Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

( part I is here.)

One of the amazing things about the Rule of Benedict that does not leap out at those who only glance at it, see it as obsolete, and flip past the last two-thirds of the book before putting it somewhere people will see it displayed prominently, is that the Rule is remarkably humane.

Benedict is constantly allowing for organic variability in the application of the Rule, either for the seasons of the year or at the discretion of the abbot.

In a world where we see both wild diversity and militaristic uniformity, it is remarkable how moderate the Rule is in asking for submission but encouraging allowances.

As a trail runner, I tend to fall down on the side of wild diversity. I like the constancy of change on natural ground and only tolerate the dull repetition of the road as necessary with excuses about it being meditative.

Humility is a personal discipline. Most of what we put in that category is not really personal because our lives are deeply communal. With a wife and children, my life is even more communal than before, and no decision is truly personal.

Humility, though, is a personal discipline that has an effect on everyone who encounters us, but it must be chosen personally. Humility cannot be forced or even really encouraged from outside of yourself.

Force someone to be humble, and you are destructive. Encourage humility, and you are a bully. Okay, that is a tad overstated. I sound like a social media zealot. But there is a truth involved. You may be able to encourage a child or a friend to look at themselves and even rarely call them out on the distance between their idea of themselves and reality, but there has to be enough love-capacity built up to pay the cost of such a charge.

No we have to choose humility, to face that distance between our hopes, ideals, and ideas and our reality, ourselves. We have to will ourselves to have peace beyond the anxiety such a facing calls up.

I am not an anxious person, and you may not be either, so let me walk you through what I mean. When I come face to face with some aspect of my real self, say, my arrogant assumptions about my running ability, this will bring up anxiety naturally. Because I have not merely thought of myself as a great runner, but chances are I expected to win races, run fast, and may have told others, I may have spent money and time on this assumption, I may have chosen to be with certain fast runners and eschew the company of slower runners. I have invested in a view of my self based on the assumptions of my abilities. Now, I lose a race or get injured or just have a slow period due to overtraining. I have to admit to my self that I am not as fast as I thought.

This alone does not seem so bad, but I will admit that I have struggled here. I build up excuses and pass around blame to avoid dealing with the truth. I reinforce the mask, which now terribly is revealed as a mask at some level. I defend my false self against revelation.

My failure is not merely about reimagining my own time goals. I will have to tell those who I told was fast, or to whom I acted fast, that I am not fast, that I lied or failed. I will have to mourn the loss of that invested time, energy, money. I will have to face the relationships that may no longer have value or that I turned away because of my arrogance.

If I know and value my self as a child of God who is loved for being, none of these things is a great burden, only a hurdle on the way. But if I only know my self as a fast runner whose value is in winning or success, then my interior view of my self is in real danger.

Does this seem touchy-feely? It is not. I have seen the violence done by people protecting an unnecessary view of themselves time and time again in person. I have seen the damage that I have done as I struggle with my ego.

I am not entirely comfortable identifying my proud self with ego. Freud did not help us with choosing this term to identify this part of us. Ego is from the Latin for “I.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is the part of the self in psychoanalytic theory that navigates between the self and the world. It is associated with pride and an antonym from humility.

But ego is not antithetical to humility. We need ego, the “I am” of the self in the world. We need to know that we exist and have value in our just being. I cannot say this enough. In a healthy Christian anthropology (theory of what it is to be a human being), we are created in love and are loved from our creation.

It is a crappy, degraded, pagan Christianity that begins with an evil God who hates us. It neither offers explanation for creation nor meets the teachings of Jesus about his Abba God who loves us. We are loved even as we fail.

Living out this kind of anthropology means that we make allowance for our organic humanity even as we call for our better selves in worship and living together. The Rule’s balance in this regard is remarkable.

My balance on the other hand is questionable. I constantly want to succeed. I have dreams and ideals for my self and my family and my church. I want to run as fast as that high school kid from downstate I was reading about. But I don’t. I eat a lot of pizza on pizza night with my family. Our attendance at church varies with the weather and the season. I stay late on normal days to get a little more done.

I lace up my shoes and head out. Everyday I vary. I need a Latin phrase for “I vary.” *Variaro ergo sum*.

I run with a Suunto GPS that tells me my pace, speed, elevation, heart rate, attractiveness, holiness, and actual location in the Rule of God. I want to be a little better than yesterday, than last week, than last year. But the truth is more complex, as Mr. Suunto likes to point out.

Last year I ran a ten mile loop in seventy minutes, this year I crashed out on the same run. I called Amy, who couldn’t come get me because she had the car to get the child I was supposed to pick up because I was going to be back in sixty-five minutes and it was now well over an hour and a half and I was walking still miles from home, wet, and shaking from the cold. It was the same run, only much colder, rainy, and I had neither eaten nor hydrated well. But even if I had, I was not in the same shape coming out of the winter rather than summer.

In the end, I am human, of the humous, of the earth, organic little ball of God-breathed dirt, but dirty none-the-less. I may fly or fall, but I am God’s to cheer or catch. I strive, and I crawl, but the long run always ends up in the same place. I will end up with God answering for how I loved the river clay, whether my own or my wife’s or my children’s or yours.

God loves me and expects me to love my own self and others with the same kind of love. It is that expectation that leads me to the demands of the trail and the Rule. It is that love carries me when I fall and that puts out my hand to my neighbor when he falls.

The other reason I love trail runners is the joy and camaraderie of the trail. It is different in my experience from the road. We know we can’t compete for the trail, only along it. It belongs to God and leads to home, no matter what trail it is.

So relax a little and turn off your GPS, be where you are right now, be who you are right now. Be humane to you. You are loved, you little failure, or you are nothing. Your existence is proof that you are. So relax and face up, you are only what you are.

You are a human being, and we vary, like the Rule, like the trail.

Trail Running with Benedict — On Belonging

My life is a long conversation about God over beer and coffee.  I have said this for a couple of decades.  But the real soundtrack of my faith is not the chatter of conversation or the clatter of computer keys;  it is the tap-tap-tap of feet against dirt.  My faith is really shaped by the miles alone along the trails.  This is not how I instinctively think of my faith, or other people’s faith.  I think in terms of communities, belonging, traditions.

One of the first arguments Amy and I had after getting married happened when I exploded when she told me she did not attend coffee hour after church.  I mean, I calmly explained that was where community was formed and friendships born.  We belong because of coffee hour, I quietly expressed.  As the vicar of a small church, I was reading my own pastoral concerns into the conversation.  Churches need community.  Coffee hour = Community.

