Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lows and Highs

Prayer and the Mind of Christ

Philippians 2:1-13

“Son, don’t act like you’re going to die just because you are feeling a little puny,” my mother said on more than one occasion. “You’re just like Uncle George. The minute he got to feeling bad, he was moaning and groaning and telling Aunt Nora that he wasn’t long for this world. Just like him.”

Although I am not one of these people who hasn’t been sick a day in his life, I have been remarkably healthy for the most part for over five decades. Yet when I feel the first scratchiness that presages a sore throat, and especially if I succumb to lying in bed with a virus, as happened twice several winters ago, I begin to hear Mama’s voice overriding my own moaning, “Son, straighten up. You’re just like Uncle George.”

Mine must not have been the only mother who says such things, nor mine the only family where people get pegged as copies of ancestors. We come to this earth not only trailing clouds of glory, but, like the little girl on the Morton salt box, pouring behind us indications of undeniable DNA. I hear myself talking sometimes and have to stop and think if the voice I hear is really mine or if it belongs to my father. Or my mother. Or Uncle George.

In a very real sense, the project of Christianity is the project of changing human beings. As a faith system, Christianity is about transformation, a remolding or remaking the human person to be different. Partly, of course, it has to do with our moral training, despite the fact that many Christians remain dreadfully confused about exactly what is moral. Simply put, the entire effort of the Christian Church is essentially about the creation of a community that so catches the Spirit of Jesus that we manifestly live in a way that is unmistakably like him. Not to put too fine a point on my mother’s dictum, it is as if someone might see or hear us, observe us as individuals or as communities and say, “You’re just like Jesus, no kidding.”

Now the second thing you may want to say to this is, “No way.” The first thing you may want to say is, “But how do we know what Jesus was like? How can we be sure?” Hold on a minute. There is something more fundamental at stake here than our rush to react to what might seem a dubious proposition.

That fundamental something is the fact that Jesus deliberately gathered a community. For the average Christian, this is so unremarkable as to be taken for granted or ignored entirely. But did you ever wonder why the disciples were even necessary? Forget the canned explanations. Ask yourself why Jesus would even have bothered with them. He selected what seems to have been a monumentally obtuse bunch, don’t you think? Yet the tradition is not the least bit in doubt about the fact that Jesus chose a community to share his ministry and in some sense taught them. He did not choose instead to be a lone ranger. Christianity is not about individual projects of personal salvation; it is about a community in where all the members work out their salvation together, even if it means doing so with some trepidation and nervousness. Why? Because we are all in this together. It is the nature of humans to form community because we are interdependent, no matter what some politicians or the financial establishment argue to the contrary.

So when Paul writes to the Philippians, in the warmest epistle he ever wrote to a community, he betrays a certain concern that perhaps they still have the a bit of the Old Adam in them, what Mark Twain called, “ordinary human cussedness.” It was likely coming out in the form of petty jealousies and rivalries, things that are the very best ways to undermine community. Why else admonish them to “be of one mind, being of one love, sharing accord” among themselves? Then he launches into one of the most sublime passages in all his letters, perhaps in the entire New Testament. Maybe he was quoting from a hymn that he knew churches like the one at Philippi frequently sang in their worship. Or maybe it was a creedal poem that he or someone else had written. “Have this mindset, or attitude, or frame of mind,” he writes, and then proceeds to describe the “mind” or “thought” that Jesus had. The community is to exhibit the character of its mentor and master. Or, to borrow from one of Paul’s metaphors elsewhere, the body was to follow where the head led. Since there is plenty of encouragement in Christ, since there is the incentive of love, since there is mutual participation in the life of the Spirit, since there is shared affection, there is plenty of reason and abundant strength on which the Philippians can build a more solid community.

This “mindset” or “orientation” that Jesus had is not so easy to get a grip on. The essence is this: Jesus had every opportunity to be or to remain exalted, since he pre-existed this life as God. But in fact he chose not to “grasp” or “cling” to equality with God, but did the opposite. He emptied himself. The rich for our sake became poor. The powerful divested himself of all power. He submitted himself so thoroughly that he became the willing slave of all, humbling himself to experience the totality of human life, including death itself. And not just any death, but death on a cross, the ultimate badge of rejection and dishonor. It is totally counter-intuitive for human beings even to imitate that, let alone to choose to do it because we want to. Quite the contrary. We are taught, especially in this culture, from day one that the goal of life is to succeed, to acquire, to compete. It is not too much to say that the very narrative of Jesus has been warped and twisted by knaves to seduce many a marginal population into servitude on the strength of the notion that to be relegated to scut work, to be underpaid, to be knocked around and ripped off is to be like Jesus, or at least to be like the poor who he said would be with us always. But the essence of Jesus’ community is not to be cringing dogs who slink away from abusive masters, but rather self-giving individuals whose identity is not what we can get for ourselves but what we can give for others.

