Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

What We Mean When We Say Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rant over, please return to a pleasant day.

Advertisements
Standard
Leadership, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

How to Argue as a Christian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus cannot expect more of us, can he?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
Running, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Running on Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until that day, keep running.

 

Standard
Running, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
Leadership, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Why I’m Here – Trying to live faithfully in the sexuality debates and the Benedict Option

Where We are and Why I am Here

In the course of the last fifty or so years, a series of debates have challenged the church and her various sects.  These debates and changes are both punishing and hopeful, bringing suffering and struggle and also strength, clarity, and flexibility.  I am not here to fix anything but to explore and maybe explain a bit to the curious.  I am hunting for holiness.

Sitting on the blogosphere, it is easy to have clearcut opinions about the lives of others, or even our own lives, in the unreflective space of pure cogitation.  Yet most of us live offline world with other people, families, friends, total strangers.

There is this sense of clarity when one can cut off some part of experience as wrong or, better, as evil.  But these debates of the last few decades have been centered in complex spaces where value judgements and discernment, not to say discrimination, is the needed thing.

Discrimination may the most important word to arise in these debates for understanding why some of us are stuck.  It is one of those words that has changed its definition and denotation in most conversations.  Wine connoisseurs are discriminating.  I want the local health inspector to be discriminating.  But we don’t want our restauranteurs to discriminate against the people they serve.  Discrimination becomes an evil accusation, and yet it’s something to be desired in some spaces of life.

The Episcopal Tradition – via media

I should warn you that I am not sure that I want easy answers here.  I know that it has become the manner of the day to come to one unassailable position and defend it at all costs, but I am an Episcopalian, and we pride ourselves on our via media, the middle way as a proposition of truth.  The middle way is becoming less tenable as lobbyists come to define us more than our pastoral theologians, but I am not looking to define my position so much as explore our current predicament looking for God.

It helps to understand that for the Anglican tradition we are assigned geographical areas called parishes that our clergy and congregations serve together.  We are not congregationalists, but rather we are defined by the land and people that live in our dioceses and by the bishops that oversee us.  This parishional model of service puts us in a different relationship with the people outside the congregation. Rather than being merely a gathering of the faithful called out of the surrounding seas of the damned, we see ourselves as servants of a local area and the people who live there.

If you are reading from certain backgrounds, you should be leaping to say that ekklesia means “the called out” and is our word for church in the New Testament.  Good for you, but we added “out” when I was in college, and that makes all the difference.  We are not called out of the flood.  Jesus stopped the flood.  He died for the sins of all.  We are called to bring that salvation to the world.  The salvation of the world is our work, the cosmos’ redemption, the forgiveness of sins, setting free the captive, binding up of the broken hearted.  I suggest reading what Jesus says to the disciples after the resurrection.  He doesn’t say, “Go save the damned from the flood.”  We are called to witness, to discipleship and the making of new disciples through baptism, to service and the forgiveness of sins.

Because in our parishioner model our area of service is what defines us, we serve a whole lot of people who are different from us.  This gets complicated pretty quickly.  I have seen parish churches in England that were serving the Muslim community by allowing them to gather and pray in their buildings, because they were there to serve their parish, and those Muslims lived in their parish.  For orthodox Christians the idea of having a community pray that Allah is the only true God and Mohammed is his prophet has to be problematic, but the idea of service in the name of Christ is primary.  I have heard and witnessed similar stories involving Jewish synagogues and various youth cultures.

The New Civil Rights Era

Returning to our shores, the primary debates of the last half-century have revolved around race and gender.  The Civil Rights era seemed for a while to have passed from the popular conscience of the United States, though that has not meant that race was not still prevalent in our conversations, but more and more the arguments had begun to revolve around economic and class issues and sex.  There were statistics to push back against that idea, but in the popular conscience it seemed to make little difference as the new millennium rolled around.  Race was becoming a personal issue dealt with better through late night comedians and insightful moments on sitcoms rather than the uncomfortable social conversations and systemic work of correcting massive social injustices.

