Where We are and Why I am Here
In the course of the last fifty or so years, a series of debates have challenged the church and her various sects. These debates and changes are both punishing and hopeful, bringing suffering and struggle and also strength, clarity, and flexibility. I am not here to fix anything but to explore and maybe explain a bit to the curious. I am hunting for holiness.
Sitting on the blogosphere, it is easy to have clearcut opinions about the lives of others, or even our own lives, in the unreflective space of pure cogitation. Yet most of us live offline world with other people, families, friends, total strangers.
There is this sense of clarity when one can cut off some part of experience as wrong or, better, as evil. But these debates of the last few decades have been centered in complex spaces where value judgements and discernment, not to say discrimination, is the needed thing.
Discrimination may the most important word to arise in these debates for understanding why some of us are stuck. It is one of those words that has changed its definition and denotation in most conversations. Wine connoisseurs are discriminating. I want the local health inspector to be discriminating. But we don’t want our restauranteurs to discriminate against the people they serve. Discrimination becomes an evil accusation, and yet it’s something to be desired in some spaces of life.
The Episcopal Tradition – via media
I should warn you that I am not sure that I want easy answers here. I know that it has become the manner of the day to come to one unassailable position and defend it at all costs, but I am an Episcopalian, and we pride ourselves on our via media, the middle way as a proposition of truth. The middle way is becoming less tenable as lobbyists come to define us more than our pastoral theologians, but I am not looking to define my position so much as explore our current predicament looking for God.
It helps to understand that for the Anglican tradition we are assigned geographical areas called parishes that our clergy and congregations serve together. We are not congregationalists, but rather we are defined by the land and people that live in our dioceses and by the bishops that oversee us. This parishional model of service puts us in a different relationship with the people outside the congregation. Rather than being merely a gathering of the faithful called out of the surrounding seas of the damned, we see ourselves as servants of a local area and the people who live there.
If you are reading from certain backgrounds, you should be leaping to say that ekklesia means “the called out” and is our word for church in the New Testament. Good for you, but we added “out” when I was in college, and that makes all the difference. We are not called out of the flood. Jesus stopped the flood. He died for the sins of all. We are called to bring that salvation to the world. The salvation of the world is our work, the cosmos’ redemption, the forgiveness of sins, setting free the captive, binding up of the broken hearted. I suggest reading what Jesus says to the disciples after the resurrection. He doesn’t say, “Go save the damned from the flood.” We are called to witness, to discipleship and the making of new disciples through baptism, to service and the forgiveness of sins.
Because in our parishioner model our area of service is what defines us, we serve a whole lot of people who are different from us. This gets complicated pretty quickly. I have seen parish churches in England that were serving the Muslim community by allowing them to gather and pray in their buildings, because they were there to serve their parish, and those Muslims lived in their parish. For orthodox Christians the idea of having a community pray that Allah is the only true God and Mohammed is his prophet has to be problematic, but the idea of service in the name of Christ is primary. I have heard and witnessed similar stories involving Jewish synagogues and various youth cultures.
The New Civil Rights Era
Returning to our shores, the primary debates of the last half-century have revolved around race and gender. The Civil Rights era seemed for a while to have passed from the popular conscience of the United States, though that has not meant that race was not still prevalent in our conversations, but more and more the arguments had begun to revolve around economic and class issues and sex. There were statistics to push back against that idea, but in the popular conscience it seemed to make little difference as the new millennium rolled around. Race was becoming a personal issue dealt with better through late night comedians and insightful moments on sitcoms rather than the uncomfortable social conversations and systemic work of correcting massive social injustices.
Then Ferguson. Then New York. Then . . . the list of places where unarmed black men, particularly young black men, are being shot, strangled, and beaten keeps growing. The United States is having to face again that our relationship to race is not comedic or merely an impolite social issue. We are still racist in our structures and systems of common life and communal thinking. It is social and economic, systemic and punitive, and it is something all of us have to become aware of and change. Again.
But the uncomfortable reality is that race pushes for public mental space among the other political issues in our day, particularly around gender and sexuality. Gays and lesbians have moved from being social pariahs in our culture to being socially acceptable, even normal, primarily through the media, and specifically through television and film and now social media platforms. It is no accident that the issues of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender communities have been self-labeled as the New Civil Rights Era. The movement leaders took clear notes from the civil rights movement and did not wait for a social majority, but rather have sustained a large, complex, and well-funded campaign for social acceptance and full civic and social recognition.
