While I’m not the biggest fan of Kaya Oakes (she probably hasn’t read my book, and someone suggested it to her; but then, that’s true of lots of people), she has a very prescient critique of the Benedict Option:

In fact, the Rule of Benedict itself says in Chapter 53, “On the Reception of Guests,” that monastic communities should “let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” Dreher’s idealistic notion of Christian community life is indeed appealing, but it neglects to understand that the guests arriving right now most in need of welcome are mostly not Christians. Nor does Dreher seem to write about progressive Christian communities that are, in fact, living out their own version of the Benedict Option, although their ideas about community are perhaps more open to female leadership of LGBTQ members.

Evangelicals, who largely lean and vote conservative, might seem to be a natural audience for Dreher’s work, which may be why the editors of Christianity Today invited him to contribute a cover story. They also asked four evangelical writers to respond to Dreher’s story and the question of whether evangelicals should pursue “strategic withdrawal.” Three of these evangelicals are highly critical of the Benedict Option. David Fitch, a professor of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary, writes that evangelicals cannot “make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.”

Oakes is right — there is a tremendous lack of hospitality to the stranger, the other, the enemy, in the Benedict Option. (Anyone needing hints for how to encounter enemies should look at the Elijah and Elisha stores.)

I am generally supportive of something akin to the Benedict Option, and I believe the American church takes its Americanness far more seriously than it does being church, and has for some time been incapable of forming real devoted disciples or offering an alternative vision of life together because of that commitment to America. Except by accident.

But I sense, from reading many of the comments on Dreher’s blog (and some of what he writes himself), that Dreher is frightened of the world, that it will take the faith of his children, and their children, and make that faith illegible or impossible. Much of what gets written in comment, about either the Benedict Option or about technology, is usually about protecting children from the corrupting influences of the world.

(Because of my work with Psalm 10 Ministries, I’ve become very aware that this desire to protect “good kids” also creates a category of “bad kids” who merit no protection, because they are irredeemable and their lives have no real value.)

In this, my fear is the Benedict Option will become another reactionary, bourgeois project.

Oakes is also right in saying that the world that comes to the church in search of welcome is non-Christian, and has been wounded — by the church, the world, modernity, and all that comes with the buying and selling of bodies and lives as mere commodities. People wounded by the false promises of self-exploitation, that their lives are theirs and theirs alone to make as they will absent any relationship with God.

My fear is that Dreher and many other religious conservatives who see and appreciate a real problem with the church and its inability to form faithful disciples are, at the same time, so afraid of the world they unwilling to encounter it without judging it and condemning it. (Again, Elijah/Elisha stories for guidance here.) They miss the role the church played in ordering and ruling the world, and won’t be the gracious presence of God in a world that, while it may not believe, on some level often understands it has sinned and fallen short and that God redeems us in and from our sin.

That said, the tolerance and hospitality of liberal Christians is frequently more for abstract categories of human beings — people who can be labeled in one way or another — than it is for actual people. Oakes’ concern is, honestly, another rigid and brittle form of bourgeois piety. It is welcoming only if you are already like the people doing the welcoming or identifiable in a way those who welcome can easily deal with. It knows less and less how to welcome people on the basis of personality, on those differences well all come with as human beings.

I have found a mixed welcome at best in liberal churches, and very poor hospitality at most. (I don’t try with conservative churches because I know I don’t belong there either.) It may be that church leaders are too overworked and risk averse, or far too ideologically oriented in their understanding of who needs to be welcomed (and who doesn’t), and that pastors and congregants are so emotionally worn out at the end (or beginning) of a week that they want comfort and ease, don’t want to have to do anything hard or be with anyone they find troubling when they show up for those 60 or 90 minutes. As our churches increasingly sort themselves out along political lines, it is likely going to be increasingly difficult for congregations and leaders to take risks welcoming strangers or real difference into their midst. Which is a terrible pity. That kind of risk is what the church exists for.

So, in this, the Benedict Option merely mirrors the rest of the church. Which is a pity, but not surprising. That Oakes’ understanding of hospitality in her essay is almost entirely limited to women leaders and queer folks is also not surprising — it’s how she understands welcoming and acceptance, and my guess it constrains that understanding. I suspect I wouldn’t be welcomed at Oakes’ church, would not receive the kind of hospitality she quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict, mostly because they wouldn’t know how, and they’d likely look at me and decide I’m not a stranger who needs or deserves hospitality.

