16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible (Reblog)

Reblog from Patheos.com by Roger Wolsey:

I’ve long stated that

Atheists and fundamentalists each tend to read the Bible in the same wooden, overly literalistic manner. The difference is that atheists reject what they read in that manner, while fundamentalists believe it.

There’s a lot of truth to that – enough that it tends to piss off members of both of those groups off when they come across what I said.

However, I’ve also said that

All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.

That observation has resonated with many people – including many fundamentalists who are honest with themselves and who rightly contend that they don’t read “all of the Bible literally.” Some of these more self-reflective fundamentalists have asked me, “So, how do you progressives “discern” and interpret the Bible? Seems like you just read into it what you want it to say; twist it; and don’t take it seriously.” I generally respond by reminding them that – that which we criticize most in others, is often that which we struggle with most ourselves.

While no doubt true, and I fully stand by holding that mirror up to them, they deserve an actual response.

I can’t speak for all progressive Christians, but here’s how many progressive Christians approach, discern, and interpret the Bible:

Click here to read the full article

Listening for Echoes

An article reblogged from the Bellingham Herald about the Rev. Charis Weathers, a seminary classmate of mine who is planting a new progressive church community in Bellingham, WA:

During my four-year hiatus from pastoring a vision had begun to grow, one that had at its center a church that makes the larger community in which it exists a better place to live. A church that doesn’t see its greatest success in the number of butts in the pews, but in the work that it does and the larger community that it builds. A church that isn’t only inclusive of all persons, but includes care for animals, forests, landscapes. A church that doesn’t make a belief system the primary determinant of who’s in or who’s out, but instead supports the good work that is already being done by others, offering blessing and help. A church that champions honest dialogue, values the arts, and takes poverty issues seriously.

Echoes is the name of this new church. I don’t know if it will live up to my vision, but I have hope.

Click here to read the full article

The Call to High Adventure

Vida Dutton Scudder. Image is in the public domain.

Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954) was a professor at Wellesly College, a member of the Socialist party, and a prominent activist in the Episcopal Church.  She was involved in the Social Gospel movement, the campaign for labor rights, the equality of women, and (eventually) pacifism.  She helped to organize the Women’s Trade Union League, the Episcopal Church Socialist League, and joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross.  Vida and her partner, Florence Converse, lived together for 35 years, from 1919 until Vida’s death in 1954.  She is celebrated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints: her feast day is on October 10.

Earlier today, as I was reading Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity, I came across an amazing prediction of Scudder’s that Butler Bass took from Scudder’s 1912 book Socialism and Character.  In this passage, Scudder prophesies the advent of mainline church decline, which eventually started to happen in the latter half of the 20th century.  I was amazed at how closely Scudder’s views resemble my own, except that she was writing a full century before I started thinking about it.  Listen to what Scudder has to say:

One certitude is forced on us : it is unlikely that Christianity will retain so nominally exclusive a sway as it has hitherto done in western Europe. In all probability, the day of its conventional social control is passing and will soon be forgotten. The time will come when the Christian faith will have to fight for right of way among crowding antagonists as vigorously as in the times of Athanasius and Augustine.

And in thoughts like these all genuine Christians must rejoice. Without the call to high adventure, the faith has never flourished.

 

 

 

Recommended Reading on Liberal Christianity

Here is a link to an excellent annotated bibliography of several popular-level primers on Liberal (a.k.a. ‘Progressive’) Christianity.  For those who wonder what we’re all about, I’d say this is a good place to start.  If your looking for one book to begin with, I’d recommend the one at the very top: Marcus Borg’s The Heart of ChristianityIt’s concise and well-written for folks on a non-academic level.

20 Books on Progressive Christian Spirituality

It’s an article on the website Spirituality & Practice, which I found by hanging around at Abundance Trek, which is just one of the blogs kept up by my friend, John Wilde.  There are many people in this world who strive to be unique individuals who defy all conventional categories; John is one of the very few souls who actually accomplishes it.  How like Jesus…

Romancing the Book: Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians

This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.  Evangelicals, much maligned among liberals, nonetheless possess an impressive array of gifts and skills that can benefit the larger Christian community, including those who do not share their beliefs and biases.  Liberal Christians are so quick to self-identify as “not evangelical” or “not that kind of Christian” that we have developed a nasty habit of tossing babies out with the bathwater.  I’m suggesting that we all go outside and recover these babies from the muddy ground outside (although we may have to give them another bath before we bring them back into our house).

