Leadership

Translating Faith: belief, trust, allegiance

Stupid people don’t know: smart people don’t know but want to. Pastoral work is always about faith, but most people have no idea what that is. To say that it is “belief in things hoped for but unseen,” from the Letter to the Hebrews, is to say nothing about the content, but it may also get the meaning of the word itself wrong. At the very least it is incomplete.

Faith is a popular word these days. Search for faith definition and you get “complete trust or confidence is something or someone.” Sometimes the second definition adds the phrase “in God.” The problem of our day is that there is usually no direct object given. We just have faith. But to have faith is to have faith in something.

At church, we add “in Jesus Christ,” but we usually mean that we have complete trust or confidence in some facts about Jesus Christ. A few years ago, 18 or so, I started teaching that we should use the word “trust” in place of faith, and I still believe that helps. “I trust what Jesus Christ teaches about the world and that the way that he teaches is the way I should go.”

Lately a new translation is changing my understanding again. I have been looking for a new translation for pistis for a few years because “trust” still does not imply action. Even if you look back at Hebrews and study the examples the author gives, it is clear that what he (or she-we don’t know who wrote the letter) intends is more than an internal posture whether of the head or the heart. Every example did things. Jesus, when he asks for pistis, is expecting action. Trust does not quite capture the idea.

Matthew Bates has a new offering in his book Faith by Allegiance AloneIf you teach in the church, read this book. Bates is deeply traditional in the core of his faith. He could teach in my Episcopal church or my parents’ Southern Baptist one without crossing theological boundaries for most people. But at the same time, this book is devastating to the realities of both ends of the church, and it hinges on this one translation difference, “allegiance” instead of “belief” or “trust.”

For years the American Pledge of Allegiance has made me uncomfortable as a follower of Christ, not because I don’t love my fellow Americans and would die to protect them, but because pledging allegiance to anything above Christ is anathema. I would die for my fellow Americans because I am a follower of Jesus, but my first allegiance is to him. Fortunately, for those who get nervous when people put allegiance to God before democracy or the republic or my fellow man, you can know the content of my allegiance.

The teachings of Jesus are available to read and study. They are the content of my allegiance. So you should have no fear of me. I am a sheep among wolves. This, of course, raises some serious and deep issues for our other allegiances, including the Flag, but not limited to it. It raises issues of family, even children, and business, and friendship.

Matthew Bates does a wonderful job summarizing these issues for deep traditional believers. He has just begun to deal with the issues for the multiple allegiances for those on the left hand of the church. Does my being a follower of Jesus mean that I must keep with his disciples when their political views impinge my own? Or their moral views? Must I keep chastity central to my understanding of faith? What about abortion and sexual liberty? How do we respond to the pressures of social media and the culture of exploitation, racism, violence, promiscuity, lust, and greed?

Allegiance reduces freedom. It is very difficult to own in a culture where freedom is the faith of our time. There should be a goddess of freedom, so that we can see where our allegiance lies. Liberty itself is not a bad thing, but it is not an absolute good. It is not God. Yet we have come to accept a radical gospel of freedom. I first realized that I believed in it when I read Hugh Hefner preach it in an interview. There it was, true joy and happiness are in complete liberty, sexual liberty in Hefner’s argument right from the Constitution. Hefner was blithe in his assurance that freedom was the absolute good. At least de Sade was willing to show the violence of such a gospel. We must have something larger than freedom to have any real joy and productivity at all and certainly if we are to have peace and goodness for all. We need virtues that arise from a dedication to a larger vision,  indeed a global one.

Jesus taught that the God of Israel, Creator of all things, was a loving parent who called all people to return to their true creation as image bearers, God’s children, being like God in the world, creative, loving, caring, restoring, forgiving, making new. To do that we must be disciplined in our lust, greed, violence, hatred, judgement, words and actions, even thoughts. In the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7, we see how that relies on trust in God’s provision and allegiance Jesus’ teachings, so that we can offer freely what we have been given. This reciprocal relationship mirrors citizenship or status as an heir with allegiance and authority in a royal household.

