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.

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

( part I is here.)

One of the amazing things about the Rule of Benedict that does not leap out at those who only glance at it, see it as obsolete, and flip past the last two-thirds of the book before putting it somewhere people will see it displayed prominently, is that the Rule is remarkably humane.

Benedict is constantly allowing for organic variability in the application of the Rule, either for the seasons of the year or at the discretion of the abbot.

In a world where we see both wild diversity and militaristic uniformity, it is remarkable how moderate the Rule is in asking for submission but encouraging allowances.

As a trail runner, I tend to fall down on the side of wild diversity. I like the constancy of change on natural ground and only tolerate the dull repetition of the road as necessary with excuses about it being meditative.

Humility is a personal discipline. Most of what we put in that category is not really personal because our lives are deeply communal. With a wife and children, my life is even more communal than before, and no decision is truly personal.

Humility, though, is a personal discipline that has an effect on everyone who encounters us, but it must be chosen personally. Humility cannot be forced or even really encouraged from outside of yourself.

Force someone to be humble, and you are destructive. Encourage humility, and you are a bully. Okay, that is a tad overstated. I sound like a social media zealot. But there is a truth involved. You may be able to encourage a child or a friend to look at themselves and even rarely call them out on the distance between their idea of themselves and reality, but there has to be enough love-capacity built up to pay the cost of such a charge.

No we have to choose humility, to face that distance between our hopes, ideals, and ideas and our reality, ourselves. We have to will ourselves to have peace beyond the anxiety such a facing calls up.

I am not an anxious person, and you may not be either, so let me walk you through what I mean. When I come face to face with some aspect of my real self, say, my arrogant assumptions about my running ability, this will bring up anxiety naturally. Because I have not merely thought of myself as a great runner, but chances are I expected to win races, run fast, and may have told others, I may have spent money and time on this assumption, I may have chosen to be with certain fast runners and eschew the company of slower runners. I have invested in a view of my self based on the assumptions of my abilities. Now, I lose a race or get injured or just have a slow period due to overtraining. I have to admit to my self that I am not as fast as I thought.

This alone does not seem so bad, but I will admit that I have struggled here. I build up excuses and pass around blame to avoid dealing with the truth. I reinforce the mask, which now terribly is revealed as a mask at some level. I defend my false self against revelation.

My failure is not merely about reimagining my own time goals. I will have to tell those who I told was fast, or to whom I acted fast, that I am not fast, that I lied or failed. I will have to mourn the loss of that invested time, energy, money. I will have to face the relationships that may no longer have value or that I turned away because of my arrogance.

If I know and value my self as a child of God who is loved for being, none of these things is a great burden, only a hurdle on the way. But if I only know my self as a fast runner whose value is in winning or success, then my interior view of my self is in real danger.

Does this seem touchy-feely? It is not. I have seen the violence done by people protecting an unnecessary view of themselves time and time again in person. I have seen the damage that I have done as I struggle with my ego.

I am not entirely comfortable identifying my proud self with ego. Freud did not help us with choosing this term to identify this part of us. Ego is from the Latin for “I.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is the part of the self in psychoanalytic theory that navigates between the self and the world. It is associated with pride and an antonym from humility.

But ego is not antithetical to humility. We need ego, the “I am” of the self in the world. We need to know that we exist and have value in our just being. I cannot say this enough. In a healthy Christian anthropology (theory of what it is to be a human being), we are created in love and are loved from our creation.

It is a crappy, degraded, pagan Christianity that begins with an evil God who hates us. It neither offers explanation for creation nor meets the teachings of Jesus about his Abba God who loves us. We are loved even as we fail.

Living out this kind of anthropology means that we make allowance for our organic humanity even as we call for our better selves in worship and living together. The Rule’s balance in this regard is remarkable.

My balance on the other hand is questionable. I constantly want to succeed. I have dreams and ideals for my self and my family and my church. I want to run as fast as that high school kid from downstate I was reading about. But I don’t. I eat a lot of pizza on pizza night with my family. Our attendance at church varies with the weather and the season. I stay late on normal days to get a little more done.

