Monday, July 22, 2013

Faith, and Dealing with Your "Stuff"

A post from a few years ago (August 2009). Please excuse the bad word that appears throughout .... Once in a while I like to buy the magazine “Shambhala Sun.” The Buddhist idea of attachment is of great interest to me, and some of that magazine’s articles explain that idea in ways that are often helpful for my own Christian faith.

A while back, I leafed through the September 2009 issue at the local Barnes and Noble. I noticed the article, "The Shitty Monk," by an author whose pen name is Shozan Jack Haubner. Appreciating the irreverent humor, I thought to myself, I gotta read this.

Haubner reflects on the time he prepared for the role of jikijitsu, the teacher who supervises Rinzai Zen meditation. Thinking he’d prepared well for this authoritative role, his mentor told him, “You’re a train wreck of overzealousness… The primary ass you should be whipping in the zendo is … [y]our own. Don’t bring your personal shit into it” (p. 64). As it happened, Haubner became sick with diarrhea and soiled himself immediately prior to performing his jikijitsu duties, prompting his amused self-examination.

He commented that, earlier in his Zen training, he resisted the authoritarian aspects of meditation. “What I failed to realize was that my resistance was in itself a pose, a stance--a result of my conditioning as a free-spirited, individualistic American prone to respecting all paths and choosing none. I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes--in my own bullshit--and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (p. 70).

This article prompted several ruminations on my part. To start with, I thought of the difficulties of the pastoral call in Christian ministry. We pastors do become “outfitted in attitudes” which can become a substitute for the “deepest self.” Egotism, overzealousness, inflexibility, a hypercritical spirit, the need to be loved, a hunger for success, a neglect of family, an inability to say “no,” a fear of revealing certain sides to our personalities: all these (and others) can become dressed in a “cleverly embroidered outfit” of corresponding scriptures and slogans related to our identity as pastors. “God called me to preach,” we affirm with gratitude, but we too easily think, thereby, that God validates every aspect of our personalities, and so our admirable, ignoble, mature, immature and sinful qualities become all mixed up with our theological identity. We may not be “posers” exactly, but we may very well be “posing,” and thus stalled in our personal growth.

Pastors aren’t the only Christians who become trapped in “personal stuff,” of course. Laity also combine mature, immature, caring, hateful, self-concealing, and sinful qualities within ourselves, and also become stalled in personal insight and growth. Unfortunately, in an analogous way as pastors, Christian faith and churchgoing can form a veneer of respectability that we place over our lives, rather than primarily a way by which we draw closer to God and open ourselves to God’s sometimes-painful work of sanctification.

It’s important to remember that Christian sanctification, unlike zazen (meditation toward enlightenment), is not supposed to be primarily a matter of personal effort. Although activities like spiritual disciplines and Bible reading are very helpful, the Apostle Paul understands the work of sanctification as that of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in us because we have accepted the saving work of Christ which is already accomplished on our behalf.

That being said, how do we deal with our “s***”---our "stuff"?


I'm reflecting on a Buddhist article, “The Shitty Monk,” by Shozan Jack Haubner. He commented that, in his path toward enlightenment, “I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes--in my own bullshit--and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (Shambhala Sun, Sept. 2009, p. 70).

The image of the “cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes” made me think of this verse: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). What does it mean to be “clothed with Christ”?

Taking a cue from Genesis 3, you could say that “Christ clothing” covers the nakedness of sin. Just as God helped the fallen Adam and Eve make clothing for themselves, once they had sinned and experienced shame, so now God clothes us with the Christ who saves us from sin. Recall the Reformation doctrine of “imputed righteousness” where the righteousness of Christ becomes ours, since we’ve no righteousness or worthiness of our own. In other words, God gives something that we did not have before--righteousness, or the absence of guilt from sin--and now God perceives us favorably because God’s gift of righteousness “covers” our sin like clothing, and God forgets our sin.

Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be?” ends:

No condemnation now I dread; 
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine !
Alive in Him, my living Head, 
And clothed in righteousness divine, 
Bold I approach the eternal throne, 
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

That’s a precious gift! In fact, that gift pretty much affirms crucial things about your identity and destiny. We do not experience a “negation of self” but rather an amazing acceptance, sins and all, which in turn gives us mercy from and access to God, in this life and the next.

So the answer to the question, “How do we deal with our 'stuff'?” is: God has already dealt with it, in the death and resurrection of Jesus!

But--to think again of Haubner’s dilemma that I discussed above--what about our false, immature, and sinful attitudes in which we get stuck because we do not perceive them clearly?

Ideally, the gift of a new identity in Christ leads to a process of honest self-assessment, like the people who were “cut to the heart” when they heard Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:37). But (as Hauber would put it), our inner BS runs very deep.

