How to Argue as a Christian

“Blessed are the meek,” said Jesus, and these days that seems obvious to me.  If only I had that kind of courage and strength. Later he went on:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,[e] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[f] a brother or sister,[g] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’[RACA] you will be liable to the hell[h] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[i] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[j] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[k] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You’re a f______ing idiot” is a pretty good translation of Raca! in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5, NRSV)

This is the reading that I constantly come back to as I try to learn to live as a follower of Jesus.  Is that even possible?  Have you read what Christians write online?

That’s pretty cheap, I know.  But I often feel something similar to what the ids are producing online.  (By “ids” I simply mean that people write from base instinct, without benefit of ethical reflection or restraint.)

Over the last several years of prayer and study, I have grown past the temptation to simply blurt out online, but I have to admit that I have had little fits in smaller settings.  They tend to happen  when I am thinking about politics, especially church or national politics,  or when reading online, parenting,  really anytime I am struggling with other people.  And, whether I say it or not, “RACA” in one form or another is what I say.

How can I not?  People are foolish.  Politicians fail us and common sense.  It is easy to come up with reasons why people do not deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.  I have scrolls of such reasons in the tabernacle of my heart.

But I have this dad-saying that I use on my children: “We don’t let other people determine what kind of person we will be.”  I don’t know where I got this. My dad never said that exact thing to me, though he modeled it.

So my anger and indignation at the world makes me question, “What kind of person am I to be when it comes to the ids of everyday life?”

I am going to presume that I should not merely be an id.  [This is where you bring to mind all that Paul wrote about the fleshly person and the spiritual person in Galatians.]  The id is the lizard that lives in the base of my brain.  The lizard wants to eat, sleep, fornicate, and fight if necessary, run if possible.  It is self protective, violent, fearful, thoughtless. Lizards do not do second level reflection.

Beware the lizards!  We have become sophisticated in our ways of expressing this lizard-mind, sublimating our base desires into language, actions, policies, and politics.  And because we all have that part of our deepest selves lurking in the landscape of our identity, it feels good to hear or see someone else expressing those desires.  We like to know who to fight and who to fornicate with; we like to be able to discern good from evil.  So we are seduced.

Is that wrong?  I know the question comes up when we begin to reflect on the primal nature of our deepest longings.  It is the first real question in some way.  It is the Garden of Eden question.

The tree presented the Knowledge of Good and Evil as fruit.  That knowledge was the temptation, and it led Adam and Eve to know they were naked, to hide from God, to blame the other, to be cursed to toil and struggle even in childbirth, to be subject woman to man, to be cast out.

This story is deeply problematic for all sorts of reasons, but I have come to witless startling time and time again as life has made more sense through it.  If you have never read Augustine’s last Confession, it is worth the rest of the book for its weaving of Genesis with the rest of the Bible and the Universe. The Garden is a good place to seek understanding about where we came from, but we Christians are supposed to be a people for whom the curse of the Garden is undone.

Can we not have knowledge of good and evil?  Would that even be a good thing?  I am relying on Bonhoeffer here to hold me up so I can peek back over the hedge and say, “What did we have before we left?”  If it wasn’t good and evil, what did we have knowledge of?  The answer has to be our selves, our world, and God.

If by some magic, we could have that mind again, the Fruit of the Knowledge of God, would you eat it?  I believe that is what the Bible meant by Wisdom, the knowledge of God in the world and in our selves.  That is not too bold.  Read Proverbs again or the Psalms.  We spend our time deciphering Good and Evil, because that is the decoder ring we have, so we quarrel, dispute, and argue.  These very things are in Paul’s list in Galatians 5 as the works of the flesh (lizard-mind).

What are to do then?  We know that the world is nuts.  Aren’t we supposed to be discerning good and evil?  Maybe not.  Maybe we are supposed to be discerning where God is, what God is doing, and what God would have us do.  That would fit very well with the Sermon on the Mount.

“Do not insult.  Do not hold contempt.  Do not be angry.  Go and seek to be reconciled with another if you have offended them; this is more important than sacrifice.”  Can more shocking words be written in our day?

