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.

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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.

 

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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?

A Kingdom Catechesis – draft one

For years I have collected songs about Jesus sung by people who were not always Jesus people. They ranged from hymns to grunge folk to rap, but one of my favorites was by a skate punk group King Missile III named “Jesus was Way Cool” that claimed that Jesus could among other things turn oregano into marijuana. Why? Because Jesus was way cool.

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It’s easy to laugh at, but every time the song comes my pastoral heart thinks that this isn’t far off from what we offer to most people most of the time. Jesus is a superman figure who comes to do cool things and then die and rise again because that is what superman does. Along the way he crushes sin like Lex Luther.

“He could’ve played guitar better than Hendrix. He could’ve told the future. He could have baked the most delicious cake in the world.”

“He rose from the dead, did a little dance, and went up to heaven.” I think I’ve heard that sermon before. I think I have preached it. The Jesus we worship on Sunday morning in church *was* cool and did die and rise again and go up into heaven, and I could definitely assume the dance bit too.

But Jesus taught stuff. This is the missing piece of the gospel for most people outside of the church, and maybe inside the church as well. Do you know what Jesus actually taught?

I have very bright theologian friends who never quote Jesus. I have had parishioners who could give a competent answer to the question of what the Doctrine of the Trinity is, but who cannot remember more than one parable or saying of Jesus. They both usually have vague ideas of forgiveness and love of neighbor, but seldom is this taken as seriously as the things we think about Jesus.

Rarely have I found anyone who regularly offers a competently presented picture of the teachings of Jesus. If you ask priests and pastors most have a theological understanding they can articulate about his death. King Missile III offers that “people were jealous of him.” From the professionals usually you get something more along the lines of atonement of sins, payment of sin-debts, and possibly even mimetic violence: “people were jealous of him.”

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from Whitby Abbey

Lately most of the pastors I know aren’t really happy with any of those theologies, but they are what we have, so we reference them constantly. Sin remains central, and the forgiveness that Jesus’ death offered for the repentant remains the point, because God was really, really pissed until Jesus, who was way cool, died. Articulating why he had to die is above the pay grade of most of us.

In reality we have moved across the theological spectrum away from the really, really pissed God to a loving God that still needed something or someone to die in order to forgive the sins of the world. In fact, he needed people to die, humanity, or at least one human being who would represent all of humanity. His own son is offered up as an act of love, which presents us with the contradiction at the heart of our theology: God is so loving and yet so blood thirsty, and we call him Father. The problem is with the nature of the father of this Father God.

Now, I am a father. I have two daughters and a son.  IMG_1182

And I am wicked (see Jesus in Matthew 7:9) and I know that I wouldn’t give my child a scorpion instead of bread. “How much more compassionate is your Father in heaven?” Jesus always presents God as merciful and compassionate. Now in Matthew in particular he also sorts the good and the evil, but you cannot negate that Jesus presents God as exactly the opposite of our dominant theology of redemption. I could not offer my child as a child sacrifice and be considered merciful and compassionate.

Exactly the opposite. God is compassionate, quick to forgive, slow to anger, of great kindness. These verses pour down the scrolls of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. They are measured against justice and righteous anger for injustice and idolatry, but they are persistent in the calls for repentance. Our picture, particularly among reformed theologies, has become distorted away from the Bible. It has even led to a limiting of the power of the cross for redemption, ironic since that is all that really left to the life of Jesus after laying waste to his teachings and acts of mercy and compassion.

The total depravity of man and the absolute sovereignty of God are powerful theological ideals that still hold a hypnotic sway over many theologians and theologies. My problem is that it also holds many lay people under its spell. We lament death and worry about our salvation, clawing after or running away from grace as if we were still caught up in some medieval fund raising campaign, only we have traded in copper for paper, faith in the pope for faith in John Calvin. IMG_3907

But the question at the heart of John’s Gospel was, “Do you trust/beleive Jesus?” Jesus gives us a clear picture of God that is beautifully present throughout the Bible, but does not leave the Hebrew tradition as it is. He “exegetes” God for the believer according to John 1:18. That means he presents and translates God.

He is not just way cool for nothing. Jesus represents the logos, logic, the way, the life of God. He brings that life to bear on the world, to save and not to condemn. The criteria for whether that life comes to bear on us is whether we trust him (John) and participate in the love and life of God (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). Do we love our neighbors, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoners? I notice a distinct lack of theological statements in there.

Our belief in the total depravity of man, sovereignty of God, infallibility of popes all remain unmentioned by Christ. This seems important to me after two decades of ministry and preaching. When we focus on the wrong goals in sport, we lose the game. The central teaching of Jesus is the Rule of God. The Rule of God remains a mystery to us because we aren’t involved in it and don’t trust it. So how can we hope to receive it? How can we hope to bring others to it?

We have to reconfigure our thinking (*metanoia* for the professional theologians reading this). We have to refocus our faith, our trust in the one in whom we have come to know God. We cannot allow other versions of gods to take us off into fear and be shackled to false ideas about who God is.

