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

Where We are and Why I am Here

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

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

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

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

The Episcopal Tradition – via media

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

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

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

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

The New Civil Rights Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Are We Building a Fear-based Community? – the power of gossip and group fear

We are afraid.  I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but here in the United States we are afraid.  We live in one of the most secure countries in the world,  in one of the most secure geographical locations, surrounded by the world’s largest military complex, in the pinnacle of pinnacles of history in terms of wealth and material excess.  We throw away more food than most countries eat.  We make (and sell) more arms than any other country on earth, maybe more than all other countries.  We are a secure people who are terrified.

We not only buy and carry weapons, increasingly arguing about whether we should have the right to carry in schools and churches!  We fear people around the world.  We fear natural disaster.  And we fear crimes.

I like to blame the media.  It is fun to judge others, and I judge them guilty.

The moment of realization for me came when I did not have a television in Phoenix, but my congregation began to talk about kidnapping.  It was rampant.  Children were being snatched off the street.  People worried about our girls who did not even know them.  I was in a hospital room on a visit with an unconscious parishioner when I saw the cable news.

Kidnapping was everywhere!  Seven references in less than one minute.  Constant pictures of cute blonde girls and one little boy.  I was worried.  Then I noticed that there were only three pictures.  They were looping the same story constantly.  I looked it up online.  There were seven open cases at that moment.  The FBI agent I called said it was actually a low point in kidnapping as a national crime. It was just the news cycle.

Why do we invest so much in weapons?  Why do we idolize snipers and praise drones?  We have become a people of unjust war.  We have become a war culture.  We love Rome.  This is just plain reality.

We could point back to World War II.  Or we could blame communists.  We could look for capitalists under the blanket, but the truth is we, the American people, have become a culture of constant fear and violent reprisal.

I am a priest.  I am wearing all black except a little dash at my Adam’s apple of white.  I am a paid Christian, follower of Jesus.  Yet when I saw the news of ISIS online and read the reports, my instinct was war, bombs, murder.  I watched the beginning clip of the martyrdom of Ethiopian Christians before I was snapped out of my fervor.

“Witness” is what martyrdom means. It was the witness of the early church that we died for our faith rather than killing for it.  The Ethiopian martyrs were doing what we have done for two millennia.  But that is not my instinct.  I am more trained by Die Hard and the Terminator than Stephen and the early church.  And that concerns me deeply.

Am I willing to die for my faith?  Am I willing to say with Christ, “If it is me you seek, then let these men go”?  I am and I am not.

“Too long I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” said the Psalmist, “I am for peace, but when I talk about it, they only talk about war.”  I preached about this recently and made the tie to gossip.  Gossip is not the well meaning, Do you know what is going on?  It is the Did you hear about so and so  . . . ?  It is the sniping of the distant foe with news and rumors.  It is destructive to community as surely as war.

It is the same instinct: to protect something or gather a people we offer up a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is always someone else.  I caught myself a few years ago using little bits of gossip to connect with people.  I am still deeply ashamed to say that.  It was horrendous.  It was wrong.  It was an attempt to build community.

Paul Born in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (2014) names the communal responses to crisis as avoidance, shallow community, fear-based community, and deep community.  He points out that fear-based community is a perverse attempt at meeting the desire for deep community.  It is gathering a group around an enemy or perceived enemy or I would add the rumor of an enemy.

This little version that we get when we gossip is cheap community.  It does not deliver on the promises of community.  It cannot deliver trust, togetherness, support, outreach, justice, and peace.  It cannot deliver joy, but it does give us that cheap moment of being on the same side for a minute or two.  It feels like community.

We have turned this, like many vices, into a national past time.  My favorite eight feet in creation somedays is that line of magazines lined up for our downfall at the cashiers of grocery stores.  I can peruse the latest gossip about people I don’t know but judge viciously based on what I know to be half-truths, at best.  We may not know each other, but we can both agree that the Kardashians are horrible shallow people and that Jenner fellow needs our pity.

Let’s revel in our moment of togetherness.  Is this the wine of our age, the drink that lubricates our friendships?

To take one step further, open Facebook.   Look at the feeds that are gathering communities around fear.  Gay people and their allies, notice the language, fear religious people.  Religious people fear gay people.  Let’s share relevant news stories to make the point that they’re out to get us.  Look at what a violent criminal the latest black man was when the police shot him.  That cop should be afraid.  Look at those police in their special forces gear and their violence.  Be afraid.  And share this.  Like it?

We are told repeatedly in the gospel that we are not to be afraid and not to judge.  We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.  We are told to build communities that cross the very lines that we use to define our fears.  We are told to be communities of love.

