Grace: a theological exploration part 2

What happens when our conception of God fundamentally changes? 

In the time of Jesus calling God “Dad” was radical, or at least we think it was radical for the time. To be honest about the research we cannot really tell if it was shocking or not.

It is not a normal title for God in Hebrew literature, but it was not completely unheard of either. 

The unique thing about the title of “Dad” is that it is a keystone to the whole arch of Jesus’ teaching. His concept of Dad was compassionate, loving, merciful, and quick to forgive. Both the gospels and letters teach that part of that teaching is that we are God’s children, or we can be.

Jesus is God’s son, that is undisputed by anyone in the Christian faith. It is a pillar of doctrine. You are in or out of the definition of being a Christian based simply on the answer to that question of belief, among a very few others. 

Leaving behind for a moment what that means to classical theology, in the Hebrew tradition it meant that Jesus would have the character of God. The same way that when my father says, “Boy, you are your mother’s son,” what he means is that I have some characteristic of my mother, like stubbornness, for example. 

Jesus has God’s character. This is an aspect of what we call incarnation in theology. Jesus makes “carne” or meaty what God is in spirit. This notion that Jesus embodies God is another key theological idea that lies at the center of Christian thought. But at the least it means that Jesus has God’s character.

In the prologue of the Gospel of John we are told that because of the Logos we are capable of becoming children of God, not through the desire of a man or the strength or will but through the abiding of the Holy Spirit. This is right up front in the gospel, literally and literarily. We become children of God as we abide in his Spirit and as his Spirit abides in us.

We are to take on his character, just as Jesus had God’s character. The logic of this is ironclad, and once you see it, you see it throughout the New Testament. 

Therefore if grace is God’s character, then we are to have grace. We are to give freely forgiveness, things, provision, love. This is all in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is also the consistent message throughout the text, stated in different ways. 

Think seriously about that for a moment. We are supposed to be a people of grace if we are God’s people, Jesus’s disciples, embodying the Holy Spirit. We are to be generous, forgiving, merciful, and loving. 

If you know real Christians, you know people like this. 

The question before us is “How do we shape a people like this?”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and his staff have produced a Way of Love curricula that locates this in a series of practices. I have taught and written about this very thing throughout this blog and my churches. This is the question of our times.

How do we become a people of the Way? 

The Rule of Grace is one way to put the process, as you will find with a search of this sight. It is the way we inculcate a people of the transaction into the way of Christ. 

It begins with knowing God and continues with loving.

Grace: a theological exploration part 1.

We are in the middle of another Reformation. Whether you know it or not, your pastor or priest does. The theological world is in flux, and there is a massive shift beneath our feet. Theology is, after all, a landscape to wander in. (Thank you, Guide Rowan Williams.) 

Grace is not a thing.

The Reformation was built around an assumption built in Thomas Aquinas. That assumption is that grace is a thing. The argument was under what conditions the thing is given, earned, or exchanged for something else. 

The problem is that grace is not a thing. It is the character of God. Read Jesus carefully. God forgives. God is merciful. God is consistently compassionate.  You are not, but God is. God’s character is grace. 

Grace is charis and that means gift in English. A gift is given. It is not earned or payed for. This is essential to the definition. And this fits with both the descriptions of God in Jesus and with the demands of Jesus of his disciples. 

The essence of Jesus is that God has grace and wants you to treat others with grace. You have been given freely the life and blessings and freedom you have, and you are expected to give freely or you won’t continue to receive freely. This is a big deal that is rarely talked about on the grace side of the argument. The Reign of God is only operative where we, the reigned, act as if we are reigned. We must be the children of our Father in the Heavens in order to be his children.

God’s character is to love God’s children. This only makes sense. The problem we have is that God loves all of the children. So if one harms a child, then God is angry and may cut us off from his presence, his blessing, his peace. God is merciful, but God also demands that we be merciful.

So. We are currently coming to terms with this simple shift, but simple can be terrible. Earthquakes are generally simple. 

The theological world is shifting as we come to terms with fundamental understandings of how God then is understood. 

God loves you and wants you to be an heir to the Reign and bear the image of God in the world, so the Son incarnates God in the world to open the gates of the covenant wide, teach the way of God, and take our sins and separation onto himself and reunite us with God through the indwelling of his Spirit. This is all done so that you can go into the world to bring that grace to others. As you do that you enter the divine life. 

That life is in the Way of God. Your work, or at least my work, is to become more like God, to have God’s grace by reflex in any situation. I am not a natural at this. I have to work at it. 