This gospel offers real life, but if only if you have pistis in Jesus Christ the Son of God, ruler of all rulers. Bob Dylan’s You gonna serve somebody points out that everybody serves somebody, so choose this day whom you will serve, as Moses demanded of the Hebrews so long ago.

We can only do this by the grace of God to bring us home as heirs and the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us teaching us the ways of God for we are all shaped by the lies and habits of destruction that we have given allegiance to in the past.

Where does your allegiance lie? Whom do you pledge your life and allegiance to? Who are you gonna serve?

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Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

What We Mean When We Say Love

Under the heading of “Rants I Try Not To Take All the Time” is what we mean when we say “Love.”  I read it again this week from another Episcopal priest and writer on a popular article.  “We should be able to love whomever we want to love when we come to church.”

This is the left field response to “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.”  The problem is that both are true statements, but they are both profoundly deceptive.  Often sin haters are also sinner haters, and when we say love we often mean “have sex with.”

That sounds crass, but it is fundamentally true.  There is no law against agape love described and proscribed throughout the New Testament.  There is nothing to stop you from laying down your life in service to another.  You can come to church and do that.

Now, honestly, it won’t be popular.  People may think you are somewhere on the crazy spectrum.  They may even crucify you.  But that kind of love is the love that we are commanded to have for our neighbors, our fellow Christians, and ourselves.

But what Tom and so many other writers are referring to is eros, sexual love or erotic love.  I think it is time to be clear and honest in our syntax.

This way of obscuring the issue is common in media and puts the commandments to love squarely in the middle of the identity debates, but not in a way that is helpful, clear, and honest.

The commandment to love sacrificially is for every Christian, and generally there is no law against such things, except for that odd city statute in Florida that prohibited feeding the homeless, but I cannot think of another.

The commandment to love is not abrogated by the identity or ethics of our neighbor.  We are to love them even if they want to “love whomever they want.”  And they are to love us.

We are to lay down our life for them, to serve them, to show honor to them, to be generous to them, to forgive their sins, and share the Gospel with them.  And if they are Christian, they are called to do the same for us.

On the other hand, who someone wants to sleep with is a matter of law in many and various ways for valid and good reasons.  Those laws range from professional prohibitions by church canon to keep parishioners safe to laws protecting children and family members, and while we may debate the particulars of those laws they exist for legitimate and moral reasons.  I support and encourage them.

You cannot have anyone you desire in church or in civilized society, thank God!  But you can love, are commanded to love, should love everyone.  But get your terms right.

Rant over, please return to a pleasant day.

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Leadership

Rector’s Advent 1 Note

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, will, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

This summation of the law from Jesus is our guide this Advent. This last week I preached about re-orienting the heart through thinking about dying, being attentive for one minute to each person you are with, and to be seriously disciplined in joy.

You might be wondering about the dying bit. I have found that simply knowing that you could die tomorrow clarifies what is really important. Even on Black Friday. Try it.

This practice is really tied deeply to Christian hope. We know where we are going because we have seen Jesus. That hope allows us to sit quietly with death and to do what we are called to do without fear.

Christ is calling us to love God with all our heart; though for some of us, loving God is too abstract at first, so being attentive to our neighbor is a good place to start.

We live distracted. So this makes a great Advent practice. When someone is with you, put down your device, turn toward them, and just pay attention. Love is powered by attention.

And get into some joy. Joy comes from God. It isn’t strictly happiness, but rather “1: a : the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : delight b : the expression or exhibition of such emotion : gaiety. 2 : a state of happiness or felicity : bliss.” So says Mr. Merriam-Webster.

I think that joy is an eternal attribute, like beauty or truth or goodness. It is not mere happiness connected to a thing or event, but the welling up of some delight in the eternal pushing through into life, and it can come in spite of things and events.

Joy is not to be taken lightly, but practiced. You have to attend to the ways God shows up in life and then focus and delight in those ways, even when those ways are not obviously happiness producing. (See exercise 2 above.)

