Rule of Grace – Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Rule is Only a Beginning of Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

So with these parameters, let us begin our Rule:

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

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

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

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

Find Forward – Life after Salvation, Life after Secularism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you begin?

How the Holocaust broke the Western Mind – Searching for the Rule of God after Belzec

It was a minor concentration camp, Belzec in Poland, where somewhere between five to six hundred thousand Jews were murdered, plus another twenty or thirty thousand Gypsies.  The numbers are still overwhelming seventy years on.  And these are the smaller numbers.  The Revelation of the Holocaust broke the Western Mind.

The word choice is important to my point.  It was not the murders that broke us, it was their revelation through the still young media of film.  It was not mere murder either, it was the religious nature of the Nazi Party and their cause.  It was the collusion of the church and our religiously decorated prejudices.  It was the Revelation of their sacrifice of people who were no longer a label in gray tones on the movie screens of the Western world.  On grainy black and white film the emaciated Jews and Gypsies and prisoners of war were reduced to just being human persons.

The Western Mind is not unique in categorizing human beings and their worth according to labels.  We are not the first or worst sinners of history.  But the Revelation of the Holocaust, the unveiling of our inhumanity, destroyed that system for the collective mindset of the West.  We still have not come back to equilibrium.  We are still healing from the break of seventy years ago.

Look at how we are still gathering in the streets of St. Louis and arguing over the pay of women in the work world.  The Western Mind likes to see itself as Christianized.  In many ways the influence of Christianity on the Western Mind is indisputable.  But the sin, that deep brokenness at the level of our being, undercuts any hope of the Rule of God working at large time and time again.  The Jesus of our theology bows to the prejudices of our cultures again and again.  So we are still trying to work out what it means to live as human beings with other human beings who are different from us and worth the same love and peace.

Jesus [an Israelite of Galilee it is worth pointing out] taught and modeled that everyone had worth before the God of Creation that he called Abba, “Daddy.”  The Gospels repeatedly tell of him crossing the cultural lines of his day to proclaim and embody the Rule of God.  His prejudices were Galilean Israelite prejudices, and yet he is portrayed in the text as moving past them to proclaim a different day of the Lord’s favor for all people.  He pointed out that the prophets had gone to the Gentiles before, and then he went out healing and proclaiming the gospel to Syro-phoenicians and Samaritans and even centurions, the American Marines of his day.  Acts continues this story in the early church’s apostles and their communities.  The letters of the New Testament proclaim again and again that the old boundaries are no longer meritorious in the unity found in Christ.

The church has often turned the spread of the gospel into a weapon in the arsenal of violence, oppression, and especially colonization.  But that was never the call of the church.  We were called to proclaim the gospel to every human being, making disciples of the way of Jesus.  That way is laid out in the Gospels as non-violent: loving, forgiving, healing, and bringing reconciliation and peace.  It has often been taken by those who would use it for violence and turned into another covering for the Third Reich with the church’s blessing.  (Not the whole church maybe, but the majority.)

As an American Christian, I cannot ignore that many here supported Nazism and the violent anti-Semitism and race hatred that was passed from hand to mouth as a cultural norm.  We did not get involved in the war because of the deep divides in our country; we did not rise up against the Axis of Evil until we were hit in Pearl Harbor.

The thing that haunts me is the support for the ideas and prejudices of Nazism and the various forms of hatred and evil that it embodied by religious people.  We are not a pure people, even as Christians.  We are in constant need of being changed, of repentance.

Those images flickering out of the rubble of Europe, our cultural mother, of human beings destroyed and still living and piled up in mountains of sin were apocalyptic.   The Holocaust is an offensive word for it; the sacrifice that is burned as an offering is not the image we want to hold up.  In the Revelation of John the Lamb appears announced as the Root of Jesse, the lion of Judah, and is described as “slaughtered” in my usual translation, but in Greek is “standing as if beaten to death.”  It is isn’t a sacrificial word. But the truth is that the Jews and others were destroyed, sacrificed by the Western World time and time again to a god that is not recognizable in Jesus.  That god is the god of hatred and prejudice, but it is also the god of valuation, setting one good above another.  Sadly it is often the true god of religion.

I worry that we have brought back that god when we talk about American interests leading us to war again.  I worry that we have not learned anything at all.

The Western Mind was broken seventy years ago as the “other” became a human being, because without the detailed Retina screen I carry around now in my pocket, we couldn’t tell if the people on the movie screen was a Jew or a POW or a Gypsy or just some kid from Yonkers.  We had to face that devastation without the labels that justify our violence.  We were forced to make the leap that every human being is worth the full worth that we have, whatever label either of us wears.

We are still working that out.  I think that is what opened up race, geographical, and gender bias and violence to our ethical reflection.  As a religious people we could not go back to a pre-Belzec world, could we?  We still carry around prejudices and a tendency toward violence, but we could no longer call that good or godly, could we?  We did in Selma and Ulster.  We did in more subtle ways with our responses or lack of responses to Sudan, Rwanda, Detroit and Syria.

But we have also made huge strides, acknowledging our common humanity and often our sins, even the ones of omission. I am encouraged by the Israel Palestinian struggle of our day.  I am not always sure that the lessons of those first Russian newsreels have made an impact, and then someone moves toward peace from an unexpected place.  A Jewish doctor decries the death of Palestinian children.  Marines rebuild the sewers of Ramallah.  Small vital signs that the Rule of God peak through even in the midst of violent death.

The Rule of God is based in two important concepts.  One, the rule means area of control, care, and provision, along with order and law must be the peace of provision and reconciliation. What is not under the rule of God?  Two, that the God of Creation loves every human being and wants their return to relationship, to love, humanity, and peace.  This return to God must include a return to peace with God’s children.  This God and the Rule embodied in Jesus have always been in danger of being taken over by the violent without and the violence within.

It is this Rule which salts my tears seventy years after Belzec reading about the utter loss and destruction of God’s sons and daughters in a small Polish town so far removed from right now.  It is this Rule that I see when I look into the face of the woman or man or child on the news or across the cafe.  God-breathed clay brought to life and wonderful, worthy of love and peace, that is the visage of every human face.

After Belzec there is no label that can hide that face.  I still believe in sin and lament my own and other human sins daily, but I believe there is a way to live  beyond sin, that values that child of God across the world or across the cafe.  It is the way of Jesus, of peace and forgiveness, of healing and love.

It is hard to know what should have been done seven decades ago in the face of such violence.  It is hard to know what to do today in the face of the violence we face daily.  But it begins in remembrance and prayer for there to be on earth a way that is as it is in heaven.  It begins here in this little cafe in Michigan, or it will remain in heaven while we slip again towards hell on earth.

If my Jewish brother is less human than I am, then Jesus is less than I believe and I have no hope.

If the gospel is not for the Palestinian woman, then it isn’t for me.

I cannot sing Amazing Grace for myself alone.