I lace up my shoes and head out. Everyday I vary. I need a Latin phrase for “I vary.” *Variaro ergo sum*.

I run with a Suunto GPS that tells me my pace, speed, elevation, heart rate, attractiveness, holiness, and actual location in the Rule of God. I want to be a little better than yesterday, than last week, than last year. But the truth is more complex, as Mr. Suunto likes to point out.

Last year I ran a ten mile loop in seventy minutes, this year I crashed out on the same run. I called Amy, who couldn’t come get me because she had the car to get the child I was supposed to pick up because I was going to be back in sixty-five minutes and it was now well over an hour and a half and I was walking still miles from home, wet, and shaking from the cold. It was the same run, only much colder, rainy, and I had neither eaten nor hydrated well. But even if I had, I was not in the same shape coming out of the winter rather than summer.

In the end, I am human, of the humous, of the earth, organic little ball of God-breathed dirt, but dirty none-the-less. I may fly or fall, but I am God’s to cheer or catch. I strive, and I crawl, but the long run always ends up in the same place. I will end up with God answering for how I loved the river clay, whether my own or my wife’s or my children’s or yours.

God loves me and expects me to love my own self and others with the same kind of love. It is that expectation that leads me to the demands of the trail and the Rule. It is that love carries me when I fall and that puts out my hand to my neighbor when he falls.

The other reason I love trail runners is the joy and camaraderie of the trail. It is different in my experience from the road. We know we can’t compete for the trail, only along it. It belongs to God and leads to home, no matter what trail it is.

So relax a little and turn off your GPS, be where you are right now, be who you are right now. Be humane to you. You are loved, you little failure, or you are nothing. Your existence is proof that you are. So relax and face up, you are only what you are.

You are a human being, and we vary, like the Rule, like the trail.

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.

Who Has Authority in Community

In my last post I questioned the profiteer from the past who attempts to hold authority by claiming it from some external place.  So who do we give authentic authority to in community?  This may be one of the  make-or-break questions of church leadership.

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Some people take the room the moment they enter it.  This couple in my first solo parish had that power, or rather the wife did.  She was a presence in every room she entered, and everyone responded to it.  She could build up and destroy.  And usually she destroyed.

My parishioner was a natural born leader with charisma.  She drew attention and people to herself.  She was truly magnetic.  But she used it constantly to complain and control through negative talk.  Every story was negative unless was about her.  Every opinion was negative unless it was about her.  It was real power, and it was totally unconscious.  She destroyed community, and it was only through the balancing presence of other more positive leaders in the church community that her effects were not more devastating to the long term health of the church.

She had power, but she was given authority by those who responded to her.  In the past, I and other leaders had given her additional authority by putting her into responsible positions, thinking that this would somehow cause her to be more self-reflective and responsible.  But her power was unconscious and her ability to therefore wield it responsibly was simply missing.  I loved her, but I began to cut her off intentionally and to build insulating walls around her with people who did not give her authority until over time sickness took her out of the community.  It was passive aggressive to be sure, but I followed up with direct confrontation one on one of specific behaviors when they arose.

One person with a great deal of power can truly stop a community’s development and growth in the Spirit cold, at least for a time.  She was powerful, and we made it worse by giving her authority.

In communities, it becomes important to think seriously about authority, especially as leaders.  A natural leader has real power whether acknowledged or not.  Everyone has the potential to be a leader, but some people are just born magnets.  It is important to be self-reflective and humble enough to be honest about your gifts.  If you are born magnetic, you then have a real responsibility to be careful in community in regards to the influence you have.

Authority though is something no one is born with.  Authority is given.  It is part of the social realm that is negotiated consciously or unconsciously.  We give authority either formally with titles or roles or informally by habits and deferences.

Formally authority is given by title or role.  Because I am a priest, I have certain authority within my church community.  It is given.  I also have some remnant of authority within my larger social community, though it is not as certain as it was in the rumors of the past.  I also have some powers because of my position within the hierarchy and institutional structures, but our focus today is authority.