Community is one of those words we use without knowing exactly what we mean, but sure that we hunger for something under that label.  As a pastor, what do I mean by community?  I mean something like the friendship of the group.  It is more than a pile of individual friendships.  You can find Webster’s definition here. It is amorphous and broad.  I think I mean the unified part, but I think about the emotional connotations of unity rather than the spiritual or civil implications.

Does it matter how we feel about our church as a community?  Feelings have been idolized in many ways in our culture.  Feelings trump the Bible, rational thought, spiritual insight, truth, love, good will, facts.  Feelings are not facts. I could go on and on, and I have.  Ask my kids.  But on the other hand, our feelings do matter.  But I wonder what it would look like to think about community beyond my feelings.

Feelings are the weather of the human ecosystem.  They are temporary, shifting, different in different people, seasons, times today.  They are responsive to all sorts of things, including internal and external factors, hormones and horrible bosses.  Their temporal nature does not make them less powerful though.  Emotions can erode the strongest intentions and commitments.  Emotions can come to define the human being as surely as desert mountains differ from northern forests.

Who we are as human beings is tied deeply to our emotions.  But at the same time, our emotions are fickle.  So when it comes to community, emotions are vital and quickly elevated to Creator status.  Genesis would be a different book if after creating the world God said, “I feel like this is good.”  The opposite of feelings in community work is not facts.  Facts are a parallel element of community, along with intentions, leadership, vision, communication structures.  The opposite of feelings is emptiness, the death of the community.

Maybe.  That brings up one of the fundamental questions, right?  Is community ephemeral?  Webster’s reminds us that community is association defined by a lot of things, where you live, citizenship, location, common policy.  If I lock ten people in the room, are they then a community?  Not the way we connote the meaning of the word.  On the other hand, I live in a neighborhood that it is an unconscious community.

This brings me back to the church.  We are in the middle of these little plate conversations about the church, and one of the issues that gets served right up is the issue of membership.  We have probably 30% to 40% of our active church community that does not belong to the Episcopal Church, and therefore not to our congregation.  (Remember, wonks, that a parish is a geographical area of ministry.)  They are in Benedict’s Rule visiting pilgrims.  I want them to join, but they hold on to old affiliations, or sometimes to no affiliation at all, other than Christian.

We are clear about who we are and what defines our branch of the church.  I cannot even say “our church” anymore because our disciples are willing to kick back that “church” means the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” of the creeds.  But many people do not want to join.

Membership.  They would join Grace Church, or think they have joined Grace despite all he announcements and explanations, articles and declarations.  But, they are not interested in joining the Episcopal Church, or any particular denomination.  Now I am probable to blame on a lot of levels.  But much of this is deeply felt cultural trends.  It is also feelings.  They feel like they are a part of something real at Grace Church.  But they don’t feel any association with the denomination or the diocese.  Or they just refuse to define themselves out of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

It is sometimes the politics of our national church, social issues, family affiliation, sectarianism as a rule, the particulars or a particular of the tradition.  It is is also a lack of awareness of what it means to belong.  And because our welcome is so good, and yes it is so good, except for sometimes, that many people see no reason to join officially.  When the table is open to everyone, what benefit is left?  What is the benefit of moving my membership or dumping my old denomination if I can come and receive here and be welcomed.

So I am thinking of just cutting out all that crap and putting up a turnstile with membership cards.

Okay, not really.  But I am constantly aware that for many people who come into the shallow ends of the mainline river, the primary thing they are hungry for is communion, second is community.  And if they can get the feeling of community and a good piece of bread, they have everything they need for community.  But I am convinced that they are wrong.

I just don’t know how to convince people that the real benefit of belonging is the way we run in the wilderness.  It is the pattern, the method, the training in the way of life that is the real benefit of our branch of the church.  Our local training club is pretty freaking awesome and the get-togethers are fantastic.  Sure, the coach is a doofus.  But this is where we learn to run.

Because who we really are and what we are really about is the miles on the trail.  It is the running often done alone.  This congregation is really a running club in disguise.  We get together, we run in groups, we train, we have coaches, we offer each other support, maps, rides, and companionship.  But the runs, the runs are what we are about, out there alone on the trails, taking the gospel out, finding the lost and bringing them home, talking Christ to the wanderer, water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, peace to the warring, and forgiveness to all.

We live most of our lives outside the club.  We do most of our running in between the group runs, on trails the group mostly never sees.  But because we belong to the club, we never really run alone.  We have someone to call, a lot of someones, when the miles add up to more than we can handle, or the darkness needs more light than we can bear alone.

We take in pilgrim runners, it is true.  We don’t all wear the same shirts and shorts, though I often dream of a uniform for the church.  We give too freely away what is a result and not a product.

Maybe there is the confusion.  Communion is a result of community with God and with each other.  It is the outcome of the miles, but because we hold it in this physical symbol, it is confused to be a product, something received.  And so there seems to be no cost more than showing up.  We may know otherwise, but how it feels throws us off the trail.

So what do we do with these pilgrim believers? I am not sure that we have a choice but to run with them.  We have to encourage them to join, to explain the club and its usefulness, its purpose, its belonging, but our deep calling is to run and run together bearing the light of Christ, sharing the light of Christ freely.

It just means our running club is always struggling when we are doing our job well.

So run, put in the miles.  The pitter-pat tapping of feet on pavement and trail is the hymn of the runner, the praise of the human being alive, taking the Gospel out of the club that has it (sort of) and into the world that needs it.  That Gospel is that God loves us, provides and protects us, wants to go with us and us with God into the vistas of Grace where people are lost and lonely, hurting and hungry, where we discover that the Spirit has already been here and that when we love the best, we are the dirtiest, covered in the dust of our rabbi Jesus.

Join in.  Come in from the streets and trails of your journey and break bread with us, sing with us, and be refreshed.  Pardon us when we celebrate our club too much, try to get you into a uniform, or pitch membership.  We just love what we are doing and want you with us.  We believe that this work of being a branch is important, providing rest support to the runners, coaching and opportunities to run together, training and easy places to try your feet out, and collected wisdom of a community that is not only broad but deep, millennia-old and dusty in the right way.

Chapter 61: How Pilgrim Monks Are To Be Received

Apr. 15 – Aug. 15 – Dec. 15

If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires,
provided she is content
with the customs of the place as she finds them
and does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands,
but is simply content with what she finds.
If, however, she censures or points out anything reasonably
and with the humility of charity,
let the Abbess consider prudently
whether perhaps it was for that very purpose
that the Lord sent her.

If afterwards she should want to bind herself to stability,
her wish should not be denied her,
especially since there has been opportunity
during her stay as a guest
to discover her character.

But if as a guest she was found exacting or prone to vice,

not only should she be denied membership in the community,

but she should even be politely requested to leave,
lest others be corrupted by her evil life.

