Sermon 4 July 2021

Paul is struggling with the church in Corinth. There’s no surprise to that. As we have been reading and learning, we have seen that the church is a.) divided into factions, “I belong to Paul and I belong to Apollos,” sinful, divided by class distinctions, and overly tolerant of sin within the body. They are divided by politics within. And b.) they are divided by politics without. This group of “super-apostles” as Paul names them here are pushing the church everywhere to take up the law and keep the traditions of the religion in place of the relationship with Christ.

Paul wants Christ for them and from them. Paul wants the church to cling to nothing but Christ and to offer nothing but Christ and his love to each other and the world.

But Paul is desperate by now. Though we have two letters, we know there is at least one more referred to in the text. Paul loves them, prays for them, thanks God for them, and they belong to Paul as Paul belongs to them. They have been placed in his care.

The United States is a bit like that for us, here in our little outpost of the Reign of God. Our family, our community, our city, our state, and even our nation have been placed into our care. Have you loved it? Prayed for it? Thanked God for it? As a Christian?

This year has been like a moment that happens in relationship. This year we have all become less naive. You’ve been through it when you have that bitter awakening that the person you love is not the ideal that you have held until then, and now you have to choose to either love the ideal or the real person.

My mom always told me after a certain age that she “loved me anyway.” It was a hard thing to hear when I was already so painfully aware of my shortcomings, but it was honest and I am grateful for her faithfulness in my life. Not everyone gets that at home.

Jesus didn’t. He goes back to Nazareth from Capernaum and his travels in ministry, bringing the Reign of God with him both in word and in deed. They had heard of him and were at first proud of their hometown boy.

But he was still just that hometown boy in their minds, and when he stood before them they faced the choice to either accept him and change their minds about what God was doing or reject him for a world they knew, and it did not include God’s chosen being a carpenter and son, brother to friends and neighbors. They refused to see God at work if it challenged what they already assumed to know.

Now I always hesitate to say much about the nation from the pulpit for a simple reason: it is not the Gospel. Being blue or red will not get you one whit closer to being robed in white. The truth is that you can reject America and still belong to God. It’s weird to say that on July 4th, but I need you to hold that for a moment, or else we will both slip here.

The Gospel is that Jesus Christ has come into the world to bring the Reign of God, not the reign of a party or even a religion. He brought that Reign of God’s to us, but it has always been the reality of the world as it was meant to be. It is true even if we have not yet realized it or known it here.

God is Lord, beyond all kings, rulers, potentates, and pretenders. He loves rather than coerces. And God made us, you and me and all humanity, to be the children at his table. To care for the world he placed into our care and each other in his name. We blew it and blow it, and God sent Jesus to us to take away our sin and open the door to the house we left for the distant countries of our own creation for us to come home, to live as God’s own children, God’s own ambassadors of love, care, and responsibility. To live as human beings. God knows us and “loves us anyway.”

We sometimes know all of this too well. We know it like an old friend or a relative and we can forget how amazing it is. And like the people of Nazareth, we deny its glory and lose its power.

But think about it for a moment with me. If that is true and you were planted here, you have become part of the work of this church to bring to bear in some small way the Reign of God in this place, and that includes this country. And that is both a blessing and a terrible responsibility.

It is a blessing because we get to work in pretty good conditions. We have freedom in ways that most of humanity has not and even does not in many places around the world. And that freedom is matched by a safety that is rare in history. I might get harassed verbally if I preached on the street corner but I could rely on the justice system to protect me in important ways. This is not a small thing. That freedom has meant that for centuries the church has been able to work in people’s lives but also in our national life to call us back from sin and toward that vision of God’s Reign in our personal and communal lives.

When others have not had that same protection we could work to correct injustice.

Abolitionists could work in America because we had those freedoms in view even when they were not yet a reality for everybody. We can still do that work today.

The bitter revelation that I spoke of earlier, this moment where we see someone we love in their real self without the lens of their ideal selves and have to love them anyway, this revelation has been happening for many again in painful ways this year. We are reminded that we are not yet the nation we have hoped to be, and some let even the ideals themselves fade from view, no longer even hoping for a land of the free, the rule of law, or justice, some resorted again to despair and some to violence.

