Thursday, October 26, 2006

Web-o-life: We are not our own
An editorial from Monte McClain – Pastor, Fruitvale Presbyterian Church







We live in a world in which the “self” is our defining identity. Driven by an intense drive and desire for independence, we affirm and assert that we are ourselves the ones that planned, created, facilitated, or empowered whatever is happening around us or in us. At the same time we feel more and more alienated and powerless in a world in which major decisions are made by the uber-rich in board rooms or politicians born into trust-fund universes, in which everything we wear, use in our home and increasingly even eat comes from a distant country. Our post-modern world of the early 21st century is one in which we are shackled by the dominating drive for independence and self-sufficiency from the past, and yet the dawning hope of such forces as community, connectionalism, and corporate solidarity are rising upon what we know, kindling in us a desire for something else.

This past month I’ve been haunted by lingering and emerging thoughts about who I am and why I do what I do. I think it comes from the Sunday morning in which we created what David Kittams called the “web-o-life” in worship, in order to give a visible image of our community and hope in God’s presence (see photo). I live – like we all do – in and from that web. Who I am today is in part the result of some of my choices, but it’s also in great part due to the influence, presence, and mentoring of others.

When I slow down – both calendar-wise and mentally – I’m able to pass the pictures of those people that taught me, built me up, and invested in me through their relationships, through my mind’s eye. Try it! Who taught you to ride a bike, to say “thank you”, influenced and shaped you in your profesisonal life, encouraged and equipped you in your faith, nurtured your spirituality, taught you about the mysterious mutual and reciprocal aspects of love and relationships? In doing so, I realize that I am not my own; that we are not our own. I am both independent, and also dependent on others. I am not my own. Those who loved, invested in, and equipped me, did so out of love and in generosity, and I in turn am called to pass their faithfulness on, to pay it forward, to recognize that I am part of the intricate “web-o-life,” to be a good, generous, and gregarious steward of what has been given to me. My parents, teachers, friends, mentors, church community – and God in Jesus, have shaped what I do, how I do it, and mostly who I am today. My stewardship and faithful paying-forward of my blessings through my time, passion, money, and gifts is how I actively say “thank you” to them and continue building that giant web connecting all of creation to the life-giving God that makes it all possible.

The apostle Paul wrote this same “web-o-life” message in other words to the troubled church of Corinth, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” As pastor, partner and parent of a family involved in the life of Fruitvale Church, choosing to make its relational web our spiritual home, I give financially and time-wise to our church to say thank you for how it blesses me, my spouse, and our children. What better place for our daughters to learn that God loves all people, and invites all of us to be bridge-builders and peace-makers in our world, to use our gifts to serve Christ in all the ministry that we do: in our learning, our work, our relationships, our imagination, and our rest. Our family is ready and anxious to say thank you, to pay our blessings forward, and to build the web-o-life at Fruitvale Church through the pledge of our time, gifts and money for 2007 and beyond. We recognize that such stewardship is costly for us and our family – and yet not doing so is even more costly to our church, our ministry field, and our family. I hope that as we prepare to present our ministry pledges on Sunday, November 19th you’ll take the time to slow-down and meditate on the web-o-life, on the faithful stewards of God’s grace in your life, work, relationships and identity, so that you too will continue to help our community build up that web at Fruitvale Church in 2007.
Peace to you and yours,

Pendulum Swingers” is the title of a new song I’ve been playing incessantly on our IPod lately, whose words have become nearly worshipful for me these past weeks. Over the guitar chords the song uses the balance of a pendulum swing as a metaphor for life today. The pendulum (pictured below) is a weight (or bob) attached to a string that swings from the extremes, moving from one to the other in sudden motion. But as it continues on its journey, it matures to a center of balance as the wide arc slowly reduces to a circular motion. A pendulum uses its energy, or life-force, to find the center: the sanctuary place of balance where it marks its place and purpose. Isn’t that what we’re called to by faith?

Our world seems to be inundated by waves of extremism and reactionary responses. I’m not just thinking of terrorist attacks, but also of our political and cultural landscapes in which those who think or act differently are portrayed not as different and diverse, but rather as divisive and destructive. Oftentimes we react to the extremes we brush up against with equally extreme reactions. If they’re not with us, then they’re against us! Right? My “road rage” is well known and documented in my sermons. When I’m cut off driving down the street or on the 580 by someone holding a cell phone, I react with near explosive anger and over-the-top frustration. My faults and habits are well known – but don’t we all have extreme reactions to the world around us? Maybe for you it’s anger at the “other” political party, frustration with clueless work colleagues that don’t get with the program, or even irritation in never getting the break or rest that you so desperately need. In the midst of the cultural wars, political polarization, and urban jungle that charaterize our life in the East Bay in 2006, it’s easy to lose sight of our focus. We long for a center of balance that seems so foreign, we struggle to understand how to ask for it.

Balance isn’t necessarily a big catch word on the marquee of Christian thought. Didn’t Jesus say that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mk 8:24) Such challenging words, as well as the teaching that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” (Mark 9:35) seem to lead more to radical lives of martyrdom, self-denial, and self-destruction than to a life centered on and upon a deeply welcome good news. Where is the message of balance, wholeness, or peace in those words? More often than not, we associate the words “balance” and “centeredness” with other faiths, with light-saber wielding science-fiction heroes or with the tires on our car. Didn’t Jesus say to give everything, to serve everyone, inviting us to a life of extreme service, radical humility, and total submission?

Behind my words is a picture of a pendulum. Which is the most powerful or important place in the swing of the pendulum? Is it 1? 2? 3? 4? 5? The answer is that the whole movement is equally important. It’s the movement – or inertia – of the weight on the string that continues the movement from extreme to center to the other extreme and back to the center. This pendulum swing in fact is the key to the ways watches work, to how we measure earth tremors, how planes and ships navigate around the world, how metronomes help us keep time in music, and how Foucault proved that the earth is rotating in circles.

So what does my scientific treatise have to do with seeking to live a daily life of faith, or with what God may be doing in the life of our church, or calling you to in your own life? The mystery of the pendulum is that the entire swing is essential. The energy or strength of the pendulum swing comes from the swing, points 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 – the entirety of the swing. Without the swing – it’s just a bob on a string. Life is like that isn’t it? I think that this is the deep truth of human nature that Jesus was talking about. Jesus isn’t calling us to burn up in a flash of life-destroying service. His words invite us to recognize the other side of the swing – the one we don’t often recognize or validate on our own. I’m talking about the opposite of service, seeking to lead rather than follow, aiming to be first rather than risking to be last. You might say it’s just semantics or world play. Some famous thinkers in history argued that Jesus was simply justifying losers – the weakest of the human race – by teaching that we all should be last. But what I hear him saying is that each person is needed – the first and the last – the powerful and the powerless – the one who washes feet and the one whose feet are washed. What I hear Jesus affirming is that our importance is not just when we feel it nor is it based on what we have to “offer.” Jesus calls us to take up our cross – to follow after him – in the swing of the pendulum – the movement of life that creates and expands community, a movement that draws us in – that completes us in our giftedness and our needs – with purpose, passion, and peace. How do you need such balance or peace in your life today? How are you longing to see your work, actions, words and relationships fit into the pendulum swing of the Kingdom of God?

Peace to you and yours,