If, however, she has not proved to be the kind
who deserves to be put out,
she should not only on her own application be received
as a member of the community,
but she should even be persuaded to stay,
that the others may be instructed by her example,
and because in every place it is the same Lord who is served,
the same King for whom the battle is fought.

Easter with Benedict and the Creation’s Hope

Happy Easter! The season of Alleluia returns, and our prayers can finally sing with the coming of spring.  Here in Northern Michigan we are just starting to feel the warmth.  The last thin layers of ice on the bay have thawed, and there is even a little green poking through the grays and browns of winter’s remains.

The weather of the world is even starting to feel a little different.  And the Rule of Benedict makes some allowances for the turn of seasons with adjustments to food, wine, and time.  Even the times of prayers shift with the seasons.

We are not mechanical, and our time is not mechanized, though it often feels that way with the watches and phones of our common life.  We are so often driven by calendars and times that are set with no regard for the organic nature of life.  It is easy to forget that we are cyclical and seasonal beings by design.

God made us to live on the earth, which makes sense as caretakers and keepers of Creation called to bear God’s image and love in the world.  We are set to live in synchronicity with the seasons and changes of the natural world.  Benedict could recognize that fifteen centuries ago, and so can we.

Often we think of faith in these mechanized ways that come with the setting of our religious clocks and calendars and letting them run on and on without regard for the natural flux and flow of life.  Our faith becomes another modern deafness to the world we are called to live in and love.

One way to claim these days of glory is to let our lives get grounded again in the natural rhythms of nature, turning down lights after sunset and avoiding the florescence we rely on in the days of darkness.  Get outside or let the outside world in with open windows and doors.

Another important piece is our language.  Pray the natural world.  Our Book of Common Prayer is filled with natural images and prayers soaked in the natural world.  Let that language inform your personal prayers.  Glorify God for the natural world, giving care and attention to the land and rivers and rocks and trees, for the changes in seasons, and for the light, which I always take for granted (to say the least) after decades in the desert glare.

O Creator of the earth and skies, we your stewards and keepers of the world and word give you thanks for the changes of seasons and the coming of the light.  Remind us always of the true light of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who breathed his Spirit into us at his resurrection to continue the healing and redeeming of your world.  Give us such a love for your creation and your creatures that we may see your love’s dominion in our world and may love your children with pure devotion and leave our children with a world more full of life, light, and grace until that day when your dominion is whole and heaven and earth made whole, through your Son Jesus Christ our Risen Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and always. Amen.

Alleluia.

Retreat: Letting the Logos be my Logic and Re-order my Chaos

A Few Days with the Monks of St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan 

When the year tumbles from Epiphany into Lent, my wife reminds me to set up my annual retreat, this year again to St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan.  I returned this weekend to the bishop’s visit and the swirl of an active parish.  We were reminded a couple of times by the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hoagland that we are now the largest congregation in the diocese, which was nice and also a challenge.  I hear that and a list cascades down in my mind of the things we are doing, should be doing, and according to plan will be doing in the next year.  And beside that is a list, no a web of names that spreads out of who and when each step and conversation should be had.  Work.  And like every system that reaches out into the future it quickly becomes a chaos.  A storm cloud and a wind.

Now, wind and rain are good for the farmer and the crop, but the farmer’s anticipation is a work and shelter.  I have been planning, implementing, coping, and planning, implementing and looking ahead for a while out of these last five years of discipleship  and growth into the future with plans and hopes.  I have been implementing past plans and coping with blowback from decisions, some good and some bad, and change and growth and challenges.  But then there is the putting your head down and planning the next while  . . . you get the idea.  It has been a busy and productive time of ministry.

And when the webs and lists become a chaos of storm clouds on the horizon, it is usually time to pull away into the arms of the Lord of my life.  I do this in little daily doses of prayer and meditation, and in regular runs into the wild.  (Road running is prayer, but the wilderness is another thing altogether.)  But the daily doses are not enough, and my wife spots it and reminds me to go away.

Retreat.  To pull away into God’s presence can happen anywhere, of course.  I have camped in the wilds of desert and forests.  I have been alone.  But these days I really find myself held by the community at St. Gregory’s.  The monks and a few visitors, this year a principal of a Canadian Christian school and an aspirant for holy orders from another diocese, and the rhythm of the Hours of the Benedictine Rule.  Rising for prayer at four in the morning keeps my retreat from devolving into vacation.  It also means that I am set day by day, hour by hour, on course for the wandering.

It is time to let the Logos be my logic and order, to reorder my internal world.  It is not so much active, though I have things to do and study, but rather soul massage.  This year I started learning the Hebrew language, again, and I read a novel and studied.  I wrote a letter and set some courses for the Holy Week and Easter celebrations.  I prayed a lot. I ran ten miles or so.

It was quiet.  These hours of rising into activity and thought were balanced by the settling back into the quiet embrace of God.  I know that this type of thing often gets somehow reserved for clergy, and it seems that most lay people do not pull away until life wrecks them.  I think this is a mistake.  Time away with God, daily, weekly, and annually, is part of a natural rhythm of life.  Wise farmers let the fields lie between activities, hay to dry and recovery between crops.  We are no different.

God is our root and source, our life and logic.  We need time to set our roots down deep and to grow them into the soil.  Growth does not happen well in the seasons of growth and change.  It is warped by our plans and implementations.  We can let the logic of our desires and hopes slowly change our patterns of maturation away from God’s good intentions.  It is not that there is necessarily wrong in it, but I have discovered a “not the best” tendency over time that twists me inside a little with too long a season without times to reorder.  If I am to have something to offer, love or wisdom, listening or word, I have to stay set deep into the source of agape and sophia, quiet and voice.

My life is a harvest of wisdom and love, or at least I hope so!  But I am not the source of those things.  As Wisdom’s daughter at Grace often says, “I can’t whoop that up.” I need God, and I need God in doses beyond the minimum effective dose for me.  I need the abundance of God that comes with time.  The I Am of God takes time, and I am not shepherd beyond the wilderness following my father-in-law’s sheep in the quiet wilderness of Sinai.  I have to create and protect the time.

Jesus is the Word in John’s Gospel.  That philosopher-poet who wrote John takes a hymn to Sophia and replaces Holy Wisdom with the word logos which we translate as the word.  This word is only a hint at the multivalent vocabulary of myth and philosophy that lies behind logos for the Greek philosophical tradition.  It was the name used for the force that gave order (logic) to the chaotic swirl of undifferentiated elements of creation in neoplatonism  It is the root of our words for logic and areas of study.  It is word in the Levi-Strauss sense of vocabulary of meaning.  To say that Jesus is logos is very much like saying that Jesus is the Tao.  Jesus is the order of creation.  Jesus is wisdom, if you understand what they meant by Holy Wisdom; he is the wisdom of the world.

