Learning to Live in the Tension

pcusa dividedI haven’t really blogged about what’s happening in the Presbyterian Church (USA) when it comes to changes in its ordination standards for a simple reason: I get paid by them.  I know people who are more conservative and opposed the change and liberals who supported it and I haven’t really wanted to offend folks or get people upset.

But I also know that most people just have to look at my Facebook page to know where I stand.  And that doesn’t change how I would work.  My job is to serve the whole church with love and grace, not just those who happen to agree with me.

That said, I would like to say one thing to those people and churches that are leaving or thinking about leaving.

I wish you would stay.

I wish you would stay because we need your witness in the larger church.

But I have a more important reason that I’d like you to stay: I want you to get to know gay folks like me; especially those us who happen to be or want to be pastors.

I know that’s uncomfortable.  I know that might even go against what you understand in the Bible.  I understand.  I know you take the Bible seriously and want to live a righteous life.  I also know that you already feel that you aren’t really welcomed in the PC(USA) as it is.  I think sometimes you have been treated poorly for your beliefs.  I don’t think my side has always treated you with love , let alone respect.

But I wish you would stay and be willing to be a bit uncomfortable.  That you would try to live in this changed environment and see what God might do.

Yeah, I know it’s hard.  I get that.  But I want you to remember this.  People like me, who are gay, well, we’ve had to live in the tension ourselves.  We’ve had to put up with laws and rules that we didn’t like.  Some of us got tired and left, but a lot of stayed even though it was uncomfortable.  We waited to see what God was going to do, what God is doing. And while I can’t speak for every gay person, I want to be a bit uncomfortable myself and get to know some you more.

I’m not under any illusions that you will change your mind.  But I do think if you got to know us, you’d learn that we love God as much as you do.  That we gay folks can take the Bible as seriously as you do.  It might be a different verse, but in a lot of cases, it’s the same song.  Maybe if we live together in that tension, we will learn to love and respect each other even when we don’t see eye to eye.  Maybe we can learn to do mission and ministry together instead of in our little silos.

I know that I’m not even Presbyterian.  But my own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, is having a big debate this summer.  I can imagine there will be a few people who will want to leave if the vote goes my way.  I want them to stay too and learn to be a bit uncomfortable for the sake of the kingdom.

You see, I think the Christian life is about living in tension.  We live in the now and the not yet.  We are saints and sinners.  And in honor of the late Will Campbell, we are bastards and loved by God.  The Christian life is kind of messy at times and doesn’t always make sense.  Sometimes things are clear, and sometimes things are a bit cloudy.  Maybe the Christian life isn’t always a birthday party, maybe sometimes it’s that uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner.  Either way, God is there and might just surprise you.

I tend to think that heaven is going to be a shock for all of us.  We’ll be thinking to ourselves “God let him in?”  Which means heaven might be a bit uncomfortable at first as we get used to God’s truly amazing grace.

So, we might as well start practicing now.


Ashes to Ashes…We All Fall Down.

Like many people, I’ve been rather surprised to hear that Oscar Pistorius has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend.

The South African athelete, who is a double amputee, is known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon fiber legs and his speed.  Pistorius was a symbol that persons with disabilities can achieve great feats, like being a world champion runner.  Yes, he was to use that tired cliche, an inspiration.  He helped put the Paralympics on the map, helping us to see it as a serious sporting event on par with its sister event, the Olympics.

I remember watching him run in the quarterfinals during the London Olympics.  He didn’t get farther than the quarterfinals, but even in that he was a winner.

So, it’s shocking to see him brought low, quite possibly by his own actions.

oscar-pistorius-running-in-the-olympicsWe’ve seen to have a run of sports figures who have been revealed to be human after all.  Besides Pistorius, there’s Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire…and I could go on.

It would be easy to look at all this with a sense of contempt.  We can look at sports figures or priests and shake a waging finger at them thinking we are glad we aren’t like them.

Except that we are.  More than we care to admit.

Ash Wednesday was this past week. This is the one day where we have to face not only our finitude, but the fact that all is not well with us.  No, I haven’t killed someone, or covered up child abuse or cheated on my partner or taken performance enhancing drugs. But more often than not, I have cut corners or looked the other way when someone was doing something that wasn’t right.  As the old pop song goes, I’m not that innocent.

Laurie Feille, the Senior Pastor at First Christian, preached from Luke 22 this past Wednesday.  It was an odd text to use since this tends to be passage we don’t hear until Holy Week.  But we heard the story of Peter’s denial and of the rooster crowing and something else, that of Jesus looking at Peter.  I’ve never given that much thought, but Jesus looks at Peter.  The fisherman couldn’t hide.  He was caught.