Opting for Benedict

So this comment I made on Rod Dreher’s blog, as he took apart Rachel Held Evans’ tweet storm rant about Rod’ latest book, seems to have gotten some traction:

Progressive Christians and the Progressive Church is still wants American Christendom to work, still cannot tell the difference between state and society and church, and still very much want it to be 1962, when the church was influential and church leaders were listened to and everyone was good and bourgeois and belonged. Oh, they want a far more integrated version of 1962, complete with same-sex marriage. But their church is just as much Christendom, just as imperial, just as Constantinian, as the conservatism they decry. They want to be the chaplains to a well-ordered, relatively just (or justice oriented) state and society.

It does not help any that most progressives are trapped in a narrative of the civil rights movement that leaves them envious, guilt-ridden, self-conscious and with a sense of both deep unworthiness AND a belief the fundamental work of the civil rights movement remains unfinished. The church is the active conscience of the society, a very 19th century idea, and they are the people called upon to do that prophetic work of moving the beloved community forward. Of course progressives are going to hate the Benedict Option, because the Progressive Church exists to reform state and society, not to foster faith or form disciples.

But THAT in a nutshell is THE problem of the American church, one I have written about to much less acclaim or even notice than Dreher. The church in virtually all its forms — Progressive, conservative, orthodox, fundamentalist — demands the culture do the heavy lifting of forming disciplines, that there is no difference between citizenship and discipleship, and that the church’s job isn’t to form disciples but ensure the culture works on their behalf. That, more than anything, is going to mitigate against any kind of faithful Benedict Option in America because the church doesn’t really know how to be counter cultural, or an alternative community, for any great length of time, without aspiring to bourgeois stability and social power. That’s what’s going to be toughest for faithful followers of Jesus — the desire and expectation, almost inbuilt in the American church, that believing and belonging are virtually automatic endeavors in which church teaching and practice are mere add ons.

Nothing I haven’t said here before.

As I have watched the conversation develop around something like The Benedict Option — an idea I’ve had for a long time, given that I was Muslim for part of my life and understand what it is to belong to a religious minority that has little or not social power, and must struggle to affirm and live out both individual and collective religious identifies and confessions — I’ve developed a few concerns.

My first concern is that the those who support the Benedict Option too often ignore the story of Israel in scripture. In particular, the story that Israel is a failed polity, and that God acts to raise or redeem dead or captive Israel. Israel’s story is one of rise and fall and resurrection and redemption, and for us to appreciate our condition we need to understand our history is Israel shaped. That is, the promises God makes to the church through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, and fulfills in and through Jesus Christ — a home of our own, a blessing to the world, many descendants, and a king on the throne for ever and ever — are realized in our failure and our powerlessness, and not our success and power.

This is, I believe, the struggle of the Hebrew Bible — what do God’s promises mean to us given that everything has seemingly come to naught? That we are a conquered and exiled people, that this is our essential condition. We may yearn for power — “Give us a king, that we may be like other people!” Israel demanded of Samuel — but we are told that power will lead to our enslavement. (And it does.) More importantly, Israel’s wealth and and power, and the things needed to maintain that wealth and power, are what undoes that state. Power and wealth undo themselves.

Our power, and our wealth, undo us. Have undone us.

The history of the church can be understood best by setting it side-by-side with the history of Israel, which rose and fell, which was divided and conquered and sent into exile. Which achieved great things with power, and promises to us were made through that power (Christendom and all its works), but that power eventually undid us. Modernity and enlightenment are Babylonians and Assyrians (I have been meaning to write in some depth about this), and they have come to carry us away.

Without the full appreciation of the story of Israel as our story, our history, our purpose, and our meaning, we cannot really make sense of what is happening to us as church.

And I don’t see a lot of this among those calling for a Benedict Option. Too much of what passes for thought in Benedict Option circles is grounded in philosophy, particularly historical church teaching with a universalist claim, a church rather angrily but impotently trying to tell the world what is true and how to live.

Second, there is a lack of a proper prophetic voice among those promoting something akin to the Benedict Option. Israel may have been overrun by Assyria and Babylon, but they were just instruments of God’s judgement upon Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry. The sin was not Assyria’s or Babylon’s, though they would pay. The sin was Israel’s.

And Israel’s sin was idolatry. The worship of other gods. Faith in its own power to save itself — its mighty men, its armies, its wealth.