Now wisdom is not just a figure to be known, like a mystery or a person you can only meet in one place.   Wisdom in the Hebrew tradition is both a figure like the Holy Spirit, part of God and with God in creation, ordering and creating with God, but she is also the very order of things that can be observed in the dance and order of creation itself.  To say that Jesus is Wisdom is to make some claims about knowing him and the world itself.  This is, as I used to say to the children at St. Michael’s Day School, a very big idea.

The person of Jesus is my logos, my logic, the word that created me and creates me, orders me and gives me life.  But in the midst of my plans and implementations, I tend to get twisted around and start to think (in my own disordered way) that I can speak the word myself.  I have to be reordered.  So I retreat.

I retreated into the order of St. Benedict, into the rhythm of prayer and work, running and learning, wilderness and wild deer, turkey, and foxes.  I retreated to St. Gregory and the arms of God, the whispered words of Psalms and prayers like a father’s tender words sung into my soul for my re-alignment to his order, and the fields within me grew wild and rich again as I got rerooted into my Lord.

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.

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent on Saturday

Sunday’s Readings – On Saturday

Tomorrow’s Gospel basically begins with Jesus’s ministry beginning: baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and gospel.  So know that you are God’s beloved, be filled with the Holy Spirit, face down Satan, trust the tending of angels among the wild, and go out into the world to proclaim that the new reality of God has come and people should finally grow up.

That is a pretty straight forward sermon, right?  I had good friends who asked me where I would start if I was to form someone as a new Christian, and my answer was that I would want them to know that they are loved by God, beloved of God, God’s own child.  That sounds really liberal, but the reality with that is to see your self as you are called to be means immediately to see how far you are from God’s reality.  I am a failure in that regard, seeing myself in the mirror of God’s image; the technical term I grew up with was “total depravity” or “sin.”  The problem is you cannot start with breaking someone down.

God is Abba, or so Jesus says and compares God the Father with a loving parent, not a psychopathic rage-monkey.   I might hate some of the things my kids do, but I don’t set about reforming them by beating them down.  Not if my goal is to have healthy loving children in the end.  Neither does God.  Jesus begins at the river being baptized, a humble act of obedience and submission to God, and the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends on him, and calls him “my son, beloved.”

Identity is crucial to self-understanding.  If you begin understanding your defeated, worthless, nothing, a source of rage, then you have already set a course of failure.  But if you begin in submission to something larger, to a larger identity that has a claim on you, you begin a quest, a journey toward wholeness, a search for vision.  That comes by the Spirit.

You can, and some do, read this story as the incarnation moment of Mark’s Gospel.  Rather than the reality of his birth to Mary by the Spirit, Mark emphasizes that this is when Jesus is God’s son.  This also points toward something that shows up in the Gospel pictures of John and Jesus: John’s baptism is about forgiveness of sins whereas Jesus’ is about the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  As Christians we are not baptized merely for the cleansing of sin, though we believe that our sins are forgiven.  We are baptized into the life of the Holy Spirit.  We become God’s children at baptism through the power of the Spirit, though we continue to grow into that reality.  We also use the language of the body of Christ, dead to sin and alive in Christ.

Take a moment and let that sink in.  We don’t really focus on the ontological difference between the unbaptized and the baptized because we live in a pluralistic world where we like to emphasize the work of God in the whole world and God’s relationship with all humanity.  The question becomes for us, “What does our baptism into the Spirit mean for us?”

This is vital.  We will face temptation and are to have a mission and purpose, but none of that means much without knowing who we are in Christ.  I believe that the message of the Gospels is rooted in several images, but one of the central ones is that Jesus replaces the temple as the location of God’s incarnation and inbreaking into the world.  He takes upon himself the failure of the sacrifice system and becomes the whole system (this is clearest in John’s Gospel).  In various ways they also show that we become Christ’s body in the world, bringing his presence, gospel, and healing to others.  We are the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in this realm, whereas Jesus has gone to heaven bodily and is no longer here, in the flesh, except through us.

Writing out this cosmology is cool, but it also shows how far away our theology often is from the Bible.  Our sin is a pretty small part in all of this, important, defining of us as we begin, but put into its proper place as we take our place in the body of Christ.  We are supposed to be agents of God’s forgiveness and grace.

Now, I know that.  I teach that.  I believe that.  I trust that.  And I fail at that really often.  I am supposed to see others as God’s beloved children and treat them the way that God has treated me.  I am to provide from God’s bounty for them, offering peace, healing, and aid whenever I can.  That sounds nice, no?  But I am not so great at that, and I try.

My life often feels like a wilderness, and I find it easier to believe that the wild animals are God’s beloved more than many people.  I struggle to give my wife and children the benefit of a doubt and easy grace and forgiveness.  I grasp after what I need and cling to old things that I probably never really needed.  I want to be appreciated, respected, adored.  (None of which actually is possible to work for.) I want to have power.  Those three temptations of Jesus I know well at home and at work, though I have to interpret a little.  I haven’t wanted to be a third world dictator in a while.

But temptations come, and they usually pull me away from my identity in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  They definitely pull me away from any sense of purpose and mission.  My ego is surely one of the devil’s primary tools.  But I am not a victim, really, and haven’t been in my life for any length of time.  That isn’t my trap.  I have learned that many people who have experienced victimhood, real or imagined, have what I can only call a shadow ego that doesn’t suffer from my temptations, but other ones.  Whereas we can often see the desire for power and control, it is often harder to see our powerless passivity as a temptation to sin that just as much takes us out of the mission and purpose of God.

Do you know that you are God’s beloved? I had this moment years ago on a hike.  I was several days out away from the city in the Sonoran desert along the cliff of a small hill where I had set down my pack and just sat on a rock in despair.  It was a red desert day when the colors take on the ochre shades of shadow and the shadows overlay the land in strips of blue as the sun began to enter its last watch of the day.  I was tired in a way that went far deeper than my bones, and my stomach rolled over my belt buckle and I could feel every grain of sand from every step I had taken for five years.  My pack was too big and my burdens I had packed myself.  I was alone and I was afraid that at any moment everyone around me would see that I was a fraud.  My depravity had become a companion to replace all others, and he held my hand all the time.

But then, in that ochre landscape among the chaos and beauty of the cacti and the blue sky darkening into pinks and purples, my companion was obliterated as a light shone from somewhere above me.  I won’t say that the heavens were opened, but the Spirit certainly descended that evening.  I was alone with God, and my fears and my sins were taken away again as I sat with God in the desert’s breath and the symphony of lights that is the Arizona sunset.  I knew God in that moment, and I saw that God knew me, and he called me beloved.  Not because I had done anything other than be born.

