Trail Running with Saint Benedict

Over the last seven years or so, I have been running with Saint Benedict.  It started out as a casual acquaintance.   I was given a statue years ago by an dying parishioner in Tucson, who insisted Benedict was for me.  His raven was who I connected with at first.  Bringing bread to the struggling saint was something I related too and depended on.  I still see those harbingers of grace and insatiable hunger everywhere.

Some years later, John O’Donahue, my frequent companion on earphones moved away, and I began to listen to the Rule while running.  Joan Chittister and Esther De Waal joined Paolo Coelho on my iPod.  The Rule started to works its way into my thinking.  Order and grace, compromise and demand, stability and transformation.

If you run, you know there are two kinds of runners: runners who run for accomplishment and runners who run for love.  I am the latter as my empty box of accomplishments shows.  I run because I love the edges of the world and the edges of my self.  I love running because it has been my soul work since I was twelve.  I have nearly run myself to death, and I have run myself back to life.

But with Benedict I began to understand the trail as my cell.  It is where I do my work, praying and pushing and resting, working out the vision of the church and theology, and it is where I go to stop working and push the clutch on my mind.  It is the container of the alchemy of my own transformation over the flame of God.

I pray a lot on the run.  I listen to God, I listen for God, and I rant at God, and I beg, plead, lament, repent, confess, weep, rejoice, and give thanks.  I sometimes read the readings of the week and then go run.  I sometimes study and study and then go run to let it simmer into something edible for a Sunday brunch.

With Benedict, I run to find humility.  The deep humility of Benedict is not self-destruction.  It is honesty about my own soul and condition.  It is honesty before God and my deepest self.  It is abiding within the provision of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and letting that provision take away fear and anxiety.  Humility is love of others based in nothing but trust that God provides and protects, so my ego gets to loosen its chokehold.

I run to escape my ego and befriend my inner self.  Running is like journaling for me without the self-focus of my stream-of-consciousness.  When I am running I have to be in this present moment, feeling what I feel, attentive to breath and body, and that somehow makes it possible to be present to God in a way that just destroys my false self, my denial of tension and pain, and my self-justification.  It is like journaling while on a slack line.

In the Rule, Benedict is severe about humility, calling for this self-denial that worries the nurse and concerns the social worker.  But on my runs I have found Benedict realistic, naming the false ego version that I pretend is me to deny my true self and others and defend my illusions and desires.

Even the best spiritual directors cannot do the work for you of taking down that false self.  You have to show up and put in the miles.  You have to have stability in practice in order to have lasting transformation.   You have to keep escaping the ego and keep making friends with the you that God actually loves.

I have run my whole life.  But twelve years ago I started over.  I tore my hamstring in high school in a small meet my senior year.  I would happily tell you why it happened.  It was entirely avoidable, but it was still career ending.  I wasn’t going to run in college.

For years I would run a few times and start to get serious, then I would fail.  I would peter out, quit, just stop running.  It was discouraging, but I mostly just denied it, told old stories of better days, and got fat.  When I put myself together in seminary, I did it with ashtanga yoga (because of a Power Yoga book aimed at runners.)  I started running again, but never consistently, never faithfully, and never for long.

Then five years later, I moved to Phoenix alone.  I could be on a trail in less than half a mile.  I wanted to do it right, and I could. I felt like an eggplant on toothpicks at first.  Okay, for a couple of years.  The most terrible sound I heard in the desert wasn’t coyotes or rattles.  It was, “Oh, hello Father!” when I was out running in tiny little running shorts with no shirt.  It was my first daylight run in months.

But I started over with a Runner’s World Beginners Running book and a Timex watch with interval timer and Chi Running, walking and running intermittently, adding minute by minute for a year, until I was running for hours at a time.  I had begun again and begun with a rule.  I needed a guide and companion.

My spiritual life has often followed the same pattern.  I get fat, tell old stories, and get by on my occasional efforts.  Benedict has called me to stability and transformation based in a humility of trust.  He shows up daily with instructions and encouragement, and he often brings Joan and Esther along; and we go for a run.

Sometimes I even run in sandals, my earbud wire flapping like a rope around my waist, putting one foot in front of another, running with Benedict and Paul and the women, learning to be faithful in these days of ours.  I am running the good race, I am keeping the faith, one minute, one day, one step at a time.

from OSB.ORG

Chapter 7: On Humility

Jan. 25 – May 26 – Sept. 25

Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard
when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me” (Ps. 130[131]:1)
But how has he acted?
“Rather have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul” (Ps. 130[131]:2).

