Spirit Alive: Trying to Make Sense of 2017?

Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.
December 26, 2017

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

In the End, Spirituality Trumps Politics

"Vice does not lose its character by becoming fashionable."
John Wesley
Merry Christmas! This is that special time of year when we gather with family and friends to celebrate the season, welcoming the birth of Jesus into our world and inviting his spirit into our lives. But it is also a good time to step back and consider what it means to follow this "Child-King" in our context today.
As the ancient travelers did long ago, I too have been pondering the meaning of these annual celestial events, wondering what they portend for our times. Recently Susan and I went to Trinity Episcopal
Cathedral to hear a wonderful Christmas concert that included Vivaldi's version of the Magnificat. It was hard not to have one's soul divided between the exquisite beauty of the music that filled the sanctuary, while also feeling a bit disturbed and troubled by the power of Mary's words, which proclaim that God will scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, put down the mighty from their thrones, and send the rich away empty-handed.
If you are like me, you've found this year to be one filled with contrasting and troubling images. 2017 has been a year to try one's soul and confront the essence of one's spirituality.  Today we find ourselves engulfed in an array of disturbing, disorienting, discouraging news about the state of our world. But in some ways, it is not unlike the context that Jesus was born into in his own historical time. That world was filled with significant structural injustice, powerful prejudice, and old, worn out ways of living, framed by empire, patriarchy, and oppression toward those without power, place, or status in society. Sound familiar?

Could it be that Jesus' birth this year returns us to this distant, oppressive world in which Mary and
Joseph found themselves as strangers giving birth to a new hope? Are we being challenged anew this Christmas to decide if we are willing to follow the Way of Jesus into the heart of darkness in which we find ourselves today? I don't think I can remember being engaged in as many conversations as I have this year in which people want to talk more deeply about the very soul of our times.
As we read the stories leading up to Christmas and consider the Christian virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness,
love, harmony, peace, thankfulness, wisdom,and gratitude that serve as the framework for our faith, you would think that songs of justice, hope, and peace would fill the air. But this is not the music being sung around us.

Instead, we find ourselves battered by other choruses sharing news of strangers and immigrants living in fear, of the poor and homeless being pushed further to the margins of health and well-being in our society, of women confronting sexual harassment and abuse in epidemic fashion, and of the rich being given extensive new benefits that will lead to even more wealth at the expense of those in need. This is not music to the ears of those of us who would prefer to sing "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World," or "Away in the Manger."
Yes, these are troubling times indeed! So what are the followers of Christ to do in times that are so out of step with Jesus' message of hope, love, and peace among all? How shall we ground ourselves spirituality? What should our mission and ministry look like as 2018 begins? My friends, it is time to get back to spiritual basics and ask ourselves who we are...and whom we want to be.
As I prepared to open my Christmas gifts this year, I couldn't help but think about Jesus' teachings
regarding loving God and neighbor. It is abundantly clear that for Jesus love doesn't trickle down magically like some kind of formula. Instead, love is either present in all that we do and how we relate to others, both neighbor and stranger...or it is missing from our lives altogether. Love, compassion, and justice aren't things that we store up for ourselves and then decide if we want to pass them along to those we meet when and if we decide we want to. Spiritual things don't work like that.
In the Christian life, you're either all in...or you are not. Mind you, it's not that we always get things right. None of us do. For as Nelson Mandela once said: "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."
But today there are those who would have us believe that the world works best when things trickle down from top to bottom, from wealth to poverty, from those who have to those who do not. Jesus, as the newborn king then and now, declares a very different way of living, which threatens those in power by
declaring that you either move toward the Samaritan along the roadside, welcome the stranger, and share one's wealth with those in need ....or you pass by on the other side of the road, neglecting your neighbor. There is no middle of the road option in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is simply a question of what it means to be a real neighbor. Being a neighbor, is about compassion and empathy. The alternative is self-centeredness and a hardness of heart. In matters spiritual, there is really no middle ground. In fact, if there was a bystander in the Good Samaritan story s/he would be no different from the Levite and the priest who pass on by. Jesus calls us to move toward one another...and that movement begins in the heart!
John Wesley, like Jesus, was not one for putting things forward in a lukewarm fashion. Wesley put it this way: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Perhaps 2018 would be a good time for those of us who are Methodists to turn our attention to Wesley once again and ground ourselves spiritually.
So this Christmas, I want to ask you a simple question that I've been pondering this season: How is it with your soul ? This is the question that preoccupied John Wesley's life. As the year draws to a close, it seems like as good a time as any to consider this fundamental question...both as individuals and as a nation.

The news these days centers on the many traumas and dramas of politics, but the real crisis centers on spirituality and matters of the heart. On one level, isn't this the very essence of the Christmas story? We wander to Bethlehem and find ourselves being asked to replace one worldview with another...to ground our spirit in a new way of being...to see greatness as being the movement from one's soul out into the world...toward our neighbors, not away from them nor into ourselves.

So how is it with our collective souls this Christmas?
As I've thought about this I've been especially moved by the women who have courageously addressed sexual harassment and joined the #Me Too movement. I've been inspired by the witness of DACA students and other immigrants who are standing up and speaking out for their dreams and love of this country in spite of the prejudices they face. These acts of public witness come from a place deep within. This is why they command such power...and make us pause in amazement and gratitude. These testimonies remind us of our common humanity and the need to listen and learn from each other if we are ever to rediscover and reclaim our souls.
There is work ahead of us in 2018. But, as people of faith, we know how to respond, and we even know where to look. It starts in the human heart...and it begins with us.
John Wesley said: "God grant that I may never live to be useless." In terms of spirituality, perhaps the hymn "Let There be peace on earth, and Let It Begin with Me," says it best...quite simply, if spirituality is to trump politics, it must begin with me...and us! Ultimately, it must lead us into the public square toward our neighbors.

The ancient teacher Lao Tzu put it this way:
If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart.
As 2018 begins, may we return to our spiritual center and ask ourselves who we want to be...how we want to connect with neighbor and stranger...and what mission and ministries we will engage in so that our spiritual lives impact on our larger civic and political world.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good life...
Let us walk in the light of God's love,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.