Our moral life is supposed to be based in our love.  We are to be a people of restraint, not seeking our desires and vengeance, but rather a simple people who offer forgiveness freely.  We are called to love strangers and to be open to people who are different from us, to serve them, to love them.  And to do this because God is that way toward us.

We have to admit our sins in order to confess them and be forgiven.  We have to admit our need in order to be healed.  We have to admit that we have become a people of fear, anxiety, worry.  We have to admit that we have become a people of violence, war, gossip, and lies.  And we have to do this because it is the way of Christ we seek to follow.

We know of no other name under heaven by which we might be saved. It is clear what we are to do and who we are to be.  But we are afraid.

In the last few years it has become clear to me how much fear is natural for human beings who begin to follow Jesus.  We are called into exactly the kind of places that make us the most fearful.  We have to learn to be a people of faith, trust.  We have to trust that God will watch over us, that we will be provided for without recourse to violence, and we have to trust that the Spirit will fill us with the love we need for those who terrify us, who anger us, who make us afraid.

Jesus came to his disciple in that locked room in John and breathed on them, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  The sins you hold on to, you hold on to.”

Do not be afraid.

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Welcome – Holy Hospitality and Good Coffee

I had one of those seminal moments when I defined something theologically for myself in trying to reach someone else.  Neil Stafford, PsyD., had invited me to speak to his psychology of religion class at Grand Canyon University, our shared alma mater. Neil got two degrees to my one while we were in school together.  One student, a sincere fundamentalist who loved God, was distressed by everything I said and stayed after to talk about faith.  (Or to convince me of my sin, it was hard to tell.)  I walked him out to the front doors of the classroom building, still arguing, and pointed across the campus at a girl walking between buildings and asked, “Do you know her?”

“No.  I have no idea who she is.”

“Is she a child of God?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know her.”

“Yes, neither do I.  But, is she a child of God?  What do you believe?”

He was stuck, and truthfully so was I.  We had gone round and round about theology and human experience, but this was as close to the core issue as I could get.  Is the total stranger a child of God?  Are they, whoever they are, precious to God?  We say in our theology that they are.  That “while we were still sinners” Jesus died for us.  John 3:16 begins “for God so loved the world.”

This is not meant to be a trick question.  Neil accused me of trying to break the student.  But I really think this is essential to understand Jesus and the God he calls Abba.  God loves his people.  God has saved his people from their sins.  [I am using he for grammatical reasons, but God is no more he than she, though I am following Jesus who called God, Daddy or Father.]  If you are going to follow Jesus and proclaim the Gospel of God, you must begin with “God loves you.”  There is an anthropological statement of faith in that.  “You are precious to God.”  Right now, while still a sinner.

That is not what we often proclaim.  But it is what Jesus proclaimed.  It is vital to understanding the signs of Jesus’ healing miracles:  he healed first then forgave.  The order is important because the Pharisees and others of his day, religious people like us, could not accept that someone who was broken, sick, infirm, or otherwise formed poorly or wrong could be a part of the people of God.  Jesus puts his response in the form of forgiveness.  “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2.  The scribes, keepers of the law, are offended.  Only God can forgive sins, and God did so through the temple and priests and sacrifices.  But it was God who forgave sins.

The important thing is to say, What sins?  If we were in a certain kind of church I would say, Turn to your neighbor and say, What sins?  And you would.

Is being a paralytic a sin?  It is if your bar for being a part of the family of God, the people of God, is physical perfection.  The blind, the lame, the unclean are not included in the life of a holy God.  This was part of the law, and it was not being applied cruelly, but rather as accepted religious truth.  Only God could make a person right with the community, and some permanent conditions meant that was not ever going to happen.  It was a permanent sin to be born with a missing hand, or blind.  The painful reality of your life was that you were out.  For ever.

So when Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  He was bringing this paralytic, still on the cot, back into the family of God.  This means one of two things: either God as revealed in Jesus doesn’t care about sins or that the religious understanding of the sins was wrong.  I don’t think you can look at the whole ministry and teaching of Jesus and say that he doesn’t care about sin.  He denies divorce for anything except infidelity and remarriage while the spouse is still alive.  He takes commands about murder and adultery and raises the bar to anger and looking with lust.  Jesus clearly takes a moral life seriously, more seriously than the religious of his day.

In our day, how do we understand and apply these teachings and example of Jesus about God?  I think it is important to say that our healing, love, and even profound forgiveness and inclusion has to be as freely offered as Jesus’s offering of forgiveness and healing.  This is how we are to approach the world.  We are to approach the world with open hands, wallets, with generosity and love overflowing.  This inclusion of others into the family of God is essential to following the example of Jesus, ethos of Jesus, the explicit teachings of Jesus.

