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.

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

A Sane Prayer Life – Advice Along the Way

A Sane Prayer Life

Prayer is one of the most intimate things a person can do, but it is surprising how many people report having a sane prayer life. Rarely do I have people report praying crazy things.  People are usually humble and patient, even if frustrated or even devastated by their situation.  They are rational even in irrational times.  I have a theory that a solid prayer life keeps you sane.

That is not necessarily the popular opinion of atheists, but among the things you can learn online, 55% of Americans pray daily according to a 2013 Pew Research poll.  In our tradition, Anglican/Episcopal Christian, we stress daily prayer as a formal part of  our formation and prayer life.

The Daily Office is not the same thing as a quiet time or devotional, though those traditions within Methodist and Evangelical traditions in the United States probably developed out of it.  The Daily Office is a whole church version of the monastic, specifically Benedictine, opus Dei, or work of God.  Benedict saw the monastic offices, regular and regulated sessions of prayer, as the praise of the faithful being intentionally ordered to be both realistic and keepable in a normal balanced life, even if one that is dedicated and set aside to God in the desert communities of the sixth century.

The English Reformers, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, distilled the hours to the Morning and Evening Offices that we call Morning and Evening Prayer.  Later the church brought back into the Book of Common Prayer noontime and the late night Compline offices, pretty much as directed by the Rule of Benedict.

The Offices are kept pretty strictly, without much innovation.  Martin Thornton, English priest writing about fifty years ago, saw the Office as part of a trinitarian prayer life, being dedicated to the God the Father.  In keeping the Offices as proscribed we are submitting to the praise of the universal Church.  This is part of a sane life, as Thornton points out, that is balanced between submitting to the Church universal in the Office and to the local community in the Eucharist.  He also points out that sanity is not found only in submission, but in submission and freedom.

We are free in our tradition to pray as the Spirit leads in an ongoing way.  We are invoked to prayer in the Book of Common Prayer but not told how to pray throughout the day.  Granted, our BCP has prayers in it, but I would suggest that sanity in freedom should involve some devout and holy experiment.  You should pray as the Spirit leads in whatever way is fitting.

I am an INFP, a Five on the Enneagram, and a Mystic according to the Myers-Briggs type indicator, Enneagram, and Urban Holmes’s Spirituality for Ministry.  All of that is to say that my needle is set to quiet, introspective prayer.  I need silence everyday and often daily.  I retreat to quiet places constantly.  But sometimes in prayer, I cry out, clench my fists, and even feel led to dance.  I let music take me along to emotional places I don’t go without guidance.  I try to extend my prayer life with a little time, after the Bible and silence that is.

Gil Stafford taught me this twenty years ago.  Gil was my first spiritual director, and in a meeting one day in his office as then baseball coach at Grand Canyon University, we were catching up when he told me about deciding not to journal as part of his daily prayer.  He had been journalling for a long time and realized that it had become dry and not very prayerful, so he was setting it aside for a while.  I was blown away, even though he wasn’t teaching me per se, he was just sharing himself.  But it modeling a kind of freedom that I just didn’t have at eighteen, even though there was no formal constraint.

Sanity admits to the reality of areas of life where we submit to others and find freedom in doing so.  I often think people who complain about the weather are wasting their time, but people who complain about their own life are not dealing with reality very well.  Okay, that includes me often enough, but I don’t always deal well with reality either.  We submit and find life, but we also must find the areas of our life where we do have dominion or power and enjoy those areas as well, taking control of them and playing in them.

Where Martin Thornton says we must experiment reverently, I would say we must learn to play in prayer.  We have to learn to trust God’s goodness and mercy and forgiveness enough to approach in prayer in the ways we are led to.  We may fail in prayer.  I have.  I have also failed in communicating with my wife and kids and friends.  They don’t cut me off, and how much more compassionate is my Abba?

We need places in prayer that we keep faithfully.  Maybe that is Scripture or the Offices, but find a place to bow.  Then play with all you have.  God wants nothing less.

Why Your Funeral Should be at the Church

and what the Church’s Job Is

This past week we buried a family member; this week we will continue to bury the homeless and homely, the rich and the wonderful saints of God.  I have done and do funerals as part of my work as a priest, but occasionally as a family member or friend I sit in the pews, and this shifts my perception.  This week left me rung like an iron bell.

This week left me sure that a good explanation of what we are doing in a funeral and why you should have one in a church are necessary, not least because we gave a Christian burial to someone who was never really a Christian, but a good human being, and I am not sure anyone there really could say why we were there.

from Whitby Abbey

from Whitby Abbey

The Exposition (Where the author takes a long time to lay the groundwork for something more interesting.)

