Welcome, Worship, Study, Serve plus Witness and Stewardship

A Model for the Christian life both individual and communal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sunday’s Sermon on Saturday Night – Embracing the Cross

Jesus gives four commandments in tomorrow’s gospel:  “Get behind me,” and “If anyone wants to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” [I have modified them from a strict translation to make the point.]  Take away the Satan bit for a second.  I am all for it, and think there is much to learn there, but right now Jesus is making a point, let’s follow him.

Get behind me.  How often do we get out in front of God or Jesus, deciding what we know God should do: for us with us and for the world and other people?  How do we get behind Jesus?  You can’t follow someone you are leading.  This is Discipleship 101.  Get behind Jesus and listen to him.  Follow his teachings and follow his directions.  Seems like that would be pretty much what being a disciple is, but we don’t always do that.  I once heard a priest say that Jesus didn’t want him to give up his Mercedes.  It was a foolish comment in a sermon, meant in jest I hoped, yet over the next three years, he lost everything and became a much better priest and human being.  He got behind Jesus.

Take up your cross.  What is your cross?  We often allegorize this saying to death.  We translate it to mean that our cross is our little brother Timmy or weight gain or bad credit or cancer.  Jesus does not mean any of this.  You may have to go through it, but it isn’t what he seems to mean here.  Get behind him, again.

What has he told us to do?  Love our neighbor.  Love our enemies.  Serve our brothers and sisters.  Love knowing we won’t get loved back.  Love knowing the cost.  Forgive others.  We are to take up the cross of salvation, the world’s salvation.  We are to suffer and even be willing to die for other people and the sake of the world.  That is taking up the cross.  To be a full human being is to suffer and to die.  And being a human being is what literally being a Son of Humanity means.

Embrace the Suck.  This little phrase, that I have written about on this blog, is really key here.  To do anything great, you have to embrace the work that is required.  So many of us want to be Christian, a Jesus follower, a good person, but we don’t want to face the work that requires.  Jesus saves us by grace.  He died for us before we even knew what was going on, while we were still sinners, as Paul says.  But we are called now into his new covenant to be his body and to be the bearers of the Holy Spirit like Jesus replaced the temple.  We are to be the people of his forgiveness, grace, and healing.  And that sucks.  Really it does. Yes, his yoke is easier than the nitpicky rules and death-dealing score-keeping of religion.  But it is also a much more tremendous demand of our very selves.

Deny yourself.  How do you define your self?  I am a lot of things, none of which is me, and yet all of which are somewhat me.  I have this persona, these hobbies, this sweater, this watch, these kids, this church, this wife, this cool reclaimed English hardwood table, and a rich devotional life, an old Bible.  Whatever we define ourselves by, we have to deny.  In Jesus’ day your self was your social and familial identities.  Deny those.  These days we are more shallow.  Deny all that.  Give away the watch, paint the table, and define your self first and foremost as God’s child.  Start in prayer and remembrance.  Find some places in your life to give things up and learn how to pray with open hands.  Lent is a good time for this.

Embrace the call of the radical love and discipline it demands, and follow Jesus.  We know where that road leads, and I am a little bit terrified.  But it is also my hope and my purpose, my very salvation.  Because like Abraham, I trust that God will provide and care for me along the way.  I know the way will be hard, but it will ultimately be the very road to life and the New Jerusalem, the city of God, where we will see the day finally break and everyone bowing before the One who made us, loved us, and wanted us home so much that he came to find us, and sent us out to bring others to the feast.

Pretty amazing stuff!  I mean, we are a part of what God is doing in Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, just like he was, to save the world.  So embrace the suck, it is worth it.

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?

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.

No, I am not an ex-Baptist. I am a Episcopal Christian.

No longer post-evangelical. Episcopal life after the life after being Baptist. A birthday meditation.

I grew up Southern Baptist, but I am no longer an ex-Southern Baptist. My turn away from my turn began when in an interview with my then bishop-to-be Robert Shahan said, “Make sure you bring the gifts of your Baptist life to the Episcopal Church, your love of salvation and personal relationship with Christ.” It was not what I expected to hear.

