Talking About God on Social Media

I am a strange creature of habit. Every morning, I wake up, sit on my back porch and say Morning Prayer, then check my Facebook to see what’s going on in the world of my social media network. Not the real world, but my social world.

Did you know there’s a difference? Sometimes I forget. Facebook is an extraordinarily odd reflection of the world. I don’t know about you, but my news feed is a conglomeration of outrage-porn and sweet little kittens. It sometimes seems as though Facebook is just one vast opportunity to express outrage and indignation at every turn. Reactive, unequivocal, angry, deadening outrage. Oh, and kittens.

I will admit, even I engage differently on social media than I do in real life. I can get easily outraged by the latest news, the latest insensitive headline, the latest leap to judgment of celebrity lives that are none of my business. And I’m often quick to post.

“Scandalous,” I proclaim!

There’s no invitation in this, except perhaps to agree with me or shut up. Sometimes, I can rage against the latest political foul, point my accusatory fingers at the latest outbreak of homophobia, racism, or sexism that has caught the media’s obsessive attention — “Cry havoc!!” says I, and then listen to the chatter of righteous indignation that follows feeling smug and self-justified. Oh, and look! Kittens.

In the midst of this, I write about God. And faith. And spirituality. It is, after all, my vocation. But talking about God on social media, while I believe it is important, is also fraught with perils of my own making. I am mindful that a good number of my friends both in real life and on social media are non-believers. And so, I have tried to keep my blogging about issues of faith compartmentalized to a degree. My PunkMonk San Francisco page is where I tend to share those kinds of things, and I will often cross post onto my Facebook wall to point people there.

Blogging about faith runs the risk of frustrating non-believers, irritating believers who think differently, or inspiring people to open their hearts to God in new ways.

More than anything, I have recognized that I don’t want my posts on faith and God to be a source of outrage. Because we know that these topics can provoke. Part of me wants them to at least get people thinking. Part of me wants to bear witness to the God of my belief in a way that demonstrates that not all people of faith are insistent, fundamentalist, regressive or determined that there is only one true way to believe. I reject those notions.

I know that many of my friends have found ways to newly appreciate faith, the Jesus Story, and Christianity – in some small way, perhaps, because of the way I write and speak about God. But I also know that in the swirling miasma that is Facebook, the opportunities for misunderstanding, indignation, and outrage are ever present. And that I can too often contribute to the culture of social media that fosters quick judgment, failed opportunity for conversation, and unpleasantness generally. Oh…and kittens.

I find myself wanting to find new ways of engaging in God talk in my social media world. Much the same way I do in the real world. Because there shouldn’t really be any difference, except in that in the real world – seeing you face to face makes me more mindful, more invitational, and more respectful. Facebook allows me to be more unequivocal. Social media allows these opportunities for gracious restraint to drop away in the midst of the howling and self-righteous indignation of our latest opinions. Ugh.

To my colleagues in the faith, you who want to bear witness to God and Jesus – be mindful. It is sometimes hard to filter the faith we proclaim, especially those of us who promote the social Gospel, from the swirl of outrage over the latest injustice. It is hard to speak of God who is loving and patient and present sandwiched as it might be between the latest unequivocal condemnation of a politician or a sports figure. Oh…and kittens.

As someone who wants my life to point to God’s love and infinite care, I’m going to rethink the paradigm for myself. I won’t stop speaking out against injustice ever. But I will surely want to – from here forward – do it in a way that no longer contributes to the climate of endless outrage that seems to flow unchecked along my news feed. And I invite you to do the same.

Christian Words Matter

This past week there were two notable stories that grabbed my attention. The first was the story of Daniel Pierce, a young man whose video of the events surrounding coming out to his parents went viral. Many of us in the LGBT* community were devastated by his parents’ horrifying response — using the Bible to justify hurling hateful slurs, physically assaulting him, and throwing him out of the house for being gay. Daniel’s plight is all too familiar.

Some few days later, we watched as Tennessee “Pastor” Robby Gallaty preached to his congregation that gays “must be put to death,” and that Christians should never “repent of their homophobia.” That video has also gone viral.

When will we learn that our words as Christians matter? How is it that the Scriptures continue to be used to de-humanize, vilify, and, justify violence against *anyone* given the clear mandates of Jesus to love.

I wonder if Daniel’s parents would have responded differently had they not had the sanction of the church behind their hateful response. When the words of our faith become so weaponized, how should we be surprised that they become a barrier to love rather than an invitation to it. Indeed, so many parents must now be caught in the web of “Christian” loyalties that destroy rather than serve the love of God.

There is a vast increase in the number of LGBT* youth that are now homeless and outcast by their families, with the religious objection of their parents being the primary cause.

I urge congregations around the country to open their doors, prepare a safe haven, and help to find or develop resources to aid these young people in recovering from the trauma of religious abuse. I urge Christians to search out and provide love and compassion to LGBT youth who have been marginalized by religious hatred. Help to fund programs and shelters. Help provide welcome.

It is no stretch to say that when Christian “pastors” publicly call for LGBT* people to be put to death, that we have a serious problem on our hands. A listen to Daniel Pierce’s video will give you a clear sense of just how real a possibility this is. And silence is not an option. Inaction is not an option.

Jesus surrounded himself with the marginalized and the outcast. He called us to do the same. He called us to love them as he loved them. There were no footnotes that said “unless…”

The Violence That We Do

Mahatma Gandhi said, “There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.” This is the great tension between the struggle against oppression and injustice, and the commitment to non-violence. And it is a philosophy which guides my life.

These days, my personal struggle to live in this tension is sorely tested. For even while I try to bear witness to non-violence I am challenged by Gandhi’s exhortation not to “bow your heads before anyone even at the cost of your own life.”

I am committed to non-violence because I deeply believe that my faith in Christ requires it of me. Regrettably, not all Christian folks believe as I do, but for me I am convinced that this commitment to non-violence is at the core of my Teacher’s message. I think that much of the church has sorely lost its way. As a result, most Christians have also.

Let me be clear. Non-violence is essentially a struggle against institutional forces and pressures. It is not a struggle against people. It is a struggle against the “powers of this world” that Christ spoke about. And it must also, then, contain a critique of how we as individuals participate in those forces, either by remaining silent or being actively engaged in acts that perpetuate the great evil of war and violence and all of the things that lead to them.

