Monday, July 30, 2012

Crucifying the flesh

When Paul lists the "fruits of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22-23, he follows the list with this cryptic statement:

"And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."

Take that verse out of context and you'll have most people in our culture thinking there's a problem with sex.  Somehow we've come to associate "the flesh" with sexuality.  Add a word like "passions" or "desires" into the mix and prudish Protestants know we're talking about sex.

Now, I live in a state that is currently going to war over a vote on a constitutional amendment to our state constitution to define "marriage" to mean one man and one woman.  A generation ago the populace would have expressed a collective "duh!" over this issue, but today we have to vote on definitions.  I will certainly not be quick  to make light of the many ways sexuality can lead us astray!

In context, however, Galatians 5:24 (quoted above) gets added on to a list of Spirit-given virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Notice that in each of these "fruits of the Spirit" the self takes second place.  "Agape" love (the Greek word used here) is love that sacrifices self for the sake of the beloved.  It is the highest form of love, exemplified by Jesus.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus "the man for others."  When we act in love toward a neighbor, our self-interest takes second place and we put the needs of the other first, not in a dysfunctional or codependent way, but in a healthy self-giving manner.

Joy is never focused on itself, or it descends into mere happiness.  Real joy is always focused on something outside the self.  The joy of a mother focused on her newborn, for example, is not about herself, but about the new life she is privileged to bring into the world and the possibility of relationship with this new little person.  The joy of a Christ-follower is focused on Jesus.  (By the way, this is one reason so many Christians fail to experience real joy in their lives.  We come to Jesus looking to gain advantage -- think salvation -- for ourselves, live a largely self-focused spiritual life, and then wonder why we don't feel much joy.)  Joy is the ecstasy of letting go of the self and being caught up in something larger, something that reflects in some specific way the nature and presence of God.

Peace is the opposite of worry.  Worry is self-focus, a vain attempt to control circumstances and outcomes for my own sake.  Peace is akin to trust, in which I release my need to control the results and simply leave my fate in God's hands.

Patience is similar to peace.  Patience releases my own need for a particular outcome and recognizes that I do not have ultimate control.  The self is set aside, especially in difficult circumstances or trials, recognizing that God will ultimately have his way and my call is to endurance.

And so it goes down the list.  Each one of these fruits of the Spirit demands that the self take second place.  These virtues fly in the face of my flesh, which is my self-interest, my demand to place myself above all others.  My flesh says, "If I don't stand up for myself and my needs, no one else will!"  The fruits of the Spirit say, "God is in control.  He will stand up for what is truly important.  I want to be part of what he's doing."  In the New Testament, "passions" are those self-focused fits of will in which we selfishly drive toward our own self-indulgent needs and desires.

So it is the most natural thing in the Spirit for Paul to follow this list of virtues with the statement that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Luther pointed out that the flesh -- my willful self -- rises from the dead like a zombie nightmare (not Luther's exact terminology) each day, and it needs to drown each day in the waters of baptism.

In some ways, fighting against spiritual powers is easier than the struggle against the flesh.  You can cast out a demon, but you cannot cast out the flesh.  This is part of yourself, and struggling against yourself -- your selfish self, your self-focused self, your my-way-above-all-else self -- requires great patience.  It is a difficult battle precisely because it is so daily, and you can't really "win" it.  Only by losing yourself can you "win," as your self-focus gets lost little by little in the purifying light of a greater focus on Jesus.

Too often we fall prey to the temptation to focus too much on the flesh.  We struggle mightily against ourselves only to find that we've been entirely self-focused the whole time.  In our victories, we become proud of how we're winning.  We become like the man who was glad that he was so humble.  But he was sad that he was glad that he was humble.  And so we get on the hamster wheel of self-focus.

