Leadership, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

How to Argue as a Christian

“Blessed are the meek,” said Jesus, and these days that seems obvious to me.  If only I had that kind of courage and strength. Later he went on:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,[e] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[f] a brother or sister,[g] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’[RACA] you will be liable to the hell[h] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[i] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[j] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[k] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You’re a f______ing idiot” is a pretty good translation of Raca! in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5, NRSV)

This is the reading that I constantly come back to as I try to learn to live as a follower of Jesus.  Is that even possible?  Have you read what Christians write online?

That’s pretty cheap, I know.  But I often feel something similar to what the ids are producing online.  (By “ids” I simply mean that people write from base instinct, without benefit of ethical reflection or restraint.)

Over the last several years of prayer and study, I have grown past the temptation to simply blurt out online, but I have to admit that I have had little fits in smaller settings.  They tend to happen  when I am thinking about politics, especially church or national politics,  or when reading online, parenting,  really anytime I am struggling with other people.  And, whether I say it or not, “RACA” in one form or another is what I say.

How can I not?  People are foolish.  Politicians fail us and common sense.  It is easy to come up with reasons why people do not deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.  I have scrolls of such reasons in the tabernacle of my heart.

But I have this dad-saying that I use on my children: “We don’t let other people determine what kind of person we will be.”  I don’t know where I got this. My dad never said that exact thing to me, though he modeled it.

So my anger and indignation at the world makes me question, “What kind of person am I to be when it comes to the ids of everyday life?”

I am going to presume that I should not merely be an id.  [This is where you bring to mind all that Paul wrote about the fleshly person and the spiritual person in Galatians.]  The id is the lizard that lives in the base of my brain.  The lizard wants to eat, sleep, fornicate, and fight if necessary, run if possible.  It is self protective, violent, fearful, thoughtless. Lizards do not do second level reflection.

Beware the lizards!  We have become sophisticated in our ways of expressing this lizard-mind, sublimating our base desires into language, actions, policies, and politics.  And because we all have that part of our deepest selves lurking in the landscape of our identity, it feels good to hear or see someone else expressing those desires.  We like to know who to fight and who to fornicate with; we like to be able to discern good from evil.  So we are seduced.

Is that wrong?  I know the question comes up when we begin to reflect on the primal nature of our deepest longings.  It is the first real question in some way.  It is the Garden of Eden question.

The tree presented the Knowledge of Good and Evil as fruit.  That knowledge was the temptation, and it led Adam and Eve to know they were naked, to hide from God, to blame the other, to be cursed to toil and struggle even in childbirth, to be subject woman to man, to be cast out.

This story is deeply problematic for all sorts of reasons, but I have come to witless startling time and time again as life has made more sense through it.  If you have never read Augustine’s last Confession, it is worth the rest of the book for its weaving of Genesis with the rest of the Bible and the Universe. The Garden is a good place to seek understanding about where we came from, but we Christians are supposed to be a people for whom the curse of the Garden is undone.

Can we not have knowledge of good and evil?  Would that even be a good thing?  I am relying on Bonhoeffer here to hold me up so I can peek back over the hedge and say, “What did we have before we left?”  If it wasn’t good and evil, what did we have knowledge of?  The answer has to be our selves, our world, and God.

If by some magic, we could have that mind again, the Fruit of the Knowledge of God, would you eat it?  I believe that is what the Bible meant by Wisdom, the knowledge of God in the world and in our selves.  That is not too bold.  Read Proverbs again or the Psalms.  We spend our time deciphering Good and Evil, because that is the decoder ring we have, so we quarrel, dispute, and argue.  These very things are in Paul’s list in Galatians 5 as the works of the flesh (lizard-mind).

What are to do then?  We know that the world is nuts.  Aren’t we supposed to be discerning good and evil?  Maybe not.  Maybe we are supposed to be discerning where God is, what God is doing, and what God would have us do.  That would fit very well with the Sermon on the Mount.

“Do not insult.  Do not hold contempt.  Do not be angry.  Go and seek to be reconciled with another if you have offended them; this is more important than sacrifice.”  Can more shocking words be written in our day?

I have certainly offended others.  I have insulted and be contemptuous.  I have been angry. And I have been them online. We could say that such things are the price of doing business in the world.  We could say that we cannot help ourselves.  We are only human.  But what we mean is that we are only lizards after all.

Jesus cannot expect more of us, can he?

If we are to make the bold claim to be the heirs of the kingdom that is not of this world, we have to be spiritual people, people born not merely of the flesh or the desire of a man, but we must be born again.  “To those who believe, he gave the power to become the children of God.” See the Gospel of John.  Now that is Good News.