Wow… I’m really stretching that metaphor.

In my first post, entitled God Has No Grandchildren, we talked about how evangelicals have done an amazing job of taking personal ownership of their spiritual lives.  For them, Christianity is not a set of dogmas, morals, and rituals to which one defaults by accident of birth.  For them, it is a whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to an ongoing relationship with the divine.

In today’s post, I want to talk about the Bible.

As far as religious communities go, none have had a more passionate love affair with the Bible than have evangelicals.  They tend to take it with them wherever they go: church, work, school, and vacation.  They sometimes refer to it as their sword (a source of strength) and other times as their love letter from God.  Most of the time, they simply call it the Word of God.  They have confidence that the voice of the Holy Spirit is able to reach, comfort, and guide them through these words on a page.  Like newlyweds in the bedroom, evangelical encounters with the Bible are intense and frequent (if a bit messy and awkward).  They tend to devour it, even though they don’t understand much of what they’re reading.

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to relate to the Bible like an older couple in a long-term relationship.  In place of the young lovers’ passion, they have developed a deep respect for its mystery and complexity.  They let those old, familiar words wash over them and anchor them to all time and eternity.  There are still some things they don’t like about the Bible, but they’ve learned how to accept those things and still appreciate the Bible for what it is.

Liberal Christians, while they tacitly accept the appellation “Word of God” as applied to the Bible, tend to cringe at notions of inerrancy and infallibility.  For us, the Bible is not a magical book that was somehow “beamed down” from heaven without flaw or error.  Why then do we still refer to them as the Word of God?  I love the answer given in the Catechism found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979):

We call them (the Holy Scriptures) the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.

I love this answer’s dual emphasis on inspiration and continual speaking.  Liberal Christians believe that the divine Word is speaks to us “in, with, and under” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Luther’s sacramental theology) the human words on the page.  For those of us in the Reformed (and always reforming) tradition of Protestant Christianity, we identify Christ as the true and Living Word of God.  The scriptures, as we have them, constitute a witness to that Living Word.  In other words, the early disciples experienced something extraordinary in the person of Christ and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with what it meant.  The Christian churches have continued to wrestle with that mystery for almost two millennia.  These days, we are less certain than ever about our particular answers, but more convinced than ever about the overall importance of what we’ve found.

In our less glorious moments, liberal Christians have tended to abandon this treasure of the faith to those who would abuse it and co-opt it for their own selfish ends.  Our respect for the complexity and mystery of the Bible has sometimes led us to throw our hands up in despair that anyone could ever know what this crazy book is talking about.  We despise trite and easy answers taken from text on a page, which leads us to sometimes give up hope of finding any guidance at all.  In our very worst moments, we tend to cut and paste the parts we like and throw out or ignore the parts we don’t.  My favorite example of this kind of project is the famous Bible produced by my American forbear, Thomas Jefferson.  He didn’t like the idea of supernatural miracles, so he just cut those parts out.  These days, many liberal Christians have a tendency to cut out the parts about judgment and sex, as if the Bible had nothing valuable to say about these topics.  To be fair, many evangelicals do the same thing.  They underline their favorite verses about individual salvation and “the pelvic issues” while they ignore the passages that emphasize the importance of social justice or suggest the possibility of universal salvation.

The tendency toward idolatry is a human universal, not unique to evangelicals or liberals.  We all have an instinctual urge to recast Jesus as an advocate for our own personal ideology.  We all tend to hear our own voices, rather than God’s speaking to us in the text of the Bible.  Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve made God in your own image when she hates all the same people you do.”

I was speaking with a colleague once at a pastor’s retreat on Christian spirituality.  I was talking about the central role that the Bible plays in shaping our spirituality.  He asked, “Does it have to be through the Bible?”  I responded that it doesn’t have to be through the Bible, but it gets to be.  As Christians, we have the privilege of conducting our collective faith-journey in dialogue with this cacophonous chorus of voices from the past.  I see the Bible as a library, rather than a book.  It’s a messy collection of stories, poems, and letters that chronicle our ancestors’ relationship with God.  They stretched to describe the indescribable.  They failed to capture the essence of the divine in their writings, but they did leave a number of helpful signposts.  I love the scriptures for their messiness.  It gives me hope for myself.  God never gave up on Abraham, Israel, or Peter, so I have every reason to trust that God will not give up on me.