While I look upon Modernity and Enlightenment as akin to Assyrians and Babylonians, they aren’t external to the church. Christendom birthed them, raised them, made them possible. Our idolatry is our surrender to Modernity and Enlightenment and their truth claims. It is likely there could be no other way — God, through Moses, pronounces blessings and curses upon Israel in the Torah, and outlines the history of success, failure, and most importantly, redemption. The appreciate the Israel shape of our history, we must also appreciate the sins we are paying for are ours, and not the world’s.

We are paying for the idolatry of our ancestors. We are paying for their faithlessness. We are paying for the things they put into motion when they believed in power, privilege, and position, when they accepted without much struggle the truth claims of modernity. (Again, as I have said before, resistance to modernity and enlightenment was and is both pointless and futile.) The sin is ours — I cannot emphasize that enough. We are not at war with a sinful world. We live under the judgment of God.

In this, we have to remember God’s last word on our sin, our idolatry, our faithlessness, is always redemption and resurrection.

Finally, there is the matter of remnants. Does God save the remnant because they are faithful or is the remnant faithful because God has saved it?

This is not a small question, because at work among the Benedict Option folks is a belief that only the truly orthodox will survive. Maybe. However, God’s stipulation for redemption from the disaster he tells Israel it will face for its faithlessness is not rigor and right faith, but sincere repentance. We don’t what of Israel’s faith and faithfulness survived Babylon, but we do know the command to the faithful wasn’t “believe rightly!” but “flee Jerusalem!” (A teaching echoed by Jesus later.) Remember, we are a people called and gathered by God, and not our faith. God is in control, and so if we are truly going into exile, we have no real idea what our descendants will inherit.

Which also reminds me — if a Benedict Option is about saving children from the pollution of the world, that vision is both too large and far too small. It fails to trust God. It fails to see where we are called to meet that sinful world and proclaim good news. And it fails to appreciate that we can only pass on what we have inherited as faithfully as possible, but we have no say about how any of that gets used.

And it will also become one more bit of bourgeois reaction that will happily reach for any club offered to keep a sinful world at bay.

We are faithful failures, we followers of Jesus. Scripture gives us lots of examples of how to live under occupation or when facing Assyrians and Babylonians. From Jonah to Elijah and Elisha to Daniel to the disciples Jesus called to follow. And that’s all we can do … follow.

Follow wherever God leads. Even into exile.

Demanding Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Caleb Bernacchio over at Ethikapolitika notes something important about Rod Dreher’s advocacy for the Benedict Option — it lacks an understanding that we are called to follow Jesus in order to do works of mercy.

Dreher has this all wrong [about Pope Francis]. The Benedict Option is only viable insofar as its proponents are able to learn from Pope Francis. Dreher has been unable to the do this and as a result he has not been able to present an account of the Benedict Option that avoids the mistakes of previous Christian elites.

What are those mistakes? Believing that the Gospel is a “reform movement” capable of holding society to higher moral and ethical standards and of remaking the world in the image of the Gospel.

The Benedict Option is another reform movement, another attempt to hold society to the higher standards of the Gospel, even if it is strategically focused in a narrow scope. [Charles] Taylor [author of the A Secular Age] argues that these movements have lead to the modern “buffered” self, the self that treats the world (including his or her body) as inert material to be made over to the self’s preferred ideals. One commentator notes, “[T]the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging… and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” This is precisely the attitude that Dreher laments.

In addition to being an act of will intended to compel the world to conform to the truth that is the teaching of the church, many who support the Benedict Option do so believing the role of the church is only to hold on to and teach right faith and to judge and condemn the world’s failure to hold or adhere to orthodoxy. In short, according to Bernacchio, Benedict Option supporters really want the church — and the pope — to be the world’s Grand Inquisitor. (One reason they miss Benedict XVI, having seen in him a kindred spirit.)

Francis refuses to be the Grand Inquisitor; this attitude underlies his much ridiculed rhetorical question: “Who am I to judge?” Instead of the Judge, the Doctor of the Law, or the Grand Inquisitor, Francis’s paradigm of the ideal Christian is the Good Samaritan. This ideal shifts the gaze of reformer inwardly, from the world that needs to be remade in the image of the ideal, to the reformer himself. The paradigm of the Good Samaritan demands that every Christian look inwardly, asking if one has been a Neighbor to those encountered in daily life and especially to those in dire need. Francis, following the tradition, links this with the notion mercy, which has become the theme of his pontificate, calling mercy “what is most essential and definitive.”