This work begins with a clearing of the slate, a wiping away of our old ideas. img_0224We then go back to the Gospel themselves with a simple idea. “I can know and understand Jesus with the help of the Gospels: by reading what he said.” Now, this sounds easier than it is.

Our beliefs about God and the world (theology and cosmology) become lenses through which we see. It is hard to identify our lenses. I wear contacts most days, and it is hard to notice them, though I know I am blind without them. I cannot see them until there is a problem like a smudge when I am tired. I notice the problem, not the lens. So our goal is to create problems by looking at clear visions.

We get those clear visions from the Gospels. As you read, have a notebook at hand and take note of places where the character of God is implied. What kind of God is described? Is God caring and involved? Is God condemning? Why is God angry if angry? Or happy if happy?

What kind of person is Jesus? What motivates him to do what he did and teach what he taught?

For seven years as I studied trying to understand the meaning of Kingdom of God I prayed almost hourly, “Lord, let me see what you saw that made you teach what you taught.”

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After seven years of studying, reading, and writing about this one focus of Jesus’s teaching, I had a vision. I was stuck on this problem we have with the kingdom. It is present in Jesus’s teaching, but it is also not yet.

The “not yet” bit leads us to push it into the afterlife. This is convenient because the kingdom is a place of justice. I don’t have to be just if the kingdom is not a reality until after I die. But that is not how Jesus talked. The kingdom also is a place of peace, where God is known, and where we are God’s sons and daughters. It is a place where everyone has enough. I could read all of that, but I was not blind. I could see that none of that was true in our world as I knew it.

So I was preaching fourteen years ago at Saint James in San Francisco about Saint Francis of Assisi. I said, “If you could see what Francis saw, maybe you would walk around naked and talk to animals.” (It was San Francisco where you could say things like that in a sermon.) And the veil dropped.

I saw the kingdom of God. I heard that prayer said back in my mind, and I saw it. I saw the people crammed into that little church aflame with the presence of God. They were sons and daughters of the living God. Right then. Right there. Babies and old women. Irish and Japanese, American and immigrant, clergy and lay, we were God’s and God’s alone. It is true. That is what the kingdom is, a royal priesthood. Royal because we are God’s children. Priesthood because we mediate the love and mercy and forgiveness in our being.

The Rule of God is right here right now when we live into the truth of our reality. We are what Jesus says we are.

And it is true right now because of the cross of Christ back then. He, as the first-born (*monogenous*), took upon himself both the promise and the condemnation of humanity’s failure to live up to our calling. As the first-born he was representative of us, the first fruits of the resurrection to come. He brought the reality “someday somehow” into right here right now by dying and coming back to life.

We are invited into that reality. We have to trust Jesus about it because it does not look like that to us. We have to choose to act in accordance with it, because we can certainly act as if it is untrue, as if people are not that holy, not that royal, not that beloved. We can exploit and ignore. We can curse and betray. We have been trained to act in just that way, by our politics, social conditioning, even our religion in many cases. We must choose to live in the kingdom by how we live, not just what we believe.

And if we don’t, we don’t inherit the kingdom that is ours because of who we were made to be, who we were remade to be in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

See, if you trust Jesus, you are God’s daughter, God’s son. You are meant to be holy, bringing to bear the love and mercy of God on the world, “let your kingdom come and your will be done.” You are meant to inherit all that you need, “our daily bread.” You are going to fail, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But that does not negate your identity or calling, so you have to forgive.

So, Jesus was way cool. But he was trying to make us cool. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of a participant in God’s Rule. You assume in praying it that you are God’s child, active in bringing both his kingdom and will, and in bringing his forgiveness by forgiving others. You may acknowledge that you are going to fail, but you also know that you will rise because he did.

When we see this way, we see through a kingdom lens. We see people as they were made to be, children of the living God. They may be lost, squandering their inheritance, or the singing dancing wholeness of wisdom, but they are God’s child. Our job is just to love them in. They are way cool, if only you are cool enough to see it.

This is the first lesson.

What Makes a Place Holy?

The upper lake in Glendaloch, the valley of two lakes, lies still and quiet. Even on a sunny day with ducks and tourists and cameras.  It is not the silence of the hunt or the wait in line.  It is not the silence of the held breath.  It is the silent exhale of prayer, the long quiet of a faith beyond waiting on God.

It is a place that makes you wonder if you are eavesdropping on Saint Kevin’s prayers, or if he came to eavesdrop on God’s quiet fourteen hundred years ago.

There is a cave above the upper lake that is only eight or nine feet deep and too low to even crouch in.  I crawled up there once to pray a dozen years ago, before the tourists began their trying to follow the finger of some guide.  I sat in the early gray before gray that comes in the mountains when the sun is lighting but not yet warming the landscape.

It was a day like today began, cool and rising later to something the Irish consider heat.   The sun was bright and dancing on the waters in the breeze today, sending the duck’s waves in small arcs to the shore where the German tour group stretched out in the quiet and tried to fill it with the chatter of the content wanderer.

