Why I’m Here – Trying to live faithfully in the sexuality debates and the Benedict Option

Where We are and Why I am Here

In the course of the last fifty or so years, a series of debates have challenged the church and her various sects.  These debates and changes are both punishing and hopeful, bringing suffering and struggle and also strength, clarity, and flexibility.  I am not here to fix anything but to explore and maybe explain a bit to the curious.  I am hunting for holiness.

Sitting on the blogosphere, it is easy to have clearcut opinions about the lives of others, or even our own lives, in the unreflective space of pure cogitation.  Yet most of us live offline world with other people, families, friends, total strangers.

There is this sense of clarity when one can cut off some part of experience as wrong or, better, as evil.  But these debates of the last few decades have been centered in complex spaces where value judgements and discernment, not to say discrimination, is the needed thing.

Discrimination may the most important word to arise in these debates for understanding why some of us are stuck.  It is one of those words that has changed its definition and denotation in most conversations.  Wine connoisseurs are discriminating.  I want the local health inspector to be discriminating.  But we don’t want our restauranteurs to discriminate against the people they serve.  Discrimination becomes an evil accusation, and yet it’s something to be desired in some spaces of life.

The Episcopal Tradition – via media

I should warn you that I am not sure that I want easy answers here.  I know that it has become the manner of the day to come to one unassailable position and defend it at all costs, but I am an Episcopalian, and we pride ourselves on our via media, the middle way as a proposition of truth.  The middle way is becoming less tenable as lobbyists come to define us more than our pastoral theologians, but I am not looking to define my position so much as explore our current predicament looking for God.

It helps to understand that for the Anglican tradition we are assigned geographical areas called parishes that our clergy and congregations serve together.  We are not congregationalists, but rather we are defined by the land and people that live in our dioceses and by the bishops that oversee us.  This parishional model of service puts us in a different relationship with the people outside the congregation. Rather than being merely a gathering of the faithful called out of the surrounding seas of the damned, we see ourselves as servants of a local area and the people who live there.

If you are reading from certain backgrounds, you should be leaping to say that ekklesia means “the called out” and is our word for church in the New Testament.  Good for you, but we added “out” when I was in college, and that makes all the difference.  We are not called out of the flood.  Jesus stopped the flood.  He died for the sins of all.  We are called to bring that salvation to the world.  The salvation of the world is our work, the cosmos’ redemption, the forgiveness of sins, setting free the captive, binding up of the broken hearted.  I suggest reading what Jesus says to the disciples after the resurrection.  He doesn’t say, “Go save the damned from the flood.”  We are called to witness, to discipleship and the making of new disciples through baptism, to service and the forgiveness of sins.

Because in our parishioner model our area of service is what defines us, we serve a whole lot of people who are different from us.  This gets complicated pretty quickly.  I have seen parish churches in England that were serving the Muslim community by allowing them to gather and pray in their buildings, because they were there to serve their parish, and those Muslims lived in their parish.  For orthodox Christians the idea of having a community pray that Allah is the only true God and Mohammed is his prophet has to be problematic, but the idea of service in the name of Christ is primary.  I have heard and witnessed similar stories involving Jewish synagogues and various youth cultures.

The New Civil Rights Era

Returning to our shores, the primary debates of the last half-century have revolved around race and gender.  The Civil Rights era seemed for a while to have passed from the popular conscience of the United States, though that has not meant that race was not still prevalent in our conversations, but more and more the arguments had begun to revolve around economic and class issues and sex.  There were statistics to push back against that idea, but in the popular conscience it seemed to make little difference as the new millennium rolled around.  Race was becoming a personal issue dealt with better through late night comedians and insightful moments on sitcoms rather than the uncomfortable social conversations and systemic work of correcting massive social injustices.

Then Ferguson.  Then New York.  Then . . . the list of places where unarmed black men, particularly young black men, are being shot, strangled, and beaten keeps growing.  The United States is having to face again that our relationship to race is not comedic or merely an impolite social issue.  We are still racist in our structures and systems of common life and communal thinking.  It is social and economic, systemic and punitive, and it is something all of us have to become aware of and change.  Again.