Part of my practice is to live in awareness of my own “personal” violence and my complicity (intentional or not) in the violence perpetrated by the state, the nation, and even followers of my own faith tradition and the institution of the church. I believe there are often clear sides to take when it comes to oppression and injustice. I will always side with the oppressed. In large complex situations and in personal ones, I am clear when injustice is being perpetrated, and I am also clear that oppression and injustice will inevitably lead to violence whether committed by the oppressor or when the oppressed rise up to confront it. Speaking the truth about injustice and oppression is about ending violence not perpetuating it.

In my view there is only one side to take when it comes to acts of violence and of war. And that is the side of peace. No nation who resorts to violence and acts of war to achieve a given end is guiltless. Not one. I personally reject violence and war — and let me be clear — under *any* circumstances. And while the governments of nations drum up excuses, and rally their people through the exploitation of their fears, it is the people who suffer. It is why, as a Christian Anarchist, I reject governments and the notion of the state. They will always find new ways to make war.

But, until we have rejected our own personal acts of violence we are unable to see how they contribute to larger institutional violence and, yes, even war. And, sadly, too often the raging of institutional violence which surrounds us gives us license to engage in our own acts of individual and personal violence, oppression, and injustice. Or, at the very least, to remain silent and uncritical of our own selves and the countless acts of violence we allow to proliferate. To be a peacemaker, one must not simply wait for peace to come. We must make room for it. We must “do” it!

If you would call yourself Christian, remember that Christ commanded no less of us. And if we are going to be faithful, then we must walk this road. Even if it causes us to lose everything – even our own lives. Gandhi knew this. So did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The world despises those who speak out against the powers of this world. The world rejects calls to non-violence before they are able to take root in the hearts of the people. States know that once this principle becomes rooted in the hearts it their people, that their power will become undone.

Do not remain silent. Make no peace with oppression. Search your own heart to discover those ways that you might justify, acquiesce, or actively endorse acts of violence whether individual or institutional. Reject war in all its excuses and forms. The government will always “cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war.”

Speak the truth in love. Create peace.

A Primer on Religious Life – Part Four

On Struggles and Strengths

Keeping It Real

Having had the good fortune to be a pastoral leader in the Province of the Brotherhood that I live in, I have had many opportunities to watch as new brothers move through the stages of life in the community. From Postulancy when they receive the cross, to Novitiate when they receive the habit, on to first vows when they receive the scapular and knotted cincture — each is a chance to watch them grow and struggle with the public and increasingly identifiable nature of their vocation.

Each stage on the journey for them is filled with excitement. I relive my own experience each time I watch a new member of the community make this journey. First Professions always make me cry. Life Professions fill me with awe and terror — the same terror I experienced when I made that commitment in 2001.

Here is a truth for new religious, and for those of you who are not religious but chance to meet us in the parish or on the street…it is a beautiful and difficult thing!

Men and women who come to religious life don’t do so because they think they’re special or better or more holy than anyone else. But we do come because we wish to be holy and trust religious life as a path towards that end. And by “holy” I mean set apart — for God and for God’s service.

And we all have to start somewhere.

When we begin the journey we do so with the knowledge that we are about to embark on a journey that requires strength and also entails struggle. No one learns to be a brother or a sister by reading a book or taking a course of study. Books and study will provide us with a framework of teachings and ethics and provide us tools to discern the road we walk upon. But it is only in the living of the journey that we will be, by God’s grace, transformed into who God wants us to be.

From an interior perspective, it requires us to be challenged about our own views of the world, learn our own interior geography, be willing to become vulnerable, lovable, loving, and diligent.

From an exterior perspective, it requires us to learn about what the world needs. And it requires us to come to terms with all of the “stuff” the world will now expect of us!

Let those who are not in religious life listen and hear!

We will be eager to love and serve you, to bear witness to God, to the teachings of Jesus about mercy and forgiveness and justice. We will be eager to pray with you and to work beside you. But we will also struggle with your expectations of us based on what you *think* we’re supposed to be and what you *think* we’re supposed to know.

Religious don’t start off with any special insight about God. We do have special insight about our particular way of striving to serve God, and a willingness to do so. But we will often be confronted by expectations, some quite reasonable and some not so reasonable, about what we know and what God is like and what God wants for our lives and the lives of others.

Religious come to know God through experience not through intellect. And while some religious can be quite intellectual and use that gift to further their ministry of witness and presence, all religious brothers and sisters will learn to witness to God by the fruits born of long and wonderful and even frustrating attempts to be in relationship with God through prayer and daily encounter.

Just because a new brother or sister has taken up their habit or their cross doesn’t mean they will yet be able to teach or witness to more than their experience allows for. And sometimes they will struggle.

So, to my fellow religious who are new to the road — the cross and the habit will be exciting. You will look forward to putting it on. And then you will be afraid. That’s OK!

You will struggle with public perceptions and expectations. That’s good, too. You will have to learn phrases like “I don’t know,” and “No,” and you will learn how to speak from your experiences rather than your own expectations and the expectations of others about what holiness means and what religious are supposed to know.

Over time, with your prayer and experience and the wisdom of a community of men and women who have lived religious life longer and will share it with you and support you, you will grow and be conformed into a suitable servant of God.

What Not To Do

From the first time you put on the cross, a question will constantly arise. “Do I wear my cross today?” Or, “I’m going to do _____ today. Should I wear my cross?” This is not a dialog with the outside world and it’s rules and norms. It is, rather, an interior dialog. Let me be clear…most religious today do not wear a habit all of the time. And there are times when the prominent cross may also not be appropriate to circumstances. But the question is not about fashion, it’s about behavior. “Does what I’m planning to do today conform with what it means to be a witness?” “Will people scrutinize me?” “Am I willing to be a witness in the place that I am going?”

The answer to these questions is telling, because it will unveil for you whether or not you are setting yourself up to live an integrated life. This is especially a challenge for brothers and sisters who live in contemporary communities like I have discussed in prior parts of this primer. Do not, my brothers and sisters, set yourself up to lead a bifurcated life. But let the cross and the habit be tools to conform you to the life you have chosen. And don’t bring merely parts of your life to God, but bring God into all parts of your life.