This desire for a Grand Inquisitor is probably a reflection of the deep roots the Benedict Option has among disaffected, conservative bourgeois Christians who wish, more than anything, to preserve their children from the sin and degradation of a corrupt, decadent, secular world. Theirs is a stern church of bourgeois Western order, and they forget — Francis did not come from that world.

Because the Benedict Option creates a Christian life that ooks both inward and backward, it has no idea how to approach the world without condemning it or what to do with that world except for keeping it arms length. (Because there are children in need of protecting.) This is not how Francis sees living as a faithful Christian in a post-Christian, non-Christian world:

But for Francis it is not possible to discuss Christian life practically without recognizing the plight of the world’s poor and marginalized. And if Brad Gregory is correct, one reason why medieval Christendom fractured is because the elite failed to acknowledge the injustice that they were responsible for and thus failed to mitigate the tensions that finally boiled over during the Reformation. Dreher recommends that BenOpers put their children in “authentic Christian school[s],” disregarding the fact that such schools often come with a hefty price tag rendering them unimaginable for many. What should people do who can’t afford the Benedict Option? If Gregory is right, proponents of the Benedict Option are repeating the mistakes of past Christians, preaching justice and mercy, but leaving this as a mere afterthought that does not affect their vision of Christian life. As Gregory has shown, this is no way to build a sustainable Christian social order.

In effect, the Benedict Option as conceived in North America is just another effort by bourgeois white Christians to create an ersatz collective movement that lacks any real sense of solidarity — particularly with those who aren’t bourgeois. (Solidarity is something white people shorn of their ethnic identities are very, very, very bad at, especially bourgeois whites, who have become hyper-autonomous whether liberal or conservative, secular or religious, tending to see connection only in and through the state and its institutions.) The focus on a dry and pitiless orthodoxy will create more of the same kind of church that cannot be a meaningful presence of God in the world.

Or as Bernacchio notes:

What Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option must learn from Pope Francis is, first and foremost, that orthodoxy is pointless unless it contributes to a life of charity and mercy. As Taylor has argued, reformist efforts to promote (or enforce) orthodox beliefs can backfire – Francis provides an alternative to the reformist model, not by denying orthodoxy but by emphasizing solidarity and mercy. Where Dreher has seen the Benedict Option as a means of distinguishing orthodox believers from liberal Christians and secular society, more generally, Francis maintains that Christians must primarily be distinguished by acts of mercy. In practice this means building communities that are not isolated from the rest of society but which are instead linked through bonds of solidarity even to people with radically different beliefs. The best examples of this are the Catholic Worker Movement and L’Arche communities.

At the heart of this, I think, is a notion among many – including me — that the hard times ahead for the church in Christendom mean that only a remnant will be saved. For the conservative and orthodox, given what they see as the collapse of the theologically, politically, and culturally liberal churches of the American mainline, that remnant is self-evident — them, orthodox believers who hold tight to the true teaching of the church in all things, who change not one jot or tittle of it.

This is one reason I think the story Benedit Option Christians is impoverished without the story of Israel and its conquest and exile. God saved a faithful remnant, but was that remnant saved because it was faithful and found favor with God (like Noah), or did God save a remnant and in its salvation did that remnant realize its salvation and become faithful?

In short, we’re asking the same old questions that Christians have always argued about — does one obey the rules first in order to become part of the community, or does one learn to obey the rules only by becoming part of the community first?

It’s no small question. Because the first is entirely dependent on an act of human will. In effect, it says what religion always comes to say in the face of modernity — “If God isn’t going to save us, we’ll have to save ourselves.” The results of this are usually bad. It’s an effective act of faithlessness because it doesn’t trust in God. As in the books of Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra, God is an add-on, a thing from the past we reference but who doesn’t live with us in our midst today.

Who doesn’t do great things right here and right now.

I’m more inclined to trust God, in part because I believe the Good Samaritan story and what it tells us about how to love and be grace in the world. In general, the story of Jesus is the story of how live faithfully under occupation, and not a guide to the use of power, something that Christendom Christians have completely forgotten. I may or may not be in this remnant that goes into exile, that weeps at the river bank and tries mightily to pass its faith and practice on to its children. But I’m trying not to care, because my calling is to love the wounded neighbor right in front of me. Yes, it’s hard to trust God, because there’s no obvious return, because too often God stays silent, and because it is hard to see the great things God is doing in our midst. Especially in a faithless, fallen, decadent world.