But the uncomfortable reality is that race pushes for public mental space among the other political issues in our day, particularly around gender and sexuality.  Gays and lesbians have moved from being social pariahs in our culture to being socially acceptable, even normal, primarily through the media, and specifically through television and film and now social media platforms.  It is no accident that the issues of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender communities have been self-labeled as the New Civil Rights Era.  The movement leaders took clear notes from the civil rights movement and did not wait for a social majority, but rather have sustained a large, complex, and well-funded campaign for social acceptance and full civic and social recognition.

I am not going to argue the merits of the social movement.  Christians who have wondered why the traditional social messages around sex and marriage have not held much traction in the last twenty years of culture have to go back to Reagan and the AIDS epidemic.

Due to religious, social, and very political reasons, we as a church turned our back on those with AIDS.  We let people suffer and die from a disease in the modern age, on purpose, because of what we understood as their moral choices, their lifestyle.  We gave up any moral standing and claim to the way of Jesus when we chose negligence and even violence rather than forgiveness and love.  “Things done and things left undone” as we say in confession.  So when we come half a generation later to say that Jesus defines marriage in a particular way and that we cannot deviate, there is little tolerance for our claims to be driven by either Jesus or his teachings.

This is further compromised by our compromises when letting Jesus define how we respond to the poor, those in need, and our enemies.  We have shut out some people from healthcare while celebrating capitalism and its Darwinian view of the poor and blessing war after war after police action that rarely had to do with justice or the suffering of others but everything to do with protecting our American way of life, our moral choices, our lifestyle.

The well-funded nature and very media-heavy presence of the new sexuality and gender issues on both sides has meant that the issues are impossible to simply turn away from and difficult to discuss in any reasonable way.  There is on both sides a sense that either that each battle, each moment of conflict presented either absolute hope or the devastation of hope.

Following Jesus

It is the absolute nature of the responses that is problematic to my Anglican ethos.  The truth is that for us who claim to follow Jesus and to be both disciples and formed by his worldview, we have reached a place that is best described as conflicted.  Or at least I think we should.  I think letting Jesus really define our lives is what it means to be his disciple.  This is only amplified by our belief that he reveals God in the Incarnation, his being the Son of God, who brings redemption and the forgiveness of sins and the recreation of humanity.

If we are going to be honest about our place in these debates, we have to hold several clear ideas at once.  Let’s take a look at a small list:

  • Jesus has brought forgiven of sins and commands us to forgive other people’s sins because God has forgiven ours.
  • Jesus has told us not to judge others.
  • Jesus has commanded us to serve others, especially our fellow disciples.
  • Jesus has told us to pray for God’s “will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • Jesus has told us that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes.
  • Jesus has told us that not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away.
  • Jesus has told us to teach others to follow the law and promised punishment for those who taught children to disobey the law.
  • Jesus never directly addressed homosexual relationships.
  • Jesus does refer to marriage as between a man and a woman in the command to not get divorced, except for infidelity, and sets it in the context of the two becoming one flesh, male and female.
  • Jesus repeatedly told his disciples to be at peace.

Notice that I am not quoting Leviticus or Paul.  I am merely looking at some teachings of Jesus that we hold together as we seek to follow Jesus in the midst of the debates about sexuality and gender.  It is difficult not to want to wander off down one political road or another from here, to debates about Reagan era responses to the gay community or social media responses today.  I am not looking at some particular personal relationships here either, though one could not not be affected by friends and family who feel deeply the effects of these debates and the realities that they entail.  This withdrawal is intentional.

Our lives as disciples are to be defined by our relationship with Jesus and his teachings.  So often we skirt uncomfortable issues by simply looking elsewhere for understanding first.  Discipleship means going into and staying with the discomfort created by our master’s teachings.  If we are uncomfortable there, then that is a good sign.  It means that we are following the implications rather than dodging them.

For us who would follow Jesus, I can see no justification for being mean, disrespectful, or rude, much less violent or vengeful, to homosexuals or to those who disagree with our faith, lifestyles, or morality.  I can see no way to justify others being cut off from our love, care, and service.  Letting the AIDS crisis go without a full medical, social, and caring response was a gross mortal sin.  It was disobedient to Jesus our Christ, and it was a horrendous and shameful act that was the exact opposite of our calling, vocation, and humanity.  We cannot turn away from suffering again.  But neither can we turn away from those who were or are falling short of our calling, vocation, and humanity.

On the other side, we have to admit that the call to live a moral life, a life that is marked by a righteousness before God, is inseparable from our following of Jesus.  We are to live lives marked by purity, chastity, holiness.  There has been great work to separate the two, and I have to admit that I have often disregarded the tie between faithfulness and moral purity.  After serving as pastor and priest for my adult life I can’t do that anymore.