Jesus was the Son of God, according to what we believe, right? So he comes to inaugurate and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God, or Rule of God.  That Rule is already present in heaven, hence why we pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is the will of God lived out.

What is the will of God? That we live as we were intended from the beginning of Creation, as God’s image bearers, the children of God.  We were to incarnate the love and care of God for the creation, and one another in companionship.  That went wrong right from the beginning, as the nightly news attests, it still goes wrong.

We are made to be God’s stewards of creation.  We were made for companionship and cooperation.  But we go grasping after power and knowledge.  This is clearly part of our nature.  The story may be Scripture but it is also an accurate description of the human condition and growth.  And just like in the Bible, we are not forsaken as we leave the Garden, but we have to find new ways of relating to God and each other.  Law is introduced after failure.

Law is supposed to reveal a larger picture, a vision of God, humanity and creation.  But we get stuck.  We have to be born again, in Jesus’ words from John.  We have to begin again in relationship to God, our separation forgiven and redeemed, set free from the bondages we inherit.  As we get set free, we become full human beings.

I grew up with the need for salvation, but not much beyond that.  This is the interesting part to me.  We get set free, or brought up in freedom if we are blessed enough to be brought up inside the Rule of God.  We get to begin again in new relationship with God.  Now we are not newborns.  We begin again with our now shaped brains and bodies, souls and habits.  We have to learn how to live as human beings in relationship to God.  We have to learn how to take care of the creation and how to love each other.

It is sad that after almost two thousand years, we still get so inspired by Paul’s and Peter’s and James’s letters.  You would think that we would keep growing up, but that too is part of the story.  In those letters we learn how they taught these new people to live into this new reality.

The Rule of God is a way of talking about the reality that God’s way is revealed in Jesus.  God’s character is love and care, and God’s vision is a healthy creation and humanity that lives in right relationship to each other.  You can see this in the Law of the Hebrew scriptures that we call the Old Testament.

The idea of God’s Rule came to be located then in the Temple in Jerusalem. That created the classical problem of the location becoming the point, rather than the reality the location represents.

So Jesus is said to be the new Temple, see the anonymous letter to the Hebrews.  He brokers God’s forgiveness and blessing, healing and restoration in his miracles.  He incarnates God as the Temple had.  The Spirit descends on him at his baptism, just as the presence of God had on the Temple.

The Gospels then have Jesus breathe on his disciples (John) passing the Spirit on to them, or sending his Spirit on them (Luke), or appearing to them to give them his blessing and authority (Matthew) telling them to go and make disciples, baptizing them into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This authority is sometimes called the name or the peace of Jesus or his disciples.

The disciples become the temple: brokers of forgiveness, blessing, healing and redemption.  This is the most missed turn in the New Testament by believers.  We are supposed to do what Jesus did.  Every Gospel, every letter, every thing in the New Covenant is leading to this.  As a restored humanity, we become Jesus’ body in the world.  We incarnate God.

Paul puts this beautifully in one of the passages from Romans that we read at funerals. “The world waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In the New Testament, there is no ordained priesthood.  The word that gets appropriated as “priest” in our tradition is really presbyter or “elder.”  The priest or high priest refers to Jesus and then to the church community.

We are a royal priesthood: royal because we are God’s children and heirs, priesthood because now we stand between God and humanity.  We represent God to the world and the world to God.

The Point (Where if one knows the author’s theology well, one should begin to read with some attention again.)

So it is appropriate and right for the church to bury people as an act of offering their life to the God who will receive them.  As the priesthood, we are to love as God loves and embody the grace (forgiving and redeeming love that is not earned) to the world, especially at the moments of life and death.

We should be crying out to God for grace and mercy, as the prayers of our services do, and we should be crying out to the families and friends of the deceased to not wait to receive this grace and mercy because it is available right now.  Be set free and born new to begin again and join in the freedom and life of the believer!  But also, O God, receive a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.

I sat in the pew this week and was a little put off that the priest in charge had chosen to wear purple-black velvet vestments, a shroud of mourning worship.  But I was also shocked that he buried the deceased as a Christian, when his life was never put under the Rule of God.  There was appropriate mourning for a life cut short by bondage and addiction to drugs.  There was appropriate celebration of the signs of his humanity, a loving kindness from the depths of his being.

The priest proclaimed both mourning and hope in his sermon.  I was impressed by his willingness to tell the truth in front of people who don’t love truth.

But that is why we have funerals.  We offer our lives and our loved ones up to the God who made them, loved them, and loves them.  A God of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  But we are remiss when we don’t offer people that grace and love in this life, before they die.  So the funeral has to be both worship and an act of love, even when love demands that we tell the truth.

