Friday, September 04, 2015

“I have this hunch that people really find Jesus compelling, and they see what Christianity really could be. But what they see instead, so often, is an institution that tries to protect itself and promote itself.  I think they want to have a place where they can speak the actual truth about themselves in the world and they don’t have to pretend.”

--Nadia Bolz-Weber, Why Every Church Needs a Drag Queen

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

This. This is a prime reason why I became a theologian--why I think about and study about and write about (and endlessly irritate my friends about) theology. Because theology--how we think about God--has very tangible effects on our lives and the lives of those we interact with. Theology can be life-giving or death-dealing. It can be the engine behind the greatest heights of human goodness (such as Mother Teresa) or the most despicable lows of human depravity (such as the Spanish Inquisition).

This poor woman--Rowan County (KY) Clerk Kim Davis--is acting out of conviction to some very bad theology. It is theology, taught to her, that has made her think in smug and exclusionary and legalistic terms. It is theology rooted in a deep-seated fear of Divine judgment and punishment, making it more important to appease a violent God than to follow a compassionate Christ. It is theology that slavishly follows the dead letter of the text (in a highly selective fashion) instead of walking in the light of the living Spirit.

Jesus, in warning about false prophets (those who claim to speak the will of God), said "You will know them by their fruits." St. Paul further elucidated on what the fruit of the Spirit looks like: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." The author of the letter which we call 1 John wrote, "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." Again, St. Paul defined what love looks like: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." It is interesting that Paul's list of what love (and God) looks like begins with patience and kindness and also includes not dishonoring others.

What a contrast that is to the God which Kim Davis has shown the world. Her's is a very different God altogether, I would say.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

I'm a Done. And yet I'm not a Done.

I'm a Done.  And yet I'm not a Done.  "Dones" are the name given to a phenomenon occurring in the Christian church in the U.S. whereby mass numbers of mature congregants are saying "I'm done" and leaving their churches.  These are not selfish, disgruntled rebels (as they are sometimes portrayed by those still within the institutional borders) but rather are folks with long track records of ministry and service and leadership. 

The crisis that is currently taking place in Western Evangelical Christianity is that young adults are not entering the front doors of churches (they have come to be labeled as "the Nones"--meaning their religious affiliation is "none") while at the same time older people are leaving out the back door (or are simply aging out and shuffling off to retirement homes and the Great Hereafter).  Thus, the middle is shrinking.  Reasons for the rise of the Nones and the Dones have been well documented: They have found the institutional church to be increasingly irrelevent to their lives; they want to be part of an engaged and interactive community rather than members of a passive audience; they are sick of judgmentalism and exclusion; they question the efficacy of a church spending 85% of its budget on a building and pastoral salaries; they are disinterested in serving a human-made organizational  structure or the vision of an elite elevated (and sometimes narcissistic) few.

Actually, Carla and I became "Dones" about twelve years ago when, at the culmination of a long arc of disillusionment and disgust, we left the Vineyard church we were part of (and where I had become Associate Pastor) to explore the idea of doing a house-church that had no designated pastor, no salaries, no building expenses--and where everyone was encouraged to participate in ministry.  That house-church was a wonderful (and sometimes painful) learning experience.  

It was during those house-church years--as I read everything I could get my hands on in order to try to understand how to be the type of faith community that I had never seen modeled--that I became familiar with the writings of Quakers.  I discovered that their ethos and practice was remarkably similar to what we had been fumbling toward.  When the house-church ran its course, it was a no-brainer to join up with the Quakers.

But like marriage and parenthood, the romance wore off and the reality set in.  I found that Quakers could be maddeningly pedantic, fussy, passive-aggressive, tradition-bound and prone to the same power-plays that seem to plague any congregation of humans.  And yet, I also found the Quakers to be the closest thing I had encountered to the ideal of Christian community, where every voice is valued and ample space is made for God to move and speak.  I've thrown in my lot with the Q's--going so far as to spend the last couple of years studying at a Quaker seminary in order to earn a Master's degree in Theology with an emphasis in Quaker Studies--but I'm no longer under the illusion that they're the bees-knees.  I've watched in recent times as some Quaker organizations (called Yearly Meetings), including that one I belong to, have done utterly unQuakerly things in very unQuakerly ways.

