Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Agony of de Feet

It is very telling how one of the things Jesus explicitly told us to do is the one thing that almost never gets done in the church.

“You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17).
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet. These were dusty, crusty, don’t bathe every day, walk everywhere in sandals, first century-Palestinian feet. He even washed the feet of the one who was going to betray him immediately afterwards.

Footwashing is a real act of humility. The first time I had it done to me was on Maundy Thursday during my first post-seminary church. The pastor had already impressed this skeptic to no end, then he got down after service, along with the ministerial staff, and washed his parishioners’ feet. Even those who were conspiring to have the bishop transfer him received the sacrament. That had to be transformational on both ends.

Yes, I called it a sacrament, although the institutional church has conspired to exclude it from our routine practice. A sacrament is defined as a visible sign of an inward grace, especially one of the solemn Christian rites considered to have been instituted by Jesus Christ. The Protestant church considers only baptism and the Eucharist as fitting that standard. Those are two occasions that attract significantly more attendees to worship. The Catholic Church includes several other rites that do not have a biblical mandate because business is business.

The level of exposure footwashing produced was unprecedented for me. I had no time to get a pedicure or to bathe to ensure my dogs wouldn’t offend the pastor. Fortunately, my piggies were polished and I had not done much walking that day. Therefore, I was not terribly self-conscious. But I began praying for the ministers' sake about what they might experience with others. 

This occurred following an evening service. For the most part, the worshippers came straight from work and were thus not freshly showered. Not only that, we had homeless members of the congregation with cracked heels and overgrown toe nails that no rational person would volunteer to approach. It’s rare to observe high-ranking officials worshipping alongside the forsaken of society, even more so that they receive the same consideration. James would have been proud for he wrote:
If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”  have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you? (James 2:3-6a).
That’s what makes this act so astounding. Jesus—God incarnate—performed what is considered the lowliest of tasks. John the Baptist described Jesus asHe who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie”(John 2:27). In some early Christian societies, footwashing was considered a prerequisite for service—ancient day hazing, if you will. How different would our communities of faith be if we returned to humility and sacrifice as the central focus of our relationship with God and one another?

Martin Luther criticized religious leaders of his day for washing feet, but demanding greater acts of humility in return from others. Not only do religious leaders not wash feet today, they typically prefer to be elevated above those they serve rather than relate to them as Christ did his disciples. Ironically, the Greek word diakoneo, which  is translated “to minister,” means “to serve” or “to be an attendant.”

Being among the called, I must struggle with what God requires of me. Responding to the call must not be reduced to a set of tasks. Rather, it is a change in disposition, identity, and world view. No form of service is beneath me when it comes to God’s reconciling work in the world. However, I am not yet ready to be great as I still have not washed any feet and am in no hurry to do so. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Dream Diminished

Another year has come where we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. I remember the day always being significant as a child. Television stations aired footage of his speeches the Civil Rights struggle for the better part of the day. Stevie Wonder composed a song expressing outrage at those who fought against a day of observance for his contributions. We had programs in the schools and churches expressing our thanks. It was a pretty big deal. The significance of Martin Luther King’s life was not lost on me. Being an age he never lived to see makes it all the more poignant.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first march to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday and the 25th anniversary of its observance. We have gotten so comfortable that school children now view him as a mythical figure with merely great oratorical skills.

I cringe a bit every time I hear the famous sound bites from his “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s not because of anything inherently wrong with the speech. It was pure genius. My discomfort is because America had reduced him to a spiritual Rodney King beckoning us to “all just get along.” He was interested in greater things than having white people like black people.
If the Negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign, with a pen and ink of self-asserted manhood, his own Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t let anybody take your manhood.
The heart of Martin Luther King’s mission can be summarized in the following quote from him:
The Christian religion must not be concerned only with saving the individual soul, but also dealing with the social evils that corrupt the soul.
His mission was more prophetic and profound that anyone could have imagined at the time. This was a man who clearly heard the voice of the Lord cry out over the land in the way of Isaiah saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then he said, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8).  As with the prophet Isaiah, God does not address Martin Luther King in particular. The Lord announced over the entire land that the dehumanization of His children had to stop. Martin Luther King responded, as did thousands more.

God prepared him of head and heart to lead the movement. The dexterity and depth of his speeches and writings demonstrate that he did not have a vanity doctoral degree. Martin Luther King was a thinker par excellence. He addressed social evils beyond racism, examining them with keen sociological, economic, and theological insight. His speeches on structural poverty and the Vietnam War cut to the bone and marrow of American ills.

