It is a matter of tradition for me at the beginning of a new year to identify one chapter of Scripture for the purpose of daily meditation. I read that chapter everyday for the whole year until its words rise in my heart like the morning sun. Over the years this practice has has allowed Scripture to wear grooves in my thinking and believing, you know like how an oft-traveled road seems to guide you by ruts you can’t see.
One might say the letter to the Romans is a treatise of essential Christianity. If you’re looking for a book that will hone what must be believed in order to be in the faith, Romans is your book. It’s written to a melting pot of believers gathered together from varying backgrounds and cultures. In it, Paul is attempting to get them all on the same page so they can get along for the sake of Christ.
Chapter 12 marks a change in Paul’s focus. He moves from what we believe (doctrine) to how we are to go about believing it (practice). He proclaims this Christianity thing is a together affair. Good doctrine removed from community* doesn’t exist. (I’m leaving the concept of ‘community’ open rather than limiting it to the definition of a church building with four walls. I know many who for legitimate reasons find the four walled variety of community deafening to their spirituality, yet they continue to commit themselves to and flourish in the vibrancy of Christ-centered relationships.)
Romans 15 is a beautiful commendation of body life. Paul describes a togetherness that is rich and deep and thick. He challenges our modern idea of togetherness (i.e. Do I belong? Am I understood? Am I valued? Do others make me happy?) Paul wants his readers to know essential Christianity dies without the discipline of otherness.
I have both rejoiced and protested that the Lord has led me to declare Romans 15 as my 2014 Chapter of Contemplation. I rejoice because its possibility is so beautiful. I protest because its probability seems fraught with frustration.
The church world seems to be getting socially harder and colder. I don’t know if it’s social media or the selfishness of our own hearts, but as a group we are not a kindly bunch. Don’t believe me? Just go on Twitter and see what kinds of words we spew when someone disagrees with us or challenges us. Go visit a new church and see what kind of reception you get. Want to know what kind of car is most likely to cut me off in traffic? Yes, the one with The Fish on the back window.
I don’t mean to place the burden of guilt entirely on church people. The world is a hard and cold place. As a general rule, civility is in low supply. Remember the days when people said ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ returned messages/emails? Remember when it was considered etiquette to introduce yourself to new people and then to introduce the new people to your friends? You recall the old Girl Scout song way of social happiness ‘your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends,’ don’t you?
I’m not even trying to point fingers at anyone. I am often the Queen of Rudeness. I will ignore phone calls. I am easily annoyed. If I think a conversation will be awkward for more than three seconds, I will just avoid it all together. I can be critical, hard to please, and overly sensitive. Some days I’m combative for no good reason other than the dog kept me awake or last night’s dinner consisted of too much wine and/or cheese. I’m the first to admit that I will overlook kindness because it’s just too much work and I am far too easy on myself and/or lazy.
In and out of the church, we are a culture of the cool, calculated, and calloused. Are the zombie movies a social commentary on who we have become? Dead to emotion, especially empathy. Predatory. Run or be eaten. Scrutinize everyone; trust nobody.
I guess we’ve all just grown accustomed to meanness and I don’t want anything to do with it. I’d like to just avoid it all; I want out of the fray.
Yet deep within there is a voice I hear asking me to become a Romans 15 person. That voice inspires beauty; He makes the impossible seem probable. When I think about the coldness of the world, the call to deeply-rooted, sweat-inducing kindness is no longer elective, but imperative.
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” ~Romans 15:5-6
This will not be an easy contemplation or obedience for me. I don’t know yet how the kindness of Romans 15 will find expression in my life; that will be for daily exploration. But I know it will be an otherness that looks like patience, thoughtfulness, truth-speaking, and hope-sharing. It won’t be shallow; it can’t be, life is too hard for that to be meaningful. It will be hard work–I will need perseverance and bravery. On many occasions it may even go badly for me in order that it may contribute to someone else’s good. I can see I will need Jesus.
In preparation for Bible Study this week, I was affirmed that this discipline of otherness is the leading of the Spirit for me. John 19 tells of the crucifixion of Christ; He has been mocked, tried, and hung. Huddled beneath the bloody culmination of Jesus’ life are his mother, his aunt, Mary Magdalene, and his disciple, John. Just before Jesus gives up his spirit, he gives his mother and his disciple to one another; his love will continue to flow out to each of them from the other. What a beautiful picture of otherness–two people committed to the mingled joy and sorrow found in the shadow of the cross. It’s certainly different than the sterilized version of community most of us experience. No, the cross calls for raw, vulnerable, other-centered, courageous kindness.
Friends, he has given us to one another. That is not a light responsibility, nor should it be a heavy burden. It is privilege. To that privilege I will give my attention in 2014. Would you like to join me?