Then Ferguson.  Then New York.  Then . . . the list of places where unarmed black men, particularly young black men, are being shot, strangled, and beaten keeps growing.  The United States is having to face again that our relationship to race is not comedic or merely an impolite social issue.  We are still racist in our structures and systems of common life and communal thinking.  It is social and economic, systemic and punitive, and it is something all of us have to become aware of and change.  Again.

But the uncomfortable reality is that race pushes for public mental space among the other political issues in our day, particularly around gender and sexuality.  Gays and lesbians have moved from being social pariahs in our culture to being socially acceptable, even normal, primarily through the media, and specifically through television and film and now social media platforms.  It is no accident that the issues of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender communities have been self-labeled as the New Civil Rights Era.  The movement leaders took clear notes from the civil rights movement and did not wait for a social majority, but rather have sustained a large, complex, and well-funded campaign for social acceptance and full civic and social recognition.

I am not going to argue the merits of the social movement.  Christians who have wondered why the traditional social messages around sex and marriage have not held much traction in the last twenty years of culture have to go back to Reagan and the AIDS epidemic.

Due to religious, social, and very political reasons, we as a church turned our back on those with AIDS.  We let people suffer and die from a disease in the modern age, on purpose, because of what we understood as their moral choices, their lifestyle.  We gave up any moral standing and claim to the way of Jesus when we chose negligence and even violence rather than forgiveness and love.  “Things done and things left undone” as we say in confession.  So when we come half a generation later to say that Jesus defines marriage in a particular way and that we cannot deviate, there is little tolerance for our claims to be driven by either Jesus or his teachings.

This is further compromised by our compromises when letting Jesus define how we respond to the poor, those in need, and our enemies.  We have shut out some people from healthcare while celebrating capitalism and its Darwinian view of the poor and blessing war after war after police action that rarely had to do with justice or the suffering of others but everything to do with protecting our American way of life, our moral choices, our lifestyle.

The well-funded nature and very media-heavy presence of the new sexuality and gender issues on both sides has meant that the issues are impossible to simply turn away from and difficult to discuss in any reasonable way.  There is on both sides a sense that either that each battle, each moment of conflict presented either absolute hope or the devastation of hope.

Following Jesus

It is the absolute nature of the responses that is problematic to my Anglican ethos.  The truth is that for us who claim to follow Jesus and to be both disciples and formed by his worldview, we have reached a place that is best described as conflicted.  Or at least I think we should.  I think letting Jesus really define our lives is what it means to be his disciple.  This is only amplified by our belief that he reveals God in the Incarnation, his being the Son of God, who brings redemption and the forgiveness of sins and the recreation of humanity.

If we are going to be honest about our place in these debates, we have to hold several clear ideas at once.  Let’s take a look at a small list:

  • Jesus has brought forgiven of sins and commands us to forgive other people’s sins because God has forgiven ours.
  • Jesus has told us not to judge others.
  • Jesus has commanded us to serve others, especially our fellow disciples.
  • Jesus has told us to pray for God’s “will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • Jesus has told us that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes.
  • Jesus has told us that not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away.
  • Jesus has told us to teach others to follow the law and promised punishment for those who taught children to disobey the law.
  • Jesus never directly addressed homosexual relationships.
  • Jesus does refer to marriage as between a man and a woman in the command to not get divorced, except for infidelity, and sets it in the context of the two becoming one flesh, male and female.
  • Jesus repeatedly told his disciples to be at peace.

Notice that I am not quoting Leviticus or Paul.  I am merely looking at some teachings of Jesus that we hold together as we seek to follow Jesus in the midst of the debates about sexuality and gender.  It is difficult not to want to wander off down one political road or another from here, to debates about Reagan era responses to the gay community or social media responses today.  I am not looking at some particular personal relationships here either, though one could not not be affected by friends and family who feel deeply the effects of these debates and the realities that they entail.  This withdrawal is intentional.

Our lives as disciples are to be defined by our relationship with Jesus and his teachings.  So often we skirt uncomfortable issues by simply looking elsewhere for understanding first.  Discipleship means going into and staying with the discomfort created by our master’s teachings.  If we are uncomfortable there, then that is a good sign.  It means that we are following the implications rather than dodging them.