Questions like these will force you to confront what you believe about God, how far you are willing to go to serve the world, and what kinds of fears you harbor about living a godly life. And as you struggle with these questions, you will slowly be conformed to God’s service. Because, after all, the whole journey is about leaning how to do that!

Be at ease, my brothers and sisters. God will transform your heart and mind. You will struggle to let go of old patterns and to learn new ones. You will take up a small cross to wear and larger ones within your heart, so that you might follow the one whose cross was far greater a burden to bear. And in doing so, you will learn to emulate his life of love and mercy and justice.

And you will learn that the goal of religious witness is to get yourself far enough out of the way so that God will be the glory to which your life points. Not you, and not the signs and symbols of religious life. Not what you know, but how you love and serve is what will show Christ’s compassion in the world.

This is the life you’ve chosen. Because you believe you are called to it. God will be your strength. The Rule will be your guide. The community will be a comfort. And as time goes on, your time in prayer and discernment, in learning and loving, and your experience of God’s present love and mercy in your life will transform you into who God wants you to be.

As Francis de Sales said, “God never asked us to be successful. Only faithful.”

On An Anniversary of 9/11

O God, you are the wail of sirens against two towers falling. You are the keening cry of bone boxes and white wooden crosses. You are the weeping of women in Kandahar and Damascus and Baghdad, and the tears of men pulling out their beards in furious sorrow. You are consolation in the rending of garments, and the gnashing of teeth, and the peace that comes when mourning is done.

You are not our rage, nor the precious injuries we’ve nursed to bitterness. You are not our revenge, nor our righteousness. Your love withstands our brokenness, yet will not be found in the endless war we make.

Our violence shall not make victory from victimhood. Only your love can do this as it once did, long ago, upon the Cross. The beating we make upon our breasts is naught but drums, the call to war and war and war again. We take up arms instead of armor. And the graves of the fallen with scatter with salt instead of seed so that nothing more will grow there. We do not let ourselves forget, and so forgiveness is impossible.

And so you weep. You weep for our follies and our failures. You weep for our lost ones and our dead.

And we, O Lord, we need. Save us from our need to both adore and also kill what we no longer recognize within ourselves. Who is my brother or my sister, who is my neighbor? Who is our enemy but our very selves that we have not yet learned to love?

And so, Christ dies and dies and dies among the rubble of our empires. He dies among the countless naked graves we dig to bury our dead. He dies even as the earth trembles, and the sky rains death, and we hand out the machines of war like bread to the hungry. And in the midst of death, we still have not believed that love will overcome it, or else we must admit that we would rather serve the powers of death than risk that love will burst us wide apart.

O God, you are the softly weeping heart, the desperate yearning for peace, the blink of the eye between death and resurrection. Soothe our warring hearts. And I pray for this today above all else…

Save us not merely from the enemies we make. Save us from ourselves.

A Primer on Religious Life – Part Three: On Work and Service

“It is the work of the Brotherhood to witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus, which has been freely bestowed upon us and upon all of creation.” — Of the Work of the Brotherhood, BSG Rule

Why do we serve?

Rather than get into a very old, and in my mind questionable, discussion about whether it is faith or works that justifies the sinner in the eyes of God, I’d rather just upend the idea and start from a different place. The religious impulse to serve God and others is, or at least should be, love and gratitude! In an earlier part of these reflections, I made note that the taking of vows was, first and foremost, an act of love.

Religious community is not about working out a brother or sister’s personal salvation, although there should be no doubt by now that life in community acts as a forge, helping the individual conform themselves to a Godly life. Virtues such as patience, forbearance, generosity, charity and compassion can’t be learned easily without engagement with others. But, while community acts as a school for learning these things, it is the modeling of these things — witness to them in the world — that is at the heart of what religious witness is about.

Christians are called to be participants in seeking the conditions to help usher in the Reign of God. We are called to partnership with God in the healing of what is broken in the world. And, as such, community life is our testing ground for what shape the Reign of God might take, and a support for us as we demonstrate it in daily life to the world around us.

Religious witness is not about earning God’s love and grace. Rather it is a grateful response to the love and grace that we believe we have already received! It is, as noted in the quote from our Rule above, a witness to the love of God that has *already* been bestowed on us and all of creation.

Religious witness should also begin from a place of humility — the recognition on the part of the individual that without the love of Christ which precedes it, and the support of a community of others to support it, the individual is incapable of discerning the path and doing the work alone. It is a fierce critique of the individualism that our culture so values.

A life of love and service stems from a desire to share a blessing we have already received with a world terribly in need of blessing. We love because we are loved first by God, and we serve because our hearts recognize the abundance of that love and it impels us to share it in acts of love and compassion modeled by our teacher, Jesus, who taught us that in doing these things the Reign of God draws near.

How do we serve?

“Work, being our share in creation and partnership with God in that creation, can be sanctified. All labor is equal in glory, honor and importance and the work of a brother should bear these qualities. Keeping in mind that all talents are gifts of the Holy Spirit, the work of all brothers must be to the greater glory of God. Work is an oblation to God, as is service to our fellow man.” — Of Work as an Apostolate, BSG Rule

The vision of all labor being equal is not a stretch for those in religious witness. This in spite of the fact that the world may strongly disagree. But in a tradition that emphasizes the dignity of every human being, it should come as no surprise that the gifts and skills of each individual are a part of that inviolable dignity.

When communities of religious come together around a particular set of gifts and skills such as teaching, preaching, hospital ministry, etc. we call this a charism. Communal charism is workable in an enclosure like a monastery or convent, but becomes untenable in a community that is dispersed like my own.

The vision of the Reign of God pre-supposes that everyone will have a place and that everyone will have a role to fill. And, they will all be different based as they are on the unique gifts of the individual. The charism of the individual is lauded as a gift of the Spirit, and it’s use is put toward God’s purposes. What a vision!

It is not just the life of prayer and study, not just the work of the Church as an institution, not just those things we might lump under the heading “ministry” like teaching or preaching or worship that constitute “holiness” of life. But our work is an integral part of the wholeness of the individual, and bringing it under the discipline of a Rule of Life makes it an essential part of religious witness.

Imagine if every person approached their work with a sense of equality of labor rather than status as the world demands? Imagine if everyone approached their work in a way that modeled the qualities of fairness, justice, mercy and love. Or if they exercised patience, humility, quietness, and generosity in their work rather than seeing these qualities as reserved for “other” areas of their lives — how would the world change for the better?

