cultivate a love of righteousness. Along with it, cultivate an understanding of righteousness: that it is not for exalting ourselves, but for uplifting others, for safeguarding their peace and well-being.
  6. Cultivate a delight in the word of God, and in His righteousness.
  7. Cultivate a love of wisdom. Build the understanding that knowledge without love is incomplete.
  8. Cultivate gratitude. Gratitude is an intentional appreciation of our blessings that enriches our spiritual lives and strengthens our love of God and others. It gives the most blessings when practiced continually and habitually. Gratitude towards God will strengthen both love of God and faith in God, and these in turn will strengthen our hope. Gratitude towards our family, friends, and other people in our lives will bless both them and ourselves.
  9. Cultivate fellowship. Look at the lost as our own brothers or sisters, as the prodigal's father reminded the brother, "Your brother was lost". Look at the found as our own brothers and sisters, too.
  10. Cultivate gentleness and respect, without which we cannot answer anyone rightly.
  11. Encourage them to have 'heroes of the faith' among the Biblical figures such as Abraham and Ruth, or heroes of spiritual excellence outside the Bible. The examples inspire us, and the act of appreciating others is itself healthy. I'm convinced that our hearts and minds grow in proportion to the number of people we honestly admire.
  12. Encourage them to consider how their own life's work will be a blessing, through means such as friendship, honesty, and compassion.
And then I didn't find a handy heading for these, which might come under several of the other items above: 
In our thoughts, do not rehearse grievances but how to resolve them. In our words, do not rehearse insults or comebacks but praise and blessings. Become adept at graceful words and satisfying phrases of recognition. Learn how to apologize sincerely and humbly in a way that repairs the original insult or injury with suitable recognition that is due. Ready your arsenal -- or first aid kit -- of apt words to meet the challenges you know you will face. Aim for mastery at peacemaking and fellowship. Never intentionally meet enemies -- or people in a strained relationship with you -- without first praying for their good.

I was edified by the exercise that Martin suggested; I miss the old "meme" days of the blogosphere when it would be handy to tag people and invite a lot of participation. I'd encourage people to try to organize their own thoughts on how we should disciple others. It helps the focus.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The worries of this world

... The worries of this world, and the deceitfulness of wealth, choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful ... (Matthew 13:22)
"Worry" is one of the acceptable vices. It can come from honest care, from love, from concern. When worry comes, it does not seem like a temptation. Instead, refraining from worry seems like indifference or coldness. And then so many noble causes promote themselves through fear: fear of some impending apocalypse if we do (or don't) vote for a certain candidate, or promote a certain cause. (And some causes claim to be noble by promoting fear. After all, saving us from catastrophe must be noble.) Every day we hear it implied, "Every good person ought to be worried!" 

And lately I have had personal reasons to struggle with worry, as one relative struggles with COPD, another with addiction, another having been deployed to an area that is not exactly as safe as back home.

Worry is based on fear and helplessness. It drains our energy without accomplishing anything. Worry takes my focus off of the things that I can control, off of my own responsibilities. It makes things more unmanageable by adding exhaustion, tension, and fear to our cares. And if it is a thing under my control -- I could plan or act instead of worrying.

Would it be better to do nothing than to worry? At least, at the end, I would not have drained myself. Worry is marked by how unproductive it is: we come to the same worries over again, and there is no end to the worries because the worry did not improve anything. If there is something I can or should do, let me do that instead of worrying. If there is nothing that I can do, let me voice my cares to one who is in control, and let it go.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

How 12-Step Groups Reach the Unchurched with God's Love

I'm watching someone close to me struggle with addiction. I'm grateful for 12-Step programs because they may be the only place that an unchurched person with that kind of need will ever hear about the love of God. Here are some ways that they reach out:
  1. They refuse to engage in divisive controversies so that meeting time can be unifying, and used for edifying. Their dogmas about the nature of God (which they would not call dogmas) are limited to the ones that would foster health and recovery in their members.
  2. They meet a felt need.
  3. They actively seek to enable people to improve the quality of their lives and their conscious contact with God.
  4. They take seriously the need to talk about our struggles, and to gain wisdom from listening to others who have had the same struggles.
  5. They value vulnerability in sharing about mistakes, and set up guidelines to prevent that vulnerability from being used as anything other than a bridge to someone who can relate, and a growth lesson.
  6. They take seriously the value of people understanding their own life stories, how their lives take shape, how they can recognize what things are under their control, and how they can transform their own lives through knowing God and serving others.
  7. They take seriously the value of spiritual direction, generally called "sponsorship" in those groups.
  8. They have a large number of seasoned spiritual directors (sponsors). They also have a growing collection of spiritual exercises that are designed to help people through real-world problems such as resentments, a tendency to isolate from other people, difficulty praying, anger at God, repairing relationships, etc.
  9. They take seriously the desire for spiritual growth.
  10. They take seriously the benefits of spiritual growth to the person who is growing and to the community as a whole.
  11. They take seriously the need to define a meaningful goal and offer steps by which someone might reach that goal.
  12. They offer both broad guidelines for developing and recognizing growth, and a personal flexibility in what it might take to achieve them.
  13. They hold each person accountable for growth, while offering compassion for shortcomings and support for the growth process.
  14. They recognize that the 'more advanced' members, including spiritual directors, often need reminding of basic things and provide tools to help with that.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Blessings: The Beginning

I've been in search of ways to bless certain people in my life who are going through a dark time. We have looked before at how God meets us in hardship and blesses us, for instance when we are hungry or thirsty, isolated or sick or in prison, and how we follow in God's footsteps there. But if we are far away, if the main tool we have is words, how do we bless people?

