Sunday, August 29, 2010

Guests at the Banquet

This week’s sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14... for those friends who were curious how I might put together Achievement, Wedding Banquets, and Grace. :-)

A couple weeks ago, while driving to church, I drove past a fitness center that had one of those little sandwich-style signboards out on the side of the road. In an effort to drum up business, they were putting cute, pithy little sayings up. This particular week, the saying was something like, “Discover the meaning of life: ACHIEVEMENT.”
I suppose most people probably didn’t even slow down. Those sorts of pithy sayings are almost always chosen for their universal agreeableness – the kinds of inspirational verbiage that doesn’t offend anybody. But maybe because I was on my way to church, it hijacked my attention completely.
Is it true? Can true meaning in life be found through achievement? Certainly it’s what our culture holds up as the highest good: My children’s educational success is measured through their performance on achievement tests. Job promotions usually focus on what we have achieved in the past year. We turn on in huge numbers for the Academy Awards and other awards show that focus on the achievements of actors, actresses, movie directors and producers. We hold parades and send trophies touring to celebrate the achievements of championship sports teams.
And yet… reading today’s Gospel, I get the distinct sense that achievement is not what Jesus is pointing to as the true meaning of life. Despite the fact that he sounds like Miss Manners, I think Jesus is trying to point his listeners towards something much more significant than questions of etiquette. This isn’t the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like.
In Jesus’ world, social status was perhaps even more important than it is today. The seating arrangements at a casual dinner party were more carefully choreographed than most modern weddings. Where you sat sometimes even determined the food you ate: those at the head table would not uncommonly be served a better wine and more gourmet dishes than those at the lower seats.
So Jesus’ instructions here sound like simply good sense and manners. Don’t embarrass yourself by claiming a space too high: better to let your host reseat you higher than to be asked to humble yourself by moving down below the salt.
But taken in their full context, they push beyond simply good sense. Because Jesus goes on to instruct his hosts in who to invite, and it’s not the leading citizens of the town. It’s the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – in other words, people without prestige, without status, and without achievement. What are you supposed to do if you go to this banquet? Even here, are you supposed to seat yourself below the salt? Surely here, at least, you can feel confident of your superior status? If achievement is a valid way of measuring the meaning of a life, then it’s not hard for almost all of us to feel confident that we deserve a place higher up the table than the blind, the lame, and the beggar.
And I think that is Jesus’ point – our achievements don’t matter at all. At the Heavenly Banquet – which all our earthly banquets are foreshadows of – the last will be first. This is not just a veneer of humility, designed to exalt us in the eyes of others when we are asked to sit higher at the banquet. God means it – the people we are uncomfortable with, the people we regard as failures, the people who don’t have much in the way of achievement are the ones who will be welcomed first, and shown to the highest seats.
Jesus is not giving us a set of achievements to strive for in order to earn an appropriate seat at the Heavenly Banquet. It is easy to focus on the instructions part of this passage – don’t take the highest seat, invite the poor to our dinners – and miss what it is truly about. It’s about grace. It’s about God’s love that invites us to the banquet and exalts us even though we haven’t earned it. We are the poor, the lame, the blind, and the crippled who are invited to the banquet, who are led past the well-connected and the successful to take a seat at the head table.
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells the story of a young woman and her fiance who book a wedding reception at one of Boston’s fanciest hotels. The deposit alone is several thousand dollars, but they’re in love and they gladly hand over the money. But as the big day approaches, the groom gets cold feet. “I’m not sure I’m ready to make this kind of commitment” he tells his bride, and breaks the engagement. The bride goes to the functions manager at the hotel and pours out her sad tale, and finds the woman sympathetic and kind, but unable to refund the money already paid for the reception. “You signed a contract,” she apologizes, “and we can’t refund your money. So you have two choices: you can just walk away from the deposit, or you can go ahead and have the party.”
Rather than waste the thousands of dollars already spent, the former bride decides to throw the party anyway. Years before, she herself had been homeless. And even though she now had a good job, a nice home, and excellent prospects, she remembered what it had been like to live in a shelter. So she sent invitations to every homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Boston, inviting the homeless and the lonely to her high-class celebration. Tuxedoed waiters served boneless chicken – in honor of the groom – to a ballroom full of Boston’s homeless and hungry.
It is, Yancey says, exactly what it means to be a recipient of God’s grace. We are the guests at the feast, even though we have no claim on the host. The meaning of life is not about our achievements – not even those of mercy and charity – it is about being invited guests at a great Banquet. We are the ones who are served by tuxedoed waiters and thanked for coming -- not because we have earned our right to sit down to dinner, but because the host is amazingly generous.
It is this generous outpouring of grace to us that we are called to remember as partake of this Eucharist, this foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. In our lives together as disciples of the Risen Christ, fed as we are on his Body and Blood, we become the hosts, the people Jesus addresses in his instructions, telling them who to invite. It becomes our task to share the feast with everyone we meet – young and old, famous and unknown, successful and down-and-out. Because that’s what the Heavenly Banquet, the Kingdom of God is like. All are welcome at this feast. All are welcome at this table.
Achievement, when it is a reflection of our joyful offering of our gifts to God, is a good and joyful thing. But it is not the meaning of life. The true meaning of life is found in knowing that whatever our failures, we have already been invited to the feast by the Host who loves us regardless of our achievements – or lack thereof. The Heavenly Banquet awaits us, and the last shall be first, and the humble shall be exalted. Amen.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Just sitting and thinking...

