Easter with Benedict and the Creation’s Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia.

Theology as Poetry: a brief introduction and beginning

Theology as poetry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the form that defines Christianity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why 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.”

Holding Authority in Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Call Me Father – Part II

So how do you teach this as a new way of leadership?  It has been one of my contentions since seminary that we were given Biblical studies, theology, even prayers that demanded a new way of leading communities to follow Jesus, but we were not offered any particular way of making that real in the systems and ethics that we bring to the Church in our congregations and parishes.  We may have good ideas in our head, but until we create systems that embody those ideas, we keep falling back on the old Roman model of Caesar.  Maybe we have a somewhat functional committee or Senate to support us.  Maybe we even have a retainer class of “people who really get what we are doing here” and a military police to keep us safe.  I call that last one the altar guild.  No one protects the old ways like the altar guild.

We fall back on rule by law and order embodying, or so we claim, the will of God.  We, the priests and pastors, become the persona of Christ, usually not understood as the sacrifice or the servant, but rather the one who should rule.  

The temple and throne have the same structure.  High priest, Sanhedrin or Bishop and Council.  We keep rebuilding the old system of rule and control because it works.  I know it works.  I wear a collar to some meetings because I know people will behave differently and defer on things I need them to defer on.  I don’t usually wear a wreath of laurel crown, but I have thought about it when people were really chaotic.

The claim of this model, which you can read in the Latin of Marcus Aurelius or the speeches of our Presidents, is to provide safety and order against the dangers and chaos of the world out there, by which we mean both outside our community, but also outside the inner circle within our own community.  The problem is that this model is that is based on the enemy’s view of the world, and not on God’s.

If we take the Bible seriously, God intended humanity to be caretakers of the world and each other in relationship to God.  We were made to be God’s children, and we become the royal priesthood of God when through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit we are taught to live and love, forgive, heal, and feed as God does.  We restore the world, not control it.  We heal, not destroy.  Where the enemy sees chaos and danger, we see children of God in need of healing, love, belonging.  

We lead within communities by learning to be within communities as Jesus is in community.  We serve.  Among the Gentiles, Jesus said, the leaders among them lord it over them, but it is not be so with you.  The greatest among you is to be the least.  And the leader is to be servant to all.  We cannot even pretend to be following Jesus by lording leadership over others, reminding them to call us “father” and greet us with honor in the marketplace.  

“Father” puts us at the head of the Table, in the place of honor, and it doesn’t take long for God to come as host and move us down a little.  

So, how do we lead without titles and honor, power and control, threat and enforced order? This is a real question that I have been struggling with for a long time.  I cannot read and study Jesus and think that my leadership instincts need some real reform.  

Peter Block has been a huge help to me though.  In college I was supposed to write a paper on fundraising for a class on non-profit management intended for pastors-to-be.  Instead I found a book entitled Stewardship that radically changed my ideas about leadership, organizations, and power.  I read it cover to cover sitting in the upstairs of the Phoenix Public library.  I still own it and apply the lessons of that book today.  A few years ago during my post-Christmas travels to see my family I walked past a new book of Block’s called Community.  It promised to offer what I was looking for in forming and leading communities where the belief is that the real Wisdom and Spirit reside in the people, and the leader is one of them who serves that Wisdom and Spirit.  

To take one small lesson which Block gives, when you want to get the wisdom of the group and form a community on mission together, you focus not on leading the conversation but on setting up the room and asking the right questions.  That sounds like servant leadership, or butler priesthood.  When you focus on the setting up the room so that people relate to each other intimately and as equal partners, you help form community and allow the group to function as children of God discovering God’s call and wisdom together.  As a leader, the job becomes centered in set up and asking good questions, something Jesus excelled at.  The focus is on getting people to think and act as the children of God that we believe they are, rather than as either an army out to control the chaos of life or chaotic enemies that need to be conquered by either or reason or power. 

This is one step toward the Rule of God embodied in our systems of leadership.  It takes, as Weisbord and Janoff point out in Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There, a lot of self-control and maturity to not take control of the conversation and overpower the quiet voice of the Spirit.  That maturity comes from living into a theology, ethos, and expectations over time, but that self-control and tactics of calling forth our brothers and sisters into community can be taught, as can the room layouts and methods of facilitation that can set up the family to be family.  

But we have to think differently.  It is as if Jesus has sent us ahead to set up for the Passover, let us not set up the dinner as if it were something other than the supper of the Lord.  Let us not forget who the true host is and who the guests are.  Let us take up our towels and serve if we are the leaders in the way of Jesus.