That sense of being found out is what seems so central to the time of Lent.  It’s not about beating ourselves up or saying we are no good, but it is about realizing how fallible we are, how we can be so good one moment, and beastly the next.

But maybe having Jesus look at us can also be freeing.  Maybe it can mean we don’t have to play games, pretending everything is okay when it isn’t.  Maybe we can reach out for help, instead thinking we can make it on our own.  Maybe it can mean laying down the burden of keep up appearances.

Amy Butler is the Senior Pastor or Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  (I was a member of the congregation in the mid 90s.)  She has this to say about Ash Wednesday at her urban congregation:

…our urban congregation spends an awful lot of energy trying to get those folks through the doors, to demonstrate in real and meaningful ways that the gospel — and sometimes even the church — has something of value to offer their lives. Attractive signage, convenient scheduling, witty sermon titles, easy parking, thoughtful worship, free child care — we do the best we can to pique the interest of someone, anyone, in the stream of people who walk or drive by our building every day.

Oddly, every year it’s Ash Wednesday when we welcome so many people whom we’ve never seen before. Out of all the days of the church year, it’s this day — the day we focus on our sin and humanity — that draws in the most strangers. Past the imposing steeple, in through unfamiliar doors, up the steep stairway and into the dimly lit sanctuary they come, seeking the imposition of ashes.

Every year when I see unfamiliar people wander in among the regulars, I wonder why we all seem to need Ash Wednesday so much. Why do we crave reflective moments to ponder our shortcomings?

Reminders of the ways in which we’ve failed are all around us every day; why seek them out? But people do.

I do. And I am coming to believe that we do because we all desperately need a place to stop for just a little while, to lay down the heavy burdens we carry, to be — if only for a moment — honest about who we are.

Because this busy world in which we live never seems to give us a break. Like the shiny church signs advertising only exciting, intellectually stimulating topics for worship, we get up every morning challenged to convince the world that we’re worth its time.

We’re smart and good, pretty and talented, witty and full of great ideas. We go to work every day wearing our titles like Boy Scout badges informing the world that we know what we’re doing. But secretly, we’re scared someone will find out that we really don’t.

I think about all of those fallen sports heroes.  It has to be hard to keep up a facade of perfection.  But then, it’s work to hide things from each other.  When Adam and Eve ate of the apple and realized they were naked, they had to spend time finding fig leaves.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are designed for us to face some hard truths about ourselves. It isn’t a happy time.  But even in this time of uncomfortable introspection, there is grace, as Butler notes.  Even in the midst of judgement, there is freedom.

No doubt I will follow what happens with Oscar Pistorius.  And I hope I will also look at myself and ask God for help, because I am more like Pistorius or Paterno or Armstrong than I care to admit.  Because we all fall down.

All of us.

Why We Don’t Really Want an Answer to the Question “Why God?”

John Stackhouse reflects on the shootings in Newtown:

The number one column on the New York Times website right now is Maureen Dowd’s “Why, God?” It features counsel on the problem of evil, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, from a priest friend of hers, Rev. Kevin O’Neil.

Amid his admirably kind, gentle, and humble remarks on the evils of our time, and every time, is this key admission: “I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them…”

I wonder if our lack of substantive engagement with the problem of evil is due to our tacit realization, which perhaps Brother O’Neil recognizes, that if we did ask God a serious question about why the shooting happened—or why, now, two separate innocents have been pushed in front of NYC subway trains—God might return to us a serious answer:

Don’t look at me.

I didn’t replace a horrible system of dungeon-like mental health hospitals with the opposite disaster of ‘mainstreaming’ clearly deranged people into the general population. I didn’t release people in obvious need of high-quality treatment into the care of incompetent or even abusive relatives or friends, nor did I grossly underfund the attempts of decent caregivers to cope with the vast problems they heroically undertook.

I didn’t spread 300 million guns—yes, just think about that number for a moment, if you dare—throughout American society, with such lax laws that all sorts of people (and I do mean ALL sorts of people) could get their hands on them.

I didn’t decide not to pay for adequate policing, security screening, emergency training and equipment, and other means by which such nightmares could be reduced.

I had literally nothing to do with Newtown, or those poor victims in the New York subway. So why ask me?

Read the whole thing. No matter your views in the wake of these shootings, you will not leave this post feeling all good and righteous inside. Which is the whole point.

God Doesn’t Love the One Percent.

I have a mixed relationship with Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1.  On the one hand it is a wonderful message of justice; that the lowly in life will be vindicated and remembered by God.  I love singing the song A Canticle of the Turning by Rory Cooney.

