Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of Scripts and Improvisation

If you have ever watched a Christopher Guest-directed film you know what a treat the experience is. Waiting for Guffman is about a small-town community theater troupe the members of which think that a Broadway producer is going to attend their production. Best in Show is about dog owners who have entered their pooches in a major dog competition. A Mighty Wind is about a memorial concert bringing three old-time folk groups together. And For Your Consideration is about the effect that the Oscar buzz surrounding an independent production called Home for Purim (the title of which is changed to Home for Thanksgiving to attract a broader audience) has on the cast, crew, and various interested parties.

The scripts of those good-naturedly satirical films are supplemented by a lot of improvisation; the cast members are very accomplished at such improvisation because they have practiced it a lot. The ways in which the actors play off of the script, off of situations, and off of each other is truly remarkable, not to mention frequently hilarious.

It seems to me that a life well lived involves both following the script and practicing improvisation.

The problem with our script is that we don’t know exactly what it says. Oh, people will certainly offer suggestions as to what it should say, suggestions that will range from helpful advice based on real interest in our lives to harmful interference rooted in a desire to run our lives. In some ways our paths are at least partially predetermined by accident of birth: for example, we don’t choose our family background, our genetic makeup, or our social and religious context.

Then there is God to consider. By faith we believe that God in God’s grace has a purpose toward which the ongoing events of creation and history are moving and that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world was, is, and will be the pivotal event in God’s working out of that purpose. By faith we believe that by God’s grace we are caught up in and play a role in the working out of God’s purpose. The truth is, though, that we know more about where the script leads, at least in a general sense, than we do about the details of how it gets us there.

When Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, was published my Good Wife acquired a copy and immediately turned to the last chapter. “What are you doing?” I inquired, shocked that someone would forego the excitement of reading that revolves around not knowing what will happen. “If Rhett and Scarlett are not going to get together in the end,” she replied, “I’m not going to waste my time reading the book!” Well, they did and she did. It was not a total waste of time, though, since she didn’t know how they would get to that point of resolution.

We trust that there will be a resolution but we don’t know how we will get there.

And that is where improvisation comes in.

Now, some people would say that the Bible is our script but that’s not accurate. The Bible offers the record of the interplay between God and people who came before us but who were trying to find their way just like we are. As such, it provides a reflection on the choices they made and on the results of those choices but leaves us aware that there were other choices they could have made along the way that, while they would not have changed the ultimate purposes of God, would have changed many decisions, actions, events, and relationships along the way. The Bible is an excellent guide—indeed, the best one available—but it is neither a road map nor an instruction manual, much less a script. It is rather a reflection on the struggle of other people to live faithfully and creatively under God in their historical, social, and religious setting and is thus a help to us in our struggles. As such the Bible provides us with a necessary and dependable foundation from which we can work as we live our lives.

But the life of faith is not about knowing and keeping all the rules in the Bible or in tradition; it is not even about reading in our Bibles about how the heroes of the faith lived their lives and then trying to emulate them. The life of faith is rather about living as close to God as we can, paying as much attention to our own spirit as we can, learning as much about the world as we can, trying to live as fully and attentively in the moment as we can, and adjusting to developing situations as much as we can—practices in which we are helped by the Spirit, by Scripture, by experience, and by sisters and brothers in the faith.

We can rest in the knowledge that God knows the ultimate outcome and is moving creation toward it.

We can also rest in the knowledge that God is with us as we engage in the risky but rewarding practice of improvisation …

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Body of Christ in the Age of Terrorism

The Church is the body of Christ in the world; Christ is in us and we are in the world. We are Christ’s hands, feet, ears, and mouth; through us his love, grace, and mercy continue to be shared with the world. Through us his life continues to be shared with the world.

And the world sure needs us to be who we are as the body of Christ. There is always good reason to say that but the good reason that is on my mind right now arises from the recent attacks by Muslim extremists. We are all aware of the seventeen people in Paris, France who were killed in the recent attacks on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and on a kosher grocery store. We may not be as aware—although we should be—of recent brutal attacks in Nigeria by the Boko Haram terrorist organization that have left over 2,000 people dead.

When we watch news reports of such attacks we can hardly help but be reminded of the 9/11 attacks on our country and of the possibility of more such attacks. We should breathe a prayer of thanks for those whose vigilant and faithful efforts have kept us safe in recent years; we should also breathe a prayer that we will continue to be protected. Being the body of Christ, though, we should pray just as much—if not more so—for people all over the world; as the body of Christ, we are privileged to care even more for others than we do for ourselves just as Jesus put the needs of others ahead of his own.

So praying for other people is one way that we live as the body of Christ in this age of terrorism. What might some other ways be? I believe that some of the most important ways are a matter of developing improved vision; how do we see ourselves, the world, and our place in it? How can we better live as the body of Christ in the world by growing toward seeing the world and the people in it as Jesus showed us God sees them?

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing the big picture. Jesus was the embodiment of the kingdom of God; in Jesus the kingdom of God broke into the world. We as Christ’s body are the continuing embodiment of God’s kingdom. We therefore try to see as best we can and to live in light of as best we can God’s goals for the world and indeed for all of creation. Even when we cannot understand—and we often will not be able to—we live trusting that God is working God’s purposes out; we therefore live in hope rather than despair. The world needs us to see it through the lens of God’s purposes as revealed in Jesus so that we will be a hopeful presence.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing our identity as more of an opportunity than a privilege. Jesus came not to serve but to be served; while we are privileged to be the body of Christ we can always be growing in our understanding that our identity is inextricably connected with Jesus’ identity so therefore we are here to serve, too. Jesus calls us to do what he did—to give our lives over fully to serving God by serving people. We are not privileged to be superior to others; we have the opportunity to give ourselves away in service to others. While that does not mean that we are to voluntarily submit ourselves to acts of terror, it does mean that we are to give ourselves over to doing whatever we can to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. The world needs us to see ourselves in a way that leads us to be a positive, helpful, and healing presence.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing people as God sees them. While it is true that only God can see a person’s heart, it is also true that God is present with us and in us through the Holy Spirit and so we can grow in our ability to see people with God’s eyes. How will we see people as we grow in seeing them as God sees them? First and foremost we will come to see them as beloved creations of God for whom Christ died. When we see them that way loving them will be our only option. The world needs us to see people as loved by God so much that Jesus died for them; it needs us to see them as worthy of every sacrificial effort we can make to show love to them.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing wounds as openings for God’s love and grace. That does not mean that we seek either to receive or to inflict wounds or that God desires the wounds that we inflict on each other. It does mean, however, that we see the wounds that inevitably come to others and to us in this world, whether randomly and accidentally or purposely and cruelly, as openings through which God’s grace and love can be experienced. Our world, our nations, our communities, our churches, and our families are all populated with hurting, broken, and bleeding people. It is by the wounds that Christ received that we are healed; it is by the wounds that Christians receive and bear that we can channel Christ’s healing to others who are wounded. The world needs us to see ourselves as wounded people who are sisters and brothers to all the other wounded people in the world; it needs us to seek neither to be victims nor to create victims but humbly to offer the wounds of Christ and our own wounds as means of sharing love and grace with them in their woundedness.

The Church is the body of Christ in the world; we can and should be growing every day in continuing the life, the ministry, and the witness of Jesus. In this time of terrorism—as indeed in all times— the world and the people in it need us to see, to live, to love, to serve, and to help in ways that befit our identity as the body of Christ.