I won’t recount all my sins here, but suffice it to say, I am a sinner who does not stand above anyone else on the moral ladder of life.  But, I have watched as pastor and priest and human being the wrecks caused by those who try to love without purity, morality, holiness.  Agape is self-giving love, but as the psychologists have all too well made clear for us, we have a difficult time living without hidden motivations of lust and violence.

We have to be transformed by long practice to be capable of agape over time.  We have all failed at it, that is essential Christian teaching.  But we are all called to that long practice of learning to love well as followers of Jesus.  There is always a temptation to turn the focus outward towards our enemies, real or perceived, but our call is turn inwards, to follow Jesus into the motivations and temptations of our hearts, to remove the log in our eye before we try to help with the splinter in our brother’s eye.

Here in the midst of the sexuality debates I offer you this: follow Jesus.  Be faithful to the service of others, especially those who are your enemies.  Bless and do not curse them.  Forgive their offenses.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Live lives above reproach, but don’t reproach others no matter how you perceive their lives.

Answers

I know you want answers.  I do too.  I want to proclaim that I know the answers for the debates of our age, to proclaim unequivocally that my liberal church is absolutely right or dead wrong.  And I have strong, devastating emotions about my church and its choices.  I want to talk about unconditional love, but most of what I mean when I say love has nothing to do with self-sacrificial service.  I want to proclaim the truth, but then Truth is Jesus.  So what does Jesus say?

Jesus said, “If you continue in my teachings, you are my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  So, if I am going to know the truth and be free, I have to continue in Christ’s teachings.  We always talk about telling the truth, proclaiming the truth, but in order to say anything, I have to know it, and in order to know it, I have to continue in Christ’s logos, teaching, his way.  So I can’t neglect those in need and know the truth.  I can’t judge others and know the truth.  I can’t act in violence and know the truth.  I can’t refuse forgiveness and know the truth.  I can’t be self-righteous and know the truth.  I can’t be filled with lust or anger.

I am going to have to deny a lot of myself in order to know the truth.  I am going to have to subjugate my self-defensive and lustful self.  I am going to have to be humble and serve others.  I don’t think I can do that by myself.  I am going to need the Holy Spirit and the church.  I am going to need a practice of wholeness and holiness.  I am going to need a cup of coffee and a run.

I offer you this:  let’s go together.  Let us love one another and build each other up, not neglecting coming together as some want to do, but in faithful service let us bow in reverent submission, and when the day comes that we know Christ face to face, we may find that Truth knows us because we have served him well in those we could not see him in.

There are things I cannot do faithfully, but there is far more I can.  So let me go the middle way here and propose that it is a faithful option.  I cannot do all that the culture wants.  I cannot perform a marriage between two men or two women, though many in my church do and celebrate. But I also can’t condone discrimination and the denial of equal protection and civil liberties.  These go against what I understand from Scripture and the whole church tradition.

But that is not the end either.  I must love all people, whether you or they agree or disagree, and serve honestly, living as holy a life as I can without grasping or judging so that my love may be safe and pure.  In this way, I live the way of Christ, forgiving sin, binding up the broken hearted, being set free and setting others free.  I am stuck on this way.  I fail it.  I fall off.  I keep going with the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Rule of Benedict as guides.

The Benedict Option

In this way, I would turn to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”  He recommends a strategic withdrawal from the world around us, admitting that orthodox Christianity has lost the culture wars.  I agree with him somewhat, but I would not focus on the withdrawal anymore than the Rule of Benedict does.

For those who would argue about the loss of the culture wars, I would simply point to the media of our culture, the wars of our lifetime, the greed, lust, and avarice of our economics, and my children’s experience of school.  We have become a culture that has values, but they are not defined by Christianity.  This isn’t the end of the world any more than Benedict’s day was, but it is the end of an age, though when it ended or if it fully has I will leave to other essays.

What we need is not a vision of withdrawal; what we need is a vision of formation for this new age.  This was Benedict’s purpose in the Rule.

And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.  from the Prologue (osb.org)

In what ways can we form such a little school as Benedict’s monastery?  I have begun an exploration of that here on Hidden Habits in my occasional way.  I am fascinated to see what Dreher and others have to say when they get past the flight to the desert and begin to form a picture of the daily life of formation.

