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 irrelevant 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.


Friday, August 21, 2015

"Without patience, we will learn less in life. We will see less. We will feel less. We will hear less. Ironically, rush and more usually mean less."
— Mother Teresa

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"So long as we see the Word of God take flesh in the letter of Holy Writ in a variety of figures we have not yet spiritually seen the incorporeal and simple and singular and only Son.  As the Scripture says, 'The one who has seen me has seen the Father,' and also, 'I am in the Father and the Father is in me.'  It is, therefore, very necessary for a deep knowledge that we first study the veils of the statements regarding the Word and so behold with the naked mind the pure Word as he exists in himself, who clearly shows the Father in himself, as far as it is possible for men to grasp.  Thus it is necessary that the one who seeks after God in a religious way never hold fast to the letter lest he mistakenly understand things said about God for God himself.  In this case we unwisely are satisfied with the words of Scripture in place of the Word, and the Word slips out of the mind while we thought by holding on to this garment we could possess the incorporeal Word." 

-- Maximus the Confessor, 5th century

In the wake of the Ashley Madison website hack and posting of customer information, I imagine we're going to see lots of expose', embarrassment, excuses, muck-raking, finger-pointing, damage control, gossip, ruination and schadenfreude. What a wonderful opportunity this presents for Christians to demonstrate grace, compassion, self-control and the kind of love that "covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). As Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." A pastor that I used to sit under liked to say that "sin makes you stupid." I don't entirely agree. I think sin itself is, in essence, poor judgment. Sin (the Greek word is "hamartia" which literally means "missing the mark") is not a congenital condition resulting from Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit, but simply choices we make that are misguided (or, as the Buddhists would say, are not skillful); in other words, are not aligned with God's intent for goodness, beauty and shalom. None of us are immune from missing the mark, sometimes spectacularly so. Additionally, sin can become systemic and institutional--making it very difficult to extricate ourselves from association and complicity on some level--despite our best efforts (one example of this would be the pervasive myth of redemptive violence that we all imbibe). Without denying the destructive nature of sin, can we extend grace and empathy--as we hope would be extended to us?


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"It is not passivity that mirrors the Passion of the Word; it is the act of loving in the midst of the desperate helplessness of the world. Quietism is only a parody of victimization; resignation is a door into an empty house. The true Christ does not just stand and wait; he butts his head against the impossibilities until they crucify him; and then, having opened the door of the Passion, he invites the church into the deepest mystery of all." 

-- Robert Farrar Capon

Monday, August 10, 2015

"In the ground of our being is an unassailable union with God...  For so many of us, however—even those professing a Christian faith—the transforming, experiential reality of this truth is rarely available for reflection. … Our interior 'noise and chatter' delude us into thinking we are separated from God.  Only awareness will cleanse our 'doors of perception,' enabling us thereby to see infinity in all that is.  The practice of contemplation is a time-honored means of developing the awareness which accesses the still and silent depths within.  The silence to which contemplative prayer exposes us is not merely the absence of sound.  Silence is a portal through which we touch the depths of reality." 

-- Meredith Secomb, Being Attentive to Silence

Thursday, August 06, 2015

"The facts are that seventy-five thousand people were burned to death in one evening of fire bombing over Tokyo. Hundreds of thousands were destroyed in Dresden, Hamburg, and Coventry by aerial bombing. The fact that forty-five thousand human beings were killed by one bomb over Nagasaki was new only to the extent that it was one bomb that did it.

To fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction of civilians was to fail as a Christian and a priest as I see it. Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in and to a world and a Christian church that had asked for it — that had prepared the moral consciousness of humanity to do and to justify the unthinkable. I am sure there are church documents around someplace bemoaning civilian deaths in modern war, and I am sure those in power in the church will drag them out to show that it was giving moral leadership during World War II to its membership.

Well, I was there, and I'll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the church in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best — at worst it was religiously supportive of these activities by blessing those who did them.

I say all this not to pass judgment on others, for I do not know their souls then or now. I say all this as one who was part of the so-called Christian leadership of the time. So you see, that is why I am not going to the Day of Judgment looking for justice in this matter. Mercy is my salvation."

-- Fr. George Zabelka, Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Army air force, who in 1945 was stationed on Tinian Island in the South Pacific. He served as priest and pastor for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Sojourners' interview: I Was Told It Was Necessary

'I Was Told It Was Necessary'

Sojourners' 1980 interview w
- See more at:
Fr. George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Army air force, was stationed on Tinian Island in the South Pacific. He served as priest and pastor for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. - See more at:
Fr. George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Army air force, was stationed on Tinian Island in the South Pacific. He served as priest and pastor for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. - See more at:

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

"Many departing Millennials will tell you they still love Jesus, but not the church. They can't reconcile Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount — his care for the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the poor, and the sick — with the infighting, abuse, and hypocrisy they've witnessed in the church. They don't connect Christianity with right-wing politics. They're passionate about social justice — poverty, women's rights, human trafficking, immigration, HIV/AIDS, and ending the death penalty. They are committed to an embodied faith. So they are leaving a moribund church, but they live out their faith in demonstrable ways. Although the majority of disenchanted evangelicals are Millennials, they increasingly will be joined by some of their elders." 

-- Carolyn Custis James, Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism

(Via AZSpot)

Sunday, August 02, 2015

"[I]f I’ve learned anything in this job for the last seven years, working in the interfaith center of a university with 40,000 students from around the planet, it’s this: the more you know about the religions of the world, the more keenly aware you are of your ignorance about them." -- Jim Burklo, What Muslims Do When They Lose Their Keys

Saturday, August 01, 2015

By far the most pernicious piece of baggage collected from my decades as a religious fundamentalist was a form of cynicism that saw everything in exclusionary terms. Anything new or unfamiliar was to be distrusted. A continuous subconscious evaluation took place of what fell inside the perimeter of orthodoxy and what belonged outside in the fallen and doomed world, which would burn soon enough. It made for a stifling and insular and monochromatic life of binaries, preoccupied with sin management and purity maintenance and fear of divine retribution. This bleak worldview was instilled and reinforced via sermon and song and study and social pressure until it permeated my being; like a fish who can't see the water because it is immersed in the water. Ironically, the toxins were delivered in the name of the one who said "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." 

The healing and deprogramming from that way of being was slow and gradual, but steady once I removed myself from environments which reinforced it. Still, the ghosts reappear every now and then, momentarily obscuring my vision with their dingy translucence and familiar calls. But I see through them now and it takes less than a moment to consider how much happier and at peace I am--with myself, with God, with all the other beloved occupants in this big and beautiful and blessed and borderless world.