I am not going to argue the merits of the social movement. Christians who have wondered why the traditional social messages around sex and marriage have not held much traction in the last twenty years of culture have to go back to Reagan and the AIDS epidemic.
Due to religious, social, and very political reasons, we as a church turned our back on those with AIDS. We let people suffer and die from a disease in the modern age, on purpose, because of what we understood as their moral choices, their lifestyle. We gave up any moral standing and claim to the way of Jesus when we chose negligence and even violence rather than forgiveness and love. “Things done and things left undone” as we say in confession. So when we come half a generation later to say that Jesus defines marriage in a particular way and that we cannot deviate, there is little tolerance for our claims to be driven by either Jesus or his teachings.
This is further compromised by our compromises when letting Jesus define how we respond to the poor, those in need, and our enemies. We have shut out some people from healthcare while celebrating capitalism and its Darwinian view of the poor and blessing war after war after police action that rarely had to do with justice or the suffering of others but everything to do with protecting our American way of life, our moral choices, our lifestyle.
The well-funded nature and very media-heavy presence of the new sexuality and gender issues on both sides has meant that the issues are impossible to simply turn away from and difficult to discuss in any reasonable way. There is on both sides a sense that either that each battle, each moment of conflict presented either absolute hope or the devastation of hope.
It is the absolute nature of the responses that is problematic to my Anglican ethos. The truth is that for us who claim to follow Jesus and to be both disciples and formed by his worldview, we have reached a place that is best described as conflicted. Or at least I think we should. I think letting Jesus really define our lives is what it means to be his disciple. This is only amplified by our belief that he reveals God in the Incarnation, his being the Son of God, who brings redemption and the forgiveness of sins and the recreation of humanity.
If we are going to be honest about our place in these debates, we have to hold several clear ideas at once. Let’s take a look at a small list:
- Jesus has brought forgiven of sins and commands us to forgive other people’s sins because God has forgiven ours.
- Jesus has told us not to judge others.
- Jesus has commanded us to serve others, especially our fellow disciples.
- Jesus has told us to pray for God’s “will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
- Jesus has told us that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes.
- Jesus has told us that not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away.
- Jesus has told us to teach others to follow the law and promised punishment for those who taught children to disobey the law.
- Jesus never directly addressed homosexual relationships.
- Jesus does refer to marriage as between a man and a woman in the command to not get divorced, except for infidelity, and sets it in the context of the two becoming one flesh, male and female.
- Jesus repeatedly told his disciples to be at peace.
Notice that I am not quoting Leviticus or Paul. I am merely looking at some teachings of Jesus that we hold together as we seek to follow Jesus in the midst of the debates about sexuality and gender. It is difficult not to want to wander off down one political road or another from here, to debates about Reagan era responses to the gay community or social media responses today. I am not looking at some particular personal relationships here either, though one could not not be affected by friends and family who feel deeply the effects of these debates and the realities that they entail. This withdrawal is intentional.
Our lives as disciples are to be defined by our relationship with Jesus and his teachings. So often we skirt uncomfortable issues by simply looking elsewhere for understanding first. Discipleship means going into and staying with the discomfort created by our master’s teachings. If we are uncomfortable there, then that is a good sign. It means that we are following the implications rather than dodging them.
For us who would follow Jesus, I can see no justification for being mean, disrespectful, or rude, much less violent or vengeful, to homosexuals or to those who disagree with our faith, lifestyles, or morality. I can see no way to justify others being cut off from our love, care, and service. Letting the AIDS crisis go without a full medical, social, and caring response was a gross mortal sin. It was disobedient to Jesus our Christ, and it was a horrendous and shameful act that was the exact opposite of our calling, vocation, and humanity. We cannot turn away from suffering again. But neither can we turn away from those who were or are falling short of our calling, vocation, and humanity.
On the other side, we have to admit that the call to live a moral life, a life that is marked by a righteousness before God, is inseparable from our following of Jesus. We are to live lives marked by purity, chastity, holiness. There has been great work to separate the two, and I have to admit that I have often disregarded the tie between faithfulness and moral purity. After serving as pastor and priest for my adult life I can’t do that anymore.
