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

Where We are and Why I am Here

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

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

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

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

The Episcopal Tradition – via media

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

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

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

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

The New Civil Rights Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Silence and Obedience

There is a particular kind of slurring that an iPod does when it is running out of juice, somewhere between a digital glitch and an eight-track slip.  It is particular, and on my old blue Shuffle it meant I had about ten minutes left of music.   Maybe.  I was trying to remember while watching for signs of a diamond back I kept  hearing behind a Beck track that always made me feel like I was being warned just out of earshot.  But with rattlesnakes even a warning that you suspect is audio background noise, you pay attention to.

It was a long dancing trail that was just beyond my familiar route into a box canyon.  And I was running out of music with miles to go back home, which would not have been that bad, I often had my little iPod run out after a couple of weeks of running while I was out, but I was trying to ignore God at the time.  Earbuds help.  A lot.

So I was something closer to worried than annoyed when the music slurred.  I changed songs, hoping that would help and knowing it would not.  I was sure that I had charged it the night before, and so I was sure that God was wanting my attention.

It was one of those moments in life when things were okay after a long period of disobedience.  The fool says in his heart . . . and I was trying not to listen, either to acknowledge how foolish I had been or how much I needed to reform right then.  I was running away from God, but in the most mundane, lackadaisical way.  I was whistling past the angry mob.  I was pretending not to hear the screams in the distant room.  I was avoiding my own conscience.  I was Jonah in the boat to Tarshish playing cards, and that little slur was the first drop of rain.

I knew.  And so I stopped the music.  And God spoke.  It was loving, kind, but clear and direct.  It was time for me to turn around.  Again.

The root of the world obedience is “to listen.”  And that is where Benedict’s trail begins.  “Listen, my son . . .”

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 – Learning Humility

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility
The quarter mile is kind of out of fashion. We run 400 meters races now, but in junior high school I became a quarter-miler.

It was a track meet against at our rival school’s track, that I first discovered a run that mattered. We were tied with East Holmes Academy, I was last leg in the mile relay. My faithless coach told me to run my own race and be content just as our rival team took a hand-off in the mile relay right behind our third leg. He kept the race close. We had a two foot lead as Doug handed me the baton, and I took off full speed. I was sprinting as I went around the first curve, and my older brother joined the coach in yelling for me to slow down.

*Slow down*? What kind of coaching was that? I was in first, and my name could have been Orville; I was discovering flight. I won. I really won and broke the school age record for the quarter-mile. I discovered that the race was a sprint and not a run, and I could sprint. All of those lonely miles in forests and fields had given me the endurance to run flat out for longer distances than others.

When we moved to Tennessee and Arizona I continued to run through a couple of minor football injuries and much bigger competition, and I won a few races. My senior year in Arizona, I was set up coming into track season to be one of the top five quarter milers in the state. I wasn’t going to win it all. I had realized that there were at least two runners with a whole set of gears beyond mine, but I was the best at Ironwood High School, team captain, and secure that I would be going to State with a shot at placing.

I started the season with a mildly sore achilles tendon, so coach wanted me to run an easy race in a small meet on our track, loose dirt, to set a time for the next major meet coming up a week later. I was supposed to come out easy and set up for a strong finish, maybe a 80% effort.

Coming off the first corner, I was first and shifted from the forward-lean of a true sprint to a laid-back long-reaching stride I had used the last two years when I felt a Charlie Horse in my right hamstring. As the muscle knotted up, the natural kick forward of each stride pulled the knot apart. I could feel my hamstring tearing, and I went down on the side of the track for the last time as a competitive runner. I cursed. I yelled at the trainer.

I had torn my right hamstring. A doctor explained that I had torn three of the four major muscles of the hamstring at 75, 80, and 40%. I was given cutting edge treatment, but we never considered surgery. My running career was over.

It was a humbling experience. I don’t mean that I was some sort of Icarus flying too close to the sun. I wasn’t overly puffed up with pride. I wasn’t some punk kid. I was a team captain and a Christian who had given my life to ministry for Jesus the summer before. I thought of others. I led warm-ups and stretching and prayers at school and church. I worked with younger runners.

No, it was humbling because I got re-planted in the earth, reconnected with my ground of being. I look back now at that high school kid and see the way I would come off the track with my head pounding and my muscles complaining and my focus on myself. I see the weakness at the core that I never addressed despite my coaches admonitions, and the terrible form that I had deduced from bad logic and led to my over-reaching stride. I see the brokennesses that would become patterns, habits, addictions in later adulthood. But it is not really humility to see your weaknesses only and name them. Humility is being grounded in a knowledge, an ethic, a life that is bigger than your own capacity. It is giving up the will to self.