I wish I could tell you some magical formula for knowing God.  Baptism, yes, and wilderness, and waiting, perhaps.  But I also join old Paul in saying that it really is a mystery, this righteousness of God, the turning aside and stooping down to smile with unearned favor among the rocks and cacti.  So what is the gospel that I came out of the wildernesses of my life with?

Grow up.  The Rule of God is at your fingertips.  It dances just outside your willingness to sit down and be still.  Set down your baggage and face your reality.  And know God, God knows you and loves you right now.

The other side is that God loves the people around you too, even me with my various kinds of bloat.  God wants you to be baptized and join the body, bringing his Spirit, grace and forgiveness to a world that still needs the incarnation of Christ in you.

Addicted to the Apple – Theology as Addiction Treatment

Okay, so I am not the first person to notice this, but the Apple on my Mac has a bite taken out of it.  This little observation always haunts me a little bit whenever I see it, which is often.  I write on a Macbook, text and talk on a iPhone.  I did sell my iPod, iPad mini 2, and the older Mac at home is a half-frozen antiquity from 2008.  I am addicted.

Okay, so I don’t really mean addicted, nor am I really talking about my preference for an operating system on my computer.  I am addicted to this world, the world of the apple.  The world of the knowledge of good and evil, post-garden of eden, clothing world.  I am an addict to the world of sin.  And I bet you are too, even if you use a PC or Chromebook or nothing.  We are addicted.

I was reminded of my state by a conversation with a recovery rockstar locally, Thomas Gilbert.  He was talking about what makes effective recovery and laying the groundwork for a sober house and retreat center here in Traverse City.  I am all about people in recovery.  They are models of new creation living in the most brutal and honest way.

We Christians should be major supporters of recovery because of what it is, what it says, and what it means.  As sober Christians we are really passive about love for people in recovery generally.   As an Episcopal church, we host AA and have treatment available for clergy, but I am talking about local Christians understanding and rejoicing and celebrating recovery as a model of embracing new life.

The Navy Seals have a saying, Embrace the Suck.  I love that saying because it means to accept the suffering of this moment in order to do your job and do it well.  It is going to suck, and if you want to get where you want to go, you are going to have to embrace it.  I want the solitude of desert solitude and survive, so I carry water.  In recovery, I understand that we have to embrace the suck of life.  We, all of us human beings, embrace opiation, medication, numbing agents, until we are no more fully alive.  We avoid real life.

This is the essence of addiction as I understand it.  Our minds become shaped, rutted, preset to the addicted substance instead of real life.  We prefer the addiction object instead of life and loved ones and even food and water.  These objects usually have a numbing effect, an opiate of some sort.  We, of course, prefer to be numb rather than deal with the world.  Being sober means embracing the suck of real life.  It is hard and will be if we want to get where we want to go.

Have you ever heard someone who was so addicted to their beliefs that they no longer embraced real life?  The NRA member who cannot deal with the realities of handgun deaths of children, or rich people who cannot look long at poverty?  I think the allegation that faith is an opiate is fair when our faith is a way of avoiding the world, of numbing ourselves to reality.  That does not mean that ecstatic realities are not real, but rather that they can lead toward or away from real life, just like a glass of wine can lubricate conversation and allow people to be real or be a numbing agent that avoids the difficulties of conversation.

Doing theology is difficult, but it is one of the ways that we get a new mind, that we learn to think as a mature engaged human beings.  I need a new mind.  Yes, Jesus can just give me one, but that is not the way God always works.  We are given freedom and then have to learn to live in freedom and responsibility.  We have to metanoia, or repent, to get a new mind in Christ Jesus. The word metanoia is the Greek word for repent, and it means to have a new way of knowing, a larger mind, a more mature understanding or view.  Learning theology, alongside learning to concentrate, contemplate, and meditate, alongside learning to submit and pray are the practices of getting a new mind.  All of these practices are rooted in and soaked by the Bible and especially the life and teachings of Jesus.

When we get a new mind, the questions we ask change as well as the answers we have.  Can we ever go back to not knowing that we are naked?  Is it possible to go back to a state of purity?  I don’t think so.  The addicts we have, our recovery heroes, are always going to have addictions, just like us.  We should celebrate their work and their successes, and we should be patient when they fall off the wagon and return to the object of their addictions; after all, who could understand that better than us?  We should embrace their suck and embrace them as they wrestle with real lives and the complications and convictions of their lives under the apple.  After all, they are us.

The faith and love of the Episcopal Church will be tested by our ability to love the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook and hold her close and visit her while being honest about the atrocity and sin and brokenness of her addiction.  Can we let her be human and still love her, honor her, uphold her dignity, while admitting the depths and realities of her sin?  Can we do that while honoring and upholding and embracing the dignity of her victim, a family man who was bicycling through his own complicated and beautiful life? Can we hold the contradictions and complications of this story and not neglect the human being involved?  Can we embrace the suck here?

This is the test we face right now, or at least one of them.  I know that if I am going to embrace the suck of real life and work for an even more real life of Christ and the Rule of God, where every human being is loved by God and has justice and peace and where sins are forgiven and justice done, I am going to need a new mind.

So I lean into the Daily Office, and I sit in meditation and prayer, and I read theology, even though none of these is easy today.  I need a new mind, and a community that loves me, and I need the close and constant work of the Holy Spirit breathing in me, speaking the Word and his Way into being in me, and I need the God of all creation who is bringing the whole back one day.

Until then, I love you even when it sucks, because Christ embraced the manger and the cross, and on my way out of the Garden still picking my teeth, God made me something to wear, and the Breath that moved over the waters of Creation still move and even darkness is not dark to God.

Theology as Poetry: a brief introduction and beginning

Theology as poetry.

“The church could use more pastors who care about poetry,” Rita Dove said to me at a dinner for the University of Arizona Poetry House back in 2003.  My response was that “our thinking about God could use more poetry and less prose.”  It was one of those moments when I was articulate at the right moment, but as I began to really work out what that could mean over the last twelve years, I have begun to believe I should be writing about it.  This should probably be in a book, but here goes.

Poetry as a word goes back to the Greek word ποίησις which means “to make.” It seems anathema to many in the field of theology that we might make theology.  It is a received thing, right?  Revelation is the only way to know God?  As I have read online time and time again, the questions in theology have right and wrong answers, usually followed by a single verse or two almost always completely out of context.  The problem with this is that theology is assumed to be this spreadsheet of data about God revealed in the Bible that we can check off like the bills I send in every month.  Believe in Trinity as coequal and coeternal? Check.  Traverse City Light and Power paid? Check.