It is my thesis that in healthy communities we give authority to each members as they take on responsibilities.  This begins from the time a member begins to take responsibility for regular attendance and participation in the story-making of the community.  Once you begin to ask questions and show up weekly, you have begun to accrue a certain store of authority among the members.

We are in an awkward place in the institutional church today because we have regular attenders who are helping to write our communal story but are not members.  This is dangerous because without the responsibility of formal recognition we are allowing people to determine our future with us.  Dangerous does not always mean wrong or even bad, but we have to be self-reflective and intentional about how much we allow those without a stake to play key roles in our communities.

In the Episcopal church, we have traditions that are supposed to mediate this danger by insisting that people be members, baptized and confirmed and in good standing, in order to hold key offices and even perform key tasks.  In these later days, many of our churches though, hurting for active members, have allowed active non-members to step in without asking for the formal declarations and rituals of belonging.  This is understandable, but in my recent work around the church and Benedictine ethos, I have begun to question the risks of these dangers.

First off, we are not talking about hospitality.  Everyone is welcome.  The doors are open.  Come on in.  We love you.  We have to love you if we are to be Christian, much more so if we are to be Benedictine.

Secondly, we are not talking about rights.  Certain things should be true about how we treat everyone without regard to their behavior or gender or class or other distinctions.  The church has fallen down on this to be sure, but let me give a couple of simple examples so we can move on.  Anyone who comes into church should be able to expect to be welcomed, loved, and given a seat.  They should be safe and free from ridicule much less violence or mockery or hate.  This is not based on them, but rather on the ethical code of followers of Jesus.

These things are true and should be reliable in church because of what Jesus told his disciples to do and be.  It is shameful that some populations of people feel hated by the church because of our words and actions of hate or ridicule.  It is natural that some people will disagree with us and even hate us for what we say and teach, that is not the same things as actively singling out people because of who they are or what they have done.

What we are talking about is authority.  As we begin to participate actively in a community we begin to accrue authority given by the members because we are taking an active role in writing the story of the group.  This is natural and reliable in healthy communities.  That deposit of authority grows when we add formal participation and belonging.  It grows as we develop and deepen relationships and responsibilities.

In the Rule, Benedict recognizes that God may speak and often does through the youngest members or in our vocabulary the newest members.  We should be listening for God’s voice then and setting up systems and habits as formal leaders to communicate with and listen to those voices.

The question that has haunted me on my travels and reflections on the architecture of Benedictine communities is, Are there people who should not be in our chapter rooms?  I believe there are.

I have never been into the chapter room at Saint Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, though I have been on retreat there.  I am a priest in good standing in the church they belong to.  I am love them.  They love me.  I think they do anyway.  I have eaten with the brothers.   I have prayed with them.  I have sat in long silences and read their books.  But I have not been in their chapter room.

The chapter room is interior space.  It isn’t for everyone.  It is not exclusive.  It is intimate.  It is a place for the community to do its business.  In the current state of the church, we have let people who don’t have formal belonging act and live as though they do because we have no boundaries.  And so we have mistaken access and authority for love.

I am loved by the brothers of Saint Gregory’s, but they don’t give me authority.  They don’t cut me off, they just don’t let me in.  It would be a mistake for them to do so.  It would be a violation of their community norms and would bring in dangers that are too great over time to excuse.

This all seems pedantic, I guess, except that it is very relevant to our situation in the Episcopal church today.  We have left the doors open to our chapter rooms, and we have let in those who though we may love them, may agree with them, we should not be letting them write our future.

That statement seems at odds with a Western world that demands openness to all comers, and at a time when government and institutions are taking active steps to force open all doors even in church groups.  Recently colleges have begun to deny access to campus to groups that insist on a dogmatic statement to lead.  The spirit of the age is inclusivity, but when have we gone too far?

It is vital to think and act carefully as stewards of God’s world and Christ’s community.  Here we must carefully discern whom we allow to hold authority.  Can we draw lines carefully? Or must all lines be erased?  More and more who the church is and what our future will be is being written by those who have not committed to Christ or the local community.  I am the first to say that as a pastor I have members who are central to our community who are not members.  But I am more and more deeply troubled, not because I need to control who becomes members, but rather that those who have not committed to the future are helping determine it.