Hence, brethren,
if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility
and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation
to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life,
we must
by our ascending actions
erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream,
on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending.
By that descent and ascent
we must surely understand nothing else than this,
that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.
And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world,
which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled.
For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder,
and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted
the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb.

No, I am not an ex-Baptist. I am a Episcopal Christian.

No longer post-evangelical. Episcopal life after the life after being Baptist. A birthday meditation.

I grew up Southern Baptist, but I am no longer an ex-Southern Baptist. My turn away from my turn began when in an interview with my then bishop-to-be Robert Shahan said, “Make sure you bring the gifts of your Baptist life to the Episcopal Church, your love of salvation and personal relationship with Christ.” It was not what I expected to hear.

Leaving the Southern Baptist life was tied up in a number of decisions; much like becoming vegetarian, it was something that was more emergent than a breaking point. The social issues and the salvation message (without much beyond it), the Bible as fourth person of the trinity, all of it was there, and I had had a conversion about women in ministry [not much of a leap beyond the women of my family.] But it wasn’t any one of these things or even the culmination of them that led me to leave.

Sometimes I say it was the liturgy, and I suppose in a real way it was; but it wasn’t just the liturgy. I was looking for a way of embodying the teachings of Jesus, a lived community salvation. What I found was the ascetic theology of the Book of Common Prayer. It was these things too, and it was something else.

It felt right. Which is not what I want to write. I want to say that it was this great theological or worshipful ideal that arose out some depth of study and worship. And it was, but it was also this internal place of feeling in my bones the things I had hoped for in those hours in that tiny apartment at Grand Canyon between worship services, classes, and a handful of jobs reading all those books alongside the Bible and trying to imagine what the community of God would look like at worship.

I am not sure after the last twenty years if I have really found what I set out after in college, at least not as a repeatable form, but there are these moments where the Spirit slips into our hearts, and the worship just lifts up into praise and intimacy, drunken joy and transformation. Sometimes that is Sunday mornings, and sometimes it is the simple eucharist on Wednesdays, and sometimes it is sitting around the table in my office where my work gets smaller and infinitely more detailed.

O Wisdom! The Spirit comes dancing in and whisks away the dust and crud of build up that clings to us in our daily lives. She takes these tired hands and goes swinging through in time to the angels lift of praise. She comes with light and lights, and the dance is so much more and so much less than liturgy. It is worship and praise, tears and joy, laughter and love, intimacy and reverence. It is repentance and coming home. It is the slake of thirst of that first drink in the desert. It is touch of God.

On those days, you can watch God work like wind twisting trees. Sure, there is almost always wind to the attentive finger in the air, and trees never really sit still, being living things. But when you have watched the leaves of fall in Michigan go dancing, you can’t compare the everyday with the manifestation of the Day at all.

Back to what I left. When I left the Baptist church, I was leaving a way of being Christian. It didn’t fit. And I had been ridiculed a couple of times for not being the right size. I was persecuted. If I can make that awesome word small and tiny and not have it stand in the same way it does for those who really suffer harm and danger, then I can say I was persecuted. When I think of North India and Syria and the Christians of Iraq, I should say, I was talked about impolitely. I was ribbed. I was teased. I felt persecuted when I was too young to know what suffering entails. Mostly I was loved and supported by the people who packed my bags.

I left looking for a place to be the kind of Christian I hoped I was. I left looking for worship that embodied the teachings of Jesus my Lord. I found the cathedral in Phoenix and the women who led her, Trinity. Rebecca and Veronica embodied something about the mystical body of Christ; with them I could bow. The people were raw and holy without any pretense of being good at being a church. As an institution they were living in ruins. They were faithful and hopeful and honest and kind, but they were not successful and hadn’t been for a long time. I was one of a very few under forty. Truly I was one of a few, period.

Later it would grow. Later it would become the community and institutions that it is now, but twenty years ago, it was a remnant in the ruins of past success. And among those ruins I found a people, and in their honest participation in a liturgy that was bigger than any of us, I joined with adults in the life of the Church. I found a voice and a calling there. It was there that Bishop Shahan told me not to leave behind the heritage of Scripture and relationship. He even hired me to teach youth and young adult ministry and confirmed and ordained me.

I had left behind a church in transition, a denomination that continues to grow and evolve, though they don’t like that word particularly. Many of my cohort stayed to live beautiful and fruitful Christian lives. Many of my friends became Emergent Christians, founding hip communities and doing amazing things, living the life of God in new and exciting ways. They became part of the revolution that is always going on in the evangelical church. I went backwards crawling back through revivals and revivalism, Methodism and evangelical Anglicanism, looking for a pure sacrament. I left the post-modern and found myself pre-modern.

