American Conservative Evangelicalism: Woe To You, You Blind Guides…

Disclaimer: Before I say anything, I need to be clear that nothing here reflects my work as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and specifically Aldersgate United Methodist Church where I am currently appointed. This is a reflection on my own experience and my own personal opinion. It is my story. Also, I want to be clear that as I condemn Conservative Evangelical Christianity, I also recognize that there are a great many evangelical Christians who are good, honest, faithful people, who are grappling with these issues as I am. But some hard words need to be said, and they need to be said, because I believe that there are Evangelicals out there gripped in the same snares that trapped me many years ago who need to know that their inner stirrings are not wrong. Also, there may be some crude language here in which some might offense. I chose these words carefully, and these are times when I believe bold language is warranted. If it offends you, I challenge you not to be as offended by these words as the content they describe. With all that in mind…

OBJ_T_014…I’m angry. Like really angry. When I was a senior in high school, I found Jesus. It was a true kind of spiritual awakening. Something real happened in me that I cannot deny, and it dramatically altered the trajectory of my life. I felt a kind of wholeness for which my soul longed.

The only context I knew, however, in which to live out this new found faith was the conservative evangelical world of the early 90s. Things were different then. There was no social media where religious ideas were wantonly traded, and in order to find out anything about a church or religious community you physically had to go there. The front door of a church was its literal front door, not a website or social media feed. Because of this, religious communities were far more insular and isolated. And, so, not growing up in the church, all I knew was what had been exposed to me, which was Conservative Evangelical Christianity.

When I went to college at the University of Minnesota someone from the church in which I was involved got me connected to the conservative evangelical organization Campus Crusade for Christ (known today as “Cru”, I believe). I was a new and passionate Christian, deeply desiring to grow in my faith. I got hooked into their weekly gathering, a men’s Bible study, and I was given a mentor (or “discipler” as I recall we called it).

When it boiled down to it, everything was about being a good Christian- a true, solid, Bible-believing, faithful, unashamed Christian. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In a very real way I still strive for that today. But there was one problem. Well, actually there were lots of problems, but there was one big problem in particular: Pretty much all we ever talked about was sex and sexuality. The mark of one’s faith became mostly about the degree to which one was “pure”. Did you masturbate this week? Did you make out with your girlfriend last weekend? Did you have impure thoughts about that classmate this morning? Did you masturbate this week? Might your roommate be gay? If so, can you find a new one? Have you watched any R-rated movies with nudity recently? Did you masturbate this week? On and on it went. Everything was about “purity”.

As I grew in my involvement in this world, I realized it wasn’t just this organization that had this obsession. Circles of Evangelical Christianity across the nation had a similar obsession. Women were forced to be overly aware of how they dressed, so as not to “tempt” the men. Men were forced to be overly obsessed with their thoughts, so as to “take our thoughts captive”. The world was one giant cesspool of sexuality out to hijack our souls if we weren’t careful. The devil lurked around the corner at every party, at every club downtown, at every movie, in every empty dorm room, and in the back seat of every car, and sex was his game. Be alert, be shrewd- or be corrupted.

I didn’t realize it then but this created a high amount of intense anxiety in me.

First, I grew up in a home and context where acceptance of broad sexual identities and gender orientations were the norm. As I came to Evangelical Christianity, it was made clear to me that the Bible “clearly condemned” this, but I didn’t understand why, and there were a lot of other parts of the Bible I was interested in too… like those four books about Jesus, for example. I struggled with accepting, embracing, and even later becoming an ambassador of sorts for LGBTQ exclusion. I had a deep wrestling with this, about which I could not talk to anyone because this was the litmus test of one’s faith. I was literally told, “if you want to know if someone actually believes the Bible or not, just ask them for their opinions on homosexuality. If they think it’s okay, they don’t believe the Bible”. This wrestling began in me in 1990, and I wasn’t truly free from it until 2012. That’s 22 years (half of my life and the vast majority of my Christianity) of secretly wondering if I really was a Christian or not.