The cover story in this week’s TIME magazine is a story warning us against the romantic attachment to summer vacation because “that downtime is making our kids fall behind.” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, really. The corporate world already considers any kind of vacation a criminal waste. Too many professionals brag about how they never use up all their days off, boast about how much vacation time they lost last year. They’ve convinced many of us to react with resentment toward anyone who gets (and can actually take) paid vacation, or who only works 40 hours a week.

To be fair, the TIME article has in mind far more than just another 30 days sitting in the classroom doing more math sums and grammar drills. What TIME envisions is more like the greatest summer camp ever, particularly for kids from tough neighborhoods and other low-income areas, who often lack resources for “stimulation.” There is certainly great value in suggesting that we could do far better by kids with few resources than we do now, especially when it comes to offering them fun and interesting alternatives to sitting inside playing video games while their parents work two jobs and tell them to stay put because going down to the playground means risking getting shot.

But I am wary of a “one-size-fits-all” solution, and I do think we have a tendency to overemphasize the value of “stimulation.” While doing nothing but playing video games all summer is hardly enriching, not every child will spend the summer trapped in a stuffy apartment. By all means, offer great summer programs for all kids, and make them free and available to all. But there is value in the boredom of summer vacation as well. And getting rid of summer vacation entirely, eliminating a good, long break where kids have enough time to get bored, would be a terrible mistake.

What message do we send when we fret about “falling behind” and ditch vacation time to improve test scores? It makes perfect sense if we say, as the corporate world would like us to, that the meaning of life is economic productivity. But there is much more to life than hours spent toiling to make stuff, in order to earn money to buy more stuff. The more hours spent working, the better, because then there is more stuff we can buy (though never enjoy, because we are too busy working).

The prevailing view in the campaign against summer vacation seems to be that summer vacation is good only for emptying our children’s heads of the useful and important information we spent 10 months stuffing into it. Summer vacation teaches our children to be lazy!

Well, yes. It does. It gives them time to learn all kinds of things that have nothing at all to do with economic productivity. They may learn to sit silently, watching a dragonfly or a frog. They might dig a hole, not for any particular purpose, but just to see how deep they can make it. They spend time with friends. They make crafts that have no purpose other than the joy of creating. They swim. They play games. They may even be forced to spend some time with family. They sleep. They rest.

In other words, they learn what gives life meaning. They learn about sabbath. They learn the wisdom of slowing down and resting from hard labor. They learn to do it in a slow way, not in a frantic rush to cram all the fun they can stand into the one week allotted by the Powers That Be. You can only learn to sit and listen for the still, small voice when you have no place else to be, or something to do. Constant enrichment could actually impoverish children, who will never learn to endure boredom long enough to wait upon God.

Summer vacation is not just the remnant of a time when most people lived on farms and were needed for agricultural labor in the summer months. It’s a remnant of a time when people didn’t move quite so quickly, when there was time to notice the passing of the seasons, when Sunday was a day of rest even for farmers, when sundown meant time to sleep. It’s a reminder of a time when hard work was valued, but so was time for prayer, worship, and rest. It’s a reminder of what a balanced life could be -- one with time for study and learning and accomplishment, as well as time for rest and reflection and just sitting there doing nothing.

In our 24/7 world, we have been taught to view every moment not spent accomplishing something to be wasted time. We multitask, and brag about how many things we can do at one time. And we look with horror at summer vacation as a pit of squandered time, when our children’s hard-earned academic accomplishment somehow leaks out their ears.

But corporate values should not be our values. The meaning of our lives is not to be found in how many documents we create, or widgets we build, or money we make. It does not rest in our ability to do calculus in our heads, or in having higher test scores than kids in Japan. The corporation may value us in dollars produced per man hour, but God values us for the wonderful, unique person God created. We cannot fully become that person if our every hour is governed by another lecture, or another set of flash cards, or more striving to achieve higher levels of economic productivity. To learn who we truly are, to learn what it means to be human, we need to stand on the shore and watch the waves... and watch them... and watch them. We need to sit on the lawn mesmerized by the ants. We need to build relationships not through Carnegie Mellon classes designed to teach us how to manipulate people, but simply by being present to another human being for hours on a hot summer day.