You should have a funeral.  It is not an act of hubris but humility.  Our lives get placed under the story of creation, fall, and redemption.  We get held up to the one who made us, loves us, and before whom we will all stand one day, for judgement and a meal (see Isaiah and Revelation).

Your funeral should be at the church.  We are the people of God, even if we suck at it, which we do pretty often.  God set us free and made us new, but God still left us human beings.   We will probably mess something up.  But we will stand with your loved ones and hold them up and love them, no matter what.  We will love you too, in our imperfect way.  And we will offer your life to God.

I hope you don’t wait until the last day or later to run to grace and mercy, forgiveness and healing.  If you do we will be waiting with open arms and really good music.  But oh that you would find grace and mercy now.

It takes a while to unlearn the habits of a lifetime, many of us exhibit this in clear ways.  We are all still working out issues.  That is why we make such vows in our baptism.  It takes work to live in the church with other Christians.  But we are a committed lot.  We are still, after two thousand years, working out all that loving God, our neighbor, and our selves means, much less caring for the creation.  But we keep at it.  Join us.  We need you.

The Rule of God is your home.  You were born to be God’s child.  Everyone comes home eventually.  Don’t wait.

Take your place at the table, and taste the feast today.  Think about it.  God loves you and wants you to be the you that you are.  God knows you.  And God loves you.  This was Jesus’s message, and now it is ours.

Freedom in Servanthood – Finding the Right Kind of Bondage

The Bible has a number of paradoxes that cut right through the heart of our age.  I am always preparing to preach somewhere, which I love.  But I mostly preach in short form and don’t always get time to work out the more subtle paradoxes that show up. That and it isn’t okay to talk about BDSM at church.

So there is a culture of bondage in the world that doesn’t have very much to do with church.  Google search when the kids aren’t around.  People tie up their sexual partners and sometimes hurt them for pleasure.  This sadomasochistic relationship has been brought into pop culture more or less obviously by the Fifty Shades of Grey series of books.  They were so popular that these lit-porn books were being read on subways in the newspaper at least.  I did see women reading them in cars waiting to pick up kids at school and on a couple of planes.

Now, bondage isn’t a new phenomenon.  It has floated just below the surface of our porn culture for a long time.  It is one of those dark fantasies that no one admits in polite culture, and certainly not to a priest!  Yet the domination and submission game is well known in relationships where there is little leather.  Many couples play out this dynamic on more subtle levels.

I am struck that so much of the literature around bdsm (bondage submission sadomasochism) talks about the submissive finding freedom.  This parallels one of the central paradoxes of Christianity.

Freedom is the root of the word redemption.  The whole concept of redemption or to be redeemed is to be set free from bondage or slavery.  The Greek word “doulos” means slave or servant or deacon.  The word is extremely common in the New Testament appearing 127 times (Strong’s number 1401).  It is a title applied to oneself (Paul and Peter) and to others.  We are said to find our freedom in becoming servants to Jesus.

We have been set free by the cross and yet are to put ourselves in bondage to Christ.  Now clearly this is two very different ideas about bondage.  Fear not, dear reader.  I don’t think you need ropes to explore your freedom!  I think rather that many of us are looking for our freedom by doing whatever we want.  That is the cultural promise of freedom.

“Let it Go” is a popular song because it captures that adolescent search for freedom by shedding the clothes of your culture and family and wearing a miniskirt and bustier with highlights and cleavage to match.  This message is really deeply embedded in our media and our thinking.  “If only I could . . .” lies behind many fantasies and adulteries.  We go looking for the freedom we have already.

The problem is not our ability to choose.  Any of us could choose at any moment to go out and do just about anything these days, at least in America.  We are basically free.  The problem is not our number of choices.  The problem is our frustration with the choices we have made.  The problem is our frustration the outcomes our choices have given us, because one choice inevitably leads to another until we are forty looking at a life we feel like we didn’t choose.

On the other hand, the masochist goes deeply down into that powerless place and accepts it.  In that acceptance they find freedom.  Humiliation and pain are often a central part of the experience.  It is hard to not read that and hear Paul and the Acts of the Apostles in the background, the celebrations of sufferings and beatings.  So what is the difference?

There is first of all that when we place ourselves into the hands of God, we are not blindly putting ourselves in bondage to another human, a fallen creature who has both the capacity for love and violence.  We are told repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are safe in God’s hands, that we are loved, held, healed, made whole, safe.

