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The Beauty of Generosity

generosity

OK, so I’ll admit it. I cry when I see Olympic gymnasts. I also cry at the tender parts of movies, and sometimes just listening to music brings me to tears. I think it’s a beauty thing. I am moved by excellence, by goodness, by beauty.

Beauty is a powerful force. We are drawn to the beautiful. We surround ourselves with beautiful things. We soak ourselves in beautiful music. Indeed, when we consider another person beautiful, we call that person “attractive.” Furthermore, beauty is something we seek to imitate. Artists and poets learn their craft by by reproducing the styles of the Masters. When we see beautiful acts of kindness or tenderness, we are inspired to do likewise.

And that is precisely my point. Generosity is beautiful. We are attracted by generosity. We admire generosity. We are moved to imitate generosity. Just think of Charles Dickens’ story of “The Christmas Carol,” a delightful story of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a stingy, tight-fisted man of business into a generous, warm-hearted friend. Or think of O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi.” In this story a poor young husband and wife struggle to express their love for each other through the purchase of a secret Christmas gift. In the end, the husband sells his heirloom watch to buy his beloved a set of clips for her long hair. The wife, in the meantime, has sold her hair and used the money to buy him a platinum chain for his watch. O Henry closes his story with these words,

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.

Acts of radical generosity are attractive, I think, because they are extravagant examples of the human calling, the very purpose for which we were put on earth. We were made, “to take care of ” our garden earth (Genesis 2:15). We were placed here to give ourselves for the benefit of both people and planet in the presence of our loving Creator. When we hear a story of generosity we see a vivid model of the beauty of human purpose itself.

Luke tells of a similar story in the book of Acts. He recounts how the Holy Spirit descended upon a gathering of followers of Jesus and how they were transformed. Near the end of his account Luke declares that “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44-45; see also Acts 4:32-35). Luke’s point here is to describe the generous beauty of a community filled with the Spirit of Christ. In his gospel, Luke earlier told the sad story of the rich young ruler who would not redistribute his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus (see Luke 18:18-29). The beautiful life of radical generosity, which the rich young ruler could not enter, is a life which the Church exhibits characteristically. It is attractive. It is contagious.

As I write this, it is early morning, New Years Eve. The US government has still not resolved the issues necessary to save us from our “fiscal cliff.” Let me offer a suggestion. If the Christians of this country–only the Christians–were to choose to imitate the beauty of the radical generosity modeled in the Scriptures, our country (and the image of the Christian faith in the eyes of onlookers everywhere) would be transformed. Let’s choose to live a beautiful life.

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Judean Monastery

OK, so I was wrong. When I first explored the history of Christian spirituality, I learned that there were two forms of monasticism in the fourth century: anchorites and cenobites. Anchorites were those, like Antony, who went away far into the desert and lived alone. Cenobites were those, like Pachomius, who founded communities of monks. And that’s what I told others. Later I learned about “sketes” or lavra, small collections of hermitages built around a central meeting hall. But recently I have discovered just how rich the breadth of expression was in early monastic life. So much so that I feel obliged to repent of my former statements. So here’s my current list of forms of “monastic life”: Anchorite Antony and cenobite Pachomius learned their practice from village monks, holy men who lived on the edge of town. In addition to the sketes of Egypt and the lavra of Palestine, there were also places like Nitria and Oxyrhynchus, desert cities with clerical or monastic leadership and strong links to the larger world. There were those who devoted themselves to prayer and ascetical practice in the context of ordinary domestic life. There were household monastic communities, formed on the estate of a particular family and which included many family members, slaves, and other friends. Around AD 340, Marcella of

Monastic headquarters today?

 

Rome founded an urban monastic collective in a group of neighboring homes. There were traveling monks who, like Jesus, never had a place to lay their heads. There were those who took the practice of compassionate care as a life of devotion to God. Some people in Syria formed special societies of members within their local congregations of people devoted to God in monastic-style ways. Now I understand: the ways of expressing whole-hearted devotion to God and kingdom living are limited only by the bounds of our own creativity.

 

You want to know the highlight of my 2011? Prayer. I’m not just being spiritual. It’s really true. I was writing my contribution to the Howard family 2011 Christmas letter last week. As I was writing, I realized that the greatest highlight of my year was actually settling into a way of prayer. God knows I don’t have “relationship with Jesus” figured out. Indeed, that is the whole point. This year, finally, I think I’ve found a way to maintain a life of prayer in the midst of not having it all figured out. It’s not that I had some encounter or anything. It’s just that a few things came together for me and helped me get unstuck. And in the process I realized that perhaps I’m not alone in my prayer confusions. So let me tell you a little bit about what I needed to move forward.

The first thing that came together were my own thoughts about God. For a long time I have had some questions about how an all knowing, all powerful, God relates to my prayers. I worked through many of my theological quandaries as I wrote chapter four of the Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality. Nevertheless, it is one thing to study what the Bible teaches about God and it is quite another to believe this truth inside, especially when what you have learned is that God is beyond all learning. It took a while for “who is God?” to work its way down to “this is my God,” but in this past year I think I have found peace with what I know and what I may never know.

Another matter was my practice. I have done prayer in a lot of different ways over the years. I have made prayer lists, meditated on Scripture, spoken in tongues, recited liturgy, and more. Through these methods I have experienced seasons of both refreshing and drought. For the past few years however, no particular method has carried any special energy. So how was I going to do prayer now? Alongside this was the issue of my ownership of prayer. As a student of Christian spirituality, I had spent years and years trying to master the prayer life of others. But sooner or later you reach a point where you need to stop trying to be Johnathan Edwards or Teresa of Avila, and you must just be you,no matter how the books say you should pray. And so gradually I have become comfortable simply placing myself before God using a variety of means of prayer no matter what I seem to “get out of it” any given day.

And then there was the matter of time and place. I had to establish a realistic arrangement for prayer. I have had a special place for prayer for some time, but I felt like I needed to revise my schedule to facilitate this next season of prayer. After playing with a few experiments, I have recently found a schedule of prayer that seems to be just right.

Finally, I needed motivation. I was walking into an environment in which I didn’t really understand what I was doing, I couldn’t count on experiencing anything, and I wasn’t sure how God might answer my prayers. Honestly, I just wasn’t sure how to relate to God. And in this condition you can be sure that Satan used all kinds of strategies to keep me as far from prayer as possible. In the end I sat down and wrote out why I was choosing to pray. I read this little statement each day as I begin my prayers, just to remind me why I am there before God in the midst of ambiguity. This statement, and my own accountable relationships with others, enable me to keep at it from day to day.

It took all of these factors coming together to enable me to take this next step in my journey of prayer. I’m grateful to have found a place to start anew. What about you? How do you navigate the ambiguities of relationship with God?