And I'm done with that.  And with serving buildings and organizational structures and traditions and creeds (aka "covenantal documents," aka "Faith & Practice statements").  That stuff is not life-giving and I have no interest in any of it.

But I'm not done with being a Quaker.  I love the gentle, inclusive, caring, socially-engaged and deeply spiritual community that Quakers--when they're at their best--exemplify.  That
gives me something to aspire to.  I love that being part of a Quaker community opens me and humbles me and balances me.  I love that Quakerism gives me a solid theological base to stand upon, yet also fosters exploration and appreciation of other theological ideas.  I love that the Quaker emphasis on hearing the Holy Spirit directly, and faithfully following one's convictions--come what may--leads to a meaningful way of living in which one is impelled into active discipleship.   

I recall a country & western song from the 1970's called "Luckenbach, Texas" in which Waylon Jennings sang of getting "back to the basics of love."  I want to get back to the basics of being a Quaker and--since the original Quakers referred to their movement as "primitive Christianity revived"--back to the basics of being a follower of Jesus.  

But I'm done with all the other crap.


"Much could be said, at this point, about all the subtlety and ingenuity of religious egoism which is one of the worst and most ineradicable forms of self-deception. Sometimes one feels that a well-intentioned and inculpable atheist is in many ways better off--and gives more glory to God--than some people whose bigoted complacency and inhumanity to others are signs of the most obvious selfishness!" 

--Thomas Merton

Thursday, August 27, 2015

"Once when I was off on a Zen retreat in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, I was very surprised to see another Westerner there--in fact he was a Roman Catholic priest doing Zen practice--and we became friends.  His name was Father William Johnston.  He’s written many books and he broadened my perspective considerably.  As a Christian, he had learned a lot from the techniques of meditation that come from the Buddhist tradition, and it had allowed him to deepen his Christianity.  Through him I learned that the experiences that I was having in doing Buddhist meditation were part of a much broader worldwide phenomenon: that meditation, in fact, existed in Christianity, Judaism, Islam.  That it was, in a slightly different form, central in the shamanic practices of our tribal ancestors.  That it is indeed a global and universal thing, and that although the particular customs and doctrinal systems--the belief systems--of the various world religions differ dramatically, the contemplative or meditative core is virtually universal.  

Father Johnston had a vast library of comparative mysticism--the writings of the meditation masters of the world--and he let me read in that library.  So I got to see what I was doing in Buddhist meditation in a much broader context.  He also got me interested in the scientific study of meditative states.  He had friends at a Buddhist university who were studying the brainwaves of Zen meditators, and he took me to their research lab.  They hooked us both up to their equipment and were utterly amazed to see that a Roman Catholic priest produced the same kind of brainwaves as a 30-year Zen meditator.  But of course it’s not surprising at all, given the universal nature of the meditative experience."

--Shinzen Young

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

We seem to be sitting still,
but we are actually moving,
and the fantasies of phenomena
are sliding through us,
like ideas through curtains.

They go to the well of deep love
inside each of us.

They fill their jars there
and they leave.

There is a source they come from,
and a fountain inside here.

Be generous and grateful.
Confess when you're not.

We cannot know
what the divine intelligence has in mind.

Who am I,
standing in the midst of this


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

My conversation with a Christian radio host

Earlier this week I was invited to call in to a very conservative local Christian radio program, as a result of a brief email conversation with the host.  On the program the day before (which I happened upon while flipping through stations on my car radio) the host had been speaking about (or rather, against) the Equality Act and civil protections for LGBT persons.  The way she did this was to feature two audio clips from a television program called My Strange Addiction.  The clips featured a woman who claimed to be addicted to being treated as a baby (including wearing diapers) and a man who claimed to be addicted to (I kid you not) pretending to be furniture.  The radio station host attempted to take these two bizarre examples of human behavior and associate them with LGBTQ persons.  Her point was that if we allow civil protections for persons who are LGBTQ, then we will soon have to allow protections for persons who display any and all other "compulsive behaviors."

