Monday, September 12, 2011

The Spiritual Spiral

One of the most helpful things I ever learned was regarding the shape of Christian spirituality. The author I was reading (Thomas Keating) made the comment that we often spend lots of time learning about all these spiritual things we should be doing to be formed like Christ, but we don't spend very much time thinking about the form or shape of christian spirituality in general. I think he is absolutely correct. We spend tons of time figuring out all the little things we should do on the Journey, but hardly any time figuring out what the Journey actually looks like.

Most of us approach Spirituality, the journey of sanctification, as if it is linear. You are travelling across an open plane, getting from point A to point B, and since the fastest way to get anywhere is a straight line, we think our Spirituality should be a straight line. Which means we shouldn't ever visit ground we have already visited, or zig zag along the way. That is all wasted motion, it is all wasted effort that means we are following Christ wrong.

Put another way, we approach following Jesus as if it is like school. In school you take a class, you pass that class, and then you move on. You take Geometry, you pass geometry (if you are smart!), and then you don't take geometry again. Oh, you might take another math that somehow relies on geometric principles, but it is not the same class. It is harder, more advanced, more complex. And if you do end up taking geometry again, going over the same lesson about proofs another time... well that means maybe math isn't your thing. If you take geometry ANOTHER time after that, again going over that tricky lesson on proofs... well maybe you aren't the sharpest tool in the shed (or perhaps really lazy?).

That is all well and good for geometry. But we mustn't think of Christian Spirituality that way. If you think that on the path of following Jesus you take classes "Loving Others 101", "Faith in Jesus", and "Loving God and Not the World" and then after taking them move on to higher more advanced subjects... you are in for a rough surprise. You will get discouraged as each time you think you "learn the lesson about faith" somehow or other you find later on that you are right back in the same situation, learning the same lesson all over again. Once or twice in the remedial course and you can hype yourself up and convince yourself you wont be back.. but after your twelfth time learning the lesson "God is greater than you" or "Love God and Others, not yourself", well it is hard not be down on yourself or think of giving up. "Will I ever learn ANYTHING?! I thought I already learned this!"

But all of that is unnecessary. Following after Jesus isn't like walking across an open plain or taking secondary courses. Following Jesus is like climbing a mountain. When you cross a plain, you walk straight and thats pretty much it. When you climb a mountain you go up and down and side to side, and all of that is moving you forward. When you climb a mountain there are switchbacks-- you move back and forth between the same exact points, moving upward. Though in one sense you are on the same part of the mountain you have been on before, in another sense you are not: you are higher up. And how do you move further up the mountain? By returning to the very same spot on the mountain, just a little higher up.

Christian Spirituality isn't linear. It is a spiral. In a line you move forward by never coming back to the same ground. In a spiral you move forward by covering the same ground over and over again, just a little higher up each time. I think this is how God shapes us.

And doesn't this make sense after all? We have all found ourselves back "relearning" a lesson we have already learnt before. This isn't because we are stupid or spiritually stubborn or that we didn't learn the lesson the first time. It is that the last time we learned the lesson we weren't mature enough to learn all of it. We weren't sanctified enough to learn any more than we did, and we probably weren't even able for God to reveal more about our depravity to us. Each and every time we revisit the same ground and learn the "same" lesson, we see it from the slightly higher position of our growing maturity. What does this mean?

You never get past the basics of Christianity. You will never leave behind the lessons of faith and hope and love. They are what holds everything together. You never get past the gospel. It is something you never stop learning, in a thousand different ways at a million different times all along the path toward He who is the Head, the Lord over all, Christ.

~J.L. Smith

Culture and Love

This may sound crazy, but I think I am just now experiencing the cultural stress people often talk about and lump in with “culture shock”. Oh I have had my fair share of adjustments, getting used to new language and new rules regarding staring, spitting, sitting, eating, cleanliness, bathrooms, whistling (yes, whistling),
green hats, and a plethora of other things. But I am a pretty mellow guy, even keeled you might say. Aside from the initial feeling of being an alien (a feeling I realized I was carrying with me, not a feeling the people or land were projecting at me), things have been pretty easy culturally. Things like crowded buses or lines that aren't lines but a contest to see who can shove to the front-- overall these haven't really stressed me.

But recently I have entered a new cultural context. Maybe context isn't the best word. Perhaps level? I any case I have now been here long enough and our office staff is large enough that I find myself having chinese friendships, real and palpable. And I don't just mean that I have chinese friends. I have had those for a while. What is new is that the ratio of chinese to foreigner has shifted among the general staff so that I am the clear minority, and things tend to run, relationally speaking, in a chinese way.

Which is quite exciting! But also frustrating. I don't know if you all know this or not, but I will let you in on a secret: I am not chinese! I don't know all the tiny little social protocols and rules and expectations that go into friendships here. I have these big general ideas about how they are different, but no idea how those really work out in practice.

For instance, paying for meals. In America, when out with friends, this is relatively easy. Everyone pays for their own thing. You either get separate checks or everyone puts in money. Every once in a while someone will pay for you, just to be nice. But its not like you owe them anything.

China is completely different. Everything is based on relational capital and doing things for other people, and those people being indebted to you. It is a system called guanxi. So when you go out to eat, everyone paying for themselves is pretty much out of the question. One person pays. They don't collect money. They pay. Basically what happens is that there is a knock down drag out verbal fight (indirectly) for who gets to pay-- not with everyone trying to avoid paying, but with everyone trying to out give the others. I have to fight to pay for anything EVER.

And the same idea applies to anything else. I have to scrap and fight and pound my head against this cultural wall in order to do anything for my Chinese friends. It is this weird dynamic where I know that I am culturally expected to do things for them and I also know that Christ wants me to be as loving toward these people as possible-- but they won't accept my love! And it is completely 100% frustrating.

