Silence and Obedience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.

Rule of Grace – Chapter 2

Our new life begins in baptism, where we are made children of God and heirs of the Rule of our Abba.  This great and holy calling comes with a real danger to see that God’s covenant was with us, but did Jesus not say as the elder repeats week after week in the Eucharist, “This is my blood of the new covenant shed for you and for the crowd for the forgiveness of sins.”  Or did Paul not say, “For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Were not all sinners?  Yes, as Paul had just affirmed in his letter to the Romans.  Salvation is not for the few, but for the whole earth.

And this is not dependent on us, for as God says seven times in the covenant with the whole earth after the flood, this covenant is made with all flesh, all creation, but it is dependent on God.

We humans have often become tribal in our survival thinking, our flesh thinking, that we roll back God’s calling and covenant to be about us.  This sin was what brought the temple down and has led to sin time and time again.  Indeed privation of good is how philosophers often describe evil.  When we take God’s covenant and make it personal only we are on the road away from the New Jerusalem and we have tossed Christ’s yoke from our necks.

It often shows up in the simplest of errors, greeting only our fellow Christians, our friends, in the marketplace.  Soon we are protecting ourselves from the very people we are called into new life for!

The followers of Jesus are to be a house of prayer for all the nations.  We are a royal priesthood.  And what does a priesthood do except represent God to the world and present the world to God!

We did not earn our belonging to God.  We came home like the prodigal son; perhaps we expect to become servants again, but to be returned to our true created status seems to good to even dream.  Did we earn it?  No, if anything we have earned our condemnation, if we are to follow Paul’s logic.  But this only makes sense if we understand the whole and holy good love that we have walked away from.

If God is the God of the so much of our theology, the angry score-keeping sacrifice-needing god of the pagan systems of sacrifice that has often replaced YHWH, especially in the deserts, then we would be brave to escape.  We would be heroic to flee from such a god to the worship of self and pleasure.  But oh, this misses the gospel by a mile or more!

We can only be said to have offended God if God is good.  We have to know our true blessing to understand the offense.  We have to return to ourselves to understand how far we have fallen from our true nature.  This is what the “depravity of man” theology can totally miss.  We were not created in sin.  We were created in goodness, in blessedness, in order to be the blessing of God in the world.  If we are to return to ourselves, we must see how we have become a blessing only to our self in our pursuit of pleasure, comfort, personal happiness.  The tragedy is that in being a blessing only to ourselves, we have become a curse to ourselves.

This seems heavy handed in the world of self-worship. But it is simple.  We were created for a purpose, to love God and care for creation including each other.  We were meant to bear the image of a creative Creator in love to others.  When we turn that to our self alone, we are like hunting doges kept in apartments, destructive creatures who are deeply unhappy.  We destroy things seeking the true nature of our purpose.

O, unhappy fate, to be a Vizsla in a city apartment!  We eat couches and chairs, dig up the furniture, and terrorize the cat looking for one moment of deep satisfaction.  We make do with the small walks in the park of worship on Sunday when we are meant to run, to stalk, and pursue through the great hunting lands of Hungary!

Let us admit that a deeper purpose is calling us.  In our pursuit let us turn our search outward to the welcome and service of others.  Let us worship the good God, creator and Abba, YHWH who is always beyond our grasp but who welcomes us home in open arms; and let us study God’s ways in the Scriptures and in our deepest selves, in tradition, the apostle’s teachings and in fellowship.  Let us look outward to our world, that God loves and Christ died for.

In practice, take a person, any person on the street, that you can see, and practice seeing them as God’s child, beloved.  Can you see God’s delight in them?

Begin your day the same way, remembering who you are.  Come to your self daily as a child of God among God’s children.  Sit up straight, breathe deeply, and delight in our Abba who delights in you.  This is the right beginning to set us on the way of salvation.

Do not be discouraged when you realize how far you have wandered from your calling, God is waiting for your return.  The road may be short or long, but God will put a ring on your finger and sandals on your feet.  He will put you again under the mantle of Christ your savior.  Breathe deep and start walking.

This Rule is Only a Beginning of Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

So with these parameters, let us begin our Rule:

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

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

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

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

Find Forward – Life after Salvation, Life after Secularism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you begin?

Addicted to the Apple – Theology as Addiction Treatment

Okay, so I am not the first person to notice this, but the Apple on my Mac has a bite taken out of it.  This little observation always haunts me a little bit whenever I see it, which is often.  I write on a Macbook, text and talk on a iPhone.  I did sell my iPod, iPad mini 2, and the older Mac at home is a half-frozen antiquity from 2008.  I am addicted.

Okay, so I don’t really mean addicted, nor am I really talking about my preference for an operating system on my computer.  I am addicted to this world, the world of the apple.  The world of the knowledge of good and evil, post-garden of eden, clothing world.  I am an addict to the world of sin.  And I bet you are too, even if you use a PC or Chromebook or nothing.  We are addicted.

I was reminded of my state by a conversation with a recovery rockstar locally, Thomas Gilbert.  He was talking about what makes effective recovery and laying the groundwork for a sober house and retreat center here in Traverse City.  I am all about people in recovery.  They are models of new creation living in the most brutal and honest way.