So how do we argue?  How do we disagree?  We must be strong enough to speak the truth with no additives.  We must keep our fear and distrust, our contempt and anger in check.  This is the practice of the follower of Jesus.

Ultimately we hope to become the kind of people who don’t have fear, distrust, contempt, or anger.  I don’t imagine that you are there.  I am certainly not, but we keep turning to the deep practices of our faith, not as an end to themselves, but as practice for that kind of self.

“The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”  The practice is to be the Sons and Daughters of God in the quiet of peace, so that when everything falls apart, we don’t resort to the world’s way of being, but rather we can be human beings as intended by God, even when doing that costs us our lives, or makes us put up with people being wrong online.

I think the failure of the church in crisis has to do with our loss of practice in peace.  We let the peace of our times lull us to thinking that we were at war when we actually weren’t.  And then when we, American Christians, face crisis we are spiritually flabby and unable to even identify truth, much less take it up as a sword of peace.  We then don’t bring peace at all, but rather we are no different than the “kingdoms of this world.” This is our shame.

We have become like the world, and our cause, though sounding like holiness, is a worldly holiness that looks little different and below the surface is little different than everything else.  We are merely defending a lifestyle or a liberty rather than being the people of God.

That’s why politicians can seduce us so easily while not even trying to look Christian.  This is our fault though, not theirs.  “Can’t blame a stealer for stealing wallets; that’s just what they do.”  (Old Crow Medicine Show)  We have to return to our senses and grow up as a spiritual people, not merely born again but growing in stature in Christ, like Christ.

IMG_2262Then we won’t be tempted to shout, “You f____ing idiot,” at the people living by their ids, and even more we won’t be seduced by them either.  We can speak the truth when others can hear the truth because we have loved them, laying down our very lives for them, serving with humility, and offering peace rather than more of the same idiotic shouting.

This is somehow considered less manly these days or cowardly.  But like having the strength to move a bar slowly when lifting weights, it is more difficult and requires a strength of character and courage that is absent the shouting.

Oh, that I had the strength to be humble, the courage to be quiet!  This is our practice.

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Running, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Running on Faith

Full moon hangs in a sea of azure as I begin a long run through the desert by crossing my neighborhood of condos and sidewalks by the last lingering of dusk.  It is probably below ninety-five degrees, but the air is warm and light moving in quick breezes as my muscles find their own warmth and movement.

Night brings with it a sense of wariness, a natural inclination of the ear toward subtle sounds and attention to the periphery where our rods outnumber our cones and allow us to see better in the dichromatic hues of nightfall.  I don’t mind the desert, but I hate the streets at night.  I run too fast typically because of cars and trucks on streets.  People drive too fast, too sloppy.

But my night runs typically take me uphill from our condo across a major road into a park, where the climb is steeper by degrees until it breaks a little more than a mile in, but by then my feet are on rock and sand.  It isn’t really desert trail for another quarter mile.

On nights like this I can turn off the light and trust my feet and the quiet light.  The gentle swish of footfall on stretches of smooth ground, and the feel of rubber sandals folding over rocks and in the ripples of the trail.  It is my sanctuary in the falling dark.

I almost never meet anyone else out this late, except for the distant light in the distance and every week or so I meet a mountain biker with lights so bright I am always left with ghosts in my vision.

But the nighttime sanctuary of the mountains has its claims to make.  I have left these same trails with bruises, twisted ankles, cactus freckles, broken toes and fingers, and recently my first scorpion sting.  (Don’t worry, it was a big one.)

It is here that I test my fears against my preparation, attention, and faith.  By myself I am never fearful and never without fear.  I run to find the words for sermons and pray the prayers I avoid in the glare of the day.  I come to stop thinking and be in God.  I come to pay attention because here I have to pay attention.

“The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”   This verse is almost never spoken in today’s church without someone saying, “I don’t think we should fear God.”  I have said it too, but there is a delicate truth here that it is foolish to not understand.

To run in the mountains at night, I have to have appropriate fear.  I have to know the dangers, the awesomeness that the darkness reveals and conceals.  I have to know the dangers of loose stones and rattlesnakes and scorpions and cacti and drug smugglers and human traffickers and unpredictable youth; just as on the streets I have to fear the cars and trucks of perfectly decent people and worse.  It would be foolish not to have appropriate fear.

I run with water, usually with electrolytes, and a light.  For longer runs I take food, a compass, first aid.  I can run in just my shorts and sandals, but I rarely do for anything over two miles.  I know the mountains, I love them, and if I test them, I will eventually fail, not them.

God.  God is like that too.  If I am honest and have any imagination at all, I know that the darkness of my apprehension reveals and conceals the awesomeness of God.