I am not going to claim to know how to address the evils nor call the nation to Lincoln’s better angels, but I do know this: If you are planted here, you are called to bring the Reign of God with you in this place

Like Jesus’s disciples, when you get to this place in the story, they move from being only Matteo to being Apostolos from being students to being sent. Now the great thing in the gospel is they are both still, and I suspect so are we. We humans never really get to stop seeking Jesus because we are not perfect yet, we can still boast in our weakness with brother Paul.

But we are sent. You were sent here. And you were sent here to bring the Reign of God in a way that only you can. Bring the God revealed in Jesus to bear on your civic life. Vote as a Christian. Bring the love of neighbor and the call to a holy life to bear on your work life, your political speech, your engagement with the world. Do not neglect the poor, the orphan, the widow, or the stranger in the land.

But know that you do not do this merely as a blue American or a red American, you do not do this first as an American at all. You are first and foremost a child of the living God of Jesus Christ. You are sent as God’s ambassador. You are to bring his Reign, first in your life and in your family’s life and then into the world, into this nation, where we are blessed to care for this land, this people, this history, yes, and this hope for a more just, more loving tomorrow.

Well, Our Habits aren’t so Hidden Now!

As the novel coronavirus hits the United States, and we are all experiencing a national quarantine for the first time in living memory, our habits of being are tested by this new thing.

We have all come to rely on immediate access to secular conveniences and a faith that is almost entirely composed of communal worship and actions. These will not serve us well when the doors are shut and we all must enter the monastic cell.

As Anthony to his desert haunt was tormented by demons, so many are calling in for help to face this isolation and fear, and other temptations go unspoken but are just as real. After just a few days we are not passing.

Welcome back to Hidden Habits, where we work to shape the inner life in the unseen closets of prayer, so that when the outer world tests us we are ready.

If you are facing isolation and struggle, I invite you to see this time as a time of spiritual renewal, when we turn away from the outer conveniences toward the inner life of the mind, heart, and training to face ourselves and our demons with the power of Christ in faith, but also the training in faith of the Bible, tradition, and habits.

Begin today with a plan to read the daily offices of prayer (I commend to you) and to sit in quiet prayer for five minutes twice a day.

Many people deal with temptation and struggle through distraction, but the desert monastics teach us that if we will go into the wilderness with our struggles, we will find peace there. That peace is not something we stoke up within ourselves but that comes from Christ when we abide with him in prayer, study, and contemplation.

Then we can find real love of neighbor coming through us from God our Creator.

Made in the Image of God: Gilroy as Sacrament

Prologue. I wrote this piece for the Bishop’s ePistle as a guest author last week before three more mass shootings wracked our nation. It seems more relevant and more difficult as I reread it for this week. But it is no less true. 

We are called to live as Christ’s emissaries, fellow children of our Father, in a world that is not yet redeemed from death and violence. We cannot do this alone. We cannot do it by following the world’s ways. We must be transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, and we must work together to embody love and work for peace. 

Amid the screams, flying bullets and bloodshed that erupted on a warm summer evening at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday, someone shouted a pivotal question at the gunman: “Why are you doing this?” “Because I’m really angry,” the gunman replied, according to Jack Van Breen, who spoke with reporters after performing at the festival with his band, TinMan. 

-from Los Angeles Times article “Disturbing Portrait Emerges of Gilroy Festival Shooter,” July 30, 2019, By MATTHEW ORMSETH, HANNAH FRY, LAURA J. NELSON, COLLEEN SHALBY, RICHARD WINTON, ALENE TCHEKMEDYIAN

In the middle of our last summer in seminary, several classmates drove down from Berkeley to the Gilroy Garlic Festival to take a break from hospital chaplaincy and try garlic ice cream. We also got in a Scottish Games Festival on that trip.

It was a normal summer afternoon in California at a small town fair, extremely local and low key. It was a day of friendship and quirky local fair.

And, yes, the garlic ice cream was amazing. 

This summer’s memories of the Gilroy Garlic Festival will be marked not by friendship and flavors, but by senseless violence and questions about motives and gun laws. Or maybe we have already moved on. 

For a moment, I want to call us back to this moment and ask to consider our response as Christians. There will be other moments and many closer to home for us to respond to, but this one offers us the opportunity to ask some hard questions at a distance that may later be too close. 

