Saturday, June 29, 2013

This excellent and touching video is about parenting, but it seems like the perfect cap to a week which saw the dissolution of Exodus International, the repeal of DOMA and the beginning of Pride weekend in many cities.

The point is about so much more than the acceptance of people who are LGBTQ. It is simply about the acceptance of people, regardless of our differences.

"It is our differences, and the negotiation of our differences, that unite us."

One of the greatest lessons I've learned from hanging out with Quakers has been to regain my focus on the present, and stop fixating on what is over the horizon in the future (or in the past). The more interesting things are those that God is doing right here and now! I've learned, from Friends, that following Jesus is--first and foremost--a matter of experiencing the Spirit moment-by-moment and walking alongside God in a patient, day-in/day-out, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other journey that lasts a lifetime. No need to seek great accomplishments; others will come behind us, as we have followed those before us--thousands of generations and probably thousands more; all of us incrementally bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice; towards the Kingdom of God--as we do our little part of God's will, on earth as it is in Heaven.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chick-fil-A redux

Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A sent this tweet yesterday, in response to the Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act. It was later deleted.

Does this mean that Chick-fil-A ought to be subjected to indignation and boycotts once again? Not for this. This is Dan Cathy expressing his opinion. He has every right to do so. I don't need to be in idealogical agreement with the president of every restaurant I eat at or company I do business with. This is the thing that Mike Huckabee and many Chick-fil-A defenders seemed to misunderstand: The previous brouhaha with Chick-fil-A was not about Mr. Cathy expressing his opinions; it was about about Chick-fil-A, through its WinShape Foundation, donating millions of dollars to organizations with anti-gay agendas, such as the Family Research Council and Exodus International. A portion of Chick-fil-A's profits were being funneled to groups that are harmful to LGBT people. It wasn't about what Mr. Cathy was saying. It was about what he was doing.

As a result of the boycotts, Chick-fil-A pledged to stop donating to such controversial groups. Every indication is that they have kept their word.

So, although I think his opinion is terribly wrong, Mr. Cathy's tweet yesterday would not compel me to stop eating at Chick-fil-A (but it sure doesn't inspire me to eat there either, which is perhaps why it was removed).

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Simon the Tanner

[This is a transcript of the message I gave at North Seattle Friends Church on Sunday, 6/23/13]

In our Meeting for Learning (aka Sunday School, aka Sunday Morning Bible Study) we’ve spent the last couple of years going through the Gospel of Matthew and then through the Book of Acts and also branching out into Paul’s letters. One of the things I love about studying (not just reading, but studying) the Bible is that it continuously surprises and challenges me. This is especially true when I’m able to lay aside some of my presuppositions—my doctrinal filters and lenses that have been handed down to me. I want to try to understand these texts by exploring the historical/cultural/social context from which they came—to try to understand what the texts meant to the people who wrote them and to the original hearers and readers; and then also to try to hear what the Spirit is saying today—here and now—about the application of these texts.

I’ve come to realize that there is a theme which runs like a golden thread all through the Bible. That theme is that God’s love is radically inclusive. So, for example, a striking feature of the four Gospels and the book of Acts, is the number of stories about excluded people being reached out to by God, by the Holy Spirit, by Jesus and by the followers of Jesus. We see a profound concern for the people on the margins of society: the sick, the poor, the powerless, and those regarded as sinful or unclean. If we just narrow our focus to the book of Acts alone, we continue to see a very deliberate portrayal of the Apostles following the leadings of the Spirit and taking the message of God’s love to despised Samaritans and to a eunuch from a far-off land and to a God-fearing Roman Centurion and then ultimately to purely “pagan” Gentiles. We see the followers of Jesus breaking taboos and crossing boundaries: religious, ethnic, social, economic, gender, etc.—because that’s what Jesus did; and still does.

A pivotal moment in the book of Acts occurs at about the halfway point (chapter 15) when the followers of Jesus gather at Jerusalem and have a council to determine what to do about all the Gentiles that are becoming Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. Up to then they had thought this was a Jewish thing, but God is doing something far more expansive than they had expected. They are trying to grapple with the implications of it. The way the book of Acts is arranged, the trajectory of the first half of the book points towards this climactic Jerusalem council. And, likewise, the action in the second half of the book highlights the effects that flow out from this council.