But the text also is bothersome to me.  It’s take on the rich and powerful is not one of charity; instead it is a hard justice-one where the rich are sent away empty and the powerful are made low.  God of grace and love it isn’t.

David Neff writes in Christianity Today that he wished modern hymnody would not try to blunt the message that Mary sings.  He notes:

As a worship musician who tries to fine-tune what we sing with the Scriptures we read, I have felt frustrated by the way musicians blunt the Magnificat’s protest against the 1 percent (to borrow Occupy language). Take Dudley-Smith’s otherwise excellent “Tell Out, My Soul” as an example. Five years younger than his Cambridge friend John Stott, Dudley-Smith was part of the circle that renewed English evangelical hymnody midcentury. But in “Tell Out, My Soul,” he focused on the first half of Mary’s poetic parallelism that contrasted the powerful with the humble and neglected the second half that counterpoised God’s treatment of the hungry with the rich. Talbot and Cooney commit the same sin of omission….Now, we know that pride and stubbornness are not the exclusive province of the rich. If the Holy Spirit had wanted to talk about these vicious habits of the heart, he would have inspired Mary along those lines only. But he didn’t, fingering the rich along with the powerful.

Neff frames this in modern garb talking about how the Magnificat was a blunt criticism of the one percent to borrow language from the Occupy Movement and I guess I understand that, but the song seems at times so graceless.  There is not distinction between those who might be wealthy but are also caring of the poor.  Nothing is ever said of leaders who are benevolent instead of hurtful.  The rich and powerful are all just lumped into one catagory and soundly condemned.

Which brings to mind the nature of God.  I grew up with a view of God that was one of both love and justice; a God that loved people, but wasn’t afraid to punish as well.  As I got older, I was told that God wasn’t a vengeful God, but instead this wonderful God of grace that sits besides us and cries with us.  People seem to believe in that God, but there always seem to be a big astrisk beside the God is love thing, because the Magnificat is asking for a God that will execute justice and Mary doesn’t want God to show any mercy.

So is God all love with us, or does God also judge and send people to punishment?

Neff’s article brought up another point: who is rich?  In his article he basically says it’s the one percent.  But…I wonder, what about those of us who aren’t in the one percent but make a decent salary and have all the nice shiny things like a flatscreen tv, laptops, iPads and smartphones?  Is there danger there as well, or am I off the hook?

And what about the powerful?  It’s easy to talk about Roman despots, but what about someone like say, a pastor?  Are we off the hook or is God gonna get me if I stumble.

The Magnificat is a wonderful text, but I think it should have more than just the one percent shaking in their books and being driven to the mercy of God.  Maybe the Magnificat reminds us that God is a just God and will set things right and if any of us, be it the one percent or someone in the middle class like me, abuse the poor and powerless- well, facing God is never pretty.

Update: Via Blue-Eyed Ennis, here’s a sermon that might explain things.  Here’s a snippet:

Listen carefully to the words of the Magnificate. Not the poetry of the words, the beauty of the words, the loveliness of the words. Listen to the five important verbs. In the Magnificate, God tells us that God regards or respects the poor, exalts the poor, feeds the poor, helps the poor, remembers the poor. In that same chapter in Luke, we hear the story that God chose a slave girl, Mary, to be the mother of Jesus. God didn’t chose the beauty queen of Ballard; God didn’t chose a mother who was a millionaire; God didn’t chose a bride with brains. God chose a little thirteen year old girl from a fourth world country, with dark skin and dark brown eyes and dark brown hair to be the mother of Jesus. The Bible didn’t call her a handmaiden. The word, “handmaiden,” sounds so pretty. The Greek word is, “doulos,” which means slave or servant. Mary was a servant girl.  God exalted a servant girl from a fourth world country to be exalted and lifted up. And this servant girl sang her song and it is called the Song of Mary. The actual words of her song are revolutionary. The Song of Mary is a revolutionary bombshell because it turns the values of this world upside down.

In the Magnificate, God totally changes the values of life. We have agreed that this is what a revolution is: it totally changes things such as the computer or the cotton gin. In Christian language, before the revolution, we were impressed with the rich. After God’s revolution, we are impressed with the poor. Before God’s revolution, we are impressed with bucks and beauty.  After God’s revolution, we are impressed with paupers and poor people. The Magnificate is revolutionary stuff. Don’t get caught up in the poetry. Don’t get caught up in the music. Don’t get caught up in creative interpretations that allow you to water down or dismiss the Magnificate. Let the revolution begin in your life, and mine. This is God’s revolution in our hearts. God’s value is to respect the poor, exalt the poor, feed the poor…within our hearts and actions.

