Sunday, February 21, 2010

Doing the right thing is more than just doing the right thing

My small group began meeting again in January and this time we are reading, "Soul Feast" by Marjorie Thompson. It's a fabulous read--meaty, generous, and written with a gentle open-minded spirit. Last month our group was discussing one of the study questions and as often happens, a totally different question was raised for which I am still formulating an answer. Our group was talking about "good works" (community involvement, mission work, whatever you want to call it) and someone asked the question, "Where does the Christianity piece come in to doing good? Even Atheists do the right thing." And then someone asked, "does it really matter?" My gut reaction was "Christianity absolutely matters" but after some careful examination I couldn't support my gut reaction with any useful reasons. What a serious pause for my faith journey! Why on earth is it important to call myself a Christian and why is being a Christian important? If we're all doing the right thing and we're all following a similar moral order and we're all helping each other in the name of humanity is Christianity obsolete?

Then I thought about another idea we were kicking around in small group--the loss of the mystery of faith. The practice of Christianity was stripped down in the Reformation to the point where many of the rituals and traditions of faith were removed and have been almost lost. There are many saints and followers teachings and writings that have been marginalized or lost or ostracized. We have lost the ability to believe in the mystery and wonder of Christ in our age of reason, science, and post-enlightenment. I wonder if we have such difficulty with our beliefs because they cannot be easily explained and sound to us like some far-fetched fairy tale.

I write these first two paragraphs to set the context of my answer. This question of does it matter if I'm a Christian as long as I'm a good person, is a big deal to me. I'm raising two children in the Christian faith and I'm trying to live a life based on a belief system I think is worthy, and all of a sudden I'm being confronted by a crisis of faith. I haven't given up on Jesus, but if he can't be more than just a good guy, then for me the mystery and power of my faith is lost. I've known lots of good guys in my life. I've had many role models. I've even known some true believers who inspired me to make life better. But I have to tell you there are very few people out there who have emulated the truly sacrificial nature of what perfect love looks like.

We are all skeptics in this great big rational world of ours. Even I've looked pained when people begin sharing how God was speaking to them this morning. Many of us find the outspoken among the "born-again" to be tiresome. However, I must say the lukewarm feelings rarely shared by main-line Christians makes me wonder if we believe anything at all. To be blunt, people get really uncomfortable talking about "being saved." Well, I understand that. It's a hard thing to talk about. How on earth do you explain the moment you were touched by God? How do rationalize how you came to know and feel the presence of Jesus in your heart whether or not your mind understands it? It doesn't always happen all at once. For many of us (self included) it's a longer journey. A painful shying away of a call that just won't go away. Some of us grow up in a church, with Christians all around us and don't have a clue what salvation really means until one day, you just know.

Pondering how God is willing to include every single human ever created, because of his immense, all powerful love that obliterates every single moment of human suffering, wrong doing, unkindness (the list is endless) is overwhelming. The idea that God created an atonement so perfect and so complete that all wrongs are made right is more than I can wrap my judgmental heart around. There are simply no words to describe such a gift. There are often no words to explain how accepting this gift changes your life. Those changes may be so subtle that you won't even know it until you lived with it a while. The beauty of the mystery of faith is that it is a mystery. We try to put words and rules and belief systems around the mystery of a perfect incarnate God and call it faith and discipline and righteousness. We've been trying to describe the same mystery for centuries and we're no better at it now (and perhaps much worse) than we were then.

The closest thing that comes to describing the essence of Christianity is a true understanding of what it means to sacrifice for someone else. To lay down one's life for one's friends--notice I didn't say for something you believe in, or for war, or for an idea--but for another human being. There are many types of relationships that emulate this idea of self-sacrifice: parents and children, brothers and sisters, soldiers who share a foxhole, young love, soul mates, kindred spirits. There isn't a lack of stories about the nature of ultimate goodness that does exist in this world. What there is a serious lack of is day to day commitment to making all people matter. God's love extends to all people in all religions, in all walks of live, in every corner of this beautiful earth that we are so intent on destroying for our own purposes. Christianity is about sacrifice and love, and yes saving ourselves from the hells that we have created out of some misguided notion of "fill-in-the-blank." Our commitment to His kingdom has to include all people, because our claim on His love is no stronger than the love we have for all people.

So that's why I think when we're doing "good works" the Christianity part is important. When we're doing the good works, we're learning about the person we're helping. We learning about ourselves and how our own lives rely on the generosity and willingness of someone else. We're engaging in a relationship that may one day call on us to make a supreme sacrifice. It may not mean laying down our life, but it may mean challenging the social order. It may mean working for justice. It may mean standing up for something or someone unpopular. It may mean shutting up and listening so we can learn something. It may mean learning just how vain and self satisfied we are. It may mean following a call that we don't want to follow. When we offer our time to share with another person (whether helping, healing, or hoping with them), we are saying you are worth my time. You are equally as important to me as anything or anyone else I was going to engage with today. You have an equal claim to the kingdom of God. You have an equal portion of His love and His grace and His abundance in whatever way you wish to take it. Let's claim our portion together in the name of friendship so that when the day comes when we are to lay down our lives for one another we will do so with love and a willing spirit.

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