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

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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.

Translating Faith: belief, trust, allegiance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rector’s Advent 1 Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is coming,

daniel

 

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

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

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

JimWhite.jpg

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Youtube Video

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

With apologies to Tom Waits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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