For us who would follow Jesus, I can see no justification for being mean, disrespectful, or rude, much less violent or vengeful, to homosexuals or to those who disagree with our faith, lifestyles, or morality.  I can see no way to justify others being cut off from our love, care, and service.  Letting the AIDS crisis go without a full medical, social, and caring response was a gross mortal sin.  It was disobedient to Jesus our Christ, and it was a horrendous and shameful act that was the exact opposite of our calling, vocation, and humanity.  We cannot turn away from suffering again.  But neither can we turn away from those who were or are falling short of our calling, vocation, and humanity.

On the other side, we have to admit that the call to live a moral life, a life that is marked by a righteousness before God, is inseparable from our following of Jesus.  We are to live lives marked by purity, chastity, holiness.  There has been great work to separate the two, and I have to admit that I have often disregarded the tie between faithfulness and moral purity.  After serving as pastor and priest for my adult life I can’t do that anymore.

I won’t recount all my sins here, but suffice it to say, I am a sinner who does not stand above anyone else on the moral ladder of life.  But, I have watched as pastor and priest and human being the wrecks caused by those who try to love without purity, morality, holiness.  Agape is self-giving love, but as the psychologists have all too well made clear for us, we have a difficult time living without hidden motivations of lust and violence.

We have to be transformed by long practice to be capable of agape over time.  We have all failed at it, that is essential Christian teaching.  But we are all called to that long practice of learning to love well as followers of Jesus.  There is always a temptation to turn the focus outward towards our enemies, real or perceived, but our call is turn inwards, to follow Jesus into the motivations and temptations of our hearts, to remove the log in our eye before we try to help with the splinter in our brother’s eye.

Here in the midst of the sexuality debates I offer you this: follow Jesus.  Be faithful to the service of others, especially those who are your enemies.  Bless and do not curse them.  Forgive their offenses.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Live lives above reproach, but don’t reproach others no matter how you perceive their lives.

Answers

I know you want answers.  I do too.  I want to proclaim that I know the answers for the debates of our age, to proclaim unequivocally that my liberal church is absolutely right or dead wrong.  And I have strong, devastating emotions about my church and its choices.  I want to talk about unconditional love, but most of what I mean when I say love has nothing to do with self-sacrificial service.  I want to proclaim the truth, but then Truth is Jesus.  So what does Jesus say?

Jesus said, “If you continue in my teachings, you are my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  So, if I am going to know the truth and be free, I have to continue in Christ’s teachings.  We always talk about telling the truth, proclaiming the truth, but in order to say anything, I have to know it, and in order to know it, I have to continue in Christ’s logos, teaching, his way.  So I can’t neglect those in need and know the truth.  I can’t judge others and know the truth.  I can’t act in violence and know the truth.  I can’t refuse forgiveness and know the truth.  I can’t be self-righteous and know the truth.  I can’t be filled with lust or anger.

I am going to have to deny a lot of myself in order to know the truth.  I am going to have to subjugate my self-defensive and lustful self.  I am going to have to be humble and serve others.  I don’t think I can do that by myself.  I am going to need the Holy Spirit and the church.  I am going to need a practice of wholeness and holiness.  I am going to need a cup of coffee and a run.

I offer you this:  let’s go together.  Let us love one another and build each other up, not neglecting coming together as some want to do, but in faithful service let us bow in reverent submission, and when the day comes that we know Christ face to face, we may find that Truth knows us because we have served him well in those we could not see him in.

There are things I cannot do faithfully, but there is far more I can.  So let me go the middle way here and propose that it is a faithful option.  I cannot do all that the culture wants.  I cannot perform a marriage between two men or two women, though many in my church do and celebrate. But I also can’t condone discrimination and the denial of equal protection and civil liberties.  These go against what I understand from Scripture and the whole church tradition.

But that is not the end either.  I must love all people, whether you or they agree or disagree, and serve honestly, living as holy a life as I can without grasping or judging so that my love may be safe and pure.  In this way, I live the way of Christ, forgiving sin, binding up the broken hearted, being set free and setting others free.  I am stuck on this way.  I fail it.  I fall off.  I keep going with the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Rule of Benedict as guides.

