Monday, July 11, 2016

The Benedict Option, part IV: Community

Genesis 12:10-13:4
James 1:1-10
Matthew 6:19-26

“We Americans have to unlearn some of the ways of individualism that we absorb without thinking, and must relearn the craft of community living.”  Rod Dreher

Suffering is a real and unavoidable part of living; and although Peter uses the word “suffer” more prominently than does James, James better conveys the essential meaning more appropriately when he encourages his audience to “let endurance have its full effect”.  For what reason?  “So you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). 

It is like physical exercise as a means to a specific end: we exercise to get stronger, to increase our ability to endure physical exertion for a longer period of time.  If we quit, we will not only not get any stronger; we will, in fact, become weaker over time. 

It is the same with Scripture study and the faithful use of the other means of grace.  We can become stronger in The Word though not without substantial effort; and we can depend on our faith to serve as a means to a much greater end.  We can learn to let the world take its own course without our being dragged into the muck.

In more common language, however, we understand suffering as misery, something to be avoided at all cost.  A very popular and compelling component of the so-called “prosperity gospel” insists that suffering is inconsistent with Divine Promise and is incompatible with Christian living; the idea being that if we are somehow suffering, we must not be living faithfully.

It is nonsense, of course.  When we “suffer” something, we are miserable only if we think we are somehow entitled to perpetual happiness or that nothing bad should ever happen to us.  When we suffer faithfully, however, we are “enduring a particular reality”.  It may not be the reality we would choose for ourselves or our loved ones but when we are confronted with it, it becomes a reality we are forced to deal with.  It is no less the reality our children must face as they grow and mature, enduring some things we would much rather protect them from. 

Yet we should know the only way our children will be ever be able to stand on their own two feet when the time comes (not if) – knowing we will not always be there to guide and protect them - is to let them learn to work through and endure life’s many discomforts.  Working through these moments, these challenges, however, must be learned from within a particular context: that of the Holy Scripture within the community of faith.  For the popular maxim cannot be denied: if we do not teach our children to live in Christ, the world will teach them not to. 

So as we and our children learn to respond to the challenges we will certainly face, we must choose how we will respond, helping our children and one another respond not according to how a godless world would teach or expect us to respond, but how children of the Most High God must respond according to the Holy Covenant.  What would The Lord ask of us?  To fight?  To flee?  Or to fold?

Those are actually false choices.  Though psychology teaches that we are all equipped with either “fight or flight” modes, the Bible teaches and encourages us to rise about our own base human nature even as we must deal with the nature of others who choose not to rise.  So when we are faced with an inescapable reality, we are biblically and spiritually compelled to ask not ‘how we can get out of this’ but, rather, ‘what we can get out of this’.

Make no mistake.  The question is not one encouraging us to always consider and strive for personal gain as in “What’s in it for me”.  As a Covenant people living with The Lord within The Lord’s community, we must learn how to ask this question according to what it will take to build up and strengthen the people of The Lord, the Body of Christ … the Church.  Not to only increase in numbers but to increase in strength, in faithfulness, and in the strongest sense of what it means to be a community in Christ.  This goes far beyond merely “liking” each other and choosing our favorites.  This is actually what tears at the fabric of a community.

Especially within a culture of hyper-sensitivity and hyper-individualism, we must learn to be unafraid to speak the truth in love – and to do so within the greater community; that unpopular and very unpleasant truth being that it isn’t about “you” … or “me”.  It is always, first and foremost, about The Lord.  Then it is about the “neighbor” entrusted to our care, the neighbor we are compelled to love, to care for as surely and as faithfully as we love ourselves.  We as individuals are a distant third.

Challenging ourselves and one another to consider “what we can get out of” whatever it is we must face, and face together, we must first learn to appreciate what James is saying to his congregation: “the testing of your faith produces endurance …” (vs 3).  Peter says pretty much the same thing: “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). 

The Lord even tested His beloved Abraham with Isaac (Genesis 22:1).  All this wrapped up neatly in the Proverbs: “Do not regard lightly the discipline of The Lord, or lose heart when you are punished (or tested) by Him; for The Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and chastises every child whom He accepts” (Proverbs 3:11-12, Hebrews 12: 5-6).

So we are being less than biblically honest with ourselves and with one another when we convince ourselves The Lord already knows what is within us by that one-time profession of faith.  His faithful have always been tested – by The Lord Himself AND by the world.  Tested by The Lord to determine the depth of our faith and to prepare us for what we will certainly face sooner or later.  Tested by the world to determine whom or what we are most loyal to.  And if we fight, flee, or fold, our witness becomes void and our faith will be found non-existent.

This is why we are tested.  This is why we are disciplined; so that our lives are so ordered in such a way that we become a “holy people”; not a bunch of self-righteous persons.  And I say that to say this: “holy” means complete, perfected.  This means we cannot expect to be holy or perfected or even complete apart from the greater Body of Christ.  As it is written in Deuteronomy (7:6 & 14:2) and 1 Peter 2:9, we are a “people” united in The Covenant; branches connected to one Vine (John 15).

What we may reasonably expect to gain as a people when we are confronted with less-than-holy realities is the greater strength of the community contributed to and made even stronger by the trials we often endure alone.  I sometimes wonder, though, if we face these trials alone, more often than not, because we have forgotten how to live in community. 

That is, we face these trials alone because we have distanced ourselves from the community, from one another, and are therefore weakened by our refusal to be made “whole” or “holy”; that biblical reality which has long been lost in the concept of “rugged individualism” or the New Age “spiritual but not religious” – within both by which we declare ourselves our own “gods” with no need for a Savior or a Shepherd to show us “the more excellent way”. 

So this is the biblical reality we face: trials and tribulations in some measure, great or small, we will not escape.  Jesus is not a “magic pill” that makes all the unpleasantness of the world dissipate.  He is THE Teacher; and He teaches that we will have our trials, and we will have our errors.  These are inescapable.  What we will have during and after these trials and errors, however, will be measured by what we gain from these trials as a people

So what can we gain from our tribulations, sufferings that have the capacity to weaken or hobble us as individuals?  Well, if we will swallow our foolish pride and allow it, what we can actually gain that is useful for the whole Body, the whole community, is the sure knowledge that we are not alone.  We are made for one another.  We as individuals are the arms OR the hands OR the legs OR the feet, individual members of the whole and Holy Body of Christ; but we are created to be with and to need one another, to work in conjunction with one another.  We are called forth as a “holy people”, a whole Body.

So our prayer must never be that The Lord would spare us our sufferings.  Rather, we must learn to be thankful for the trials we face; for what we get out of these tribulations is simply this: we are reminded that we can stand taller and longer WITH one another in communion with Christ Jesus for the sake of His Church.  For as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church (1:24).  

So the reality is we are not suffering simply because life is treating us unfairly.  We suffer, we endure because our Holy Father is preparing us, teaching us, leading us, strengthening us for what is surely to come.  Our parents spanked or grounded us to teach us and correct us because they love us.  Surely we can come to appreciate the depth of the Holy Father’s love when we get no less from Him.  And learning to put The Lord first by how we deal with our neighbors and with one another, we will surely find immeasurable joy, yes, for ourselves.  “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).  Amen.

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