I was looking for authentic worship, rooted in history. I was looking for the upper room and freshly broken bread. I wanted to get as close to Christ as I possibly could. I crawled into the liturgy of the church and discovered how broken the body can be. I discovered with the rest of my generation and probably yours that the church is always happening right now.

There is no pure sacrament, because it is always a sign held by human hands. God moves through us like trees, and we twist and fall. But our fall is only the chance for the Spirit to take us dancing again. When the dance is over we become part of the landscape, the long geological work of redeeming a world that is fallen and free, but still formed like river clay and breathed by the One who loved it and loves it still. We are always breathed creatures.

And sometimes that Breath breathes in our liturgies so strongly I want to call people to the altar, to tell them the stories of the Bible like a parent on a car trip telling childhood hijinks to those we tell to be better than us, and I want to break bread for the world. No I am not a post-evangelical. I am not a former Southern Baptist. I am a part of the broken body of the world, for the world. I am a part of the body of Christ, redeemed and gone dancing.

I am an Episcopal priest, a member of the Anglican communion, if one can be, and I keep the Offices and could no more give up the eucharist than my pen, and I still lament that my people don’t love Scripture, but am glad they don’t worship it. I live a sacramental life, if you can accept that no sacrament is pure, and I am held up by the Body of Christ, in robes and no robes, carrying leather Bibles and Books of Common Prayer in hands still dirty from the clay of the River of Life.

I am still baptized if not Baptist. I didn’t get far in my leaving. I just went backwards. I am not not a Baptist anymore. I am evangelical and Anglican, catholic and praying and Biblical, imperfect and still looking for a pure sacrament.  I still read the Bible and I love Jesus; and we should go dancing sometime, but I don’t dance.

The Adolescent Church – or It’s Time to Mow the Yard

By now you have heard it said that the “church” refers to the community or members, not the building.  This is not news to most people, and it seems silly to reiterate it.  But I want to extend it a little before we move on.  The “church” also does not refer to the institution, good or bad, or the structures and hierarchies of the institution that we create around the community.  The church is holy.  The other stuff is just there to support it, strengthen it, equip it, and keep it generation to generation.

The problem as I see it is that mostly our issues with the things we call church are surface.  The deeper issue that belies most of our complaints about church, which are making their weekly appearance in more or less relevant lists online, is that we are immature.  The church at large is really, really immature.  Making another immature list doesn’t seem helpful, does it?  I would argue that we are getting better.

Not every member of the church is immature.  Not every local community within the church is immature.  But the American branch of the church universal, in almost all of its iterations, is adolescent at best.  I think we are moving past early adolescence, though, in my lifetime.  Thankfully.

Adolescence is that magical age between childhood and adulthood when we are in transition.  In childhood the world is defined for us by our parents.  As we grow, if the parents do their jobs, we are forced to look beyond our selves and our wants to think of others, all the while having our needs considered and cared for by the mostly unseen benevolence of our parents.  We don’t usually know as grade schoolers that electricity is costly and paid for monthly or that it is truly deadly and comes to our house through a whole network of devices and wires that must be tended and cared for.  We don’t know.  We couldn’t handle it.  So our parents do and rarely tell us.  As we transition to adulthood, we come to understand the thing, its cost, and our responsibilities about it.

As we go through adolescence, we are let in on the mysteries of tending to life, which we called “doing chores” at my house.  We don’t understand much, but usually when we are healthy, we become aware of others in increasingly subtle and immediate ways.  We become aware of how large the world is, how many people are around us, and sometimes we get overwhelmed by that.  And if we are normal we begin to realize that those people have expectations of us.  This all takes a lot of time.

The American church has had its billed paid for a long time.  We have been given tax breaks and deference by the government, culture, and media. We have been protected, provided for, and generally regressed to that state in life before full adulthood.  For a host of different reasons, those protections and provisions are being taken away, and it is time for us to progress back towards maturity.

The world has expectations of us based on what we proclaim, and like adolescents we are becoming aware of the social pressures on us as people stop giving us those protections and deferences in the culture.  That pressure can come across as meanness or frustration or disdain as we fail at our own jobs.

I got fired from mowing grass when I was about fourteen by a guy who thought I should be able to check his rental units, and when the grass needed mowing or looked rough, show up on my own and mow it.  I was used to having an adult tell me when the job should be done, so I did not check or mow, and he was livid.  It was not a great moment for either of us, as I remember it.  I failed to understand and respond as an adult.