Benedict seemed to picture a community that was dedicated to a withdrawn life of self-sustainability, working together at the Opus Dei, work of God in office of prayers and psalms, and in common discipline under the rule and an abbot.  Can such a discipline exist in our culture of radical individualism?  There are experiments going on around the world in the New Monastic movement, though they tend to be more collaborative than the Rule envisions.  And they are not all withdrawing for the same reasons as Dreher if they withdraw at all.

Rod Dreher is interesting to me in part because his writing on the New Conservative takes in a broader swath of critique than merely the sexuality debates, and this is vital to understanding the response of withdrawal.  If it were merely an objection to one issue, the seeming right response would be better arguments, but the objection is to a world cut loose from the moorings we assume are there in public life in sexuality, critique of violence, education, economics, values, public faith, and political morality.

That wider critique is difficult to maintain in the public square because at some point it takes under its criticism the partners we would assume in any singular issue. If a conservative on sexual morality hopes to hold the Republican party as partners, for example, then she must give ground on government morality in terms of gun control, war, moral economics, death penalty, and the environment.  The Democratic party on the other hand may hold a pro-life position on the death penalty and environment, but the would-be partner in our example must cede both public expressions of traditional faith and morality on gender and sexual morality.  Nuance is difficult in the public square.

I could imagine a culture of churches that begin to create such public spaces where we could hold nuance together, seeking issue by issue to worship God, honor Scripture, and love our neighbor in wholistic ways, but I have rarely seen it.  The small ways we begin become easily subsumed into quick answers to hard questions and the handy assumptions that others agree with us that they are wrong.  We ambush and assault rather than bow and serve.

Another question over a singular text, another loaded test at a public service, another simple question with overly nuanced answers, and the feeling of being judged, again, by brothers and sisters on-line, in social circles, in church.  My fear is that the Benedict Option is less about a withdrawal from the world at large and more about withdrawing from honest debate.  I worry that it is away from the internal work of asking these hard questions and considering the realities of their answers in public.  I worry because I feel that myself.  I feel gun shy after being shot at.  But I also feel too conflicted to give canned answers and keep my head down.

Six weeks ago I listened to a celebration of the church’s acceptance of divorced people in response to Pope Francis’s edict to open the doors of the Roman Church a little.  They were speaking directly of my church, the Episcopal church, and mentioned several close personal stories of divorced people returning home to God and the community through the church’s early adoption (1950’s) of divorce and remarriage.  It was touching.  My heart was warmed.

And then as I washed dishes, I started thinking of the struggling couples I am currently working with, pastoring, and praying for in my circle of friends and family and ministry.  All of them have children.  And the news is not good for the children of divorce.  The studies and the stories are consistent over time, and the results are devastating for generations.  Not in every case, it must be admitted, but in most.  The stories are heartbreaking, and I don’t just hear them from the children when they are young.  I watch the results gather at funerals and hear them in counseling sessions.  I listen and lament.

But would I turn away a divorced person from the communion rail?  Would I do the third or fourth marriage?  Will I keep going while the effects gather up behind me?  How do I confront in love and when do I acquiesce in love?

It is easy to take the secular version of Rod Dreher’s vision.  It is offered so often it does not seem offensive.  Stay out of the bedroom.  Never say anything discriminatory.  But if I have tasted the wine, and it is poisonous; should I stay quiet while it is served?  When am I being polite and when am I being negligent?  When am I hospitable and when am I an accomplish?  I pray and I choose and I beg forgiveness.

I am writing all this trying to be a faithful Christian, a husband, father, divorced man, friend of straight people and gay people, Republican people and Democratic people, even Green Party people, priest and pastor, teacher and colleague, sinner, and though I want to write “saint” because that is what I am striving for, I know that is really not a title one earns but is given.  It comes from sanctus like sanctified, and it means made holy.

Holiness is one of those things I have usually found in unexpected faces.  I was welcomed by a liberal church when my answers had too many commas and not enough periods.  I have been blessed and held up by conservatives who saw me struggling to stay faithful in the long years of ministry.  I have known God in dark skinned faces in the desert and pale Norwegian stock in the northern woods.  I have known God in those I couldn’t have predicted or imagined. I hope to make God known by being faithful to Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Holiness means being set aside for God.  And God, at least the compassionate Abba of Jesus and the fierce YHWH of the Hebrews, loves people and demands that we do too.  Love as self-sacrifice.  Love as a servant loves.  Love as a mother to a child.  Love compassionate and fierce.