I won’t recount all my sins here, but suffice it to say, I am a sinner who does not stand above anyone else on the moral ladder of life. But, I have watched as pastor and priest and human being the wrecks caused by those who try to love without purity, morality, holiness. Agape is self-giving love, but as the psychologists have all too well made clear for us, we have a difficult time living without hidden motivations of lust and violence.
We have to be transformed by long practice to be capable of agape over time. We have all failed at it, that is essential Christian teaching. But we are all called to that long practice of learning to love well as followers of Jesus. There is always a temptation to turn the focus outward towards our enemies, real or perceived, but our call is turn inwards, to follow Jesus into the motivations and temptations of our hearts, to remove the log in our eye before we try to help with the splinter in our brother’s eye.
Here in the midst of the sexuality debates I offer you this: follow Jesus. Be faithful to the service of others, especially those who are your enemies. Bless and do not curse them. Forgive their offenses. Outdo one another in showing honor. Live lives above reproach, but don’t reproach others no matter how you perceive their lives.
I know you want answers. I do too. I want to proclaim that I know the answers for the debates of our age, to proclaim unequivocally that my liberal church is absolutely right or dead wrong. And I have strong, devastating emotions about my church and its choices. I want to talk about unconditional love, but most of what I mean when I say love has nothing to do with self-sacrificial service. I want to proclaim the truth, but then Truth is Jesus. So what does Jesus say?
Jesus said, “If you continue in my teachings, you are my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” So, if I am going to know the truth and be free, I have to continue in Christ’s teachings. We always talk about telling the truth, proclaiming the truth, but in order to say anything, I have to know it, and in order to know it, I have to continue in Christ’s logos, teaching, his way. So I can’t neglect those in need and know the truth. I can’t judge others and know the truth. I can’t act in violence and know the truth. I can’t refuse forgiveness and know the truth. I can’t be self-righteous and know the truth. I can’t be filled with lust or anger.
I am going to have to deny a lot of myself in order to know the truth. I am going to have to subjugate my self-defensive and lustful self. I am going to have to be humble and serve others. I don’t think I can do that by myself. I am going to need the Holy Spirit and the church. I am going to need a practice of wholeness and holiness. I am going to need a cup of coffee and a run.
I offer you this: let’s go together. Let us love one another and build each other up, not neglecting coming together as some want to do, but in faithful service let us bow in reverent submission, and when the day comes that we know Christ face to face, we may find that Truth knows us because we have served him well in those we could not see him in.
There are things I cannot do faithfully, but there is far more I can. So let me go the middle way here and propose that it is a faithful option. I cannot do all that the culture wants. I cannot perform a marriage between two men or two women, though many in my church do and celebrate. But I also can’t condone discrimination and the denial of equal protection and civil liberties. These go against what I understand from Scripture and the whole church tradition.
But that is not the end either. I must love all people, whether you or they agree or disagree, and serve honestly, living as holy a life as I can without grasping or judging so that my love may be safe and pure. In this way, I live the way of Christ, forgiving sin, binding up the broken hearted, being set free and setting others free. I am stuck on this way. I fail it. I fall off. I keep going with the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Rule of Benedict as guides.
The Benedict Option
In this way, I would turn to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” He recommends a strategic withdrawal from the world around us, admitting that orthodox Christianity has lost the culture wars. I agree with him somewhat, but I would not focus on the withdrawal anymore than the Rule of Benedict does.
For those who would argue about the loss of the culture wars, I would simply point to the media of our culture, the wars of our lifetime, the greed, lust, and avarice of our economics, and my children’s experience of school. We have become a culture that has values, but they are not defined by Christianity. This isn’t the end of the world any more than Benedict’s day was, but it is the end of an age, though when it ended or if it fully has I will leave to other essays.
What we need is not a vision of withdrawal; what we need is a vision of formation for this new age. This was Benedict’s purpose in the Rule.
And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. from the Prologue (osb.org)
In what ways can we form such a little school as Benedict’s monastery? I have begun an exploration of that here on Hidden Habits in my occasional way. I am fascinated to see what Dreher and others have to say when they get past the flight to the desert and begin to form a picture of the daily life of formation.
Benedict seemed to picture a community that was dedicated to a withdrawn life of self-sustainability, working together at the Opus Dei, work of God in office of prayers and psalms, and in common discipline under the rule and an abbot. Can such a discipline exist in our culture of radical individualism? There are experiments going on around the world in the New Monastic movement, though they tend to be more collaborative than the Rule envisions. And they are not all withdrawing for the same reasons as Dreher if they withdraw at all.
