joy of giving

Rock Bridge Christian Church, 11.24.13

This week I was thinking about how everyone should have a crazy uncle.

In my life that was and still is Crazy Uncle Marcus, my mom’s older brother. Marcus has a smile that takes over his whole face and an infectious laugh and an ornery streak. When we were young, he was always ready to play anything. He’d toss me a ball for hours on end or teach me how to put a worm on a fishing hook or make up fun games to play.

One game in particular had to do with climbing to the top of things. We’d race up a big rock. The first person to the top would stand at the summit, lift our arms in victory above our heads and yell out “Champion of the People.”

I love Champion of the People moments.

When I was in college I played basketball for the Missouri State Lady Bears. And I tell you, it was good to be a Lady Bear. I still miss that totally embodied fist pump I could give after hitting a big three point shot, and the addictive feeling of success that washed over us victory after victory. In four years we won several conference championships, played in three NCAA tournaments and won the WNIT. It feels so good to be a success.

There’s a certain image I have of a champion, a certain idea of what I think a champion should look like: bigger, bigger, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, richer, richer.

And there are certain things one would assume about a Sunday called the Reign of Christ, things that don’t have much to do with a mostly naked man hanging on a cross.

There’s a certain image we have of a champion, a king, a Messiah. There’s a certain way we think a savior should look.

And then we hear the biblical story, and the images of success that we carry most days of our lives are turned completely around. Trappist monk Thomas Merton puts it this way: Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

The journey with Jesus, the journey of faith and life, the inner journey toward peace, toward hope, toward joy asks us to hear this message. Poorer, poorer, slower, slower, smaller, smaller. My friends, Jesus was a champion of the people, and this is what he looked like.

Each Sunday we have the chance to participate with Jesus in this countercultural work too. Instead of keeping our resources, instead of accumulating our riches, we give them away. Today it is my privilege to welcome you to the Joy of Giving.

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a lamentation

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. ~Lamentations 1.12a

This morning in Missouri a man was executed at the hands of the state. Two and a half hours south and east of where I sleep, just as my cat was wailing his morning wake-up call, a man swallowed hard, breathed heavily, and then ended.

His racially motivated acts were barbaric, no doubt. The governor called them cowardly and calculated. This isn’t one of those “might be innocent” stories.

Yet I am troubled. It says something about my state that we did this. It says something about our country. It says something about us as we carry on our normal days half awake to legal violence in so many forms.

I think instead the world should stop. We should get tripped up by this and a thousand other things – at least for a moment, at least today.

book review: prayers for a privileged people

But we confess…

                we love you imperfectly;

                we love you with a divided heart,

                                with a thousand other loves

                                                that are more compelling (11)

 

These are some of my favorite words in Walter Brueggemann’s book of incisive prayers, perhaps because they are the words that cut into my own privilege. As one who is nearly constantly engaged in thought and activity, often my sense of the divine does not seem as compelling as the interests, hobbies, work, media, and relationships that consume my attention on a daily basis.

This book is for everyone but especially for those of us who tend to take life into our own hands. We know who we are. We make our own choices about where to go and when. We have expendable income and savings if we need them. The simplicity we value is voluntary rather than necessary. We are so used to being in charge of our own agency that we don’t even notice it. We are privileged.

In terms of identity in today’s United States it may look white and/or middle class and/or heterosexual and/or male and/or educated and so on. One prayer entitled “Ourselves at the Center” puts it this way: We are your people, mostly privileged competent entitled. Your people who make futures for ourselves, seize opportunities, get the job done and move on. In our self-confidence, we expect little beyond our productivity; we wait little for that which lies beyond us, and then settle with ourselves at the center” (43).

Much of my personal wrestling with the God – concept has pushed against Brueggemann’s timely images of sovereign, king, and Lord, but in this context of privilege those are precisely the images we need to engage: images that are unsettling and uncomfortable, that remind us our control is fragile and that our lives don’t depend on ourselves alone.

This book is arranged in six sections that follow, as Brueggemann notes in the preface, a natural rhythm of prayer from self-awareness to awareness of others to a “yielding to the goodness of God” (xiii). The prayer topics are abstract and wide-ranging, and they are specific to holidays like Thanksgiving and Labor Day or events like the death of coal miners or income tax day.

Some are paired with scripture and others are paired with salient theological themes: peace, war and violence; theodicy; creation; bondage.

One great temptation in praying these prayers is to make them about someone else – some other privileged person who needs to be called to account. Another temptation is to engage these conceptions of the divine through personal, rational negotiations of power. Those who do either miss the point, which is (in all complexity and simplicity) that prayer is a subversive spiritual practice that expands the way we see ourselves, our world, and our God.