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.

Arroyos in the Night – Fear and Refuge

There is a blue light to the desert nights that the full moon makes dancing with the sand.  You can see by it with patience and time.  You have to adjust at the beginning, and you have to run patient, letting the light you have guide your feet.  And you have to learn not to guess about the dark shadows.  Normally safe places to balance a foot on a sharp rock or let a step glide just over the surface of contours become treacherous even in the most familiar places.

Night changes the desert.  It is clarifying and haunting to go slipping through the dark blues and purples of the landscape reduced to peripheral vision and trust.  Your senses open up.  Yucca and palo verde smells and the quiet breathing of the desert under the shifting temperatures of night: things just missed in the business and quick flight of daytime runs.

I used to run through the desert in the fuller stages of the moon at night with a cap pulled low to blow block the direct light of the moon because it was like deep sea exploration, like praying a foreign country.  No flashlight, only faith in hand and trust in the movement of the body in motion and the nature’s grace.

They became a place of refuge, these nighttime runs.  I turned to desert for my closet of prayer when I couldn’t focus, when my words seemed to be too thin for the longing of my heart.  The night became a place where I was comfortable, clear, a place of focus.  Except for arroyos.

In the park where I ran there were these low places: washes, small canyons, arroyos where the water had carved the desert floor in beautiful curves only seen from up high.  Down on the floor at night they were sudden walls of darkness, cool caverns of fear where I always met my insecurity.

We all live with insecurity.  The deep seated anxiety of life, the existential fear of being naked before the Lord and mountain lions, critics and killer bees.  We live afraid, often without being conscious about it.  We live with basic fears that seem to mount as responsibilities pile up and the landscapes of our life changes.

For those who go through transition, it is a lot like running in the dark.  The landscapes we know well are suddenly different, or feel different, and the places where we skipped over obstacles and relied on the familiarity of small oppositions become traps of lost perspective and flattened depths become shallow traps.  The night changes the desert.

And then there are these arroyos that come out of the moonlight like walls of darkness, where our base insecurities become unseen lions stalking our waking minds.  Our praying trust becomes fleeing demons, a test of faith in the wilderness.

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” the Psalmist asked, and I wondered if I would survive the darkness, my refuge of a moment ago approaching like a purple wave of doom out of the comforting blues of the desert night.

Over and over, night after night I would take one step down into the wall of darkness and discover, as the cool air rushed past, that God was there behind my questioning.  I was refreshed time again by the enveloping dark, as the dim light of grace would come into focus in this new passage through shadow, and I would come back up to the desert floor mere seconds later refreshed and almost laughing.

Fear every time would fade in steps taken into renewed faith.  I just had to keep going.

from Jesus in Matthew 10:

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

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 Benedict – Learning Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not be afraid.

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Easter with Benedict and the Creation’s Hope

Happy Easter! The season of Alleluia returns, and our prayers can finally sing with the coming of spring.  Here in Northern Michigan we are just starting to feel the warmth.  The last thin layers of ice on the bay have thawed, and there is even a little green poking through the grays and browns of winter’s remains.

The weather of the world is even starting to feel a little different.  And the Rule of Benedict makes some allowances for the turn of seasons with adjustments to food, wine, and time.  Even the times of prayers shift with the seasons.

We are not mechanical, and our time is not mechanized, though it often feels that way with the watches and phones of our common life.  We are so often driven by calendars and times that are set with no regard for the organic nature of life.  It is easy to forget that we are cyclical and seasonal beings by design.

God made us to live on the earth, which makes sense as caretakers and keepers of Creation called to bear God’s image and love in the world.  We are set to live in synchronicity with the seasons and changes of the natural world.  Benedict could recognize that fifteen centuries ago, and so can we.

Often we think of faith in these mechanized ways that come with the setting of our religious clocks and calendars and letting them run on and on without regard for the natural flux and flow of life.  Our faith becomes another modern deafness to the world we are called to live in and love.

One way to claim these days of glory is to let our lives get grounded again in the natural rhythms of nature, turning down lights after sunset and avoiding the florescence we rely on in the days of darkness.  Get outside or let the outside world in with open windows and doors.