On Sunday we turn to the psyche or soul. Soul is only used a couple hundred times in the Bible. Heart was used over a thousand. The soul is used like we would say “self” in English today. It is that part of us that is individual, unique, your self.

How do we orient the self during Advent? I will tell you that as hope orients the heart, so love orients the self.

A heart without hope is a night without end, and a self without love is hell. But more about that next week.

Remember this week’s homework: be disciplined to sing loudly, eat pleasurable food, and watch old movies.

He is coming,

daniel

 

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Leadership

Catechism pt 3: Creepy Jesus Music – “Sleepytown” and

This is the third in a series of essays leaping off from Creepy Jesus Music collected over a couple of decades.

“Sleepytown” from Jim White’s Wrong-Eyed Jesus album.

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Jim White “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” from shadowdistribution.com

 

I whisper beautiful secrets into
The drainpipes at night
For the old folks while they’re sleeping
Something to help them with their dreams.
I climb the wall to the cemetery,
Lay down on the grave of my father
I hear him asking me for forgiveness,
So I close my eyes in prayer.

And then a rainy-rainy-rain falls down
A cool rainy-rain upon my head.
It makes the river overflow it’s banks,
And wash my cares away to Sleepy-town.

This hymn opens with a picture of the search for purpose. This is grunge folk’s version of “I awoke and found myself in a dark forest” from Dante. The reversal here of parent-child reconciliation is so rich and profound, but coming too late after death for a “life alone” version of morality. The baptism of rain always awakens in me this hope of a life that is lived and even redeemed beyond the bounds of death.

Perhaps this is all too profound for a folk album from 20 years ago, but I find myself constantly returning to this album for moments like this (and far darker ones) that seem to capture some more profound truth than Madonna’s “Vogue.”

In gospel music as a genre, outside of the simplistic pop that dominates most of our experience, there is a recognition of the bloody nature of the gospel and the cost of redemption. Baptism is both hope and a flood that wipes away the town.

I pour whiskey in the honeycomb,
It makes the bees all turn to angels.
I watch ’em fly off into heaven
Disappear where I can’t follow.
And I would write Jesus a letter,
But I hear that he don’t speak English…
So instead I’ll just throw these cobblestones
Until I ring that old church bell.

Until the rainy-rainy-rain fall down
Cool rainy-rain upon my head.
It makes the river overflow it’s banks,
And wash my cares away to Sleepy-town.

In Sleepy-town, you let the wild wind blow away your name.
In Sleepy town, you let the healing rain just wash your pain away.
If there is a better summation of the post-modern/modern distance from religion, I don’t know of one. Note that I didn’t say distance from faith. There is faith here and a longing for relationship with the divine presence, but the distance is impossible: “But I hear that he don’t speak English . . . “

As a pastor I can’t tell you how many people don’t know how to pray, don’t know how to cross the perceived cavern between them and a living Abraham’s bosom of comfort and peace. Their chasm is often not an experience but the rumor of experience, something they have heard or remember being taught in their childhood that puts God out of reach, so they end up standing outside of church throwing stones at the bells, hoping to ring up the old feelings of presence, grown adults with ouija boards and angel stories, but not practicing any religion that would put flesh on their faith.

Yoga can be this for many people who have given up on Jesus as a reality that they can return to or Christianity as a reality that they can enter into. The practice of self-care and groundedness they find on the mat and in classes moves the practice of faith from worship of a God who is “out there at a distance” to an inward practice. The question that I wrestled with in classes East and West was is this self-care, self-love, or self-worship. I was often told by well-meaning people in spandex that I could find all truth within my self, that I could recognize my self as divine, and that I could even worship my self on the “altar of your mat.” My little reserved space was an altar, where sacrifices are made to gods, a useful concept in a more complex reflection of spiritual discipline, but here the object of my worship was me.