Then I get a little bit of it. I love someone. Maybe my child or spouse or some kindly lady in the next pew. But along comes some new person. Take the lady who lost the child in the terrible neighborhood because she made a mistake that she didn’t know was even there and let her child be exposed to chemicals or bad food, who is morbidly obese and undernourished at the same time because she lives in a neighborhood where the food is degraded to the point that though she overeats she is underfed and slowly being destroyed by the systems that I help create and sustain. 

What do I do to love her? I mean, Lord, if you call me to love her, I do not know how. I can barely handle loving my wife whom I have great affection and desire for. So thank you very much, I will keep the God of the tribe I belong to who needs me to pray in the ways I have been taught, that feel natural because they are what I already know, and who gives me comfort because I am nice to the lady in the next pew and fill in the right blanks on the check I write to the Temple.

Of course I am not satisfied by the god I can control. That god is not a person, not the God of the Bible, nor the Father in the Heavens. When you begin to see the God of Jesus, nothing else will fill the longing in your soul.

Keeping the Office: Spirit, Soul, Balance, and Coyotes

Run. Lift. Run. Lift. Run. Yoga? Run. Box. Lift. Staying in shape takes discipline and variation. My preference is long bouts of running (trails on the menu tonight) mixed with heavy lifting and boxing work on a heavy bag. If that sounds like a lot you can comfort yourself knowing that it all gets spread out by life.

In the Episcopal Church we are shaped by prayer in a four-fold practice that is deeply rooted in the Benedictine practice of the Catholic Church of the west. One of the current losses in the Episcopal tradition is the focus only on the Eucharistic and sacramental practices to the exclusion of everything else. In reality we are shaped equally by the Daily Office, prayer of the heart, and Lectio Divina.

Each of these types of prayer has its own place in a healthy, balanced life. The Eucharist has taken on the dominant role since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved it to the center of the weekly gathering and moved from being a devotional guide for regular practice to the being a sourcebook for liturgy. This description by the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain in a staff conversation rings with my own experience. The options that are available to offer variety in the services of Eucharist are distracting in the Daily Office.

The Daily Office is a condensed version of the monastic hours of the Benedictine tradition. The Opus Dei, work of God, of Benedict’s Rule is the monks’ lifting up the continuous praise of the church hour after hour, day after day, year after year. I am reminded of this every time I settle into retreat. The Office is our secular lifting up of that praise. It is continuous and faithful, and decidedly not consumerist.

The praise of the church, rooted in the praise of all creation, is going to go on with or without us joining in. We join in to be a part of God’s reign of peace and grace. We are changed by being a part of that work as a fire purifies metal.

The loss of the Office is then a loss of transformation in the particular way that being a part of something larger than ourselves changes us.

It is useful to offer a splitting of hairs between Spirit and soul at this point. In my anthropology I understand the spirit of a person to be reflective of and part of the Spirit of God, the God-breath that animates us and gives us consciousness, being, and life. But that part of us is not individualized but is universal. Those things we call “spiritual” all have reliable components of light, higher sensibilities, goodness.

The soul, on the other hand, is the part of us that is unique. It has a sense of the quirky, individual, and rootedness. To say that something is soulful is to say it is rooted in the person in a different way than the Spirit. Anything that is of the soul should be good, but may not be.

The Spirit of God is our breath in some way that makes us human. It is what gives us our unique vocation as a species to care for the creation, each other, and to worship God. The soul is the unique person that God has made us to be. They are inseparable, but they are different from each other.

A person needs to develop in both. As a spiritual person, the Office offers growth in the ways of God joining into the praise, light, and offering of the church universal. But we have all known people who are deeply spiritual but seem not to have developed the unique voice and depth of rootedness of the soul.

The Office is not enough by itself. The prayer of the heart is that extemporaneous conversation with God that fills our days and dreams. It should be unique, quirky, free. It is the Spirit breathing in our spirit to lift us what God will within us. We might call it the prayer of the soul. It seems easiest for some people, and in some versions of faith it is the only form of prayer that is taught or valued.

But on the other hand, we have also known people who are rooted in their individuality but are not connected to what is good, light. They have gone into the shadow without light and have even at times become a shade, a ghost of a human being. Evil is possible without ongoing connection to the Spirit when the personal good becomes the only good; just a surely the universal good can devalue the individual to the point of evil as well.

We need all four kinds of prayer in order to be whole. The poles we have drawn here between Office and prayer of the soul are matched by other polarities between each and Eucharist and Lectio.

