Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The question of happiness

A church member responded to my invitation: What one question would you ask of God? He wants to know: God, how do I attain happiness?

I remember something my professor of French at the University of Louisville said on the subject. Happiness was something I was after. He said if one sets out to attain happiness, then one will fail to find it. That wise counsel, however, did not dissuade me from seeking.

Eventually, I discovered what my professor had found a long time earlier: happiness is a consequence, not the goal.

What is the goal?

As a Christian, I make my goal Christ. I learn from my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in His Word to me--which I hear in Holy Scriptures, sometimes in poetry and other literature, in prayer, in silence, in the words of others--and to which I respond in obedience.

My goal in life is faithfulness to Christ, with God's help. Nothing else.

When I follow Christ as fully as I can here, then I'm happy. Not that I'm always happy. There are days when I feel down, frustrated, troubled--all those human things.

But I keep trying to be faithful to Christ, and quietly and often surprisingly, He shows me glimpses of happiness. I not only see them, but also feel them. This is heaven.

In the gospels, a rich young man asks Jesus how he can attain everlasting life, which is far better than earlthly happiness. Jesus says, Go and sell all you have and come follow me. And, as the story goes, the young man leaves downcast. He's rich and wants to stay that way.

For this rich young man, something is more important to him than God, who is revealed in Jesus; it's his wealth; he's rich materially, but poor spiritually. And not until he puts God first will he know eternal life. I like to think he does just that.

Real happiness-call it eternal life-comes only through God and my relationship with Him. When I learn from Jesus Christ, living for Him and loving others in His name, I'm most fully alive. And as happy as I can be in this world.

And I know it's Christ who makes me that way.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Christian discipleship and giving

One of the most difficult things a priest preaches is the spiritual and material importance of giving--spiritual because giving, like prayer, worship, study, and service, moves us in God's direction; and material, because it takes the resources of money and people for the church to do its healing work.

Preaching on giving is challenging and painful at times because it confronts us on what we most value or where our ultimate trust lies. We often become angry and defensive when someone challenges our idols. Jesus encountered plenty of this, and it led to his death. Perhaps this is why preachers are thankful that stewardship sermons tend to be once a year. Any more would raise the threat level to red.

In this acquisitive, consumer culture, the attitude is: I made this money. It's mine. Don't tell me what to do with it. And we celebrate it. Many Americans today cherish freedom with no responsiblity for anything or anyone else.

I see this "me and mine" attitude not only in the church--although not at my own church, happily--but also in society, specifically in the anti-taxation movement in America.

We no longer believe that all we have comes from God, ultimately, and to God we are accountable for all He's given us: our time, out talent, and, yes, our treasure.

Many church people want worship, Christian education for our children, pastoral care in times of need. Citizens (do we understand what that concept means? ) want good streets, safe neighborhoods, excellent schools that will launch our children into Ivy League schools. But we don't want to pay for any of it. We want someone else to pay the bills.

What we miss because of our selfishness is connection. When we return to God a portion of His gifts to us in the form of our tithes and offerings, we are more related to Him, who is our Ultimate Concern, and to Christ's Body, which is God the Holy Spirit alive and at work in the world. And when we pay our taxes, we are more related to society in the promotion of its well-being; this is a part of our civic responsiblity.

To hear my sermon from yesterday, go to this link, which my colleague Dr. Allin Sorenson created: http://homepage.mac.com/asorenso/.Public/92709c.mp3

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Q & A

Many people think that Christians have all the answers, but I'm hearing from Christians who have more questions than answers. They had been contacting me even before my last column here, inviting questions.

But now, I'm really hearing from them. From you.

One person asks of God, "Do you really exist? And if so, in what form?"

I spent years looking for God, but most intensely during my junior and senior years at the University of Louisville. I thought I'd find God by taking philosophy and religion courses and by talking with religous people, including the chaplains at the university's Ecumenical Center.

I didn't find God in my classes, or in my reading for class and outside of class, although I found some great minds and great souls, including Augustine, Soren Kierkegaard, Pascal, Thomas Merton, among others, including the Roman Catholic and Episcopal chaplains.