Imagine if we looked at those we serve and those with whom we work – or those who provide for our needs by serving us — as having their own inherent dignity, and whose labor is equal in importance to God — how would the world change? This sanctification of work, and its understanding as part of the apostolate of every individual, is what religious bear witness to. Religious communities that are dispersed are in a unique position to bear witness to these qualities.

Where do we serve?

Our culture is filled with images straight out of Hollywood film or an Umberto Eco novel about what religious life is supposed to look like. The monastery is an idealized place, whose rhythms reflect the balance between work, study, prayer and silence. The monks or nuns in residence diligent in order and purpose, models of Godly life that are somehow working out their salvation by participation in the ordered life of the cloister.

Work in the enclosure is intended to keep hands from being idle, and the fruits of those labors largely in support of the monastery or the immediately surrounding community — the farming of vegetables, the kitchen bustling to feed an army of religious and the occasional visitor, the laundry and cleaning to maintain the order and dignity of the house. Today, these types of cloistered religious life are largely gone. And while this is a model still maintained in some rare places, these orders are disappearing as vocations dwindle and the realities of maintaining property financially strap the communities.

Within the contemporary communities that are dispersed, we often say that we carry the monastery on our backs. The trend of movement is away from the enclosure and into the world where religious witness might reach more people. The balance intended by the order maintained in religious houses must now be cultivated in the world among the myriad distractions the world has to offer. Work, study, prayer and worship must now be balanced with family obligations, secular job responsibilities, civic and community responsibilities and other needs in a manner that requires tremendous discipline. While many may be tempted to believe that being a religious in the world requires less of the brother or sister than a commitment to live in a monastery, quite the opposite is true.

The opportunity for ministry and witness by dispersed religious in the world is greatly expanded, and the potential for service is limited only by our imaginations. We serve whom God has placed right in front of us. Even, and perhaps most especially, by our labor — our work — in love and service to the glory of God.

—Br. Karekin

A Primer on Religious Life – Part Two: About Vows

In a recent article on Religious Life in the Church, I was asked to clarify what vows signify in a religious community, especially in a contemporary one such as our own Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. The article touched on our Rule of Life as a distinguishing characteristic of religious witness, as opposed to lay and ordained ministry in the Church. Neither of which is mutually exclusive to religious life, but brothers and sisters in communities simply have a different paradigm by which we experience the Church and religious witness.

The vows taken up by religious in the church are one of the tools by which we seek to conform ourselves to God’s will, as witnessed in the life and teachings of Jesus – our Teacher. These vows differ from community to community – the Benedictine tradition holding to Stability, Conversion of Life, and Obedience. The Franciscan tradition follows the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. It is these latter three that I will offer in this reflection, being the three that my own community follows, and the most readily recognized when one speaks of religious vows. I also readily acknowledge that our community, being a contemporary expression of religious life, interprets these vows somewhat differently given our nature as a community that lives in the world – in diaspora – and that we allow for individuals regardless of marital status. So, I suppose a little history might be in order before we get started.

Out of This World!

During the long history of religious life, many more sisters and brothers were confined to the monastery or convent than were permitted to live in the world. Traditional Benedictine religious life was confined to the enclosure and many monastic traditions developed out of that way of life. Stability, Conversion, and Obedience were tools by which the personalities in a monastic setting were subsumed into the discipline and order of the house in which they lived together. Obedience to the Abbot or Abbess was required for discipline, and Stability and Conversion of Life referred to conforming to and accepting the manner of life required to maintain order. The spiritual significance of these vows in the lives of the women and men who took them up were explored and written about for centuries as being fruitful in their own right in also conforming the individual to a godly life, where the needs and concerns of others held precedence over the needs of individuals, and where pride, hubris, selfishness and vanity could be overcome by a life dedicated to principles intended to transform the individual into someone more becoming follower of Christ.

St. Francis gave new Counsels to his followers, intending as he did that they would not be confined to the monastery, but live in the world as itinerant preachers, teachers, and care-givers for the poor and outcast. For Francis, what was important is that his followers also be poor and live in solidarity among those they served. The admonition of jesus to “sell all you have and come follow me” was taken quite literally by those Franciscans named for their visionary founder. These Franciscans relied on the hospitality of others and begging for alms to make their way through the world. Before his lifetime ended, the Church – in terror of the witness to Poverty among the followers of Francis – brought them under the authority of the church and then required them to live in common houses like their monastic predecessors. We call these houses “friaries.” Francis was not pleased.

Over centuries of witness, the shared life and teachings of religious who took these vows, and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience have come to be associated with very specific meanings and practices. Poverty signifying the giving up of possessions to enter the religious house, and the holding of all goods in common so that no one had anything more (or less) than any of the others. Personal possessions were a no no. Chastity signifying sexual abstinence – not only generally but also, quite particularly, abstaining from sex with others in the monastery! And Obedience signifying, again, obedience to the heads and masters (or mistresses) of the order for the purpose of discipline and self-conformity to the will of God, and obedience to God’s commands as taught by Jesus and interpreted by the particular manner and form of the community of followers.

Fast Forward

One of the most startling, and in retrospect impactful, reforms of religious life since Francis happened in the 1960’s during the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church. And it was not entirely intentional. Married life was declared as an entirely equal, authentic, and spiritual value for the individual as was the celibate life of those religious who professed Chastity as one of their vows! No longer were religious brothers and sisters considered to have a better, more exalted, or more dear quest for godly life than those who were married, raising families and ministering as lay people in the Church.

There were two unexpected consequences to this pronouncement. One is that traditional religious left their communities in droves to get married! The other is that communities of religious were either forced to rethink what religious witness looked like, or other new communities were formed that began to bring religious life into this new modernity of the Church. The religious orders in the Episcopal Church were likewise affected.

The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, my own community, can be said to fall squarely in the realm of this vision for new, modern expressions of religious witness.

Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience In The World

So, how do you explain to folks who ask – How do you have a vow of Poverty when you own your own home? How do you practice Chastity when you’re married? What does Obedience mean today when individuality is everything?

