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.

Coming to the Table – Remembering Christ with your Family and Friends

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In our last reflection we considered the Office as it relates to the Father, Abba, as we join in the church’s worship.  It is the cornerstone of the Anglican-Benedictine way of forming disciples.  I know that is counter-intuitive for Episcopalians and other liturgical churches.  We handed daily faithfulness off to the evangelical world through our low-church brothers and sisters and then forgot after the liturgical revolution of the past forty years.

We elevated the Eucharist to the center of our common life and after the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we made the Daily Office difficult and frustrating to use.  I wanted to learn the Office as a Baptist convert in the 1990’s.  I wanted to learn.  I was motivated.  AND I was educated.  My undergraduate degree was Creative Arts in Worship.  I read Dom Gregory Dix for fun.  And yet I was utterly frustrated by the 1979 BCP and started printing off daily prayers from the internet!

Church Publishing, if you are reading along, I would love a BCP-based Breviary that is formatted for Daily Prayer.  I don’t want something all that new.  I want a simple formatted Breviary.  I will do it.  Just call.

But that isn’t our focus today.  Let’s go back to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the “great thanksgiving” in Greek.  It is called Communion or the Mass or the Lord’s Supper, and it is at the center of our communal life.  I love the Eucharist.  Don’t let the first couple of paragraphs fool you.

The thing is that we are in a funny place recently where we are trying to use the Eucharist in order to welcome people into church.  And that is like meeting a new friend as a couple by inviting them into your bedroom.  The Eucharist is the most intimate thing that disciples do.

We follow Jesus.  Jesus had his disciples, and on his last free night before facing trials and ultimately death, he had a meal with them that was remembered as a Passover meal.  This meal was the place where he took bread and wine and gave it to his friends and fellow brothers and sisters, blessing them and giving instructions to share the meal together to remember him.

The Greek word for “to remember” is anamnesis.  Plato considered the act of remembering as the only way that one could experience the real world beyond forms.  This is not necessarily what Jesus had in mind, but the concept is helpful.  When we remember we are bringing the fullness of our master to mind.

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If Jesus and his teachings are our master or king, rabbi, lord, then we are subjects who are defined by the master.  The master is not a popular concept in American culture, so we have lost some direct implications of what this means for us.  I discovered these ideas looking at the archetypes around king images and monarchist cultures.  These ideas are evident out as you look at the Mediterranean and Biblical cultural studies and early Roman and Greek literature.

The king defines identity for the subject.  The king defines ethos.  The king defines relationships, ethics, ways of interacting, what is acceptable and what is not.  The king defines the world within the kingdom.  (I know this language is masculine, but it is the most common. It is true of queens too.)

The ruler defines the ruled.  This runs directly counter to our culture.  I know.  So as a disciple we come to remembrance to recall our salvation, but also to re-enter the world of our Maker and Master.  We re-enter the space where the kingdom is present, where we are children of God, in direct relationship as brothers and sisters provided for and forgiven, healed and set free to love others as we are loved by God.

To step into such a world together is renewing and helps to make us whole.  We hear the stories of our faith, pray as the priesthood family of God, and we remember our Lord in the meal and prayer that is the Eucharist.  It is our internal reality, the reality that we trust in and believe in as we walk in the world that does not agree with those statements or that reality.

It is this that creates the tension around the open table movement.  On the one hand, we are remembering Jesus whose messiahship was modeled in eating at the table with people from all different walks of life, a model that the church picked up and was persecuted for in the early centuries as much as the idea of cannibalism.  On the other, the Eucharist is a re-enactment of this final meal and has a component of remembrance that defines our reality.

At the very least the church should be honest about what we are doing for our members and for visitors.  But I have come to rest more and more uneasily with the movement to make our sacraments a portable portal for all comers.  I don’t think that they are actually being brought in with any real honesty or fidelity because on some level we don’t take what we are doing seriously or we don’t take their participation seriously.  They are being asked to enter a different reality and accept ethos, ethics, and relationships that they may not be ready to take on, may not understand, and may not really agree with if they did.

Outside of the reality that we are remembering our sacraments don’t really make much sense.  Paul said that if there was no resurrection then he was a fool.  I would hold the same thing about the play acting we are doing on Sundays.  If we are not re-entering that reality in an intentional and prayerful way that involves our whole self, then we are just fools playing at images.

We remember Jesus and re-member Christ as we take our parts in his body and in the family as the children of God.  This is amazing and wondrous.  It is mystery and meal all at once.

When we come prepared, we enter that reality with less dissonance and greater clarity, we leave with more work being done on us, and we go back into the world to carry that reality with us.  We prepare by joining in the ongoing universal prayers of the church daily in the Offices.  We know the stories of our faith more deeply.

Our minds are trained for prayer, praise, and petition.  Our hearts are trained for compassion and trust and forgiveness.  Our brains can focus more easily.  And we are free to come and go lightly into the world we live in intentionally daily, so we can greet our neighbors and love even in transition, and we are less thrown off by the incidentals of our lives and our church community.