The project does not extend only to the people who happen to sit in church on Sundays. It goes well beyond the borders of the community. The Church in fact exists not for itself alone but for the sake of the world that Christ died to save. If he emptied himself, so do we. If he gave his life for the sake of the world, so do we. This is what the Church has not learned terribly well. In many places we still cling to old behaviors and old mindsets, which, though not necessarily divisive and destructive, are desperate measures to hold on to what we have and to who we have been. The model of Christ is just the opposite. Let go, let God, let grace guide us into continually spending ourselves for the sake of the world.

Fine. We can say those things and even maybe believe them for a few moments during a sermon. But how can we actually live them? Can we actually live them? And, if so, how? Notice that Paul, who is no stranger to scolding people, does not wag a homiletical finger at the Philippians trying to shame them into behaving differently. The whole point he is making calls them to ground themselves right where he grounds his argument: in the foundational story of Jesus. Think as he thought. Do as he did. The community can hardly do that without being committed to serious prayer and assiduous practice.

The truth is that if transformation is to happen, we have to open ourselves to the process of change. Prayer pries us open. Praying opens us up, of course, to the suffering of the world when we notice and care enough to intercede for those who hurt and ache, indeed for the entire creation that is groaning in the pain of abuse and misuse. But praying is not just, or even primarily the opener of the soul in that sense. To have the mind that we see in Christ Jesus involves our constantly turning to and gazing upon Jesus himself. Obviously a place to begin is the gospels. But Jesus is not just found there. Jesus is also present when the community gathers to share bread and wine, his body and blood. Yet Jesus is not just there either. Jesus, if you believe what he says, is present when two or three are gathered together in his Name. But Jesus is more than that, too. Jesus is in the faces of the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed, the marginalized, the condemned, the executed, the hosts of men and women who are dragged through the courts and sentenced to die just as he was. Prayer sharpens both our sense and our senses to behold the Body of Christ in every part and every cell of his creation, each of which bears the unmistakable stamp of the Word which calls all things and all creatures into being. And prayer can also be shutting off the lights, turning down the sensory data, stilling the tongue, putting down the pen, pulling the shades down so that we, retreating into our deepest selves, meet the One who is resplendently alive in the heart of darkness and silence. It is not one kind of prayer or the other, but both. Activists need contemplatives and contemplatives need activists, and no matter which we are, we probably need to practice some of what does not come so easily to us in our prayer, just so that we can learn something of the fullness of him who emptied himself and submitted to death.

It is interesting that the Philippians hymn goes on to say that God has highly exalted Jesus as a consequence of his self-emptying. God has given him a Name that is above every Name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. You may think that that piece of it has nothing to do with you. And perhaps you are right, inasmuch as it really goes beyond what Paul is saying about unity in the Church. But maybe there is something embedded in this old hymn, this majestic poem that is so true that it goes beyond even the confines of the Jesus story. Maybe the Truth, as heavy as gravity itself, is caught up in the paradox that giving is oddly the way of receiving; that abasement is followed by exaltation; that emptying oneself of power and prestige is the true road to glory, not just for Jesus but for all. Don’t count on the world to document that terribly finely. But every once in awhile somebody bothers to believe it and it makes all the difference. You can almost count them on your fingers and toes, they are so rare. Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, St. Margaret, St. Elizabeth,… No, you can’t count them. The numbers stack up. There are more than you would think, more than you can number. Some are sitting right here who have given up a day to be arrested in the cause of justice or who have given up an evening to intercede for Troy condemned to die, who have gone to Israel to wage peace, who slug it out for the spurned immigrant. Long grows the list of ways in which ordinary folk do not count themselves as the darlings of God, but empty themselves and become obedient to the most human of all things, the leveler Death. Wherefore their names, united to the Immortal Son of God, are written in heaven.

© Frank Gasque Dunn

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