I learned about their searching for God. And finding Him:

Paschal uses just one word to describe meeting God: "Fire." Augustine, that towering mind of fifth century north Africa, heard God say of the Bible before him, "Take up and read," and Augustine met God there in the Word; Merton found God in the beauty of church architecture in France and Italy and later in the quiet of his monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in my home state of Kentucky.

If they found God, I reasoned, then perhaps I could as well. And so I continued my search.

And I found Him. God revealed Himself to me when I prayed to Him in earnest and in surrender. God came to me in a tidal wave of love. His love washed over me. Drowned me. Carried me away in wonder, thanksgiving, and joy.

That prayer of mine was a prayer of faith, trust that God was. And is. And always will be.

As Paul says somewhere in First Corinthians, we won't find God with our minds and by our clever reasoning, which is what I suppose I was doing: looking for those convincing arguments to prove to me and my mind that God was real.

We find God only by faith.

That's when God says, Here I am. I've been here all along. Waiting for you.

So, everyone, keep asking questions. It's a sign you're seeking God. And if you're seeking, you'll find Him.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What's your question?

Tom convinced me: it's time to do it.

Last week, I spent three days at our annual clergy conference at Conception Abbey in northern Missouri. It's a beautiful, holy, and peaceful spot.

Diocesan clergy heard from the Rev. Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest who used to be a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Now, among other ministries, Tom is a syndicated columnist and church and business consultant.

He told us how he asked 1000 people a question:

What one question would you like to ask God?

He heard from virtually everyone he contacted and responded, answering each question as best as he could.

For some time now, I've thought about doing something similar here. Tom convinced me it was time to act.

So, here's my invitation: If you could ask God one question, what would it be?

Email me your question at gdisgood@sbcglobal.net or post it here at the end of this column.

Of course, I can't promise you that God will answer your question directly, but He might respond indirectly through me.

I pledge that I'll think about your question. I'll pray about it; I'll ask God to answer your question through me. And then I (God?) will respond to you.

Oh, yes, here's my question to God:

How's everything going to turn out for us?

I'll start thinking, praying, and listening to God right now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do you hear me?

I like mornings at the table with Penny. We eat our breakfast, read the papers, talk.

Actually, Penny will tell you: I'm usually the one doing the talking.

But not today.

Today, I just listened as she talked about friendship and the possible loss of a friend who might move away in response to a fresh call from God.

I listened and heard not just the verbal content--words--but also the emotional content--feelings: grief, sadness, even fear--fear that she'd never find as dear a friend as the one she might lose.

To listen, not just to Penny, but also to others, I have to shut up, of course, and that's hard for me to do as a voluble person. I also have to resist rushing in and and trying to fix the situation, in this case Penny's sad feelings about her friend.

I remember a sermon that my colleague Father Jonathan Frazier preached at Christ Episcopal Church. He mentioned our Stephen Ministry, which is a lay pastoral care ministry. It involves a high degree of training of lay ministers and careful supervision.

Jonathan said that in Stephen Ministry, people learn that "listening is doing something." Hearing that, I felt freed from my natural tendency to be a fixer (I still need help with my being a talker) and at liberty then to be a listener.

Listening is not only something I seek to do with people, but also something I attempt to do with God, using my quiet time every morning for that purpose. If I'm so busy telling God things, then God has no opportunity to tell me things, be it words of guidance, comfort, forgiveness, peace.

So, today, I'm learning to listen--to my wife, to my friends and colleagues, to my parishioners, to my God.

God wants to know; others want to know: Ken, do you hear me? I do. If I'm listening.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mercy triumphs

In yesterday's reading from the Epistle of James, I heard a sentence for the first time. Oh, I've probably heard it before, but I was ready, really open, to hearing it as if for the first time. Say that I heard this phrase with my heart.

"Mercy triumphs over judgment," James writes to Christians.

Today, what we need is a Christianity not of judgment--so many churches preach God's judgment on this or that sin, on this or that group, on this or that theology--but a Christianity of mercy.