Focussing on the Office, the universal nature of the Office should be balanced by the communal gathering around Jesus in the Eucharist. The communion service should be shaped by the people who are gathered in a way that the Office is not. And Lectio, the practice of divine reading is meant as a kind of whole self entering into the Bible, a meta-study, that is very different in intent and outcome than the reading of the Bible in the Office.

All of this forms a whole practice of prayer. The Office may be the queen of the practice in the Anglican past, but the Eucharist has taken over in these last few decades, and I am not sure that we are in better shape.

Yesterday I was deadlifting, tonight I will put in a few miles in the darkened mountains with javelinas and coyotes. But neither of these is the point.

Health and strength are for life. They are for wrestling with my kids and carrying groceries and kneeling in prayer without weariness.

The Office and all the rest is not the point either, but the relationship with God that forms us as heirs of the Reign of God, children of Abba, siblings to the Christ who saves us, and temple to the Holy Spirit.

Tonight I will run among the mountains and my beloved coyotes that trot along the golden sunlight shafts dancing their last purpling dances of the day in hills of palo verde and red clay. There is joy along the way for the beauty of the voices and laughter of children and the same golden hues turned light on the marble before the table of God.

Why Worship is Not a Practice: Benedictine Prayer

There is a truth always takes me by surprise on retreat. I normally retreat at Benedictine monasteries, as you have probably figured out by now.  For a week or so my life takes on the hidden habits of the monastery, the rhythms of prayer, work, meals, fasts, and feasts. This has been my habit for well over a dozen years, yet still I sit in the first hours of prayers and hurry.

Living my life as a priest and pastor, I pray daily and lead prayer multiple times every week. And in leading prayer and worship, I have developed and fought an awareness of how time is being used. I want the rhythm to move quick enough to keep people engaged and slow enough to allow God to engage us people. But the paranoia of leadership accumulates around the quick, not the slow.

You feel the uncomfortable shuffle when the service takes a little too long or drags in the middle. If you were to ask I suspect most of my parishioners would tell you that I tend toward the slow liturgy, pausing a little too long for some, patient with the pace of readers, willing to make the full point of the sermon, something always blamed on my Baptist roots. But I feel the pressure under my poker face. I want the boat to pick up and run on the Spirit’s wave and surf the whole congregation into God’s shore, even the lawyer who always gave me the length of sermon and service for five years in even tone.

But I sit there on retreat every time and get in a hurry.

Now, in the monastery I am not in charge of anything. I have no authority or useful knowledge. I am useless for anything but prayer and praise and waiting. I am only a human being, and I sincerely relish that freedom, except that I don’t.

I worry about the pauses and the pace. I want the whole thing to hurry up. Just last year I sat in one of the most beautiful sanctuaries in the world, nestled in a quirky community of lay and monastics of the Arizona desert. It was holy place lit by late dawn sun on adobe and tile and wood, handmade, and real.

And the organist took a few minutes in the pause of the morning service to find her music, or I think it was to find her music. Or it was just the natural breath of the pause or the abbot’s patience. And I started in, “Should I help?” “Maybe she should try the plug.” “What is taking so long?”

Every time. And then it hits me. As it originally occurred to me in a blizzard at St. Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, more than a decade before for the first of many times. This is going to go on forever.

The worship of the church is perpetual. We forget that in the moment to moment work of trying to keep everyone in the boat, engaged, and happy. We focus on the worshipper or the leader, or the pace or the pause or the comment that will come later. And we forget what the monastery remembers: it will always go on as it has always gone on.

Worship is not a practice. It is the breathing of the body of Christ. It is the very breath of creation, the Spirit’s inspiration of the cosmos itself being brought to sound by the voices of this particular congregation, community, or individual at prayer. And if we were silent, “the rocks would cry out.”

Worship should not be a practice anymore that breathing is. It is life and cannot reasonably be stopped. We only join in or not.

We may learn to do it better or worse, I suppose, but the judgement is not really ours. Worship is for God. It is the lifting up of the created thanks and praise to the Creator. It is the putting of ourselves in right relationship with God in joy and thanksgiving, and sometimes in brokenness and sorrow. But in all things, we worship God.

So I know this. I really do. But, every time I sit in retreat, I seem to forget. And the Psalms and their pauses, the monks and their patience remind me that tomorrow we will keep doing this, so relax and breathe.

A story. In the time of the collapse of the empire, the emperor brought in the capitol bishop and monk to tell them that the church’s prayers were failing to keep the barbarians at bay. The bishop cowered. But the old monk laughed.