That’s where the Wesleyan doctrine of imparted righteousness comes in. The Holy Spirit begins working in our lives in order to deal with our falsehood, sin, improper attitudes, and other things (our “personal stuff,” to use the image from my previous reflections). Wesley considers the Spirit’s work in sermons like “Scriptural Christianity,” The Circumcision of the Heart,” “The Lord Our Righteousness,” “The New Birth,” and others. For Wesley, to be “clothed in Christ” is not simply to enjoy the beauty and blessing of the garment but also to become beautiful ourselves, through a process of growth.

The Spirit’s work can be difficult and painful, though. As a person pushing 60, I look back and see numerous times when, I believe, God was bringing clarity and assistance in my life, and God continues this process in all of us as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s power.

We should not imply that this process is quick and neat; it is potentially very slow and by no means linear. Sometimes, as with Haubner if not so graphically, we might have to smell pretty bad to ourselves and others as we proceed. We can take comfort, though, that God's own benevolent Spirit is doing the work.


From Haubner’s article, I made one more "poopy" connection. In Philippians, Paul recites his heritage: a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, a blameless observer of the Torah. But the gain that he had before, and indeed everything, is counted as loss

because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death ,if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead(Phil. 3:8-11).

The Greek word translated “rubbish” carries the connotation of “refuse“ or “excrement.” “Sh***y,” indeed!

To those of us who appreciate Jewish-Christian dialogue, Paul’s image is very lamentable. In his historical context, Paul considers himself a Jew and upholds Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises to the Jews. He is not "dissing" his Jewish heritage but conveying how wonderful is God's continuation of that heritage in Christ. The broader meaning of Paul’s image is: whatever we hold most dear to us (including our "personal stuff"), nothing is valuable compared to having Christ and his power in our lives.

But what about Christ’s power makes it so valuable, that nothing else matters as much? Several things.

The powers of evil and death have no ultimate control of us (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
We receive mercy and grace from God (Rom. 6: 23, Heb. 4:16).
We’ve confidence in approaching God (Heb. 4:15-16).
God is gentle with us (Heb. 5:2)
We know that God will never forsake us (Rom. 8:31-39)
We’ve freedom from being “good enough to please God” (Rom. 3:21-26).
We need not erect barriers between us and other people, because God has already removed them
(Eph. 2:11-22)
God does not expect us to grow on our own, by our own effects, but gives us plenty of help (Gal. 5:22-23)

... and the Gospel has other aspects, too.

What will we have to abandon in order to gain these things? This is a difficult subject, and different for each Christian. Repentance is an important part of spiritual beginnings and journeys. We may have to abandon cherished attitudes, ideals, and ways of perceiving the world.

We may have to dig more deeply into some of our religious ideas! As I understand Buddhism, doctrines and dogmas may be a source of unhealthy attachment in so far as we try to possess them in order to find security and validate ourselves. I’m not a Buddhist, but I can certainly see how this would happen. Circumstances can test your religious assumptions:

*You try to forgive someone and reconcile with them (Matt. 5:23-24), and the person treats you worse than before.
*You believe that God cares for you---and God does, indeed, cares and loves you very much---but then something terrible happens to you that makes you wonder about God.
*You look up to a certain Christian, and then he or she does something bad or hurtful, and consequently your faith in God is damaged.
* You turn your troubles over to God, and sometimes God provides, but other times nothing happens, so you're not sure how to proceed. You feel frustrated with God.
* You turn to a congregation for help, and you feel like all they really want is your money and your volunteer time.
* You’re a pastor who has served faithfully, but a congregation does not respond to your leadership, or the denominational system rewards someone else seemingly less deserving than you.
* You’ve affirmed God’s power to change lives, and have done so all your life, and now after years of witnessing to God’s power, you’ve “stumbled” in your life in a manner which surprises even you.

You could qualify any of these with good theology about God's love and providential care, etc. Nevertheless, we do feel these things sometimes. Although one hates to think of religious faith as “personal stuff” (that is, inner struggles, personality traits, and falseness), we do carry attitudes and expectations that are mixed with and connected to our religious beliefs. The process of personal growth and sanctification may entail disappointments and betrayals that will prompt a reassessment of beliefs (and hopefully not a discouraged faith or a discouraged agnosticism).

You sometimes hear the saying, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” That’s a little simplistic but still true: Christianity contains plenty of things to do, doctrines in which to believe, and rules to follow, but it is not primarily a set of rules. (Many people go around, perhaps for years, thinking that being a Christian is a matter of being a respectable, Ten-Commandments-following person.) Christianity points us to the accomplished work of Christ for our salvation, the power that he gives us for living, and a guaranteed companionship with Christ, the living person, who never ever gives up on any of us.

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