How to Argue as a Christian

“Blessed are the meek,” said Jesus, and these days that seems obvious to me.  If only I had that kind of courage and strength. Later he went on:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,[e] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[f] a brother or sister,[g] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’[RACA] you will be liable to the hell[h] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[i] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[j] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[k] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You’re a f______ing idiot” is a pretty good translation of Raca! in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5, NRSV)

This is the reading that I constantly come back to as I try to learn to live as a follower of Jesus.  Is that even possible?  Have you read what Christians write online?

That’s pretty cheap, I know.  But I often feel something similar to what the ids are producing online.  (By “ids” I simply mean that people write from base instinct, without benefit of ethical reflection or restraint.)

Over the last several years of prayer and study, I have grown past the temptation to simply blurt out online, but I have to admit that I have had little fits in smaller settings.  They tend to happen  when I am thinking about politics, especially church or national politics,  or when reading online, parenting,  really anytime I am struggling with other people.  And, whether I say it or not, “RACA” in one form or another is what I say.

How can I not?  People are foolish.  Politicians fail us and common sense.  It is easy to come up with reasons why people do not deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.  I have scrolls of such reasons in the tabernacle of my heart.

But I have this dad-saying that I use on my children: “We don’t let other people determine what kind of person we will be.”  I don’t know where I got this. My dad never said that exact thing to me, though he modeled it.

So my anger and indignation at the world makes me question, “What kind of person am I to be when it comes to the ids of everyday life?”

I am going to presume that I should not merely be an id.  [This is where you bring to mind all that Paul wrote about the fleshly person and the spiritual person in Galatians.]  The id is the lizard that lives in the base of my brain.  The lizard wants to eat, sleep, fornicate, and fight if necessary, run if possible.  It is self protective, violent, fearful, thoughtless. Lizards do not do second level reflection.

Beware the lizards!  We have become sophisticated in our ways of expressing this lizard-mind, sublimating our base desires into language, actions, policies, and politics.  And because we all have that part of our deepest selves lurking in the landscape of our identity, it feels good to hear or see someone else expressing those desires.  We like to know who to fight and who to fornicate with; we like to be able to discern good from evil.  So we are seduced.

Is that wrong?  I know the question comes up when we begin to reflect on the primal nature of our deepest longings.  It is the first real question in some way.  It is the Garden of Eden question.

The tree presented the Knowledge of Good and Evil as fruit.  That knowledge was the temptation, and it led Adam and Eve to know they were naked, to hide from God, to blame the other, to be cursed to toil and struggle even in childbirth, to be subject woman to man, to be cast out.

This story is deeply problematic for all sorts of reasons, but I have come to witless startling time and time again as life has made more sense through it.  If you have never read Augustine’s last Confession, it is worth the rest of the book for its weaving of Genesis with the rest of the Bible and the Universe. The Garden is a good place to seek understanding about where we came from, but we Christians are supposed to be a people for whom the curse of the Garden is undone.

Can we not have knowledge of good and evil?  Would that even be a good thing?  I am relying on Bonhoeffer here to hold me up so I can peek back over the hedge and say, “What did we have before we left?”  If it wasn’t good and evil, what did we have knowledge of?  The answer has to be our selves, our world, and God.

If by some magic, we could have that mind again, the Fruit of the Knowledge of God, would you eat it?  I believe that is what the Bible meant by Wisdom, the knowledge of God in the world and in our selves.  That is not too bold.  Read Proverbs again or the Psalms.  We spend our time deciphering Good and Evil, because that is the decoder ring we have, so we quarrel, dispute, and argue.  These very things are in Paul’s list in Galatians 5 as the works of the flesh (lizard-mind).

What are to do then?  We know that the world is nuts.  Aren’t we supposed to be discerning good and evil?  Maybe not.  Maybe we are supposed to be discerning where God is, what God is doing, and what God would have us do.  That would fit very well with the Sermon on the Mount.

“Do not insult.  Do not hold contempt.  Do not be angry.  Go and seek to be reconciled with another if you have offended them; this is more important than sacrifice.”  Can more shocking words be written in our day?

I have certainly offended others.  I have insulted and be contemptuous.  I have been angry. And I have been them online. We could say that such things are the price of doing business in the world.  We could say that we cannot help ourselves.  We are only human.  But what we mean is that we are only lizards after all.

Jesus cannot expect more of us, can he?

