Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Maybe it's a little TOO well with my soul...!

The picture shown here is a depiction of the Parable of the Pearl (right) paired with the Hidden Treasure (left) on a stained glass window in Scots' Church, Melbourne.

I've always loved the hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. In case you don't know this hymn, here are the lyrics:

It Is Well With My Soul

When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain: It is well, with my soul, It is well, with my soul, It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: If Jordan above me shall roll, No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, The sky, not the grave, is our goal; Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord! Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, Even so, it is well with my soul.

The story behind this hymn is pretty interesting. The lyrics were written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. Spafford was a lawyer from Chicago who suffered a series of calamities, including the loss of his four daughters when the ship they were on went down at sea. His wife was also aboard the ship (the Ville de Havre) but she survived - miraculously - as a plank floated under her unconscious body and kept her afloat until she was rescued.

Upon receiving word of the terrible tragedy (which claimed the lives of a total of 226 people) Spafford boarded the next ship in order to join his distraught wife. The captain of the ship called Spafford to the bridge as they were passing the site at which his daughters had died and then Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote this hymn. I should mention that this was simply the precipitating loss from which the hymn was written - but there were tragic events both before and after this one which give some indication of the depth of Spafford's faith.

All that to say, this has always been for me a powerful hynn. And I've loved to sing it, always feeling that it is a testimony of my faith, regardless of the immediate circumstances of my life. It is well with my soul... There's something profound in this statement. I like this hymn so much that my husband knows that I want it to be sung at my funeral.

Lately I've been thinking that it's a very good funeral hymn, but maybe it's use between now and then may not be such a good thing. Let me explain.

It seems to me that we - and by "we" I really mean "I" but with the suspicion that what is true of me is also true for many others who have been raised in the cultural context of this era and place - have tended to put perhaps too much emphasis on our "personal relationship" with God. This seems perfectly natural - after all, we are each one made in the image of God and each one of us is of inestimable value to God. The health and vibrancy of our relationship with God is quite naturally something to pay attention to. But I'm wondering how much our cultural promotion of individualism might also be at play.

I think that one of our blindspots in Christian thought and practice in North America is our over-emphasis on the individual at the expense of community. If we think for a minute that there might be a "soul" that is not confined to the individual - a social soul or a church soul or a kingdom soul - then there is a disturbing paradox for me. How can it be well with our collective soul when there are so many injustices in our world? And, to take it a step further, maybe our failure to think or feel or act out of our collective soul is a fundamental reason that the church as we know it is not more actively engaged in promoting justice as an expression of our love for our neighbours.

Perhaps the wellness of our collective soul has lulled us into a sense of complacency - a sense that life is hard and that unanticipated perils await us on our journey through this life, but God is good and faithful and he will neither leave us nor forsake us. All of this I think is perfectly true, but in the absence of attention to our collective soul it is easy to think that there is nothing that we need to DO. And yet, as I read the Scriptures, I struggle with this presupposition. I see in the Gospels and in the writings of Paul and other New Testament authors all kinds of direction for putting our faith in a sovereign and good God to good practical use.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (see Luke 19:28-42). In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus says that those who mourn will be comforted. We often hear this quoted at funerals, but what if Jesus was not talking so much about personal loss and grief, but the grieving of our collective Christian soul over the multitudinous abuses - abuses against the poor and marginalized, against creation, against God, against our own humanity...?

There is a sense in which I long to feel that even in the midst of these kinds of abuse, I can sing to God, proclaiming that I know him well enough to be able to say, it is well with my soul. But I also want to be part of a movement of people who know that God is grieved by the state of our world, and to know him is to share in that grief. Yes - Jesus has shed his own blood for my soul and that gives me great comfort and hope - and one day the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend. BUT we're in this together.

Let's not kid ourselves. God IS grieved by the socially manufactured poverty and the socially acceptable forms of greed and exploitation that are often the basis for worldly "success". Most of us haven't faced the kinds of consecutive tragedies that Horatio Spafford endured leading up to and following the writing of It Is Well With My Soul and perhaps we are a little too quick to claim this hymn as our own testimony when we are actually guilty of twisting and distorting and diminishing the lesson of the pearl of great price (see Matthew 13:45-46).

I started this post with the assumption that it was the loss of his four daughters that really inspired Spafford to write this hymn, but maybe this really was just one of a series of events that so demanded his attention that he could finally see through the circumstances of tragedy to behold that pearl of great price. As usual, more questions than answers...!

The big question for me is whether we are in error - and if that error is a small error or a very large error - when we default to thinking of the state of the soulas a fundamentally individual matter as contrasted with a more collective sense of soul - the soul of the body of believers (i.e. the church universal). And, almost as an after thought in this post, now I'm wondering anew about the pearl of great price. What is it exactly and how is it attained? Or is it?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Involuntary simplicity...?