The only cure for a focus on self is to lose ourselves in something greater.  This is why C.S. Lewish, in The Screwtape Letters, points out that real pleasures are a tremendous danger to the agendas of Satan.  In an honest pleasure (a cup of strong coffee on a beautiful summer morning, perhaps) we lose ourselves in a sense and are called beyond ourselves.  The ultimate crucifixion of the flesh happens as we focus more and more on Jesus and begin to experience the sheer pleasure of his presence and his lordship.  In that moment, as you forget yourself and leap to embrace him, little by little your flesh is left behind.  Your selfish desires are lost in a great desire for him and his kingdom.  Every self-oriented impulse we have fades the closer we get to the truth of Jesus and his love.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Walking about Zion

For a variety of reasons, none of them very persuasive, I have not been posting much here lately.  Partly I've been enjoying the novelty of not-writing for a while.  I've always been a little compulsive about my writing, and in some ways the discipline of not writing has been good for me.  At least that's what I tell myself to combat the feeling that I'm just being lazy.  The other part of not writing is that between getting my older daughter back from Central America, a full schedule at work, some transitions going on around home with getting my younger daughter ready to head off to college, and trying to find time to do a little vacationing, I rarely get inspired to write much.  Plus my family has developed a killer addiction to a dominoes game called "Mexican Train" which seems to take up all our free evenings.

Okay, enough of excuses.  I actually have been thinking about something worth sharing.

Lately I've been working my way through the Psalms.  A couple weeks ago I got stuck on Psalm 48, which ends with these lines:

12 Walk about Zion, go around her,
    number her towers,
13 consider well her ramparts,
    go through her citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
14     that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
    He will guide us forever.

I read and reread these verses, trying to make some sense of them.  What's up with this?  What is the psalmist talking about?  Why does strolling around Jerusalem give grounds for saying, "this is God"?  And what are you supposed to tell the next generation?

I parked on this psalm for a few days, and even when I read onward into the 50's I found myself going back during idle moments to think on these verses.  I began to see that the establishment of Jerusalem, in the Old Testament Israelites' minds, was the ultimate act of God.  In Jewish understanding, God had been pointing to Jerusalem all through early biblical events.  

  • When Abraham returned from rescuing Lot in Genesis 14, Melchizedek came out of Salem (the older name of the city of Jerusalem, meaning "peace") to bless Abraham and share bread and wine with him.  The book of Hebrews picks up on this later, by the way.  
  • When Abraham took his son Isaac to Mount Moriah in Genesis 22 to sacrifice him because God commanded it, Jews understand that the rock on which he was about to sacrifice Isaac was the same rock that stood at the foundation of the Holy of Holies in Solomon's temple, and now stands at the foundation of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.  (See 2 Chronicles 3:1 for the biblical connection.) 
  • During the conquest of Israel under Joshua, Jerusalem was never conquered.  The Jebusites, the natives of that city, were too strong for the tribes of Israel.  It was not until David became king that the Israelites were able to conquer the Jebusites and take Jerusalem.  David then established his capitol there (see 2 Samuel 5).  
  • Once David's kingship established Jerusalem as the center of Israelite life, the city grew greatly in prominence.  It became the seat of a united kingdom.  The glory days of Israel's history emanated from Jerusalem.  Sadly, this united kingdom based in Jerusalem only lasted two generations, first under David and then under his son Solomon.  Solomon's son Rehoboam managed to mismanage things badly enough that the northern tribes rebelled and the kingdom was split into Israel (the northern ten tribes) and Judah (the southern two tribes).  

So Jerusalem has obviously been hugely important in Old Testament history, no question.  The city was the center of Israelite conceptions of God's activity among them as a nation.  But really, to walk about Jerusalem and ponder the city, then to turn to your kids and say, "This is our God"?  Seems a little idolatrous.

Then the other night something happened that sort of made this make sense for me.  Our pastorate met on Wednesday, and for the first time our whole family was able to attend.  Both my daughters were there, along with Julie and me.  As I sat there with our pastorate, I reveled in the growing friendships, all rooted in gathering together in worship and in God's word.  We laughed and ate and read scripture and prayed and laughed together and talked about some really hard things.  I thought over and over again about the New Testament church gathering in homes (see the end of Acts 2 for example).  I thought about what Jesus described over and over again about what life is like when God reigns over the lives of his people.  Jesus called this the "kingdom of God" and it was the cornerstone of his message.  Looking at that pastorate in action, sitting on the floor with my Bible on my lap drinking coffee and hearing various people within that group share insights or struggles or victories about God's reign in their lives, I thought, "This is like Psalm 48."

