Failing To Be In The Service Of God

There is a little book by Thomas Merton called The Wisdom of the Desert. It contains not only some wonderful reflections by Merton but also a short primer on the desert mothers and fathers of the Christian tradition. Additionally, this book contains some of the “sayings” of the desert saints. These sayings can be easy fairly straight forward but rarely are they easy to understand much less live out. For instance:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour.

Here is a desert father who on his death bed and he is recalling how he worked hard and spoke well. This is the sort of thing that we all might strive for in our lives. To be able to not be a burden, drain or freeloader but to be one who worked hard for their bread and earned it all. Additionally, to be someone who spoke their mind with clarity and such wisdom they had no regrets.

However, I cheated. This is not the whole saying. This is the last line of the saying:

And thus I do to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God.

Pambo understands, but apparently only on his deathbed, that being in service to God requires receiving the service of others and reconciling with neighbor. If we live the life we think we are supposed to live (i.e. self sufficient and without need to apologize) then we have failed to be in the service of God. We have failed to be agents of giving the gift of receiving another’s hospitality as well as failing to speak in any way that might upset someone so that we don’t say anything meaningful at all.

The western value of self-sufficiency and the Southern USA’s value on being “nice” are not Christian values. Beware of the false teachers in the world who say the things that look like they are of the way, but in fact lead to destruction. Self-sufficiency and “niceness” sound like they are good, but ultimately they get in the way of the values that lead to salvation - humility and repentance.

The #UMCGC of "Go" Misses the Church of "Be"?

The emphasis/theme of General Conference is on of "Therefor Go". Sermons and rallying cries are around the standard of "Go". It is a big tent theme where all sorts of people are getting behind. There is a strong sense that the UMC is at her best when we "Go" into the world to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. That is a noble goal and theme. I wonder, with so much focus to "Go" are we overlooking "Be"? 

It is great to have social action, but action without contemplation (a Richard Rohr major theme) we are missing the point. Perhaps it is worth allowing the good Father to share in his own words from May 13, 2016 devotion:

I used to think that most of us must begin with contemplation or a unitive encounter with God and are then led through that experience to awareness of the suffering of the world and to solidarity with that suffering in some form of action. I do think that's true for many people, but as I read the biblical prophets and observe Jesus' life, I think it also happens in reverse: first action, and then needed contemplation.
No life is immune from suffering. When we are in solidarity with pain, injustice, war, oppression, colonization--the list goes on and on--we face immense pressure to despair, to become angry or dismissive. When reality is split dualistically between good and bad, right and wrong, we too are torn apart. Yet when we are broken, we are most open to contemplation, or non-dual thinking. We are desperate to resolve our own terror, anger, and disillusionment, and so we allow ourselves to be led into the silence that holds everything together in wholeness.
The contemplative, non-dual mind is not saying, "Everything is beautiful," even when it's not. However, you do come to "Everything is still beautiful" by facing the conflicts between how reality is and how you wish it could be. In other words, you have to begin--and most people do in their adult years--with dualistic problems. You've got to name good and evil and differentiate between right and wrong. You can't be naive about evil. But if you stay focused on this duality, you'll go crazy! You'll become an unlovable, judgmental, dismissive person. I've witnessed this pattern in myself. You must eventually find a bigger field, a wider frame, which we call non-dual thinking.
Beginning with dualistic action and moving toward contemplation seems to be the more common path in the modern era. We see this pattern in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Jean Vanier. These people entered into the pain of society and had to go to God to find rest for their soul, because their soul was so torn by the broken, split nature of almost everything, including themselves.

As we focus on being a church of "Go", that is important. However, if the "Go" is not moving us into contemplation then we will be nothing but a glorified social action group that carries the name of the United Methodist Church.


Freedom from and for

Christianity teaches that Christ as set the world free from sin and death. That in Christ the world was liberated from the heavy burden of the "flesh" or "law". We are people who are free and no longer live under the oppression of guilt, worry, fear or anxiety.

Being set free from something is an amazing thing. I cannot imagine what it is like to be set free from something like slavery or being held hostage. Being set free is something that most of the time we cannot do on our own. If we were able to be free from what holds us captive on our own, then are we really held captive? Being set free is something that requires the assistance of a source outside of the person.

Being set free from something and being set free for something are related but also different. While being set free from something requires the action of an outside source, being set free for something can come from within. Once we are free from, we can decide what we are going to be free for. 

Many people upon being free from, take full advantage of this freedom and focus on living for themselves. It makes sense and I do not condemn this position. If I were held under the rule of someone or something it is very tempting to live the rest of my life living for my own self interest and desires. Having no desire to go back to oppression, it makes some logical sense that I would not want to take orders from anyone but from me. 

Many people upon being free from, take full advantage of this freedom and focus on living for others. For instance the tradition of the Bodhisattva in Mahāyāna Buddhism, in which a person reaches enlightenment (free from the cycles of death and birth) and then uses that freedom to help others also break the cycle.

This is the mandate of the Christian. Christians believe we are set free from sin and death, not so that we can live for ourselves but that we live for others.

Being free from is a miracle. Being free for is a choice.