Second, I struggled with the idea that as “the man”, I was called to be the spiritual head of my relationship with my girlfriend. She actually seemed to have a deeper and more pure faith than me, especially since I was usually the one subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) sending signals that I wanted to make out. Did I really have to be the “spiritual head”? What does that even mean? Can’t we just make out from time to time, go to movies, hang with friends, and one day get married? “No, Paul, you must lead her in purity, and in order to do so you must be pure. If you cannot, you may need to consider breaking up.” Not only was my faith in question, but so too was the love of my life. I was tormented.

Third, growing up in a progressive home, politically I was brought up on hard DFL values. But all of this obsession with sex and sexuality in the Conservative Evangelical Christian context was connected to the GOP, the party of “family values”. The family- that is, one man and one woman, with 2.5 straight kids, going to church every Sunday family- was the foundation of any healthy community. If we mess with that, we mess the very fabric of our culture. Because of this, part of this “purity” factor was voting Republican, something I had never done. To vote otherwise spoke to a compromised faith.

As allegations of affairs and sexual harassment involving President Clinton came to the fore, the pressure to support Republican candidates intensified. Among the words used to describe President Clinton were “disgusting”, “filthy”, an “abomination to family values”, and even “evil”. We recognized that ss Christians we were called to love, but it was actually ok to hate Bill Clinton. And this was all before the news regarding Monica Lewinsky broke. Once that report was published (and let’s be honest, what Bill Clinton did is one of the, if not the, greatest abuses of power and sexual harassment we have ever seen), the deal was sealed: Any God-fearing, Bible-believing Christian could not vote for a democrat because it was the party of sexual deviancy and therefore the party that would bring God’s judgement on America.

When I say this bred anxiety in me, I don’t say it lightly. The combination of the obsession with my sex life and thought patterns, coupled with a pressure to vote a certain way because of this sexual moral ethic, left me worried every day of my life about whether I was saved or not- whether I was a true Christian or not. I loved Jesus (and still do), but the fact that I voted for Bill Clinton twice (as well as other democrats in other races, like Paul Wellstone), coupled with my inability to resist even wanting to make out with my girlfriend (and soon to be wife), tripled with my quiet belief that gay people might actually be able to have healthy relationships, families and sexual ethics left me quietly isolated and afraid that my “impurities” defiled not only my body, but my mind, heart, soul and subsequently my faith as well. In short, I was tormented.

Yes, Bill Clinton was gross. I couldn’t deny that, and, quite honestly, I still don’t. And Conservative Evangelical Christianity stood in solidarity with Republican politicians who were the party of “family values” and “purity”. And because of this, they were the party of Christianity (so I was taught). Sexual purity in all its forms- including standing against sexual harassment at the highest levels- was the calling card of the Republican party.

Here’s what I’ve discovered over the last decade, but particularly in the last 18 months: It’s all bullshit. It’s total and utter bullshit, steeped in lies and deception at the lowest levels. There are many beautiful and wonderful Conservative Evangelicals out there, who are authentically trying to find there way through this world just as I am, but as a whole, the overwhelming support for Donald Trump, and now Roy Moore, by the Conservative Evangelical Church exposes what we’ve always known to be true, but didn’t have the smoking gun point to: It’s all bullshit, and they are frauds.

The Conservative Evangelical Church does not care about “purity” and “family values”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that they do care about, but it seems to be money and patriarchy more than anything else, and the overwhelming support for Trump and Moore by evangelicals exposes it. As I’m writing this, Senator Al Franken is resigning his seat in the Senate because of sexual harassment allegations. And he should (I said it on day one of the allegations against him). But how can those who voted for Donald J. Trump, whose allegations are far worse and more wide spread than Franken’s, condemn the “disgusting” behavior of Al Franken and call him unfit for office without condemning the president they voted for as well?

Do you know how they can do this? Because they don’t care about sexual purity or ethics. They care about money, sex, power, and by that I mean, they care about having full access to all the money, sex, and power they can get their hands on. I said at the beginning of this diatribe that I’m angry, and I am. And many of you current and former Conservative Evangelicals should be too. We’ve been duped.

All that obsession and anxiety around “sexual purity” was for naught. After all I endured in this indoctrination in my twenties, I now have to tolerate the “Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief”? And I have to allow a man who is essentially a pedophile into the halls of the senate? And all the while Al Franken isn’t for for office? So I’m angry.