If we are to make the bold claim to be the heirs of the kingdom that is not of this world, we have to be spiritual people, people born not merely of the flesh or the desire of a man, but we must be born again.  “To those who believe, he gave the power to become the children of God.” See the Gospel of John.  Now that is Good News.

So how do we argue?  How do we disagree?  We must be strong enough to speak the truth with no additives.  We must keep our fear and distrust, our contempt and anger in check.  This is the practice of the follower of Jesus.

Ultimately we hope to become the kind of people who don’t have fear, distrust, contempt, or anger.  I don’t imagine that you are there.  I am certainly not, but we keep turning to the deep practices of our faith, not as an end to themselves, but as practice for that kind of self.

“The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”  The practice is to be the Sons and Daughters of God in the quiet of peace, so that when everything falls apart, we don’t resort to the world’s way of being, but rather we can be human beings as intended by God, even when doing that costs us our lives, or makes us put up with people being wrong online.

I think the failure of the church in crisis has to do with our loss of practice in peace.  We let the peace of our times lull us to thinking that we were at war when we actually weren’t.  And then when we, American Christians, face crisis we are spiritually flabby and unable to even identify truth, much less take it up as a sword of peace.  We then don’t bring peace at all, but rather we are no different than the “kingdoms of this world.” This is our shame.

We have become like the world, and our cause, though sounding like holiness, is a worldly holiness that looks little different and below the surface is little different than everything else.  We are merely defending a lifestyle or a liberty rather than being the people of God.

That’s why politicians can seduce us so easily while not even trying to look Christian.  This is our fault though, not theirs.  “Can’t blame a stealer for stealing wallets; that’s just what they do.”  (Old Crow Medicine Show)  We have to return to our senses and grow up as a spiritual people, not merely born again but growing in stature in Christ, like Christ.

IMG_2262Then we won’t be tempted to shout, “You f____ing idiot,” at the people living by their ids, and even more we won’t be seduced by them either.  We can speak the truth when others can hear the truth because we have loved them, laying down our very lives for them, serving with humility, and offering peace rather than more of the same idiotic shouting.

This is somehow considered less manly these days or cowardly.  But like having the strength to move a bar slowly when lifting weights, it is more difficult and requires a strength of character and courage that is absent the shouting.

Oh, that I had the strength to be humble, the courage to be quiet!  This is our practice.

Sunday’s Sermon on Saturday Night – Embracing the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eastersunday – a poem a sermon before lent sneaks up on us again

from Norwich Cathedral

from Norwich Cathedral

easter sunday – a sermon a poem
By Daniel P. Richards

we walk when we can to the tomb
knowing that life is the way we always suspected

our hope in pools beneath the executioner’s wood
our grief has turned numb and we do what we probably should

take care of the details

so we mix our spices and oils
and go as we have always gone

it was (according to luke) the traditional way
of preparing bodies after the sabbath day

the state (it is said) always wins in the end
so here we go again

the state of things are as they have always been
there is war somewhere and losses here at home

justified killings and innocent people sacrificed to a greater good
we live lives of collateral damage

the environment ruined for a comfortable drive to work
someone somewhere is working her 1000th day in a row

so that i can have affordable tennis shoes or cheap lettuce
a child this morning is watching television alone (again)

what can we do?

we try to take care of the details
and sit is the reality that consumes us

the pragmatic pessimism that sighs
and says once again this is the way things are

we go to war because we are supposed to
when someone wrongs us we have to hit them back

we have to have these betternewerbigger weapons or suv’s
or borders or vaccinations to keep danger at bay

but it doesn’t work does it?
we load the gun and the child finds it

we buy organic and still get cancer
we love our children and they walk away

eastersunday

eastersunday is the ultimate proof
that the way things are is an illusion

the grief that numbs us is confused
by the emptiness of the tomb

and the way things are is underthrown
by a god who works in death to do the new

the thing we did not expect and cannot explain
the moment of death has become the moment of life

god meets us where we felt most abandoned
crying out my god my god why have you forsaken me?