If that sounds like a critique it isn’t.  Tourists have their place, despite the whining of locals and soft puffing of cars waiting in lines.  But even they found the quiet drug their chatter down to murmuring in that soft wind.

Along the shore to our left, tucked into the perpetual shadows of the valley’s walls there is the first church Kevin’s friends built with him to start their foundation as a community that later down the valley would become the monastic city which would give civilization back to the Western World after the collapse of seven-hilled Rome. Their tower both beacon of light and summons to prayer.

The green slopes hold cave and church both in shadow still, reminding the searching pilgrim that the Celts are known for their love of nature, but should be remembered for their comfort with suffering.  Is it the suffering that suffuses this place with holiness?

We, the tourists of the still collapsing Western World, do not suffer now, not really, and certainly not for God.  We have forgotten what the athlete and the anorexic know, that desire has a cost and the cost is creative or demonic.  Suffering is part of becoming, and the question for most of history wasn’t if you would suffer but why.

We forget this at the peril of our souls as we get our air conditioned buses and fuss about the rocking of the ride along the mountain passes.  We become a people who are never present to the silence of our chattering murmurs in the presence of the Silence of a millennia prayer.  We don’t enter the cold waters that could cool our ardor, Kevin, or quiet our scattered desires.

The Celtic saints chose to suffer, shaped by the Mothers and Fathers of the Desert.  They seemed to understand that suffering could identify us with Christ.  I have grown up with the diagnosis of that kind of mindset as diseased.  Ascetic might find its place in Roget’s list under anorexic or heretical.  It was a denial of grace, a form of works salvation, an aspect of the past to mock gently like phrenology or the flat earth.  But what harm it did! We all heard the stage whisper of the professor that confirmed that we should embrace the cool air on the bus and credit card debt.

Kevin might have been more right than we care to admit.  It isn’t that we suffer to gain salvation.  We suffer to gain identity.

Like the ache in my shins that kept me awake and crying at night from the age of six to maybe twelve, growing has its pains.  When it comes to the soul, we can wait for the suffering to choose us when our loved ones die or the bus breaks down, or we can wade into the cold waters of the upper lake and lower ourselves to pray in Kevin’s cave.

It may be as simple as the long walk of pilgrimage or staying awake all night in prayer.  It may be the ache of the fast or the sacrifice of giving away more than our comfort likes.  But when we choose to enter the world with suffering, we identify with Christ and with his family that does not always have the choice.

Here me, concerned Lutherans!  I am not saying that you gain salvation by suffering, or that our suffering adds anything to the work of the cross.  I am saying that we join ourselves to Christ through suffering intentionally with love of God or neighbor.

This has been missing from the West for a long time.  I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but we are the spoiled children of rich and careless parents.  We compare, with all seriousness, the relative time it takes our phones to load applications that we didn’t even have two years ago.

Suffering for love of others, suffering for God in spiritual disciplines, suffering for any reason has to be handled carefully after The DaVinci Code because we all know that this idea can lead to mental destabilization and murder.  In truth it is more likely to lead to three other profound evils.

One, we can encourage someone to suffer who is being harmed by another.  The priest who tells a woman to take her husband’s abuse because that will lead to holiness is wrong.  We all know that.  When we encourage someone else to suffer, we are in the wrong almost always.  When we turn away a victim without getting involved with deny Christ.

Two, we can justify someone else suffering for some “greater good.”  This is almost always rubbish and a dressing up of profound evil.  It is sometimes important to imagine describing a decision like this to a child or grandchild.  This includes torture of our enemies.  Jesus never says, “It’s okay to a be a little evil in order to do some bigger good.”  It is his colluders in the crucifixion that said, “Sometimes a one person must die for the good of the people.”

Black people don’t deserve to be shot by police because they are black.  Poor people don’t deserve to be poor.  And we don’t deserve to be saved.  Or to be privileged or rich.  We don’t deserve much when we really look at it.  “God makes the sun to shine down on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  We have to let that go and thank God in the midst of all things while working to be be just.

Three.  Rare in my experience, is the third type, but just as real.  That is when we justify not doing the right thing and letting ourselves by abused for God or neighbor.  It does happen, but it is just as likely to be an excuse to avoid confrontation or losing a relationship.  I have known a few real cases.  What is usually needed is not battle against evil but rather honesty applied consistently.

Suffering may not be a choice for us forever.  History has a way of being written in the present tense, and what we consider today to be the way things are may not be tomorrow.

Blessed are those who are suffering now, for they will be comforted.

How do we prescribe suffering in the spiritual life?  Suffering should be addressed in two ways.

Embrace the suffering of a normal life of doing good and seeking the will of God.  If you get stuck in a line, embrace it.  If you give up your goods for others, really enjoy thinking about them having your things.  If you know that what you are doing will please God, then relish it.  Practice treating suffering as a good thing.

Every athlete knows this.  Soon you will do what before you could not imagine, and it will be easy because you embraced it.  You will pray until birds rest in your hands and lay their eggs.

