Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Love, really?

Love neighbor, love self. This can't be news to you, gentle reader, so why am I writing about it? Most simply, it was mentioned in last week's Gospel reading.  More profoundly, here's why: from a theological perspective, the greatest commandments has the effect of making love the "normative principle" of life. What's this? "Normative principle" means that life's decisions and interactions are to be measured against the principle of love. Put another way, it means the question we ask ourselves before acting is: what is the loving thing to do? For many of us, this will be a significant change.
Before arguing this further, let me define love for you. In this context, love isn't about warm fuzzy feelings or even about liking. Love is about the essential welfare and well being of the other. The definition of love can be stated this way: when the welfare and well being of the other is at least as important to you as your own, and you act on it, then the act is loving. From a theological perspective, it is the minimum definition; the ultimate definition being that which Jesus offered, namely "There is no greater love than that which is shown by laying down your life for another."

I'm offering this minimum definition because I think it is the one we can more realistically pull off--having the tendency to be a bit selfish.  Plus, it can be done over and over, whereas laying down one's life is a one time deal.

Operating this way is much harder than it seems.  Most of us enjoy making people happy.  We may even "need" to do so at some level.  Love as defined here isn't about happiness.  Let's use this example:  I meet a panhandler who asks for money.  From his/her appearance and demeanor, I'm guessing the odds are good the money will be buying booze.  So I decided not to enable this habit and refuse to hand over my loose change.  Very likely the panhandler will not be happy.  But I have operated on the principle of doing something to support his/her essential welfare and well being.  So the act is loving.  Make sense?  Let's try another.

I expect my teenager to do his/her homework and certain chores around the house.  Will he/she be happy about it?  Not likely.  But, this teenager is learning discipline, teamwork, a sense of responsibility, and laying the foundation for a more effective adulthood.  So my requirements are loving.

How do you begin to incorporate this principle into your decision making?  Very consciously and intentionally.  Shifting to this will be hard because replacing an old habit with a new one is hard to do. But when I think about it being hard, I'm reminded that what Jesus had to do was hard as well--much harder than this.  Plus, since I'm motivated to want to please God (see the last post) I can put up with hardship until the habit becomes more ingrained.

What do you think?  Is this a principle you want to make normative in your life?

Peace, Jerry 

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Money, money, money..."

(Before reading further, please take a quick look at my first post.  Thanks.)

This is the time of year when parishes of all stripes kick off their campaign to raise money for operating the church and funding outreach for another year.  Some call it a pledge campaign, others call it a stewardship campaign, and still others try to find some catchy or unique name and approach for it to take the sting out of it.  No matter what it’s called, it is a time of heightened anxiety both for the ordained and lay leadership and the parishioners.

The clergy and the lay leaders are anxious because the costs of operating a parish don’t stay static--they tend to rise each year.  That means each year folks likely are going to be asked to pony up more money than the year before and that’s hard to ask year after year.  The parishioners get anxious because many see this as a time when their sense of obligation to the parish clashes with how they might prefer to use their finite financial resources.  All kinds of other emotions rear up too: guilt, embarrassment, irritation, and frustration, to name only a few.
People give for any number of reasons.  Some give because from a very early age, the habit was developed.  It likely started with dropping a few coins in the alms basin each Sunday--coins hastely supplied by mom or dad.  Others give because they feel obligated to support the parish in some way.  They understand it takes money to proclaim the Gospel, so they sign that card or make a private vow to give.  Still others may give because--not to put too fine a point on it: they don’t want to get God mad at them.  They operate from a kind of works righteousness point of view, that is, we do good works to get into heaven.  And some give because they don’t want to let the alms basin pass without something dropped in because they are concerned about what their neighbors or the ushers might think. (Really, I know this for a fact!)
Let me suggest another way to thinking about this giving business.  Our Church teaches that God loves us, wishes to be in relationship with us, and through Jesus, has made that relationship possible.  We are reminded by St. Paul, “That God showed his love for us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Pretty powerful. When we were baptized, we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  To use a different kind of language, in this action, we acknowledge that God has “saved” us.  Our Church also teaches that there is nothing we can do to earn this status--grace, love, and mercy has provided it.  And, likewise, there is nothing we can do to sever this bond.  Looked at this way, we should feel compelled to proclaim, “Alleluia!  What a gift!”
I think it is absolutely natural to want to respond to that.  For many of us, we respond by confessing our shortcomings which likely disappoint this loving Parent.  For many of us, we regularly attend worship, not just out of habit or to see our friends, but to commune with this God who loves us beyond our ability to understand.  We pray, we have private devotional times, we serve others--all as a means of showing our thanks and offering our praise.
And these are good things.  The theological rationale for giving to the church flows from this same desire to show our love, appreciation and praise.  Looked at from this perspective, the first consideration when the campaign starts isn’t “How much do they need?”  The first consideration isn’t “How much can I afford?”  The first consideration is: "How can I meaningfully respond to the love I feel flowing from God?"  This becomes the lens through which the question of, “How much can I afford,” is addressed.  
I’d like to suggest one other part of that equation is, “On what do I spend my money now?” This question gives us the chance to evaluate the worth of those things on which we spend money now, especially our discretionary income, that is, dollars not required for housing, food, and the like.  We may find that those expensive coffees we have every week are something we could change and then add that money to our pledge.  I know I certainly could pare down some of the things I think I have to have, which are in fact, luxuries if that’s what it took to increase my gift to the church.  I’ve done it.
So perhaps we can avoid cringing when the annual giving drive is announced and when the pledge cards arrive.  Maybe we can see this time as a great time to reflect on our relationship to God and how we might respond in love to God's love.  Think about it, OK?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Getting Started

Welcome to Theological Musings!

One of the perks (or responsibilities) of being Theologian In Residence at St. Mary's is that I'm expected to "think theologically" and share those thoughts for the interested.  A blog is an easy way to do this.

What does "think theologically" mean?  Theology is classically understood as a study of God.  The theologian seeks to understand the nature and character of God and then to apply that understanding to the life of faith.  In a very real sense, all Christians are theologians, but clergy have been especially trained in seminary and advanced education settings to think theologically.  This doesn't imply we're better at it than lay people.  And the truth is, there are many lay theologians who have written in the past and many who continue to do so today who are quite good theologians.  I do think most lay people "expect" us to be theologians, that is, have the "answers" or at least know the right questions to ask.  So here I am taking a crack at both those things.

I see my musings as something you will consider, have some fun with, laugh at, be moved by, reject, embrace, ignore or otherwise use as you see fit.  I don't consider myself a theological expert, but I have been around a long time and have been grappling with issues of faith as long as I can remember.  So please come back and take a look and let's talk.

Peace, Jerry