In this way, the Office makes the Eucharist more readily available and our experience more communal.  When we have done our office work we can do our work at the table with more joy.

At this table we are not strangers but family.  We are not alone in the city but walking in the Garden with our God and our family.  We are provided for and forgiven.  We are loved and set free.  That is salvation in the flesh.  That is what we are trying to live into as we come to the table of God.

Come prepared and go home renewed.  Remembering who God is in Jesus, what the world will be and what the kingdom is, and who you are, who your neighbor is, and how blessed the whole thing is, we come back to the sixth day of the new creation to enter our Sabbath anew.

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Lifting their Hands – On not leaving pastoral ministry

Being a pastor sucks.  It is also wonderful in ways no other job is.  But there are days even years when the consolations of ministry are few and far between, and the critiques and mistakes form a flood that overwhelms the best of intentions.

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The Very Rev. Rebecca McClain asked me early on in mentoring me into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church what I thought it meant to be a priest.  My answer then is still one I am working out.  I said, “Being a priest means promising to be fully human, bearer of the  image of God and flesh and blood, broken and healed, in front of a group of people, no matter what.”  The vows of ordination are about the roles we play in the church.  But before all of the roles is this simple understanding that I hold about being a human being, a child of God in Christ, a Spirit-led person in front of a congregation.  To be honest about our humanity in its glories and failures sounds nice, but it is hard.  Rebecca and others have helped me to put flesh and blood to it, but it is often not supported and loved by the very people among whom we struggle to live it out.

To lead others toward their full humanity in God in Christ just makes it worse.  People don’t want to change, don’t want to take ownership of their life with God or others, much less practice self-sacrificial love.  People don’t want you to change them or their church, no matter what reasons you offer for doing so.  I know; I work in the church.

I was realizing all of this in the middle of seminary.  I was in my seventh year of ministry by then, having worked in churches and a diocese prior to seminary.  By the seventh year most people leave ministry, and I was ready to join them.  My life was ugly at the time, mostly due to my own shortcomings and sins, and plenty of both.  I was an exile from every community that I could turn to.  I was out of touch with my family, my home community, my various churches.

I was sitting in the dark.  I was actually sitting in the dark of a small chapel at a youth retreat preparing a Youth Encounter team that would be welcoming and leading other youth through a weekend experience of Christ a month leader.  I was a spiritual director for the youth and young adult commission of the diocese, and I was there at the request of the director,  whom we will call Julie.  But I was struggling with leaving ministry altogether.

I was sitting on the side with another spiritual director watching Julie lead the eucharist for the youth.  I don’t remember the sermon.  I was in the tunnel vision of struggle and doubt wondering why I would stay.  I was asking God, What is there in ministry that I would die for? What could I possibly do as a priest that would matter enough for me to give my life to it? Suffering and self-centeredness are natural allies.

As the service turned toward the eucharist, the most intimate and holy space for us as followers of Christ, Julie called two teens up to be the table.  One was this boy with significant developmental issues that made him socially awkward and sometimes very difficult, he was lovable and frustrating at the same time.  The youth had earlier in the day reached the point of excommunicating him and even cruelly pushing him away when one senior girl, a gorgeous popular teen, reached out to him and used her popularity to pull him back into the group and build him up.

Julie had these two come forward and be the table by holding the elements of communion, the bread and the wine.  And Julie, with her wild red hair and her effusive enthusiasm, began to pray the eucharistic prayer from the prayer book from memory.  I was engaged and leaned forward beginning to feel like here in this moment God was answering my questions.

When she reached the place in the prayer where the priest would normally take up the elements and elevate them, she instead bent down on her knees and lifted their hands.  In the moment when the profane becomes holy, she knelt and lifted their hands.

She lifted their hands!  They became more than sacred furniture.  She made them priests, the hands of Christ, bringing their full and broken humanity into the divine act of God in Christ.  It was holy.  It was priesthood.

Now I don’t know if one person there saw what I saw.  But I just began to sob there in the darkness.  I might have said, “Amen.”  But I know I said, “I will die for that.”

So I stayed, and I stay to lift up other people’s hands.  I am still pretty broken as a human being.  Mississippi pastors say we are all dirt and divinity.  I can’t say that I have Julie’s flair and instincts or Rebecca’s maturity, but I know why I am here, why I am still trying to do more than just preach and preside as a holy person doing holy things on holy furniture.

I am heir to that moment when Christ chose to call his disciples brothers and sisters, to take up the cross and set us free, to redeem human beings to be what God made us to be: a royal priesthood of sons and daughters, heirs, and stewards of the creation and each other.  I am heir to the God who comes and lifts us up, who loves us and commands us to love others, who kneels when we expect him to stand.

You are more than sacred furniture to God.  You are his daughter, his son, his beloved heir to the rule of love and grace.  Despite myself, I am still a pastor, and I will lift your hands until you hold them up yourself and make the world holy.

 

 

“The creation waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  from Paul’s letter to the Romans