In the larger Episcopal church we have let advocates and supporters write legislation and underwrite controversies with little reflection as to where the money comes from or who is holding the pen for our tomorrows.

If we are to live into a Benedictine vision of leadership we must lead by being willing to commit to people, to loving wildly, and to creating places to hear the voices of our communities, and communicating how to become members, giving authority liberally to those who commit, and to closing the doors that need to shelter those who are trying to hear the voice of God.

 

 

Walking around Whitby Abbey with Hilda and a Camera

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It was a perfect photo day in Whitby.  We drove over to see the monastery that held both Hilda and Bede, not to mention the great poet Caedmon.  It was founded originally in 657 by the Northumbrian king who appointed Hilda as abbess of the dual monastery, serving both men and women.  This was not uncommon in Celtic monasteries.

IMG_2243The monasteries founded in Scotland and Ireland between the late fifth and seventh centuries primarily came from Ireland, most by way of Columba’s monastery in Iona.  Aiden had already founded the community on Lindisfarne, which produced holy Cuthbert.  These holy islands belong to a massive missionary movement from Ireland.  From the islands the monks converted the locals to Christianity in a wave that would startle and possibly scandalize the church today.

 

 

By the time Hilda became abbess of the dual monastery at Whitby, she was expected to serve as more than a small religious community leader, she was expected and did become a force for local governance.  This expectation was surely helped by her heritage as grandniece of Edwin, king of Northumbria.  Her family certainly showed her noble heritage, but she was more than an heir of good breeding.  Bede describes her as an able administrator and teacher who seldom rested.  Her administrative skill was matched by an ability to spot and encourage others gifts, notably the aforementioned shepherd poet Caedmon.

Her baptism though in 627 had been by a Roman bishop-monk Paulinus who had come to England with Augustine and had baptized Edwin and the rest of his household.  Did that connection then effect the outcome of the Council of Whitby where the Roman system of calculating Easter and establishing Roman norms in Northumbria and later England?  There was already a strong influence through earlier Christian influences going back to Roman occupation, from which Patrick was converted and returned to Ireland two centuries before.

 

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The ruins around us on Whitby’s hill are not from Hilda’s time.  There are very few artifacts from the later monastery, easy to understand when one considers the nature of early monastic settlements, more like rustic wooden towns than the later massive stone structures of later building periods that we more often associate with monasticism.  The Benedictine monastery of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that left the beautiful ruins was not of the same character as Hilda’s abbey.

IMG_2284The later settlement by Reinfried was Benedictine and based on the gift of the site by William de Percy and included the town and port.  The port and town remained small though the influence of the newly re-founded monastery reached across Christendom because of its relics.  In the eleventh century as the church began to rely on pilgrimage and the power and pull of relics to improve both religious and economic life, the abbey was susceptible to the same temptations as the church at large.  They charged heavy fees and build magnificent buildings, driving the monastic community into debt to feed the ego of a couple of more greedy abbots, according to the English Heritage headphones we were wearing.

 

 

We come then to the growing lesson of my first few weeks in England.  The holy sites of English tradition often show this double-founding, the first founding being based on a legitimate desire to create a holy community based in a life of discipline and right-living often based in a monastic ideal, but not always strictly based on Benedict’s Rule.  St. David’s, Caldey, Lindisfarne, Iona all began in slightly different ways, but with the same marks of discipline and holiness, based in character of life.  The examples extend outward through countless other communities, early Roman, Norman, Benedictine, Augustinian, Cistercian.  They are born out of mother communities in Rome, Ireland, Scandinavia, France.  The initial foundlings are based in a genuine motivation for evangelism, holiness, and missionary motivation.

IMG_2176The success of these communities varies widely in terms of influence, wealth, and even survivability.  The rule or character varied quite a bit as well depending on who founded them and what tradition they inherited.  But they did have incredible reach in terms of the Gospel.  It is an amazing time, especially when you look back through history.