I am not sure that post-modern/modern Christianity moves much toward holiness from here. Much of our sermon and worship practices point to a reality that is entirely self-defined. Belief in God is a choice that determines what is real for you. This particular philosophical bent is evident in versions of Christianity that focus on declarations of belief in realities that are there for you to grasp if you only intellectually ascent to them and in versions of Christianity that simply disregard the Bible and tradition as no longer applicable.

But what we claim is that Jesus is reality, the epitome of God’s intent for the world. You may not have thought of the incarnation that way, but think with me for a moment. Jesus makes a claim by his life and teachings, that God loves the world and made it for a purpose and placed us within the world to bear His image in our care of the world and creativity, our love and worship. We claim something is true about reality.

That truth is Jesus. It is the Jesus Claim of our faith. When we become disconnected from that claim, we are left lost and trapped in a world without a deep purpose and longing for our deep connection to God as his heirs and children.

I see a light on in the station,
Yeah someone is waiting for a train.
And I envy them their leaving
As I turn to head back home again.
For soon the morning sun will rise
And this little town will open up its eyes.
And return from the land where I’ve never been,
From a Sleepy-town, that’s free.

From all that rainy-rainy-rain fall down.
The cool rainy-rain upon my head
Make the river overflow it’s banks
And wash my cares away to Sleepy-town

In that City of God that Augustine writes eloquently about, working from Revelation chapter 21, God is present to us directly, and our lives are rooted in that presence and the promises of the Bible. According to Paul, we live in the Resurrection Reality as ambassadors in Christ, the forerunner of that reality. We know it now in how we live and love and pray.

This song represents a broken hearted longing that I often experience when I choose otherwise and become disconnected from the Real Life of life in Christ. And then grace comes like rain sometimes and washes my cares away.

They are not washed away to an imaginary place, but to the foot of the cross, that ultimate sign that stands as a evidence of two worlds of meaning: the world where Rome wins and we wander among the crosses of history looking for forgiveness and redemption, throwing stones hoping for angels, and the world of God, the kingdom where we finally are washed of our sins, given a name in the book of life, and set to our true purpose of redeeming the world.

 

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Leadership

It’s Got to be a Chocolate Jesus: Catechism Part Two

With apologies to Tom Waits.

Don’t go to church on Sunday
Don’t get on my knees to pray
Don’t memorize the books of the Bible
I got my own special way
But I know Jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more

I fall on my knees every Sunday
At Zerelda Lee’s candy store

A second indulgence of my collection of Creepy Jesus Songs, if you please.  This one by Tom  Waits.  I discovered Waits while working at Borders.  He had just released this album, “Mule Variations”  in 1999, his first album in decades.  I was hiding out among books between the Baptist church and the Episcopal one.

This song haunted me then and still does.  Jesus as a topping, a decoration.

When the weather gets rough and it’s whisky in the shade,
Got to wrap your Savior up in cellophane;

Flows like the muddy river but that’s okay,
You can pour him over ice cream for a nice parfait.

Jesus has become a decoration for many, a cross about the neck, a cool tattoo.  But does is matter that we should go to church on Sunday or get on our knees to pray?  Much less memorize the books of the Bible?  I, of course, care about these things: praying and studying the Bible, but I am a professional Christian.  We are still talking in our tight little circles when everyone else has left the religious cocktail hour.

What many people left with after the loss of religion and church is Jesus candy.  As I wrote before, Jesus in our faith is not a simple person among persons.  He is the logos of the Gospel of John.  Now, logos is  a tricky word.  It is more primary than we normally deal with, a root word that grows branches out i several  different directions.  logos becomes logical and word of creation, order and way.

Jesus is the way things are and embodies the Wisdom that both made the world and orders it.  It is him that we must study and follow and trust.  He isn’t the topping.  He is the shade and the sun.  I know that is a bold claim in a post-religious world, but the claim at the center of our faith is that Jesus embodies God, the incarnate Son of God, both Spirit and human being.  All of that is true, but it is also important to note that the claim is not just about who Jesus is but who we are and what the world is all about.