Leaving the Southern Baptist life was tied up in a number of decisions; much like becoming vegetarian, it was something that was more emergent than a breaking point. The social issues and the salvation message (without much beyond it), the Bible as fourth person of the trinity, all of it was there, and I had had a conversion about women in ministry [not much of a leap beyond the women of my family.] But it wasn’t any one of these things or even the culmination of them that led me to leave.

Sometimes I say it was the liturgy, and I suppose in a real way it was; but it wasn’t just the liturgy. I was looking for a way of embodying the teachings of Jesus, a lived community salvation. What I found was the ascetic theology of the Book of Common Prayer. It was these things too, and it was something else.

It felt right. Which is not what I want to write. I want to say that it was this great theological or worshipful ideal that arose out some depth of study and worship. And it was, but it was also this internal place of feeling in my bones the things I had hoped for in those hours in that tiny apartment at Grand Canyon between worship services, classes, and a handful of jobs reading all those books alongside the Bible and trying to imagine what the community of God would look like at worship.

I am not sure after the last twenty years if I have really found what I set out after in college, at least not as a repeatable form, but there are these moments where the Spirit slips into our hearts, and the worship just lifts up into praise and intimacy, drunken joy and transformation. Sometimes that is Sunday mornings, and sometimes it is the simple eucharist on Wednesdays, and sometimes it is sitting around the table in my office where my work gets smaller and infinitely more detailed.

O Wisdom! The Spirit comes dancing in and whisks away the dust and crud of build up that clings to us in our daily lives. She takes these tired hands and goes swinging through in time to the angels lift of praise. She comes with light and lights, and the dance is so much more and so much less than liturgy. It is worship and praise, tears and joy, laughter and love, intimacy and reverence. It is repentance and coming home. It is the slake of thirst of that first drink in the desert. It is touch of God.

On those days, you can watch God work like wind twisting trees. Sure, there is almost always wind to the attentive finger in the air, and trees never really sit still, being living things. But when you have watched the leaves of fall in Michigan go dancing, you can’t compare the everyday with the manifestation of the Day at all.

Back to what I left. When I left the Baptist church, I was leaving a way of being Christian. It didn’t fit. And I had been ridiculed a couple of times for not being the right size. I was persecuted. If I can make that awesome word small and tiny and not have it stand in the same way it does for those who really suffer harm and danger, then I can say I was persecuted. When I think of North India and Syria and the Christians of Iraq, I should say, I was talked about impolitely. I was ribbed. I was teased. I felt persecuted when I was too young to know what suffering entails. Mostly I was loved and supported by the people who packed my bags.

I left looking for a place to be the kind of Christian I hoped I was. I left looking for worship that embodied the teachings of Jesus my Lord. I found the cathedral in Phoenix and the women who led her, Trinity. Rebecca and Veronica embodied something about the mystical body of Christ; with them I could bow. The people were raw and holy without any pretense of being good at being a church. As an institution they were living in ruins. They were faithful and hopeful and honest and kind, but they were not successful and hadn’t been for a long time. I was one of a very few under forty. Truly I was one of a few, period.

Later it would grow. Later it would become the community and institutions that it is now, but twenty years ago, it was a remnant in the ruins of past success. And among those ruins I found a people, and in their honest participation in a liturgy that was bigger than any of us, I joined with adults in the life of the Church. I found a voice and a calling there. It was there that Bishop Shahan told me not to leave behind the heritage of Scripture and relationship. He even hired me to teach youth and young adult ministry and confirmed and ordained me.

I had left behind a church in transition, a denomination that continues to grow and evolve, though they don’t like that word particularly. Many of my cohort stayed to live beautiful and fruitful Christian lives. Many of my friends became Emergent Christians, founding hip communities and doing amazing things, living the life of God in new and exciting ways. They became part of the revolution that is always going on in the evangelical church. I went backwards crawling back through revivals and revivalism, Methodism and evangelical Anglicanism, looking for a pure sacrament. I left the post-modern and found myself pre-modern.

I was looking for authentic worship, rooted in history. I was looking for the upper room and freshly broken bread. I wanted to get as close to Christ as I possibly could. I crawled into the liturgy of the church and discovered how broken the body can be. I discovered with the rest of my generation and probably yours that the church is always happening right now.