The book of Acts contains a series of paradigm shifts. The Holy Spirit is doing radical stuff and the disciples are scrambling to keep up. The followers of Jesus are being continuously stretched and challenged and even offended by what God is doing. At the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, the consensus reached about Gentile inclusion is put into a letter stating, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” God is leading; they are responding.

The significant “boundary crossing” events in the first half of Acts include:

1. The Samaritan “revival” in chapter 8.
2. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch, also in chapter 8 (which has been the subject of renewed interest in recent times because of the eunuch’s exclusion from Jewish temple worship due to his irreversible sexual minority status; but his acceptance by Philip as a follower of Jesus, which causes him to joyfully ask “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”).
3. The story of the Roman Centurion Cornelius (told and retold in chapters 10 and 11 respectively).
4. The evangelistic activity among Gentiles in Antioch (chapter 15).

These events set the stage for the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and for the expanded ministry of Paul, which comprises the second half of Acts.

The Apostle Paul is commonly referred to as the “apostle to the Gentiles” but, ironically, it was actually Peter—the “apostle to the Jews”—Jesus’ right-hand guy—who’s testimony about crossing the Gentile boundary carried so much weight at the Jerusalem council. Peter had already validated the mission to the Samaritans in Acts 8 and then he became the agent for Gentile inclusion in Acts 10.

But nestled in the midst of these momentous events is a simple but poignant example of inclusion that is easily overlooked. It begins in Acts 9:32 with Peter traveling on the coastal plain to the city of Lydda. There he heals a crippled man named Aeneas, which results in “all of the residents of Lydda and Sharon” turning to the Lord. Peter is then urged to come to the port city of Joppa, where a pious disciple named Tabitha has died. In a vignette highly reminiscent of Jesus’ raising of the dead girl in Mark 5:41, Peter resurrects Tabitha. “This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord,” the author tells us. One could assume that at this point Peter would be hugely popular. His preaching of the Good News, along with miraculous healings and raising of the dead would have made him a celebrity throughout the region. In light of this, the next statement about Peter carries much greater depth of meaning than its brevity implies:

“Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.” (Acts 9:43)

Luke reminds the reader two more times (10:6 and 10:32) that Peter took up residence with Simon the tanner. We find out that the home of Simon the tanner eventually served as the launching point for Peter to travel up the coast to Caesarea and the home of Cornelius, the Gentile Centurion. This resulted in an outpouring of God’s spirit upon Cornelius’ household, which in turn convinced Peter that God’s kingdom includes Gentiles, which in turn set the stage for Peter’s convincing testimony at the Jerusalem council.

Here’s the interesting thing about this, which we might easily overlook: The ancient hearers of Acts would have known that a tannery was not by any means a desirable place to stay. Simon’s home was a despised place and, despite being a Jew, his profession as a tanner would have rendered him a social and religious outcast.

The process of tanning hides to make leather in the ancient Middle East is described in Unger’s Bible Dictionary in this way: “A three-day treatment with salt and flour cleansed the skins from foreign matter. Lime was used to remove the hair. The acrid juices of desert plants or oak bark were also used. The skin was dried for several days and treated with acid barks and leaves, like sumac. … The art of tanning, although very necessary, was a malodorous task and one that was regarded as unclean by many who recognized certain animals as unclean. Thus, under Judaism, tanners had to live outside the city, often near the water…”

A man named Robert Forbes wrote a fascinating series of books entitled Studies in Ancient Technology, which includes a section on tanning (or leather-making) in the ancient Semitic world. Among the ingredients he lists as being used by ancient tanners were “vats of dog’s dung.” Imagine that in the hot Mediterranean sun! Forbes writes, “The tanner was despised because of the stench of his tanning ingredients and his handling of dead bodies.”