The church has failed to love well and maintain her integrity.  The world notices, and our culture is frustrated with the church.  They don’t notice all the things we do right, but they notice the things we have ruined.  [That pretty well sums up how I felt for a couple of years between twelve and fourteen.  You?]

This adolescence is not merely cultural.  The church is getting on through adolescence as we notice our issues and work on them, reaching out in love and responsibility in ways we really did not after the forties and fifties.  The church is back on the front lines of issues and involved in activism on several fronts.

I am convinced that this is not maturity, though.  It is merely late adolescence.  We are in an age of shouting and flag waving.  I hope it is almost over, but Facebook activism (slactivism) and issues-based outreach programs are about as sustainable and meaningful as teenage tilting from issue to issue.  In my teens, I worked on homeless gifts for Christmas and hurricane relief for clubs and had a burning fervor for issues that lasted for nearly a month at a time.  They were motivated by passion, but they did not involve my integrity or identity, just the tug of the heart ready to burst with hormones.  I am not sure I had either the integrity or the identity to sustain real work at seventeen.

I fell into passions like a teenager falls into love and right back out again.  It wasn’t thoughtful or deep, but it felt good.  I did reach a few families with gifts for Christmas and helped gather tons of something for, was it Florida or Texas?  I was gone again soon, even though those families were still poor and the coast of wherever was still desiccated.

The church lurches from issue to issue the same way.  We get played by politicians and special-interests like musical instruments.  We raise money, post some things online, maybe even change our profile picture to an equal sign or a something vaguely Arabic.  But little more.

Here is the rub.  Real issues are complex, difficult, and take years to really address, sometimes decades.  They take personal involvement that requires and even risks our integrity and identity.  I didn’t have the self to get involved in dealing with the economic issues that robbed working-class Tennesseans of just enough to keep them in the cycles of financial hardship.  I didn’t have the identity that would push me when the banners were put away and the shouts had died down.

Adulthood is boring.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told by Christians in the church that they were not mature enough to take their place in the world and would not grow up.  “I don’t want to be mature.”  “I don’t want to be old.” “I don’t ever want to grow up.” But the truth is the church is overflowing with immature Christians.  We don’t have enough self left after the petitions to fill in the pews.

If we are to grow up, we can turn to the three vows of the Rule of Benedict: obedience, stability, and transformation.  The humility of self that is demanded for obedience ironically sets us free to discover our true selves and to really learn about the world and our place in it, our responsibilities and expectations.  Stability gives us the time to mature into full human beings under God.  By staying put we can learn how God works over time and how to invest deeply into God’s work over that time that real change demands.  Transformation comes when we submit to God in Creation, Jesus in the his teachings and salvation, and the Spirit’s instruction.  We become more, not less, as we engage deeply  in one place and one faith community.

Read the Bible.  Pray daily.  Go to church.  Join a small group.  Develop a close circle of accountable Christians who will walk with you.  Pick one place in the world to do the work of the Rule of God.  Don’t fall for the “they” trap; love your enemies.  Heal the sick.  Forgive everything.  Yes, everything.  You are a Christian after all, and that means something.  Work for the long goal.

I don’t think that most of the issues of today are meaningless.  I believe we need the young to be the young, and to be in our faces as adults always risk becoming complacent about the issues of right now as we learn to look to the past and future for what really matters.  We need the fringes.  We need the young.

But the church needs to grow up.  We need to put in the time under the authority of God in Jesus, under Scripture, and under a community.  We need to grow up and begin to see the complexity of the issues of our day and get past jingoism and short-term Huffington Post morality.  We need to know who we are and who we are called to be, so that we can take stands that matter and that will last past the shouting.

In the news of the day are real issues that demand deep responses that go past the stay of the cameras and the attention of the mob.  It will be the church that lasts.  We have been mature before and can be again.  Look past the simplistic narrative of modernity to the history of humanity and humanitarianism in the West.  We will return to our full status as adult heirs of God’s hopes and dreams for the world, the kingdom or Rule of God, but not until we give up the refusal and rebellion that turns aside from the complexities and responsibilities of maturity.

Now, I have to go and buy a lawn mower.

 

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Lifting their Hands – On not leaving pastoral ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Giving Authority Away – Technique

Too little leadership material actually gives important tips for actually doing subtle things.  So here are a few vital tips:

Leaders are not on their phones.  We all know it happens.  But stop it.  Bad human.  Pay attention.  I am guilty and so are you if you have a smartphone.  None of the subtle work of leadership is ever going to get done inside you when you are on the phone.  Grow up.  The lack of discipline in public and private settings around computers and phones and tablets is horrendous.  People who would never pull out a novel in a meeting are playing games, checking social media, and emailing in the middle of meetings.   I have heard stories of pastors posting to Facebook while with dying parishioners and have watched people play games during a family member’s funeral.