Honestly, I cannot end this essay any better than Bernacchio ends his. He notes that too many BenOpers deal with “solidarity” and the poor as after thoughts, things to deal with only once correct doctrine and teaching have been settled. But mercy is a first thing, an essential thing, and not an add-on. It is not a luxury of faith once we’re secure in our homes and our children are protected, but an essential, something without which we have no meaningful faith to begin with.

Francis … suggests that solidarity with the poor is the sine qua non of authentic Christian community. Thus Francis challenges proponents of the Benedict Option, and the Church more generally to give up the dangerous fantasy of the Grand Inquisitor whose power will remake the world in the image of our ideals and instead to build bonds of charity and mercy in the manner of the Good Samaritan.

Wishing A “Bad Protestant” Was Someone Other Than a Hypocrite

Aaron Taylor over at First Things laments about moral relativism as he writes about giving communion to the divorced and remarried, but does so for a reason I find deeply refreshing:

The attitude of these priests reflects, for the most part, the historic Catholic modus operandi: on the one hand, clear and demanding moral standards, known to all (or easily discoverable by all who care to know); on the other hand, a lackadaisical approach to enforcing those standards. In other words, a preference for the Southern European approach to rules over the Anglo-Saxon model that demands law be rigorously enforced or else scrapped.

This modus operandi is delicately balanced, however. When moral standards themselves are relativized, what emerges is not a Church in which everyone simply moves on from the idea of mortal sin. It’s a Church in which remaining moral standards are increasingly contradictory. When one group is excused from obedience to law, more exacting standards are required elsewhere, in an attempt to re-balance the mystic scales of justice—deflecting attention to the sins of group B to excuse the sins of group A.

Consequently, the current direction in the Church is not (as conservatives fear) toward adopting progressive sexual mores, but more in the direction of conservative Protestantism—which, for the most part, has jettisoned or twisted biblical teaching that conflicts with those aspects of the sexual revolution that appeal to heterosexual males, while ramping up the opprobrium against everyone else. While gay evangelical teens kill themselves in despair, heterosexual adults who shame them live indistinguishably from non-Christians.

The same approach is gaining a foothold in the Catholic Church. Want heterosexual sex without its natural consequences? No need to breed like rabbits. Having an affair? We’ll accompany you while you discern how your new sex life accords with God’s will. Want to cohabitate? Your relationship might have the grace of a marriage anyway. But a Google news search for “gay teacher fired by Catholic school” returns over 13,000 results.

In effect, everything is slouching toward a dull, Protestant piety in which some sinners are condemned in such ways that their repentance and inclusion in the community of the faithful becomes impossible, while other sinners are given a pass because their sins are so … ordinary.

Hardly sins to begin with.

Rather than arguing for more well-adjusted, well-ordered moral rectitude, Taylor examines the life of 19th French poet Paul Verlaine (and, obliquely, Oscar Wilde), whose relationship with the church was tumultuous, and “he spent the rest of his life [after his imprisonment for sodomy] oscillating between periods of fervent devotion and drunken escapades with prostitutes.”

Imagine, however, that Verlaine had lived not in the 1870s but in the 2070s, that he had converted into a Church stripped of black-and-white thinking about sin and grace, in which priests are schooled in the arts of “discernment” and “accompaniment.” Verlaine could then have been assisted to appreciate the positive dimensions of his relationship with Rimbaud (or of his encounters with prostitutes), relax, and let go of the rigid moral thinking that left him racked with guilt.

Some souls need the emotional intensity that faith and redemption brings, because some people lead dissolute or disreputable lives and still find redeeming faith, even an emotional and spiritual intensity in the encounter with God. Taylor writes that Verlaine clearly did. But we cannot have such people in the church today. Our piety won’t allow it, our bourgeois sensibilities won’t allow it (because such lives represent a threat to an increasingly tenuous bourgeois order), and frankly, our lawyers won’t allow it either.