Here it may be helpful to call up the images of the mothering nurturing God that are throughout the Bible.  But even in the male images of the New Testament there is a clear consistency about the nature of God. Jesus depicts God as Abba and then spends a great deal of teaching what that means, loving, merciful, compassionate.  Strong, powerful, even angry, but always in a protective way, endlessly forgiving wrong.  That means relinquishing our images of revenge and punishment.  The New Testament actually spells out that we are to give up our revenge and punishment fantasies.

The image of the bondage relationship is an image of the brokenness of humanity in flesh.  It is a depiction of bad theology, a God who is violent and punishing and a humanity whose job is to learn to submit to violence and control.

The image of the New Testament relationship between God and us is a God who is loving and healing and a humanity whose job is to submit to love and own the responsibilities of freedom and stewardship of the earth and each other, or to put it another way to embrace our full redeemed humanity.

I am deeply saddened by both Fifty Shades of Grey and “Frozen.”  Both portray a deeply flawed search for a controlling masculinity and submissive femininity that destroys the image of God we were created to bear.  We are called to be strong responsible men and women who are in relationships of mutual care, healing, and redemption.  Our freedom is meant to be responsible and allow us to love and heal others, to set them free.

You can’t set someone free with bondage.  Neither personally or nationally does that work.  It is bad theology, bad psychology, and horrible foreign policy.  There are times when we give up our freedom because we commit crimes.  But the longing of the human heart is to be free and responsible.  I do think there is hope in “Frozen” in that the sisters learn to love and rule their inherited kingdom.

I have hope that our culture that worships freedom can learn to love responsibly, but right now we are still singing “Let it Go” right now and trying to bind that which we can’t control.  We still see responsibilities as limiting our freedoms, personally and politically.  We don’t seem to understand the call to be children of God, who are loved and called to love, provided for and called to provide for others, whole and free by a grace that is not our own doing.

That is the bondage here.  We bind ourselves to others in responsibility to love, just as Jesus took up the cross to bear the sins of Jerusalem and the world.  We bind ourselves to our obligations, but in them we find a freedom and wholeness in identity.  It seems vital that this be a choice.  God never forces us, never ties us up, never beats us into submission.  We choose to be adult children of God who love as we are loved.

The image of this I have after looking at the Fifty Shades culture is of Tiny Hands International, a ministry that my wife and I support.  They do work around addressing sex trafficking and have orphanages in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh.  The story of men and women going into brothels and stopping traffickers at the borders to set free these girls and boys, women and men in very real and destructive bondage never fails to awaken my heart to hope and humanity, even as their reality breaks it.  Freedom and responsibility.

Tiny Hands does more than just set them free, but works to provide a life, a home, and a living for these human beings to help them get to the place where they can be fully free and responsible.  These commitments take years sometimes to live out.  I am proud that my wife, really, has kept us committed to one little girl who is not so little anymore for more than seven years.  This young woman is part of my children’s prayer life and our financial life, though we have never met and only seen each other in pictures and letters.

Her life is deeply tied up in ours, and the work of Tiny Hands and that small tie of financial commitment has meant more to my own and my family’s freedom and humanity than I can ever relate.

As a pastor and priest, I am deeply concerned about how our bad theology and search for freedom is destroying our humanity in Christ.  I am concerned as a father about what those desiccated images of masculinity and femininity can mean for my children and for those victims of violence and sexual abuse around the world.  I am concerned how my own choices have bound me and sometimes even set me more fully free.

tiny hands

Don’t worry, I don’t have Tillich’s drawer full of secrets anywhere! The articles about this subculture have been very open in psychological journals and Time magazine since the Fifty Shades books and now movie have gone mainstream.  There are lots of articles without pictures out there!  But as Uncle George says, “There’s more ways to tell who fell in the drink than falling in there yourself, I think.”

Finding the Office – Worshipping the Father, Cuddling with Abba

Where I often keep the Office

Where I often keep the Office

The life of the Christian is trinitarian in nature, organically rooted around the Daily Office, Eucharist, and interior prayer.  These three are understood in the Benedictine tradition as the foundation of the acetic life.  Ascetical refers to the life of prayer and growth in the Spirit.

I have ranted in a recent sermon about how not everything is a “journey.” It seems like this phrase is usually a cover for being unwilling to progress.  In our life of faith, we should be growing up, going somewhere we call maturity.  Much of what we see in terms of “perfection” in the New Testament could just as easily be translated as “maturity” or “completion.”

In Martin Thornton’s picture of the influence of Benedict on English Spirituality, he sees the Office as the part of the life of the Christian and Church as particular to God the Father.  It is in the Office where we do our work of worship and showing up and growing up, taking up a practice that is beyond us and our opinions, where we deal with things that are often beyond us and even deeply challenging for us.