“The tides of history may wash the empire away or not. But either way, when the sun comes up tomorrow, on whatever shore we blown up on, we will take our Psalters and praise God.”

 

 

The Sacrament of the Stranger

 

 

Jesus was in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, when he turned to one of the minor themes that always confused Peter. “When you are in the market place, greet the people you don’t know. Say hello to the stranger, the orphan, the widow.”  Peter murmured and made a note to ask the master why this ridiculous turn. The law held no such command, and it violated common sense. 

Who knows what the stranger is doing, plotting, planning, whose side he’s on, how pure she is, what her intentions are? Common sense says, Greet those who matter or who might. Stay where it is safe and honorable. The marketplace is no place to get friendly.

We forget the dangers of the past, safely ensconced in the florescent lights and white tiles of the mall or the supermarket, how the market represented a place of familiarity and danger. People gathered from fields and towns together to buy and barter and sell. A place unregulated by mall cops and set prices. Traveling can only hint in our age of law and order at how unsafe a space could be for commerce. 

Yet, it is here that Jesus tells his students to greet strangers. The motif doesn’t end there. His followers will take that theme into their homes and along lonely roads. The saints and writers listed above are no complete list of the tales of wayfarers at the door or beggars along the way.

Unlike tales of warning, such as Beauty and the Beast, these tales were mostly of shifted perception and let to gifts and sacrifices for the stranger rather than curses. In these moments of gifts and roadside hospitality, the stranger is not merely the recipient of greeting, but rather Christ himself come to call the disciple to a different way of life.

A dark night and a difficult choice about letting in the unwanted unknown person in rags. Eventually, the stranger is revealed to be Christ, and the protagonist is changed.

Stories like this abound in the Christian tradition. Saints Francis, Brigid, and Alban, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even Flannery O’Connor all tell stories of strangers revealing Christ. This motif of the stranger points to a profound insight that hides in the open tradition of the church. 

The stranger becomes a sacrament, a moment where the presence of Christ is known. Like the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13 and following, the act of welcome and offering becomes a revelation of the new creation and resurrection of Christ. Emmaus may be the epitome of this doctrine, but it is not the only example. 

The Sacrament of the Stranger is far more biblical than Confirmation or Last Rites, yet we seldom hear about it in catechism. In the stranger, Christ is known. In loving the stranger, either through charity or hospitality, Christ is made known. 

Now, a debate lies between two factions in the church about the nature of sacrament. Does a sacrament cause grace? Or, as we say in the Episcopal catechism, is the sacrament only “an outwardly and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”? This question is a key to our understanding of the nature of God’s interaction with the world. 

Is there a way to make God’s forgiveness and peace and salvation flow into a life? Or, is grace present and we mark it by these sacramental acts? Either way the stranger is a sacrament or least a potential one. 

The stranger’s presence is the possible revelation of God’s grace because we may see God if we are able or God is revealed to us. The stranger also affords us the opportunity to act in concert with God’s grace and reveal God in our action, causing grace to flow through us. 

We become both recipient and giver of grace, “from the believer’s heart with flow streams of living water.” 

This is why we must take care, as a people of faith, in how we treat the stranger. We live now in an age riven by fear and violence, especially toward those that are different from us. As a husband and father, I understand in visceral ways the violent protective response. A deeper question, the student of Jesus question, asks why the stranger makes us afraid as human beings, fearful enough that we are willing to act in violence.

For we are not mere human beings. We are followers of Jesus the Christ who know that every encounter with the stranger is not a moment to be feared, but an opportunity of grace, a moment of sacramental potential.

The politics of our age constantly call us toward chaotic violence in response to perceived threats. This politics of fear is pushing faith out of the public dialogue and the ethical reflections of our public figures. This worries me as a pastor and priest. All of us who would claim Jesus as Lord must return to a deeper sense of life and meaning and purpose that is rooted more deeply than fear.

We must approach the stranger with a greeting, trusting in our Lord’s command more than we trust the news feed and commentary of our age. Or we may find ourselves at heaven’s door and hear from within, “Away from me, for I never knew you. For I was a stranger, and you never greeted me. I was hungry, and you sent me away.”

I was hiking in Organ Pipe National Monument a dozen years ago when a cattle rancher pulled over to check on me and offer advice, along with a refill of water from his truck. We sat together and then walked for a while, me in a backpack headed for a camping site I had marked on a map, and he looking for two lost cows someone had spotted in the area. 