And so … the church becomes a dull collection of calm, bourgeois at prayer whose only acceptable enthusiasm is political activism. As Taylor writes:

The disappearance of the Verlaine-style “bad Catholic” from the contemporary Catholic landscape is not a sign that everyone became holy in the 1970s. It is a serious impoverishment. Those who are forgiven little, love little. Sin is ugly, but it is part of the moral economy that makes grace intelligible. Without it, the narrative of salvation history looks somewhat ridiculous, for what do we need saving from? There can be something beautiful about the life of someone who genuinely struggles with sin instead of making excuses, and beauty is indicative of truth.

And Taylor then quotes Oscar Wilde, a man with his own troubled relationship with the Church: “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”

The church in America, progressive and conservative, seeks to be nothing but a community of the respectable, a community of the well-adjusted and well-ordered, a community of those forgiven but who really haven’t done anything so wrong that they need forgiveness. (Remember the lived creed of most of the church: “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly don’t deserve it.”) I suspect most American Christians, while confessing an anodyne sin-nature, would likely echo Donald Trump’s sentiments that they haven’t really done anything wrong enough to need God’s forgiveness. (Though many would also be overcome with liberal guilt about the state of the world as well.)

Into this community, no one else is allowed. Not really.

I do think Southern Baptists understand what Taylor misses, at least on the edges, with the notion that “one must sin in order to be saved.” But it would be nice, somewhere, to find a church community that gets, truly gets, you can sin, and still be saved.

ADVENT 12 / Tired of Waiting

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

Oh yeah?

It feels like God is slow. It feels to me, right now, that God has forgotten his promise. To me. To others. That God has just simply walked away.

Last week, I learned a terrible thing. A young woman who had been texting this ministry, a teenage girl living in an abusive home, frightened of her dad, had contacted one of the people here. Not me. She read this blog, and then read my blog (I’m Charles, if you must know), devoured it, took some hope in all I’d written and said. And was beginning to get the courage to run away, to leave home, to find safety and protection.

It was too little, too late. Her father beat her to death.

Not slow? Not wishing any should perish? BUT SOME HAVE PERISHED! Many have perished, and many more will die, frightened and alone, at the hands of those who mean them nothing but harm.

There are days when I don’t want God to be patient with me. With the suffering of the world. I just want it all to be done with.

There are days when I do not care if I am delivered or redeemed. When I wish I had never been baptized, never heard Jesus speak of love in the midst of terror and death, when I wish I’d never heard a promise and never believed.

But I do believe. I cannot help it.

I am, however, tired of waiting.

ADVENT 11 / Words Matter

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 ESV)

Words matter.

It matters what we say, because what we say reflects what we think, what we feel, what we understand, what we truly believe and confess. It what we say publicly to people, about them, what we conclude. Because in our words and thoughts and feelings are the buds from which will flower and bear our fruit.

Good fruit or bad fruit. A tree is known by the fruit it bears.

So what we say matters. What we think matters. What we feel matters. What’s in our heart matters. Because from all this spring our deeds, and the deeds that matter, as Matthew notes, are simple ones, acts of kindness and mercy and in a cruel and merciless world — food for the hungry, a cup of water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and company for the sick, lonely, and imprisoned.

It is hard to work deeds of love and mercy when your heart is cruel and unkind. The heart will out. Thoughts and feelings will out.

Jesus says our words and our deeds will be measured. We will be judged on the basis of what we say and do.

So our words matter.

ADVENT 9 / It Sucks to be Born at Such a Time

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (Isaiah 24:5 ESV)


I hate that word.

“God will punish you!” I’ve heard it. Not recently, not as an adult, but as a child, from some people who called themselves faithful Christians, followers of Jesus, people who pointed fingers and said, “God will punish you because you do not believe!”

As an adult, I’ve seen the shaking of heads, heard the whispered muttering which suggests that my problems, my suffering, are all my fault. If only I was a better person, more pious, of better character, I would not have suffered, not be poor, not be in such need.

My fault.

God is punishing me. For my faithlessness.


There are consequences for sin. War and penury, defeat and conquest and exile.

But often times, children pay for the sins of their parents. Some pay for the sins of others. The generation of Israel that went into exile was not that generation whose sinfulness, whose faithless idolatry, brought about war and death and exile. It is not fair, and it does not seem right to us.

But it is the way of things.

When we sin, we who God has called to follow, we set into motion things we cannot control, things we cannot see or understand until they are upon us. We may live well, but in that living well, and all that comes with it, are the seeds of our destruction. Israel under Solomon was a rich and powerful state, with a huge army and a sprawling court of ministers and priests and officials and concubines. But that power brought with it the cause of its destruction, as Israelites rebelled against the cost of that army and court, failed to show mercy and forbearance to each other, and rejected the God of Israel as they deliberately rejected the inheritance of David.