You will build a church that will bring in the birds of the air like mustard bushes.  And they will come for hundreds of years.  You will know contentment in life.  You will know peace and the silence of the upper lake where the breath of God stirs the waters to knew life.

You will join Kevin and follow Christ.  You will be holy, and your world will be holy.

A Disciple

Years ago I began to say, “I don’t want to be called a Christian.  I would rather be known as a Christ-follower.”  This has become popular.  I really wish I patented all the cool things that I started doing and then the world followed!  I mean I discovered Pearl Jam and flannel, grew a beard ten years ago, and was doing liturgy in the basement of a Baptist church before anyone had heard of Brian McLaren.

Okay, I know that all of that seems far-fetched, but it is really true.  Sort of.  I lived in Tennessee when I discovered Pearl Jam, so it is entirely possible that people in Seattle had heard of them.

But I have longed for a purer version of following Jesus since high school.  That does not make me unique.  It is the longing I have heard whispered and preached for my entire life.

I just want to follow Jesus.  But the thing is, we have very few models, or way too many.  As you have probably gathered by now from the blog, I typically follow a Benedictine model, at least in theory.

For the last several years I have been also using Dallas Willard to articulate and teach a version of discipleship.  It isn’t that Dallas is all that innovative; he just says things in a way that gets past the baggage that many of us have and more fully explores the issues at the core more thoroughly than I have found elsewhere.

But he isn’t complete.  His articulation of the life of the Holy Spirit is anemic, for one example.  But there is something more that has really struck me this summer as I have lead several groups at our church through The Divine Conspiracy.

In Jesus, we have a model of emotional health that is surprising.  I am struck by this as I lead Willard one side and am reading Peter Scazzero’s works on Emotional Health on the more intimate side of my study.

I believe that the more grounded and healthy leaders are, the more their congregations and institutions can be grounded and healthy and go far beyond the leader’s capacities.  But that sounds like corporate/business leadership in some way.

It isn’t.  “The student is not greater than the master.”  The people we lead are student to us in some really important ways.  We are master in those same ways, and the fact that we deny that doesn’t lessen our responsibility or potential to do life-altering harm.

In models of relationship that acknowledge the role of leader as master (think ye olde world) there is a recognition that the master has responsibilities and that the student or disciple is profoundly shaped by the master.  This is not simply a matter of thinking, but of living and feeling and acting.

Some twenty-two years ago a mentor took me to a leadership workshop in Phoenix led by Lief Anderson, a Lutheran pastor, when across town was more popular conference being given by a leadership writer who is a guru of Christian leadership.  Chuck Morrison explained why we weren’t going to the popular one.  “I have never heard of one person who has worked for him who respects him, and I know of several who have talked about how nasty he can be to work for.”

Now I was college ministry student too young to know much one way or another, but my college professor and advisor was explaining something larger than this conference.  He went on to say, “One day you will be a lead pastor, and I want you to be the kind of leader who always remembers what it is like to be under someone else, who sees things from the point of view of those affected by your decisions.”  We talked about this at length that day, though I don’t think we ever spoke of it again, nor did it come up in any class I took of his.

But here, two decades later, I still strive to be that kind of pastor.  It has slowed me down a lot, to be honest.  It has at times led me to take too long to make some decisions.  But it also means that I have honestly tried to be the kind of person I would want to serve.

“The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, but it is not to be so with you.  The greatest among you is to be the one that serves.”  Jesus said that, though I doubt many people remember it.  It is not as sexy as the Golden Rule, but it is just as important.

If we are to be healthy disciples of Jesus, we have to be the kind of person who disciples others towards health and kindness.  Chuck discipled me in several ways as professor, mentor, advisor, and friend.  There is not a single week that goes by that his imprint is not felt in my ministry, though few of my parishioners know it or him.

I was a disciple to him as a worship leader and pastor.  This weekend I attended a memorial service for his wife of forty-nine years, Beverly, a saint of God in her own right.  The service he put together is not the one I would have, but the care and craft of his work and his words of love, devotion, and gospel are as familiar to me as my own.

It wasn’t just the skills and lessons or the history of hymnody I learned, but I saw in his work a faithful following of Jesus that I hope to grow into.

The amazing thing about our faith is that we are all disciples of One, but at the same time none of us is the Disciple.  If I have found the narrow way, it is because some great women and men have held back the bushes of life and pointed the way, walked in front of me, and with me and caught me when I stumbled.

It is true that I have marred the footsteps of Jesus with my own clods, but thank God for the disciples who continue to follow humbly ahead of us, leading us along the Way.

Thanks, Chuck.  And the others who have been there along my path, those living who led and carried, those dead who have left cairns, signs, and pilgrims’ guides.  Those who showed us more than the rules, but how to live in the way of life.

As the People of Israel used to say, “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.”

Benedictine Discipleship – A Vision for Church Life

I am worried about us.  We are becoming a Facebook church, indistinguishable from the dominant voices of our culture, taking our cues from special interests and having little to say that profoundly differs in the sea of voices crying for the attention of consumers.