This prompted me, when I got home, to fire off a cordial email in which I said that this analogy was disingenuous and mean-spirited.  I suggested that perhaps the host ought to consider dialoguing with actual LGBTQ Christians and I provided a list of resources.  I closed by saying, "There are many other learned conservative Evangelical Christians—both straight and gay—who have written on this topic with a perspective different from that which you expressed on the radio today.  Any of these folks would make great guests on your program or perhaps correspondence/dialogue partners.  That is, if you are willing to consider that there may be valid viewpoints on this matter beyond your own."

The host responded in a cordial fashion to my email and invited me to call in to the show the next day, which I did.  I ended up being kept on the air through a couple of breaks. It was difficult to get a word in edgewise or complete a sentence without being interrupted, but I think I managed to say a couple of things that rarely get said on that particular station.

Although the host tended to jump around quite a bit and conflate different topics, her two main points seemed to be that the Bible has already delineated where the lines are drawn in terms of who should receive civil rights (with, of course, LGBTQ persons being outside the lines) and that same-sex marriage is not "God's best" for people.

The next day, I wrote and sent a follow-up message to the host, but I have not yet received a reply.  Here is my (slightly edited) message: 

Hi Michelle,

Thanks for the invitation to call in to your show yesterday.  It was fun.  Hopefully we demonstrated that Christians with very different viewpoints can dialogue in a way that is friendly and respectful and edifying.

I'm a bit of a slow talker, in that I tend to ponder before I speak.  This is a trait which runs counter to the pace of AM talk radio, where "dead air" is anathema.  As a result, I felt that I was unable to adequately answer some of your questions, due to the constraints of the format.  So, if you don't mind, I'd like to circle back on a couple of points...

You asked about where we draw the line in delineating protected classes.  I don't know if that question can be answered.  When we look at the history of civilization we see a slow progression of civic and moral codes intended to foster mutual respect and care.  This seems to have flowered during a time period known as the Axial Age (8th-3rd centuries BC) when multiple cultures--Greek, Persian, Hebrew, (East) Indian and Chinese--developed moral teachings remarkably similar to each other, and all akin to the Golden Rule.  This is perhaps most beautifully evident in the Hebrew scriptures and their emphasis on "tzedakah"--which is the attitude and practice of taking care of; seeking fairness and just treatment for--those who have less or are marginalized and disempowered.  The Hebrew word "tzedakah" is translated in our Bibles as "righteousness" and the scriptures are replete with imperatives to practice it.

We see this slowly unfolding pattern in U.S. history as gradually civil rights have been expanded to non-Puritans (e.g. Catholics and Quakers in the American colonies), to non-landowners, to women, to African slaves, to Native Americans, to racial minorities, to people with disabilities, etc.  It is a continuous, ongoing process and I don't suppose that it will ever end this side of eternity.  As the 19th century pastor and abolitionist Theodore Parker wrote, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."  A century later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased Parker when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  We people of faith are called to participate in this incremental turning towards justice/tzedakah.  Some might call it participating in the Kingdom of God.

I got the impression that your view is that the Bible has already provided the parameters of where the line should be drawn.  Here is an example of the problem with that assumption:

The esteemed historian Mark Noll (professor of History at the University of Notre Dame) wrote a fantastic book entitled The Civil War as a Theological Crisis in which he points out that the time leading up to the Civil War was a period of perhaps the highest level of Biblical literacy that the United States has ever experienced.  It was the "sweet spot" in U.S. history where there was a relatively high degree of literacy and where Protestant Christianity was by far the prevailing religion.  People knew their scriptures well, attended church faithfully, and professed deep faith in Christ.  Yet it was a time of horrendous injustice towards slaves, Native Americans, and many other disempowered people groups and also the time when America entered into the Civil War--wherein Christians slaughtered Christians by the hundreds of thousands.

What Noll really focuses in on is the struggle between those who justified slavery and those who opposed slavery.  Both parties considered the Bible to be authoritative in determining their positions.