I’m not angry because I need a political win for the left. When it comes down to it, my hope really isn’t any political party or system. I’m angry because your rhetoric still abounds today and is likely instilling in people the same kind of anxiety and inner torture I experienced so long ago. That’s why I’m angry.

I’m angry because I (and I’m sure countless others) listened to and embraced this bullshit rhetoric for years (for over a decade in my case), with ramifications on my relationships and mental health that I’m still working through today. You, Conservative Evangelical Christianity, are a fraud. When Franklin Graham (False Prophet In Chief, these days) tweeted “Never in my lifetime have we had a @POTUS willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like @realDonaldTrump…”, I was Gobsmacked. This president embodies nothing of the values into which you indoctrinated me and you know it. But what he does do is a great job of propping up your power and patriarchy, so you’re all in.

You can rationalize it away all you want, but that’s exactly what you told me not to do 20 years ago when I was wondering about multiple matters involving sex and sexuality: “Your rationalizing, Paul.” There’s no way out of this for you, Conservative Evangelicalism, except to condemn President Trump (and demand his resignation) and Judge Moore just as you did President Clinton 20 years ago and are doing today with Al Franken. You can’t have it both ways. I won’t let you. You took too much from me for too long. You won’t sell a cake to a gay couple in the name of “purity” and “sanctity”, but you’ll sell your soul to the Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief. It’s time the Church itself called you out.

Conservative Evangelical leaders, woe to you, you blind guides.

I Am A Roman Centurion

There is a lot of reason to wonder about the degree to which the western world is in the midst of a reformation these days. From the advent of new technology that has rocked the world to the subsequent various reimaginings of the faith, these are indeed interesting times. As a former cmacro-ground-warm-hd-1080P-wallpaperonservative evangelical, one of the beauties of these times is a serious and growing new expression of Christianity coming from former conservative evangelicals like myself.

Many of us have to come to see the many dire, dangerous, and deadly failings of our former religious identity, but within that we also have experiences from our past which are undeniably real- experiences not only connected to some kind of other being, but one expressly connected to the character of Jesus Christ, which has been, and continues to be, at the center of our religious experience and identity. By this I mean not merely the person of Jesus as described in the canonical gospels, but also (as a friend of mine once said) the more conceptual idea of “the jesus” that exists in religious expressions and humans throughout time and space.

All of that is to say that as we hang on to those very real experiences of “the jesus” in our lives, many of us also often come to startling crises of faith as we reimagine the wafer thin religious alignment of our pasts. I stumbled on one of those today. If you’re looking for a great ongoing conversation around these matters, check out The Liturgist Podcast. It’s beautiful. Today I was listening to one of their recent live recordings titled “God our Mother”.

Now let me clear: The idea of the sacred feminine is not new to me. I’ve been on a journey with this for about seven years now, and it was one of my exit points from conservative evangelicalism. But as I listened, Science Mike posed a question based off of some things Christina Cleveland had just outlined that troubled my soul and spirit in all the right and good ways: He asked, specifically for folk like him and I- that is, straight, white guys- “…how do we relate to a faith created by the marginalized when we are citizens of Rome and often its centurions?”

I’ve believed for over a decade about the ways in which America and the American Church are new Rome more so than a new Israel. And in that I viewed myself as one of the countercultural ragamuffin renegades standing in distinction from, if not resistance to, that power. But when Science Mike asked that question, I came to see that not only am I not what I thought I was, but that I was indeed nearly its opposite. I am not a resister to the oppressive Roman religious power, I am guardian of it. I am a centurion.

This is all very a much a mixed bag, but there is a way in which (or perhaps better stated many ways in which), as a straight, married, white, cis-gender, male, pastor I am a centurion of Rome, guarding its systems of power, expanding its imperial reach in society, and benefiting from its patriarchy. Though I may often preach equality, my language, practice, and polity often reflect a distinctly white, euro, male structure, even if not entirely obvious to me.

The question I sit in and wrestle with today is what now? Do I have the courage to lay down my privilege and let the “Black Madonna” repaint my faith? Am I willing to step into the words of Jesus and really let the last be first and the first be last by let new expressions, new metaphors, and new structures reshape my religious identity? Am I willing to let maleness and whiteness and straightness head to the back of the line? Am I ok with being corrected, rebuked, and minimized as I do so? Am I willing to be liberated from the comfortable shackles of 500 years of self-imposed patriarchal protestantism? If I’m honest: I don’t know.