The earth becomes defiled. The consequences of sin become bigger than us, seeping into the air and the water — in, with, and under the sky and the soil. Everywhere. The consequences of sin from long ago oozes and poisons everything, wrecking and ruining individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, even whole kingdoms.

This is not punishment. Those who sin often times live lives of ease. But their sin, that ease, creates conditions that someone will, eventually, pay for. Sucks to born at such a time. To know that once, life was easy and life was good, but now, not so much. Sucks even more to know that ease and that goodness is likely one of the reasons things are so hard now.

Not my doing! I didn’t do this! I’m not the cause of this! The earth is not defiled because of what I have done! I shouldn’t have to pay for this! To suffer for the sins of others! It’s not right! It’s not fair!

But defiled it is. With sins I inherit but did not commit.

Guess Who’s Coming to Repent and be Baptized…

Jennifer and I were worshiping this morning as what we have taken to calling The Church of St. John-in-the-Wilderness, a good Anglican name attached to a number of churches, though the first one that comes up online is somewhere in India.

Right now, it’s just Jennifer and me, using the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer, a slowly expanding of form two of Holy Communion, which we celebrate at home (though honestly, I lobbied for worshippers at Starbucks this morning). We call ourselves Anglicans on purpose. The Lutherans have wounded us too much to go back, we’re not Catholic, and we have yet to find a church here in Moses Lake that takes worship — liturgy — seriously.

Four praise songs and a long, meandering sermon that is more conservative political piety do not a proper worship service make. Nor does the formless, shapeless and very unserious semi-liturgy we’ve experienced in far too many churches in the last few years.

Honestly, the only places where I’ve felt liturgy is taken seriously are Orthodox churches and the Latin Mass. And several of my friends’ ELCA parishes.

At any rate, we’re self-proclaimed Anglicans right now (and not Episcopalians, for reasons I will keep to myself for the time being), until some bishop somewhere decides to follow the lead of two ELCA bishops and toss our asses out as well.

At any rate, I was reading the texts for the Second Sunday of Advent this morning, and noticed two things.

First, in the Gospel reading.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …” (Matthew 3:7 ESV)

So okay, John the Baptist is in the midst of the wilderness, hanging out on the banks of the River Jordan baptizing the rabble when who shows up but “many of the Pharisees and Sadducess?” The religious establishment, following the people out to this wilderness, to take a dip in the water and repent of their sins.

They were coming to be baptized. To repent. I’d never noticed that before.

We don’t know what John the bug-eating, rambunctious holy mess tells the ordinary folks coming to him from Jerusalem and Judea and all around the Jordan, when they show up. But in Matthew’s account, he has special words for the religious leaders. “Who invited you?” he demands, as if somehow they hadn’t been told about to this repentance party at the river on purpose.


He then makes a special demand of them, these uninvited religious leaders. “It isn’t enough merely to speak words as you get ready to go under the water, or live in the confidence that merely being descended from Abraham is enough. Bear fruit.”

To the religious leaders, he tells them — repent, and then live like you mean it. He doesn’t deliver this same warning to the ordinary folks who come the repent, at least not in Matthew’s account. He may very well be the kind of stern, crazy man you cross to the other side of the street to avoid (he always come across that way to me), but from this, it seems he baptized all who came without much question.

And even here, after he warns the religious leaders of his age to take their repentance seriously, and live like they really are penitent, John appears to baptize them.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11 ESV)

When we talked about this at worship, Jennifer looked at me and said, “Even religious leaders. We need to remember that.” Because right now, she and I have almost no patience for religious leaders — bishops and pastors and the like — and I’d just as soon as consign them outer darkness or the fires of Gehenna or some deep, dark part of Sheol as think of them twice.

God’s grace is also for the powerful, for those who have wronged as much as those they have wronged. I think John is right to demand of these religious leaders that their repentance manifest itself tangibly in their lives in ways it may not have to in anyone not given the responsibility of religious leadership.

Which leads me to the second thing I noticed, in the epistle reading, which wasn’t technically part of the reading for the week, but I read it anyway.