As we went, he started picking up loose debris, an empty water bottle, old shoes, a pair of women’s panties wrapped around the top of a cactus. He explained about the migrants and immigrants who left them as markers or just waste. He spoke with tears about the hardships of crossing the deserts without the gear on my back and the detailed maps I carried. He talked about the coyotes who would take their money and abandon them or sell them into contemporary slavery. He wept over a curled mustache and a lip of Skoal tobacco. 

It was the first time I had heard of most of this that in the decade hence became front page news. He wept for the stranger as we walked. His grief became a sacrament and sign of grace. He hated the injustice and violence and drugs and gangs that raped and pillaged the poor. He carried a pistol and told of being followed as he worked his land a few miles away. This rancher in a white Ford pickup embodied something of the kind of grace that seems most biblical to me. It was fierce and honest and dangerous. Like love.

When we speak of love, we often don’t think of the stranger. We think of our friends, people like us, family, a spouse. But we are called into a life that is in search of God and the Way of Jesus, a sacramental life.

 

 

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards

The Prayers of the People: We

Holy God whose names are beyond our knowing of names and whose sight is long
we pray beyond our power to pray with longing and indifference in equal measures
for those we know and those who are beyond our knowing
for a peace that none of us deserves or works for except in intentions

We loathe our enemies and mostly in your name we curse them but know in our way
that we should love them and occasionally in your name we leave our pews
and do something to restore the world we have only recently burnt down
with our equal measures and unequal retaliations

We offer our guns to you and our hearts and wait to see which you will pick this time
(please choose our guns for our hearts are weary from the rumors we hear and
take for fact despite all your scriptures we also hear but take for advice from distant
lands and hands that must have been very different from ours

or else they would understand the righteousness of our cause
for our enemies are greater than all other enemies and our times more wicked
than all other times and indicative of what we already knew) and while we are here
let us remember the poor and the homeless and dispossessed who look like us

Let your Spirit descend upon us and give us the guise of holiness we believe in
But keep your Word to yourself for we have a side we want to win. Amen.

Other Mountains

our tender oldest fragility

whom I could not convince that

thunder is just a data point

and not a danger when I am

running in the desert mountain rain

without her

while she sat fetal in a blanket against

the wet windows pretending

to watch tv

 

folded in blue static light

that blanket waits

and she is off to her own mountain and

we are proud wet eyed pretending

that her last hugs were only data points

and not reading the sky for signs

 

Trail Running with Benedict: Memorize your Maps

Where am I? 

Years ago I took a run that went terribly wrong. 

I left from an overnight campsite to go for a short run into a box canyon, thinking that an easy in and out, plus the arms of the canyon for navigation meant that I couldn’t get much wrong. 

I was wrong. 

Three miles dropping from an elevated campsite to desert floor and into the morning shadow of the entrance left me in awe as the colors of sunrise went in reverse and the sky took back that faded denim blue silk haze and then turned pink again. 

There was a barely damp stream to follow and the myriad little wildlife trails that form the quilt of landscapes. My GPS watch was useless inside the canyon, which wasn’t a surprise, and I was miles outside of cellphone use when I realized that the canyon did not look like my topographical map. 

The right map lay zipped up in a bag under my coffee kit and cheap titanium cook-set that I had spent the predawn trying to remove eggs from again. 

Turning around at that point I realized how trail led on to trail along a stream that was actually several low runs that branched into several openings. 

“By the rivers of Babylon, we hung our harps in the trees . . . “ 

I always listen to music or sing when I run. I timed my paces growing up on Amazing Grace and Guns ’n Roses. Now I pulled my earphones out and sat down. 

Stop moving. 

We need maps, and we need to know how to use them. I was saved that day by advice I was given in the back of Arizona Outfitters by a grizzled old man, “Memorize your map. Know it, at least roughly, when you head out. Practice remembering where you are in relation to land marks and rehearsing directions.” 

I sat and remembered. 

We aren’t big on maps today. We have GPS and GLONASS, Russian by the way, and cell phones and the internet. Maps seem to be going the way of the astrolabe. But I learned to navigate by paper, and I was told to know my routes at the very least. 

The Bible is best really thought of as a map. It is not the journey. It is not the destination.  Nor is it a satellite picture. A map is a depiction based on experience, specifically those called to intentionally set down that experience in images. 

The map may help us find our way, but it is not going to take a single step for us. I know lots of people who love maps but don’t go anywhere. I have known a few Christians who love the Bible but don’t use it to navigate. 