I dread statements from the national church, not because I disagree with what they say, but because so little of what is said is rooted in Scripture and aimed growing the kingdom of God.  It is not because the statements are politically correct or always from one political side or the other, though both of those things seem consistently true.  It is rather that the statements are not a challenge to the dialogue of the day, but merely a safe statement of cultural comfort.  Rarely would the statements of our national church challenge the average listener to National Public Radio at all.

On the other hand, merely becoming another mouthpiece for the politically or socially conservative is no more faithful.  There is a profound need for something faithful to Jesus and not in bondage to the worldviews that define our current cultural dialogue.

I have found a lot of hope in the Rule of Benedict and the works of the church grounded in the language of discipleship.  Following Jesus is the point of the Rule and is literally what discipleship is.  Jesus is not as popular as you might imagine with religious people.  We like Jesus sure enough, but we don’t necessarily listen to what he says or what he is actually about.

It is like a lot of politics in the United States.  How often have you asked someone about the candidate that they support and had them reveal that they don’t know what the candidates support or don’t agree with their actual policies?  Say, “This is what that person actually says . . . ” and you become this stickler, a pedantic jerk who insists on fidelity to what people actually say and do.  So it is with faith in the public sphere.

Seldom do we quote Jesus, and even more rarely do we quote him correctly.  For example, we often say or used to say: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  But what Jesus actually said is “If you continue in my word (teachings, logic), you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” *

We are according to the last command of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel to be going “into all the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  This seems really clear, but when did you last do it or even hear about doing it?  If you are going to make a disciple you should know what one is. I suppose you should also know if you are claiming to be one.  Simply put it is someone who has bowed before a teacher and has taken on that teacher’s teaching, logic, worldview, and way of being.

(I worry after writing this if I have become a disciple of NPR.)

Discipleship is the church’s business.  The Rule of Benedict gives an outline of how that might be ordered in a small dedicated community of monastics over a millennia ago.  The first time I read it, I was blown away by how biblical it was and how deeply rooted in Jesus’s vision and teachings.  It is a way of living as a disciple in a community.

When I met Bishop Robert R. Gepert, now assisting in Pennsylvania, we held Benedict in common and wondered together about what it might mean to see a bishop or a parish priest as an abbot.  He was trying to live that out in his vocation as I was in mine.  I am still deeply indebted to his guidance and support for those years.  Seeing my role as a priest in terms of a Benedictine abbot meant that I expected my parishioners to be monks and nuns, dedicated members of a community seeking to follow Christ.  I assumed that they would be faithful to the vocation and mission of the community, and that we could begin to assume a common rule between us that guided each of us.  Of course we all failed my vision, but in large part it was because I never could really communicate this holistic vision because I was still working it out myself.

What I wonder now is: Is is possible to order a local Episcopal church around a common rule/vision of discipleship, around following Jesus, teaching his logic, worldview, and way of being?  You would think that this would simply implied by being a “church” but sadly it is not.  Most of the people who come to us are not looking for that, and I would say that most of our members are not trained and shaped in this way.

We must first of all agree that we believe in biblical truth, though, and that is difficult.  If Jesus is under-read, the Bible as a whole is almost entirely ignored in the consumer church.  It is impossibly long and difficult to understand.  It is hard to know what the experts might think about the sources, truth, and viability of any given passage.  And it might even disagree with the NPR or the Facebook that I am disciple to.  Our national church (Episcopal) gives clear statements about the Bible that may be missed by those merely shopping the aisles of the social media, e.g. from episcopalchurch.org

The Bible

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 236).

It is our foundation, understood through tradition and reason, containing all things necessary for salvation. Our worship is filled with Scripture from beginning to end.  Approximately 70% of the Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Bible, and Episcopalians read more Holy Scripture in Sunday worship than almost any other denomination in Christianity.

The Rule of Benedict quotes the Bible so much that many considered it a condensed or abridged gospel in the medieval age.  The Bible was assumed to be true, even if it had to be read at several levels, and the truth had to be discerned with attention and care “through tradition and reason”.  It was assumed to be true the way that an appeal to “science” is assumed to be true in the popular imagination.  In the debates around the internets, many people point to what “science has proven” without really knowing the actual studies or sources even say, much less how valid or repeatable the studies are.  “Science” for many people equals “truth.” It is rarely considered that science is a process or method of seeking evidence for hypothesis and theories that, when healthy, holds these guesses at truth to be tentative even as more evidence is sought and the theories are relied upon for deeper inquiry.

You cannot really become a disciple to science even though it is often quoted as if it were a master, because science is vast and continually changing.  You can use scientific research as a way of testing and proving hypotheses, providing relatively steady points of measurement of reality, and of building arguments on hypothesis, theories, and evidences.  You cannot be a disciple to science because to be a disciple is to be in relationship with another person, taking on their teaching, logic, worldview, and way of being.  Science has no way of being.  It does not offer one and cannot.  A person must supply the logic/order of information, vocabulary, and thoughts.  A person must then live that out as a way of being that can be emulated.