The Babylonian Talmud states, “The world cannot do without perfume makers and tanners, happy is he who prepares perfumes, woe to him whose craft is tanning.” Joachim Jeremias, in his book, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, places tanners (along with dung collectors and copper smelters) in his list of “despised trades” because of the foul smell associated with the craft (a tanner was often also a collector of the dung used in the tanning process). The stench of the ingredients would permeate the clothing and the skin of the tanner.

The wife of a tanner had the right to file for divorce—even if she knew prior to marrying that her husband was a tanner—by explaining that although she thought she could endure the smell, she was unable to stand it. There is a story from the Jewish Mishnah, of a man who died and was survived by a brother who was a tanner. According to the Mishnah, the rabbis agreed that the widow, although childless and entitled to Levirate marriage, had the right to say, ‘Thy brother I could bear but I cannot bear thee,’ and so refuse to marry her husband's brother. If a married Jewish man became a tanner, it constituted grounds for his wife to choose to divorce him. It was one of the few instances—another being a husband who contracted leprosy—where a wife could initiate divorce proceedings against her husband in ancient Jewish culture.

From a ceremonial standpoint, the tanner’s continuous contact with dead animals placed him in a state of perpetual ritual uncleanness, according to the stipulations of Leviticus (11:39-40). The Babylonian Talmud mentions that tanners were excluded from participation in temple festivals.

So, the aggregate picture of Simon the tanner is of a man who lived on the outskirts of town and who was socially marginalized and religiously unclean. His very being was considered offensive. He was the epitome of an excluded person.

And here comes Peter. He has been travelling through the region, preaching the Gospel and performing miraculous healings, which has culminated in raising Tabitha from the dead. Peter was a rock star! Surely, he had his pick of lodging options. But he chose to stay with Simon the tanner. Do you see how profound that little sentence of Luke’s is?

I think that by the time Peter came to Joppa, he was already well on his way to laying aside the Jewish purity stipulations that he had grown up with, but he was still negotiating the boundaries. How far would he go? The home of Simon the tanner, it turns out, was not just a launching pad for the conversion of the Gentile household of Cornelius. Rather, it was another important marker along Peter’s journey from Law to Grace. Peter was already well on his way into a new paradigm which rejected exclusionary Jewish purity codes and social conventions. I can’t help but think that when Luke wrote Acts, he relished the counter-cultural subversiveness of mentioning Peter’s lodging choice.

It is interesting to note that Joppa was the same city where Jonah ran away in a ship to avoid God’s call to preach a message to Gentiles. By contrast, Peter embarked from Joppa to Caesarea in obedience and delivered his message of Good News to the household of Cornelius. Ironically, it was in a stinky house of ritual impurity that Peter received the preparatory vision about crossing the Gentile boundary by no longer calling unclean what God had made clean.

So, what does that mean to us? Who are the outcasts today? Who are the marginalized ones? Who are the ones that are considered offensive and unfit for inclusion in our worship of God? Who are the tanners? Who are the Samaritans? Who are the godless Gentiles? Who are the Ethiopian Eunuchs? What social and religious boundaries of exclusion is Jesus breaking down today? Do we dare to follow?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

John Wimber, the late and beloved leader of the Vineyard, once said something to the effect that every great move of God is most vehemently opposed by the recipients of the previous move of God. It was an insightful observation; you can see it all through church history, going back to the Pharisees who antagonized Jesus and his disciples (the Pharisees often get a bad rap, but they were earnest seekers of God and part of an ancient reform movement which ultimately saved Judaism after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D.).

In more recent and local history, we've seen God-inspired social justice movements such as the abolition of slavery, women's rights, anti-poverty and civil rights in which Christians were simultaneously leading the charge and heading the opposition. Still today, the most segregated places in America and the most repressive for women are at many churches on Sunday morning.

We are in the midst of another tectonic move of God. This one involves a re-evaluation of attitudes towards people who are LGBTQ. Christians are realizing that the call to follow Jesus and to reflect Jesus to a hurting world has been obscured by what George Fox of the Quakers used to call a propensity for "preaching up sin." Many Christians, myself included, have carefully studied the handful of scriptures traditionally used to condemn homosexuality and found that the texts have been grossly misinterpreted and misapplied. Concurrently, more and more of us are developing "ears to hear" what the Spirit is saying. What the Spirit is saying is, "Inclusion."