There is no pure sacrament, because it is always a sign held by human hands. God moves through us like trees, and we twist and fall. But our fall is only the chance for the Spirit to take us dancing again. When the dance is over we become part of the landscape, the long geological work of redeeming a world that is fallen and free, but still formed like river clay and breathed by the One who loved it and loves it still. We are always breathed creatures.

And sometimes that Breath breathes in our liturgies so strongly I want to call people to the altar, to tell them the stories of the Bible like a parent on a car trip telling childhood hijinks to those we tell to be better than us, and I want to break bread for the world. No I am not a post-evangelical. I am not a former Southern Baptist. I am a part of the broken body of the world, for the world. I am a part of the body of Christ, redeemed and gone dancing.

I am an Episcopal priest, a member of the Anglican communion, if one can be, and I keep the Offices and could no more give up the eucharist than my pen, and I still lament that my people don’t love Scripture, but am glad they don’t worship it. I live a sacramental life, if you can accept that no sacrament is pure, and I am held up by the Body of Christ, in robes and no robes, carrying leather Bibles and Books of Common Prayer in hands still dirty from the clay of the River of Life.

I am still baptized if not Baptist. I didn’t get far in my leaving. I just went backwards. I am not not a Baptist anymore. I am evangelical and Anglican, catholic and praying and Biblical, imperfect and still looking for a pure sacrament.  I still read the Bible and I love Jesus; and we should go dancing sometime, but I don’t dance.

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.

The Adolescent Church – or It’s Time to Mow the Yard

By now you have heard it said that the “church” refers to the community or members, not the building.  This is not news to most people, and it seems silly to reiterate it.  But I want to extend it a little before we move on.  The “church” also does not refer to the institution, good or bad, or the structures and hierarchies of the institution that we create around the community.  The church is holy.  The other stuff is just there to support it, strengthen it, equip it, and keep it generation to generation.

The problem as I see it is that mostly our issues with the things we call church are surface.  The deeper issue that belies most of our complaints about church, which are making their weekly appearance in more or less relevant lists online, is that we are immature.  The church at large is really, really immature.  Making another immature list doesn’t seem helpful, does it?  I would argue that we are getting better.

Not every member of the church is immature.  Not every local community within the church is immature.  But the American branch of the church universal, in almost all of its iterations, is adolescent at best.  I think we are moving past early adolescence, though, in my lifetime.  Thankfully.

Adolescence is that magical age between childhood and adulthood when we are in transition.  In childhood the world is defined for us by our parents.  As we grow, if the parents do their jobs, we are forced to look beyond our selves and our wants to think of others, all the while having our needs considered and cared for by the mostly unseen benevolence of our parents.  We don’t usually know as grade schoolers that electricity is costly and paid for monthly or that it is truly deadly and comes to our house through a whole network of devices and wires that must be tended and cared for.  We don’t know.  We couldn’t handle it.  So our parents do and rarely tell us.  As we transition to adulthood, we come to understand the thing, its cost, and our responsibilities about it.

As we go through adolescence, we are let in on the mysteries of tending to life, which we called “doing chores” at my house.  We don’t understand much, but usually when we are healthy, we become aware of others in increasingly subtle and immediate ways.  We become aware of how large the world is, how many people are around us, and sometimes we get overwhelmed by that.  And if we are normal we begin to realize that those people have expectations of us.  This all takes a lot of time.

The American church has had its billed paid for a long time.  We have been given tax breaks and deference by the government, culture, and media. We have been protected, provided for, and generally regressed to that state in life before full adulthood.  For a host of different reasons, those protections and provisions are being taken away, and it is time for us to progress back towards maturity.

The world has expectations of us based on what we proclaim, and like adolescents we are becoming aware of the social pressures on us as people stop giving us those protections and deferences in the culture.  That pressure can come across as meanness or frustration or disdain as we fail at our own jobs.

I got fired from mowing grass when I was about fourteen by a guy who thought I should be able to check his rental units, and when the grass needed mowing or looked rough, show up on my own and mow it.  I was used to having an adult tell me when the job should be done, so I did not check or mow, and he was livid.  It was not a great moment for either of us, as I remember it.  I failed to understand and respond as an adult.