Over the last few years I've been conscious of trying to live more simply. But I have to admit that it's not easy and most of the time I fall short of the mark. And it's a pretty elusive mark. How am I to define living simply in this place of such extravagance and abundance and waste? I have absolutely everything that I NEED and pretty much everything that I WANT. I can honestly say that there is really NOTHING - no consumer product - that I need. As I think ahead even, I'm certain that I could get buy quite nicely - probably for years - without buying ANYTHING except food (well, maybe a few more things like gas and insurance and other "staples"). But I also know that I WILL continue to buy - to keep up to date with the latest electronics, fashions, trends, and my own whims.

So I'm thinking about the concept of voluntary simplicity - the self-imposed commitment to consume less. We may think of this as a modern movement but it actually has roots that can be traced back centuries. Many religious traditions have encouraged simplicity for spiritual, social and ecological reasons. The current voluntary simplicity movement is nothing new and for most of us is likely a quite watered down version of ancient practices. So what is the REAL value of voluntary simplicity? Does it help one connect more closely to God? Does it really reduce our ecological footprint in any significant way? Does it contribute to a more just society? Bottom line, what difference does it make if I discipline myself to leave the things that I don't need on the shelf - or increasingly - out of my various online shopping carts? These are not idle questions. I think about them a lot - almost to the point of obsession!

Here's the line of my thinking:

1. consumerism is a serious addiction and most of us (in the western world) have it to some degree. All addictions affect the person who is addicted - obviously - but also people around them, maybe even to the ends of the earth.

2. this addiction DOES have spiritual, ecological and social consequences. On the spiritual level, any addiction is idolatry - it obscures our view of God and hinders our ability to relate to God. We're much more like the rich young ruler than we like to think. If you don't know about the rich young ruler, check out these passages which all give an account of the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus: Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30. From an ecological point of view I think there is no doubt that our addiction to stuff is hazardous to the planet. The earth's resources, as profound as they are, are not limitless and they cannot sustain us - and by us, I do mean all 7 billion of us on the planet - if we continue to plunder and waste them. There really is only ONE earth and - as I've mentioned in frequent previous posts - our current lifestyle is truly unsustainable from a purely ecological perspective. And finally, in terms of social impact and social justice, we in the western world - the one billion of us who control and consume 86% of the earth's resources - are guilty of oppression and exploitation, whether we intend it or not.

So, what to do? Voluntary simplicity is a great place to start, but is it enough? What if one person in one thousand voluntarily reduces our level of consumption? The benefit may be mostly to us - we are freed from the compulsion to buy, to consume, to own, to plunder. We are free to live more authentically - spiritually, ecologically and socially. We find that we have a better quality of life - it's less cluttered by the desires and obsessions that are inherent in any addiction. But at that level - 1/1000 - the ecological and social justice impact may not even be noticeable. I wonder what it would take to get the commitment to voluntary simplicity to a level that IS noticeable - 1 in 100, or 1 in 10 or 1 in 5? What would it take to get to a level of simplicity that humanity is actually able to address the systemic roots of injustice and oppression? And will we ever get there through voluntary commitments?

Moving from voluntary to involuntary simplicity may not be as extreme as it sounds. For instance, there have been times in the not so distant past when gasoline or food was rationed. Compliance was mandated by law and offenders were prosecuted. Nothing voluntary about that. Nobody likes to have their choices restricted, but sometimes it's necessary in order to address the social consequences of our natural bent towards greed and selfishness.

I'll continue to strive for simplicity but honestly, it will be easier for me to comply when public policy forces me to live more simply. So maybe some of my effort should go into supporting public policy that will do just this. In fact, I'd say that we'll know that we're really serious about the simplicity thing when political parties who promise to enforce simplicity measures actually get our votes. This is not a political plug and I'm not an extremist. I know I'm not an extremist because if I were, I'd be much better at leading by example. No, I'm just thinking this through and wrestling with the big picture stuff.

Voluntary compliance is always more appealing than involuntary - or mandated - compliance - but the fact is, the majority world cannot afford to wait for us to coax everyone on board. While we're patting ourselves on the back for taking a few steps towards a simpler life, they are living with the chronic indignities that come with lack of food, water, shelter, sanitation, education and medical care and they are too often dying for lack of these basic necessities.

We can and should and must, continue our individual efforts but we should also support public policy that will force us to live more responsibly and generously. And for those of us who claim to be followers of Christ, this is as much a part of our spiritual discipline and discipleship as prayer and fasting and worship and bible study and compassion.