Theology is always contextual and revealed.  It is like the balance in poetry between content and form.  Shakespeare is the master of the sonnet.  Fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter in one of two major patterns of rhyme scheme and meaning.  The sonnet has particular rules which you can find almost anywhere, and which are so well known they actually still teach it in high school.  (If they don’t I may lose faith in the Western World.)  But Shakespeare is always pushing and pulling on those rules.  He adds a different stress pattern in to emphasize different words or ideas, uses near rhyme and line breaks to pull the reader along.  He presses the romantic ideal with struggles of constancy and betrayal.  The content pushes on the form creating a dynamic tension.  There is no pure sonnet that is really great that I can think of.

So what role does the form play in writing?  It is the framework of meaning and expectation that guides the writer and also sets up the rules that the reader can expect and expect the writer to work within and against to create that dynamic tension.  In theology the revelation can serve as our form, or some portion of Scripture.  The writer then sets out to place content and revelation in a dynamic tension that results in something far more interesting than a book of forms.

The classical writers know this tension.  It is why we still read Calvin even if we are not Calvinists.  Calvin’s actual work, rather than the blather others have written about him, puts ideas and situations into a context that pushes against his accepted rules.  Often he works himself into a blind corner, where the only thing to do is point to the cup-de-sac and say, Blessed be God, Amen.  Read the Institutes of Religion as an adult and you will see poetry in the making.  But like Shakespeare, Calvin often gets read too early and then later we skip Calvin and read commentaries.

The same thing is true of Aquinas and Richard Hooker.  We read these great thinkers as they tinker and push and pull within accepted forms.  Aquinas was working through theology with Aristotle as a base rather than Plato, which is fascinating to read as an adult thinker.  How do you move the basic categories of thinking about accepted forms of faith and revelation without destroying those forms?  It is like Billy Collins bringing his wry humor and relaxed, informal tone to the forms of poetry.  Hooker was arguing for the ability to trust a redeemed reason against the more extreme Puritanical forces on the fringes of Anglicanism, who saw the total depravity as unredeemed and therefore untrustworthy.  He argues from within an Anglican reformed tradition but pushes against the form to the extent that he created whole new spaces within our theology of church.

Poetry is about creating spaces or experiences.  In the mid-1990’s I walked into a terrarium garden outside the public library in Glendale, Arizona.  The area around the library was a busy suburban intersection with heavy traffic and multiple use playgrounds and ballfields nearby, but all of the chaos and noise of the area disappeared as I stepped down into a micro-environment that put me in the Sonoran Desert for maybe a dozen steps.  It was a revelatory moment when I began to conceive of the job of communication as a poet as one of creating spaces to enter rather than simply telling an audience about something.  The hope is to create a space to enter and explore.

A poetic theology is about creating the space to experience the presence of God and to explore what that may mean with a partner rather than simply to hear what God is like.  It is generally accepted in theology that all of our understanding of God is analogical.  We have to talk about what God is “like” because we cannot speak directly of God outside of sense experience, because God is Spirit.  To understand that for a moment, it is not to say that God is only spiritually understood or non-existent, but rather that we only experience God through the tools we have.  I would argue against modernity that we have spiritual understanding, but that spiritual understanding still has to be communicated in the experiential language, therefore language of analogy, our experience of God’s presence is like our experience of light or darkness.

I would go farther to say that most of us have the kind of direct experiences of God that we read and know in the Bible, but that we simply do not have the categories to experience them.  But in any case the language we have ends up being analogical, metaphorical, and referential to experience.  But it is a dull thing to simply be told about something in abstractions.

At the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, I once listened to a lecture on the Psalms with a friend by a professor who had co-written a book on the subject that was quite good.  The lecture though was abysmal.  It was a theology on tap event, like ones I had hosted in bars working with the Episcopal Diocese of California and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, so it was expected to be engaging and fun.   It was painful though, and it was only after the first hour of lecture that I realized the lecturer was talking all about the Psalms without using any metaphors!  When he got to the chapter of the book written by his co-writer, The Psalms a Mirror of the Soul, he added like, so it was only a simile in the end.  I walked out at that point.

Our speech about God is always analogical, so it becomes necessary to speak in metaphors, and every metaphor is wrong.  By definition a metaphor is always using an unalike thing to show what another thing is like.  Love is an oven.  Of course, love is not an oven, so the metaphor is useful and beautiful and interesting and also a lie.  This is what makes it work.  And our theology is always like that.  Our metaphors for God and our experience of God is always a lie, but can our lies also be truthful and interesting and beautiful?  And can we speak about God honestly admitting along the way that we are always not speaking directly?  There is a wonderful book by the Islamic scholar Michael Sells called Mystical Languages of Unsaying that I bought just for the title and only later got the wisdom of how wonderful it is.

Our language can never give someone a direct understanding of our experience of God.  Perhaps this explains the prohibition against graven images.  It is always easy to take the explanation for the important thing.  Modern theology made this mistake again and again, saying that acceptance of beliefs, by which we meant statements about God, was salvific. We still make this mistake today when we ask someone if they believe some particular thing, usually a statement.  The problem is that there are beliefs that define us as Christians as opposed to Unitarians or Muslims.  There are statements that sort of set the rails against which we insist you not lean too much because of the implications of false interpretations.  Love may be compared to an oven, but it is not rape or murder.

So we again run into forms and content.  There is a point, say fifteen lines, when you are no longer writing a sonnet.  It may still be a poem, but it isn’t a sonnet.  This is important in our theological making.  We have to recognize that if we are to make something that is truly Christian,  there are rules to the making.  This is hard for Baby Boomer to accept.  We have whole generations who just want to make up whatever rules they want and have the rest of us just agree because you “believe” in those rules.  The source of authority becomes the self, and the self as we have seen is fickle.  There is no orthodoxy except human rights, civil rights, and the autonomy of the individual.

Poetry has rules to each form.  They define the game, and if you want to be a part of that particular game, you have to play by those rules.  The interesting question is what makes Christian thought Christian?  Can I reject substitutionary atonement and still be a Christian?

What is the form that defines Christianity?

Psalms are Hebrew poetry, and they are written within a framework of Hebrew thought that is deeply analogical, describing the world and emotion in beautiful images from the natural world.  They make meaning by repetition and change.  We looked at Psalm 96 recently in a class at Grace, and as we followed the writer through the repetitions new meanings began to unfold.  The writer feels unstable because of assaults by enemies who have almost overcome him or her, but the writer trusts that God is stable, secure, like a fortress on a rock.  But the writer seems when you follow the poem to be tempted to reach out for stability by stealing or robbery, but knows that God is just and this would violate that justice, so he encourages his soul to trust God and not money for security.  I had not caught any of that just reading the poem in prayer and worship for these last forty years.  But there it was beautifully born out in repetition and change line to line, verse to verse.