The church has failed to love well and maintain her integrity.  The world notices, and our culture is frustrated with the church.  They don’t notice all the things we do right, but they notice the things we have ruined.  [That pretty well sums up how I felt for a couple of years between twelve and fourteen.  You?]

This adolescence is not merely cultural.  The church is getting on through adolescence as we notice our issues and work on them, reaching out in love and responsibility in ways we really did not after the forties and fifties.  The church is back on the front lines of issues and involved in activism on several fronts.

I am convinced that this is not maturity, though.  It is merely late adolescence.  We are in an age of shouting and flag waving.  I hope it is almost over, but Facebook activism (slactivism) and issues-based outreach programs are about as sustainable and meaningful as teenage tilting from issue to issue.  In my teens, I worked on homeless gifts for Christmas and hurricane relief for clubs and had a burning fervor for issues that lasted for nearly a month at a time.  They were motivated by passion, but they did not involve my integrity or identity, just the tug of the heart ready to burst with hormones.  I am not sure I had either the integrity or the identity to sustain real work at seventeen.

I fell into passions like a teenager falls into love and right back out again.  It wasn’t thoughtful or deep, but it felt good.  I did reach a few families with gifts for Christmas and helped gather tons of something for, was it Florida or Texas?  I was gone again soon, even though those families were still poor and the coast of wherever was still desiccated.

The church lurches from issue to issue the same way.  We get played by politicians and special-interests like musical instruments.  We raise money, post some things online, maybe even change our profile picture to an equal sign or a something vaguely Arabic.  But little more.

Here is the rub.  Real issues are complex, difficult, and take years to really address, sometimes decades.  They take personal involvement that requires and even risks our integrity and identity.  I didn’t have the self to get involved in dealing with the economic issues that robbed working-class Tennesseans of just enough to keep them in the cycles of financial hardship.  I didn’t have the identity that would push me when the banners were put away and the shouts had died down.

Adulthood is boring.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told by Christians in the church that they were not mature enough to take their place in the world and would not grow up.  “I don’t want to be mature.”  “I don’t want to be old.” “I don’t ever want to grow up.” But the truth is the church is overflowing with immature Christians.  We don’t have enough self left after the petitions to fill in the pews.

If we are to grow up, we can turn to the three vows of the Rule of Benedict: obedience, stability, and transformation.  The humility of self that is demanded for obedience ironically sets us free to discover our true selves and to really learn about the world and our place in it, our responsibilities and expectations.  Stability gives us the time to mature into full human beings under God.  By staying put we can learn how God works over time and how to invest deeply into God’s work over that time that real change demands.  Transformation comes when we submit to God in Creation, Jesus in the his teachings and salvation, and the Spirit’s instruction.  We become more, not less, as we engage deeply  in one place and one faith community.

Read the Bible.  Pray daily.  Go to church.  Join a small group.  Develop a close circle of accountable Christians who will walk with you.  Pick one place in the world to do the work of the Rule of God.  Don’t fall for the “they” trap; love your enemies.  Heal the sick.  Forgive everything.  Yes, everything.  You are a Christian after all, and that means something.  Work for the long goal.

I don’t think that most of the issues of today are meaningless.  I believe we need the young to be the young, and to be in our faces as adults always risk becoming complacent about the issues of right now as we learn to look to the past and future for what really matters.  We need the fringes.  We need the young.

But the church needs to grow up.  We need to put in the time under the authority of God in Jesus, under Scripture, and under a community.  We need to grow up and begin to see the complexity of the issues of our day and get past jingoism and short-term Huffington Post morality.  We need to know who we are and who we are called to be, so that we can take stands that matter and that will last past the shouting.

In the news of the day are real issues that demand deep responses that go past the stay of the cameras and the attention of the mob.  It will be the church that lasts.  We have been mature before and can be again.  Look past the simplistic narrative of modernity to the history of humanity and humanitarianism in the West.  We will return to our full status as adult heirs of God’s hopes and dreams for the world, the kingdom or Rule of God, but not until we give up the refusal and rebellion that turns aside from the complexities and responsibilities of maturity.

Now, I have to go and buy a lawn mower.

 

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