Writing the Rule of Grace

Welcome – Holy Hospitality and Good Coffee

I had one of those seminal moments when I defined something theologically for myself in trying to reach someone else.  Neil Stafford, PsyD., had invited me to speak to his psychology of religion class at Grand Canyon University, our shared alma mater. Neil got two degrees to my one while we were in school together.  One student, a sincere fundamentalist who loved God, was distressed by everything I said and stayed after to talk about faith.  (Or to convince me of my sin, it was hard to tell.)  I walked him out to the front doors of the classroom building, still arguing, and pointed across the campus at a girl walking between buildings and asked, “Do you know her?”

“No.  I have no idea who she is.”

“Is she a child of God?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know her.”

“Yes, neither do I.  But, is she a child of God?  What do you believe?”

He was stuck, and truthfully so was I.  We had gone round and round about theology and human experience, but this was as close to the core issue as I could get.  Is the total stranger a child of God?  Are they, whoever they are, precious to God?  We say in our theology that they are.  That “while we were still sinners” Jesus died for us.  John 3:16 begins “for God so loved the world.”

This is not meant to be a trick question.  Neil accused me of trying to break the student.  But I really think this is essential to understand Jesus and the God he calls Abba.  God loves his people.  God has saved his people from their sins.  [I am using he for grammatical reasons, but God is no more he than she, though I am following Jesus who called God, Daddy or Father.]  If you are going to follow Jesus and proclaim the Gospel of God, you must begin with “God loves you.”  There is an anthropological statement of faith in that.  “You are precious to God.”  Right now, while still a sinner.

That is not what we often proclaim.  But it is what Jesus proclaimed.  It is vital to understanding the signs of Jesus’ healing miracles:  he healed first then forgave.  The order is important because the Pharisees and others of his day, religious people like us, could not accept that someone who was broken, sick, infirm, or otherwise formed poorly or wrong could be a part of the people of God.  Jesus puts his response in the form of forgiveness.  “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2.  The scribes, keepers of the law, are offended.  Only God can forgive sins, and God did so through the temple and priests and sacrifices.  But it was God who forgave sins.

The important thing is to say, What sins?  If we were in a certain kind of church I would say, Turn to your neighbor and say, What sins?  And you would.

Is being a paralytic a sin?  It is if your bar for being a part of the family of God, the people of God, is physical perfection.  The blind, the lame, the unclean are not included in the life of a holy God.  This was part of the law, and it was not being applied cruelly, but rather as accepted religious truth.  Only God could make a person right with the community, and some permanent conditions meant that was not ever going to happen.  It was a permanent sin to be born with a missing hand, or blind.  The painful reality of your life was that you were out.  For ever.

So when Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  He was bringing this paralytic, still on the cot, back into the family of God.  This means one of two things: either God as revealed in Jesus doesn’t care about sins or that the religious understanding of the sins was wrong.  I don’t think you can look at the whole ministry and teaching of Jesus and say that he doesn’t care about sin.  He denies divorce for anything except infidelity and remarriage while the spouse is still alive.  He takes commands about murder and adultery and raises the bar to anger and looking with lust.  Jesus clearly takes a moral life seriously, more seriously than the religious of his day.

In our day, how do we understand and apply these teachings and example of Jesus about God?  I think it is important to say that our healing, love, and even profound forgiveness and inclusion has to be as freely offered as Jesus’s offering of forgiveness and healing.  This is how we are to approach the world.  We are to approach the world with open hands, wallets, with generosity and love overflowing.  This inclusion of others into the family of God is essential to following the example of Jesus, ethos of Jesus, the explicit teachings of Jesus.

What then of judgement, morality, and holiness?  Good question.  Once we become disciples, it is just as essential that we take on the yoke of Jesus. We must take on the self-reflection, ethics, and holiness of Jesus.  One of the cornerstone teachings of that moral square is non-judging.  This is requisite to the discipled community.  We must be able to hold ourselves to a high, sometimes impossibly high standard, while not entering into judgement of others.

The early church clearly struggled with this, as Paul’s and Peter’s letters bear out.  If someone doesn’t hold themselves to a high standard the church must respond in order to maintain the integrity of the community.  We have indications of how to respond in Jesus’s teachings as well as the letters.