Worship is both the act of praising God, picture standing arms outstretched and smiling, and humbly coming into the presence for help, forgiveness, and petition, picture hands folded bowing.  It is the bringing of our fullness and placing it before God and remembering who is who.

The Office is great for worship because it is heavily Scriptural.  Coming out and condensing the Hours of the Rule of Benedict, it distills the worship of the Bible and relies on the Psalms and songs of Scripture and adds in the reading of the Bible in large chunks.  This word-heavy, passage-intense worship is laden with images, stories, and even words that are difficult and deal with emotions and work that we don’t necessarily want to deal with.  In the Office we submit to the work of becoming who God wants us to be.

Sometimes that is emotional work and totally relevant to the moment we are in.  I can’t tell you the number of times the Bible in Morning Prayer seems like it was written for the day I was in.  It is shocking.  Other times I can go for weeks just plugging along reading and praying the prayers because I said I would.

It is faithfulness even when my emotions are not there that really matters.  If I was only a faithful husband laying in bed on a Saturday mornings when the sun gently lighting the waking smile of my beautiful bride, but not when we fought or I was disappointed or bored . . . well I wouldn’t be able to call her my “wife” for very long.  Right?

Jesus uses two words for Father, Pater (Latin) or Abba (Aramaic).  The office is about submitting to both.  We submit to Abba, better translated as “daddy”, when we curl up in the lap of God as we pray, and we find that overwhelming sense of warmth and home.  We submit to Pater, Father, when we stick it out and allow ourselves to be shaped by the faithfulness of the long haul and stay on the road despite the boredom, ennui, and demands of the journey.

The Office is really simple.  I use a website or an app most of the time.  I have books and Bibles, which I prefer with time.  But I keep the Office, morning and night, and often in places where I have to be on my feet.

I will teach you the Office if you need it.  Email me.  Or I can place you with a coach.  We have several in the parish.  It matters.  As we explore the trinity of expression in our ascetical life, we begin with Benedict in the Office, being faithful.

In the Benedictine way the vows are obedience, stability, and transformation.  We meet all three vows in the practice of the Office.  In our faithful keeping of the hours, we are obedient to the larger worship of the church to God, we find stability amidst the changes of our days and emotions, and we are transformed to the likeness of our Father Abba.  We become stable enough to love, obedient enough to love even when difficult, and transformed in grace.

As a pastor I watch this play out in the lives of my parishioners and friends.  Their faithfulness in the practice becomes visible in their emotional, psychological health, their balance and theological understanding becomes a steady openness in debate possible with a sound foundation in the Bible and prayer.  They are more and more flexible and unshakeable as they grow.  I am in awe really of their growth.

Which brings a final point.  The Office is not clerical.  It belongs to the whole Church of which we collared ones are just members with jobs.  The liturgical movement has done some wonderful things for the Church universal, but for us it has meant the elevation of the Eucharist above the Office and interior prayer.  This has left us with a heart that depends of the clergy.  It has meant the rise of “fathers” and the diminishment of the faithful laity.  Keeping the Office in balance empowers the laity to take their rightful place as informed, formed followers of the Christ we worship and obey in the Eucharist.

*Notes:  The Book of Common Prayer Morning and Evening Prayers  are found between pages 75 – 126 in modern idiom.  The Daily Office lectionary readings are found on pages 931 and following.  The instructions are all in the BCP, but a coach or mentor or group is highly recommended.

As noted above I rely on the app and website offered by http://missionstclare.com . There are also very good sites out there and apps that I have used and relied on.  I use an iPhone, and there are several apps in the iOS store.  I would highly recommend the one offered by Forward Movement. I would never have been able to do the Office alone without Mission St. Clare’s website years ago.

Giving Authority Away – Technique

Too little leadership material actually gives important tips for actually doing subtle things.  So here are a few vital tips:

Leaders are not on their phones.  We all know it happens.  But stop it.  Bad human.  Pay attention.  I am guilty and so are you if you have a smartphone.  None of the subtle work of leadership is ever going to get done inside you when you are on the phone.  Grow up.  The lack of discipline in public and private settings around computers and phones and tablets is horrendous.  People who would never pull out a novel in a meeting are playing games, checking social media, and emailing in the middle of meetings.   I have heard stories of pastors posting to Facebook while with dying parishioners and have watched people play games during a family member’s funeral.

Now that you are not on your phone, pay attention to who is watching whom in a meeting.  One of the biggest techniques to using (and building) credibility, trust, and authority in your work place or home is presence.  Mental and emotional presence is shown in the eyes.  Are you watching the person talking? Are you watching the person in power to see how they react when others are talking?  We give authority with our eyes.

