Guest Post: Jan Wood
I am a contemplative progressive Christian Quaker theologian, and author of Presence and Process.
"I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house. When I decided that I couldn’t keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it. From that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid. Had we become distracted by the question of my safety we would have lost the moral offensive and sunk to the level of our oppressors."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
A friend recently inspired me to watch the film Kumare (available on Amazon Instant Video) and I found it to be delightful. The film-maker, an American named Vikram who was born in New Jersey to a Hindu family from India (but had long-ago wandered away from the faith of his parents), decides to see if he can pass himself off as an enlightened guru from India. He does so convincingly and attracts a following of disciples.
Vikram, now going by the name Kumare, finds that his cynicism is unexpectedly transformed as earnest spiritual seekers place their trust in him and he feels affection and responsibility to them. He comes to realize that the swami he is pretending to be is actually his "best self" that he has always aspired to be like--focused on others, caring, listening, giving and living a simple life. He sets out to teach his disciples that they are their own "gurus" and don't need a "holy man" to tell them what they already inwardly know. But how will they react when he reveals to them that he is a fraud?
Although the setting is in the world of New Age and Eastern religion, there were archetypes here that I recognized from my own experiences in the Charismatic Christian world (where there are, no doubt, phonies as well). It also resonates well with many Quaker themes, such as seeing "that of God" in everyone; and that God is able to teach people directly and inwardly; and that we are all God's ministers to one another.
Thought provoking and endearing and challenging and, at the climax, a bit uncomfortable; I recommend this film.
Also, Erik Davis has written an interesting piece in Aeon Magazine about the film and the greater issue of "Guru Tricksters."
"Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?" ~ Ernest Gaines
"The first gleam of light, the first cold light of morning, which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, 'Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.' Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit." - Caroline Fox, Quaker
Watch what happens when a Muslim Imam and hundreds of his followers show up at a Christian church in Cairo, Egypt on Christmas.
"The Pharisees stressed Yahweh's holiness while Jesus stressed Yahweh's compassion. The difference appears at first to be small, but in actuality it proved to be too big for a single religion to accommodate.
The Pharisaic platform was essentially this: being majestically holy himself, Yahweh wanted to hallow the world as well; and to accomplish this aim he had selected the Jews to plant for him a beachhead of holiness in history. It was laxity in the observance of the holiness code, delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai, that had reduced the Jews to their degraded state, and only the wholehearted return to it would reverse their fate.
Jesus subscribed to much of this, but he could not accept the lines that the holiness program drew between people. Beginning by categorizing acts and things as clean or unclean (foods and their preparation, for example) it went on to categorize people according to whether they respected those distinctions. The result was a social structure that divided people who were clean and unclean, pure and defiled, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner. Jesus saw social barriers as an affront to Yahweh's compassion, and he disregarded them. This made him a social prophet, challenging the boundaries of the existing order and advocating an alternative vision of the human community."
- Huston Smith, The Illustrated World's Religions
I have been asked more than once recently, "Why do you keep posting stuff about gay people? Are you gay? Is someone close to you gay?" I thought I would share a bit about my journey as it relates to this topic.
I grew up in a very white, very middle-class, suburban neighborhood in Colorado. When I was in my early 20's I went to work for MCI Telecommunications in downtown Denver. MCI was a remarkably diverse company for the time. My co-workers were male, female, African-American, Hispanic, Jewish, gay, etc. (I was the token white male Evangelical Christian). We worked in teams of 8-12 people and so I really got to know and befriend folks from backgrounds very different from my own. I learned a lot. I remember one co-worker, named Sean, telling me his experiences of being an African-American male; how people would react to him when he walked into an elevator--how women would clutch their purses tighter, for example; or how he was predictably stopped by police if he walked or drove through certain upper-class neighborhoods. I was incredulous (especially since Sean was an effervescent gay man who didn't have a threatening bone in his body). I had had no idea that he dealt on a regular basis with this type of treatment based on nothing more than his physical appearance. Another example I remember from MCI was an older Jewish woman named Marlene who told me stories of prejudice she had encountered throughout her life in the U.S. Some of her stories left me stunned, especially since she was such a wonderfully cheerful and likeable soul. Who could have possibly found her to be offensive or worthy of ill-treatment? The greatest lesson I learned from my years at MCI was the realization of how ignorant I was about the life-experiences of other people--how wrong my assumptions were that their experiences had generally been just like mine.
But sometimes it takes a long time for things to really sink in.
