Today’s the day we talked about “turning” at Epiphany Seattle. We touched on how “turn” is a code word for “repent,” that, yeah, they’re synonyms—technically, in the original languages—but are now more akin in my view to the relationship of “cheese” to “dessert”—they can be the same thing, and in some contexts they are, but we don’t often experience them the same way. We shared what these two flavors of the same idea—to turn, to repent—have meant in our own lives of conversion and change. And since ”turn” is the start of a whole series of words based on TEC’s #WayOfLove rule of life, there’s a pedagogy to our word choice. We reflected on that as a group.
I shared my attraction to the punchiness of a word like “repent” in a world like ours, a world of flux—a word like that means hitting the brakes. It means a solid foundation to begin again. The cross stands as the world turns! There’s solace in that adage.
But this process has meant re-reading my story alongside others—seeing myself in Lauren, my partner in this forum, and in St. Peter, my guide towards a Kingdom of God perspective on stability, certainty, and change.
Lauren read her life through Paul’s road to Damascus—not the about-face we often think it is. And I wondered what Jesus was thinking when he made Peter the Rock, the cornerstone to build his Church on.
Why? Why build anything on a figure as unstable as Peter?
By nominating Peter, I see Jesus as the first “culture jammer,” with the Kingdom of God he proclaimed, a cosmic act of détournement—literally a rerouting of what we think we know about God, power, and privilege in the story of God’s people.
By making Peter our Rock, I think Jesus is telling us that following his way of love means a life of permanent revolution. May we hold fast to letting go!
This is the third practice in the #WayOfLove, a rule of life developed by The Episcopal Church to help people lead more Jesus-centered lives. Rules of life are a monastic concept, a pattern of piety very much in Anglicanism’s DNA. That’s what the Book of Common Prayer tradition is about—a reformational move to democratize contemplative practice and make the whole world a cloister.
Pictured above is a book of Advent reflections made by members of St. Peter’s, where I’m looking up today’s Prayer of the Day: “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
That kind of prayer is called a Collect—literally a gathering of prayers that Christians have prayed for centuries, condensed, crafted, and compiled into a daily pattern. It’s a way for the whole Church to pray with one voice—a spiritual commons in a world of hyper-individualism.
On the same page, Claire writes in her reflection on this third Tuesday in Advent: “In community, we learn together to recognize the signs of God’s work in each other’s lives. We share what we have seen and experienced, lessons from the fig trees and from our own shortcomings. We trust in a future that has good things in store for each of us.”
That’s the meaning of common prayer. Our faith is stronger in community, especially in times like these.
There’s probably nothing less suited to modern sensibilities than this practice, the fourth in The Episcopal Church’s #WayOfLove.
Soup kitchens make sense. Sentimentality can be recuperated. Religion as a whole can be accounted for in social analysis & strategy. Even Lenin wrote against engaging in atheistic evangelism: “Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.” Marx’s analysis, as recently quoted at the launch of @christiansocialism, was even shrewder—even as he called for its abolition, Marx could wrap his head around its significance: “Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction…”.
But worship—in its deepest sense—undoes this tidy consensus. What separation of public from private affairs can you possibly maintain when your practices point to, proclaim, and participate in an order that supersedes everything? Literally everything. Everything, everything, and Hugh Jackman.
This is a question that many Christians struggle with too, so we deflate our claims, relativize our beliefs, and strip our rituals of any metaphysical (read: political) significance. Some of this discomfort is well-deserved; there’s a fine line between total claims and totalitarianism. Christian imperialism has battered & bruised every corner of this planet and was the primary reason for my leaving the faith in the first place—but this beast cannot be defeated from the outside, and evacuating our practices of the full import of their meaning is a dereliction of our duty to the world.
Christianity’s claims are peculiar. Worship is weird. To acknowledge this is not to revel in outsider status, but to build a culture of authentic welcome. Nothing less would befit the occasion.
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” (Luke 24:30-31)
This is the fifth practice in the #WayOfLove, & the one I’ve found the most abstruse; when I presented on the rule of life last year, I couldn’t see the difference between this word & tomorrow’s (“Go”). ‘Bless’ is to “share faith and unselfishly give and serve” while ‘go’ is to “cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus.” What was the Episcopal Church getting at with this distinction?
I figured that it was just another milquetoast way of talking about evangelism while not really talking about it because okay boomer, but even then, wouldn’t collapsing sharing the gospel by word & deed into one practice be more in line? I admit to leaving the matter in that indeterminate state & not really thinking about “bless” much.
But I had an epiphany last night.
As an unlikely & lukewarm convert to the group cycling phenomenon that Tara Isabella Burton very astutely identifies as “fully structured as a religion” whose core “faith is a value system, however implicit, of capitalism consumerism,” I was not expecting to receive this revelation in the middle of Young Summer’s ‘We Could Be Heroes.’ Most days, my heart sinks when the playlist gets inspirational & the instructor feels the need to preach; there are days when I’ve literally gnashed my teeth, beseeching the Lord to deliver us from pap!