The Benedict Option

In this way, I would turn to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”  He recommends a strategic withdrawal from the world around us, admitting that orthodox Christianity has lost the culture wars.  I agree with him somewhat, but I would not focus on the withdrawal anymore than the Rule of Benedict does.

For those who would argue about the loss of the culture wars, I would simply point to the media of our culture, the wars of our lifetime, the greed, lust, and avarice of our economics, and my children’s experience of school.  We have become a culture that has values, but they are not defined by Christianity.  This isn’t the end of the world any more than Benedict’s day was, but it is the end of an age, though when it ended or if it fully has I will leave to other essays.

What we need is not a vision of withdrawal; what we need is a vision of formation for this new age.  This was Benedict’s purpose in the Rule.

And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.  from the Prologue (osb.org)

In what ways can we form such a little school as Benedict’s monastery?  I have begun an exploration of that here on Hidden Habits in my occasional way.  I am fascinated to see what Dreher and others have to say when they get past the flight to the desert and begin to form a picture of the daily life of formation.

Benedict seemed to picture a community that was dedicated to a withdrawn life of self-sustainability, working together at the Opus Dei, work of God in office of prayers and psalms, and in common discipline under the rule and an abbot.  Can such a discipline exist in our culture of radical individualism?  There are experiments going on around the world in the New Monastic movement, though they tend to be more collaborative than the Rule envisions.  And they are not all withdrawing for the same reasons as Dreher if they withdraw at all.

Rod Dreher is interesting to me in part because his writing on the New Conservative takes in a broader swath of critique than merely the sexuality debates, and this is vital to understanding the response of withdrawal.  If it were merely an objection to one issue, the seeming right response would be better arguments, but the objection is to a world cut loose from the moorings we assume are there in public life in sexuality, critique of violence, education, economics, values, public faith, and political morality.

That wider critique is difficult to maintain in the public square because at some point it takes under its criticism the partners we would assume in any singular issue. If a conservative on sexual morality hopes to hold the Republican party as partners, for example, then she must give ground on government morality in terms of gun control, war, moral economics, death penalty, and the environment.  The Democratic party on the other hand may hold a pro-life position on the death penalty and environment, but the would-be partner in our example must cede both public expressions of traditional faith and morality on gender and sexual morality.  Nuance is difficult in the public square.

I could imagine a culture of churches that begin to create such public spaces where we could hold nuance together, seeking issue by issue to worship God, honor Scripture, and love our neighbor in wholistic ways, but I have rarely seen it.  The small ways we begin become easily subsumed into quick answers to hard questions and the handy assumptions that others agree with us that they are wrong.  We ambush and assault rather than bow and serve.

Another question over a singular text, another loaded test at a public service, another simple question with overly nuanced answers, and the feeling of being judged, again, by brothers and sisters on-line, in social circles, in church.  My fear is that the Benedict Option is less about a withdrawal from the world at large and more about withdrawing from honest debate.  I worry that it is away from the internal work of asking these hard questions and considering the realities of their answers in public.  I worry because I feel that myself.  I feel gun shy after being shot at.  But I also feel too conflicted to give canned answers and keep my head down.

Six weeks ago I listened to a celebration of the church’s acceptance of divorced people in response to Pope Francis’s edict to open the doors of the Roman Church a little.  They were speaking directly of my church, the Episcopal church, and mentioned several close personal stories of divorced people returning home to God and the community through the church’s early adoption (1950’s) of divorce and remarriage.  It was touching.  My heart was warmed.

And then as I washed dishes, I started thinking of the struggling couples I am currently working with, pastoring, and praying for in my circle of friends and family and ministry.  All of them have children.  And the news is not good for the children of divorce.  The studies and the stories are consistent over time, and the results are devastating for generations.  Not in every case, it must be admitted, but in most.  The stories are heartbreaking, and I don’t just hear them from the children when they are young.  I watch the results gather at funerals and hear them in counseling sessions.  I listen and lament.

But would I turn away a divorced person from the communion rail?  Would I do the third or fourth marriage?  Will I keep going while the effects gather up behind me?  How do I confront in love and when do I acquiesce in love?

