VITALITY STARTS WITH BEING WELL FED
Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality
Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the encourager, in encouragement; the giver, in sincerity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 Instead, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We are beginning an eight week series on ‘Developing the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality’. This week we are laying the foundation by reading Romans 12. Greatly simplifying a complex book, Paul spends the first 11 chapters laying the theological underpinnings of ‘justification by faith’. We are justified. We are made right with God, not because of our good behaviors but because God loves us. Our stubbornness, selfishness,ill will and poor decision making do not separate us from God. We are safe with God because God has adopted us as his children.
These are huge faith claims but they have analogues in our everyday experience. Anyone who has been deeply loved—by a parent, a friend or a spouse—cannot be the same person afterward. It may not stick. In fact it usually doesn’t, but in that moment we feel safe, secure and deeply grateful. Anxiety goes down and our energy for living goes up. Almost without fail, we will be kinder, more gentle and more loving. We will be slower to anger and more able to meet hardship and conflict. Unfortunately this is not something we can decide to do. We cannot decide we are loved. We can only accept that we are—and then be reminded of such grace regularly.
In the second verse Paul enjoins us “ Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” In real life it is very difficult not to default to self interest. We are after all, a species dependent upon ‘survival of the fittest’ as a means of evolution. That is the natural way of the world. Safety and security is found by protecting self — first, and foremost. The super natural alternative is to balance our self interest with the needs of others. The good of the whole is always part of the equation. When we ‘conform to this age’, we follow what RG Evans calls ‘meism’. What is best for me? Consequences for others or for our planet be damned. Inconveniencing ourselves, much less sacrificing for others is a non-starter. Our sense of well being and safety resides in our gaining an edge. In theological language, our righteousness depends upon our own efforts and vigilance. Such thinking is self righteous and denies our creatureliness.
In contrast, Paul calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We must see the ultimate futility of always advancing and protecting ourselves. This suggests our deferring to a God who cares about all of us instead of some of us. It requires that we consider others even as we consider ourselves. That in turn means that we are aware and mindful of other people and our impact upon them. I get very tired of people telling me they have the right to do something. Of course they do. Everyone also has the right to be stupid. But that does not mean they are making a good choice. It is often difficult and tiresome to be mindful of others but it is impossible to love without being willing to be inconvenienced.
Paul goes on and lists some of the ordinary ways we are called to love. He begins with“I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” The good news is that God does not rank people, people do. The bad news is that without rankings we will likely be anxious about where we stand, what we should do and how we can tell if we are right. Trusting that God values all of his children and rejoices in whatever they can contribute is quite difficult in real life. Such thinking is a blow to those of us who prize our education, social position and/or our salaries. But Paul calls us to give up placing our identities in such ranking and instead to base our worth in the confidence that God loves us.
In verses 9-12, Paul lists a variety of things we can do to get out of ourselves. Again, and I can not say this strongly enough, none of these practices gain us favor with God. These are the practices of a grateful heart. These are the practices that flow naturally from realizing we are deeply and steadfastly loved. The list is also an acknowledgment that we forget grace more often than we remember it. These help us to behaviorally remember. Truth be told, sometimes we are ‘faking it until we make it.’ I often tell struggling couples to spend an hour a week together apart from the kids—regardless of their mood. It is important to realize their relationship is bigger than their mood. When that happens, they have a chance to rediscover each other. It doesn’t always work but, without such effort, the chances of reconciliation drop to near zero.
In the concluding paragraph, Paul gives a list of don’ts. Do not curse those who persecute you, do not be arrogant, do not repay evil for evil, do not avenge yourselves and finally “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The medieval caricatures of Satan took the battle between good and evil very seriously. We need guardrails to help us remember we are defaulting to ‘meism’. When we recognise our natural defaults, we have a better chance of resisting them. In real life, when we do the work of love, we begin to gain muscle memory. Bit by bit, the behaviors of loving and mindfulness come to us more naturally. It took me ten years to realize that emptying the dishwasher was a ten minute job. When this happens, we become closer to God.
Finally, in our FIRL groups the line that evoked the most discussion was “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” It certainly sounds retaliatory and harsh. But in real life, we use the phrase ‘kill them with kindness’. Such a practice often blunts and sometimes breaks the circle of injury—’I have a right to hurt you because you hurt me’—that has no end. If you’ve ever been treated kindly after hurting someone, you are much more likely to be more accountable and more willing to ‘own’ your part of the conflict. Lynn Evans describes an exercise used in a previous church. Each person in their small group was given five dollars (this was thirty years ago so five dollars went a lot further). Their task was to do something kind for someone that had offended them in some way. Try it. It opens new possibilities for reconciliation. It is simply harder to hold on to personal grievances when you are kind—or when you receive kindness.
These practices are at the base of our individual and our corporate journeys of faith. At its most pragmatic, this is why I am a Christian. Christianity works. It does not always provide a happy ending—please remember that Jesus was crucified. Kindness does not automatically evoke kindness. But kindness and regard gives us a better chance. I tell the story often of my three year old daughter asking for candy before a meal. When I told her ‘no’, she looked at me wide eyed and said: “But daddy, I said please.” I responded, ‘Yes, you did sweet heart, but ‘please’ doesn’t guarantee anything. It just gives you a better chance.”
It is a hard lesson to learn. But we seek to be intentional in our faith journey. These practices lead to a life in which deep connection and reconciliation is more possible. They provide a direction for living. They create a circle of care that reminds us of the source of life that makes our caring sustainable.
We live in the promise that such a life leads to life. Let it be so.