The exercise that has most helped me recover the Bible as a tool for my spiritual growth is a practice developed by monks over a thousand years ago.  It’s called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “Divine Reading.”  Here’s how it works:

  • Sit down with a short passage of scripture (e.g. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15).  Read it slowly.  Out loud, if you can.  Maybe even stopping at every verse or sentence.
  • Pay attention to any words or phrases that “jump out at you” or seem to touch your life in some significant way.
  • Take a moment to process what that word or phrase means to you right now, in this moment.  You’re not looking for once-and-for-all absolutely authoritative interpretations.  You’re listening for what God is saying to you today through this passage.  God might be saying something completely different to someone else through those same words.  God might say something completely different to you tomorrow through those same words.  The Spirit blows where it wills…
  • Craft a prayer of response to what you think you’ve heard.  This can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a request for help, or a dedication of oneself to service.
  • Sit still for a period of extended silence while you contemplate God’s presence within and around you.  It might help to focus your attention on the normally unconscious act of your breathing or perhaps pick a special word to guide and focus your meditation.
  • Close by reading the passage slowly once more.  Be thankful for what you have encountered in this process.

I think that liberal Christians have an opportunity to re-engage with the Bible in a passionate way.  We can begin our “second honeymoon” with this old partner and rekindle in ourselves the romance we admire in our evangelical brothers and sisters.

God Has No Grandchildren: Evangelical Lessons For Liberal Christians

Image by Paul M. Walsh

It’s been an interesting year for me as I’ve consciously completed a theological shift that began almost a decade ago.  In many ways, it feels a lot like a return to a trajectory I was on before I immersed myself in the subculture of fundamentalism during high school and college.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, the years I spent in that subculture pretty much ruined me for evangelicalism, even in its more moderate, intelligent, and compassionate expressions.  This blog represents one attempt on my part to think out loud and publicly about the theological implications of my current trajectory.

The past few weeks have presented me with an unbelievable diversity of reactions from folks in the evangelical camp.  At one point, things got so bad that my wife asked me if I was “a lightning rod for angry fundamentalists.”  At another point, I was being thanked for my words by evangelical members of my own denomination.

[Side note: Before I continue, it bears noting that I do not use the related terms evangelical and fundamentalist synonymously.  All (Protestant) fundamentalists are evangelical, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.  I would once again recommend the many fine books of folks like Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, N.T. Wright, and Tony Campolo.  I would describe all of the above authors as non-fundamentalist evangelicals.  And this list is by no means exhaustive.  Most of my evangelical friends tend to identify themselves with Martin Luther and John Wesley rather than William Jennings Bryan and John Gresham Machen.  End side note.]

With all of this activity going on, it seems like a good time for me to list the things that I value from my evangelical upbringing.  These are the gifts of this tradition that I hope to carry with me and use to “brighten the [theological] corner” where I now find myself.  There are three such gifts, which I will label as follows: Spirituality, Bible, and Mission.  The first two I came up with through my own reflection but later found in Jack Rogers’ book, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality (WJK: 2006).  The third gift is one that Rogers listed and I missed in my initial assessment.  These gifts are not unique to evangelicalism, but represent distinct theological emphases that the movement has embodied and enacted in a particularly effective way.  I will discuss each of these gifts in separate blog posts.

Spirituality

“God has no grandchildren.”

This particular turn of phrase came to me from my mother and I love it.  To me, it speaks of taking personal ownership of one’s spirituality.  In an effort to respect diversity in church, liberal Christians have too often shied away from being very public about their personal relationship with God.  Such reticence has led many unsympathetic outsiders to presume that we don’t have one (which is not true).  We tend to do such a bad job at this that our own children can grow up in our churches and leave without coming to an awareness of the spiritual depth that is there.  A few of them find their way to evangelical churches but most simply abandon church altogether.

The necessity for taking personal ownership of one’s spirituality is one thing that evangelicals do extremely well.  They intentionally provide an access portal to the divine that allows their adherents to engage with faith and grow in a way that is energetic and dynamic.  While I hate it when people bash the term religion (a beautiful word that needs rescuing these days), I can appreciate what evangelicals mean when they say that, for them, Christianity is “a relationship, not a religion.”