As for self-will,
we are forbidden to do our own will
by the Scripture, which says to us,
“Turn away from your own will” (Eccles. 18:30),
and likewise by the prayer in which we ask God
that His will be done in us.
And rightly are we taught not to do our own will
when we take heed to the warning of Scripture:
“There are ways which seem right,
but the ends of them plunge into the depths of hell” (Prov. 16:25);
and also when we tremble at what is said of the careless:
“They are corrupt and have become abominable in their will.”
from Chapter 7 of the Rule of Benedict, osb.org

Self-will moves us away from humility. When I discovered that I knew better what I was capable of than my coaches, that was a truth, but it was also a seed of arrogance that would grow like a vine in me, setting roots into the mortar of my character, and eroding my very foundation. I could see my strengths clearly, but I was unaware of the seriousness of my weaknesses.

How do we turn away from self-will? Submission. How do we begin to truly learn from others? Submission. How do we become a part of something larger than ourselves? Submission.

Now submission is not popular. We think of submission as something forced on someone else, but submission is the willing giving up of our self-will to another.

Seven years after my high school track career destroyed my hamstring, I started to rebuild it (and the rest of my self) when I submitted my physical life to the teachings of a Hindu guru named Swami Sivananda. Someone had given a complete set of his books in English to the graduate school library, and I found them looking up Bede Griffiths for a model of ecumenism.

My life was in shambles as I studied to become a priest in the church. It was clear that I had no idea how to take care of myself, so I just did was the Swami said about practicing yoga, breathing, walking, and eating. I gave up my will to those little battered paperbacks. I ate simply and did yoga daily for six months. I lost well over fifty pounds and got my mind back together.

The irony is that I am not and was not Hindu. Submission is what I needed, and I was so broken down that almost any truth applied consistently was bound to do some good. The Swami was really wise and good for me, and I still apply some of his teachings. But he also gave me back the Ten Commandments, not as rules but as precepts, taking them from a set of laws to be kept or broken to being a way of life that flows directly into Jesus’ Beatitudes in ways I had not seen before.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:3.

Humility leads to blessedness. Submission is one of the keys to humility, according to the Gospels and to Saint Benedict.

If I had submitted to my track coaches twenty-five years ago, I would not have been injured. Even just strengthening my core would have been enough. But if I had really submitted in learning running form and only going out at 80%, I would have finished my senior year running and set myself up for a much less heavy college career.

Submission is giving up our self-will to the will of another. Now I still have plenty of self-will left. I am still getting grounded year by year. I still get self-focussed when my blood gets to pounding and my efforts are over-reaching my capacity.

Running helps. When I started to run again seriously in my late twenties, I submitted to a running plan from a beginner’s book and running form from Danny Dreyer’s book *Chi Running*. I started over and stopped exalting myself.

From there I actually grew and today I am stronger and more healthy than I have ever been. By exalting my own ideas about myself and my running, I destroyed my running career. By humbling myself I have learned how to be really strong and to keep running safely year after year.

Today I stay grounded by submitting to running plans and workouts from actual experts, the coaches of adult life. I submit to my wife and to my bishop. I submit to committees and boards, to the community at the church where I serve, to my true guru Jesus of Nazareth, and to God’s dream in the Scriptures.

Submission has its balance of course. This is not a plea for some sort of Masochism or weird sexual practices. I think abuse is just abuse.

Humility is grounded in truth. I am humble enough to know my weaknesses, but I am also humble enough to know my strengths honestly and use them mostly without arrogance. I am humble enough to know the value that I have as God’s child in Christ and defend my dignity with love as I do others. You must not tolerate self-destruction in Christ anymore than destruction of others.

So I am a mid-pack runner these days, when I (very rarely) run with a pack. I still have a visible gap in my right hamstring after all these years. And every spring I get the itch to run in circles until I fall over.

I am not a great runner, but I still love to fly. There is a moment that I love on long runs when the trail pitches over narrow ridges or along the close hug of the forest when my feet go sailing behind me with the wind on my face and my body floating over the good earth, and I toss myself into the care of God.

Ultimately I submit to others because in doing so I submit to God. And I submit to God because I have come to know that God always catches me up into a web of love that, when I trust it, keeps me on my feet, limping and sailing along the Way through fields of gold where the wheat bends bowing in the winds of the Spirit.