That repetition defines Hebrew poetry and thought.  If you want to understand Hebrew thought and poetry you have to follow out those repetitions.  I am constantly surprised that people do not know the basics of theology or how they work.  So many Christian writers make fundamental mistakes that violate the one rule that would seem to be agreeable to all of our tens of thousands of denominations: Jesus of Nazareth reveals and exegetes God for us.  If Jesus says something about God then that would seem to be unquestionable to Christian writers, yet I have read time and time again as I have gone looking for basic books on theology for my congregation that emphasize the wrath of God against all humanity, and even God’s unforgiveness without sacrifice.  These statements come from derivative theology, thoughts about God derived from other thoughts about the Bible.  They are not really supportable from Scripture when you begin with Jesus.

But again we have walked into a bind.  We use the Bible as a whole to understand Jesus, but like Calvin we end up reading about Jesus rather than reading Jesus.  Jesus speaks analogically often.  He uses metaphor, parable, and analogy so much so that it defines his teachings.  If we are unwilling to experience and explore his teachings like rooms we enter rather than direct statements, we will completely miss the experience he is offering us of his Abba.

This analogy is my favorite, so much that I probably overdo the comparison because of my enthusiasm for my own experience of being both son and father.  But Jesus is not using the analogy of Abba for God indiscriminately; he emphasizes God’s rule and compassion, desire for his children and to provide for them.  Yet often I have used and heard this analogy used to talk about God’s wrath and limits.  To follow Jesus on this is to follow his repetitions around the image of God as Abba.  Jesus tells us repeatedly to be like God, mature, complete in our compassion, as God is.

We are also to be like God in our creativity.  We are makers in creation.  We get to make new things.  As we engage theology as poetry we get to make new connections and new analogies, new rooms of meaning in the mansions of the church’s thoughts.  Explore and experience the newness of God in this moment amidst the chaos and noise of this moment.

*A final note on the analogy of Abba.  To say that Jesus is abba, or to address God as Daddy is a metaphor.  God is not a biological father because being a father requires a mother to procreate.  God is the source of life as we understand the creation as Biblical Christians.  So Abba is necessarily a metaphor, so why call it an analogy?  Because it cascades meaning and metaphors down into a complex web of meanings and implications, it becomes more than a one-to-one meaning association.  It really is a analogy as used in the Gospels.

Why Study Theology as a non-Specialist?

Theology is not popular.  It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends.  I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated.  I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements.  I was wrong.

But you should care about theology; you have one.  A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear.  You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it.  The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.”  Logos is one of those helpful words to know.  It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger.  It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding.  The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”

A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy.  After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese.  It is the way that makes the walker.

An example is coffee to the connoisseur.  The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it.  He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup.  He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe.  He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea.  Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing.  That thing is a logos.  It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.

So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God.  In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.

So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now.  The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.

For example, God is often understood as “father.”  This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential.  It was true in Jesus’ day.  When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically.  To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology.  We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God.  Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore.  We could spend years on this one topic.

There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have.  I am a runner and a physical person.  I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs.  I have opinions.  Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology.  I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God.  I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body.  Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God.  I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God.  In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.

Finally opinions.  I have opinions about lots of things.  My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature.  You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey.  My opinions do not change things.  They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it.  They are rarely really important.  The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree.  Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit.  Theology is not about having more opinions.

We learn theology.  In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God.  We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way.  Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.

But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling.  I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.

That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not?  To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice.  To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?

I love theology like I love poetry.  They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.

Going after the Omni’s – Seeking a God who is more than All That

Why go after the omni’s?

In a great deal of the pop theology of the church, we live with this trinitarian phrase description of God as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present.  This phrase as a phrase is a frustrating one for me as a pastor and coffeeshop theologian.  It is TBV: true but vapid.

It is frustrating as a pastor because it is unbiblical and completely devoid of creativity and relationship.  It says true things in a way that brings in a constellation of meaning that is untrue, or at least unrelated to the God of the Bible and Jesus.  It brings us a whole lot closer to the question, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” than to Jesus’ statement to Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

As a coffeeshop theologian it is frustrating because it is sort of true.  God is powerful and knowing and present in a complete way, but that statement of absolute power, knowledge, and presence is presented out of a distant god as force way of thinking. I have often been tempted and even subscribed to this way of thinking.  It is not necessarily pantheism or panentheism as a classically defined.  I could draw some lines around it, but it was very much a god as Force, as in May the Force be with You.  Over time, I have been converted by the Bible to a more personal view of God, not as in my-god kind of personal, but in a view of God as person who is involved in the narrative of creation and life, a God on the hillside and mountainside bargaining with Abraham and arguing with Moses and on the cross.  A God of love rather than a force of love.

It has become a justice issue for me.  I am using that term on purpose because everything is a justice issue these days.  Justice for women and gays and blacks has us scrambling to figure out language and relationships both real and imagined.  It has us waving banners and posting online, but I don’t think much is at stake for most of us right now if we are honest.  The civil rights movement in the 1960’s was violent because the stakes were life and death, poverty and wealth.  Right now the stakes where I live are comfort and conscience, wealth and its distribution.  These things are important, but they are not causing the pillars to shake, are they?

No, I think this language about God puts our meaning of justice at stake, and this issue then risks some more nuanced and possibly dangerous earthquakes.  If God is a force of love, then everything is equal and should be equally applied, which gives you and me an awful lot of freedom to decide what is important right now.  We look at the field and choose.  Our vision is not pure, however, because we are really shaped by the local culture and media.  This is not evil, but it is not necessarily Christian either, even when the culture claims to be Christian.

If our starting point for understanding God is personal, our Lord God*, who created the world, loves the creation, and made us to be emissaries and caretakers, image-bearers or name-bearers, then our sense of justice is very much at stake because we have to take into account what that personal God cares about and names.  We have to look at what we can know about God, what has been revealed, and how we submit to the cares and loves of God.  I think that puts us in a pretty terrible position culturally.  Love as a force is pretty great.  Love as submission to a loving God is pretty demanding.

So let’s set some stakes that are biblical.  God created the world and loves it, placed humanity in the world to bear God’s image, and even when humanity went awry came to us time and time again to reveal God’s ways and intentions.  Ultimately, God came to form a covenant with the Israelites that they would bear his image and name in a particular way in how they lived with God, each other, and the land, especially the land of Canaan.  They failed often, but God continued to be faithful to them and to the promise that one day there would arise one who would restore the place of the Israelites as the savior people, the image bearing people set free and a place of knowing God for all the nations.