Don’t Call Me Father – Finding a New Way to Lead or at Least a New Way to teach Leadership

Over lunch this week a good friend and parishioner reminded me of the call to teach others what we are learning about leadership and this vision of Christianity, which is both old and new.  Frankly it doesn’t feel new right now, but there is a vision of pastoral and priestly ministry in the Anglican tradition that is emerging.  I like to think of it as a reclaiming of that is really old, rather than something truly new, but it shocks some people to hear the implications. 

No priest should be called father.  I think it usually points to an unformed pastor or worse a system of anti-kingdom work.  This sounds harsh, and I have good friends and people I respect who will argue for the pastoral merit of letting people respect your role and relationship to them.  Fair enough.  But there is no theological warrant in the New Testament for the title of “father” outside of Paul’s calling the people in several places a “little children” and stating that he was like a father to them.  I think this should be held with Jesus’ direct command to “call no man father.”  Why? 

It is systemic thinking.  The question to ask is “What kind of system are we setting up in order to embody and systematize the Rule of God in our local church or diocese?”  Are we setting up systems that recreate the temple or empower the royal priesthood of the called/gathered?  Ultimately we are trying to create and recreate systems that reflect the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and he had some particular things to say that speak directly to those systems.

The Gospel of Mark has a deep theme of suspicion towards “fathers” because “you have but one father, your Father in heaven.”  It is important to ask why this suspicion was so prevalent. The analogy of “fathers” and “sons” was a social meta-narrative that presented social, political, economic, moral, and even religious norms to all participants.  Roughly in every social interaction there was a “father” and a “son” or “sons.” A patron (root word pater) would be addressed as father by someone he supported and cared for, his “son.” This support and care while primarily financial would imply a great deal more about the ethics of the relationship, expectations, and norms of behavior.  In actual father-son relations, these were true, but they extended far beyond.  A father provided the ethos of the behaviors and expectations for the son in all interactions.  Who you worked for determined how you were expected to act, behave, and even think.  As with all social norms, this was probably true and also an incomplete picture.  But we do see in Latin the remnants of the system in the words that remain in use even today.  Everyone was a father or son in every relationship, but the supreme “father” was known and embodied in the emperor and his rule.

In several recent works of scholarship the relationship between Jesus and the imperial state of Rome has been lifted up as one of protest and threat.  The emperor was proclaimed on coins and statuary as the Son of God.  The God of Rome was immutable, unchangeable, and just.  The emperor embodied that God’s rule on earth and was seen as either God’s emissary or God himself, often supported by claims of virginal birth.  I would point to works by Herzog, Malina, Crossan, and Borg, but there are countless others who have explored the social and political world of Jesus in great depth.  I owe a special debt to the works of N. T. Wright who works along the edges of these claims from the side of studying the claims of Jesus and Paul.

So if we believe as orthodox Christians in the claims of Jesus as the embodied Son of God who came to a particular place and time in history, and if we are going to take the claims of Jesus, the Bible, and the Creeds seriously, we have to look at them in the complex of their time and place in history with some care, at least as much as we are able to.  This is commonly accepted in scholarship, but it can seem overly difficult for many lay people or less-learned pastors.  I won’t claim to be more than a medium-learned pastor, but I am an avid reader who has been stuck on this issue of the meaning of the Rule, or kingdom, of God for a couple of decades.  

So if there is a father-son system of ethics, rules, and expectations or norms in the first century, what does Jesus say to it?  In some way Jesus co-opts the system in his teaching about God as Father, or Abba, and both his claim of sonship and what he makes possible for his followers.  I would go farther to say that Jesus uses this social language to explain and embody his ethics, rules, and expectations.  It should not be surprising that Jesus’ way of understanding should upset the accepted patterns of interaction, but how complete this system and its implications for our life as his disciples may surprise you.

First off, Jesus calls God “father.” This is well known and accepted.  You should have heard sermons about this and you should be teaching it.  It is simple and orthodox.  Jesus also says that as God’s son, you can know who God is, what the ethics, rules, and expectations or norms of his kingdom-family are through Jesus himself.  God is the one who provides the ethos, but we learn it from Jesus and later from his apostles and the Holy Spirit.  We are not to call anyone else “rabbi” because we have one “rabbi” or teacher of the way of God, the Holy Spirit.  