This may be the greatest threat to our faith. We are losing the Bible to those who think that a life of faith can be lived without regard for it, and to those whose regard for it goes untested by living an actual life.

The Bible  is not our destination. It points the way, but it is not where we are going. Very little is actually said about where we are headed. There is about enough to make a good poem about where we go when we die, and that little bit is about as concrete as poetry. There is more, much more, about the Day of the Lord, but it is contradictory, based on whether the image is coming when the people needed hope or a warning. Basically one day we will stand before God and give an account for our lives.

Having needed both hope and warnings, I know that “Wait til your Dad gets home” could feel either way as a child. 

The Bible is also not a satellite photograph of the current landscape. It is a very old book. Actually it is variously old, very old, and ancient. Some of it is even undatable, despite the cavalier attitude of cheap study Bibles and occasional scholars. Because it is not an exact image, we end up having to make decisions based on what we can know and what we see in the present moment. 

The Bible is also incredibly sketchy. The Bible is sketchy in the sense of Rembrandt, not in the sense of that van with the hand lettered Ice Cream (Not for Adults) sign. It is outlines of stories at times, and full detailed representations at others. Sometimes the Bible shows this incredibly nuanced understanding of human motivations and at others is not at all concerned with nuance or detail. And the style, substance, purpose, and format change wildly book to book, or even within books. 

So why read it? Why use this old, very old, ancient map in an age of iPhones and Google Earth? The Bible is the best witness to the ways of God in the landscape of human existence that we know. Those who disregard it have never read it. Those who have never read it cannot know how it gives life and understanding, even direction, among the swift and varied changes of life. 

It is the revelation of God’s will and intent, contours and ways. To know it is to know how others have moved through the landscapes of life with joy and abundance.  And how they have not. Real maps show you what others have known, and so does the Bible. But real maps cannot pass through the darkest valleys for you or reveal the glories of the sunsets to you. They simply help you find your way.

I ran that morning on memory, following the edges of the canyon walls I had run my fingers along in the weeks leading up to the hike. I stumbled and fell because I had to keep watching the landscape turn and dance, but as I turned back up the arm of the canyon’s entrance under a brutal noonday sun, I thanked God for that grizzled crank who told me to memorize my maps.

My beard is somewhat grizzled these days, so listen to me. Memorize your maps. Know your routes. Rehearse your directions and landmarks. And come home safely.

Trail Running with Benedict: Shoes

So one time I got stung by a scorpion on a trail run wearing sandals. It reached over the edge as I got my revenge.  Or maybe it was the other way around, as I did interrupt his morning constitutional with sudden death from above.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15 NRSV) This is what God told the serpent, but it ran through my head as I stared down at the flattened brown corpse of my enemy and wondered if it were the kind that I should be worried about.

And then I thought about the sass I would get about running in the desert in sandals. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for me. I always think that to myself, and I then I left again, eager to get back into the flow of the run, even with the throb of my right foot just beginning to crawl up my leg.

People feel it necessary to tell me how stupid it is to run in sandals or barefoot because we can safely assume enmity between us and nature. We know that the world is out to get us and that Satan and his minions go around flinging hypodermic needles and broken glass everywhere we might step. Hypodermic needles, glass, and scorpions.

What happened between God telling whoever was listening that the creation was good (and with us it was very good) and our putting on shoes in the morning? Did the world fall when humanity took its first bite of forbidden fruit?

There are solid, smart Christian thinkers who think so. We live in a fallen world in which God has walked but is not yet restored. There are those who see creation or nature as innocent and humanity as the evil force. It’s been hard to argue with that idea since Silent Spring.

I waver between the two, but I run in sandals. Except when I run in overbuilt trail shoes. I would run barefoot, but the world is not yet there.

The creation is good, but it is also marred by generations of fallen humility. Plato complained that the trees of Athens were all cut down, and the prophets are full of images of nature and its wreckage before the sins of humanity. We long for a day in the mountains or at the shore, but then we have to be careful to survive either one.

We assume a lot in our language about nature, and it shows in our decisions about shoes.

The Biblical narrative begins with humanity separated from intimacy with God and also cut off from the Garden of Eden. The ease of the relationship is replaced with toil and resistance, subjugation and rebellion. The Tree of Life is removed from our reach, but we get to keep the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We now put on shoes to protect ourselves from the renegade land and conquer what we were made to care for and love. We cannot live forever, we know how to spot evil, but no longer walk easily with God.

In Christ, we are supposed to be restored as human beings as intended by God. Men and women who can walk with their Abba in the cool of the evening among the trees of paradise, but we live in this not yet place.