We Christians should be major supporters of recovery because of what it is, what it says, and what it means.  As sober Christians we are really passive about love for people in recovery generally.   As an Episcopal church, we host AA and have treatment available for clergy, but I am talking about local Christians understanding and rejoicing and celebrating recovery as a model of embracing new life.

The Navy Seals have a saying, Embrace the Suck.  I love that saying because it means to accept the suffering of this moment in order to do your job and do it well.  It is going to suck, and if you want to get where you want to go, you are going to have to embrace it.  I want the solitude of desert solitude and survive, so I carry water.  In recovery, I understand that we have to embrace the suck of life.  We, all of us human beings, embrace opiation, medication, numbing agents, until we are no more fully alive.  We avoid real life.

This is the essence of addiction as I understand it.  Our minds become shaped, rutted, preset to the addicted substance instead of real life.  We prefer the addiction object instead of life and loved ones and even food and water.  These objects usually have a numbing effect, an opiate of some sort.  We, of course, prefer to be numb rather than deal with the world.  Being sober means embracing the suck of real life.  It is hard and will be if we want to get where we want to go.

Have you ever heard someone who was so addicted to their beliefs that they no longer embraced real life?  The NRA member who cannot deal with the realities of handgun deaths of children, or rich people who cannot look long at poverty?  I think the allegation that faith is an opiate is fair when our faith is a way of avoiding the world, of numbing ourselves to reality.  That does not mean that ecstatic realities are not real, but rather that they can lead toward or away from real life, just like a glass of wine can lubricate conversation and allow people to be real or be a numbing agent that avoids the difficulties of conversation.

Doing theology is difficult, but it is one of the ways that we get a new mind, that we learn to think as a mature engaged human beings.  I need a new mind.  Yes, Jesus can just give me one, but that is not the way God always works.  We are given freedom and then have to learn to live in freedom and responsibility.  We have to metanoia, or repent, to get a new mind in Christ Jesus. The word metanoia is the Greek word for repent, and it means to have a new way of knowing, a larger mind, a more mature understanding or view.  Learning theology, alongside learning to concentrate, contemplate, and meditate, alongside learning to submit and pray are the practices of getting a new mind.  All of these practices are rooted in and soaked by the Bible and especially the life and teachings of Jesus.

When we get a new mind, the questions we ask change as well as the answers we have.  Can we ever go back to not knowing that we are naked?  Is it possible to go back to a state of purity?  I don’t think so.  The addicts we have, our recovery heroes, are always going to have addictions, just like us.  We should celebrate their work and their successes, and we should be patient when they fall off the wagon and return to the object of their addictions; after all, who could understand that better than us?  We should embrace their suck and embrace them as they wrestle with real lives and the complications and convictions of their lives under the apple.  After all, they are us.

The faith and love of the Episcopal Church will be tested by our ability to love the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook and hold her close and visit her while being honest about the atrocity and sin and brokenness of her addiction.  Can we let her be human and still love her, honor her, uphold her dignity, while admitting the depths and realities of her sin?  Can we do that while honoring and upholding and embracing the dignity of her victim, a family man who was bicycling through his own complicated and beautiful life? Can we hold the contradictions and complications of this story and not neglect the human being involved?  Can we embrace the suck here?

This is the test we face right now, or at least one of them.  I know that if I am going to embrace the suck of real life and work for an even more real life of Christ and the Rule of God, where every human being is loved by God and has justice and peace and where sins are forgiven and justice done, I am going to need a new mind.

So I lean into the Daily Office, and I sit in meditation and prayer, and I read theology, even though none of these is easy today.  I need a new mind, and a community that loves me, and I need the close and constant work of the Holy Spirit breathing in me, speaking the Word and his Way into being in me, and I need the God of all creation who is bringing the whole back one day.

Until then, I love you even when it sucks, because Christ embraced the manger and the cross, and on my way out of the Garden still picking my teeth, God made me something to wear, and the Breath that moved over the waters of Creation still move and even darkness is not dark to God.

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 Study Theology as a non-Specialist?

Theology is not popular.  It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends.  I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated.  I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements.  I was wrong.

But you should care about theology; you have one.  A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear.  You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it.  The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.”  Logos is one of those helpful words to know.  It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger.  It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding.  The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”

A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy.  After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese.  It is the way that makes the walker.

An example is coffee to the connoisseur.  The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it.  He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup.  He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe.  He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea.  Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing.  That thing is a logos.  It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.

So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God.  In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.

So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now.  The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.

For example, God is often understood as “father.”  This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential.  It was true in Jesus’ day.  When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically.  To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology.  We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God.  Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore.  We could spend years on this one topic.

There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have.  I am a runner and a physical person.  I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs.  I have opinions.  Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology.  I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God.  I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body.  Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God.  I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God.  In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.

Finally opinions.  I have opinions about lots of things.  My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature.  You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey.  My opinions do not change things.  They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it.  They are rarely really important.  The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree.  Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit.  Theology is not about having more opinions.

We learn theology.  In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God.  We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way.  Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.

But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling.  I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.

That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not?  To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice.  To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?

I love theology like I love poetry.  They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.