But last night, I remembered some conversations we’ve been having at work about the hunger the world has for the riches that the Church can offer, if only they knew—if only we figured out how to tell them. We talked about how so many formations, from the sharing economy to beer choirs, are signs of this hunger—needs the Church once provided for, and still does, though without a monopoly.
It struck me, as I peddled last night, that this story only captures half the point; as the centers of civic meaning & moral value move elsewhere, false idols emerge—this much is true. But is this shift not a movement of the Spirit as well? When pressed, most Christians I know would agree, because we know that justice & truth are found beyond our walls; why not beauty, healing, or communion?
But here’s the rub:
Some will believe this to be true, & decide that the task at hand is to abandon the Church—the Kingdom of God is within you, so why this attachment to stone & stained glass? To that, I’ll just say: try to organize a couple of meetings for a major project working exclusively between cafés and ask me again. Institutions are important. They are countervailing forces.
Others will go the other way, & often do—sourcing best practices to mimic the state of the world’s art, & to that, I say: lead us not into vapidity! No, our task is not to baptize everything the world is doing, but to bless it & call it good; to be the tethers that tie that goodness back to God. We are to share the faith, to unselfishly give & serve wherever the Spirit is working.
At first glance, this practice is not an Advent word. To “live like Jesus,” as the #WayOfLove gives shape to this call to ‘go,’ does not feel like it’s part of the waiting story—at least, not when we’re meant to be waiting for baby Jesus. It feels more like a Pentecost story, or maybe a preamble to that—an Ascension story:
“The Ascension is the final displacement of the body of the gendered Jew…The final displacement rehearses the logic of the eucharist: the body itself is transposed.” (Graham Ward)
Pentecost is the traditional starting point for our sending as a Jesus movement. But Jesus has to leave for his people to follow; ‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.’ That’s what this line attributed to St. Theresa of Avila is getting at—we go because Jesus is gone. Through Christ’s physical displacement, a collective body is born, one that is always already in migration: “A verse from Colossians elucidates this: ‘the Church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’…the Church is now the body of Christ, the distended body of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church is broken like the bread, to be food dispersed throughout the world.” (ibid)
But Christ’s move is more than call to action—it’s the real & effective convocation of a multitude: “The final displacement of the gendered body of Jesus Christ, always aporetic & transgressing boundaries, is the multi-gendered body of the Church” (ibid). Our multiplication brings us full circle—our sending, a new Advent with a new star of Bethlehem guiding us through this cosmic Nativity scene:
“The logic of the Ascension is the logic of birthing, not dying…The withdrawal of the body of Jesus must be understood in terms of the Logos creating a space within himself, a womb, within which—en Christoi—the Church will expand & creation be recreated.” (ibid)
We go because we’ve been set in motion; indeed, we may have already arrived: “Christians constitute something of the city…the collocation of interdependent bodies located here rather than there, & yet always extended beyond ourselves—even to the furthest shores of the most distant sands.”
“About a third of our lives are spent in sleep. Through these collective years of rest, God is at work in us and in the world; redeeming, healing, and giving grace. Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of our limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God.(Tish Harrison Warren, ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary’)
What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested—people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of the Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.”
Early on in my conversion story, I happened upon a pair of young missionaries from a religious group currently accused of hoarding $100B for the second coming of Christ. I was trying to let providence lead the way, so I stopped to listen, talk, share my contact details, & plan to meet up again & again. I eventually visited their worship spaces & even learned of affiliated communities in my part of the world—something I’d assumed unthinkable, given how tightly regulated ecclesial communities are there.
It was fascinating to hear their perspectives on the faith I was beginning to explore. I identified with their invitational device—a focus on a “great apostasy” that’s befallen Christ’s Church. I saw how they built their arguments on the person of Jesus & that general sense of disappointment in his followers, revealing their distinctives as a confession little by little, mostly in response to my questions.
Even though I hung out with them several times, they’d already lost me a couple of sentences into our first chat. They spoke of a restoration of Christ’s true Church—of Christ himself having restored & authorized this authentic expression of his teachings, which they now represented. This made little sense to me.
It wasn’t that I was well-versed in orthodoxy; I didn’t know the language or the salvific arc—Creation to New Creation—to have anything clever to say. I just didn’t recognize their Jesus Christ, the one who taught through patience, humor, & paradox; the Jesus who came back for Thomas, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday. Jesus, whose family tree was spotty & problematic, as Rev. Ruth Anne preached today. Jesus just isn’t a Type A kinda guy.
But Jesus isn’t a relativist either; he really did believe in a right way & a wrong way to interpret his teachings. But nothing about God’s pedagogy strikes me as restorationist in the manner my pals described; he’s interested in our heart of hearts, not our centralized authorities, & that’s what informs how I discern truth from falsehood in Christianity.
Restoration is certainly a return to some prior holism & harmony, but it can never be the worship of order as such.