Now that you are not on your phone, pay attention to who is watching whom in a meeting.  One of the biggest techniques to using (and building) credibility, trust, and authority in your work place or home is presence.  Mental and emotional presence is shown in the eyes.  Are you watching the person talking? Are you watching the person in power to see how they react when others are talking?  We give authority with our eyes.

Attention and presence are active.  They are done things.  We say you “are present” or “not present,” but what we really mean is you are “actively present” or not.  Actively indicates that we are talking about the expenditure of energy or being, one of the most precious things on earth.  To actually be present to a meeting is work that requires discipline, focus, and defense against distractions inside and out.

Everyone knows this at a gut level, so when we see someone that we give authority by placing their attention on someone else and being attentive to them, we move up the ladder with them, giving authority to the person they are attentive too.  But the sum authority is not additive, it multiplies.  Attention ups the amount of authority in the room.  Capable leaders know that and work to raise, maintain, and give attention to others carefully.

The eyes give authority or take it away.  Yes, people are watching.  I lecture my teenage daughters that everyone is not looking at them.  They can relax.  The lecture for adults is the opposite.  People are watching, but they don’t care about your jeggings as much as your eyes.  Set aside enough self-care and down time to not need to take it when you are with people who matter.  And if they don’t matter, don’t show up and pretend.  You have only added offense to offense.

Public statements of support are a vital technique to loan someone authority, but they have to be followed up on.  Otherwise they become destructive.  Go to meetings, grant permissions, find the money, follow through.  Everyone in a hierarchy has had a boss who would verbally support in the office and then kill projects in practice, all while smiling.  The euphoria of the smile passes, and what is left is poisonous.

Finally giving authority to someone else sometimes demands and almost always needs closure.  In a meeting it may be looking around after an important statement you agree with and nodding to show support or acknowledge a valid point.  In a larger communal setting it may demand that you stand up in front of the community and recount the deeds done and celebrate the person who actually did them.  Do NOT point out your support.  You are doing that by giving them the credit.  Pointing it out should only be done when public acknowledgement of failure is necessary.  This is almost never the case, but it does come up.  In that case, take the blame, take the authority back, and take responsibility for doing whatever is necessary to correct and move forward.  You are the leader.

In yesterday’s post we placed these considerations of authority under the considerations of values that lead us to use our authority for goals and objectives.  We return here to say that our values are what actually give us meaning and purpose.  For Christians understanding our values is one of the primary steps in translating love of God and others into goals and objectives that actually change things and give flesh (incarnate) to our theology.  Love is meaningless until the hungry person is fed.

So look up, speak up, and give away freely.

Freedom is not a Christian Virtue

My one concern here is for mature Christians, disciples of Jesus.  I have to state that up front because what I am about to say is open heresy in the other major ethos and theology of our day.

Freedom is not a Christian virtue.  It is not a virtue at all.  It is not something that you can earn, practice, or become.  Freedom is a gift.  We are given freedom by others and ultimately by God.  We have freedom as rational creative creatures, but it is immature to claim it for our selves.

When have you ever seen someone claim their freedom, insist on their freedom, and create a better relationship, a better family, a better community?  I have seen lots of people take responsibility for themselves, their children, their neighbors, their world and change lives for the better.  I have seen us plaster the language of freedom on thousands of selfish acts.

Freedom has become a virtue in our ethos today.  We want freedom, we celebrate freedom, we claim freedom, we defend our own freedom.  Freedom has become an end unto itself.  It has become a good.  All of this is weird and a little sick for followers of Jesus.

In America we celebrate the virtue of Larry Flynt publishing Hustler because he is practicing his freedom.  Because he is “owning his freedom,” we see that as a liberative story.  I am disturbed less by Mr. Flynt than by the narrative that celebrates freedom as an end unto itself.  He is virtuous because he set himself free from the constraints of society in publishing pornography.  We celebrate unquestioningly people breaking free from social, religious, moral restraints.  Then we grieve when we see the victims but cannot understand how that happened.

The western narrative in its American form is the lone male, usually white, usually fit, setting himself free from social constraint to face an uncertain but glorious future unconstrained by community, ethics, or values others than those he chooses.  We celebrate people acting free in their sexuality, of course, but also in many other ways.  This is incredibly adolescent.  It leads to death.  Next time you watch a movie, count the “collateral damage” wracked up in the pursuit of freedom.