These become hard issues and difficult conversations within communities that are supposed to be defined by love.  I am not going to pretend to get this all right, but in our Rule of Grace we must try to set some cairns out for the journey.

One.  Everyone is welcome to be a part of the family of God here.

Two.  If you join the family of God, we have to begin to reflect the love of God to others, welcoming with the same forgiveness and grace that we have been welcomed with.  We do not have the option to join and then turn our judgement and harm against others.

Three.  We have to hold each other accountable without devolving into judgement.  Accountability can only be as deep as the relationship.  You cannot effectively hold another follower accountable without relationship.

Four.  Failure is normal.  We are all sinners; it just doesn’t define our relationship with God and should not define our relationship to each other.

Confrontation is bound to happen in any community.  I can bear a lot of witness to this.  But we must continue to hold ourselves and others up as children of God.  When we are still strangers, when we are friends, and when we have to hold each other accountable.

Yes, some will reject that definition of themselves.  Yes, many will reject us, even if we do our best and love them unconditionally, but then our witness is real.  And yes, this will pinch, sometimes within close relationships and horribly as we enter into larger worlds and levels of demands, but we are not first and foremost anything, if we are not first and foremost followers of Jesus, a people of Grace.

All of that to say that everyone deserves a good cup of coffee.

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Writing the Rule of Grace

Welcome, Worship, Study, Serve plus Witness and Stewardship

A Model for the Christian life both individual and communal.

Over the last decade I have struggled with how to teach a model of the Christian life that is useful both for catechesis and for community life.  I have struggled too with a national church church that simply seems to be more interested in being a cultural lobby than being a support for the disciples on the ground of faith.  We produce far better statements on social issues than on theologically meaningful materials for our parishioners.

And yes, I mean parishioners.  We serve a parish, but we are a congregation.  We say almost nothing to the world outside our doors as a church institution, but maybe in an age of personality it is a better witness to be silent and let our character speak for itself.  My fear is that we are ashamed of our character and fear who may speak for our personality.  How is our character shaped as a people of God?  How do we become people of God, and how do we become a people of God?

This frustration really came to a head on a Wednesday night in Phoenix when a leader, vestry member later senior warden, sat in a How to Lead a Prayer class, which I had to fall back on my most basic notes for due to an afternoon that fell apart.  So I used the Lord’s Prayer as a simple model of personal prayer, and then looked at how to lead others for maybe five minutes at the end.  In wrapping up, Christine looked up at me with wet eyes and said, This is the first time in my life that I feel like I actually know what to do when I sit down to pray tonight.  Now I had been her priest for more than a day.  She had grown up in the church, but she was a regular member.  And no one had taught her to pray.  I hadn’t taught her to pray.

I realized something that has become a hall mark of my ministry.  We don’t know what we are doing.  Richard Rohr says the problem with the church is that unconverted people are trying to convert people.  Amen, right?  But it is larger than that.  We are not disciples of Jesus, and we are not teaching other people to be disciples of Jesus.  We are worshippers.  We are people who serve other people.  But we are not disciples.

Or I should say, “were not.”  Over the last six years here at Grace, Traverse City, we have been working out of a model of ministry that took our existing functions as a church and looked at them through the lens of discipleship.  I took the ministries of Grace on Post-It notes on a board and moved them around and around to find a way to tell our story.  Then I took those categories and prayed about a Christian life.  We rolled it out in our children’s program first, then the Vestry adopted this proposed ministry statement.

As Episcopal Christians we
Worship at home daily and together weekly;
Study the Scriptures, our tradition, and what it means to be a disciple today;
Serve our families, our parish, and our world in the name of Christ.

Everything we do is done with an ethic of Welcome
because we are only here by Grace.

Now, almost immediately, I wanted to add that “We Witness to the Gospel of God in Jesus in our lives, with words if necessary, and we Steward this place of resurrection and new life in Christ’s name.”

As I teach what it means to live a Christian life, and I begin to look at a model for teaching churches how to be a blessed community of faith, I have come to see these six categories as encompassing a pretty complete model of the Christian life.  No it doesn’t cover fellowship, but I think if we do these things fellowship will happen.