Our beliefs about and trust in Jesus impinges on our beliefs and understandings about the world we live in and our place in that world.  Jesus is not just a topping.

This is really important in our politics at the moment.  When we say, I am a Christian, we are not merely saying “I assent to some ideas about God,”  but we are saying, “I believe some things about you and me and the world we live in.”

I believe that God actually loves the world.  The world then is something that is beloved.  And if I am to be God’s son and heir, I should love the world and care for it like it is a garden of delight and goodness.

See what I mean?  So catechesis part two.  What does your following Jesus mean to your life in the world?  What do you struggle to believe about the world and your place in it?

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A Kingdom Catechesis – draft one

For years I have collected songs about Jesus sung by people who were not always Jesus people. They ranged from hymns to grunge folk to rap, but one of my favorites was by a skate punk group King Missile III named “Jesus was Way Cool” that claimed that Jesus could among other things turn oregano into marijuana. Why? Because Jesus was way cool.

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It’s easy to laugh at, but every time the song comes my pastoral heart thinks that this isn’t far off from what we offer to most people most of the time. Jesus is a superman figure who comes to do cool things and then die and rise again because that is what superman does. Along the way he crushes sin like Lex Luther.

“He could’ve played guitar better than Hendrix. He could’ve told the future. He could have baked the most delicious cake in the world.”

“He rose from the dead, did a little dance, and went up to heaven.” I think I’ve heard that sermon before. I think I have preached it. The Jesus we worship on Sunday morning in church *was* cool and did die and rise again and go up into heaven, and I could definitely assume the dance bit too.

But Jesus taught stuff. This is the missing piece of the gospel for most people outside of the church, and maybe inside the church as well. Do you know what Jesus actually taught?

I have very bright theologian friends who never quote Jesus. I have had parishioners who could give a competent answer to the question of what the Doctrine of the Trinity is, but who cannot remember more than one parable or saying of Jesus. They both usually have vague ideas of forgiveness and love of neighbor, but seldom is this taken as seriously as the things we think about Jesus.

Rarely have I found anyone who regularly offers a competently presented picture of the teachings of Jesus. If you ask priests and pastors most have a theological understanding they can articulate about his death. King Missile III offers that “people were jealous of him.” From the professionals usually you get something more along the lines of atonement of sins, payment of sin-debts, and possibly even mimetic violence: “people were jealous of him.”

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from Whitby Abbey

Lately most of the pastors I know aren’t really happy with any of those theologies, but they are what we have, so we reference them constantly. Sin remains central, and the forgiveness that Jesus’ death offered for the repentant remains the point, because God was really, really pissed until Jesus, who was way cool, died. Articulating why he had to die is above the pay grade of most of us.

In reality we have moved across the theological spectrum away from the really, really pissed God to a loving God that still needed something or someone to die in order to forgive the sins of the world. In fact, he needed people to die, humanity, or at least one human being who would represent all of humanity. His own son is offered up as an act of love, which presents us with the contradiction at the heart of our theology: God is so loving and yet so blood thirsty, and we call him Father. The problem is with the nature of the father of this Father God.

Now, I am a father. I have two daughters and a son.  IMG_1182

And I am wicked (see Jesus in Matthew 7:9) and I know that I wouldn’t give my child a scorpion instead of bread. “How much more compassionate is your Father in heaven?” Jesus always presents God as merciful and compassionate. Now in Matthew in particular he also sorts the good and the evil, but you cannot negate that Jesus presents God as exactly the opposite of our dominant theology of redemption. I could not offer my child as a child sacrifice and be considered merciful and compassionate.

Exactly the opposite. God is compassionate, quick to forgive, slow to anger, of great kindness. These verses pour down the scrolls of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. They are measured against justice and righteous anger for injustice and idolatry, but they are persistent in the calls for repentance. Our picture, particularly among reformed theologies, has become distorted away from the Bible. It has even led to a limiting of the power of the cross for redemption, ironic since that is all that really left to the life of Jesus after laying waste to his teachings and acts of mercy and compassion.