I used to teach an eighth grade religion class, and I began by asking them what it meant to be an adult.  We often don’t aim our lives at anything because we never take the time to figure out what we are trying to become.  I wanted to build a picture of what a mature Christian looked like with them; so I would ask, How do we define adulthood in America today?  The answers always came down to what you could do once you become an “adult”: cigarettes, beer, pornography, and voting.  But what does adulthood really mean?

Adulthood is the voluntary taking of responsibility for yourself as a child of God, for your neighbor as a part of God’s family, for our communities of faith and geography, and for the world around us.  It means growing in your ability to love God, your neighbor, and your self.  I add care of creation from our original humanity.  It is not the choice or choices we can make that make us adults; it is what we choose to do.  It is choosing to live and love in particular ways that we should celebrate, claim, and defend.

In the process of choosing virtuous lives we give freedom to others to live, love, and pursue happiness.  But we cannot succeed to be a free people if our ideal is just claiming freedom for ourselves.  As a father, I choose to provide for my family, to be home with them when I can, and to live virtuously so that they don’t have to fear my behaviors or the repercussions of them.  They cannot have safety, security, and health without those choices.  If I live as lech my wife and children, my community, and the world will suffer in obvious and not so obvious ways for longer than just my life.   My good is in their good.  I practice virtues both at home and at work because I have made covenants to do so, and so that I can provide my family a secure home, provision for their needs, and care for their bodies, minds, and spirits.  I am free to do this because my father and mother did the same for me.  I am free to do otherwise I suppose, but not if I am to keep my integrity.

We now must face that freedom as a virtue is destroying other virtues in our lives.  In fact many of the traditional virtues are acts of  restraint in the face of freedom.  When we choose to follow Jesus we choose not to be free in all our choices.  It is ironic that this gives us true life and freedom.

The practices of our faith are intended to make us the kind of people who will choose to act in virtuous ways no matter what others do, no matter what our situation is, no matter what even our desires may be in this particular moment.  We are born and formed as a people of God, just as my children are my offspring by birth but formed as my children by living and loving and learning from me.*  They will choose to act as my children, or far more importantly as God’s children, in every decision of their lives.  Or not.

As we face headlines of renewed violence in our world, we have to stand at the edge of this new valley of the shadow of death and say, How do I follow Jesus here?  How do I live as a child of God here?  How do I see God’s rule of love and peace here?  This is the crux of discipleship.

On Sunday, Peter will try to pull Jesus back and say you can’t go there.  Jesus’ rebuke isn’t “I am free to do as I please.”  He doesn’t remind Peter of his freedom as God’s son or a son of humanity.  He rebukes him and tells him that his mind is in the wrong place.  He didn’t rise from prayer on the Mount of Olives and practice the virtue of walking away.  He took responsibility for us and all humanity in fulfilling the will of God knowing the cost of that decision.  In doing so he gave us freedom from sin.  What we do with that freedom matters for ourselves and our world.

Will we take responsibility, grow up, and care for our selves, our neighbors, our world?  Or will we just be free?

 

 

 

*I use “I” and “my” in relation to my family, but it is really “we” my wife and me.  Truth is she is far more virtuous and responsible than I am.

There are No Inalienable Rights

We don’t have inalienable rights endowed by our birth.  We don’t.  I love Thomas Jefferson more than you do, and I think he was right about a lot of things, including this one.  We have rights “endowed by our Creator“.  They are not inalienable rights, either.  We make them alien when we fail to live as God’s people.

Jefferson was smart enough to see that we have rights because there is a social covenant*, a covenant that binds you and me in a common life.  Any rights we have are given by our living into our covenant.

Test it out: take a baby of any race out into the woods and let him (or her) vote.  They have no right to vote given by the Creator.  Instead they will die slowly and probably horribly unless us or one of God’s other creatures steps forward to care for them, love them, and raise them up.

I am not arguing for social Darwinism.  Too often Christians have completely given up moral philosophy to biological impulse, or as Paul called it “the flesh.”  We are endowed with Spirit, and the Spirit teaches us, and what it teaches is law and life.

We have rights because we have a covenant.  That covenant is spelled out in the Bible as the Torah and then the New Covenant “Law of Love,” that Jesus teaches.  Both of those laws are versions of covenant, and they command us not to hold on to our own “rights” but rather to a set of social responsibilities that teach us what the Creator made us to be.  Our “rights” derive from all of us living rightly, or in Biblical language “righteously” that is to God’s approval.