This is the six things I think every member of the church should be able to explain how they do them in their own life.  It is the model I hold up for myself and our staff.  It is my family’s model, even if we fail at a couple of those things.

I am coming to see that welcome is not enough.  This can be a cover for some other statement, but I think it is imperative that the Christian community go out and seek the lost.  We cannot love our enemies in any real way from over here on my couch.  But it is a creepier mission statement to say “We stalk the lost.”  But it sounds good now that I write it.

What do you think?  Does this model cover the Christian life?  Does it cover your church community’s life?  I can tell you that we are growing and have year over year these last six years, and I don’t think it has all that much to do with me.  The model points to a reality that the church has to come to terms with: we are only as healthy as our community is a community of disciples.  Our faith as a community in only as real as the Gospel lived in our members lives.  Our witness is not made on marches but in the marshes where we live our lives.

I am coming to see more clearly that the national church, if such a thing matters at all, has to look to the pews for its purpose and meaning.  Lobbying can do good things, and it can do them while the church that makes its name matter dies around it.  We have to live a real faith that will change our country and our world.  I know our church is international, but its character here in the United States is really definitive here.  And we need to address our character before we pretend to have a personality that can show itself in the world.

Character is made in the quiet places where we gather to worship, read our Bibles, and serve soup on a cold day.  Character gives up the seat to the poor man and rises on the bus for the woman who just doesn’t want to sit in the back anymore.  Character says I would die for you, even while you kill me.

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Writing the Rule of Grace

Rule of Grace – Chapter 2

Our new life begins in baptism, where we are made children of God and heirs of the Rule of our Abba.  This great and holy calling comes with a real danger to see that God’s covenant was with us, but did Jesus not say as the elder repeats week after week in the Eucharist, “This is my blood of the new covenant shed for you and for the crowd for the forgiveness of sins.”  Or did Paul not say, “For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Were not all sinners?  Yes, as Paul had just affirmed in his letter to the Romans.  Salvation is not for the few, but for the whole earth.

And this is not dependent on us, for as God says seven times in the covenant with the whole earth after the flood, this covenant is made with all flesh, all creation, but it is dependent on God.

We humans have often become tribal in our survival thinking, our flesh thinking, that we roll back God’s calling and covenant to be about us.  This sin was what brought the temple down and has led to sin time and time again.  Indeed privation of good is how philosophers often describe evil.  When we take God’s covenant and make it personal only we are on the road away from the New Jerusalem and we have tossed Christ’s yoke from our necks.

It often shows up in the simplest of errors, greeting only our fellow Christians, our friends, in the marketplace.  Soon we are protecting ourselves from the very people we are called into new life for!

The followers of Jesus are to be a house of prayer for all the nations.  We are a royal priesthood.  And what does a priesthood do except represent God to the world and present the world to God!

We did not earn our belonging to God.  We came home like the prodigal son; perhaps we expect to become servants again, but to be returned to our true created status seems to good to even dream.  Did we earn it?  No, if anything we have earned our condemnation, if we are to follow Paul’s logic.  But this only makes sense if we understand the whole and holy good love that we have walked away from.

If God is the God of the so much of our theology, the angry score-keeping sacrifice-needing god of the pagan systems of sacrifice that has often replaced YHWH, especially in the deserts, then we would be brave to escape.  We would be heroic to flee from such a god to the worship of self and pleasure.  But oh, this misses the gospel by a mile or more!

We can only be said to have offended God if God is good.  We have to know our true blessing to understand the offense.  We have to return to ourselves to understand how far we have fallen from our true nature.  This is what the “depravity of man” theology can totally miss.  We were not created in sin.  We were created in goodness, in blessedness, in order to be the blessing of God in the world.  If we are to return to ourselves, we must see how we have become a blessing only to our self in our pursuit of pleasure, comfort, personal happiness.  The tragedy is that in being a blessing only to ourselves, we have become a curse to ourselves.

This seems heavy handed in the world of self-worship. But it is simple.  We were created for a purpose, to love God and care for creation including each other.  We were meant to bear the image of a creative Creator in love to others.  When we turn that to our self alone, we are like hunting doges kept in apartments, destructive creatures who are deeply unhappy.  We destroy things seeking the true nature of our purpose.