Another important piece is our language.  Pray the natural world.  Our Book of Common Prayer is filled with natural images and prayers soaked in the natural world.  Let that language inform your personal prayers.  Glorify God for the natural world, giving care and attention to the land and rivers and rocks and trees, for the changes in seasons, and for the light, which I always take for granted (to say the least) after decades in the desert glare.

O Creator of the earth and skies, we your stewards and keepers of the world and word give you thanks for the changes of seasons and the coming of the light.  Remind us always of the true light of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who breathed his Spirit into us at his resurrection to continue the healing and redeeming of your world.  Give us such a love for your creation and your creatures that we may see your love’s dominion in our world and may love your children with pure devotion and leave our children with a world more full of life, light, and grace until that day when your dominion is whole and heaven and earth made whole, through your Son Jesus Christ our Risen Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and always. Amen.

Alleluia.

It’s Maundy Thursday – Whose feet are you washing?

Tonight, we will gather all over the world.  By we, I mean Christians.  We will gather around table and basin as the story of our faith rises toward the hill of Zion and the cross.  We begin with the story of the last supper, when we believe Jesus blessed bread and wine with new meaning after setting right the human being who would follow him.  How did he do that?

He washed his disciples’ feet.  This simple act of humble service was demeaning, given to the lowest of the household.  It was an act of service to touch their feet with warm water and the towel at his waist, stripped of his mantle, kneeling before them, men and women who had followed him from their lives into his vocation.

He is about to face the powers and principalities of oppression and control, and he does not draw up his power within, he does not go off alone to do some push ups and drive up his testosterone.  He strips and kneels before his students.  He reverses their role and then points out that this is the way, his Way, to lead.

Later he will be stripped again and humiliated, crucified before the powers of the world.  He will not take the path we expect, or like Peter we want.  He is going to take the way of the roses, of his own blood spilled, not his soldiers and servants.  He is going to give his life instead of taking other lives.  He is going to take the only rise to power that can draw all to himself.  He is going to obliterate the very idea of victim sacrifice and a warring god.

He is stripping the war gods of their claims to YHWH’s throne and taking the only path to peace there is.  Oh, that I could claim to have been there! To have seen the prince of peace take off his mantle and take up the towel, to let him cleanse me.  Alas, I was born almost two millennia too late.  So all I can do is take off my robe and take up the towel, to kneel, to obey, and trust that this way of the cross is the Way.

And so our holy week journey begins.

Join us tonight at 6:30 pm at Grace Episcopal Church in Traverse City.  Join us wherever you are in the world.  In him, we are together.

Welcome – Holy Hospitality and Good Coffee

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

“No.  I have no idea who she is.”

“Is she a child of God?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee and Faith – You Just Don’t Care Enough

I am a coffee snob, but I have good reason.  I have been cupping coffee for websites and coffee distributors since high school. It started at a little cafe in Glendale, Arizona, where the owner would cup coffees on Thursday afternoons, usually all from the same region.  Once you can taste the glorious wonders of difference between an Ethiopian Harar and a Yirgacheffe, you are doomed to a life of wondering if this came from a can.

My girlfriend’s dad was offended that I wouldn’t drink his canned coffee, even though he knew that I drank coffee all the time and hung out at coffee shops.  All it took was one french press of a fresh Kenyan coffee, and he was off to the races.  Soon he was buying straight bags from Costa Rica and giving me my own home roasting kit for Christmas.  I started cupping for his local green coffee bean company, then he bought the company, and now years later my dad owns it.  So I have been tasting, describing, and rating coffees for two decades.

When my wife and I got married, she was frustrated that though I owned 18 methods of brewing coffee beans into a cup of coffee, I didn’t have a regular drip machine.  Between that cafe and marriage, I was ordained (as a Baptist minister and later as an Episcopal priest), and spent the same time in churches and dioceses working.  I have been in hundreds of churches over the last twenty years, in addition to growing up in Southern Baptist churches and visiting with friends.