We have to work at knowing who God is in order to get our social responsibilities straightened out.  We don’t serve a god of violence and retribution that we often create in our own worst image.  We don’t serve the god of our tribe, though that god is still very popular even in our day, even in our churches.  We serve a God who made the world for pleasure and called it good, who set us to keep it as stewards with dominion.  We serve a God who is about our redemption when we fall, but who lets consequences pay out unless we repent, and sometimes by grace, even when we don’t.

As Christians, we serve God who is known as Father, who sets our boundaries and defines our relationships, rules and provides, and we serve God as Abba, who has given us new birth and holds us, calls us by name and sets us free, who loves us and forgives us.  And we are supposed to become God’s children who do those same things, as Jesus our Lord did.  And the Spirit teaches us how, moving and dancing, reminding and teaching and making us new.

When we live into our covenants and the laws of God our Creator, we create rights for everyone around us that extend beyond the abuse-boundaries of the laws of our land.  A lawyer friend always reminds me that “the law is not made for the righteous man.”  The thing is that the righteous human being lives the law into irrelevance.

As we grow up from people who need to learn the rules, to people who can keep the law, we become people who don’t have rights so much as give others rights by our righteousness.  We supersede law in love, moving from protecting rights to providing life, and from defending against injustice to defining what justice means, the human being in right relation to God, creation, and other human beings.

When we find a baby in the woods, the law tells us many things, but love tells us to take it up, love that baby, give her a name, feed her, care for her, teach her, raise her up, so that she can take her place in the stewardship of the world and live up to the covenants of the children of God.

And that is why the people of Ferguson or wherever else violence defined by race or gender or nation raise their heads feel more than grief.   Their anger is righteous due to the expectation at the very level of  being that the covenants that make us human are being violated by the ones who are supposed to protect them.

We understand that sometimes protecting the people who live according to the covenant means a violent justice, but it should not and only as the last of last resorts.  But if our understanding of our basic human responsibilities under the covenant are out of line with our cultural norms, we are in real trouble.  Our cultural norms collapse from a call to mutual covenant to self protection, Darwinism at its 18th century worst.

When we are just protecting our own “rights” we miss the point. We have to protect each other. There is no other way to have a covenant based life of togetherness.

The alternative is violent coercion.  The alternative is violent freedom that belies our best intentions, which are called “best” because we are usually at some lesser place.

I am not arguing for theism.  I am arguing from theism.  I am a Christian.  I follow Jesus and have promised to live by his teachings embodied in the New Covenant and based, rooted, and understood from the Original Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I cannot leave a baby in the woods, and I cannot watch idly by while my neighbor gets destroyed by those who are supposed to protect them.

We have police to keep us safe, to defend the version of the covenant that we have enshrined in our country’s Constitution.  We should be a people of law and law evenly and fairly applied.  We should support the police while living in a way that makes their job as unnecessary as possible.  We should grieve when their job demands violence, but we should also ask our selves how much violence they actually should expect, and not be prepared for more without reason.  We should fire and prosecute them when they violate their oaths, but they should be able to expect us to keep ours as well.

Christians, we must live as we were created to live.  We have stewardship of the creation and should protect it.  We are called to love each other and protect and help each other, and we should, we must.  My favorite verse in Leviticus is “If your neighbor’s ox falls down in the road, you should lift it up; you shall not refuse your help.”

The news, this month from Ferguson, reminds us that we have work in front of us if we are to steward the world with the compassion of God.  We cannot ignore the stranger in the marketplace because of his skin color, language, or clothes; nor can we ignore our responsibilities toward him.  Not if we claim to love God.

 

 

 

*Covenant is preferable to contract or construct or other similar words because a contract’s obligations are dependent on parties keeping the contract.  A covenant is a binding statement that changes the realities and identities of the parties involved.

Don’t Call Me Father – Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedictine Vision and Pastoral Leadership – part II

Accountability in leadership is primary in Benedict’s Rule, but it is only possible with humility. Reading Chapter 7 in the Rule of Benedict is always both profoundly challenging and oddly liberating.

It is challenging simply because as a leader we are challenged to be in charge, to hold a community, and to make decisions and live with them. Anyone in active leadership should be experiencing some form of push back as part of the natural inertia of communities, and anyone in Christian leadership should be doing enough to challenge the world that they experience the additional opposition of the world. (I want to note that this should not be sought out in either case, that is the beginning of becoming a jerk-for-Jesus which Jesus did not ask us to become.)