A side point about what we would be believers should learn from science as a philosophy of learning.  We should be bold enough to trust Jesus while holding our theories about him humbly, always seeking deeper levels of inquiry and trusting revealed truth should not cut us off from being able to trust that God’s way of being is far deeper than we can even inquire right now.  It would be a relief just once to read, “Well, I think Jesus would say such and so, but I am willing to go ask him, read his teachings again and pray about what he would actually say.  Would you do that with me?”

To take the Bible as a source of reality is to take it as part of our world, a steady point that for believers that provides direct experience of revealed reality.  We have to trust it in order to rely upon the worldview that we live in and base our decisions and opinions on.  But I would encourage the faithful to take that scientific method to scripture, applying inquiry and humility in equal measure.  We may always continue to grow in our understanding as we learn more and experience more of the Bible and the world.  We can do this while still holding the proclamations of the Bible as fundamentally true and still asking deeper questions.  The revelations of scripture are a still point in the world, but we are not disciples of the Bible.

We are to be disciples of Jesus.  We know about Jesus from the Bible, but he is not merely another biblical character.  He is the incarnate logos (word, logic, order) of God.  To know Jesus for us is to know God.  Paul puts this in absolutely beautiful terms in Colossians: “In him the fullness of God has deigned to dwell.”  Read Colossians 1-3 to get the full effect.

If we are to know God, we must know Jesus.   We must know what he said, what he did, and understand his logic and way of being.  A major part of that is how he reached others.  He went out into the world teaching, proclaiming, and healing.  He was in the world even with those that religious people consider unclean.

Can we order our lives in a church that way?  What would that look like?

I our Anglican tradition, we order our lives around Daily Offices of prayers and reading from the Bible, weekly Eucharist with a community within the Church, and a life of serving a parish, an actual area of communal responsibility.**  This mirrors the Benedictine life of those under the Rule, producing adult disciples at its best, allowing shallow formalism and letting socio-political work to take the place of inward transformation at its worst.  (See Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality for a much better exploration of this, or more recently Syndor or Avis.)

What would bringing the concepts of discipleship and the Rule do to change that basic formula?  I propose that cultural changes have led to a need for a more formal formation process for those who would be faithful believers growing in Christ, and that these two sources would provide far more in the way of a structure for that process and order of life.

Certainly the Rule has to be brought into our own context and may not always serve to just present this sixth century document without a lot of commentary or introduction to new members.  But the language around discipleship should help center the congregations life always in Jesus rather than some other distracting part of the tradition.

Also, to be clear, I also hold that most of what I have proposed to bring into church is simply too complicated to meet everyone’s needs.  Any ordering principle of communal life must be simple to matter.  It must be so simple that it can be flexed and still do its work and also so simple that it is unavoidable.  It must not be a mess.  This principle of simplicity comes from two decades of professional church work and looking at the church in its various historical heydays.  They weren’t doing a lot of different things in all of that history, they were doing something that worked.

Order.  The church must offer a simple ongoing way of being that can be easily taught.  Many churches do this through a variety of approaches.  Being Anglican/Episcopalian, we offer practices of a mature life: Daily Offices, weekly Eucharists, and regular service.  I would add pledged giving and volunteering at the church to weekly practices, but that is ambitious.

In place of the weekly Benedictine meeting of the community known as Chapter, I would propose weekly small groups focussed on personal discipleship and formation.  These groups would be centered first in a twelve week training manual of discipleship and then be centered in reading the Bible together and a form of Lectio Divina.  Maybe we could call these mini-Chapters.

That is it.  A form of daily prayer, weekly communal worship at table, mini-Chapters, and some form of regular service to the congregation and parish.

There are two big shifts that this proposal would require of the church as we know it.  It would require a move from being a consumer of faith to being an active member of a community centered in stability, restraint, and transformation (the Benedictine vows) and mission.  In the past I have said, “to be and make disciples.”  It would also require a move from a buffet model of ministry where we offer programs like the Golden Corral offers food and waste a ton of life to a model where we offer one way of engaging the life of the community, adjusted for age and ability like Benedict admonishes.

Now, if you are still with me, what am I missing in this model?  mini-Chapters could be tailored to the needs of special groups, couples for example or parents or those with grief.

Evangelism.  In this model, I would not encourage people to invite unformed Christians to worship.  I think that has always been odd, if understandable.  The Eucharist is our most intimate act of worship outside the prayer closet.  It would be like inviting q guest into the bedroom to have dinner.  The focus of evangelism would be service leading to friendship and invitation into a mini-Chapter.

Halter and Shaw were helpful in starting to articulate my discomfort with worship being our only door into the life of a community.  Their book called The Tangible Kingdom is a landmark in my thinking out modeling a different church life.

So how would this differ from Facebook or the political party of your choice?  Our life is not about reforming political structures.  I have read too much history for that.  Our life is about how we live as miniChrists, being a people who love like, think like, are like the one we bow to every week.  As we become more like Christ, incarnating the love of God into our own lives, we will change the structures of our common life.  But if not, we will be a place where people know that they can come for true peace and love and fellowship, just like the prostitute sought Jesus even into the home of a religious man who would disdain her in Luke 7.