But there is a twist here that is again well-known, but still surprises many people: Jesus calls God Abba and not just Pater.  Pater is directly translated from both Greek and later Latin as “father.” It represents a particular relationship-dynamic.  It is a formal word, just as “father” is for most English speakers today.  Abba is a little more subtle.  It is an Aramaic word that gets brought into the New Testament a number of times directly.  Aramaic is a local language that represents the mix of Arabic (geographically local) and Hebrew (religiously local).  It is what Jesus and his first followers probably spoke at home.  They probably used Greek in trading or when talking to non-locals, of which there were quite a few in even the rural places of Palestine and Israel of the time, due to Greek and Roman imperialism and trade and geographic centrality.  That is a lot to explain that while the Gospels that we have were likely written in Greek, although I would argue that Mark was probably written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek.  There are very few Aramaic words that come through untranslated.  Abba does.  Why? It represents a different way of relating that “father.”  It is a primary language word, the language of infants and intimacy.  Abba is more like “Daddy” in English.  

The father-son relationship dynamic is one of formalism, obligations, and strict hierarchy.  “Daddy” is intimacy, safety, provision, and care.  Father is cool; daddy is warm.  When Jesus refers to God as his father, he is pointing to rule, ethic, and expectation. When Jesus refers to God as daddy, he is pointing to love, relationship, and reciprocity.   It is important to note that Jesus uses both terms.  We should try to understand and live into the implications of both.

Father gives us a system of being and relationship.  If God is to be a father to me, and I am to be God’s son, I have to know what God expects, what God’s rules are, and how I am supposed to act.  

Jesus tells us all three of these.  God is compassionate, knows you intimately and cares for human beings, especially the lost.  God is concerned with mercy and forgiveness, embodied in healing and return. God provides for needs and is good.  It is important to note that these are not the only attributes of God known or taught in Jesus’ day or in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus teaches these.  He does not refer to the God of Armies or Hosts, a common phrase in both the Psalms and Isaiah which he quotes extensively.  He does talk about God as just, but then locates that justice in the city gates with concern for the poor and widows.  When he proclaims the Lord’s day from Isaiah 61 in his hometown, he edits the quote from Isaiah to leave out the wrath of the Lord and replace it with the “year of the Lord’s favor.”  He then points out God’s concern for the foreigner is several stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. (See Luke 4).

Jesus gives specific rules that he connects directly to God’s attributes.  The most obvious and often repeated example is forgiveness.  As followers of Jesus we are to forgive as God forgives.  We are to forgive seven times seventy-seven times, meaning an infinite amount.  We are to be perfect in compassion.  This verse has confounded and confused many people because of the word perfect, but it is connected to the teaching that God is compassionate and gives good gifts to his children. 

7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

So Jesus has used the father-son relationship as a lens to show us how to relate to God and to each other.  He also used it to directly counteract the systemic ethics and abuses of his day.  He did this by showing that we are to relate to each other as God’s children.  This implies treating each other (and others) with compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.  We are to heal and feed others.  

Jesus asks the crowd in Capernaum when his mother and brothers came seeking him,  “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 4

Jesus warns against calling others “father.”  He does this because of the role that fathers play in the systems of his day.  Who your father is determines your way of being and relating.  You are the son or daughter of the one whose will you do.  I think the mistake of the church to adopt this model of relating again is that the model teaches dependency on who the father is.  The called community ekklesia becomes the priest’s community as they become the one who sets the ethics and expectations and norms of the community around them.

This is precisely what Jesus was fighting against.  God is Abba to his children.  That is not dependent on the person who leads some part of the system.  In fact, the leadership of Jesus’ disciples was to be one of servanthood, not privilege, to be one that embodied God’s rule basileo not the clergy.  The leadership was to embody something even more than others because of the danger that we would become “father.”

The reality is that most communities are made up of humans, who we know are incomplete, non-divine, unholy creatures who have become so desperate over the centuries that if found the Tree of Life we would chew the bark off after selling the fruit for profit.  We who are trying to lead know that we must take control of the systems of our communities if we are to change them.  And control is exactly what “father” gives us.  It is honor and privilege.  It gives us our “due place” at the table.  It is the damnation of the follower of Jesus.

I want to play nice, but I can’t.  I know why we like the title.  In Benedict’s rule the head of the monastery community is the “abbot.”  Abbot is derivative to Abba.  It encapsulates something that Benedict was trying to say about what was needed in his day.  An order based on family obligations and even love.  Abba, remember, implies love, care, and intimacy.  It also implies one who gives identity and provision and place.  I could find a place for “abbot,” I suppose.  But Father is so dangerous, so counter to everything Jesus taught that I find it anathema.  I join the Protest of Protestants and say no. 

Don’t call me father.

Rather, I am learning to lead by serving the community with love, care, and yes even intimacy.  I think the only way to find our “due place” at God’s table is to stand at the side with a towel and tray, ready to forgive, offer mercy, and heal and feed.  I would rather be a butler in heaven than face the smoky future of false fathers.  

Oddly, in my slightly obsessive compulsive exegesis “mother” stands up as safe.  Funny.