the answer did not come when we wanted it
(when all the world would see

and they would know that we were right
that we were on the winning team)

but rather in whispers and bleached clothes to some women
whom not even peter and john quite believed

and yet here we are still scratching our heads
and asking exactly what it means

i don’t know
but i hope towards this

that god is here with us

the god that didn’t fix the way things are
didn’t soften the religious leaders hearts or overthrow rome

that didn’t go searching in the dark sabbath for revenge
or mount up an army to go after (them)

but that god the creator comes quietly after the storm
and whispers tabitha cum to the little girl

and takes us by the hand
leads us out into a new light

maybe too bright or too dim to quite see everything
and the soldiers are still standing guard at the comer

but somehow it all seems new

and the people around us are no longer enemies or even strangers (now)
but they wear the smile of family and friend

someone breaks a fresh loaf of bread and says (this)
and we take it and become

someone gets out the bottle of wine and says (remember)
and we do

we remember who we are gathered in this quiet room
the unsuspected and somewhat surprised family of god

no god hasn’t made us perfect
nor did we win

but god told us even in the worst of what we could do
that we are still god’s own and loved (beloved)

and god tell us now in this festal laugh
that the way things are is new

the reign the household jesus proclaimed exists
and always has

the whole world over our family is waking up
and slowly getting it as though at dawn

the light of a new day shines and all are one

how then do we live in our cheap tennis shoes
and believe the woman who sewed them is our sister?

that the people in the mosque are redeemed somehow
and that our soldiers are more than killing machines?

i don’t know

but i get up every morning and i sit
alone in a blue room with a candle and an icon

and i remember who i am
and then when i go to the store

i think about who else has touched these things
and i remember that they are loved too

and that they deserve what i do
and instead they get the way things are

so i put my hands into the clay of my tiny corner of the world
and i get to work building this new jerusalem

where the way things are is the way i know them to be
soaked in the light of this eastersunday morning

a world made new and being made new by christ (yes)
and by the christ in us (yes)

today we will baptize children
and we will say with them the words we say about who we are

let us not say them only but remember them in our clay
and not come to this table lulled to sleep by the way things appear to be

but let us come to this table awake to the new day
hands dirty and ready to work

let us hand them a world with fewer crosses and more empty tombs
with more justice and a greater peace

and when jesus comes again in glory
he’ll find a house he recognizes

and their familiar faces
already getting out the bread and wine

for the greatest party ever thrown
and everyone will be welcome

daniel p. richards

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay

Why Study Theology as a non-Specialist?

Theology is not popular.  It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends.  I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated.  I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements.  I was wrong.

But you should care about theology; you have one.  A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear.  You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it.  The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.”  Logos is one of those helpful words to know.  It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger.  It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding.  The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”

A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy.  After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese.  It is the way that makes the walker.

An example is coffee to the connoisseur.  The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it.  He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup.  He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe.  He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea.  Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing.  That thing is a logos.  It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.

So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God.  In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.

So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now.  The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.

For example, God is often understood as “father.”  This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential.  It was true in Jesus’ day.  When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically.  To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology.  We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God.  Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore.  We could spend years on this one topic.

There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have.  I am a runner and a physical person.  I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs.  I have opinions.  Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology.  I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God.  I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body.  Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God.  I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God.  In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.

Finally opinions.  I have opinions about lots of things.  My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature.  You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey.  My opinions do not change things.  They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it.  They are rarely really important.  The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree.  Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit.  Theology is not about having more opinions.

We learn theology.  In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God.  We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way.  Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.

But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling.  I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.

That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not?  To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice.  To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?

I love theology like I love poetry.  They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.

A Mini-Sermon: Fields of Wheat

In my office at the church it is such a common occurrence that I get thanked profusely and sometimes with tears for the work that I get to put a face on.  I rarely have done much other than served as a vehicle for others.

The blessing is that I get to be there when the realization comes that a grace too big to be repaid has just entered into your life.  I get to be there for the usually quiet “thank you.” Sometimes all it took was an envelope or a piece of paper or a pile of boxes or a card or a key.  Sometimes I have had to cajole and coerce people to open their hands and hearts to something that is too big, too gracious to be acceptable.  Again, it is important to know that I am rarely responsible for the gift, I am a delivery guy, a butler in this house of God we call Grace.

And I have one little sermon for this moment that many people have heard over the last decade or so.  It may be my best sermon.  It goes like this.

Look, we are all just heads of wheat in a ripe field of harvest.  The Wind blows, and we bow.  Today I am bowing to you, and you are overwhelmed, but there are a million heads of wheat bowing behind me.  I can bow to you because they are bowing to me.  Tomorrow the Wind will change, and we will change directions.  Then you will bow to someone else, and so will I.  This moment, right now, let me bow to you.  You will bow too, and this is the way of God in the world.  The Wind blows, and we bow, and Grace is passed from one to another like a harvest in the wind.

IMG_4198

Be generous this Christmas, for we all bow and are bowed to again.  I love you because I am loved.  May the Wind blow through us all.