Beneath the hard angled, stiff bricked and cemented structure in which I lead worship every Sunday lay a buried messy earth, silenced in over half a century of foundation. What secrets does she have? What liturgies of liberation abide in her? What songs of salvation have I muted that have not only marginalized those who don’t look nor identify as I do, but have also chained me in the comfortable shackles of power?

I am a Roman Centurion in need of liberation.

America: Home of the Afraid (Rev. 11/6/17)

Today, November 6, 2017, I sat down to write because I found myself so angry about the shooting and our culture’s response to it at 1st Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX yesterday that I had to do something. I went to my blog (which serves as more of an outlet for me than anything I actually expect people to read), and there it is: The piece I wrote after the Las Vegas shooting a month ago. I’ve already said it. No need to start over, except for one addition…

…Those of you coming at me saying “a good guy with a gun actually did stop the bad guy this time” are believing a lie. It’s a fallacy. Because, you see, the problem with that logic is that if the bad guy couldn’t get a gun in the first place, no one would be dead. So just another 26 beloved souls have been offered up on the altar of our gun addiction.

Something has to change. We have been willing to adjust our freedoms in seemingly infinite ways to make us more safe, yet we refuse to do anything when it comes to gun control. Congress, there is blood on your hands.

 

26e84572b77f4e866d6e9e183b59c610My heart aches. My soul weeps. My mind screams. My body is tired. Something has changed. This is not like a lot of things today where the world isn’t really that different, we’re just seeing things more because of social media and cable news. No, something has changed. We’ve heard it said over and over: Mass shootings are becoming the norm. And though there is a degree to which they have become normalized, when the images come across our screens, and we see the horror before our very eyes, we still weep. And we should.

But I’ll tell you what: I’m tired of weeping. I’m angry. I refuse to sit back and chalk this up to “the price of freedom”, as Bill O’Reilly and so many others are.  Since when are Americans quitters? I thought we were the home of the brave? But the prevailing sentiment seems to be that when mass shootings happen, we shake our heads in sorrow and then shrug our shoulders saying, “Welp. You can’t stop a madman.”

If you can’t stop a madman, then why have we been in a war on terror for 16 years? If you can’t stop a madman then why have so many women and men given life and limb to hunting them, finding them, and killing them? If we are the home of the brave, who stand tall in the idolatrous rhetoric of a “city on a hill”, then why is it so dark here now? Why are we so hopeless? Why are we quitting?

1449267674564.jpegAfter the San Bernadino shooting in 2015 the Daily News posted a headline that read, “God Isn’t Fixing This”. And they were 100% right. God isn’t fixing this. But we can. I thought America was the never-quit, always positive, beacon of hope in the world. Yet when it comes to gun violence, we’ve given up. We are, to use one of our President’s favorite words, “losers”.

You see, you cannot deny the United States is the deadliest developed nation in the world when it coms to gun violence. It’s data. It’s a fact. I’m sure there are alternative facts to the contrary out there, but let’s remember what alternative facts actually are: Lies. And so we then must look at what separates us from other nations who do not experience gun violence like we do.

According the gun lobby, I guess we’re just crazier. We just have too many madmen who cannot be stopped. Evidently there are no madmen in other parts of the world, because the gun lobby is convinced that no matter what we do, we can’t stop them, and they don’t seem to be killing en masse at the same rate in other countries as they are here. So other nations simply must not have these madmen.

61zuDrDlgiL._SX355_Or could the difference between us and other nations be that they have stricter and more meaningful gun laws? The fact that we are unwilling to even entertain this as a possibility is symptomatic of just how addicted to guns we are, and how much the gun is part of our national identity. Forget the eagle, just replace it with a AR-14. It’s who we are. And don’t come back at me with “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” rhetoric. The stats bare out that the more guns there are, the more deaths there are. Correlation, of course, does not necessarily equal causation, but to ignore the correlation is simply stupid.

So here’s what will happen: We will wait for the “facts of this case” to come out. Then the gun addicts will come up multiple arguments to show us how stricter gun laws would not have prevented this. Case closed. Meanwhile the narrative of increased mass shootings and gun deaths will continue to go untouched. “There’s just nothing we can do.” We quit. We lose. We’re losers. Madmen win. But let’s call them what they really are: The terrorists win. According to the gun lobby, the terrorists have won.