Rod Dreher is interesting to me in part because his writing on the New Conservative takes in a broader swath of critique than merely the sexuality debates, and this is vital to understanding the response of withdrawal. If it were merely an objection to one issue, the seeming right response would be better arguments, but the objection is to a world cut loose from the moorings we assume are there in public life in sexuality, critique of violence, education, economics, values, public faith, and political morality.
That wider critique is difficult to maintain in the public square because at some point it takes under its criticism the partners we would assume in any singular issue. If a conservative on sexual morality hopes to hold the Republican party as partners, for example, then she must give ground on government morality in terms of gun control, war, moral economics, death penalty, and the environment. The Democratic party on the other hand may hold a pro-life position on the death penalty and environment, but the would-be partner in our example must cede both public expressions of traditional faith and morality on gender and sexual morality. Nuance is difficult in the public square.
I could imagine a culture of churches that begin to create such public spaces where we could hold nuance together, seeking issue by issue to worship God, honor Scripture, and love our neighbor in wholistic ways, but I have rarely seen it. The small ways we begin become easily subsumed into quick answers to hard questions and the handy assumptions that others agree with us that they are wrong. We ambush and assault rather than bow and serve.
Another question over a singular text, another loaded test at a public service, another simple question with overly nuanced answers, and the feeling of being judged, again, by brothers and sisters on-line, in social circles, in church. My fear is that the Benedict Option is less about a withdrawal from the world at large and more about withdrawing from honest debate. I worry that it is away from the internal work of asking these hard questions and considering the realities of their answers in public. I worry because I feel that myself. I feel gun shy after being shot at. But I also feel too conflicted to give canned answers and keep my head down.
Six weeks ago I listened to a celebration of the church’s acceptance of divorced people in response to Pope Francis’s edict to open the doors of the Roman Church a little. They were speaking directly of my church, the Episcopal church, and mentioned several close personal stories of divorced people returning home to God and the community through the church’s early adoption (1950’s) of divorce and remarriage. It was touching. My heart was warmed.
And then as I washed dishes, I started thinking of the struggling couples I am currently working with, pastoring, and praying for in my circle of friends and family and ministry. All of them have children. And the news is not good for the children of divorce. The studies and the stories are consistent over time, and the results are devastating for generations. Not in every case, it must be admitted, but in most. The stories are heartbreaking, and I don’t just hear them from the children when they are young. I watch the results gather at funerals and hear them in counseling sessions. I listen and lament.
But would I turn away a divorced person from the communion rail? Would I do the third or fourth marriage? Will I keep going while the effects gather up behind me? How do I confront in love and when do I acquiesce in love?
It is easy to take the secular version of Rod Dreher’s vision. It is offered so often it does not seem offensive. Stay out of the bedroom. Never say anything discriminatory. But if I have tasted the wine, and it is poisonous; should I stay quiet while it is served? When am I being polite and when am I being negligent? When am I hospitable and when am I an accomplish? I pray and I choose and I beg forgiveness.
I am writing all this trying to be a faithful Christian, a husband, father, divorced man, friend of straight people and gay people, Republican people and Democratic people, even Green Party people, priest and pastor, teacher and colleague, sinner, and though I want to write “saint” because that is what I am striving for, I know that is really not a title one earns but is given. It comes from sanctus like sanctified, and it means made holy.
Holiness is one of those things I have usually found in unexpected faces. I was welcomed by a liberal church when my answers had too many commas and not enough periods. I have been blessed and held up by conservatives who saw me struggling to stay faithful in the long years of ministry. I have known God in dark skinned faces in the desert and pale Norwegian stock in the northern woods. I have known God in those I couldn’t have predicted or imagined. I hope to make God known by being faithful to Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Holiness means being set aside for God. And God, at least the compassionate Abba of Jesus and the fierce YHWH of the Hebrews, loves people and demands that we do too. Love as self-sacrifice. Love as a servant loves. Love as a mother to a child. Love compassionate and fierce.
And this is my answer, such as it is: I am God’s, and so I love you. I am God’s, so I can’t do whatever I want, but I will do all I can to serve you. This is the essence I think of the school of Love. Sometimes in order to bow, you have to back up a little and know that your pants are going to get dirty.