The total depravity of man and the absolute sovereignty of God are powerful theological ideals that still hold a hypnotic sway over many theologians and theologies. My problem is that it also holds many lay people under its spell. We lament death and worry about our salvation, clawing after or running away from grace as if we were still caught up in some medieval fund raising campaign, only we have traded in copper for paper, faith in the pope for faith in John Calvin. IMG_3907

But the question at the heart of John’s Gospel was, “Do you trust/beleive Jesus?” Jesus gives us a clear picture of God that is beautifully present throughout the Bible, but does not leave the Hebrew tradition as it is. He “exegetes” God for the believer according to John 1:18. That means he presents and translates God.

He is not just way cool for nothing. Jesus represents the logos, logic, the way, the life of God. He brings that life to bear on the world, to save and not to condemn. The criteria for whether that life comes to bear on us is whether we trust him (John) and participate in the love and life of God (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). Do we love our neighbors, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoners? I notice a distinct lack of theological statements in there.

Our belief in the total depravity of man, sovereignty of God, infallibility of popes all remain unmentioned by Christ. This seems important to me after two decades of ministry and preaching. When we focus on the wrong goals in sport, we lose the game. The central teaching of Jesus is the Rule of God. The Rule of God remains a mystery to us because we aren’t involved in it and don’t trust it. So how can we hope to receive it? How can we hope to bring others to it?

We have to reconfigure our thinking (*metanoia* for the professional theologians reading this). We have to refocus our faith, our trust in the one in whom we have come to know God. We cannot allow other versions of gods to take us off into fear and be shackled to false ideas about who God is.

This work begins with a clearing of the slate, a wiping away of our old ideas. img_0224We then go back to the Gospel themselves with a simple idea. “I can know and understand Jesus with the help of the Gospels: by reading what he said.” Now, this sounds easier than it is.

Our beliefs about God and the world (theology and cosmology) become lenses through which we see. It is hard to identify our lenses. I wear contacts most days, and it is hard to notice them, though I know I am blind without them. I cannot see them until there is a problem like a smudge when I am tired. I notice the problem, not the lens. So our goal is to create problems by looking at clear visions.

We get those clear visions from the Gospels. As you read, have a notebook at hand and take note of places where the character of God is implied. What kind of God is described? Is God caring and involved? Is God condemning? Why is God angry if angry? Or happy if happy?

What kind of person is Jesus? What motivates him to do what he did and teach what he taught?

For seven years as I studied trying to understand the meaning of Kingdom of God I prayed almost hourly, “Lord, let me see what you saw that made you teach what you taught.”

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After seven years of studying, reading, and writing about this one focus of Jesus’s teaching, I had a vision. I was stuck on this problem we have with the kingdom. It is present in Jesus’s teaching, but it is also not yet.

The “not yet” bit leads us to push it into the afterlife. This is convenient because the kingdom is a place of justice. I don’t have to be just if the kingdom is not a reality until after I die. But that is not how Jesus talked. The kingdom also is a place of peace, where God is known, and where we are God’s sons and daughters. It is a place where everyone has enough. I could read all of that, but I was not blind. I could see that none of that was true in our world as I knew it.

So I was preaching fourteen years ago at Saint James in San Francisco about Saint Francis of Assisi. I said, “If you could see what Francis saw, maybe you would walk around naked and talk to animals.” (It was San Francisco where you could say things like that in a sermon.) And the veil dropped.

I saw the kingdom of God. I heard that prayer said back in my mind, and I saw it. I saw the people crammed into that little church aflame with the presence of God. They were sons and daughters of the living God. Right then. Right there. Babies and old women. Irish and Japanese, American and immigrant, clergy and lay, we were God’s and God’s alone. It is true. That is what the kingdom is, a royal priesthood. Royal because we are God’s children. Priesthood because we mediate the love and mercy and forgiveness in our being.

The Rule of God is right here right now when we live into the truth of our reality. We are what Jesus says we are.