Imago Dei, the image of God. At the Creation in Genesis, God makes humanity to be “in our image,” which we usually put in terms of our worth when we say, “Everyone is made in the image of God.” But the idea in Genesis is that we are made to be as God in the created world, to represent God in our care of the garden of creation, and to be a companion to God, and to each other. 

I shorthand this to, “We are made to be as God’s children on the earth, to love God, care for each other, and take care of the creation itself.” 

We blow it right from the beginning, but the long story is that God restores us in Christ to be what we were made to be in the beginning. This restoration in Christ is at the heart of our understanding of the purpose of the cross as a cosmological redemption and our vocation as Christians. 

Humanity was supposed to be God’s theological statement, showing the world who God was by being like God in our worship, companionship, and care for others and the world. 

When humanity blows it, God focusses that call into the people of the Torah. The Law of Israel is all about revealing God to the world in how the Israelites lived with God, the Creation, and each other, especially the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land.” The Law gets into some places that we are uncomfortable for us today, because we have made religion stay in its box, separated from our politics and personal freedoms, which we want to believe only affect us. 

The Bible has no problem addressing our politics and personal freedoms because we are called to be something more.  So when we make our personal choices, they are supposed to reveal God to the world as Christ revealed God to us.  This is what it means to be made in God’s image, live as God’s children, and to pray and act “in his Name.” 

This is why some moments of community and friendship resonate deeper than folly and become like sacraments of holiness, our vocation as human beings set free from sin and death to live in Christ. That day in Gilroy almost twenty years ago was a theological statement as surely as anything we read in class or uttered in a hospital room as beginner chaplains. It was a sacramental moment.

Now, for many people mostly far away, Gilroy will be a sign of another reality, of anger, of violence, of a fallen world. And part of the fascination have with these events is driven by the need to understand what reality is being expressed in these acts. Was it white supremacy or some other psychosis? 

For us Christians it is worth asking not just what the shooter intended in his act, but what our acts in response represent in the world. Is our response mere passivity in the face of violence or can we act faithfully in a dangerous world not yet whole or wholly saved? What do we do? 

Anger in Our Lives  

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 

Matthew 5:21-22

Jesus calls us into these deeper questions, calling us not to just avoid murder, but to give up anger, insults, and condemnation. As a simple command, this seems unreasonable and implausible especially in a time like we are in. But the reason and logic of the whole Bible is at play. 

We are called to live as children of God, and we do not need to live angry, vile, and condemning lives because we represent a reality where we are cared for, loved, valued, and where we human beings are made to love, value, and care for others. We hold that reality out in our lives as our witness, our theological statement about who God is in the face of a world that does not seem to agree with us. This is why we talk about faith, trusting Christ’s teaching in the world now.

White supremacy is therefore a theological impossibility for a Christian. It is heresy that leads to death. It is not the only heresy on sale these days. It is tempting to make a menu of heresies that I hate for you, but that is the way of the angry man, and it leads to death too.

The letter to the Colossians holds open another way. I implore you to memorize the first seventeen verses of chapter 3; commit them to your heart and let them become your instinct: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. . .” should be our aim as his followers. We are called to live differently than the world around us, and Paul and Timothy’s letter tells us to watch what we think about, turning our attention to those things that are above. 

They did not mean to think about clouds and angels, but rather to see from Christ’s perspective, seeing human beings as children of God, representing their Father in heaven on earth, living in his Kingdom now because we have been set free from anger and death. 

Let us grieve Santino William Legan a young man who made his life and death a sacrament of anger and death, whose hell we hope to never know. He failed as so many of us do, only he took his anger to its full end. 

Let us rather choose to live sacramental lives of love and life, taking every thought captive to Christ, training our hearts and hands to live as human beings, making our days communion and salvation for the sake of the world that God made, loves, and for which Christ laid down his own life rather than others.

Closer to home we will have opportunities to choose the path of life in personal choices, politics, and simple acts of companionship and joy. Let’s go to Gilroy sometime and have ice cream.


*The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 5:21–22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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

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.

Well . . . it’s been a long time

The problem with having a family and a real job is that you have to care for them more than for the nebulous crowd of readers in my imagination, but spreadsheets are complete, budgets are filled in, and things are humming.  At work.  Still working out that whole being a good husband and dad thing.

I figure it’s like sitting in lotus when I was doing yoga a decade ago. For some this looks easy, but you gotta give me a few decades.