The messages resonated in the hearts of many of all races not just because the brother had game. They struck so deeply because he was truly one of God’s anointed messengers.  That’s the nature of real prophecy. It stops you in your tracks, calls you to repentance, and compels you to pursue God’s will in earth as it is in heaven.  

It’s amazing how woefully absent the footage of the Civil Rights movement is in the media today. The images of peaceful marchers being beaten brutally by officers of the law were partly responsible for bringing global shame to America.

The courage that it took for men, women, and children to rise to the challenge with their dignity intact is astounding. Martin Luther King expressed the core of his method as:
Nonviolent resistance has two sides. The non-violent resister not only avoids not only external physical violence, but he avoids internal violence of spirit. He not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he refuses to hate him. He stands with understanding and good will at all times.
America doesn’t like its ugly past. Not only that, it has not truly repented. Repentance has three characteristics: recognition of sin (woe is me), restoration from sin (your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven), and retreat from sin ("Here am I. Send me!").

Don’t get me wrong, America has made great strides in improving its racist heritage. However, it’s a far cry from genuine repentance. Case in point: a group of newly-elected members of legislators read from the Constitution during the opening of the 112th Congress claiming to want to honor the nation’s roots. However, they conveniently omitted the section considering slaves three-fifths of a person.

Unfortunately, prophecy moves God’s enemies to steal, kill, and destroy all means of promoting the advancement of God’s will. Like prophets of old, Martin Luther King was murdered. His blood still cries out from the land proclaiming the inherent worth of all God’s children that cannot be denied. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

What would happen if we were subjected to an annual spiritual review similar to a performance review on our jobs? Would we be kicked out of the church for dereliction of duty or placed in remedial classes for not applying ourselves? Most of us would be able to pass marginally because we have the routine down, but are not challenging ourselves to attain new heights in the Lord. Is that good enough for God? Thus says the LORD:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.  (Revelation 3:15-16).
God not only reviews us constantly, God also urges and empowers us to corrective action by the Holy Spirit.

What are God’s performance standards?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
         And what does the LORD require of you
         But to do justice, to love kindness,
         And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

What amuses me in scripture is that whenever people find themselves at the judgment, they are utterly astounded at their final destination. Will we marvel at the grace extended to the homeless and crackheads we looked down on as church goers and evan-publicans find themselves in hell with all their self-righteousness?

"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.
"All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'

 "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'

 "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'

"Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.'

"Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?'

"Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'

"These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:31-46).

The big money question is: Who is checking up on you?

The typical pastor has not a clue about the disposition of the spirit of their congregants, but they can testify to church attendance, lifestyle, and financial contributions.  Rare is the eulogy where the spiritual leader can honestly attest to the quality of the spirit of the deceased and bless the memory of it. Usually, it’s more like a generic speech with a blank with “insert name here” printed under it at defined intervals. In the same manner, denominational leaders assess congregations on their membership rolls, finances, and activities. These are not God’s performance metrics.

I challenge you to maintain three relationships: one with a spiritual leader who guides you in the way, another with a peer with whom you share similar challenges, and one with a person growing in the faith who you disciple.  This is not about people being all in each other’s business. These relationships are to be accountable to one another, bear one another’s burdens, and being the stewards of God’s love that we are all called to be. Check in regularly with each to ensure you don’t find yourself in shock when that great day comes. Your eschatological fate is non-negotiable.

Theologian Martin Heidegger postulates that there is only one sin and that is not living life authentically. We all have something God requires of us personally. Let’s not complicate the simple with meaningless resolutions.  Losing weight is fine, but it won’t get you in or keep you out of heaven. Do you worship with the object of your faith in spirit and in truth? Do you know and heed His word? Is there another vocation you should be engaging? Are you in love and charity with your neighbor?

I remember being in graduate school in North Carolina the first time I heard a sermon that shocked my consciousness. Critical sermons were typically directed at people other than those in the pews. Down south, they give up the fire and brimstone freely. That day I realized if I met my end right then, I was going to hell. It was terrifying in the moment, but I didn’t change course right away. Thank God for sufficient life remaining to get on the path of righteousness.

Each New Year is an opportunity for a renewed relationship with God.  Let us seriously examine our spiritual direction, devotion, and disposition to develop a plan for doing better continuously. There is always room for improvement for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Do not greet the next year in the same form that you entered this one or you might find yourself short when He comes again.