I have certainly offended others.  I have insulted and be contemptuous.  I have been angry. And I have been them online. We could say that such things are the price of doing business in the world.  We could say that we cannot help ourselves.  We are only human.  But what we mean is that we are only lizards after all.

Jesus cannot expect more of us, can he?

If we are to make the bold claim to be the heirs of the kingdom that is not of this world, we have to be spiritual people, people born not merely of the flesh or the desire of a man, but we must be born again.  “To those who believe, he gave the power to become the children of God.” See the Gospel of John.  Now that is Good News.

So how do we argue?  How do we disagree?  We must be strong enough to speak the truth with no additives.  We must keep our fear and distrust, our contempt and anger in check.  This is the practice of the follower of Jesus.

Ultimately we hope to become the kind of people who don’t have fear, distrust, contempt, or anger.  I don’t imagine that you are there.  I am certainly not, but we keep turning to the deep practices of our faith, not as an end to themselves, but as practice for that kind of self.

“The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”  The practice is to be the Sons and Daughters of God in the quiet of peace, so that when everything falls apart, we don’t resort to the world’s way of being, but rather we can be human beings as intended by God, even when doing that costs us our lives, or makes us put up with people being wrong online.

I think the failure of the church in crisis has to do with our loss of practice in peace.  We let the peace of our times lull us to thinking that we were at war when we actually weren’t.  And then when we, American Christians, face crisis we are spiritually flabby and unable to even identify truth, much less take it up as a sword of peace.  We then don’t bring peace at all, but rather we are no different than the “kingdoms of this world.” This is our shame.

We have become like the world, and our cause, though sounding like holiness, is a worldly holiness that looks little different and below the surface is little different than everything else.  We are merely defending a lifestyle or a liberty rather than being the people of God.

That’s why politicians can seduce us so easily while not even trying to look Christian.  This is our fault though, not theirs.  “Can’t blame a stealer for stealing wallets; that’s just what they do.”  (Old Crow Medicine Show)  We have to return to our senses and grow up as a spiritual people, not merely born again but growing in stature in Christ, like Christ.

IMG_2262Then we won’t be tempted to shout, “You f____ing idiot,” at the people living by their ids, and even more we won’t be seduced by them either.  We can speak the truth when others can hear the truth because we have loved them, laying down our very lives for them, serving with humility, and offering peace rather than more of the same idiotic shouting.

This is somehow considered less manly these days or cowardly.  But like having the strength to move a bar slowly when lifting weights, it is more difficult and requires a strength of character and courage that is absent the shouting.

Oh, that I had the strength to be humble, the courage to be quiet!  This is our practice.

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.

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.

Rule of Grace – Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday’s Sermon on Saturday Night – Embracing the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mini-Sermon: Fields of Wheat

In my office at the church it is such a common occurrence that I get thanked profusely and sometimes with tears for the work that I get to put a face on.  I rarely have done much other than served as a vehicle for others.

The blessing is that I get to be there when the realization comes that a grace too big to be repaid has just entered into your life.  I get to be there for the usually quiet “thank you.” Sometimes all it took was an envelope or a piece of paper or a pile of boxes or a card or a key.  Sometimes I have had to cajole and coerce people to open their hands and hearts to something that is too big, too gracious to be acceptable.  Again, it is important to know that I am rarely responsible for the gift, I am a delivery guy, a butler in this house of God we call Grace.

And I have one little sermon for this moment that many people have heard over the last decade or so.  It may be my best sermon.  It goes like this.

Look, we are all just heads of wheat in a ripe field of harvest.  The Wind blows, and we bow.  Today I am bowing to you, and you are overwhelmed, but there are a million heads of wheat bowing behind me.  I can bow to you because they are bowing to me.  Tomorrow the Wind will change, and we will change directions.  Then you will bow to someone else, and so will I.  This moment, right now, let me bow to you.  You will bow too, and this is the way of God in the world.  The Wind blows, and we bow, and Grace is passed from one to another like a harvest in the wind.

IMG_4198

Be generous this Christmas, for we all bow and are bowed to again.  I love you because I am loved.  May the Wind blow through us all.