Be In the World

Over the years I have have heard people say, “Be in the world but not of the world.”

It’s said often by some groups of Christians about how they’re supposed to engage the varied distracting, pleasurable activities that claim our attention. When we watch Reality TV, we should watching disapprovingly. Or playing poker, disparaging it while simultaneously betting. Or we shouldn’t like going dancing or having a drink, or laugh too loudly at fart jokes. It sounds as if we’re suppose to be like disembodied spirits, floating over the world, unattached, clean, superior.

I hate that sentiment.

The church has always been ambivalent about such a view, even though it’s easy to hear it’s what scripture is saying. But more often, church teaching insists there’s no way not to be of the world. The poet says, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”: This is our world. It might not be all there is, but the world is not inherently evil. Granted, the plausibility of our institutions being run by Satan has a poetic, even observable quality (there was one wag who said something like he didn’t believe in God, but he couldn’t understand anyone who didn’t believe in the devil), but the church stands in the world, itself of the world, even if it commends a presence that challenges the ordinary system of arrangements we take for granted.

In other words, we say that the world is incarnate, that even in our materiality we experience and live who God is.

It means that within the atoms, the elements, the cells, within our pulsing hearts and meandering minds it is al infused, engaged with God. Within the music in the world, the sounds from our voices, the work at the edge of our fingertips can bring forth what is good, just, and beautiful. Our eyes light up in understanding; and there is the spirit working.

The church also, however, teaches that there is a deep brokenness within the world; and reminds us the lives we have are fragile. Perhaps this fragility is what forces us to attend to what is meaningful.

Still, those of religious faith are called to take a particular stance while in it. I wonder if part of that stance through a formation of having a practice of going more deeply, a daily spiritual practice of reflection.

One characteristic of God, we say, is that God knows our minds and hearts. She shares and resonates; but our mistake is to think that God ONLY sits where we sit, and only inhabits our own minds.   It gives us the tool of understanding how another person sees the world. In the early community that surrounded the Gospel we read last week, it is assumed that within our community we must learn to see and hear how others think, search how they feel, recognize what they love.

Some might say this is the broadening of perspective; the ability to be attuned to your surroundings; understanding how the world impacts us, and how we impact others. The process we offer is like so: times of stillness, of fellowship, and encouragement. We are not overcome by own need to be seen, but allow others to do so.

Perhaps it is this: not to deny the world, to be distracted from it, but to be in the world. To be in the world. To be in the world. That is how we stand, our feet planted, our lives rooted, on and within the deep being of love.

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Wealth and Responsibility: reflections on today’s daily office

From Today’s Daily office:

Deuteronomy 8

12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

And from the first letter of James:

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

In our conversations about wealth, I hear some who say that the wealth is theirs. They earned it, and they worked hard. Their participation in the public should not be mandated, but voluntary. And we see how the public wastes.

The gospel critiques this. It does not say that abundance or wealth is bad. It implicitly approves: we multiply our wealth – and that is a gift. But the risk is apparent: as we make more, we place ourselves upon the throne that God would inhabit. We delude ourselves into thinking we are independent, when the truth is the opposite. The most wealthy are, truly, the most dependent upon our entire system perpetuating.

The scriptures assert: as we have built our wealth, we must not forget that we were once slaves. We once resisted. We created idols. And we forgot that we were once poor, and had to rely upon the generosity of others. Remember how wealth easily disfigures our ability to connect and empathize. It need not be so, but this is why we challenge the powerful have a healthy appreciation for public institutions, and the willingness to share leadership and power.

We hear, of course, of powerful “self-made” men who forget all the work that came before them. But the scriptures offer a correction. Remember that modern inventions rely upon the previous inventions and protections and contributions of others who were not properly compensated. We rely upon the work of others to make our lives bearable. But the entitled forget that the value of their labor is not purely their own. Others must help, must buy, must see and approve. The scriptures do not deny income inequality when it is simply a matter of one person working harder than another. But no person works 50,000 times as hard as another person, and it is the wealthier person who is dependent upon all the relationships that brought money into their hands than the truly poor. They see money as an efficient tool rather than as the symbol it is: the accumulation of trust, or debt, or sin, that is in their hands.

The gospel then says, through James, that our role is simply this: not merely to talk about God, or about Jesus, but to care. In a world of entitlement, we declare our humility; in a world of contempt, we offer kindness. The gospel says repeatedly, that no matter what, people count. Each person matters, no matter what they have in their account. Not one person is expendable. At heart, that is why we challenge a system that measures human beings through the sign value of money. We are more than that.