Attention and presence are active.  They are done things.  We say you “are present” or “not present,” but what we really mean is you are “actively present” or not.  Actively indicates that we are talking about the expenditure of energy or being, one of the most precious things on earth.  To actually be present to a meeting is work that requires discipline, focus, and defense against distractions inside and out.

Everyone knows this at a gut level, so when we see someone that we give authority by placing their attention on someone else and being attentive to them, we move up the ladder with them, giving authority to the person they are attentive too.  But the sum authority is not additive, it multiplies.  Attention ups the amount of authority in the room.  Capable leaders know that and work to raise, maintain, and give attention to others carefully.

The eyes give authority or take it away.  Yes, people are watching.  I lecture my teenage daughters that everyone is not looking at them.  They can relax.  The lecture for adults is the opposite.  People are watching, but they don’t care about your jeggings as much as your eyes.  Set aside enough self-care and down time to not need to take it when you are with people who matter.  And if they don’t matter, don’t show up and pretend.  You have only added offense to offense.

Public statements of support are a vital technique to loan someone authority, but they have to be followed up on.  Otherwise they become destructive.  Go to meetings, grant permissions, find the money, follow through.  Everyone in a hierarchy has had a boss who would verbally support in the office and then kill projects in practice, all while smiling.  The euphoria of the smile passes, and what is left is poisonous.

Finally giving authority to someone else sometimes demands and almost always needs closure.  In a meeting it may be looking around after an important statement you agree with and nodding to show support or acknowledge a valid point.  In a larger communal setting it may demand that you stand up in front of the community and recount the deeds done and celebrate the person who actually did them.  Do NOT point out your support.  You are doing that by giving them the credit.  Pointing it out should only be done when public acknowledgement of failure is necessary.  This is almost never the case, but it does come up.  In that case, take the blame, take the authority back, and take responsibility for doing whatever is necessary to correct and move forward.  You are the leader.

In yesterday’s post we placed these considerations of authority under the considerations of values that lead us to use our authority for goals and objectives.  We return here to say that our values are what actually give us meaning and purpose.  For Christians understanding our values is one of the primary steps in translating love of God and others into goals and objectives that actually change things and give flesh (incarnate) to our theology.  Love is meaningless until the hungry person is fed.

So look up, speak up, and give away freely.

Giving Authority Away

IMG_4259

In this series of reflections, which are far from complete, we turn next to giving authority away.  To underscore two important points to be held in mind: every member of a healthy community has authority, and every member who has authority is responsible to God for how that authority is used.

Considering authority we have assumed some measure of self-reflection, honest self-assessment, and humility.  This next topic requires an even greater measure of all three.  In order to give our authority away, we must be honest about having it and consider our responsibility, but we must also be submitted to a higher authority than our own self-interest and beyond our self-interests, even altruistic self interests.  This is when Jesus’ teaching about hating family for the sake of his kingdom begins to make a whole lot more sense.

What do you value more than your own self?  What do you value more than your family, your nation, your tribe, your sports team?  This is a vital question for many Christians that goes unasked and unanswered in many churches because we, your pastors, already know the answers, and they are not godly.  We know your answer because we know our own.  Or at least we think we do.

It is the answer we see lived out in our choices about faithfulness to attendance, to charities, to causes.  It is the answer we hear behind the complaint about sermon or service length, behind the excuses, prejudices, and functional atheism of our talk, and its what we hear in our own self talk about why we feel burnt out and run over in doing things for “them.”  When we can honestly say that God’s Rule in our lives is our first priority and our first value, then our children can have a parent rather than a worshiper, our time is held in wholeness as well as holiness, and we aren’t wasting time in worship, or living lives that are overwhelmed with the secular world and its values.

I am writing all of this and honestly trying to live it out with this one stark memory from almost ten years ago when our girls were little.  My wife and I were in the front seats of the car, and our girls were in the back.  We were driving past Bell Road and  32nd Street when we drove by a homeless woman holding a sign asking for help.  The girls, both under seven, wanted to help, but I was in a hurry.  I don’t even remember why I was in a hurry.  They begged me to help her with money, food, water, anything.  But I argued back that I was too busy, that I had to get back to wherever it was that I was going.  I am still haunted by that sin.  I had an answer to whose rule was important just then, and it was not God’s.

The value set and getting that right is vital in a community before crisis or even just conversation.  We set values and priorities and reinforce them all the time.

There are times when we want to accomplish something that is bigger than ourselves and the authority we hold in a community.  We have to pool our authority with others in order to have enough to call others to the work at hand.  We have to give away our authority intentionally.