And this is my answer, such as it is:  I am God’s, and so I love you.  I am God’s, so I can’t do whatever I want, but I will do all I can to serve you.  This is the essence I think of the school of Love.  Sometimes in order to bow, you have to back up a little and know that your pants are going to get dirty.

 

Retreat: Letting the Logos be my Logic and Re-order my Chaos

A Few Days with the Monks of St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan 

When the year tumbles from Epiphany into Lent, my wife reminds me to set up my annual retreat, this year again to St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan.  I returned this weekend to the bishop’s visit and the swirl of an active parish.  We were reminded a couple of times by the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hoagland that we are now the largest congregation in the diocese, which was nice and also a challenge.  I hear that and a list cascades down in my mind of the things we are doing, should be doing, and according to plan will be doing in the next year.  And beside that is a list, no a web of names that spreads out of who and when each step and conversation should be had.  Work.  And like every system that reaches out into the future it quickly becomes a chaos.  A storm cloud and a wind.

Now, wind and rain are good for the farmer and the crop, but the farmer’s anticipation is a work and shelter.  I have been planning, implementing, coping, and planning, implementing and looking ahead for a while out of these last five years of discipleship  and growth into the future with plans and hopes.  I have been implementing past plans and coping with blowback from decisions, some good and some bad, and change and growth and challenges.  But then there is the putting your head down and planning the next while  . . . you get the idea.  It has been a busy and productive time of ministry.

And when the webs and lists become a chaos of storm clouds on the horizon, it is usually time to pull away into the arms of the Lord of my life.  I do this in little daily doses of prayer and meditation, and in regular runs into the wild.  (Road running is prayer, but the wilderness is another thing altogether.)  But the daily doses are not enough, and my wife spots it and reminds me to go away.

Retreat.  To pull away into God’s presence can happen anywhere, of course.  I have camped in the wilds of desert and forests.  I have been alone.  But these days I really find myself held by the community at St. Gregory’s.  The monks and a few visitors, this year a principal of a Canadian Christian school and an aspirant for holy orders from another diocese, and the rhythm of the Hours of the Benedictine Rule.  Rising for prayer at four in the morning keeps my retreat from devolving into vacation.  It also means that I am set day by day, hour by hour, on course for the wandering.

It is time to let the Logos be my logic and order, to reorder my internal world.  It is not so much active, though I have things to do and study, but rather soul massage.  This year I started learning the Hebrew language, again, and I read a novel and studied.  I wrote a letter and set some courses for the Holy Week and Easter celebrations.  I prayed a lot. I ran ten miles or so.

It was quiet.  These hours of rising into activity and thought were balanced by the settling back into the quiet embrace of God.  I know that this type of thing often gets somehow reserved for clergy, and it seems that most lay people do not pull away until life wrecks them.  I think this is a mistake.  Time away with God, daily, weekly, and annually, is part of a natural rhythm of life.  Wise farmers let the fields lie between activities, hay to dry and recovery between crops.  We are no different.

God is our root and source, our life and logic.  We need time to set our roots down deep and to grow them into the soil.  Growth does not happen well in the seasons of growth and change.  It is warped by our plans and implementations.  We can let the logic of our desires and hopes slowly change our patterns of maturation away from God’s good intentions.  It is not that there is necessarily wrong in it, but I have discovered a “not the best” tendency over time that twists me inside a little with too long a season without times to reorder.  If I am to have something to offer, love or wisdom, listening or word, I have to stay set deep into the source of agape and sophia, quiet and voice.

My life is a harvest of wisdom and love, or at least I hope so!  But I am not the source of those things.  As Wisdom’s daughter at Grace often says, “I can’t whoop that up.” I need God, and I need God in doses beyond the minimum effective dose for me.  I need the abundance of God that comes with time.  The I Am of God takes time, and I am not shepherd beyond the wilderness following my father-in-law’s sheep in the quiet wilderness of Sinai.  I have to create and protect the time.