And it is true right now because of the cross of Christ back then. He, as the first-born (*monogenous*), took upon himself both the promise and the condemnation of humanity’s failure to live up to our calling. As the first-born he was representative of us, the first fruits of the resurrection to come. He brought the reality “someday somehow” into right here right now by dying and coming back to life.

We are invited into that reality. We have to trust Jesus about it because it does not look like that to us. We have to choose to act in accordance with it, because we can certainly act as if it is untrue, as if people are not that holy, not that royal, not that beloved. We can exploit and ignore. We can curse and betray. We have been trained to act in just that way, by our politics, social conditioning, even our religion in many cases. We must choose to live in the kingdom by how we live, not just what we believe.

And if we don’t, we don’t inherit the kingdom that is ours because of who we were made to be, who we were remade to be in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

See, if you trust Jesus, you are God’s daughter, God’s son. You are meant to be holy, bringing to bear the love and mercy of God on the world, “let your kingdom come and your will be done.” You are meant to inherit all that you need, “our daily bread.” You are going to fail, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But that does not negate your identity or calling, so you have to forgive.

So, Jesus was way cool. But he was trying to make us cool. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of a participant in God’s Rule. You assume in praying it that you are God’s child, active in bringing both his kingdom and will, and in bringing his forgiveness by forgiving others. You may acknowledge that you are going to fail, but you also know that you will rise because he did.

When we see this way, we see through a kingdom lens. We see people as they were made to be, children of the living God. They may be lost, squandering their inheritance, or the singing dancing wholeness of wisdom, but they are God’s child. Our job is just to love them in. They are way cool, if only you are cool enough to see it.

This is the first lesson.

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Leadership

What Makes a Place Holy?

The upper lake in Glendaloch, the valley of two lakes, lies still and quiet. Even on a sunny day with ducks and tourists and cameras.  It is not the silence of the hunt or the wait in line.  It is not the silence of the held breath.  It is the silent exhale of prayer, the long quiet of a faith beyond waiting on God.

It is a place that makes you wonder if you are eavesdropping on Saint Kevin’s prayers, or if he came to eavesdrop on God’s quiet fourteen hundred years ago.

There is a cave above the upper lake that is only eight or nine feet deep and too low to even crouch in.  I crawled up there once to pray a dozen years ago, before the tourists began their trying to follow the finger of some guide.  I sat in the early gray before gray that comes in the mountains when the sun is lighting but not yet warming the landscape.

It was a day like today began, cool and rising later to something the Irish consider heat.   The sun was bright and dancing on the waters in the breeze today, sending the duck’s waves in small arcs to the shore where the German tour group stretched out in the quiet and tried to fill it with the chatter of the content wanderer.

If that sounds like a critique it isn’t.  Tourists have their place, despite the whining of locals and soft puffing of cars waiting in lines.  But even they found the quiet drug their chatter down to murmuring in that soft wind.

Along the shore to our left, tucked into the perpetual shadows of the valley’s walls there is the first church Kevin’s friends built with him to start their foundation as a community that later down the valley would become the monastic city which would give civilization back to the Western World after the collapse of seven-hilled Rome. Their tower both beacon of light and summons to prayer.

The green slopes hold cave and church both in shadow still, reminding the searching pilgrim that the Celts are known for their love of nature, but should be remembered for their comfort with suffering.  Is it the suffering that suffuses this place with holiness?

We, the tourists of the still collapsing Western World, do not suffer now, not really, and certainly not for God.  We have forgotten what the athlete and the anorexic know, that desire has a cost and the cost is creative or demonic.  Suffering is part of becoming, and the question for most of history wasn’t if you would suffer but why.

We forget this at the peril of our souls as we get our air conditioned buses and fuss about the rocking of the ride along the mountain passes.  We become a people who are never present to the silence of our chattering murmurs in the presence of the Silence of a millennia prayer.  We don’t enter the cold waters that could cool our ardor, Kevin, or quiet our scattered desires.