We often give away authority unintentionally.  This is often done in the silence when someone has called the community to do something that is not in keeping with our values or when they have asked us to do nothing in the face of our communal values.  In that silence, when we do or say nothing, we give them our authority as we seem to consent.  In the silence often people have consented to terrible things because they were unintentional about their authority.  They may think that saying nothing is objecting or just could not muster the courage.  They have just waited for someone else to say something, until nothing was said.

There are all sorts of little post-it note philosophical whimsies about the evil of unintentional silences after the Holocaust of World War II.  But there are millions more examples of smaller injustices or inactions that have gone unphilosophized but don’t go unnoticed.  We are accountable for our words, but I think we may be accountable for what our silences say too one day.

So, we hold a value that is bigger than ourselves.  We don’t have enough authority in the setting to accomplish a goal in keeping with the values we have, but someone else in our sphere of influence does.  This is when we practice giving authority away.

It may be upward.  If a boss or superior in the hierarchy can accomplish things we value, then it is fairly easy, respectable, and rarely controversial to simply “throw our weight” to them.  My bishop has a very similar vision for the diocese to my hopes for our church.  He can accomplish things that I cannot because he sits in a different chair with different influence and relationships.  So I give him my authority.  He has it naturally enough formally, but most people today do not assume that authority is given, so we must be intentional about giving those in higher authority the support we can intentionally by verbalizing those formal and giving witness to our shared values and goals.  It helps that we are simpatico, but it is important to have honest and transparent relationships with those in formal relationships with us so that shared authority is not just implied, but used in ways for which we are willing to stand accountable.

We may give authority away to those below us in the systems in which we work.  I have employees under me that are doing things that I value.  I loan them my authority by hiring them, but I also verbalize my support publicly and am willing to be there when called upon to stand with them and give them my authority to do what they need to do, without taking over their work.  This is more tricky than the vertical move upward.  Giving authority to our superiors is fairly easy, but when giving our authority to those under us, we have to be very self-aware of motivations and very clear about what our values are in stepping in.

If I value what an employee is doing, I express it by calling to the shared value their project and giving voice to their work and accomplishments, or at least their hopes and goals.  This allows them to borrow my authority while keeping their own and staying in command of their own goals, hopes, work, and accomplishments.  They are still the ones accountable for their own success or failure.  This is giving authority as opposed to taking authority, which is only to be done when someone is in desperate need to be saved or has completely failed.  Taking authority is devastating to the person who has it removed, even when they are grateful, and it should be avoided at almost all costs.  One of our primary values is the dignity of every human being from our baptismal covenant.  We preserve their dignity when we give them our authority without taking theirs away.

Have you seen a boss take authority that did not belong to them? How is that different from taking credit for others work?  They often overlap in unscrupulous cases, but let’s assume good intent.  Have you ever taken authority unintentionally or given it away?

We often pass authority to others without thinking horizontally.  We loan our word, our voice, our credit to others in subtle and overt ways.  It is important to be careful when we do this because we are the ones responsible for that authority given to us by God and our fellow brothers and sisters.

Holding Authority in Community

So the secret is that you have authority and that you give authority to others.  This true whether you think it should be or not.  It is true whether you like it or not.  It is a social principle that is reliable.

The moral principle that is corollary to the secret is that you are responsible for that authority.  We are made, in our Christian understanding, to be stewards for God on earth, caretakers of creation and one another.  This is central to what it is to be a God worshipping, Bible believing, human being.  We are made for this task.  No other creature of God is given our role, calling, vocation, or gifts.  The dolphins are smart, but they cannot manage ecosystems.

Human beings are made to be God’s stewards.  A steward is a house manager who manages the affairs of the master of the house.  They are to act in the master’s stead.  They are expected to act as the master would act if the master was present.  They are to care for the people and things of the master’s household and property and to be ready to serve the master by overseeing all that belongs to the master.  This is stewardship.

Human beings are gifted to do this work.  We can understand, study, imagine, create, and manipulate whole systems and subsystems within the world.  This is both wonderful and  terrible as we see almost every time we turn on the news.  We use our gifts in amazing and terrifying ways.  We are blessed to be a blessing, and we are fallen from grace, going on our own way, serving ourselves alone, which is one definition of evil.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with holding authority?  If we don’t know who we are and what we have, how can we be responsible stewards?  We have been given tremendous authority by those around us.  When we ignore this and act powerless, we betray them, our vocation as human beings, and God.  When we manipulate that authority to our own gain above others, we betray them, our createdness, and God.