If I thought for an instant the summer programs we’d replace summer vacation with would include long hours for exploring each child’s own creative impulses, for sitting watching the rain, for hanging out laughing with friends, I might be willing to support them. But I know it would take perhaps 30 seconds before corporate values of accomplishment would take over, and school committees would demand to see results from those extra 30 days. We spent all that money, and all you did was sit around watching ants? How can you waste time like that, when you could have done MCAS practice questions?

What good is summer vacation? Why, it’s only where we learn who we are separate from the work we do, the unique person that God created. That’s something the corporate world would rather we didn’t know -- and it’s why kids need summer vacation now more than ever.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Walking with Dog

So, for this class I’m taking on youth ministry, I’m supposed to blog about my spiritual practices. No problem. I’ve got the blog. I like to write about spirituality and discipleship. I’m really into sharing the journey of this life in Christ.

So why am I a month into the semester and writing my first blog post? It’s that spiritual practices thing. I know -- and those of you who know me know -- that a disciplined rule of life isn’t really my thing. I’ve always been more of a “controlled chaos” person than an organizational maven. The basis of this assignment is to accustom us to talking about our daily spiritual practices so we can teach them to youth. Makes sense to me, except....

My favorite spiritual practice is walking the dog.

No, that’s not a typo. It would sound a lot better if it were “walking with God.” But honestly, my daily time of contemplation and reflection is when I take Emma the pooch for her morning constitutional. And I’m not reciting Morning Prayer while I do it, either. I’m just wandering along, nodding at the people (and other dogs) we pass, noticing what Emma stops to sniff at, thinking about how it’s getting lighter earlier. Sometimes I do think about religious things... but quite often I just hang out with the dog. God’s welcome, but mostly He just hangs out with the dog, too. If Emma has noticed God along for the walk, she hasn’t said anything.

I often feel guilty about this. As spiritual practices go, walking the dog doesn’t appear in any list I’ve ever seen. I know that that as a spiritual leader, I’m supposed to practice what is preached -- the importance of daily attentive listening to God. But here’s the thing: God and I go way back. He got me into this crazy juggling act of school and church and family. And I’ll say this for him -- he’s stuck with me while I juggled it. He always seems willing to come along for the ride. The times my spiritual life has been most satisfying has been when I’m looking for God where I currently am (usually between point A & B), rather than forcing myself to wait in one place for God to come by.

So I walk the dog. And I do dishes. And I read the newspaper. And I look around and see if God is with me, and mostly, God is. Those are the times when I am most conscious that God is present.

I do need formal worship, too, to feed me spiritually. But I’m an extrovert, a raging loves-people extrovert, so I am fully fed by helping to lead worship two services on Sunday and one on Thursday night. It pours energy and joy for God’s work into me. I’m perfectly happy getting my spiritual sustenance from the church where I am working. For silence, well, I have walking the dog.

I can teach other forms of prayer. I have a pretty good collection of kinetic prayers I use when I feel the need to connect with God in a different way because there are too many distractions getting in the way. I do and have taught drawing prayer, and next week I’ll be teaching rosary making and prayer at Trinity Church, Stoughton. (Come by Thursday night, March 18, 6 p.m. for soup supper and rosaries if you’ve a mind.) I like labyrinths, and am contemplating buying a small one when I have income again. These are forms of prayer I find very useful, particularly when I feel the need to slow down and listen for God’s voice. But it’s not like I can say, “well, on Wednesdays I pray the rosary” or “I do drawing prayer three times a week.” I might... or I might not do it for a month. Just depends on where I am at the moment.

All of which works for me, which, as my spiritual director tells me, is the point. But I don’t think I would suggest anyone else follow my routine -- who knows whether God hangs out with other dogs? Emma just looks inscrutable when I ask her. Telling other people to go out and get a dog to enhance their prayer life seems like a really bad idea. So this will be my last blog post about my daily prayer life, and remember: don’t do what I do, unless, of course, you discover God hanging out with your dog, too.

In the next couple of weeks, maybe I’ll share some of those more traditional prayer practices. Or maybe something in one of these books I’m reading will inspire me. (Already mulling the question of the discerning church and youth...more to come on that, I think.) But if you’re coming here thinking you’ll learn how to get in contact with God through the use of regular spiritual practices of the sort you can talk about in Sunday School without embarrassment, I’m afraid you’ll likely be disappointed.

God and I will be out walking the dog.