It is easy to take the secular version of Rod Dreher’s vision.  It is offered so often it does not seem offensive.  Stay out of the bedroom.  Never say anything discriminatory.  But if I have tasted the wine, and it is poisonous; should I stay quiet while it is served?  When am I being polite and when am I being negligent?  When am I hospitable and when am I an accomplish?  I pray and I choose and I beg forgiveness.

I am writing all this trying to be a faithful Christian, a husband, father, divorced man, friend of straight people and gay people, Republican people and Democratic people, even Green Party people, priest and pastor, teacher and colleague, sinner, and though I want to write “saint” because that is what I am striving for, I know that is really not a title one earns but is given.  It comes from sanctus like sanctified, and it means made holy.

Holiness is one of those things I have usually found in unexpected faces.  I was welcomed by a liberal church when my answers had too many commas and not enough periods.  I have been blessed and held up by conservatives who saw me struggling to stay faithful in the long years of ministry.  I have known God in dark skinned faces in the desert and pale Norwegian stock in the northern woods.  I have known God in those I couldn’t have predicted or imagined. I hope to make God known by being faithful to Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Holiness means being set aside for God.  And God, at least the compassionate Abba of Jesus and the fierce YHWH of the Hebrews, loves people and demands that we do too.  Love as self-sacrifice.  Love as a servant loves.  Love as a mother to a child.  Love compassionate and fierce.

And this is my answer, such as it is:  I am God’s, and so I love you.  I am God’s, so I can’t do whatever I want, but I will do all I can to serve you.  This is the essence I think of the school of Love.  Sometimes in order to bow, you have to back up a little and know that your pants are going to get dirty.

 

Standard
Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

the Long Haul – Holiness on your Face

Holiness is one of those words that many of us ran away from for a time.  It was an accusation for a part of my life to be a “holy roller.”  I have rarely been accused of being holy, but I feared the impact of my vocation, of my faith, on relationships with other people.  Being a clergy can end up being a lonely profession, especially in my younger years.

Many colleagues will admit to each other when we are alone that seminary was this golden period for us.  We long for the back and forth of conversation about faith that is informed and deeply knowledgeable.   We long for the carefree days before twelve hour days and committee meetings and people angry over minutiae. We say we long for these things, but I suspect that what we really long for is the companionship of formation, the camaraderie of a cohort going through the same experiences from roughly the same place.

Church work does not generally provide this, especially for the small church pastor.  We are sent out as sentinels to towers in the wilderness of american culture.  We often serve alone in a unique place in culture, cut off from regular family times and our own faith holidays by the obligations of our calling.  We are often cut out of honest conversations by deference or fear of judgement.  I tried to say all of this to my wife about the social cutoff of priesthood, and she didn’t believe me until she was asked a dozen times what her husband did and heard the crickets of silence call in hair salons and dinners.

I have tried the “no, no, I am cool; here I will curse a little for you” approach a few times.  Ultimately it doesn’t work.  I am still, despite my funny off color jokes, an emissary for another world that stands over and against this world and its concerns and conversations.  The collar is a reminder, but it is something else that makes it real.  That something else is holiness.

To be holy means to be set aside for special use, particularly religious or God’s use.  Ordination makes you “holy.”  Now, to be fair, I have often taken my self off the shelf where I am set aside for God’s use and used me for my own use, and Satan’s.  I  have used and abused myself, sometimes even as a rebellion against my ordination.  I am coming to the middle of my twentieth year since being ordered as a Baptist minister before God and a congregation, my family and friends, in Buckeye, Arizona.  I was ordained in my twenties and thirties, and those who bore witness to those years could tell you about how God used me and how I abused my self for other purposes.

But this isn’t merely about ordination.  I think that is one of those fine places where the church has lost its way.  We are all made holy in our baptism.  We are set aside for God’s use in the Kingdom of God, the Rule of God.  I wish that were more clearly stated and reiterated for the church because it would take a lot of the pressure of those cricket filled silences.

You are holy.

You are set aside for God’s use in bringing about the salvation of the world, its healing, redemption, peace, and justice.  You are adopted into God’s family as children, bearers of the Name, a royal priesthood, meant to stand before God for the world and before the world before God.  You are set aside to love others as God’s emissaries. You should have a uniform.