As with most things, the value of the vows is what they point to, and not in the particular ways that one or another community chooses to live them. This has always been the case even among the traditional orders that flourished over centuries, each of which had differing opinions, implementations, and practices around what the vows meant specifically. But, over time, the deeper meanings of the vows – and more importantly the spiritual value to which they pointed – got lost in the minutia of specific practice of the vows conflation with one and only one particular. Sure, Chastity meant celibacy for traditional religious. But the spiritual value of Chastity as embodied in the celibate life became less important than the specific practice, the discipline and struggle of maintaining it, and became weighed down by the suspicion of the body that accompanied it.

So, if we take up the vows in the world, in the context of communities that allow for married or partnered life, where we might no longer beg for bread or have to conform to the rigors and order of the common house, the vows need to return to their roots. What are the spiritual values to which the vows point, and what practices can be built up around them that conform to the world in which these new orders inhabit while still providing the means of spiritual transformation and discipline that are the hallmark of religious life?

A Gregorian Perspective

People have often asked me to distill the three evangelical counsels (our vows) into what we see as essential, in order that we might live them while being fully in the world. Far from being “simpler” than the traditional vows, they are in some ways more difficult in that they apply to every relationship that we encounter while being religious fully in the world.

Poverty – No matter what you have, it isn’t yours. Use everything in your possession for the benefit of God’s people and for God’s glory. It’s not about what you have, but what you do with what you have.

Chastity – People are ends and not means. They are not possessions. They have integrity and dignity and wholeness and so should you. Free yourself to love.

Obedience – Freedom is not about doing what you want. It’s about being released from the prison of selfish desires. Stop manipulating circumstances and people to get what you want.

Our vows are not ends in and of themselves. They are means. They force us to become aware of the idols we have erected in our lives that distract us from our responsibility to love and serve God and others. They are the means by which we learn to tear those idols down. What idols, or obsessions if you will, do the vows help us to recognize? Poverty points to our obsessions with security and safety. Chastity points to unhealthy pursuit of affection and the esteem of others. Obedience to our desire for power and control. We are distracted from God when our inordinate attachment to these things warps our sense of perspective and proportion. The three vows provide starting points for dismantling the systems we have built up, culturally and individually, that draw our love inward towards the self and it’s desires rather than towards God and other.

When vows become an end rather than a means to an end, they turn quickly to false idols. When Poverty becomes just about money and possessions; Chastity merely about sex; Obedience solely about submission to authority; then we lose the opportunity to focus on what the vows are meant to accomplish. We miss the thing to which they point. Vows don’t lead to the relinquishment of the will, but our stretching of it so that it can be conformed to the will of God – which is to love God and neighbor.

The taking of vows is, in its essence, an act of love. It is a gift of the self to God and an acceptance of God’s gift of self to us. It is a costly gift, because it is predicated on the acceptance that the journey will transform us from what we are into what God intends for us to be. This means the laying aside of selfish assertions of the will, and the learning of its right use. This can only be accomplished by trusting the love of God to be the central defining locus of our identity, and the true measure of our value.

A Final Thought

There are many and varied new expressions of religious life coming into being all over the Church today. Each of them will undertake different forms of witness, require different vows or interpretations of those vows, and come up with increasingly creative ways to express religious witness while maintaining continuity with the long history of traditional religious life. Some will last for a long while, others only for a time. Most of them will be in the world rather than inside a monastery or other enclosure.

Each of them will have an opportunity to bear witness to what it means to love and serve God and others, whether through prayer or action. Each will have opportunity to build community using their Rule and vows to foster that community’s strengths and cohesion, while offering a vision of transformation into what it means to become a follower of Christ into the love of God.

The opportunity for these communities to do so as visible members of the Church is an extraordinary change and blessing. But ours is not to believe that we are the light, but only to “become messengers for the One who is the light.” To that end, whatever vows we take up, we ought to remember that it is not the specifics of practice that are the point, but only the spiritual benefit that they point to, and the fruit they bear in the lives of the individual and in the common life of the community that will lead the Church into its true calling to help usher in the Reign of God based on justice, mercy, truth and love.

A Primer on Religious Life — Part One: “Hey, what are you?”

One of the joys of being a senior brother in the religious community that I belong to is the myriad opportunities I have to watch newer members of the Brotherhood learn about what it means to be a brother in the Church.

I remember well the days of learning to articulate what it meant to suddenly be a brother to those in my life who had known me long before I made that choice. What was it (or is it now) that makes me different than I was? What IS a brother? “Are you like a priest or something?”

Even in our beloved Episcopal Church, there is little to no understanding of what a brother is, or does…or what makes us different. What makes us a religious — brother or sister — and what is the Church supposed to make of us?

This is nothing new. Even in the days of St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi as they founded religious communities, the Church was perplexed as to what to make of us. And often, the Church’s response was to quickly gather religious into and under the authority of the Church to keep them from becoming troublesome. Especially when they bandied about words like Poverty and Simplicity in the midst of a Church whose coffers were overflowing with money, and a magisterium that was filled with men referred to as Princes of the Church – ostentatious in their displays of wealth and power.

The community I belong to, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, is a religious community that lives scattered about rather than living in a monastery or a friary. We are open to individuals regardless of marital status, so many of us have spouses and families, and we live as religious in the world rather than behind a cloister wall. This adds another layer of complexity to trying to define what role religious play in the world and in the Church when we are no longer tucked away in quiet gardens out of sight.

So this is a primer — for those of you who want to know more about who we are and what we do, and also a primer for those newer members of religious communities who might find it hard to articulate what being a brother or sister means to those who don’t quite understand what your new place is — in or out of the Church.

One Rule to Ring Them All

The first and foremost thing that makes a religious brother or sister different is a document called a Rule of Life. A Rule (from the Latin regula for yardstick, measure) is a document that governs the life of a religious community and its individual members. A Rule contains a set of instructions for how we live, what we ought to do, and how we should measure our spiritual lives. It often contains “vows” and those vows vary from community to community. Poverty, Chastity and Obedience in some cases, Simplicity and Conversion of Life in others. But the vows are ways in which religious brothers and sisters vow to regulate their lives in areas of possessions, relationships, and decision making.

The Rule also governs such things as how often we pray and worship, how we study sacred writings such as Scripture and the lives of the saints, our perspectives on work, how often we take retreat time, meditate, and how we ought to treat each other in community and in the world. A Rule outlines perspectives and goals for living a full, balanced, and healthy spiritual life and how we take care of ourselves and others.