So, this all leads to one overwhelming question:  Why does church coffee suck so much?

Think about it for a moment, especially if you are clergy or a committed church member.  Why would we serve absolute crap in a cup, knowing that it is terrible?  Why would this crap in a can be normal?

I mean, I could point to any number of ways that church communities suck.  There is abuse and hypocrisy, there is bad music and abysmal theology.  I can tolerate all of those.  I am an Episcopalian after all.  But why bad coffee?

Consider the poor visitor, the family member or young date who gets dragged into your church community for the first time.  They are up earlier than normal to go to a strange place full of strange people who are going to notice that they are there.  (We will leave it at that since the range of responses to a visitor ranges from overwhelming joy and neediness to disdain and even fear.  We may hope for a simple friendly greeting, open welcome and offer of help, but   . . . )  They get dressed to be there and put up with a completely foreign experience for most modern people, a community singing and listening to readings, lecture, and prayers, much less communion.  They are in completely foreign territory.  And then they spot the sweet comfort of a cup of coffee, usually left self-service on a folding table, like we are all in AA.  The comfort, the familiarity, the simple hospitality of a cup of coffee dissolves as the smell reaches the nose milliseconds before the flavor invades the tongue.

It is the stench of sloth.  It is the odor of carelessness.  Like the old sock smell of an unclean locker room at a gym.  Like the dirty smell of pee in a unclean truckstop bathroom.  Like the distinctive smell of cat in your crazy aunt’s house.  It tells you that this place does not care for you.  That it is even possibly unsafe.

It says, You are not welcome.

The thing is, we would never make this stuff for ourselves.  We would not boil coffee in a giant old stained percolator and drink it out of a toxic styrofoam cup.  We would not set a coffee service on the counter at a dinner party and tell people to get their own, at least not if we were hosting strangers.

See, that is the thing.  Bad coffee says, This is for us, and we don’t care.  Our architecture often says that in our gathering spaces.  Our bulletins often say that.  Our insider language sometimes says that.  Our prayers may say that too.  But the cup of coffee feels personal, like an slap instead of a handshake.

I walked into a church one time that knew I was coming in the Bay Area and was told no less than four times in the service and on paper and in greeting that I was welcomed.  But the bulletin’s insider language and the lack of invitation to the coffee hour said otherwise.  The rector’s turning aside to talk to someone else without a greeting or smile said otherwise.  But it was the horrid coffee from a giant pot on a little table on the side of the room where I was being ignored at the coffee hour that really conveyed that the Rule of God did not Rule here.  This was their place, and they were fine without me, thank me very much.

I am sure they didn’t notice when I left.

On the other hand, I was greeted at another church in the same town coming in the door early by a warm cup of really good Sumatran coffee, that was a little burnt even for a Sumatran coffee, but was handed to me by a member who showed me around and invited me to leave my cup outside the sanctuary.  I went back frequently to Saint James and later served there.  I would have joined Saint Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco just for the care of the coffee hour that always appeared like a magic trick at the end of the Eucharist.  They never left any doubt that you were welcomed.

These weren’t cafe coffees.  They were small estate lot coffees brewed by the cup from a V60 pourover.   They weren’t French or Italian.  They were just signs of a welcome that was more than a line in a bulletin and a muttering at the Peace.

Good coffee is normal these days.  When someone is coming over, we prepare.  We makes sure to have good coffee to serve.  Sure there is decaf, and you could get all Anglican and serve tea.  But we show who matters in how we prepare for them.

Jesus is coming again, we proclaim every week in a thousand ways.  We believe he will come in some amazing way, and maybe he will, only the Father knows.  But I would just hate for Jesus to show up and have to search for a toxic cup of sludge on a folding table in the secret coffee hour.

I can only imagine how rough his reaction would be.  Do you remember the cleansing of the temple?  I doubt he would just walk out.

So look, get a Bunn or clean your old one.  Buy decent coffee, at least what you would serve, and prepare for the day of the Lord.

*The image above is from our family photo album of our summer in the United Kingdom found here.

Sunday’s Sermon on Saturday Night – Embracing the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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