We can know God, but most of us spend our time confessing and begging because we know how far short we are of his dream for us and how far short the world is from paradise. We are given intimacy but long for restoration of something none of us has ever really known: peace.

I don’t know what you dream about when you dream about peace, but I imagine that we can go barefoot. I won’t even need my sandals when all things are made new.

It makes you wonder that Moses and Joshua were both told to take off their shoes on holy ground. Somehow in those close moments of call they were back on original, unstained ground and did not need to protect their soles.

In many cultures we take off our shoes as we enter a home or house of worship. In these domesticated places where we have imposed some order in the chaos of the world you can be as you were intended: unguarded, safe.

You can really only run barefoot in a few places safely, but more places than you would imagine. I happen to live where it would be unpleasant at best.  And I don’t blame Satan for the needles and the scorpions.

The needles are ours, another sign of our lost humanity and numbing attempts to deal with the distance between peace and our lives. The scorpions, I imagine, are evolved for a world that has been estranged from peace for millennia or longer. We have been enemies for a long time.

The crazy thing about being a follower of Christ is that we are called to live in the world as if we were already in the Reign of God again, back in fellowship, taking walks in the evening, and part of a restored humanity that deserves unguarded love, forgiveness, and dignity.  That world is true in Christ, but it is also not yet here.

We live in hope for things unseen. We love knowing that it will cost us something and may cost us everything. We run barefoot in the desert.  Maybe not physically, but someday.

Imagine a world without needles and scorpions, a world without the fear of death, without good and evil, but only the knowledge of God because he walks among us again like the Garden.  Imagine a world without shoes. I think this is what we see promised in the last chapters of Revelation.

I am not anti-shoe, but they are a measure of how we have to get by in the world. They represent our need to protect ourselves in a thousand ways in this world that is not yet safe. So I wear shoes and take them off when I can.

It is heroic then to walk in the world open-hearted and unshod. We buried a firefighter recently who was also an active soldier. He was heroic, but not for these things, as worthy as they were. For me his heroism was his sitting to eat his leftovers with homeless people and going back to help people off the clock and out of sight. He lived without fear of other people. He was spiritually barefoot, and sometimes he turned the ground under his feet into holy ground.

I have a really great pair of trail shoes that I run in with strong puncture proof sides and toes. They make me feel safe. But my favorite shoes are sandals because they get me a little closer to that someday, even if occasionally I get stung.

Trail Running at 110 degrees

There is a trail that leads from the asphalt in my neighborhood to mountain peaks scattered from Phoenix to Scottsdale and comes within a half mile of my work. It is brutal, dusty, and rocky. I can climb and drop a thousand feet in a run and not peak anything. I have dodged rattlesnakes and been trailed by coyotes along this trail. It eats “rough trail” running shoes like M&M’s.

I love it, and I run it every week. Sometimes I enter from other neighborhoods or take other loops than my own regular turns. Sometimes I run the whole way, and sometimes I walk more than I run. Sometimes I heave.  I have broken several toes and right after moving here got stung by a scorpion running in sandals.

It is my happy place, this little brutal stretch of desert. It is sand and rock, slate and sandstone, and broken concrete. It is endless sky, creosote, palo verde, and saguaro, barrel and cholla. It is where my soul goes for deep cleaning.

Sometimes the only time I can run is in the afternoon. Extra electrolytes, caped hat, long sleeves, and patience. When you live in certain parts of town you can watch the rescue helicopters pluck the stupid off the mountains. I have watched them pick people up while I was waiting for my GPS to pick up a signal before a run.

There is a purity to the hot run, a humility that is life and death. You cannot abide pride, or it will kill you. You have to admit and know your limits. You have to ignore what your habits are and still have good habits. It is not too much to say that these things are fatal.

So why run in the heat?

There is a part of every life that is hollow without the experience of the Real. The Real is that which actually matters. The movie Fight Club is an absurdist masculine search for the experience of the Real that matters, but it involves real violence and sex. And it shows the dangers of making a religion or a cult out of its pursuit.

I want to think that everyone wants to experience something Real, something that truly matters, but I am not sure. I know that many people do not seem to experience the Real very often. Take religious life. It can be a honest stripping of everything false that leads us to the Truth, and it can be a true-sounding reinforcement of the lies that lie between us and the Real.

Does everyone want an experience of the Real? There is an elitist view of the world that many of my favorite modernist writers held that basically said no, not everyone wants to or can experience the absolute.