Our teachings would be rooted in the Bible and more specifically in Jesus because he would be our constant study and thought.  I don’t if our social and political positions would change or not, but they would not be rooted merely in what the radio said or the internets.  We would be like salt in the meal of life, and no one throws out good salt.

 

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*The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 8:31–33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

**The Anglican tradition, like some others, holds that a congregation and priest serve a geographical area called a parish.  In the same way a bishop and their churches serve a diocese, again a geographical area.  This tie to land includes the pastoral care of the people who live there, in some holy vestige of feudalism.  It is part of what drives that tendency to meddle in people’s lives who are not in any way “members” but who live near us, offering our spiritual care and guidance but also food, clothing, and shelter as part of our understanding of pastoral charity.

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.

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.

 

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.

What Makes a Church a Church?

Installed newly (again) as the rector of a new congregation in the Episcopal church (it was a glorious celebration), I am troubled as usual by a question that seems to be so basic that I have to wonder about my own capacity to be in charge of anything, especially a wonder-filled community of saints. Yet here I am writing again about the most basic of concepts.

I would like to claim that being simple makes it possible for me to explain simple things. The truth is I love lofty ideas and build castles of them in the air, but then I fear that such ephemeral architecture cannot contain the wonders and the griefs of real lives and people.  So I seek the foundations of things, the grounding concepts that guide the building I am charged with, often four stories up the temple.

Okay.  So, what is a church?  What makes a church a church?  In the Episcopal tradition  we obsess a little over the idea of The Church, sometimes called “catholic” or “universal” to distinguish it from the local and temporal reality that most of us spend our lives trying to keep, build, survive, and fund.  We talk about apostolic succession and kerygma, or we put our head down and just work away at the keeping and the funding end that occupies our times and don’t ask about the basic questions because we fear that if we dropped a plumb line we might discover that we are not building square on the foundation.

The word church [ekklesia] only appears twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 16 and 18.  It shows up far more frequently in the book of Acts and the Letters of the New Testament because that is what those books are about.  Although I have spent a few weeks obsessing over word study, here we are just going to consider a distillation, so feel free to kvetch in the comments about what is left out.

Jesus seems to assume that the apostles will lead a community or communities based in the proclamation of the good news of God that Jesus proclaimed: “Grow up, change your mind/life; the Reign of God has come near to you.”  This reign would be known in a particular holiness of the apostles, in their living out of that reign, and in healing and miracles offered as signs.

A word about the word holiness: what we mean by holiness is set aside to a particular way of being in direct relationship to God’s way of being.  In Christ, holiness might be thought of as an ethical way of life that frees one to love well in the way of God.  It wouldn’t make sense to say, “I am holy because I don’t play cards.” However one may display holiness in not playing cards because they refuse to take unearned money from another or take chances with the blessings of God for no purpose.  A man is not holy because he does not drink alcohol, but abstaining from alcohol because it may lead another to fail is holy. Not doing stuff doesn’t make you holy.  But you might not do stuff because you want to love well and are therefore being holy.

Jesus sums up this ethic of his disciples in the word agape that we translate usually as “love” today or “charity” in the King James Bible.  It is helpful in our day to distinguish a little here.  It is commonly stated, even from pulpits, that it should not be illegal to love someone, by which we usually mean something about sex and marriage, or at least, romance.  Whether we agree with that statement or not, it is important to point out that when Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” he is talking about something tied deeply to service or charity, the self-giving love that one person pours out for the good of someone else, not feeling but action.  It is a love that costs the giver something, not a love that is getting something.

We are to be a people who wash each others feet, or as Paul says in slightly more relatable way, Outdo one another in showing honor.  We are to forgive freely, give openhandedly, and to pour out ourselves for each other.  By this the world will know that we are his disciples.

So let me summarize what I have learned from Scripture:

  • A church is made of disciples of Jesus.
  • Those disciples love each other; they fellowship and serve each other.
  • A church proclaims the reign of God in love and service, and in miracles and healing.

If you want to be a member of the church, you must be a disciple of Jesus.  Anything else is fraud.  We are sometimes nice to the point of being liars about this.  The last twenty years of my life have confirmed that when the church is made up of anything less than disciples of Jesus, we toil away trying to be something like a church, but we are always toiling and always coming up short, sometimes horribly short.

The church today is often made up of worshippers rather than disciples.  Let’s blame someone else for that, O Sons and Daughters of Adam.  In my experience it is harder to convert a worshipper to a disciple than it is to convert a lost person, even a really really terrible lost person, to being a disciple.  The good is the enemy of the great, as the saying goes.  We become satisfied with worship, which is a good thing.  But then we don’t follow Jesus in the details of our non-worshipping life.