Jesus is the Word in John’s Gospel.  That philosopher-poet who wrote John takes a hymn to Sophia and replaces Holy Wisdom with the word logos which we translate as the word.  This word is only a hint at the multivalent vocabulary of myth and philosophy that lies behind logos for the Greek philosophical tradition.  It was the name used for the force that gave order (logic) to the chaotic swirl of undifferentiated elements of creation in neoplatonism  It is the root of our words for logic and areas of study.  It is word in the Levi-Strauss sense of vocabulary of meaning.  To say that Jesus is logos is very much like saying that Jesus is the Tao.  Jesus is the order of creation.  Jesus is wisdom, if you understand what they meant by Holy Wisdom; he is the wisdom of the world.

Now wisdom is not just a figure to be known, like a mystery or a person you can only meet in one place.   Wisdom in the Hebrew tradition is both a figure like the Holy Spirit, part of God and with God in creation, ordering and creating with God, but she is also the very order of things that can be observed in the dance and order of creation itself.  To say that Jesus is Wisdom is to make some claims about knowing him and the world itself.  This is, as I used to say to the children at St. Michael’s Day School, a very big idea.

The person of Jesus is my logos, my logic, the word that created me and creates me, orders me and gives me life.  But in the midst of my plans and implementations, I tend to get twisted around and start to think (in my own disordered way) that I can speak the word myself.  I have to be reordered.  So I retreat.

I retreated into the order of St. Benedict, into the rhythm of prayer and work, running and learning, wilderness and wild deer, turkey, and foxes.  I retreated to St. Gregory and the arms of God, the whispered words of Psalms and prayers like a father’s tender words sung into my soul for my re-alignment to his order, and the fields within me grew wild and rich again as I got rerooted into my Lord.

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.

Welcome, Worship, Study, Serve plus Witness and Stewardship

A Model for the Christian life both individual and communal.

Over the last decade I have struggled with how to teach a model of the Christian life that is useful both for catechesis and for community life.  I have struggled too with a national church church that simply seems to be more interested in being a cultural lobby than being a support for the disciples on the ground of faith.  We produce far better statements on social issues than on theologically meaningful materials for our parishioners.

And yes, I mean parishioners.  We serve a parish, but we are a congregation.  We say almost nothing to the world outside our doors as a church institution, but maybe in an age of personality it is a better witness to be silent and let our character speak for itself.  My fear is that we are ashamed of our character and fear who may speak for our personality.  How is our character shaped as a people of God?  How do we become people of God, and how do we become a people of God?

This frustration really came to a head on a Wednesday night in Phoenix when a leader, vestry member later senior warden, sat in a How to Lead a Prayer class, which I had to fall back on my most basic notes for due to an afternoon that fell apart.  So I used the Lord’s Prayer as a simple model of personal prayer, and then looked at how to lead others for maybe five minutes at the end.  In wrapping up, Christine looked up at me with wet eyes and said, This is the first time in my life that I feel like I actually know what to do when I sit down to pray tonight.  Now I had been her priest for more than a day.  She had grown up in the church, but she was a regular member.  And no one had taught her to pray.  I hadn’t taught her to pray.

I realized something that has become a hall mark of my ministry.  We don’t know what we are doing.  Richard Rohr says the problem with the church is that unconverted people are trying to convert people.  Amen, right?  But it is larger than that.  We are not disciples of Jesus, and we are not teaching other people to be disciples of Jesus.  We are worshippers.  We are people who serve other people.  But we are not disciples.

Or I should say, “were not.”  Over the last six years here at Grace, Traverse City, we have been working out of a model of ministry that took our existing functions as a church and looked at them through the lens of discipleship.  I took the ministries of Grace on Post-It notes on a board and moved them around and around to find a way to tell our story.  Then I took those categories and prayed about a Christian life.  We rolled it out in our children’s program first, then the Vestry adopted this proposed ministry statement.

As Episcopal Christians we
Worship at home daily and together weekly;
Study the Scriptures, our tradition, and what it means to be a disciple today;
Serve our families, our parish, and our world in the name of Christ.

Everything we do is done with an ethic of Welcome
because we are only here by Grace.

Now, almost immediately, I wanted to add that “We Witness to the Gospel of God in Jesus in our lives, with words if necessary, and we Steward this place of resurrection and new life in Christ’s name.”

As I teach what it means to live a Christian life, and I begin to look at a model for teaching churches how to be a blessed community of faith, I have come to see these six categories as encompassing a pretty complete model of the Christian life.  No it doesn’t cover fellowship, but I think if we do these things fellowship will happen.

This is the six things I think every member of the church should be able to explain how they do them in their own life.  It is the model I hold up for myself and our staff.  It is my family’s model, even if we fail at a couple of those things.