E. E. Cummings is my favorite example. From his Introduction to New Poems (1938):

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople– it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution.

I love the sentiments in this introduction about the courage to live a real life, but the other side of that is a snobbery (I know, irony.) That snobbery is directly related to how every human being relates to the world. On one hand there is a direct engagement with life and on the other is a writing off of every else. The Real which should be humbling and the real arrogance of pretense.

Pretense is one of the ways that we try to control our lives. We ignore, eliminate, or deny the existence of people that do not fit our needs or desires. It seems like courage to break away from the crowd and fly as an ubermensch of one type or another, but the reality is that break from most of humanity is the moment the feathers start to drop from your wings.

Every human being. As a Christian, we proclaim with the Bible that the cross is salvation for the world. As a Christ-less Christian, we proclaim that we are separate from some of the people in the world by virtue of their  . . . (we could really insert all sorts of things here). But I have come to see that there is no separation in Christ. The cross is for all, or we don’t trust the God proclaimed in the incarnation of Jesus.

This sets us in an interesting place in the world, between a world that is riven by separations and anxieties and a God who loves the people in that world. We are called to be ambassadors to a suffering and struggling humanity, but instead we pull away to feel safe. Cummings says later in the same piece quoted above, “Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness.” Afraid to suffer, most people never get born again.

Maybe I run on some level so that I suffer in manageable ways, because otherwise I am a pretty blessed little dilettante in ministry to secure, safe, but still scared and separated people, and if I am not careful I can become a part of not-humanity, the false humanity of any one group.

Thomas Merton, that wonderful monastic genius of the religio-spiritual life, offers us a pretty full exploration of the difference between the false man and true man, or false human being and true human being, as we would put it today. The false human is the one I create around myself: the stories I tell of me, the lies I imply of me, the secure happy Instagram self I portray to the world. The false self is a lie, but one that I believe, so it is or becomes indistinguishable from me.

The true human being is the one beneath all of that. He, in my case, suffers and has joy, tells the truth or lies, prays and is. But we mostly ignore that true self until something touches us that strips away the lies. AA calls it “hitting rock bottom,” but the bottom here is the bedrock of truth, the moment you see your true self. It could be a divorce or lie that collapses relationships or simply a religious experience or the wilderness. It can be awesome but most of the time it feels like Icarus falling.

Staying with the truth is hard, even when we have experienced it. It is hard because when we are false, we don’t feel as immediately and don’t share deep truth, so we are less vulnerable to hurt or other people. We are not actually present to the pain, suffering, and death of life because we are not actually present at all. We may prop all of this up with alcohol or simply self-righteous judgement. But the distance between the false self and the real feels like a blanket of comfort.

The other reality of that distance is that people feel the disconnect. They know without always knowing why that the real is not present, but the false self is often more desirable or useful or agreeable to deal with. It is certainly less threatening. So we live this fundamental lie that is the sum and source of most deception, even though we feel fine about it because it is inseparable from “me.”

In groups we justify and prop us the false selves around us. We encourage them because that is easier than dealing with a bunch of true selves that might call me to truth and the Real of my life. We need the collective lie to feel safe in our lies. We need this to feel safe even when our collective lie includes fear of the other, xenophobia, mimetic violence, and depravation. It sounds terrible written out, but in reality it all feels pretty good. That’s why we keep tuning in. We love the lie.

So when I run, there is no one to lie to. There is no one to impress. There is only me and the rocks and God. I run because it puts me naked before God and my true self without temptation to be anything other that what I am, which in the context of nature is not much. Running keeps me honest.

Running for me, and maybe especially because I am not a competitor, is humiliation at its best. It is fasting and prayer and focus and a crazy pursuit of holiness. And it is more pure at higher temperatures, like so many things in life.

If I am going to embody God’s mercy and grace and love, I have to do so at the level of the Real, so that it can be trusted. “Christians either contemplate or they manipulate” was Ted Wueste’s interpretation of a quote this last week at a retreat. It is so true it hurts.

The real danger for me on the trails is not dying from heat exposure. It is lying. You have to be honest out at the edges of life. You have to be humble. So that you can return to the soft middle of things and not die all the time.

Running makes me a better human being, a e.e. cummings live person, but it also makes me more than that, it makes me a humble person, grounded in the humanity of every person. We all suffer. We all do what we can. And we all screw it up.

The cross and Christ’s suffering was not to separate out some group to save from all the rest, but rather to set aside some to save all. We are called to work of the cross, suffering with and not in spite, but in love for all.