I am absolutely convinced of this, though I haven’t gotten one person to agree.  Every Christian should wear a uniform, a marker of their status as ambassadors of love, peace, and justice.  Let’s imagine that we all agreed to represent the mantle of Christ that we wear internally with a sign, a face tattoo of a small cross on the right cheek or forehead.  (We have to have a choice so that we can argue about which one is better and divide over the option.)  This small cross is shaped according to your church at baptism.  Imagine it as you sit there, something you don’t notice much but are always somehow aware of.  You notice people notice it when you are standing in line at the cafe or just passing in the crowd at a party on the street.

Imagine walking from a distant parking place to a movie with your children when an older lady trips and falls.  You would stop, aware that others could see the cross on your face. “You shall not refuse your help.”  Imagine getting out to pump gas at a station when another driver you hadn’t noticed jumps out of his large pickup to yell about your not signaling your turn.  You see him notice your cheek.  What do you say?  Your spouse is angry because you have committed the same sin, again, and is really yelling about it, reminding you of promises made and broken.  How do you respond?

It never goes away.  It is never hidden.  Your calling defines you in every setting of your life.  How would it shape you?  How would those thousands of small interactions and large experiences come to change you over decades?  How would the public declaration of that small tattoo change your life?

Now I don’t have a face tattoo.  And I doubt, being married and employed, that I will anytime soon.  Okay, ever.  But I have often felt like my life in God was like a face tattoo.  It has been this known thing about me for so long, and it has determined so many interactions.  And I have honored that and I have failed it.  But it always remains.

I want to live like that, marked as holy, public.  I believe that if we were that intentional about our faith, we would be different.  Hopefully in the small interactions and the big experiences we live marked lives already, but what would it do to us to add up those thousands of moments?

We would not merely be set aside for God’s use, but we would find over time that we were so shaped that our own use would be like God’s, or at least that is the hope, to become the person whose holiness has become more than a mark on the skin, but a way of being marked by love, forgiveness, peace, justice.

I don’t run from holiness as a marker these days, but like Paul I run for it, adding up the miles of decades along the narrow path.

But we never really run alone.  One of the things that has changed over the years is my understanding of what it means to be ordained.  I am a servant in the house of God, but I am also a member who has the same needs as my brothers and sisters.  When I see that others have my calling, then I am no less a sentinel, I am just not alone on watch.  And the conversations have changed, true enough, as I stop trying to live in two worlds and pretending that I am somehow not in God’s Rule.

Standard
Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Are We Building a Fear-based Community? – the power of gossip and group fear

We are afraid.  I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but here in the United States we are afraid.  We live in one of the most secure countries in the world,  in one of the most secure geographical locations, surrounded by the world’s largest military complex, in the pinnacle of pinnacles of history in terms of wealth and material excess.  We throw away more food than most countries eat.  We make (and sell) more arms than any other country on earth, maybe more than all other countries.  We are a secure people who are terrified.

We not only buy and carry weapons, increasingly arguing about whether we should have the right to carry in schools and churches!  We fear people around the world.  We fear natural disaster.  And we fear crimes.

I like to blame the media.  It is fun to judge others, and I judge them guilty.

The moment of realization for me came when I did not have a television in Phoenix, but my congregation began to talk about kidnapping.  It was rampant.  Children were being snatched off the street.  People worried about our girls who did not even know them.  I was in a hospital room on a visit with an unconscious parishioner when I saw the cable news.

Kidnapping was everywhere!  Seven references in less than one minute.  Constant pictures of cute blonde girls and one little boy.  I was worried.  Then I noticed that there were only three pictures.  They were looping the same story constantly.  I looked it up online.  There were seven open cases at that moment.  The FBI agent I called said it was actually a low point in kidnapping as a national crime. It was just the news cycle.

Why do we invest so much in weapons?  Why do we idolize snipers and praise drones?  We have become a people of unjust war.  We have become a war culture.  We love Rome.  This is just plain reality.