When I worship I feel good.  I know that it is a good thing to do, and I sincerely believe that God made us to worship.  But our worship in the church is to be simple and direct, not being too wordy, “because your Father in heaven knows what you need before you even ask.”  And worship is never wrong: God is always worthy.  But throughout the Bible we read that our worship is not always worthy.  And when it is isn’t worthy it is for two reasons, insincerity and injustice.  When we praise God but then do not grow or act on the law, our worship confirms our condemnation.  (That sounded really reformed.  Sorry, just being Biblical.)

Jesus never really commands us to worship.  He commands us to pray and assumes that we will worship.  I think he can safely assume that because we are made for it, but he commands us to love God and our neighbor as ourself, and to love one another.  He commands us to serve one another, forgive sins, and to proclaim the Gospel.  He points time and again to true worship being care of the least, just like the Law and the Prophets.

I am a remedial priest, as I said above.  I admit it.  Two churches ago, I was caught up short when I realized that I assumed that my parishioners were faithfully praying and studying the Bible and getting to know Jesus.  I assumed that they were disciples and that they knew how to be disciples.  I was wrong, and it was terrible to me to realize it.  In my last assignment I began to realize that I suck at fellowship.  I assume that people love each other and spend time together.  I am classic introvert who serves in a public role.  I can be present for a reason or for a greater good, but then I have to recharge.  I never think, “O we should just get together and be together for fun.”  For fun I go run in dangerous places, camp alone in the wilderness, and read books.  (Nonfiction, of course.)

I completely undervalue fellowship.  My mentor in the priesthood, the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain is a masterful hostess who tried to pass along to me that a good priest is a great host of meals.  Crap.  Sorry, Rebecca.  I am still learning.

Our family eats together.  It is religious to us, our keeping of mealtimes.   No phones, no television or media, except once a week when we have pizza night and watch a show together.  But outside of our family, we live a very American home life, isolated in our enclave of a home.  Two introverts plus children trying to counterbalance a very public ministry existence means we protect our homespace.

My grandfather, on the other hand, negotiated with my grandmother that he didn’t care what she made as long as she always made enough to share in case he brought someone home with him, which he often did.  That is good church.

A healthy church fellowships together. The disciples of the church eat together and hang around each other.  They have fun together and learn together.  They pray for each other and study together.  They know each other and love each other.

I always considered this a bonus, icing on the theological cake of the ekklesia.  I was wrong. Agape assumes knowledge of the other. Jesus commands his disciples to abide in him and so in the Father.  If we are going to live in Christ together, we must fellowship for that to have reality.  Think of fellowship as purposeful hanging out to the glory of God.

Finally that brings us to purpose or mission.  What is the mission of the church?  This is one of those million-dollar questions with a ten cent answer.  The mission of the church is to be the community of disciples of Jesus and to equip the believers to know, love, and serve each other and the world in Christ.

I cannot justify anything else from the Bible.  We have this page in the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer:

The Church
Q. What is the Church?
A. The Church is the community of the New Covenant.

Q. How is the Church described in the Bible?
A. The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members. It is called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and ground of truth.

Q. How is the Church described in the creeds?
A. The Church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Q. Why is the Church described as one?
A. The Church is one, because it is one Body, under one Head, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Q. Why is the Church described as holy?
A. The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God’s work.

Q. Why is the Church described as catholic?
A. The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time.

Q. Why is the Church described as apostolic?
A. The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people.

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

This wonderfully summarizes what I found in Scripture, except with that The Church focus I mentioned earlier.  The mission of the church is restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, and it does this as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

I have two critiques of this statement, which I also really appreciate.  One, there is no mention of the Reign or Kingdom of God, which has a reality to it that unity depends upon.  We are one because we are living into the Reign of God.  It is not mere unity. Our unity has an ethos, a way of being that is demanded in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.

And the second criticism is that it says “promotes” which is a sloppy word that has lead us to hypocrisy, or maybe it just codifies it.  We are not to promote but to be just, peaceful, and loving.  Only then can we promote anything.  Otherwise, we can be horrible people in our promotion of something we call justice or peace or love.

We are not to promote, we are to proclaim and be the Reign of God by being disciples in communion with each other, loving God and each other, and serving as he served us.

At Christ Church of the Ascension, I am working to articulate this in clear and accessible ways and to put in place concrete “holy habits” to embody the truth in actions.

  • We are disciples of Jesus who know him through Lectio Divina and prayer lives centered in the Daily Office
  • We are disciples of Jesus who love him by worshipping him and by loving each other in fellowship.
  • We are disciples of Jesus who serve him by serving one another and our neighbors in generous acts of giving and manual acts and by proclaiming the reign of God in our being just, peaceful, and loving.

So I keep and teach the Daily Office and traditional worship, read and study the Bible and teaching and modeling Lectio Divina, and am open to fellowship after services and at weekly teas (even taking up golf as a chance to be with other believers), and serving others, especially in being generous with the poor and needy and other members of the church, any church, because God is one, even if we are many.

Am I missing something?  Someone will say “salvation,” I suppose.  But that belongs to the Lord, at least for today.

In Christ,

daniel+

 

Thanks for reading and sharing.