I know a few thousand people, only a handful of them well.  I serve a few hundred.  I don’t understand any of them; I can’t see their mind, their heart, their will.  Take any one and look closely, I know maybe a half-dozen of the connections of their life.  And because I am a baby buster American born into a century of migration, I only know most people for a few years, perhaps a decade or two.

But God, God sees us all, every one of the nearly seven billion of us over the whole of our lives and all our relations, our physically revealed selves and our invisible spiritual selves.  God sees us all and loves us.  He knows us completely and loves us anyway.  The manifestation of that love that I trust is God’s son Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter’s son, a rabbi two millennia ago, who we claim died for us while we were still sinners.

But he died for all of us.  My part, our part, is to love like that.  And I can barely see my own feet on the trail with a full moon.  I know so much of so little because I have run this ground so many times that I can get cocky, trust my abilities, my balance, my sense of direction, decide that I know right from wrong, and I will find the wisdom in “dust to dust.”

My faith is in God’s love and God’s being God, the abba of all creation.  God knows what I cannot know, what I do not know, and can hold it all at the same time.  What can I do but to trust God and take upon my shoulders the yoke, the teachings of Jesus as Son of God?  I trust them, with the whole Bible as the appendices of his word and his words. They are like water and food to me, first aid, and light.

The apocalypses of Scripture often describe times when the sun and moon fail to give their light.  This week has been like that for many people.  The lights we navigate by sometimes give way like the setting of the moon on a long run, and we are swept into darkness, and the familiar territory of our half-light dusky lives becomes foreign and dangerous.

I do not trust my own understanding.  Yes, I test the Scriptures and I fail the tests too often to mention, but I have never found them wanting.  So in times like these I turn to them, recall them, meditate on them in the night watches.

They are like a lamp unto my feet.  And I keep running on faith.

Every now and then I look up in the landscapes of nights like this and see the lights among the mountains and valleys and know that I am not alone.  We are all running on faith.  My faith is that this light will be enough until the day comes when we will need neither the sun or the moon for the Lord shall be our light.

Until that day, keep running.

 

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Running, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

A Spiritual Anthropology – running with the work of E. Underhill


Tomorrow is the feast of Evelyn Underhill, whose works on Mysticism, beginning with a book with that very title marked a movement that reached deeply into a revival of sorts whose fruits included everything from the healing movements of the Sanford’s and through them to the Other Side of Silence by Morton Kelsey and so on to Renovare and various reclamations of spiritual disciplines. She situated the “spirituality movement” that she called mysticism in deeply historical roots, mirroring the much later work of Matthew Fox, though avoiding his ultimate materialism and sensuality as spirituality that keeps him always fondling heresy and scandal.

These works, along with more mainstream works by Merton and Nouwen, Foster and lately Willard, O’Murchu, Shea, Rolheiser, Chittister, all have fed this deep question that is held in my mind by the previously mentioned Kelsey and Walter Wink:

What does it mean to be a person born from above or of the spirit? This language that Jesus uses while mentoring Nicodemus haunts the anthropology on the tip of my tongue. Who are we in Christ? may be a more conventional way to ask it, but I think that keeps the question in language of soteriology or even christology.

In the Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says that it is no more a surprise that we cannot find God in space than it is that we can’t find Dallas Willard in his brain or his heart. The spiritual self is not physical, it is something else. Not to say that no one has tried. A friend brought back his biggest challenge to my anthropology in the work edited by Nancy Murphy and Warren Brown and H. N. Maloney called Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (1998). This work posited a non-dualistic view of humanity that denied the soul, or at least any concept of the soul that I would recognize at a party. On the other hand, I have become suspicious of the work of theologians reclaiming the language of the soul precisely because I wonder what agenda they are slipping into the ambiguity of soul-language.

But then what can we say? Who are we? On a completely different theological channel that every author mentioned was a book I read in third grade at the Tupelo Library called Pueblo Taoism. Now, I cannot find record of the book online (not even with Google!) but I can recall its cover and the key ideas three decades later.

Two things stick with me: you cannot do what you cannot see yourself doing, and you cannot see what you cannot conceive. To take the second first. You simply do not see what you cannot hold in your mind. It repeated the story (in my memory) of the native people in the American Islands who simply didn’t see Columbus’ ships in the water. But the story that blew my mind and has deeply affected me and perhaps sowed the first seed of this blog was the story of the Hopi people who ran RAN from northern Arizona and New Mexico to the coast of California without resting, a distance over 400 miles.