We could point back to World War II.  Or we could blame communists.  We could look for capitalists under the blanket, but the truth is we, the American people, have become a culture of constant fear and violent reprisal.

I am a priest.  I am wearing all black except a little dash at my Adam’s apple of white.  I am a paid Christian, follower of Jesus.  Yet when I saw the news of ISIS online and read the reports, my instinct was war, bombs, murder.  I watched the beginning clip of the martyrdom of Ethiopian Christians before I was snapped out of my fervor.

“Witness” is what martyrdom means. It was the witness of the early church that we died for our faith rather than killing for it.  The Ethiopian martyrs were doing what we have done for two millennia.  But that is not my instinct.  I am more trained by Die Hard and the Terminator than Stephen and the early church.  And that concerns me deeply.

Am I willing to die for my faith?  Am I willing to say with Christ, “If it is me you seek, then let these men go”?  I am and I am not.

“Too long I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” said the Psalmist, “I am for peace, but when I talk about it, they only talk about war.”  I preached about this recently and made the tie to gossip.  Gossip is not the well meaning, Do you know what is going on?  It is the Did you hear about so and so  . . . ?  It is the sniping of the distant foe with news and rumors.  It is destructive to community as surely as war.

It is the same instinct: to protect something or gather a people we offer up a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is always someone else.  I caught myself a few years ago using little bits of gossip to connect with people.  I am still deeply ashamed to say that.  It was horrendous.  It was wrong.  It was an attempt to build community.

Paul Born in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (2014) names the communal responses to crisis as avoidance, shallow community, fear-based community, and deep community.  He points out that fear-based community is a perverse attempt at meeting the desire for deep community.  It is gathering a group around an enemy or perceived enemy or I would add the rumor of an enemy.

This little version that we get when we gossip is cheap community.  It does not deliver on the promises of community.  It cannot deliver trust, togetherness, support, outreach, justice, and peace.  It cannot deliver joy, but it does give us that cheap moment of being on the same side for a minute or two.  It feels like community.

We have turned this, like many vices, into a national past time.  My favorite eight feet in creation somedays is that line of magazines lined up for our downfall at the cashiers of grocery stores.  I can peruse the latest gossip about people I don’t know but judge viciously based on what I know to be half-truths, at best.  We may not know each other, but we can both agree that the Kardashians are horrible shallow people and that Jenner fellow needs our pity.

Let’s revel in our moment of togetherness.  Is this the wine of our age, the drink that lubricates our friendships?

To take one step further, open Facebook.   Look at the feeds that are gathering communities around fear.  Gay people and their allies, notice the language, fear religious people.  Religious people fear gay people.  Let’s share relevant news stories to make the point that they’re out to get us.  Look at what a violent criminal the latest black man was when the police shot him.  That cop should be afraid.  Look at those police in their special forces gear and their violence.  Be afraid.  And share this.  Like it?

We are told repeatedly in the gospel that we are not to be afraid and not to judge.  We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.  We are told to build communities that cross the very lines that we use to define our fears.  We are told to be communities of love.

Our moral life is supposed to be based in our love.  We are to be a people of restraint, not seeking our desires and vengeance, but rather a simple people who offer forgiveness freely.  We are called to love strangers and to be open to people who are different from us, to serve them, to love them.  And to do this because God is that way toward us.

We have to admit our sins in order to confess them and be forgiven.  We have to admit our need in order to be healed.  We have to admit that we have become a people of fear, anxiety, worry.  We have to admit that we have become a people of violence, war, gossip, and lies.  And we have to do this because it is the way of Christ we seek to follow.

We know of no other name under heaven by which we might be saved. It is clear what we are to do and who we are to be.  But we are afraid.

In the last few years it has become clear to me how much fear is natural for human beings who begin to follow Jesus.  We are called into exactly the kind of places that make us the most fearful.  We have to learn to be a people of faith, trust.  We have to trust that God will watch over us, that we will be provided for without recourse to violence, and we have to trust that the Spirit will fill us with the love we need for those who terrify us, who anger us, who make us afraid.

Jesus came to his disciple in that locked room in John and breathed on them, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  The sins you hold on to, you hold on to.”

Do not be afraid.

IMG_0479

Standard