When the psalmist says "this is our God", he's not saying they should worship Jerusalem.  Rather, Jerusalem is the concrete gathering place, the specific location in time and space where the works and presence of God are located at that time.  If a foreigner had asked an Israelite, "What is your God like?" I have little doubt that the Israelite would have pointed to Jerusalem and told some of the stories of how God had foreshadowed his presence through Melchizedek and Abraham and Isaac, how he had established the nation there through David, and how the glory of the city was now crowned with the Temple, the very place where God had promised to meet his people.  

In a similar way, if someone asked me, "What is it like to be a Christian?" I might point to our pastorate.  I would talk about those relationships, that extended family.  I would retell some of the struggles and the victories that have happened for people in that group.  I would tell how we get to enjoy, support, and encourage each other.  I would carefully point out that this is all possible because of Jesus' promise to be present where we gather in his name.  

Strolling around the pastorate the other night, seeing the laughter and the prayer and the tears and the study and the discussion, I might very well have said, "This is our God -- he has done this."  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Oh, life is good!

This weekend I:

  • made a 4-hour road trip (four hours each way) with four people, two dogs, and a lot of luggage in a '92 Dodge Dakota pickup with dubious air conditioning
  • spent at least three hours off and on playing with two pre-teen raccoons (to use roughly equivalent human aging -- they remind me of ten year old boys, though both are female, that have to climb everything, explore every space, play practical jokes, and love to wrestle, and they eat like grizzly bears) -- including, but not limited to, having said coons playing on my shoulders, removing my glasses, trying to divest me of my wedding ring, nibbling on my fingers, and popping and hissing like cobras when I surprised them
  • took my sweetheart for a half hour ride around the farm on a four-wheeler -- much delight!
  • led an expedition with shovels and hoes to break up two beaver dams in order to provide water for my brother's cattle herd downstream (don't worry, the beavers still have plenty of water, and I'm sure they've fixed the damage already)
  • wandered the Polk County Fair in my hometown of Fertile, Minnesota, and saw lots of people I know from many years ago
  • sampled pie at the Concordia Lutheran Church food booth (I recommend the cherry almond)
  • got reacquainted with Erica, who has grown a lot during her six months in Central America
  • enjoyed a wonderful ninety minutes catching up with my oldest friend in the world (Kevin, friends since my first day of kindergarten) watching the parade of vehicles and people going by at the fair
  • roped and wrestled a calf that needed treatment for foot rot (I am no threat to the PRCA ropers at this point)
  • got educated by my daughter Mathea about core personalities and shadow personalities, her own adaptation of the psychological work of C.G. Jung

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Simply ourselves, and totally present

As I said in my last post, I have recently been reading a little Bonhoeffer.  That is always good to stir the thoughts and the heart.  One thing I have been learning from Bonhoeffer and others in the last year or so is how ardently, how passionately, God loves this world -- not some spiritualized version of it, not some "oh-if-only-my-people-would-get-it-right" remake, but this imperfect world.  This passionate love is why God calls his people to be involved in this world, to make an impact here, to lose their lives here.  We are not called to make ourselves something we're not, but rather to bring everything we are into the real situations, the real relationships, the real lives, that fill this world.  We are to spend ourselves here as Jesus spent himself on the real people and situations that confronted him.  Jesus was totally present in the moment, in the place where he was.  Whether he stood in front of Pilate, the Gerasene demoniac, or the apostle Peter, Jesus was totally present.  That is his call to us as well -- we are called to be simply ourselves, and totally present in this world.

I've been pondering these paragraphs from a letter Bonhoeffer wrote from prison.  I hope you will take the time to ponder them as well: 

During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man — in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don't mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. I think Luther lived a this-worldly life in this sense.
I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor.3 We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it's quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn't realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.
I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God's sufferings through a life of this kind?
I think you see what I mean, even though I put it so briefly. I'm glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I've been able to do so only along the road that I've travelled. So I'm grateful for the past and present, and content with them.
You may be surprised at such a personal letter; but if for once I want to say this kind of thing, to whom should I say it? Perhaps the time will come one day when I can talk to Maria like this; I very much hope so. But I can't expect it of her yet.
May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.