In the case of my own community, we see the Rule as a concrete way of living out the promises we as Christians make when we are baptized. The Rule is the way we check ourselves to make sure that God is at the center of our lives and actions, rather than our own selfish pursuits or the pursuits that the world tells us are valuable. This is why it is often said of religious that we live “in the world, but not of the world.”

The Rule is a tool that we use to check ourselves when we are out of balance, and a tool that we use to measure whether we are in balance and health with God, with our own selves and with others around us. It is the regula or the measuring stick by which we evaluate that we are being true to God’s desire for us.

The Rule is a fundamental definition of what makes us religious. In the Church, people tend to divide the world into lay people (the ordinary folks in the pews) and ordained people (bishops, priests, deacons). Not so for religious. We see the world and the church in terms of regular (under a Rule) and secular (not under a Rule).

A Rose By Any Other Name

In some religious orders, it has remained tradition that new religious change their names on entrance to the community. This comes from a time when, again, mitigating individual status was important when living in a monastery. it was also useful when there were 20 or 30 men named John or 40 women named Mary to give them another name to avoid confusion!

Today, the symbolism of names in religious communities is different. Some choose to keep their given and baptismal names as a way of expressing continuity with their old life. Some choose to take a new name entirely to symbolize a complete break with an old life and the beginning of a new one in Christ. Either is perfectly fine. The only time it isn’t is when taking a new name results in one identity in community and another outside of it. God wants us to be integrated and whole, not lead double lives.

The challenges of taking a new name in religion lies in those who have known you for years with a different one. Especially when living as a scattered community such as ours. There are no hard and fast rules about whether to take a new name, and the challenges that come when one decides to do that. Even if one decides simply to take up their full baptismal name (i.e. Brother John Edward, or Sister Marie Grace), there will be moments for the new religious to explain exactly why they’ve chosen to be so called, and challenges on the part of those who have known him or her to use the new name in recognition of the new vocation, commitment, and role of their friend or family member in the world. It takes some stretching and patience on both sides.

Habit forming

Some religious communities wear a distinctive garb and others don’t. I belong to a community that does. This distinctive dress is called a habit, and it hails from a long ago time, and the parts of it originated with specific purposes — many of which are forgotten. The habit did not, in fact, originate as a garb distinctive from what everyone else wore at the time, with a couple of exceptions. The knotted cincture (belt) indicated the vows that religious brothers and sisters took, and the hood on the habit was introduced to solve the particular problem of the wandering eye! The cross, which is a strong symbol of a life dedicated to Christ, his life and death and resurrection, as a symbol for a way of self-giving. But, over time, the habit remained in some fashion or another as a distinctive clothing for religious even while the fashion of the world changed and moved on.

The habit, when it is used as part of religious tradition, marks the brother or sister in the same way a collar marks those who are ordained, even though some religious orders also wear collars as a part of their distinctive garb. It can be equally confusing for folks in the Church as in the world.

The habit also, when living in community, was a great equalizer of individuals. When some were rich and others poor, when some had means and others didn’t, when family ties and connections and status threatened to divide brothers or sisters the same way it does in the world, the habit was a tool for making sure that everyone appeared the same.

The habit is, like the Rule, a tool for religious that helps them conform their lives to the new role they take up in the world and in the Church. Its various parts and their symbolism (purity, labor, strength, etc.) along with the cross (the true habit of an order) can be useful to the religious and those they meet to mark a life dedicated to the service of God and others, and to signify a life set apart to a specific purpose that is God’s alone.

Who is My Brother (Sister)?

The word Brother or Sister is not an honorific (like Doctor or Father or Madame President). It is not a title. It is an indicator of relationship! And it is a relationship that is based on equality rather than hierarchy. A new religious does not take up the indicator of Brother or Sister in an attempt to be better than, more authoritative than, or more important than anyone else. We take it up so that you might know us as equals, relatable, and present in a way that embodies shared experience and desire, bountifully expressed in our shared status as children of God.

Because we are representatives of mutuality in our relationship with God, we are not like clergy who are sacramental presences of God’s authority. This is why we don’t do things like absolve of sins or celebrate Eucharist. We share in sin and we share in Eucharist equally with others, and our presence is meant to symbolize that.

We often play a pastoral role in the lives of others. So do clergy. To understand the difference, imagine sharing your secrets, your fears, your concerns with your parents as opposed to your closest sibling. Both are valuable. Both are cleansing. But they are different. Clergy who are fashioned Mothers and Fathers are vital to the life of the Church. So are Brothers and Sisters.

The Church often has a hard time understanding the role of Brothers and Sisters in religious community. Unfortunately, there is a long history of demands, educational requirements, responsibilities of clergy in the Church that has led to an equal sense of entitlements and privileges. We call this clericalism in the Church. And although in the Episcopal Church we have tried to mitigate it, it has found its way into the institution nonetheless. As a result, the presence of religious in the Church has created a dynamic that is confusing.

Again, while the Church sees lay and ordained, we find the distinction largely problematic for us. We religious don’t seek entitlement or privilege or authority. We only seek the exercise of a ministry of presence, a life of compassion, encouragement in gifts, and a deep sense of mutual responsibility to God and the mandates of Christ in the Gospels. We know that clergy seek this too, but we also recognize that the requirements and duties of ordained life often compromise the ability to pursue this witness to our mutuality. We try, in most cases, to avoid the entanglements of ordained life (unless it becomes a logical extension of our vowed life) to pursue a life that symbolizes what we refer to in the Church as the “priesthood of all believers.” This priesthood comes from our Baptism, and we as religious try to be icons of the life that Baptism calls us all to live as believers and followers of Christ.

There are Brothers and Sisters who are also ordained to one of the orders of ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) in the Church. We call them regular clergy (as opposed to secular clergy). Interestingly, in most cases, they still refer to themselves as Brother so and so, or Sister so and so…rather than take up the honorific of Mother of Father. This is telling, in that they still recognize that their approach to presence with others is still deeply informed by equality rather than authority.

Eat Pray Love

In the olden days of the Church, while clergy were tethered to the Church building, the parish and the local community, religious Brothers and Sisters especially in the era of the Franciscans and Dominicans, were wandering, itinerant preachers and teachers. The Franciscans were a radical departure from the communities of old who stayed firmly ensconced in the monastery and rarely left.