On the other hand the eleventh and twelfth centuries are marked by new monastic settlements, too.  It is remarkable the reach that those monasteries and priories had.   But what becomes clear in a few places is the greed and power-lust that accompanied certain sites, especially those re-founded on sites previously considered holy.

 

 

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The Western world could be said to relate to either time.  That is one of the tricks of writing about history.  Christianity is in decline, according to some numbers.  The world created by Christianity in the west is rapidly changing, either becoming decentralized away from its Christian center or decentralized globally becoming less central to how we view the world.  In both of those scenarios Christianity is diminished in terms of the West, either because it moving away from being a Western religion or because the West is just less religious.  In global terms, it is also true to say that just as Christendom moved from a Mediterranean center to a more northern one, so we could say that Christianity is moving east and south again and not diminishing much at all.  In that case, it just seems like it because we are no longer in the center where our faith is located.

Christianity was moving in both the fourth to sixth centuries and in the tenth to twelfth.  The question that ruins of Whitby asks of us is “What will we do here and now?”  We can claim this time as a time for holiness and evangelism to our own people and culture, or we can look back at the past and mine it for current profits.  It is remarkable to see how England and Wales have preserved the past and make a decent profit off our secular pilgrimage.

The ruins of Whitby mark a thousand years of profiting from pilgrimage.  There was a time when the monastic community could rely on the faith of the people to impel them to give almost any amount to be close to holy things.  That holy past also guaranteed a certain amount of political power that was drawn on for profit as well as to do good.  We certainly see both in our day.  In the United States we tend not to charge admission to our churches, but then we don’t have the relics to draw in the faithful.

IMG_2177But it isn’t that simple either.  We have movements within Christianity that look to the past for current holiness.  That is a similar impulse I think to the pilgrimage impulse.  Only it may be a three hundred dollar leather Bible that relies on its stilted language to convey a sense of holiness. (I am susceptible, though I can’t afford the best that Allan Bibles has to offer!)  It may be a claim back to the Westminster Covenant or the XXXIX Articles that gives us our authority, or it may be the bones of Hilda.  The pilgrimage impulse is the impulse to look to a holy past for current hope.

I am not opposed to the pilgrim, but rather to the profiteer of religion.  He uses God’s name in vain, and sublimating blasphemy through the saints is no better.  The religious profiteer turns God’s house into a den of thieves and needs exorcism in our day as well.  That is what Jesus was doing in the temple, a good old fashioned Galileean exorcism.

As a pastor I am leery of the lurking tendency to claim authority based in the past.  I have been told dozens of times in the last decade that we had to preserve history.  Now clearly, I love history.  But preserving history it not my job.  Neither is it my church musicians’ or my worship team’s or the Episcopal church’s.  It is tempting to preserve the past and sell it in decorative heritage jars.

But that temptation is satanic.  It takes us away from the true call of our day.  We are called to serve God in our day.  To be holy in our times of unholiness and rot.  To evangelize our culture.  To heal our sick.  To welcome our stranger.  And all for free.

IMG_2220Jesus was asked by the woman at the well whether it was right to worship God on this mountain (the holy site of her ancestors) or in Jerusalem (the holy site of Jesus’ ancestors).  Jesus replied, But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. (John 4, NRSV)

How do we worship God in spirit and truth?  The hour is coming and now is.  It is present time, our worship, and always must be.  We have to be really careful to tend to the holiness and love of neighbor of our day.  There is a shepherd composing poems right now in your church yard, and probably in Spanish.  Attend to his gifts, encourage his success, and celebrate his use of God’s grace in this time.

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I don’t have Hilda’s heritage of nobility.  I don’t have the support of the Northumbrian king, but I have this day.  And my job is to lead my community to worship God in it, to be holy in this hour, to love and reach out to our neighbors, secular and heathen alike.

In Whitby I was struck that the church that sold its birthright to pilgrims, fleecing those who came rather than going out to those who were in need, was the one that left such beautiful ruins and so few saints.

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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.