That harvest that will someday feed the world is my hope. I submit because I know that God is able to do more than I can and often with those I don’t suspect of belonging to Christ. God’s dream has always been carried by those who like Abraham and Mary and Benedict submit to God’s will. Greatness in winning races is nothing compared to that belonging found when someone bows to you to wash your trail-worn feet or you wash theirs and find between you that doorway home into the Household of God.

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.

Trail Running with Saint Benedict

Over the last seven years or so, I have been running with Saint Benedict.  It started out as a casual acquaintance.   I was given a statue years ago by an dying parishioner in Tucson, who insisted Benedict was for me.  His raven was who I connected with at first.  Bringing bread to the struggling saint was something I related too and depended on.  I still see those harbingers of grace and insatiable hunger everywhere.

Some years later, John O’Donahue, my frequent companion on earphones moved away, and I began to listen to the Rule while running.  Joan Chittister and Esther De Waal joined Paolo Coelho on my iPod.  The Rule started to works its way into my thinking.  Order and grace, compromise and demand, stability and transformation.

If you run, you know there are two kinds of runners: runners who run for accomplishment and runners who run for love.  I am the latter as my empty box of accomplishments shows.  I run because I love the edges of the world and the edges of my self.  I love running because it has been my soul work since I was twelve.  I have nearly run myself to death, and I have run myself back to life.

But with Benedict I began to understand the trail as my cell.  It is where I do my work, praying and pushing and resting, working out the vision of the church and theology, and it is where I go to stop working and push the clutch on my mind.  It is the container of the alchemy of my own transformation over the flame of God.

I pray a lot on the run.  I listen to God, I listen for God, and I rant at God, and I beg, plead, lament, repent, confess, weep, rejoice, and give thanks.  I sometimes read the readings of the week and then go run.  I sometimes study and study and then go run to let it simmer into something edible for a Sunday brunch.

With Benedict, I run to find humility.  The deep humility of Benedict is not self-destruction.  It is honesty about my own soul and condition.  It is honesty before God and my deepest self.  It is abiding within the provision of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and letting that provision take away fear and anxiety.  Humility is love of others based in nothing but trust that God provides and protects, so my ego gets to loosen its chokehold.

I run to escape my ego and befriend my inner self.  Running is like journaling for me without the self-focus of my stream-of-consciousness.  When I am running I have to be in this present moment, feeling what I feel, attentive to breath and body, and that somehow makes it possible to be present to God in a way that just destroys my false self, my denial of tension and pain, and my self-justification.  It is like journaling while on a slack line.

In the Rule, Benedict is severe about humility, calling for this self-denial that worries the nurse and concerns the social worker.  But on my runs I have found Benedict realistic, naming the false ego version that I pretend is me to deny my true self and others and defend my illusions and desires.

Even the best spiritual directors cannot do the work for you of taking down that false self.  You have to show up and put in the miles.  You have to have stability in practice in order to have lasting transformation.   You have to keep escaping the ego and keep making friends with the you that God actually loves.

I have run my whole life.  But twelve years ago I started over.  I tore my hamstring in high school in a small meet my senior year.  I would happily tell you why it happened.  It was entirely avoidable, but it was still career ending.  I wasn’t going to run in college.

For years I would run a few times and start to get serious, then I would fail.  I would peter out, quit, just stop running.  It was discouraging, but I mostly just denied it, told old stories of better days, and got fat.  When I put myself together in seminary, I did it with ashtanga yoga (because of a Power Yoga book aimed at runners.)  I started running again, but never consistently, never faithfully, and never for long.

Then five years later, I moved to Phoenix alone.  I could be on a trail in less than half a mile.  I wanted to do it right, and I could. I felt like an eggplant on toothpicks at first.  Okay, for a couple of years.  The most terrible sound I heard in the desert wasn’t coyotes or rattles.  It was, “Oh, hello Father!” when I was out running in tiny little running shorts with no shirt.  It was my first daylight run in months.

But I started over with a Runner’s World Beginners Running book and a Timex watch with interval timer and Chi Running, walking and running intermittently, adding minute by minute for a year, until I was running for hours at a time.  I had begun again and begun with a rule.  I needed a guide and companion.

My spiritual life has often followed the same pattern.  I get fat, tell old stories, and get by on my occasional efforts.  Benedict has called me to stability and transformation based in a humility of trust.  He shows up daily with instructions and encouragement, and he often brings Joan and Esther along; and we go for a run.