A number of years later I was part of a church that had among its congregation a very gifted Bible teacher, who happened to be a woman. She opened my eyes to the way that women have been marginalized in the church (as an empowered male, I had simply not had eyes to see it). Prompted by the Holy Spirit, I spent the next couple of years studying and researching the topic of women in the church and came to the conclusion that Jesus's intent was for women to be able to do and be in the church (and in society) anything that men can do or be. I realized that Paul's couple of references to women not being allowed to teach or have authority in church were very situational and not intended to apply to every church in every culture across all time (I have written about my findings here. The church that I now belong to is pastored by a woman and I can honestly say that she is the most gifted pastor I have ever known.
At another point in my past, I met a Palestinian Christian. I didn't know much about Palestinians other than that they were the people standing in the way of Jews getting their land back in Israel (that is how I had been taught to see the situation). This Christian graciously told me about the home and orchard which had been in her family for many generations and had been forcibly taken from them by Israelis. She told me about how invisible she often felt as a Palestinian among American Evangelical Christians. I spent the next few years researching and studying about Israel/Palestine and came to the conclusion that Palestinians have suffered a great injustice by those claiming to do God's will and that all people are God's chosen people.
All of these experiences were, I believe, Spirit-led. God has been continuously expanding my vision and enlarging my heart beyond my own little world. As a heterosexual, white, middle-aged, middle-class, American male I have not had much experience with being marginalized or rejected or oppressed simply because of my gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation or other aspect of my being. As a result, I have tended to be blind to the marginalization, rejection and oppression of others.
If you know my story, you know that I became a follower of Jesus through a supernatural encounter that happened outside of any church. God came to me in a very real way with love and grace when I was at my worst and most destructive. That experience has formed the bedrock of my faith and is the lens through which I see God and other people. No one is beyond God's love and no one is less valuable in God's eyes than anyone else. We may try to distance ourselves from God, but God is never distant from us.
And so, as with women and Palestinians (two groups who have often been devalued and marginalized and oppressed by Evangelical Christians), at a certain point the Holy Spirit turned my attention towards people who are LGBT. This was (oddly enough, I'm told) not the result of a close relationship with any particular LGBT person. It was simply an undeniable and unignorable prompting from the Holy Spirit to take a closer look. So, as is my nature, I spent the next few years researching the topic in great depth. What I ultimately concluded is that the handful of scriptures that have been used against LGBT people have been grossly misinterpreted and misapplied and, as a result, a terrible injustice has been (and continues to be) perpetrated by people of faith upon people who are LGBT. I am now convinced that there is, in our day, a dramatic move of God afoot to change the status of LGBT people in society and in the church (in a similar way to past moves of God regarding colonial exploitation and slavery and women's rights and civil rights, etc.). But, it has been said that each successive move of God is most vigorously opposed by the recipients of the previous move of God.
Let he who has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
Yes, you can be LGBT and be a follower of Jesus. Being LGBT is not a sin. Being in a non-exploitative same-sex relationship is not a sin. Being LGBT and Christian are not mutually exclusive identities. People who are LGBT are loved by God just as (and for who) they are. Each one has wonderful gifts that God has put into them that the world and the church needs.
For my part, I am sorry for my past ignorance--and for being comfortable in my ignorance (even proud of it!). Not only did I hurt people as a result, but I hurt and impoverished myself and I grieved God. I'm trying to do my little part to make it better. I want to participate in what God is doing here and now. I want to learn to extend the same amazing grace and love and acceptance that was given to me.
The venerable Quaker William Penn wrote "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." By "true religion" he meant religion that is based in the ongoing experience of God's living presence. "True" religion is "alive" religion.
We Quakers also like to say that "There is that of God in everyone," meaning that God is at work in every person, and so every person is valuable. More and more I'm realizing that the classifications we use to categorize (and judge) people are irrelevent to God. We are all just people--beloved and cherished. I think this is what the Apostle Paul had come to realize when we wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ." (Galatians 3:28).
So, there you have it.
We live on a planet that is rotating at 1722 kilometers per hour (at the equator) and is orbiting the sun at a speed of 108,000 kilometers per hour and is within a galaxy that is hurtling through space at 2.15 million kilometers per hour in a universe that is expanding at a rate of 265,680 kilometers per hour per 3.26 million light years (doubling in speed every 3.36 million light years).
The entire universe is in motion. And motion is change. So why do we expect things in our lives to remain the same?