Update II: Peter Leinart tears apart our beloved Christmas hymns and yes, it has something to do with the Magnificat.  Merry Christmas!

You Really Don’t Want a Wild Jesus. Trust Me.


Anarchism, to me, amounts to an expectation of miracles: political, economic, sociological, psychological and spiritual miracles. It isn’t the way the world normally works. I believe in miracles and I love the idea of them, but scripture and church history suggest to me that we are not to replace our daily duties of shalom-making with hopes that God will specially intervene to do all the tough stuff for us. Instead, I think we’re supposed to garden – and gardening, as we all know, means getting your hands dirty, doing the best with what you’ve got, doing violence to pests, dealing realistically with the constraints and opportunities of the situation and taking the long view – with hope of a good harvest to share.

So says Canadian theologian John Stackhouse in an article to Christian anarchists wanting to be “like Jesus.”  Even though I’m not an anarchist, I loved reading this article because it’s nice to read something for once that talked about being a Christian in a world of mortgages, messy houses and long commutes.  Here was a writing talking about discipleship in the Monday-Friday world.

If there’s something that I’ve grown tired of is the whole trend in American Christianity to be “radical.”  We don’t want some meek and mild Jesus; no sir.  We want a Jesus who is kicking ass and takin’ names like he did in the Temple when he threw out the money changers.  We want a radical Jesus and we want to be just like him; radical and taking no prisoners.

There is so much wrong with this.  Let’s start with the most obvious problem.  I am not Jesus and neither are you.  Yes, Jesus was tough on the proud, but, how I can put this gently?  Jesus was God, we are not.  His overturning the tables was as much about judgement as it was Jesus being pissed.  The second problem is that I don’t think people know what they are asking for.  You want a wild and crazy Jesus?  Yeah, it’s nice when that Jesus is going after those folks who you don’t happen to like, but what happens when he comes and looks at you and your shortcomings?  What about your compromises to consumerism, your stinginess in giving to help the poor?

Yeah, it’s not so funny when it’s your applecart getting overturned by the Son of God.

The thing is, this desire to be like Jesus, to be “radical” is a fools errand.  Yes, we should be Christ-like, but know that you, I , all of us are going to fall short.  We can’t approach the holiness of Jesus because, well, last I checked, I can’t turn water into wine and I haven’t rose from the dead.

Which is why I like Stackhouse’s essay with his emphasis on seeing the Christian life more like gardening than a revolution.  I’m not a great gardener, but I do try as the Minnesota winters move into spring.  I like planting flowers and looking for the right soil to keep my plants healthy and beautiful.  I like watering them and trying to get rid of all the weeds that could choke the life out of the flowers.  Gardening is an art, it’s hit and miss.  Not every Christian is called to be a rebel.  Some of us are simply called to do the best we can with what we have.  We are called to cultivate, to be faithful disciples that tends to our friends, neighbors and community with the light of Christ.  I work with Jesus, when he’s not overturning tables, as together we plant and weed and feed.

The wild Jesus comes and judges us.  We face a test where there is no winner.  But Jesus also comes as the gardener who prunes and waters us; giving us grace.

Fear of a Fundamentalist Planet

So quick, what is a Progressive Christian?
I can come up with two answers.

First, we are a bunch of Democrats who like to go to church and talk about God.

Second, we are NOT evangelicals/fundamentalists.

One of my favorite site to visit is Patheos.  I tend to read from three channels: Progressive Christian, Evangelical and Catholic.  It’s interesting to not how varied the Evangelical and Catholic sites are.  I don’t agree with everything on their blogs, but they do leave me thinking.

When it comes to the Progressive Christian site, however, I never feel as challenged.  Most (but thankfully, not all) of the bloggers seem to be not talking about the Christian life as much as being glad they aren’t fundies.  Bloggers like Nadia Bolz-Webber, Bruce Reyes Chow and Steve Knight tend to write things that tend to be a little more thoughtful and a lot less strident and I am thankful for that.  But most of the bloggers tend to be defined by being against conservative politics and fundamentalist Christians.  What I don’t hear from many is talk about who God is, or what the Church is all about.

Another progressive blogger, Frederick Schmidt wrote a provacative column a few weeks back about how Progressives talk about God.  Riffing off a challenge by Tony Jones, he lists various reasons why we have a hard time talking about God.  His final reason is probably the most important:

Hidden behind the other dynamics that have made us reluctant to speak in a direct fashion about God is something more amorphous, but infinitely more powerful: the Progressive fear of being thought of as fundamentalist. Listen for any time at all to Progressives talk about their faith and you will learn far more about what we don’t “believe in” than you will learn about what we do believe: We don’t believe in being bigoted. We don’t believe in being homophobic. We don’t believe in creationist assumptions about the origins of the universe. We don’t believe in literalist readings of Scripture.