I am coming to see that welcome is not enough.  This can be a cover for some other statement, but I think it is imperative that the Christian community go out and seek the lost.  We cannot love our enemies in any real way from over here on my couch.  But it is a creepier mission statement to say “We stalk the lost.”  But it sounds good now that I write it.

What do you think?  Does this model cover the Christian life?  Does it cover your church community’s life?  I can tell you that we are growing and have year over year these last six years, and I don’t think it has all that much to do with me.  The model points to a reality that the church has to come to terms with: we are only as healthy as our community is a community of disciples.  Our faith as a community in only as real as the Gospel lived in our members lives.  Our witness is not made on marches but in the marshes where we live our lives.

I am coming to see more clearly that the national church, if such a thing matters at all, has to look to the pews for its purpose and meaning.  Lobbying can do good things, and it can do them while the church that makes its name matter dies around it.  We have to live a real faith that will change our country and our world.  I know our church is international, but its character here in the United States is really definitive here.  And we need to address our character before we pretend to have a personality that can show itself in the world.

Character is made in the quiet places where we gather to worship, read our Bibles, and serve soup on a cold day.  Character gives up the seat to the poor man and rises on the bus for the woman who just doesn’t want to sit in the back anymore.  Character says I would die for you, even while you kill me.

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?

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

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In this series of reflections, which are far from complete, we turn next to giving authority away.  To underscore two important points to be held in mind: every member of a healthy community has authority, and every member who has authority is responsible to God for how that authority is used.

Considering authority we have assumed some measure of self-reflection, honest self-assessment, and humility.  This next topic requires an even greater measure of all three.  In order to give our authority away, we must be honest about having it and consider our responsibility, but we must also be submitted to a higher authority than our own self-interest and beyond our self-interests, even altruistic self interests.  This is when Jesus’ teaching about hating family for the sake of his kingdom begins to make a whole lot more sense.

What do you value more than your own self?  What do you value more than your family, your nation, your tribe, your sports team?  This is a vital question for many Christians that goes unasked and unanswered in many churches because we, your pastors, already know the answers, and they are not godly.  We know your answer because we know our own.  Or at least we think we do.

It is the answer we see lived out in our choices about faithfulness to attendance, to charities, to causes.  It is the answer we hear behind the complaint about sermon or service length, behind the excuses, prejudices, and functional atheism of our talk, and its what we hear in our own self talk about why we feel burnt out and run over in doing things for “them.”  When we can honestly say that God’s Rule in our lives is our first priority and our first value, then our children can have a parent rather than a worshiper, our time is held in wholeness as well as holiness, and we aren’t wasting time in worship, or living lives that are overwhelmed with the secular world and its values.

I am writing all of this and honestly trying to live it out with this one stark memory from almost ten years ago when our girls were little.  My wife and I were in the front seats of the car, and our girls were in the back.  We were driving past Bell Road and  32nd Street when we drove by a homeless woman holding a sign asking for help.  The girls, both under seven, wanted to help, but I was in a hurry.  I don’t even remember why I was in a hurry.  They begged me to help her with money, food, water, anything.  But I argued back that I was too busy, that I had to get back to wherever it was that I was going.  I am still haunted by that sin.  I had an answer to whose rule was important just then, and it was not God’s.

The value set and getting that right is vital in a community before crisis or even just conversation.  We set values and priorities and reinforce them all the time.

There are times when we want to accomplish something that is bigger than ourselves and the authority we hold in a community.  We have to pool our authority with others in order to have enough to call others to the work at hand.  We have to give away our authority intentionally.

We often give away authority unintentionally.  This is often done in the silence when someone has called the community to do something that is not in keeping with our values or when they have asked us to do nothing in the face of our communal values.  In that silence, when we do or say nothing, we give them our authority as we seem to consent.  In the silence often people have consented to terrible things because they were unintentional about their authority.  They may think that saying nothing is objecting or just could not muster the courage.  They have just waited for someone else to say something, until nothing was said.

There are all sorts of little post-it note philosophical whimsies about the evil of unintentional silences after the Holocaust of World War II.  But there are millions more examples of smaller injustices or inactions that have gone unphilosophized but don’t go unnoticed.  We are accountable for our words, but I think we may be accountable for what our silences say too one day.