Looking at some things God has done, starting in Genesis: 

"I will bless you, and make your name great." (Genesis 12:2):
I can show honor and respect to a person who has lost much of what he once had. I can recognize his dignity. I can make sure that his former acts of kindness and compassion aren't forgotten, and that his new ones are not overlooked.
And God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy: because in it he rested from all his work which God created and made. (Genesis 2:3)
Thankfulness is a blessing in itself. Without thankfulness, we have not enjoyed what we have achieved. Even if we have succeeded, it does not satisfy us until we are thankful for it. And if we work, how can we tell when we are done, except when we are satisfied? The one who is not thankful can never rest, can never enjoy, can never take satisfaction in what he has or is or does. 

The poor man who has enough
has more than the rich man who is not satisfied.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Verbal Abuse in Public Discourse

Verbal abuse (definition): harsh and insulting language directed at a person
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Emotional abuse (definition): the denial of a person's feelings, abilities, value, worth, or relevance.
(Adapted from medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary)

Much of American public 'discussion' is more accurately characterized as public verbal abuse and emotional abuse. It's difficult to think of a political campaign -- or so-called news reporting -- that isn't saturated with unhealthy amounts of abuse. (And everybody notices the other side more than their own, because the barbs thrown by the other side are received as hurtful, but the barbs thrown by the partisan's own side are savored as satisfying.) It's so widespread that even popular children's authors may routinely dehumanize the "bad" characters, and people with respected positions within Christianity may try to bring people to their view of the Old Testament, or Second Temple Judaism, or the New Perspective on Paul, by throwing the "anti-Semitic" smear -- an unsubtle comparison to Nazi genocidal maniacs committing crimes against humanity. (With a passing wave at the boy who cried 'wolf', let's save the "anti-Semitic" label for people who actually didn't have a problem with the Holocaust.)

There has been much said during the current campaign season about cultural decay and/or cultural progress (describing the same events from opposing perspectives). I wish the Christians, at least, could agree: we at least can refrain from verbal abuse and emotional abuse. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Blessed are those who mourn

In the Jewish lectionary, many of the beautiful prophecies of Isaiah are read in the weeks of later summer and early autumn. There is some question about how long ago the readings were fixed to their dates and places in the lectionary, and about variations in exactly what was read that long ago. But there is a possibility that Jesus' sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth took place in late summer or early autumn, the week when either the Torah portion Ki Tavo or Nitzavim was read. In current Jewish lectionaries, those weeks both contain readings from Isaiah that are neighboring to what Jesus read in his sermon, either immediately before or close after the passage that he read.

So it's possible that Jesus chose that time to read in the synagogue, when he read these words of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Isaiah 61:1-2, see also Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus read that in his sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount seems nearly a continuation of that, on another day in another place. Not only does the Sermon on the Mount continue the theme of proclaiming good news, but its beginning has a reference to the same verse of Isaiah on which he stopped reading in the synagogue:
to comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:2)
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)
The question of timing intrigues me, since Jesus in the New Testament was a regular at the synagogues, and his life and teachings were in tune with the Jewish festival calendar and the regular cycle of readings. I'll briefly consider what else was the theme of the Jewish lectionary on those two Sabbaths:
  • The Ki Tavo Torah portion focuses on the blessings for keeping faith with God, or the curses for failing to keep faith with God. It also discusses whether the people have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand, which are themes that Jesus takes up again in his own teachings.
  • The Nitzavim reading from Isaiah is said to be the seventh and final in a series of readings of consolation or comfort, all taken from Isaiah, in the weeks preceding the Feast of Trumpets and then the Day of Atonement. The focus is on God's redemption, and on how God shares in suffering.

Jesus' teachings seem to be woven together with the weekly readings to make his point. And so here I will continue with what Isaiah said about blessing for those who mourn:
... to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion -- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. ... Instead of their shame, my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace, they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in the land, and everlasting joy will be theirs. ... In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed. (Isaiah 61, various)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What is the most destructive force on the human mind?

I have been watching some people near-and-dear to me self-destruct lately. It is a terrible thing to see loved ones self-destructing, or trying to destroy each other. And it is hard to get untangled from a group that has turned on itself. I'm trying to get my head wrapped around all the drama here. In the mind of each of the people self-destructing or trying to destroy someone else, one of the others in that group is the villain. There is no doubt that each of them has played the villain in the others' lives -- sometimes really savoring the role, too.

But -- including all of humanity here -- what turns us into villains? The current contenders in the local drama are: 
  • Addiction
  • Hatred
  • Vengefulness
  • Self-righteousness
  • Pride
  • Greed
It's hard to pick the single most destructive thing. Is self-righteousness the enabler for vengefulness and hatred? And one thing that troubles me: the people who are acting in spite are completely sure that they are in the right. And then there is hatred, the foundation for so many evil acts. Is "vengefulness" -- the desire to hurt someone else -- really anything but another name for hatred? But "vengefulness" makes a claim to being right. It uses the victim card to claim unlimited reparations or retaliation. Does it take self-righteousness to give moral top-cover to cruelty?

We're all of us prone to justify our own mistakes. We want to be good and right, and that tendency can be corrupted. We've all known that temptation to justify a mistake rather than admit it. And if we have someone waiting to pounce on a mistake, we are less likely we are to admit it because the price tag is so high.

It's so easy for someone to appoint themselves the Accuser for someone else who has wronged them. In the Bible, the Accuser is a title for Satan. Do we willingly take up that role?

I see so many things that I consider to be poisons. The antidotes are love, humility, and forgiveness. But is it possible to reach someone who is caught up in a spiral of escalating vindictiveness? Can they even see that, in their determination to top the other person, they are poisoning themselves? I've said it before and will likely say it again: We cannot dehumanize other people without dehumanizing ourselves.