I think it’s high time that liberal Christians got more vocal about our personal relationship with God.  We need to build one another up with the stories of our encounters with the divine.  We need to let our children (and the world) know that there is a vast and deep reservoir of power and love in which we live, move, and have our being.  This reservoir is available to any and all who desire to drink from its living waters.  Respecting diversity does not mean watering down our spirituality to the lowest common denominator.  Consciously embracing the life of the spirit does not necessarily make us into fanatics.  In fact, it has the effect of empowering us in our ministries of compassion and justice.  Too often, I’ve seen well-meaning activists burn out and lose hope in the struggle for justice.  They have a desperate need for enthusiasm in its most literal sense (“God-full-ness“).

I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s famous “kitchen table” experience where he found himself exhausted and at the end of his rope late one night after a threatening phone call.  He sat with a cup of coffee at his kitchen table and contemplated giving up the fight for justice and equality.  In prayer, he confessed his weakness and asked for help.  And, just then, he felt like he heard an inner voice saying to him (I paraphrase), “Stand up for righteousness and I will be with you.”

Liberal Christians need to start sharing stories like this one with one another.  Too many folks inside and outside our churches assume that, because we don’t talk about our relationship with God, we don’t have one.  Many (unfairly and erroneously) call us “dead churches.”  It’s time to show them how wrong they are.  Gone are they days when speaking openly about spirituality was taboo.  Provided that we maintain respect for those whose spiritual experience is different from our own, we carry within ourselves the capacity to feed ourselves and one another with our stories.  The light that is within us can help to illumine the path for those around us.  Let’s not hide that light under a bushel!  Liberal Christians, let it shine!

The Hour Has Come

Today’s sermon from Boonville Pres.

The texts are John 12:20-33, Jeremiah 31:31-34, and Psalm 87.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Whenever my friends and acquaintances find out that I’m a minister, it usually opens up some very interesting avenues of conversation.  This will sound weird, but the very first thing that most people do is apologize.  I haven’t quite figured out why they do that, but it happens about seven times out of ten.

Once that’s out of the way, the conversation usually gets interesting.  I don’t know of any other job that generates the kind of small talk that this one does.  When accountants meet people at parties, I doubt that folks immediately start talking about their bank account balance.  When teachers meet people in public, I doubt that folks immediate start talking about their high school GPA.  However, when I meet people out in the world, I find that many folks almost immediately want to talk about their personal beliefs and practices.

I get to learn a lot that way.  I learn about peoples’ individual life stories.  I learn about the way they see the world.  I learn about the importance that spirituality holds for most people, even those who don’t go to church.  Most of all, I learn about the way we Christians are perceived by the rest of the world.  I find that a lot of people admire us for our commitment to a particular way of faith but don’t want to limit their own spiritual journey to such a small circle of beliefs and morals.

We Christians have done plenty of things throughout our two-thousand-year history to establish the idea that ours is a small-minded and judgmental faith.  Even today, in the twenty-first century, those who most loudly and proudly broadcast their Christianity to a national audience tend to be rather one-sided in their view of the world.  It makes me sad sometimes that the incredible depth and diversity of our tradition seems to have become lost in all the hubbub.  I really can’t blame people who reject Christianity on the grounds that being Christian (from their point of view) means being like these big-time televangelists or members of the Religious Right.  I don’t blame them.  If I hadn’t met certain people or read certain books at just the right moment in my life, I would probably think as they do.

More and more, I’m also finding Christians within the church who operate with a similar mentality.  They value their Christian faith but wish there was some way they could practice it that is more thoughtful and less judgmental.  They hate feeling like they have to close their hearts and minds to the world in order to be faithful believers but don’t know of any other way to be truly Christian.  Some of these folks slog it out, longing for something better.  Others eventually give up and just leave altogether, thinking there’s no place for people like them in church.

I want to tell you today that I think there is another way.  Whether you’re sitting in church this morning, hanging on in quiet desperation, or listening to me on the radio at home, thinking the roof would cave in if you ever tried to walk through the door of a church building, I want you to know that, whoever you are, there is room for you to be you in Christ’s church.

If the church has failed to send that message clearly, it’s our own fault.  We need to learn how to be more like Jesus and do the kinds of things he did, like the one we heard about earlier in this service in our reading from the gospel according to John.