Most religious in the world today are closer to the Franciscan model, being permitted (or in some cases required) to walk in the world. Communities confined to the monastery or convent are more rare than ever given the way the world has changed. And, in the Episcopal Church which has claimed its Catholic heritage while remaining true to its Reformation roots, there is ever more likelihood that religious will be present in its congregations and life than at any time previously. And so, it is imperative for those religious, and for the Church itself, to understand what role religious play in its life and order.

Brothers and Sisters under a Rule of Life are called to bear witness to the vocation that all Christians are called to live. One of heeding the call of the Gospel life, one of helping to usher in the Reign of God promised by Jesus, and one that takes seriously the requirements that he laid down for his followers to bear witness to the God and Father he called “Abba.”

This means bearing witness to the shared life of all believers that is summed up in the breaking of bread (Eucharist), constant engagement with God (Daily Prayer), and the Great Commandment (love God and one another). Or as the title of a recent bestselling book succinctly put it, “Eat, Pray, Love”.

Religious Brothers and Sisters are engaged in a unique approach to this Gospel life that not only requires them to engage in this manner of living, but also to bear witness to this life to others — both in the world and in the Church. The world is surprisingly open and receptive to this ministry of presence, to the compassion, love and service that religious offer. The Church, too often sadly, simply doesn’t know what to do with us — convinced that we must either be clergy or some other anomaly that is peculiar and curious and perhaps irrelevant.

While a good number of clergy in the Episcopal Church understand and appreciate religious life very well and are truly supportive of our vocations, others often see us either as adversaries, pretenders, or second class citizens. And, sadly, a good number of clergy in the Church don’t even remember that we are there. As for the laity, they often see us as failed clergy or a different kind of clergy. We are not any of these things. We are, simply, what you are called to be. We are not better at it. We have no deeper knowledge or mastery of prayer, meditation, or more clear knowledge of God. We simply bear witness to what it means to take these things as central and essential qualities of life, and then to engage in them more deliberately as means by which we may discover what it means to live — as Jesus called us all to live — as people who claim to follow him more deeply into the love of God.

Thoughts on Liturgical Engagement in the LGBT Community

Having spent last evening at DioCal’s Pride Mass celebrated at a local gay bar, I want to share some thoughts on what it means to bring Eucharist to these kinds of venues, and what the implications are for engagement with the LGBT* community on the ground of their own experience.

It was really a terrific crowd. More people, in fact, than I see in my parish on a Sunday morning. It takes a good deal courage for the Church (especially our beloved Episcopal Church) to step outside of its comfort zone to do what may be considered radical by both other members of ECUSA and also the LGBT* community at large. There are huge opportunities for engagement and mutual transformation. In my experience to date, however, the Eucharist as celebrated in a gay bar hasn’t provided those opportunities. Not yet…

In between intermittent bouts of self-consciousness and a little bit of condescension (OK…maybe slightly more than a little) — there were real moments of grace. There was something powerful and beautiful about the drag performers who stood among us during the Mass — truly in their own way a priesthood *de jure* in the LGBT* community. Watching the film “Milk” begin to play on the television monitors as we sang the closing hymn “We Shall Overcome” was particularly moving. But, I really wonder if we liturgically minded Episcopalians haven’t failed to consider that it is not only unreasonable, but in fact misses a huge opportunity, to merely transpose our liturgy into that type of venue with only minor accommodation for space and circumstance. Really an odd experience.

We religious folks still have to find the right language to speak about what it means to be ministers of the Gospel in the LGBT community. We do not minister to, but we minister among. And, I find myself asking “to what purpose?” Why the Eucharist? And to what ends? Evangelism? Engagement? Apologetic? Welcome? Hospitality?

The Pride Mass was an exercise in unclear motivations and odd accommodation. If it was to make us feel good about ourselves…then I suspect it was a success. If it was to bear witness to others of what our faith proclaims, then it was not a very clear statement. If it was to proclaim “welcome” to others and to engage the community via the patrons and staff of the bar, then I’m afraid it was a dismal failure.

Some observations about the event… From an outside perspective, it would appear that the Episcopal Church is composed entirely of clergy and religious. There were a few people not in clericals there, but overwhelmingly it appeared to be a rather close knit group of insiders, well familiar with one another already, and largely church professionals. I’m proud that my church and its clergy are so supportive and engaged, and are so earnestly trying to provide welcome and affirmation of the LGBT* community. It’s why I’ve made it my home. But, sadly, from the attendance last night you would have thought that no clergy actually informed the folks in the pews that attending would be a good thing.

The liturgy itself was — typically — a scaled down version of Sunday worship. Opening Hymn, Call to Worship, A Reading (Matthew’s Beatitudes), Prayers of the People, The Peace, Eucharist, and Postcommunion Prayer, Hymn and Blessing. The musicians were lovely (piano, violin, and vocalist), but the music choices were a little evangelical for my taste, but that’s just me.

What was apparent, however, is how little the Eucharistic liturgy lends itself to spaces like a bar. Of course, churches are constructed to accommodate the shape of the liturgy. Hence the reason we so often struggle in the church when trying to re-imagine it, confined as we are by a space that was constructed to do things a certain way. So, here is an observation. I have been to many successful Eucharists held on the street in Castro. Beautiful, open, inviting experiences. But bars are a different venue. Constructed for specific purposes. And they do not lend themselves to the liturgical movement or structure of the Eucharist, particularly as it’s done normally in Church. So why do we even try to do it the same way without some inventive re-imagining of what Eucharist could be in this very contextual place?

Were there saving graces? The Bishop’s Eucharistic canon, an almost poetic ex tempore reflection, was lovely. The homily on Trinity as community was excellent, and particularly noteworthy for me was his reflection on the fact that the Gospel reading chosen was most usually one heard at funerals! As for interested parties who were not Episcopalian? Zero. Tone deaf certainly applies for the rest.

We NEED to rethink what liturgical structure, movement, acts and words are appropriate in such a location and space. And we need to do so with a clear understanding of what we hope to accomplish in doing so. Otherwise, it merely looks as though we decided to take over someone else’s space for an hour to do a really poor imitation of what we do on Sundays, with no clear message and no hospitality offered even to our hosts other than an admonition to please tip the bartenders. We can do better.