It’s not surprising then, to find that we are reticent to claim that we can or have heard God speak. It’s one more thing “those crazy, ignorant fundamentalists do.” So we certainly don’t do it.

None of this is surprising, of course. The label, “Progressive,” screams “not-fundamentalist” and implicitly makes the really rather silly historical claim that we became progressive thanks to a faith that—if it weren’t for our generation’s synergy of faith and learning—would continue to be narrow, repressive, and worst of all, fundamentalist. Frankly, I find the label self-important and a complete misreading of history which—without Christianity’s influence (not fundamentalism, just garden variety orthodoxy)—would not be marked by the characteristics we have supposedly “discovered.” Read, for example, Marcello Pera’s book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. But because we are hell-bent on making sure that no one thinks we are fundamentalist, we have jettisoned the notion that God speaks—wreathing it round with false humility and skeptical reserve.

It’s interesting to note how some of the folks I hang with tend to make fun of folks who talk about God.  They go into some fake Southern accent and start talking about “Jeeeesus.”  On one level it is funny, but scratch deeper and one wonders.  I mean okay, so you don’t like their take on faith.  But what is your faith?  Can you talk about it?  And if not, why?

I think that instead of running away from the label of Christian, progressives should be embracing it unapologetically.  To talk about God, to state that you are a Christian doesn’t have to mean that you have to be a fundamentalist.

The funny thing is we progressives have a heritage that thought deeply about what it meant to be Christian in the world and they weren’t afraid to be Christians.  We have a heritage of theologians like the Neibhurs and Paul Tillich and Karl Barth that is both progressive and orthodox and yet we have jettisoned it for some that is far more shallow.

If Progressive Christianity is to thrive then it needs to develop a theology, an understanding of God.  We need to be able to define ourselves not by what we are not, but by who we are as children of God.

Being not-fundamentalists is not enough.  It’s time to be Christians.

God Is…

Tony Jones has offered a challenge to liberal Christian bloggers.  He has rightly sensed that progressive Christians have trouble talking about God.  They can talk till one’s ear falls off when it comes to politics, but God?  Not so much.  Here’s what he said:

I’ve been writing recently about the problems with liberalChristianity, and I had a thought this morning. It was prompted by a recent phone conversation I had with the managing editor of a major publishing house, combined with my faithful listening to the Theology Nerd Throwdown podcast, and the silliness of all the hand-wringing about Chik-fil-A.

These have prompted me to think that progressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.

You might say the same thing about conservative Protestants (i.e., “evangelicals”). But the thing is, their people pretty much know what they think of God. It’s well-known and on the record.

Progressive/liberal/mainline theology, on the other hand, has a PR problem. We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t.

I think he’s right.  But instead of talking about the PR problem of liberal Christianity, I’ve decided to take up Tony’s challenge- if for no other reason but that it’s good to think about what we believe about God and be able to articulate that belief.  I did talk a little bit about God from an autistic perspective the other day, but I want to expand on that. So here it goes.

I believe in God, the Creator.  I don’t believe that the creation accounts in Genesis are actually science, let alone history.  But I do believe that God created the earth and all that is in it.  Starting with Genesis 1, we see a God that creates, the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, animals and plants and insects.  Because God created all that is in the world, it means that everything has been touched by God- intended for a purpose: to give glory to God.

I believe in God, the Father (and/or Mother).  God isn’t someone that is distant from creation, but is deeply in relationship with it, especially humans, those that bear the image of God.  God is in relationship with Adam and Eve, a relationship that becomes strained with the Fall.  God keeps being in realationship with humanity even though God’s heart is broken over and over again.  God chooses to be in relationship with Abraham and promises to make him a great nation- one that God will be in relation with in the hope of being in a healed relationship with the whole world.

I know that some people have issues with God as Parent.  I can understand that.  Then we can talk of God as a Lover of what have you.  The point of this is that God is a relational God, one that longs to be with us even when we don’t want to be with God.

I believe in God as Spirit.  In Genesis 2, God breathes into Adam giving him life.  The Hebrew word for breath, ruach, also means spirit.  One of my professors in seminary, Lee Snook, used to say that God’s Spirit is present everywhere.  Where God is not, you are not, because it is the Spirit that gives life.  This also means that God is present everywhere in all of creation: in the face of the poor, the thief, the good and the bad.  God is present even where evil seems to reign, because this is God’s world and evil won’t have the last word even when it think it does.

I could say a lot more, but I think I will leave it at that.  I’d love to hear what other people have to say about God.