Sometimes I even run in sandals, my earbud wire flapping like a rope around my waist, putting one foot in front of another, running with Benedict and Paul and the women, learning to be faithful in these days of ours.  I am running the good race, I am keeping the faith, one minute, one day, one step at a time.

from OSB.ORG

Chapter 7: On Humility

Jan. 25 – May 26 – Sept. 25

Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard
when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me” (Ps. 130[131]:1)
But how has he acted?
“Rather have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul” (Ps. 130[131]:2).

Hence, brethren,
if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility
and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation
to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life,
we must
by our ascending actions
erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream,
on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending.
By that descent and ascent
we must surely understand nothing else than this,
that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.
And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world,
which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled.
For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder,
and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted
the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb.

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.

This Rule is Only a Beginning of Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

So with these parameters, let us begin our Rule:

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

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

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

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

Find Forward – Life after Salvation, Life after Secularism

The great shift for many of us who are finding our way in a post-evangelical/post-liberal world is moving away from the dichotomy between salvation and social justice to a whole view of the Christian life. Okay, that wasn’t a sexy opening, but it is true. We live in the ruins of two great traditions. In American politics you could say post-Bush and post-Obama who represent, not just a religious versus a secular worldview, but two sides of American Christianity. Neither really represents Pentecostalism or real-apocalypticism, nor truly Catholicism, though Obama’s liberal Christianity seems deeply connected to social justice Roman Catholicism. But these two worldviews have held the sway within the United States for a hundred years.

They have deeply hated each other, and they have held hands and worked together. They often have courted other political and social partners, and they have both held each other in check, but they have also pushed each other deeply apart. And they have succeeded and failed at many times and at many points in history. I am not here to retell Caesar’s story but to bury him.

We live after these two, grandchildren coming into real adulthood, taking responsibility for the house finally, and what are we to do? Rob Bell is on television making pronouncements about how the church that doesn’t get on with the secular world is dead, and Bishop N. T. Wright is calling the mainline churches back into an un-secular world. But what are we to do?

I had a goatee once and left the evangelical world. My glasses aren’t quite as square as Bell’s and my credentials are nowhere near as rich as Tom Wright’s. I admire and am frustrated by them both. But how do we find forward?

I am not sold that the church should whole-heartedly follow the secular world. That way is known to us, and it does not lead to heaven. I am not willing to abandon it either. I am with Wright in going back to the New Testament for a vision of our life in Christ and therefore relationship to the world.

We are made new in our baptism, made a resurrection people, harbingers of God’s Rule to come. This spiritual truth is given by God and our faithful response is nothing to brag about, primarily because we are just beginning to make this spiritual truth physically true, emotionally true, mentally true. We have to grow up, repent, into this Rule of God that is at hand. We are saved by Christ, but our call is not to be saved, it is rather to save the world working in and through Christ.

And we don’t have to spend very much time with history to see how often that vision to save the world has often gone off the rails into another power trip and violence and control, just like the Satan’s wilderness traps for Jesus.

We have to always keep the image of God revealed in the vision of Christ before us, that loving, caring, compassionate father who is slow to anger, of great kindness, forgiving and merciful. We have to keep love before us in both our goal and our methods. This means we will face losses. We saw that in Selma, just like in Jerusalem. If we are to love the world knowing that the world does not love us, we are going to need some better ways of being in the world than we currently have.

We have to go back to the teachings and look at what Jesus calls us to do and be. Discipleship to Jesus rather than to Reagan or Neihbur is going to be more deeply costly than most of us have known. It is for me, and I have the ideal job to try this thing out. Everybody loves a pastor, right?

We have to begin with Jesus at growing up, forgiving sins, loving our neighbor, greeting the stranger, seeking forgiveness, loving our enemies, not hating, not murdering, not calling names, greeting strangers in the marketplace, giving freely and not being attached to our stuff. Translating all of that into our lives means we have to do some thinking and praying, and we have to write a rule.

The Rule of Benedict has become over the last millennium and more the sort of primary example. It has served as a short form prescription for the Christian life in community. I still use it to help me find my ways in ministry today. But it was written in a very different time for people in a very different culture. What would a Rule of Benedict for the Rule of God people look like for today?

As we discover this, I think we begin to trace a way forward out of the ashes of the Christianities of our time into the Rule of God being born always in this moment. This new Rule will have to keep before us God’s call to love and forgiveness in our post-salvation, post-secular world. I am hopeful, but then what else is there to be? We are God’s and God’s alone.

How would you begin?