The Celtic saints chose to suffer, shaped by the Mothers and Fathers of the Desert.  They seemed to understand that suffering could identify us with Christ.  I have grown up with the diagnosis of that kind of mindset as diseased.  Ascetic might find its place in Roget’s list under anorexic or heretical.  It was a denial of grace, a form of works salvation, an aspect of the past to mock gently like phrenology or the flat earth.  But what harm it did! We all heard the stage whisper of the professor that confirmed that we should embrace the cool air on the bus and credit card debt.

Kevin might have been more right than we care to admit.  It isn’t that we suffer to gain salvation.  We suffer to gain identity.

Like the ache in my shins that kept me awake and crying at night from the age of six to maybe twelve, growing has its pains.  When it comes to the soul, we can wait for the suffering to choose us when our loved ones die or the bus breaks down, or we can wade into the cold waters of the upper lake and lower ourselves to pray in Kevin’s cave.

It may be as simple as the long walk of pilgrimage or staying awake all night in prayer.  It may be the ache of the fast or the sacrifice of giving away more than our comfort likes.  But when we choose to enter the world with suffering, we identify with Christ and with his family that does not always have the choice.

Here me, concerned Lutherans!  I am not saying that you gain salvation by suffering, or that our suffering adds anything to the work of the cross.  I am saying that we join ourselves to Christ through suffering intentionally with love of God or neighbor.

This has been missing from the West for a long time.  I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but we are the spoiled children of rich and careless parents.  We compare, with all seriousness, the relative time it takes our phones to load applications that we didn’t even have two years ago.

Suffering for love of others, suffering for God in spiritual disciplines, suffering for any reason has to be handled carefully after The DaVinci Code because we all know that this idea can lead to mental destabilization and murder.  In truth it is more likely to lead to three other profound evils.

One, we can encourage someone to suffer who is being harmed by another.  The priest who tells a woman to take her husband’s abuse because that will lead to holiness is wrong.  We all know that.  When we encourage someone else to suffer, we are in the wrong almost always.  When we turn away a victim without getting involved with deny Christ.

Two, we can justify someone else suffering for some “greater good.”  This is almost always rubbish and a dressing up of profound evil.  It is sometimes important to imagine describing a decision like this to a child or grandchild.  This includes torture of our enemies.  Jesus never says, “It’s okay to a be a little evil in order to do some bigger good.”  It is his colluders in the crucifixion that said, “Sometimes a one person must die for the good of the people.”

Black people don’t deserve to be shot by police because they are black.  Poor people don’t deserve to be poor.  And we don’t deserve to be saved.  Or to be privileged or rich.  We don’t deserve much when we really look at it.  “God makes the sun to shine down on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  We have to let that go and thank God in the midst of all things while working to be be just.

Three.  Rare in my experience, is the third type, but just as real.  That is when we justify not doing the right thing and letting ourselves by abused for God or neighbor.  It does happen, but it is just as likely to be an excuse to avoid confrontation or losing a relationship.  I have known a few real cases.  What is usually needed is not battle against evil but rather honesty applied consistently.

Suffering may not be a choice for us forever.  History has a way of being written in the present tense, and what we consider today to be the way things are may not be tomorrow.

Blessed are those who are suffering now, for they will be comforted.

How do we prescribe suffering in the spiritual life?  Suffering should be addressed in two ways.

Embrace the suffering of a normal life of doing good and seeking the will of God.  If you get stuck in a line, embrace it.  If you give up your goods for others, really enjoy thinking about them having your things.  If you know that what you are doing will please God, then relish it.  Practice treating suffering as a good thing.

Every athlete knows this.  Soon you will do what before you could not imagine, and it will be easy because you embraced it.  You will pray until birds rest in your hands and lay their eggs.

You will build a church that will bring in the birds of the air like mustard bushes.  And they will come for hundreds of years.  You will know contentment in life.  You will know peace and the silence of the upper lake where the breath of God stirs the waters to knew life.

You will join Kevin and follow Christ.  You will be holy, and your world will be holy.

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