We hold authority humbly when we are honest that we have it, when we tend to it, and when we use our authority to further the work of God to create, redeem (set free), and make new.  If you are sitting in a meeting as a Christian, whether anyone else knows you are or not, you have a duty to be honest about the authority and trust that others have placed in you, to speak honestly and call the gathered community toward that which is good and creative, redemptive, and that gives life to others.

There are those who deny that they have any authority.  This is either cowardice or avoidance or the truth in an unhealthy system of relationships.  I have rarely found it to be true.  What I have found in systems is that when I have no authority at all, I have either given it away and sometimes rightfully so or it has been taken.  The other reality is that we may face and often face times when our own authority is not enough to accomplish the creative or redemptive work.  We must then either make allies and pool authority or we must persuade others through appealing to higher authority within group norms.

I may not have the personal authority in my parish to make deep changes to our common life even after five years of pastoral work.  This may be due to squandering my pool of authority and trust on other projects or goals.  I have lost authority due to poor planning or results, poor communication, or past infidelities to our common master.  In that case  I must appeal to the higher authority of either God, in the case of the church, or to the Bible or our commonly held values and goals.  This must be done carefully, and I would add prior to the need being desperate.

Authority is really a form of trust. Thought of this way, it is easy to see how it relies on integrity, honesty, and honor.  We have to prove trustworthy.  The past matters.  It is not all that matters.  Honesty and integrity are always present tense, but built on the past.  On the other hand, a vision of where you are leading the group is vital.  The future needs to be as clear as possible, at least in the form of intentions and plans.  This is part of what makes authority.

Appealing to other people’s shared authority requires really clear communication about what is presented and how far the commonality of the common purpose really goes.  My associate pastor and I are lock step on certain communal values.  Either of us can state with integrity and honesty that we agree and support certain positions, and everyone can see the truth of that in our history and current practice.  They know our vision and plans and can judge how far to trust us.  And if we are talking about the areas we hold commonly, that trust and authority can be given freely and held honestly and used to further our community values.

But there are areas where we don’t see eye-to-eye.  We are different people after all.  For the most part, these things are not central to our common mission and vision.  They do not deeply affect our community.  If we were to pretend to hold a common set of values there, we would have to either agree to support one another despite differences and work out whose values were to be presented, or we would have to be honest about a disagreement on values and work out what values would serve as the communal norm.  These negotiations are vital and vitally done privately and hopefully before a breech in the image portrayed to the community.  It can be handled well and honestly, and relationships can be saved with integrity and communication, but it must be honest.

To appeal to higher authority seems tricky and can easily slip into manipulation.  We are made to manage systems after all, and it is all too easy to manage the system to get what we want in the short term rather than attending to the health and vocation of the whole system.  This quickly leads to institutional sickness and even death.

We have to return to our original vision.  We are stewards of God’s house, and God’s hope as I understand it is that his children would all be in direct relationship with God, not dependent on other “fathers.”  So we have to use our authority in such a way that assumes other’s direct access to God, provides avenues for access, encourages use of those avenues, and then doesn’t short all of that out in order to get what we want in the short term that is of lesser value.

So, in the Benedictine model we assume everyone has access to God’s Spirit, so we call the whole community together.  We provide avenues for accessing both the situation and its reality and God’s Spirit.  We may do that by clearly explaining the relevant parts of the situation and giving people time to understand and to pray.  We then encourage prayer and give time for people to pray.  In our parish that has meant months before some major decisions, but sometimes it may mean a few minutes right then.  It depends on a number of factors, but I would advise going long rather than short, but short enough that you can be accountable to actually making a decision.  Time is a vital component in any significant time of discernment.  It should not be too little, but then it rarely is these days.

Practically the appeal to higher authority should be a part of every meeting and it should be democratic in that the appeal is to an authority to which everyone is obedient equally, including the leader, and it should be normalized so that everyone remembers what the overseeing authority is.  That is why it is vital to have a mission, a vision, a purpose to exist that is short, memorable, and should be direct enough to make you grow up to hold on to it.

If you are going to appeal to a higher authority, everyone should have access to it and be held accountable to it.  That means that the priest is not the only one who can read Scripture, and the priest may be called up short to by Scripture.  It is important then that people be hold what higher authorities hold sway in a meeting and that these higher authorities be agreed upon in order to belong to the group.  Every cop and congressperson has to swear allegiance to the Constitution.  If they did not there would be no check on power.

If you want to grow your own sense of responsibly holding authority, acknowledge your given authority, explore your vocation as a human being, tell the truth with love, be honest about what your vision and mission of the group and yourself is and communicate that to the group, and use your authority to do creative and redeeming work.

We all hold authority.  Hopefully these reflections will help you hold it with a little more self-reflection, honesty, integrity, and responsibility.