Yesterday Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, issued a profound apology for the harm done by his organization's 30 years of reparative "cure the gay" therapy. Today it is being announced that Exodus International will shut down. Tonight, the television program Our America with Lisa Ling will air an emotional confrontation between Chambers and people who have been damaged by the "therapies" that Exodus proferred:

John Paulk the former chairman of Exodus and the co-author of "Love Won Out: How God's Love Helped Two People Leave Homosexuality and Find Each Other" (which was heavily promoted by Focus on the Family) has likewise recanted his involvement in ministries which claimed to be able to change sexual orientation:

“For the better part of 10 years, I was an advocate and spokesman for what’s known as the 'ex-gay movement,' where we declared that sexual orientation could be changed through a close-knit relationship with God, intensive therapy and strong determination. At the time, I truly believed that it would happen. And while many things in my life did change as a Christian, my sexual orientation did not. Today, I do not consider myself 'ex-gay,' and I no longer support or promote the movement. Please allow me to be clear: I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people."

These are markers--mileposts--along a road that is leading towards the place where, as the prophet Amos (and later Martin Luther King, Jr.) envisioned, justice will "roll down like waters, and righteousness (which in Hebrew is tzedakah, meaning 'fairness') like an ever-flowing stream."

During the earliest years of Christianity, a wise Pharisee named Gamaliel counselled the Sanhedrin (the ruling council in Jerusalem) to leave the followers of the provocative new move of God alone: “So I am telling you: Hands off these men! Let them alone. If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, there is nothing you can do about it—and you better not be found fighting against God!”

They who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

So long Slim, and thanks for taking care of those Martians!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Seattle 7 a.m.

I was sitting alone in my car,
in rush hour;
dead-stopped on an eight-lane highway;
the sun slanting in from the East,
warming the side of my face;
deep green coniferous trees framing my view
of a robin's egg blue sky smeared with pewter-white clouds;
and I was overcome...
with wonder and gratitude at the miracle of it all...
This world.
This life.

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is – I repeat it – a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.”

~ Charlotte Brontë

(HT to Ray Lovegrove, aka Hay Quaker)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fred Clark at the Slacktivist blog on Patheos has written a very insightful essay inspired, in part, by a post on my blog that I wrote in May.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"We can choose to operate from love or from fear."

Friday, June 14, 2013

Thursday, June 06, 2013

One of the most important theological lessons I ever learned was to not confuse the symbol for the actuality; the description for the described; the map for the territory; the menu for the meal.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A lovely article from the Alabama news site

"Numbers, like specific doctrines, are not emphasized for Quakers. Friends focus on questions that really matter: Of being quiet to hear what others -- including God -- have to say. Of approaching life in a way that regards rather than judges. Seeking to add peace, not strife. Affirming the equality of all before God."

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Oops. Awkward.

The problem with considering oneself "blessed" or "thanking the Lord" for having survived a natural disaster is that it carries an unspoken implication about those that didn't survive. Did God choose not to "bless" them by allowing them to die?

Of course expressing gratitude is a beautiful thing. But I firmly believe that God's orientation and intent was the same towards those who survived and those who didn't, and towards believers and atheists like Rebecca Vitsmun (the woman being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer). It is an orientation of deeply relational love. God journeys with us through the good times and the bad--feeling what we feel and seeking to make something good and redemptive out of even the most horrific circumstances.

More on this:

"Every creature is a word of God." - Meister Eckhart

Saturday, June 01, 2013

"Good theology always protects God's total freedom, and does not demand that God follow our rules. ... God is everywhere and always and scandalously found even in the failure of sin. If God is truly victorious, how could it be otherwise? In fact, there is no place left where God cannot be found. The Gospels never record Jesus having a single prerequisite for any of his healings: no affiliation with the right group, no moral worthiness, no attendance at the right temple, no purity codes, nothing except desire itself. ... Jesus is in effect saying that if God is everywhere, then God is not anywhere exclusively." - Fr. Richard Rohr (The Naked Now)