O, unhappy fate, to be a Vizsla in a city apartment!  We eat couches and chairs, dig up the furniture, and terrorize the cat looking for one moment of deep satisfaction.  We make do with the small walks in the park of worship on Sunday when we are meant to run, to stalk, and pursue through the great hunting lands of Hungary!

Let us admit that a deeper purpose is calling us.  In our pursuit let us turn our search outward to the welcome and service of others.  Let us worship the good God, creator and Abba, YHWH who is always beyond our grasp but who welcomes us home in open arms; and let us study God’s ways in the Scriptures and in our deepest selves, in tradition, the apostle’s teachings and in fellowship.  Let us look outward to our world, that God loves and Christ died for.

In practice, take a person, any person on the street, that you can see, and practice seeing them as God’s child, beloved.  Can you see God’s delight in them?

Begin your day the same way, remembering who you are.  Come to your self daily as a child of God among God’s children.  Sit up straight, breathe deeply, and delight in our Abba who delights in you.  This is the right beginning to set us on the way of salvation.

Do not be discouraged when you realize how far you have wandered from your calling, God is waiting for your return.  The road may be short or long, but God will put a ring on your finger and sandals on your feet.  He will put you again under the mantle of Christ your savior.  Breathe deep and start walking.

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Writing the Rule of Grace

This Rule is Only a Beginning of Perfection

The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginning of monastic life.  Ch. 73 of the Rule of Benedict

Where would we begin a Rule for the local church?  I think this question is vital for our time.  Benedict begins his prologue with “Listen, my son, to the instructions of a master . . . ” but his first chapter begins with a description of the kinds of monks and so what kind of life he is addressing.  What equivalent place would we begin?

I think I would begin the instruction to any church with a basic orientation to the Rule of God revealed in Christ.  But again, so large a thing must be taken in bites.  I would begin the Rule with God, who is this God revealed in Christ?  I have written about that here on Hidden Habits several times.  But I think with that basic theological statement must come the two anthropological statements of Scripture, that God loves humanity and that we have a calling in the world to be God’s image, God’s children, emissaries.

In the Christianity of our day, those two statements seem most important for unity and clarity.  Unity because, whatever else we may define ourselves by, we are all claiming by the name that we are following Jesus.  Clarity because we must define carefully who we are talking to and what we assume behind our talking.

Christians are baptized into the body of Christ, into the Spirit of God, given new life, new humanity, and new covenant.  But we are called into the world that God loves and that Christ died for, that the Spirit created and will someday renew completely.  We are not enemies of the world.  If the world does not love us, it is because it does not love Christ, but that doesn’t change that Christ died for it and rose again.  We are to love the world doggedly, relentlessly, because we belong to Christ, because we have faith in God, because we trust the Spirit to provide all we need.

Our Rule is only an agreement of how we will work together, how we will give flesh and goals to this way of living.  It does not guarantee perfection, in deed it cannot.  We will fail.  That is okay.  The love of God is not dependent on our ability to meet expectations, thank God.  What else could be meant by,  “. . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  But we are not to remain as we are, but rather to be transformed by the Spirit at work within us, and the Rule at work without.

So with these parameters, let us begin our Rule:

There is one God, the Creator who made us and who is made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  God loves the world and has set us free in Christ and is renewing us in his Spirit to be a royal priesthood, a people set apart to bear God’s image of love, grace, forgiveness, justice and peace in the world.  We are to be a people of prayer who know and love God and serve the world calling the whole creation back to the Creator, living in the resurrection that has begun in our Lord.

There are seven activities for every one who would follow this Rule with us as we seek to live into the Rule of God as revealed in Jesus and held by the church.  We are to be a people of witness and stewardship, who welcome, worship, study and serve in the name of Christ, living not for ourselves alone but for him who died and rose for us.

Here at Grace, we are a congregation within the Episcopal branch of that great mustard plant of the church.  We are shaped by its worship, doctrine, and discipline, and we hold that this church is and must be in continuity with the root stock of God in Christ and the teachings and fellowship of the apostles.  We affirm baptism in water and the Holy Spirit as the only entrance into the church and the eucharist meal as the sign and seal of our life and discipleship in Jesus the Christ.

So what do you think?  What would you change?  How would you begin a Rule for a community in our day and age?

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