So, we hold a value that is bigger than ourselves.  We don’t have enough authority in the setting to accomplish a goal in keeping with the values we have, but someone else in our sphere of influence does.  This is when we practice giving authority away.

It may be upward.  If a boss or superior in the hierarchy can accomplish things we value, then it is fairly easy, respectable, and rarely controversial to simply “throw our weight” to them.  My bishop has a very similar vision for the diocese to my hopes for our church.  He can accomplish things that I cannot because he sits in a different chair with different influence and relationships.  So I give him my authority.  He has it naturally enough formally, but most people today do not assume that authority is given, so we must be intentional about giving those in higher authority the support we can intentionally by verbalizing those formal and giving witness to our shared values and goals.  It helps that we are simpatico, but it is important to have honest and transparent relationships with those in formal relationships with us so that shared authority is not just implied, but used in ways for which we are willing to stand accountable.

We may give authority away to those below us in the systems in which we work.  I have employees under me that are doing things that I value.  I loan them my authority by hiring them, but I also verbalize my support publicly and am willing to be there when called upon to stand with them and give them my authority to do what they need to do, without taking over their work.  This is more tricky than the vertical move upward.  Giving authority to our superiors is fairly easy, but when giving our authority to those under us, we have to be very self-aware of motivations and very clear about what our values are in stepping in.

If I value what an employee is doing, I express it by calling to the shared value their project and giving voice to their work and accomplishments, or at least their hopes and goals.  This allows them to borrow my authority while keeping their own and staying in command of their own goals, hopes, work, and accomplishments.  They are still the ones accountable for their own success or failure.  This is giving authority as opposed to taking authority, which is only to be done when someone is in desperate need to be saved or has completely failed.  Taking authority is devastating to the person who has it removed, even when they are grateful, and it should be avoided at almost all costs.  One of our primary values is the dignity of every human being from our baptismal covenant.  We preserve their dignity when we give them our authority without taking theirs away.

Have you seen a boss take authority that did not belong to them? How is that different from taking credit for others work?  They often overlap in unscrupulous cases, but let’s assume good intent.  Have you ever taken authority unintentionally or given it away?

We often pass authority to others without thinking horizontally.  We loan our word, our voice, our credit to others in subtle and overt ways.  It is important to be careful when we do this because we are the ones responsible for that authority given to us by God and our fellow brothers and sisters.

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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FranklinCovey and the Beginnings of a Rule of Life

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My introduction to the ideas behind forming a rule of life began during college when I discovered FranklinQuest planners and the book Ten Natural Laws of Time and Life Management by Hyrum Smith. The simple pyramid scheme of determining life values then translating those into goals and daily actions has been a part of their formula for success for years.

I think what is helpful for a follower of Christ is that our faith, like a value, needs to be translated into concrete daily steps. In Benedict’s Rule he lays out a daily schedule that forms a backbone of prayer. In our lives, we need something very similar if not exactly the same.

We need a schedule of prayer, and like the Rule it may change seasonally, and we need a set of guidelines for making our faith and community realities rather than concepts.

A lot of faith can feel like Jesus wall paper on the rooms of lives in which we live as functional atheists. If my faith is to be something that becomes a virtue, a lived value that becomes as natural as breathing, I need daily activities and a schedule that makes that happen.

I rise and pray. We pray before meals, every meal no matter how small. I don’t eat without thanking God, not because anyone else needs it, but because I do. I do evening prayer, usually long after the “vesper light” of the prayers. I stay really faithful to the Book of Common Prayer, but I almost always use apps on my phone.

I want to give a direct plug for http://www.missionstclare.com They have consistently provided a solid form of the daily office of the Episcopal church for as long as I have been crossing myself. I skip a lot of it, frankly, but never the opening, Psalms, Gospel, and Lord’s Prayer, daily collect, and blessing. That sounds like a lot, but it only takes as long as checking Facebook or reading the AP wire. And neither of them make me a better person.

A simple schedule and daily actions. My daily actions are not noble or great. I plan something everyday for my wife and I, some intentionally clear time with kids, and time to pray, study, and write. My life is overflowing with service for others and time with others as a pastor. I don’t have to work at those. What I have to plan in is marriage, family, and friends.

Becoming more Benedictine means living into stability and transformation. Taking these lifelong values that define who I am, or can, and making them into daily actions means that I have the chance to hear God say at the end, Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into my rest.”

And I know that is really simple, but it is my reason for having a planner.