However, it was the pro-slavery folks who could (and did) point to chapter and verse in the Bible to make their arguments.  They accused the abolitionists of being "liberals" who did not respect the authority of scripture, and indeed the abolitionists were at a distinct disadvantage because they could not point to specific Biblical verses that said slavery is wrong and ought not to be practiced.  The abolitionist had to argue more from the general spirit of the Bible, how it demonstrated a progression--an "arc"--of justice and that the time had come to move forward into a greater implementation of God's redemptive vision by ending the practice of slavery.

If we compare this to the current issues regarding the Equality Act and LGBT inclusion, we see interesting parallels. 

It is fascinating to read sermons and editorials by certain Evangelical Christian pastors of the time period leading up to the Civil War as they employed skillful Biblical exegesis to make their case that the institution of slavery was sanctioned by God.  It is not unlike proclamations from a century earlier stating that the genocide of Native Americans was analogous to the divinely mandated slaughter of Canaanites and Amalekites depicted in the Old Testament.

There is also that interesting example given in Acts 15, at what is referred to as the Jerusalem Council, where differing factions of Jewish Christians were wrestling about what to do with the phenomena of Gentiles being filled with the Holy Spirit and becoming followers of the risen Christ.  One group of Jewish Christians at the council argued that the Gentiles should not be allowed in unless they adopted Jewish dietary laws, religious customs, circumcision, etc.  This faction had both scripture and tradition on their side.  The other faction said, in essence, "Yeah, but this is what the Holy Spirit is doing."  At the end of the council, the "liberals" prevailed.  :)

My point is that history proves that simply relying on the Bible as our source for authority in defining what justice looks like is fraught with danger.  This is because, of course, to read the Bible is to interpret the Bible.  I think this is why Paul pleaded with the Galatians (and, by extension, us) to walk in step with the Spirit.  I believe that what is going on in our day regarding LGBT inclusion is another move of God--another increment in the long arc towards justice.

Enough on that.  Obviously I couldn't convey all of this in the call-in radio program format or it would have sounded more like PBS.  :)

The other point I wanted to touch upon was your concluding assertion about what is "God's best" for people in terms of marriage.

To opine about what is "God's best" in someone else's life sounds to me a lot like saying "Here, let me take the speck out of your eye."  I imagine that if you were to scrutinize my life, or if I were to scrutinize yours, we could each identify areas where we felt the other was not choosing "God's best."  But is that what we're called to do?  It seems to me that as followers of Jesus we are called to be examples by how we live our own lives and comport ourselves, and then be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks of the reason for the hope that is in us.

In July my wife and I attended the wedding of two dear friends of ours, who I'll refer to as P&C.  They are a lesbian couple in their 70's who have been together for about 20 years.  They are among the most godly Christians we know, truly exemplifying that fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23 - ", joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.").  P&C met at a Christian retreat center when both were in their 50's.  Both had suffered failed marriages because--despite being gay--they had as young women tried to conform to what they were taught was "God's best" for them (I've heard so many tragic stories of gay people who tried to fit in and entered into mixed orientation marriages that ultimately failed).  For P&C it was love at first sight when they met each other.  They were married in a non-legal Quaker ceremony many years ago and have been faithfully together ever since.  When they retired and sought a retirement community to move into they were turned away by many because they are a lesbian couple.  Sometimes they were told that they could move in but would have to pose as sisters (P&C, to their credit, refused to agree to such a deceptive and demeaning compromise).  This is an example of how the Equality Act would have been beneficial to them.  Eventually they did find a retirement community that would take them for who they are and they've been there ever since.  Their "legal" wedding in July was a beautiful, Christ-honoring event. 

Michelle, I can say unequivocally that P&C's marriage to each other was "God's best" for them.  When my wife and I think of married couples that we want to emulate due to their mutual care, support, respect, devotion and enduring love for each other--combined with deep spiritual maturity--P&C are at the top of our list.

I'll conclude with a poem by Edwin Markham that our conversation yesterday brought to mind and that reminds me of the way that Jesus interacted with people who were deemed to be socially and religiously beyond the pale and which we are called to emulate:

He drew a circle that shut me out--
    Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took him in!

I apologize for the length of this message.  Clearly I am more at home in this form of communication than radio. :) 

Thanks again for the opportunity to dialogue.