The story opens as Jesus is visiting Jerusalem with massive throngs of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Mixed in with this group are a number of Greek people.  They weren’t Jewish by blood, but they had come to believe in and respect the monotheistic faith of Judaism rather than the many gods worshiped by their own people.  These Greek folks wanted to take part in the Passover festivities as well, but they were only allowed to go so far.  Jewish law prevented them from entering the great Jerusalem temple because of their race.  There was one, single area set aside for them at the very farthest back end of the temple.  We would call the nosebleed section.  They called it the Court of the Gentiles.  Unfortunately, even this one distant space had been taken away from them and filled up with all kinds of vendors exchanging foreign currency and selling animals for the ritual sacrifices.  Feeling like the odd ones out, these Greek folks were definitely getting the message that there was no place for people like them in the “church” of their day.

In the midst of all this going on, these Greek people somehow managed to hear that there was this remarkable new rabbi named Jesus who happened to be in Jerusalem for the festival.  They were intrigued by what they heard and wanted to meet him, so they tracked down someone from Jesus’ entourage.  They found Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can’t imagine what the look on Philip’s face must have been in that moment.  Why would these foreigners want anything to do with Jesus, the Jewish Messiah?  Philip was confused enough that he thought he needed a second opinion, so he went and talked to Andrew, another one of Jesus’ disciples.  Even together, they still couldn’t figure out what was going on, so they decided to bring the issue to Jesus himself.  Jesus’ reaction to this news probably shocked them even more.  He said, “The hour has come.”

What does that mean?  Well, there’s a lot of talk about Jesus’ “hour” in John’s gospel.  Early on, when Mary asks Jesus to show his power by changing water into wine at a wedding, Jesus refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Later on, when people try to get Jesus to use another Jewish holiday as a publicity platform, Jesus again refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Finally, when he had enraged one crowd to the point where they tried to kill him, the text notes that they were unsuccessful because “his hour had not yet come.”  It was like the whole book had been building toward something big that was about to happen.  What would it be?  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would finally confront the corrupt religious and political leadership in Jerusalem.  Maybe when his hour came, he would go kick Pontius Pilate and his Roman thugs out of the holy city once and for all.  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would restore the nation of Israel to the glory of its golden age under King Solomon.

But no, it turns out that Jesus’ hour came when these no-account foreigners came looking for him.  Greek people.  What’s the matter with Jesus?  Didn’t he realize who he was?  Didn’t he remember where his loyalties lay?  He was Jewish.  He belonged to his own people.  His mission, as the Jewish Messiah, was to be with other Jews and help them, not these foreigners.  Yet, when these Greek people seek him out, Jesus says, “This is it.  The hour has come.  This is why I’m here.  This is what it’s all about.”

Huh?  Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus.  What about us?  What about our people?  Our security?  Our prosperity?  Our survival?  When times get tough, human beings tend to think like that.  We want to batten down the hatches and circle the wagons.  We instinctively want to protect what’s ours.  Look out for number one.  Be responsible.  This is how evolution has hard-wired us.  Truthfully, it has allowed to survive as long as have.  But, Jesus says, there comes a time, a moment, an hour, when all of that needs to be set aside.  There is an hour for opening up, reaching out, and taking risks.  These are the moments when evolution actually happens and we take small steps or giant leaps toward our destiny.  In such moments, ironically, it is our evolutionary instinct for survival that may actually be killing us.  Jesus said it like this, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

We, as individuals, churches, institutions, communities, countries, a planet, are meant to be so much more than single grains.  We are meant to bear much fruit.  We are meant to grow and evolve beyond what we have been.  For Jesus himself, this meant pursuing a vision of the kingdom of God as a spiritual community that was multi-national and multi-ethnic.  Even though he was a faithful Jew, he realized that God’s activity in the world was bigger than Judaism and the special interests of his own nation.  We take it for granted today that God’s “got the whole world in [God’s] hands,” but that was still a relatively new idea in Jesus’ day.  It got him and the early Christians in a lot of trouble.  Some, like Jesus, even paid for that vision with their lives.

Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He didn’t say all Jews, Presbyterians, Protestants, Americans, or Christians.  Jesus said all people.  This meshes pretty well with what we heard earlier today in our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah talked about his vision of a new covenant that God would make with people.  He said, speaking in God’s name, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  Jeremiah said that, under this new covenant, we will all know the Lord and the essence of the Bible will not be carved in stone or printed in books but written on our hearts.  Whose hearts?  The hearts of all people, from the least to the greatest, for we will all know the Lord.  Christians have believed for thousands of years that this new covenant is exactly what Jesus came to accomplish.  This theme also appears in Psalm 87, which we read from this morning as well.  That poem describes how all kinds of foreign nations, like Egypt, Babylon, and Ethiopia will one day be counted as citizens of Zion and included among God’s people.  You could say, based on these prophetic visions, that the kingdom of God is meant to be an all-inclusive trip.

So, this is why I think, as I mentioned earlier, that there is another way to be Christian in this world.  We are not obligated to sell out to narrow, one-sided interpretations of our religion.  There is room in this church for everyone.  Whoever you are and however you are hearing this today, I want you to know there is room in this church for you.

I think there’s also a challenge for all of us in Jesus’ words.  I think it’s worth continually asking ourselves whether our “hour has come.”  Are we currently, in our personal or collective lives, at a point where, in order for evolution to happen, we need to let go of our evolutionary instinct for survival and takes risks?  Back in Jesus’ day, it was a moment for reaching out beyond one’s ethnic and national identity to grab hold of a religious vision for a spiritual community that was open to Greeks as well as Jews.  During the millennia since then, the Christian church has continued to wrestle with other issues.  We have worked to build a church where people of different races are welcome to worship side by side as equal partners.  We have opened our doors to acknowledge members of other churches and denominations as friends in Christ.  We have opened our pulpits for women to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.  Each of these developments involved a certain amount of risk in its day, and there were those along the way who resisted, often citing Scripture to justify their fear, but I think we can all agree that each leap of faith was one more positive step in the direction of evolution and we are a richer church today for having taken those steps.

What challenges are we now facing as a church?  Once again, we’ve fallen on hard times.  It’s true that church attendance in this country is not what it used to be.  Many churches are tightening their belts and trying to do the best they can with shrinking financial resources.  A lot of folks are worried for our future and our survival.  They think we should circle the wagons and batten the hatches.  Some think mission and service projects should take second place to institutional survival.  Some have shut their ears to new ideas or new interpretations of ancient truths.

There are two particular areas where I think the hour has come for us as Christians in this generation.  In these two areas, I believe we are being called to open our hearts, minds, and doors just as Jesus opened his to those Greek foreigners who came looking for him in Jerusalem.

The first is one you’ve heard me mention before and will hear me mention again.  I don’t mind admitting that I am personally passionate about this issue.  I’m talking of course about the full-inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the life of our church.  Last year, the Presbyterian Church voted to open the doors for these folks to be ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons in our denomination.  This summer, our General Assembly will decide whether or not these same people are allowed to get married in our churches.  I think this issue, in particular, holds a key to growing our little congregation here in Boonville.  For lack of a better term, I think we have a niche market here.  There are plenty of churches in Boonville who have bigger budgets and flashier programs than we do, but there are not very many who share our convictions about the full and equal inclusion of people of all sexual orientations.  Believe it or not, there is a gay community in our neck of the woods and there are people in it who are longing to find a spiritual home where they know they will be fully loved and accepted for who they are.

The second area where I think our hour has come is in our relationship toward people of other religions or no religion at all.  We live in a society of unparalleled diversity and interconnection.  Our neighbors aren’t just Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish anymore.  They’re Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Taoist, and Muslim.  We have the opportunity to learn and grow by listening to one another and casting our neighbors in a positive light.

For the last ten years, we’ve struggled with a particularly strong bout of Islamophobia in this country.  The fear and anger generated in the wake of 9/11 has spread beyond the fanatics of Al Qaida and tainted our perception of all Muslims.  We need to unstop our ears to the voice of progressive Muslim clerics like Feisal Abdul Rauf of Cordoba House (aka the Ground Zero Mosque) in New York.  Leaders like him are calling for peace among their own people and opening the doors to dialogue, respect, and learning.  When we hear the Muslim call to prayer from the minarets, let’s respond by adding our Christian ‘Amen’ to their ‘Allahu Akbar.’

