Saturday, September 15, 2018

Just As the Twig Is Bent, the Tree's Inclined; Or, the Value of Discipline

I don’t know it for a fact, but I’m reasonably sure that discipline is not a topic that generally appeals to people these days. Of course there are exceptions. Many of us value the discipline of learning a skill or an art, the discipline of running, or the discipline of regular yoga or gym visits.  Discipline generally doesn’t seem to be a bad idea if it is a way to manage ourselves the way we wish to be managed.  But if even for a moment discipline suggests something that somebody else is meting out, a punishment or corrective of some sort, well who does like that? 

And right off the bat that is a stumbling block for talking about something that in most contexts poses a problem but is integral to a truly spiritual life.  Such is discipline.  

Martin Luther
We are in that time when every third year we get a crack at reading the Letter of James.  Luther despised the Epistle of James, calling it an epistle made of straw.  Luther was on the wavelength of St. Paul, especially when it came to being saved by grace through faith.  He didn’t have any patience with James’s emphasis on works.  Frankly, I think that although James has only a few pages of the New Testament to his credit and Paul more than half of it, James actually won out as the major force in Christianity, which is almost always far more enchanted with works, behavior, practical approaches to everyday problems than with more abstract ideas such as “walking by the Spirit” or “putting on Christ through baptism.” 

I like Paul well enough, indeed very much.  But James serves us well by pointing to the actual practice of Christianity.  He writes in some depth about the human tongue, one of the more powerful and dangerous members of the body.  James gets a bit carried away writing about the tongue.  One wonders just what experience he had had with the tongue, his own or somebody else’s.  Chances are he had been the victim of some gossip line, or had seen others sliced to pieces by snarky so-called friends.  Compared to wild animals the tongue is more powerful than them all:  “no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”  Whoa!  Strong stuff there, James.  He immediately softens just for a split second to remind us that with our tongues we bless the Lord God.  Then he rapidly reminds us that we stick our tongues out and curse those made in the likeness of God. 

I seriously doubt that anyone would find that a difficult passage to accept as factual.  If you have made it as far as kindergarten, you have probably encountered some experiences that document what James is arguing.  But the issue is not so much what to do about the tongue as a weapon as it is to look at the larger picture of what a disciplined life really looks like.   James goes on to say much of what Paul says in his famous chapter on Love, or Charity, 1 Corinthians 13.  The way of Christ is the way of love, the way of humility, service, sacrifice, and deference.  James, like Paul, understands that, whatever social context in which we live, that society frequently rewards the opposite of those things.  Neither one, James nor Paul, was an American, but they might well have been talking about American culture in the 21st century.  Because in the grand scheme of things, this culture, whose tentacles now reach into every part of the globe, in many ways prizes competition over common endeavor, acquisitiveness over sharing, productivity over idleness, activity above passivity, assertiveness over dependence, self-protection over vulnerability.  In many of those ways we are no different from the society to which the New Testament writers addressed their letters.  Although there are many things to which we can point that paint a very different picture, at the end of the day the world is still driven by the forces that amass power rather than by those that give it away. 

You know all that.  It is impossible to be alive and awake in this world without knowing it.  Some of you indeed know it better than I. Those who crow about empowerment have little regard for the virtues and ideals of submission and passivity, both of which are integral to discipline.  Their skepticism is understandable.  It is unfortunately true that the powerless have often been given a big dose of praise by the powerful for kowtowing to the very forces that oppress them. 

The reason that I go into that much detail about what I think James is driving at, namely the way to live in accordance with the example of Christ, is that it is absolutely necessary to see that the disciple who follows Christ cannot do so without discipline.  Furthermore that discipline is for the most part counter-cultural.  If, for example, following Christ—which is another name for the deepest part of your soul, for the God that is is the God that lives in your very flesh—if following Christ entails cutting your ties with family, with friends, with peer groups and communities in order to be yourself and to do what you know you must do, don’t expect that all of those folk will stand up and applaud you.  They will do everything in their power to pull you back into the old familiar orbit.  Less dramatically by a hair, if you embark on a lifestyle that differs from the mainstream of your community, say, for example, by giving up a lucrative career in order to advocate for people who are political liabilities, you won’t necessarily get support and congratulations from your best high school buddy. 

And that brings us to the heart of the matter. It is called the gospel.  Listen to the fierce, daunting words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lost their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Disciples are those who follow Jesus, not those who merely worship Jesus.  To follow Jesus means precisely that.  And the stakes are pretty high.