These two forms of push-back come most profoundly from within. Whenever I go to do something that changes me, I resist. Habitual work taken in slow doses can build to overcome that resistance naturally most of the time, but I still don’t want to grow. This is true in simple external things like running for exercise. I run weekly in order to stay in shape. Often I just don’t want to run. Some days I have used up my energy in other things. Some days I have been sick. Some days I just don’t want to make the effort. But I have been running for so long and so slowly that I love it enough and what it does for me that I keep going most of the time. But even then, when I add a new workout or change my routine, I resist and I feel sore afterwards.

Humility is no different. We are not naturally humble. There may be someone out there who is just naturally humble, but most of us are either proud or beaten down. We are either blindly positive about our bestiness, living blindly unaware or unable to admit to our limitations and weaknesses, or we are perpetually negative, living blinded by our limitations and weaknesses to our God-given goodness and strengths.

True humility is honest about both where we fall short and where God is lifting us up. Benedict seems harsh about destroying the self will and pleasures. I have had parishioners reading Benedict for the first time really focus on the negative aspects, like self-negation and physical punishment. Honestly seen in context, Benedict is kind compared to the post-Roman times he lived in and brutal compared to The Baby Whisperer. But Benedict can be favorable compared to the Baby Whisperer.

The Baby Whisperer recommends that parents give their babies a schedule for both the parent’s sake and for the baby’s. In Benedict, humility is for our sake and sanity and for God’s sake. We can see how submission to God in fear and to other’s in humility would be for God and the community, but it is also for us. When we see ourselves as we really are, blessed and broken, we can put ourselves in the right places and expect what we are capable of.

It is just as vital to acknowledge that some people are not suffering from pride. They have been beaten down or just struggle with a view of themselves that is distorted to the negative rather than the positive. When I have met people in ministry who is broken in this way, I pray for them and try not to worry. The resistance mentioned above often includes personal attacks and attacks that feel personal, warranted or not. It is just as vital to deal with the destroyed self as it is to deal with pride. They are similar.

Following Benedict, the beginning of both treatments it to keep “fear of God always before the eyes.” To awe God for the prideful brings her down to a right place but lifts up the broken to honor God’s creation, image, and blessing within the depressed or negative person. To adapt God’s will in the second step is to give up more than just “what I want to do” to do what God wants me to do, but rather the will involves how we see and what we value that gives content to our desire and therefore actions. We must give up our overly positive or overly negative view of our self for God’s vision of us and the world. This is primary and necessary for the follower of Jesus.

How often have we been taught that as a Christian? You have to value yourself to follow Jesus. You have to take care of yourself. You have to love yourself. This is an important correction to our cultural worship of self. We have to love and care for our selves, but as creatures created by God who were made to live into God’s purposes and rule.

So here is where we circle around to leadership. A Christian leader following Benedict knows that accountability and humility means seeking God’s will and rule before self. We should be moving slow enough to seek God’s word and care for others. We should be moving enough that we are following God’s word and care of others.

Leadership speed is a vital concept that doesn’t come through in the Rule, but I think it is vital to healthy leadership. It is speed at which we are making direction-changing decisions. This is not the rate of movement or change. Movement and change are presumed to be decided by upstream factors like a river.

The rate of rainfall and width of the banks are not controllable by the canoeist. At Christmas and Holy Week my church is wildly busy with movement, so I avoid making direction-changing decisions during those seasons. It is unwise for me or anyone else. I hold off others until the waters are smoother. Change may be on-going due to decisions made earlier, but you don’t change decisions, including going back, during busy times.

I want to make changes as a norm. I like change. I am a leader. People look to me to make changes. They think of me as leading when I make change. But here is the thing, if my goal is to be a great leader then what I want and what people want of me are not really important at all. What is important is what God wants, and that is something that the Rule reminds me I can only know in part through prayer and calling the whole community together to seek everyone’s advice.

<strong>We</strong> make changes based on God’s reality and will as best as <strong>we</strong> can determine in community and in prayer, humbly admitting that we are only humans seeking after God. But we do make changes because when we hold ourselves up to God’s will for us and our church, we seek clearly that change is necessary.

Humility is hard work, in large part because we all have distorted views of our selves. Jesus was right, that splinter in my eye is either hard to see or it looks like a plank. I need someone else to help me pull it. I have a committee that I am accountable too. I have people that I can ask, Hey! what is in my eye? I have to trust them because I cannot see what they can see.

Are you humble? Do you fall on the too positive or too negative side of your vision of yourself, others, the world? How do you maintain healthy balance? What should you be doing now to find God’s will?

I strongly recommend <em>Humble Leadership</em> by Graham Standish for further reading.