The author makes the point that we cannot conceive of running a hundred miles, so we cannot do it, even if our bodies are capable. That idea set me running to exhaustion to see if I could. I always had a knack for running, but I was not a skill player at anything. I couldn’t flip a BMX or skateboard or consistently hit a fifteen-foot jumpshot. In third grade or now. But I could run, and I could began to imagine running a hundred miles at a time. I found my limits, sure, but I also know that many of those limits are mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual. Physically, if I am well-hydrated and fed, I can leap over a wall, as David said in the Psalms.

The spiritual self is not the same as the physical self, though it inhabits it, is related to it, surrounds and suffuses it. Like God to the cosmos, according to Willard. But God is not limited to the world as we conceive it. That is only logical. Creator cannot be trapped by the creation. But are we trapped by our physical being?

Can the physical self limit the spiritual self? It can certainly express it and be shaped by it. Who hasn’t heard of dying of a broken heart? Who hasn’t seen the physical degradation of the person caught in webs of oppression, sin, addiction, or even grief? I have known grief that kept me from getting out of bed. I have mustered up the strength to work during incredible physical pain, even injury.

But what is the source of this “spirit” and what else could we call it?

Let’s assume a couple of things that I think should be pondered at greater length elsewhere. One. There is a “spiritual” or non-physical component to all of life, especially in the life and consciousness of the human being. We are God-breathed in a unique way according to our creation stories in Genesis. Male and female, or one in adam, the first creature made of red earth (adam) and breathed into by the stooping God of creation. And made to bear the image of God, to be to the creation as God would be if God were present. Like God. Creative, caretakers, stewards, with dominion of the earth, also known as responsibility.

We are dirt and divinity. Our created nature is both of this wondrous, God-loved, beautiful cosmos. We are of the stuff of the Horsehead nebula and the ribboning folds of the slot canyons of the desert. And AND we are carriers of the breath of God, spiritual by creation. Made to be with God and to do God’s work.

That’s pretty amazing. And that is all of us who are human beings. Now, we squander that, sell it, exploit it, destroy it, degrade it, drug it, waste it, and more. But that does not undo that original purpose.

We always talk about the Fall of Humanity, but we rarely say what we fell from. We fell from our true purpose as being like God in the flesh of the world, stewards of life, co-creators, and companions to each other: helpers. Our spirit, God-breath, is part of that essential human giftedness to do that work.

Have you ever been in the presence of those doing that kind of work? There is a humanness that is so precious, delightful, basic. It’s why we go to zoos and delight in the birth of animals in captivity, or saving a species. This is what we are made for. Gardens and bonsai trees, organic farming, raising pets.

Now all of these things can get weird, right? We might idolize our dogs or cats as people or worse, but I think we see the return to eden in these relationships.

I need the wilderness like I need water and food. I don’t pretend that it is enough to shape my soul and do the work of restoring God’s rule in the earth. But a good run in a wild place will restore my spirit from aridity as surely as a beach does my wife’s. We are a creature of this creation, but we are not of this place only.

We must be reborn as spiritual people into our birthright as people of the Holy Spirit, of Jesus’ Abba, who are children of the living God. We submit our little breath to the breathing that spoke the cosmos into being, and in that we find our due home.

To return after so long to Underhill. We seek God in spirit, mysticism, seeking a return to union with God, or breath to Breathing in my words. We seek out the stories, songs, and lives of those who have returned to God in the saints and living stones of the church. We follow their teachings and practice, not as an end to itself, and not as some self-help project, though we will find ourselves made whole and at peace eventually, as we return to our due home.

The language of union with God has often troubled the faithful Christian who holds dear the sovereignty, dignity, grandeur, and holiness of God and realizes that we are not those things. How can such creatures as us be one with our Creator? I think this is where language of the Holy Spirit and breath can help us conceive of such a return, not because we are worthy or holy ourselves, but because God, in Christ, as re-union-ed us to himself in an act of Grace so great we can only sing and praise such a thing.

But O, what sorrow comes with such a revelation! Because we cannot escape our potential beauty, we can neither escape our failure! I have shed so many tears over my brokenness, not in sorrow for myself alone but because I can see some glimpse of what can have done in me and through me. What wonders I have failed to see!

But here is the thing. God has made his rule available to us. It is as close as our breathing. We have to submit our breath to him, and God will breathe in us. That is awesome in deed.

Evelyn Underhill gives us a beautiful hand-drawn map drawing, as many should point out on the work of Fenelon and Guyon and others, of course. And just because Jung colored on the map doesn’t make it any less useful, but rather added depth, so to speak.

And just because there is a map doesn’t mean you have to go where it shows. You have to trust God’s breathing in you, the Holy Spirit will guide you along the narrow paths of Jesus’ teachings, and you will run far beyond your imagination.

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