Seventeen years ago, the Coen brothers released a movie called The Big Lebowski. The plot of this movie is incredibly complicated and not necessary to rehash here. In summary, a dead beat named Jeffrey Lebowski is confused with a millionaire named Jeffrey Lebowski and all kinds of hijinks ensue. The dead beat Jeffrey Lewbowski calls himself the Dude and is as laid back as that name might connote. He is unshaven, probably unwashed, and a total slacker. He has no apparent job, and his only serious relationship is with his bowling buddies. In short, he is not particularly admirable.
And yet, this character became a cult sensation. People LOVE the Dude and people still quote his famous line, “The Dude abides. . .”
“The Dude abides.” This, I think is the core of what is loveable about Lebowski. Abide here not only describes his endurance of this farcical plot, but his attitude about life. He is not here to act, or accomplish. He exists merely to abide. And this slacker attitude is so counter cultural to everything we are taught to be.
From the moment a doctor puts us through an APGAR test when we are born, we spend our lives being measured. We take tests to get into Kindergarten. We are measured at every well visit and told how we compare to other children. We take standardized test after standardized test and then once we are thrust into the adult world we still compare ourselves with others—but now we compete over race times, and salary, and promotions. We are taught to work hard and achieve. And so the Dude enchants us with his extraordinarily laid back approach to life. He becomes a fantasy of another way to live—one in which we have no responsibilities, no one against whom to compete.
The idea of abiding is both enticing to us and makes us nervous. We don’t know how to abide, but we suspect if we started to abide, we might never get off the couch again.
And yet, here in the Gospel of John we have Jesus telling us to do just that.
Well, Jesus tells us to abide, but Jesus’ idea of abiding is pretty different from the Big Lebowski’s. Where the Dude’s abiding is not rooted in anything beyond his own desires, Jesus’ idea of abiding is about deep connection with God.
Jesus envisions himself as a vine tended by his Father. He envisions us as branches in the vine. With this image he invites us to “abide in him, as I abide in you”. Branches, of course, don’t just lie next to a vine. The substance of the vine becomes the substance of the branch. The same water and nutrients that pour through the vine, pour through the branches. The vine doesn’t boss the branches around, the vine provides everything the branch might need to grow.
The branches don’t just sit around enjoying slurping up all the vine’s nutrients, either. The branches produce fruit.
In our life of faith, we can take the messages we receive from our culture and think that to love God we have to constantly be producing something. We have to retreats, and mission trips, and outreach projects and fundraisers. We have to put up billboards and bake for coffee hour and make a million crafts for VBS!
But the picture of the life of faith that Jesus paints for us in this parable is not one of frantic work. Jesus paints a picture of a quiet, nurturing relationship in which we are so connected to Jesus through prayer that our lives start to change and we start to bear fruit.
Bearing fruit is not about producing frantic actions on our part, but about shaping our character. The Apostle Paul writes that these fruits are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Staying connected to the vine through prayer, allows the Holy Spirit to shape us. Abiding leads to a rich spiritual life.
This development of a spiritual life can lead us to right action. Instead of frantically “doing” to get the world’s approval, when we abide, we are able to discern what actions are in line with God and which are just the little ego strokes we like to give ourselves every so often.
Abiding in God can give us deep courage.
I have been so struck this week by what is happening in Baltimore as you start to dig below the surface media coverage.
If my city was experiencing the tensions Baltimore is now facing, it would be sorely tempting for me just to stay inside and bar the doors! Ignoring huge problems seems like a reasonable solution to someone not abiding in Jesus.
But so many people are showing the fruits of the spirit in Baltimore. Teachers and principals at area high schools are trying desperately to make their student feel heard and safe. Community centers threw together spur of the moment day care centers for families who had to work despite schools being closed Monday. Children and adults were out on the street first thing in the morning, cleaning up and claiming their community. Clergy and faithful lay people who have been out on the streets for days, marching and praying and offering communion to anyone who will have it.
I imagine many of these souls are people who abide. I imagine many of these people deeply know the love of God and have had their character shaped by a lifetime of prayer and Christian community. They know that loving God always results in loving people. Being a branch means being connected to the vine, but also reaching out to all the other branches. Every branch is connected to the same vine. We all belong to each other.
As you know, a handful of us here at St. Paul’s have been taking an enneagram class with Sarah Tremaine. The enneagram is a map of the human condition, in a way, and each of the nine personality types has some very particular disconnect with God. A particular way in which their branch doesn’t quite connect with the vine. What has struck me about the class is how the way to heal that disconnect is universal—be in prayer and meditation. The way that prayer and meditation is shaped may look slightly different for each of the nine types, but the core to healing is connection with God. Whether you are being blocked by your fear or your perfectionism, or your inability to follow through, or the way you bulldoze through life—whatever your issue, abiding with God, reconnecting with the vine, will help you become more whole and more balanced.
I am the type of person who is always convinced a new organizing system is going to help whatever feeling of disconnect I am currently experiencing. Surely a new system for my closet or a new way to file papers on my desk will make everything better! But when huge issues like an earthquake in Nepal or unrest in Baltimore come up, I feel truly overwhelmed. Target does not sell a single thing that can help the thousands of families who have lost loved ones or people who feel hopeless and marginalized.
But this image of a nurturing vine and loving vine grower can be so helpful and healing to us in big crises. Because even if we can’t directly solve institutional racism or rescue hurting people, we can stay connected to God, who will lead us to help in the small ways we can. And by staying connected to God, we also somehow stay connected to those strangers who are suffering, since they are branches on the same vine, after all. Our prayers reach them, and theirs reach us.
So, abiding is not the work of slackers. Abiding is the deep work of people who want to break through their own unhealthy patterns and connect to a deeply loving God. Abiding is for those who have the courage to connect deeply to fellow human beings, even those very different from them. Abiding is for those humble enough to realize that their own frantic actions or passionate Facebook statuses are not going to solve the world’s problems.
Abiding is for us. God’s gift to a people who he loves. May we ever be his fruitful branches.