This promise was kept in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe as Christians, who bore the image of God without sin and chose to face the powers of death that constantly bound both the people through sin but also through the institutional sins of rule and religion.  In Jesus, God was revealed, we believe, as incarnate and loving, forgiving and merciful, just and holy.  The order is important.

God loves the creation and human beings.  God is protective of the least, as is often repeated in the Scriptures, the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  I would add barren women and wanderers, the dispossessed and the oppressed.  This is not a surprise in Jesus, somehow over-against his Hebrew faith.  It is the natural shape of the landscape of the Torah described by the prophets.  Jesus “gives meat” to the God revealed in the Law and prophets, writings and histories of the Hebrew people.  The God who created human beings cares for them, especially when they are vulnerable, oppressed, and crushed. The God whose love often turns from wrath to mercy.  The God who relents from destruction time and time again.  Not always, but often.

God’s wrath has to be understood in the context of God’s love.  It is not, as the Reformed tradition has sometimes claimed, that God is holy and therefore offended.  That frankly doesn’t hold very well with the Bible.  God is holy, but that holiness is loving.  God loves and is therefore just.  God’s love is a creator’s love and therefore whole and holy.  We are incapable of directly apprehending God because we are limited.  We are called to be God’s stewards in the house of creation, despite our limitations and lack of apprehension.  We are to care for people and things, order people and things, and to do so in God’s name as an act of worship and love of God.

Okay, so let us return to our original formula through justice.  Justice in God’s house has to be based on who God is, what God is like, what God cares about, and who God wants us to be.

God as creator of the world gives us some pretty immediate theology.  God is outside the creation, as must be true to create it. God is not a part of the creation and so is not bound by it or its limitations.

Is God therefore all-powerful?  We have to say “yes,” and Jesus says, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  But God works in and through the creation and humanity.  Does God ever “break the rules”?  There are certainly miracles, but they always involve humanity and creation.  I would point rather to God as Creator than God as All-Powerful because the claims of the Bible are typically creative claims.  I would say with Paul in Romans 4:17 “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” ESV  God is Almighty because God is creator and holds all life and being itself in love.

Is God all-knowing?  There are lots of Scriptures that indicate that God knows the future, though usually “plans”, and that God knows human beings and even in some places “all things.”  I would not argue that God does not know all things, but rather that there are many indications in the Scriptures that God interacts with creation in a way that indicates real dialogue and open-ended possibility.  He asks Adam and Eve where they are and what happened.  He calls Moses and bargains with him.  Does God’s plan change for Aaron when Moses says he cannot speak?  I would say, yes, out of deference for the way of God in the Bible.  Jesus even asks God to let the cup of crucifixion pass from him.  If he, God-incarnate, did not believe that it could be otherwise, why pray it?  So while I would say God is all-knowing, it is pulled back in relationship with humanity.  This points to that great rabbinic idea of zim-zum where God pulls back to make creation, allowing creation the space to exist and humanity the room to have freedom within his will.  So maybe I would say God knows all the possibilities and is able to see where all outcomes lead, even be able to weave all outcomes to one, the bringing to completion the will of God in the day of completion, resurrection, judgement, and justice and peace.

Is God all-present?  Maybe.  There are many examples in the scriptures where God’s presence, especially mediated by the angels, is less or more.  I might argue that within the Biblical world God’s presence is always somewhat mediated, first by angels, then Jesus, and ultimately the Holy Spirit.  The place that Holy Wisdom has in that or the shekinah, we could debate, but the presence of God if it is always there directly is certainly mediated to humanity and through creation and humanity.

So while you can say God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, that is a pretty thin statement in a Biblical faith.  It isn’t that it isn’t true, so much as that it is vapid.  It does not offer the creativity and relationality of God-in-Jesus revealed in the Bible.

So let me turn finally to justice.

The Rule of God: we are to be a people who live in the world as God’s emissaries and stewards.  But if we are to do that our very desires and the shape of our thinking have to be subject to God.  If we are to be just, it must be God’s justice.  As we return to women and gays and blacks, to put it bluntly even grossly, or more broadly to humanity and issues of our day, we cannot be for injustice, and we cannot not love any human being.  We have to love even our enemies and bless those who curse us.  Sounds self-sacrificial, doesn’t it?  But this is God’s will, that we should love people and care for the creation.

But we also have to subject ourselves as followers of Jesus to allow God’s will be my will, God’s justice be my justice, God’s love be my love.  It is a lot easier to say God is love, so when I love I am being like God.  The truth is there, but the order is wrong.  I must seek God’s love to be my love, so that I don’t distort it.

I must care for the creation and love human beings, all of them.  I cannot make them subject to God; I can only love them and proclaim what I know.  I can order my life to reflect God’s will, justice, and love.  This means trying to live the grace that God has for me.  I don’t deserve God’s love, and other people don’t have to deserve mine.  I will be merciful and just no matter what.

This may be the heart of the new reformation we are in.  As in the former reformations we argued over the definitions of grace as a commodity given, an object, in our current age we are coming to understand that grace is not a commodity but the nature of God, and the arguments are over the demands that “giving meat” to that grace places on us.  I am to be grace, but that gets complicated quickly.

If grace is love then I have to love humanity, but what do I do when humanity is unloving?  What do I do with someone who refuses to be transformed by God’s grace?  Do I stop loving them? Do I try to destroy them?  Do I continue to do my work and ignore their sins?  I think the answers are in the sermon on the mount and the parables and teachings of Jesus, but I don’t like them very much, because my fleshly self wants this to be about me and me being right and safe.

I would like it if God were just a force like gravity so that I could tip my wings and fly, bending and using God like the forces of nature, but God is beyond all that, alive and personal.  I am not called to fly but to walk with God, to know God and be transformed by God, to be like God towards other people and God’s creation.

As an aside, I fail at this all the time, every day, right now.  My failure doesn’t start in my actions, but rather in my heart and mind.  I want to order and shape things for myself, like some Ayn Rand disciple rather than Jesus’ disciple.  That ignores my true nature; it even destroys it over time.  I have to be converted in the heart while I am learning to do as God would have me do.  I fail at this in my marriage and my family, in my church and in my world.  I am getting better, but thank God I am following Jesus and have the Holy Spirit dwelling in my very being, working to change me and redeem me, to set me free from the accumulation of all those other decisions and selfish habits.  I  am being redeemed.  I have been forgiven.  I will probably need more of both tomorrow.

So, as a pastor and a coffeeshop theologian, as a human being, I want more God than the all-that one.

*The objections for Lord are well known and acknowledged.  While I do not claim that God is gendered and acknowledge that the word Lord is, I don’t have a gender-neutral word in English for one whom we submit to that is understood in the same way.  I am trying in my limited way to get to a more open language of God that is still faithful to the revelation of the Word and the Scriptures.

cropped-img_4322.jpg