Thursday, June 29, 2006

Distinct in Life, Colleagues in Death

One of the spiritual disciplines in which I engage is The Daily Office, a daily worship experience that can be individual or communal in nature. For the most part my journey through The Daily Office is a solitary, but rewarding, one. I have learned new hymns (the website above has the option of musical accompaniment), become more disciplined in praying composed prayers (my personal history has been largely extemporaneous prayer), and in the course of two years read the entire Scriptures. An addition that I like comes in moments to add time for silent reflection and/or meditative reading outside the parameters of the Office. Currently I have decided to add For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists. Nearly every day includes a day associated with a Christian -- this is an ecumenical resource with United Methodist heritage components -- whose spiritual life and practice have been exemplary.

Today I read of Sts. Peter and Paul. This is their day, a festival day of commemoration. Their day was established early one, during the time of Roman persecutions of early Christ-followers. I find it interesting that during their lives these men were quite distinct from one another. Their conversions were different, their personalities were different, their experience of one another was often controversial. You need only read the Acts of the Apostles to witness to their distinctness in life. Paul was confrontational and boundary-breaking, while Peter is more reluctant and conservative. Acts 15 recounts the first major doctrinal battle in the Christian movement, with Paul and Peter on opposite sides of an issue regarding inclusion (that is, who is included in the claims of Christ and how people of different backgrounds access this faith). Peter was concerned that one must first adopt the old ways and then come to Christ; Paul insisted that it was unnecessary to put "stumblingblocks" in the way of those who wished to come to Christ. As it turns out, a compromise was reached, but only after much wrangling and prayer, and the decision was for inclusion (but with sensitivity to the concerns of the other group). These were two very different individuals, for which the term "colleagues" might only loosly apply. They were united in mission (to share the good news of Jesus Christ), but not in method nor in personality. At least not in life.

But in death, Sts. Peter and Paul are united, colleagues in martyrdom. Christian tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down (the typical means of capital punishment for a slave) at his request (he did not feel worthy to be crucified in the same fashion as his Lord), and that Paul was beheaded.

It was their commitment to the mission at hand and not to their personal eccentricities that has joined them together in Christians' memories. The biggest challenge, in my estimation, of the Christian faith community in the Western world is our wholesale acceptance of our culture's extreme emphasis upon individualism. We are taught from the time we are old enough to remember that our task in life is to "become somebody," to discover "self-esteem," and to "pull ourselves up by the bootstraps" (to use parlance of an older generation). We value the rugged individualist and look askance at those who seek the aid of others. Our society values those who spend their lives making a "better life for themselves" (translation: power, status and money), but we revile those who look "for handouts" (translation: those at the margins, the forgotten, the destitute).

In our faith communities we individuals want our preferences understood and adopted. If it is traditional worship with resounding organ at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, the pastor and leadership of the church better leave that experience untouched. Or, at the other extreme, if it is more indigenous worship with screeching electric guitar and pulsating drums at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, the "old guard" better not say a word. Churches, it seems, do one of three things: (1) Maintain tradition at the cost of new opportunities for ministry; (2) Institute indigenous at the risk of disenfranchising the faithful of many years; or (3) muddle into the middle with a combination that often serves neither preference group very well.

In any case, the most difficult learning for people of faith is that it is not our preference that should lead the decision-making process. What must lead our decision-making process is our sense of mission. If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ (which the New Testament seems fairly clear about), then our preferences and comfort levels must take second priority to the opportunity to reach new people groups with the good news of Jesus Christ.

It's hard for us entitled, membership-as-privilege, western Christians to understand that our sense of unity must be found in our mission, not in what is often a deluded sense of "harmony." And what I like so well about this day that commemorates both St. Paul and St. Peter, is that in death they are joined. They are joined not because they were alike in life, nor even because their methods were the same. They are joined as colleagues in martyrdom (and in perpetual Christian memory) because of their shared passion to the mission.

I'm hopeful that we western Christians will not have to wait until our deaths to be so identified. We need to be joined in the mission, whatever that means and wherever that may take us.

1 comment:

Tammy said...

"We need to be joined in the mission, whatever that means and wherever that may take us."
Amen, brother!