It is hard enough to love people from my own culture, where I know the rules and expectations. But learning to love across cultures is a whole new thing, learned slowly through a thousand mistakes. May God give me grace as I learn to really love the Chinese way.

~J.L. Smith

Community and Love

So lets talk some more about my failures.

It is a hard thing to move to a new culture. I think everybody kind of knows that, to some degree or other. Some know it from experience, and everybody else knows because the people that know from experience proclaim it with wide eyes and won't let the others forget it.

There is a whole gaggle of reasons why moving cross-culturally is difficult, but I think it ultimately boils down to this: it is loss of community. All the customs and language and food and “common sense” that are foreign to you are roadblocks to community.

It was hard moving here basically straight from college, where I had the deepest and widest Christian community I have ever had, to a whole new community where nothing comes easy. Granted there is a foreign community here as well, but starting from scratch anywhere isn't necessarily fun. And it takes time.

Like many things in my time here, my community has grown over time, initially slowly but picking up speed the longer I have been here. I was warmly welcomed here by the Joneses and Whitneys and my first months here would have been much much harder without them (I am forever in their debt, and to me, they are my china family), but after a couple weeks I craved to know more people, particularly those at a similar stage of life. I scrounged for community, looking for relationships everywhere, accepting any invitations to anything—and after a while I found it. I found friends, I found people to worship God with, I found people to show God to, and I found pretty much everything I needed to be satisfied.

Which is pretty much the problem. I have spent waaaay too much time thinking about myself. As I said in my last post, I think real love is based upon focusing on others and not yourself. You can do a whole lot of things that look like love, and in some ways imitate it, but in reality its not agape love. It is ego centric self serving love. Though I have spent much of my time here thinking, “How can I build community? How can I encourage community?” I haven't been seeking to love others for the sake of loving God. I have been seeking to love others for the sake of loving myself. I want community because it was a way to fill the void, a way to find closeness and intimacy and support and love. Instead of relying on the ocean of God's love, I idolized community instead.

And community that is built through idolatry is never stable. You don't actually end up forming a loving community, at least not a whole one. When loving others is an expression of your selfishness, you end up with fragmented unhealthy community. When loving others is an expression of Christ's love working itself out of you, when it is based upon God's love for you and your love for Him, when at the center of it all is the complete self-denial found in the love of Christ-- then the Church really can be whole and healthy and united. May God give me grace as I learn what it means to really love.

~J.L. Smith

Ministry and Love

Have you ever done something with the best of intentions.. but then done it all wrong? Like those times in school where there was a big homework assignment you had to complete---like, say, answering discussion questions 3-8 with a three page response per question---and you dutifully went about answering all the questions, meticulously crafting your answers for the best possible grade, only to find out you had answered questions from the wrong unit or book or whatever? And as a result, you got a big fat F? No matter how hard you work on those questions, not matter how right your answers-- they are answers to all the wrong questions.

I feel like I have been answering all the wrong questions.

For those with eyes to see, there is an infinite amount of work to do in bringing the kingdom. The task of the Church to be salt and light works its way out in a thousand myriad ways, intersecting with cultures and languages and churches and peoples and politics and social justice and war and peace and love and hate and all the problems and hopes of humanity. And though our task can be so large as to be overwhelming, we know that we cannot do anything less than be the Church; we know we can do nothing less than enact God's kingdom.

And so the question I have been asking myself (and the question I feel many of us ask ourselves) is this: what can I do to change the world? What can I do to bring the kingdom? What can I do to contribute to the vocation of the Church?

There is so much right about this question. It sounds so good. Its intentions are pure and honest and heartfelt. But just as tiny miniscule adjustments in the aim of an archer can produce massive differences when the arrow reaches the target, so too these questions, though flawed in a seemingly small way, produce differences in the final outworking of our life and ministry that are huge and noticeable and, to put it bluntly, off the mark. I know. It has happened to me.

I have found that the question, “what can I do to change the world?” sounds like it is about other people, but really just ends up being all about me. The intention is good, but the focus is wrong. I end up living missionally, ostensibly, for myself. I need to be right. I need to be holy. I need to be doing Christianity “correctly”. I, I, I! Me, me, me! I need the world to be changed, for communities to be impacted, for others' lives to be changed-- for myself. For my own justification. For my own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment and, ultimately, self worth.

Jesus said the greatest commandment is loving God, and right behind it is loving people. And I think the core of what it means to be loving is this: to live for the sake of something other than yourself. Our task is to be the embodiment of God's love in the world, and so to bring the kingdom and change the world. But we can't embody God's love by first focusing on ourselves. We can only embody God's love by loving God. Real ministry only happens where we deny ourselves, die to ourselves, sacrifice ourselves to God so that he can rule us, guide us, love us, sanctify us. The question isn't, “How can I change the world?” but “How can I join God in changing the world?” “How can I give myself up to God?” “How can I let God use me?”

In short, it is not about what I must do, but about what I must become.

Not too long ago I was praying, asking God, “What am I doing here? I have been striving and trying and working and thinking and doing, but I see nothing! Where is the fruit?! I thought the harvest was ripe? I know you are doing things here God, but I don't see it! Show me!” And as soon as I got up from praying I was invited to an unexpected place, met an unexpected man, and was witness to God's providence at work as that man was led from belief in God to belief in Christ. It was as if God was saying, “Yes, I am at work here. I am moving here. And this is the only avenue for real change: through me. Won't you join me?”

I will never be the embodiment of God's love to the world by focusing on myself. I will never change the world by trying to change the world myself. Its like trying to swim across the Sahara or run across the Pacific: the goal might be good, but the method is all wrong. The only method for lasting change in the world is love, pure and real, first for God and then for others. May God give me grace as I learn what it means to really love.

~J.L. Smith