1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1-3 ESV)

I love this, this talk of obligation and self-surrender. I love this because it’s hard and I hate it. I don’t like bearing with the failings of the weak, and there are times when I’m not terribly patient for the failing of those around me. (My poor wife bears far too much of the brunt of this…) I’d rather yell at people to keep up with me, rather than have to slow down and walk with them only as fast as they can.

And the thing that makes this especially tough is that all too often it feels like no one bears with my failings. No one slows down to walk with me, no one builds me up. Certainly not all those rotten bishops and pastors who have glared at me in uncomprehending judgment at who and what I am and sent me away without so much as a “can we be with you and at least listen to you?”.

In fact, I wouldn’t be a self-proclaimed Anglican, leader of the smallest denomination (two) in North America, if the Pharisees and Sadducees I had encountered had somehow actually lived out their repentance in a meaningful way.

I want to live in a world of reciprocity — do unto others as they do unto me. But that’s not what Jesus says, and that’s not what Paul is writing to the church at Rome here. There is no reciprocity in this relationship we have with God — we bring nothing to God and can do nothing for God — and so we model that lack of reciprocity. We listen to those who will not listen to us. (Try this with an abused, autistic 13-year-old girl sometime… ) We walk with those who will not walk with us. We comfort those who cannot and will not comfort us. We love those who will not love us back.

I can no more live in a loveless world than you can, and I know that if I give of myself like this, there will soon be nothing left of me. Our very humanity needs and demands reciprocity, and I need to remember the times when I took and did not give, talked and did not listen, received comfort but did not return it.

But at the heart of this relationship God has with us is self-surrender, in which power and privilege and position are given up, in which the strong use their strength to bolster rather than brutalize the weak. It’s hard, and most days I really hate it.

It’s what God does for us, though.

ADVENT 5 / Fire

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

… when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. (Isaiah 4:4 ESV)

Fire destroys. It doesn’t usually clean.

Unless you consider that fire can be used to clear away that which is unneeded, unwanted, unsightly, embarrassing, inconvenient, and downright troublesome. Think Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism,” which never lets a good crisis go to waste. The upending of the meagre lives of the poor in some kind of calamity — tsunami or hurricane (there we go with the water again) or financial crisis — always manages to be the means by which someone who is rich becomes richer, one more tool the powerful use to get and keep their way.

Fire destroys. It lays waste. And what is left behind … is rebuilt upon. By those who have means. To the exclusion of those who don’t.

Sometimes the fire is set on purpose.

There is also the fire of revenge. For many years, I wanted nothing more than to douse the whole wide world with something flammable and set it alight. I wanted to watch it, and everyone in it, burn. Down to nothing. I wanted to put an end to humanity and my misery and my loneliness and the cruelty of the world. I was angry, enraged at a world that had let me suffer, had made me suffer, at a world that seemed to exist somewhere between a callous indifference and calling all it had done to me righteousness.

Give me a match. Because fire destroys.

The people of God … have sinned. We have worshipped that which has not saved us, and cannot save us. We have sacrificed the bodies, spilled the blood, valued as nothing, those whom God cherishes, those whom God has not asked us to sacrifice — orphans, widows, the weak, strangers, foreigners. We have been indifferent to their fate, to what we have done to them, called our cruelty righteousness so we can enjoy our ease. And God tells us … payment is coming, in the form of a terrible fire which will consume everything. A divine vengeance which will burn to the ground all that we have made with our hands, all we venerate, all we value.

It will destroy. Little will be left. It will clean. And in that fire, we who survive … shall be made right.

ADVENT 4 / We Were Gathered

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:31 ESV)

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be gathered?

Memory dims and fade, but I still remember intensely that beautiful Tuesday morning in September, 2001, when the ordinary gave way to the extraordinary, when death rained from the sky, when men and women tumbled to their deaths, when smoke turned the sun to blood and toxic dust filled the air.

We the elect, those unfortunate enough to have been there that day, were gathered, a mob of humanity, under giant towers slated for destruction, watching, helpless, while people died.

Nameless. Faceless. Placeless. No distinction between us mattered. Unable to protect. Unable to be protected. All equal as we stared at the end of the world.

Is it a good thing to hear the trumpet, to feel the wind, to know that heaven is being folded up and we are, all of us, being brought to one place? To face death knowing we can do nothing? The we have done absolutely nothing?

Is it a good thing, in the face of death, to hear the voice of Jesus speak: “My love is all that matters.”? To know that as the world falls down around you, something bigger is present, and has spoken, and means it?

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be gathered?