What then of judgement, morality, and holiness?  Good question.  Once we become disciples, it is just as essential that we take on the yoke of Jesus. We must take on the self-reflection, ethics, and holiness of Jesus.  One of the cornerstone teachings of that moral square is non-judging.  This is requisite to the discipled community.  We must be able to hold ourselves to a high, sometimes impossibly high standard, while not entering into judgement of others.

The early church clearly struggled with this, as Paul’s and Peter’s letters bear out.  If someone doesn’t hold themselves to a high standard the church must respond in order to maintain the integrity of the community.  We have indications of how to respond in Jesus’s teachings as well as the letters.

These become hard issues and difficult conversations within communities that are supposed to be defined by love.  I am not going to pretend to get this all right, but in our Rule of Grace we must try to set some cairns out for the journey.

One.  Everyone is welcome to be a part of the family of God here.

Two.  If you join the family of God, we have to begin to reflect the love of God to others, welcoming with the same forgiveness and grace that we have been welcomed with.  We do not have the option to join and then turn our judgement and harm against others.

Three.  We have to hold each other accountable without devolving into judgement.  Accountability can only be as deep as the relationship.  You cannot effectively hold another follower accountable without relationship.

Four.  Failure is normal.  We are all sinners; it just doesn’t define our relationship with God and should not define our relationship to each other.

Confrontation is bound to happen in any community.  I can bear a lot of witness to this.  But we must continue to hold ourselves and others up as children of God.  When we are still strangers, when we are friends, and when we have to hold each other accountable.

Yes, some will reject that definition of themselves.  Yes, many will reject us, even if we do our best and love them unconditionally, but then our witness is real.  And yes, this will pinch, sometimes within close relationships and horribly as we enter into larger worlds and levels of demands, but we are not first and foremost anything, if we are not first and foremost followers of Jesus, a people of Grace.

All of that to say that everyone deserves a good cup of coffee.

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?

Je ne suis pas Charlie!

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Je ne suis pas Charlie!  I am not Charlie.  But I am learning to love him while disagreeing with everything he stands for.

After the horrific events in the last week, I saw a number of Christian leaders and social commentaries lead with the French slogan “I am Charlie” or Je suis Charlie.  This strikes me as extremely shortsighted.  I know the impulse.  There is a victim, and we want to identify, empathize, and support victims.  We fear terrorism too.  We value freedom of the press.  We are love the French, sort of, in America.

But, I am a little horrified too.  I am familiar with Charlie Hebdo.  I have read the magazine and seen the comics over the years.  And I have to say, “No.  I am not that.”  And I don’t think Christians should be so quick to claim something that is not good, may even be evil, either in the name of empathy or freedom.  Charlie was and is a source of horrific themes of misogyny, racial and religious stereotypes, and sexual and gender ridicule.  We cover these things politically. We allow them as a matter of social order.  I am not going to argue for censorship.  But as a Christian, I have found this magazine to be offensive at a level that would make Alfred P. Newman blush with shame.

We have to be more discerning than Je suis Charlie.  We don’t have to become neonazis to stop on the side of the road and change their tire.  We don’t have to become prostitutes to care for them in the hospital.  And we don’t have to think every kind of speech or action is okay, even if we allow it politically.

My fear is that the United States is losing its ethics.  We are losing our ability to think and reason beyond the soundbite.  And this is incredibly dangerous.  The tendency to think thin thoughts that are not centered in a way of being that is deeper than the current context is not simply a symptom of our age; it is a loss of an internal moral compass.  It hearkens to 1935.

We see this everywhere in media.  The bad guy does bad things, so we do bad things to the bad guy and cheer.  We torture our enemies.  We murder their children.  We hate them.  We call them names.  We ridicule them.  We kill them and anyone around them out of the clear blue sky.  And we call it good.

But we are not Americans first or French.  We are Christians.  And our Lord has told us how to respond when someone hits us, when someone calls us names, when someone hates us.  He showed us on the cross.  And those commands are not conditional demands.  They come before the pledge.

I do not condone the violence done in Paris this week.  No one should.  It was evil.  The people who were shot were human beings who were loved by God and us.  We, as Christians, must love them and do.  All of them.

This is the brutal end of our Gospel.  It may cost us our very lives, but we even then we have nothing to fear.  We are a people of love.  Charlie Hebdo did not represent that.  Neither did the terrorists.  Neither do our drones.  We must find a new way forward.

I am not Charlie, but I love him, even if he hates me.  But I don’t have to pretend like he is right, either.  I can love my enemy and bandage his wounds.

Living a Prophetic Advent

Living a Prophetic Advent in Times Hungry for Prophets
Advent has come again: the season of prophets and promises, longing and hope. Living after Pentecost, we people of Jesus are always in a season of Advent, in a way. On the other hand, the promises and hope that we remember in the prophets and the story of Advent are fulfilled already. The Rule of God has come in the person of Jesus and is the lived reality of his church. (Or it is supposed to be.)