In their amazing book, The Last Week, the late Marcus Borg and John Dominick Crossan trace the last seven days in Jesus’ life, arguing that what got Jesus crucified was his insistent advocacy for those oppressed by the collusion of the religious establishment with political power.  He was not despised and rejected by the common people, who heard him gladly.  He was despised and rejected by the powers that gripped the defenseless and toyed with the vulnerable ensuring that they were miserable.  That sounds harsh, but not nearly so harsh as the experience of being outcast, cut off, discounted, shunned, and shamed.  It was to those on the margins of health, wholeness, sanity, economic stability, and morality that Jesus reached the farthest and the most persistently.  Following him means doing as he did and going the way he went.  You are awfully lucky if you do all that and don’t lose some skin doing it. 

Let me speak plainly.  Because we are human beings, even at our most idealistic, we imagine that what Jesus is talking about or what Frank is driving at is actually what we already are doing.  If we are progressive, liberal, justice-driven Christians then what else is there to do but what we are doing?  If I were preaching today in some very different context, let’s say at a posh Episcopal church somewhere in suburban Alabama, I might rephrase that, saying something like, “if we are upstanding, respectable, morally conservative, responsibility-driven Christians then what else is there to do but what we are doing?”  Do you see my point?  I am convinced that the telltale sign of stale faith is self-satisfaction with who and what we are, to the point that we overlook the necessity of undergoing disciplines that transform us into true disciples.

Disciplines and practices abound. I actually have a list that I sometimes give to individuals and groups that I work with on which appear about thirty distinct practices that support a spiritually rich life.  Not all of them suit everyone, of course, and the list itself is partial.  Which ones fit us?  Which ones challenge us? I invite you to consider three.

I have found that a basic discipline for me, and I suggest you might try it, is making a daily intention, saying it out loud, perhaps even writing it down.  Keep it simple.  It might be the same thing for days at a time or perhaps for even longer.  I learned from a British woman who has lived for a long time in Mozambique that her neighbors in that African country habitually do one thing per day.  One thing!  We by contrast have our to-do lists and our reminders.  Well, not many of us are called to drop what we are doing and move to Mozambique, but we can take a hint from that practice.  Aim to put all your energy into one central intention.  And stick with it.

Another key discipline is to be courageous in examining ourselves by the standard of love that we see in Jesus.  This means building into regular observance a daily regimen of self-examination.  The idea is not to beat ourselves up about falling short but to discipline ourselves to be as honest as we can be about our motives and our behavior, not excusing or lauding ourselves, but being accountable for our attitudes and decisions.  Meditate, journal, reflect with a friend or partner, pray St. Ignatius’ examen, or review your baptismal covenant.  Any of those things can support the discipline of self-examination.

And a third one is, you guessed it, taking a cue from St. James and bridling the tongue. The nubbin that I want to say about tongue-taming is that the tongue actually takes its orders from the mind.  What we say, whether good or evil, originates not in the conscious mind but in the pre-conscious or subconscious mind.  There isn’t a lot we can do about managing what we aren’t conscious of, but we do have the option of feeding our inner lives with quality soul food.  To be honest, the biggest challenge for me right now is to wake up and do something besides look at my phone.  Why?  Because I can’t pick it up to see whose birthday it is on Facebook without running into a piece of news about some tweet that sends me into orbit. I cannot be centered, balanced, and focused on love if I spend much of the day hating Donald Trump and lambasting him to myself silently or to others with the full force of tongue.  I spent last week in a Zen center in New Mexico, during which time I was for the most part totally unplugged from twitters and posts.  Instead I was breathing, embracing others, listening, learning, and paying attention to my body. Breathing, yoga, and some other physical disciplines are working for me pretty well, much as did running daily for twenty-five or so years.  What works or might work  for you? 

Luther might find all this far too mundane, too “works-oriented” for his taste, and that’s just fine with me.  I love the speculative, intellectually reflective life, but there is a place where the rubber must hit the road if we are to go anywhere at all.  For years I wondered what on earth Jesus meant when he said that if I saved my life I would lose it.  I have finally come to see what he means, or at least I think so.  To follow him as his disciple is to live the way he lived, to love the way he loved, to confront others the way he confronted them, to risk everything including life itself in order to find the deepest part of yourself, the blueprint of your soul.  It is to live the life you are created to live.  Discipline is not for squelching yourself but for training yourself to be fully you.  Or, as Jesus put it, to lose your life in order to find it. 

A sermon for Proper 19 Year B on the texts James 3:1-12 and Mark 8:28-38.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018