The way to fuller and greater life for ourselves, our church, and our country does not lie in circling the wagons and battening the hatches.  We need to realize that the hour has come for us to take risks and reach out in the name and Spirit of Jesus, who has promised to draw all people to himself in the all-inclusive kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

Get Loud

Getting loud... Sue Sylvester knows what I'm talking about.

Earlier this week, I posted an article on Facebook about a Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni, a couple who was denied membership at Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in eastern Kentucky because they are an interracial couple.

You can read the article by clicking here.

In the comments, my new friend Jaime asked, “What can I do, how can I have a positive impact as a Christian against this type of hate and bigotry?”  I started sketching my thoughts and decided to post them in my blog, rather than on Facebook.

What can we do?  That’s the big question.  What gets to me at this time each year is the constant, self-righteous whining about “keeping ‘Christ’ in ‘Christmas'”.  If there’s anything that’s going to make Christ mad enough to flip over some tables, I’m guessing it’s probably going to be the above article, rather than ‘Happy Holidays’.  I also seem to remember that the most famous example of Jesus getting THAT angry took place in a house of worship.

I don’t have the answer to that question.  Whoever does will be the next Martin Luther.  All I’ve got right now are a few ideas that I’ve been trying to work out in my life.  I’ll share them here.  If anyone finds them helpful, please feel free to steal them.  Again: no answers, just ideas.

1. Honesty.  I want to own the truth about how racist/sexist/homophobic I really am.  It seems like everybody likes to start these discussions with the phrase: “I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic but…”.  But the cold, hard fact is that, half a century after Martin Luther King, I still live in a country where 85% of the people on death row are African American, women make 75 cents for every dollar a man makes, and the suicide rate among LGBT youth is twice that of their peers.  It’s like we’ve settled into this pattern where it’s okay to BE racist/sexist/homophobic as long as I don’t SAY I am.  As a privileged white, male, heterosexual Christian, I’m thinking it’s time for me to sit with the prophet Isaiah and confess, “Woe is me!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet I am encountering the face of reality!”

2. Proximity.  Our culture has sped up the amount and rate of information exchange to the point where it’s all becoming a big blur that goes by while we stay isolated behind ‘screens’ (kind of like I’m doing right now).  We don’t actually have to face each other or get close to one another anymore.  We can just blast them in anonymous comments on YouTube.  We end up saying things we would never say in the real world.  I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that political dialogue became so extremely polarized in the same decade that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter emerged?  How many members of Westboro Baptist Church have openly gay friends/family?  How many members of the church in the above article have close friends of another race?  Speaking for myself, the point when I started questioning my homophobia came when I realized that some people I love are gay.  I care a whole lot more about sexism now that I have a daughter.  And so on…

It’s hard to hate (or ignore) a group when people you love are part of it.

3. Education.  I am woefully ignorant about issues of inequality and established injustice.  I find that most folks are.  It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve become aware of the difference between personal prejudice and systemic oppression.  Most folks seem to think that racism/sexism/homophobia has to do with their personal feelings.  Cornel West and bell hooks have been most enlightening in helping me recognize that one can have friends of another race and still be racist.  I have a lot more to learn if dismantling injustice really matters to me.

4. Simplicity.  The flip-side of the need for education is our need to keep the message clear to those who are not educated.  The Right seems to claim a monopoly on ‘common sense’, folksy wisdom, and ‘family values’.  We tend to show up with charts and figures of trends and projections.  All of that is super-important because we need the facts to support what we’re saying, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people eventually get lost and check out of the conversation before we’ve even made our point.  We’ve got to find some way to keep it clear, simple, and short.

5. Volume.  I was recently listening to Dan Savage talk about how frustrated he gets when liberal Christians come up to him and whisper, “Psst!  We’re not all homophobic.”  Dan said how he wants to tell them to stop whispering that to him and start shouting it to Pat Robertson.  Progressive types (especially progressive Christians) are so eager to appear different from the screaming Bible-thumpers, we hardly raise our voices at all.  We sit quietly in our churches and don’t bother anyone else… ever.  Well, what if people need to be bothered?  To paraphrase Gustavo Gutierrez: Silence is a vote in favor of oppression.  Being “liberal” or progressive does not equal “politically correct”.  I need to get up off my fat butt, get over my fear of offending someone, get out there where people are suffering, and GET LOUD.

Those are my ideas.  Who is with me?