This year we in the United States have been starkly reminded of the “not yet” of our hope. In many ways the reminders around the world have been pretty stark: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ISIL, Hong Kong, Ferguson, New York, Berkeley. We live in a moment that is hungry for a word from God. We live in a time hungry for God’s salvation and justice.

It is easy as a Christian to want to wrap a blanket of nostalgic theology and pageantry around our faith and settle in to watch the snow outside the window and maybe a little Charlie Brown or Jimmy Stewart. But this is a season of prophets: of holy wilderness rather than comfortable living rooms, of robes of righteousness rather than snuggies.

But I am not in Ferguson or New York. I am not in Syria or Bethlehem. How do I live into this season of prophets in my comfortable living room and the gentle snows of my northern Michigan home?

The Christian life, every Christian life, is a witness to reality, either God’s or the world’s reality. We bear witness with the choices we make wherever we are. I have to choose to bear witness to God’s Rule. It may not be great because my situation does not demand greatness, but it is essential nonetheless if the people here are to hear God’s Word spoken and have their world transformed.

I have a choice at the grocery store and in the library, in my practices of Advent and my driving as to what I bear witness to. In the Bible Jesus never demands that we believe in the virgin birth, rather he tells us how to live. We are to be humble and just, merciful and forgiving, loving and endlessly reaching out to others in grace.

This must be the essence of our Advent; to live this way must be at the heart of our worship and our practices. I am to tell the truth and love others. I am to speak wholesome words and build up those who are torn down. I am to be just and merciful in my business.

Imagine an Advent when black and Hispanic people were treated fairly and justly by white people in the United States, not just because of laws but out of real love and faith. Imagine being a police officer who tried to do his job and had people forgive them when they overreacted or failed, who was loved even as they administered justice. Imagine being forgiven at work and encouraged at home. Imagine being treated as a human being.

We have come such a long way in the last four hundred years as a nation, but it is very clear this year that we have a long way to go. What role can the church play in helping the United States move toward justice and mercy? I am not sure that the answer is going to be offered by our political parties or our political binaries? We may have to dream again, but I know that it will begin where Jesus did, in the hearts, souls, and minds of those of us who follow him being changed.

We have to bear witness to a God of grace and mercy and justice and provision in our everyday decisions and actions. This witness may be costly. We will probably get taken advantage of and ridiculed and challenged, but not much. Keep it in perspective. I bear witness in a really safe place. I have angered people and been called names, but I do not fear for my life or even my job.

One of our witness points for the church in my town, made up of all our different denominations and congregations, is in housing the homeless during the harsh winter months in our buildings. It costs us convenience and building maintenance, odors and space. Sometimes it costs us comfort and safety. It has cost us very rarely in theft and harassment. But every time we face some change in costs, we get anxious. Someone will question whether it is worth the costs, but it always comes back to a simple expectation. “I was hungry and you fed me.”

We house and serve the homeless and poor, the drunks and the hungry, the rich and the well off, Republicans and Democrats, the calm and the angry, the yogi and the banker, the believer and the wanderer. We are all of those things in our little church, and in our church we are none of them. We are the witnesses of a different world where God is calling us all to the table, to serve and love each other in worship to him who comes to us again in Bethlehem and Ferguson, and even in Traverse City. In our faithfulness we bear witness by living humbly and justly, mercifully and forgiving, loving, and endlessly reaching out to others in grace whether they can pay us back or not, whether they join us in this new world or not.

We are prophets of promises already fulfilled and still not yet.

None of this seems like enough when our neighbors are being shot or choked in the streets, when our incarceration rates and arms productions surpass every other nation, when extremists are taking over nations and our media, when we face wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes and signs throughout the world. But this is the way of Jesus, to live a new reality as we hope for it, to risk the small costs and the large ones, to love our neighbor and bear witness as we pursue justice and mercy.

In our love we become bearers of the Word of God, like Mary on her donkey following Joseph to Bethlehem without a room waiting for them, displaced by an unjust act of government, and yet singing the song of God in the wilderness between dangers, pregnant with hope and a new reality.

We begin where we are, living bold lives of love and service, like candles against the night.  It may be your place to take to the streets and protest, but it is surely all of our time to reach out to our neighbors and have dinner with them, to stop and thank a police officer for their service in these hard days and offer mercy to those who don’t seem to get it just right, knowing how much forgiveness we have required of others and of God.  We all have to choose a prophetic Advent.

May our parties and our dinners and our worship services and our letters and presents and ministries this Advent be prophetic, declaring God’s wild and unmerited love in a world that is suffering again.