I think having liturgical experiences in bars and other places *could* be marvelous. But we need to break out of our own comfort zones to re-imagine what might be possible. Firstly, the experience cannot really be about “us” except insofar as we are willing to acknowledge that we are open to being transformed by the community we minister among. To make it about us stepping outside of our own comfort zones, or being challenged comes perilously close to using others’ spaces and experiences as a means to our own ends, and that is most certainly not evangelism, nor is it expressly why we’ve chosen to do such things as works of mission and ministry among the LGBT community.

It should not be about converting members of the community via some liturgical “altar-call” like moment, but rather by engagement that can be mutually transformative. In cases like last night, the liturgical movement of Eucharist precisely prohibited engagement with the community surrounding us. And here, for me, is part of the problem. The Eucharist is not a tool, and so perhaps is not the right type of liturgical experience for this type of venue. Again…what is the purpose? If we, as we did last night, transpose our liturgical celebration as is into the venue of a gay bar, the natural result is that the community that gathers to celebrate becomes a powerful barrier to those who choose NOT to participate. An altar rail made of flesh and blood that bars the way if not the view of an insider celebration being performed outside, for outsiders.

We, for issues of sheer practicality due to the nature of *how* we celebrate Eucharist in church, shepherded ourselves into one side of the bar and “performed” a version of a Mass that was rather awkward and clumsy, and we engaged with no one outside of ourselves until the Mass was ended and the drag show began. So, the question for me becomes…If we are going to have liturgical celebrations in community spaces – particularly in bars that cater to the LGBT community – how do we do so in a way that leads us to engagement with one another?

We have to remember – and I mean really be clear on this – the Mass which is a symbol of comfort and community to us, can be perceived as an act of aggression on the part of a community wounded by the Church, particularly when conducted in their spaces without a suitable way to re-imagine how it becomes an act of hospitality and invitation to engagement with us as religious allies and also LGBT people.

The beginning, I think, of the solution is to look at what the Eucharist symbolizes for us as insiders in the Church. God’s love? Community? An equalizer of differences? A breaking of that which separates us? Unpack what Eucharist is. THEN, find out what symbolizes those things in the LGBT community and find a way to connect them. Liturgy is nothing if the symbolism has no resonance. And what symbols work for those of us who are engaged with the church may hold no meaning at all for those outside of the Church, except maybe that they are uncomfortable reminders of a religion that has wounded, expelled, or ignored them. Time for new symbols or accept the fact that Eucharist is perhaps not the right choice for these venues.

As I said, there were moments of real grace last night. But there has to be a better way for us to be authentically ourselves and yet create a liturgical moment that is inventive, sacred, hospitable, and reverent — and allows space for us to enter more deeply into engagement with the community on the ground of their experience, and not merely by transposing our liturgical narrative in situ — and a poor shadow at that — into a world created in part to escape the very narratives that marginalized the community in the first place.

I give tremendous props to those who coordinated the event last night, and to those who showed up. It takes courage and care to even begin a movement like this, and to find a model that is sustainable for future engagement. And, I think it can be done! But I encourage all of us to look at this with clear eyes, and to step outside of the familiar. I’m sure we can create a liturgical experience that has, at its core, a new language and new model for building community that leads inexorably towards Eucharist — Communion — without forcing the LGBT* community to engage with Eucharist as the entry point rather than a destination we can all arrive at together when the time is right and God wills it.

Christian Anarchism in Practice

There are certain things in the Christian faith that I hold to be evident from the Scriptures and what we can be sure was the major part of Jesus’ teaching. The most important of these is the Sermon on the Mount, with the Beatitudes and Jesus’ most important teachings on forgiveness. For me, this along with the Golden Rule is a sufficient ethical framework for Christian life.

Because I am a Christian Anarchist, and one who above all holds peace to be paramount to all of our works as Christian people — radical peace — then all actions that I take in my life should (I hope and trust with God’s help) adequately demonstrate my commitment. All of our striving for justice, love, and mercy in the Kingdom of God we are called to inhabit find their origins in this peace that I believe in so strongly.

In my opinion, the nation/state is an entity fully and unapologetically committed to violence. Aside from the wars it fights, it’s systems have been set up to perpetuate the power of the powerful, protect the landed and monied classes, and to regulate the behavior of the poor and marginalized to ensure that they do not rise to challenge the elite classes. Because I believe that the state is the antithesis of the Kingdom, and find the state a primary perpetrator of violence, I have committed myself to participate in the mechanisms of the state as little as possible. I believe that God and not the state is the ultimate authority over us. Naive perhaps, but it is my starting point nonetheless and I am committed to where that point leads me.

The “one man revolution” that Christian Anarchism calls us to means that my decision to follow the laws of God and conscience rather than the laws of men is my own, deeply personal, and relies solidly on the teachings of Jesus summarized in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is where I believe that the laws of God as taught by Christ are most adequately summarized, and that the implied ethics of this teaching are, in fact, complete. It is a radical decision to live my faith in action deeply and honorably, but it means making decisions that people don’t often understand.

There are some ways that I am forced to participate in the systems of violence that the government creates. A primary example is being forced to pay taxes that pay for war. My goal is to continue to strive to reach a place where my income eventually falls below the threshold required to pay taxes that subsidize the systemic violence of the nation state.

There are concrete ways I can choose not to participate. I can avoid investing in government bonds. I can choose not to vote knowing that our government comprised as it is of elected individuals, is corrupted by violence. And I can avoid jury service where the government forces me to sit in judgment over another human being – a human being whose truth and story I will never really know because wealthy lawyers are paid to twist the truth into one compelling tale versus another to make their case. Truth be damned. I can avoid fighting in their wars. I can engage in civil disobedience and protest. And I can do all of these things committed to nonviolence.

I avoid what I avoid because I truly believe that these systems simply perpetuate more violence. There are countless ways that I can and do work for justice, peace, and forward the work of the Kingdom that Jesus talked about — without having the be a tool of the state and the government, or participate knowingly or unknowingly in the violence of the system. And all of my decisions are based on discerning how, whether, when I am actually participating in these systems and to make decisions to eliminate or mitigate my own complicity in them.

So, I hope you understand that my choice is at least a principled one, even if you may not agree with my decisions or my means of reaching them. For me, it is a form of radical discipleship and a concerted effort to live with integrity the values that I believe Jesus taught us.