Jesus, in the words of Eugene Peterson, is God with us in the here and now and is the embodiment of the mercy of God. Those who are vulnerable, weak, poor, on the edges of society and not at the center receive mercy from the Lord, never judgment.

The only people Jesus judges, and rightly, are the know-it-alls, the got-it-all-figured outs, the I'm-better-than-you-ares: the Pharisees of then; the Pharisees of now.

One place for this new Christianity of mercy to be expressed is in our own churches and toward our own members, some of whom are different from us for a lot of reasons.

Take those in our churches, for instance, who are suffering from Asperger's Syndrome.

Yesterday afternoon, Penny and I saw Adam, an excellent new film showing at the Moxie. It's about a young electronics engineer, Adam, played by Hugh Dancy, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

As one character in the film explains it, Asperger's is on the "autism spectrum." There's nothing dangerous or scary about it or the people diagnosed with it.

"Aspys," as Adam describes fellow sufferers, are often highly intelligent, but they have difficulty communicating with others and understanding what people are communicating to them. They're prone to talk endlessly on topics of interest to them. As a consequence, they're awkward in social settings, including the workplace, school, in their communities of faith.

When I meet a person who's very different from me, I can judge that person, even think that person a "freak," a word that Adam applies to himself as the way "neurologically typicals" see him.

Or I can practice the Christianity of mercy. I can get to know that person, come to understand who he or she is, and accept that person as a fellow child of God, deserving all my love, but none of my judgment.

Judgmentalism, now that's a truly scary syndrome, and there's nothing Christian about it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why catastrophize?

Listening to the debate on health care reform, I hear many doomsday predictions: "death panels," Medicare cuts for seniors, government-funded abortions, illegal immigrants overwhelming hospitals for free care, socialism.

The health care debate illustrates how powerful the fear of catastrophe is. Fear is our default setting, if you will; and today, pressure groups, politicians, the media are using it to control us.

By nature, we're fearful creatures.

Of course, that persistent ache or pain means terminal cancer. Of course, our trouble remembering names signifies Alzheimer's. Of course, that family member in crisis again won't survive, this time.

Our tendency to assume the worse outcome, or to catastrosphize, is ancient, primal. Our innate physiological alarm to flee from danger, or to take up a stone or club to protect ourselves and our loved ones from those hungry wolves outside our caves.

But today, we don't have to fear the wolves. Catastrophe doesn't have to be our default setting, unless we like Talk Radio and like being scared. Like that rush of adrenaline, as a psychologist friend described it to me yesterday.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says to His disciples: Do not be afraid. I have conquered the world.

I find myself thinking catastrophically, I remember I'm a Christian--one who believes in the resurrection and in God's power to raise Jesus from death to life. I live in the hope of the resurrection.

Yes, bad things happen and will go on happening to us and those we love. And there are times when we need that physiological flight/fight response to help us survive legitimate, real danger. After all, creation is still groaning, awaiting the fullness of new life in God.

It will be awhile before the wolf and the lamb lie down and feed together.

But for those whose faith is in God, catastrophe is not always a certainty. Not every dark cloud has an even darker lining. Not every medical test means terminal disease. Not every bad thing that happens leads to worse things.

I remember sitting in an ER room at the bedside of a family member whom I feared might die. And a wise and faithful friend--who knew something of near-death experiences--said to me, "Ken, don't think, 'What if',' but think, 'What is.'"

Her counsel redirected my attention, and imagination, from a catastrophic future, which was my response to the unknown, to the present moment. I got control of myself, or rather God got control of me.

Instead of fearing, I could do something else, something constructive and positive. In the moment, I could pray. I could wipe my loved one's forehead with a wet wash cloth. I could read the Scriptures. I could trust God.

I thank God every day that my loved one survived. I know the crisis could have turned out differently, even catastrophically. The worst could have happened. For in the end, we'll all suffer and die.

Nevertheless, because we walk in a dark world in the light of the resurrection, we Christians look to the future not in dread, but in hope. Not as the day of doom, but of gladness. The day when we shall meet our Lord face to face and are reunited with Him and with all those we love.

And on that day, there will be nothing left to fear, no catastrophe waiting to happen. But only joy, endless joy.