“Home of the brave”? If we were truly brave, and if we truly wanted to reduce the violence and death, we’d be willing to try just about anything to do it- especially things that seemed to have worked in other nations.

But we’re not. We don’t want to fix this. We just want to keep throwing out “thoughts and prayers” so we can blame God for it. We may be the land of the free, but in matters of gun violence, we are the home of the afraid. The time has already come for us to stop perverting the 2nd Amendment, and for us to have actual conversations and new legislation around gun control. To refuse to do so, is to quit.

Shame on us for quitting. Shame on us for being willing to lay down the lives of women and men to stop a madman in a cave across the sea, but not being willing to lay down our gun addiction to stop them here.

Why I “Stand” With Kaepernick #takeaknee

200It was about a year ago when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem and all hell broke loose. Here we are a year later, Kaepernick doesn’t have a job, and this is still a hot issue. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last year. I’ve been trying to assess what it’s all about and why it matters so much, and I’ve been trying to see both sides in the process.

I get why people are deeply offended by him taking a knee. There is something to be said for taking that moment at a sports gathering to remember things that matter more, not the least of which is showing some respect to the country in which we live and which really is a great place to live. I understand that the raising of the flag and the singing of the anthem means even more to those who’ve served in our military and particularly for those who’ve fought and are fighting in our wars. And I get that it’s hard for people for whom that means so much to watch others take a knee during it, effectively sitting out.

But with all that in mind, and having really listened to those points, I’m at a point where I’m with Kap. Everything we’re talking about when it comes to the National Anthem is symbolic. It is something that represents something else that’s real. The blood, sweat, tears and lives given in fighting in our military are real- very real- but the flag is a symbol. The song is a symbol. And I love symbols. As a pastor symbols play a massive role in much of what I do. And what I’ve said about religious symbols also applies to any symbol, and that is that while they are beautiful, they are also dangerous. When our relationship with the symbol becomes more important than human sitting (in Kap’s case literally kneeling) next to me, the symbol has begun to play too significant of a role in our life.

I believe the flag and the anthem have begun to play too significant of a role in our collective lives here in America. And what Kap did was expose it. Kap didn’t take a knee to disrespect soldiers. He took a knee because something in him said, “I just can’t stand up and give myself to a flag that has enslaved and murdered black bodies since its inception”. You see, what people of color have experienced in this country over the last few centuries is real. And though there have been many noble, good and great people who have fought for our freedom, what we white people need to start hearing and getting is that this freedom is one that people of color have (generally speaking) simply not experienced as we have.

The history on this is long, convoluted, and buried, but it’s there. Yet we’ve heard the voices of black America crying out for centuries, and in the last four years that voice has begun to cry out again in a particular way. Every time it cries, white American largely dismisses it. We pat black America on the back and say, “oh it’s ok, honey, it’s not as bad as you think”. No, friends, it’s not as good as we think. As we dismiss the cries for black lives, we not only dismiss the content, but we also critique the form, which effectively silences the cries. No matter how it is that black America cries out for justice, we tell them that their means are wrong, so therefore we don’t have to listen.

When I think about Kaepernick’s protest, I think it may just be perfect: First of all, why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag that, though it has given him some huge blessings in the success he’s had in the NFL, it has systematically marginalized his race? Furthermore why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag and sing a song to that flag whose 3rd verse reads “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”? The land of the free has slaves?

So Kap decided, “I can’t do it”. He was being honest to what is going on inside of him. To stand and sing would be a charade. I’ll be honest: There have been times in my not so distant pass where my soul has been troubled with enough doubt and sorrow that I could not stand and sing “Amazing Grace”. It would be dishonest. But as a pastor sometimes I need to do that, just as a soldier stands and sings no matter how she/he/they may feel. As far as I know, Colin Kaepernick is not a soldier. So he took a knee.

On top of all that, he did it discreetly. Certainly he knew the cameras would find him (you can only be so discreet on an NFL sideline), but he quietly took a knee on the sideline, and did not make a show of it himself. The media made it a show. And, yes, he probably knew that would happen and is part of the reason he did it, but still, he quietly knelt and chose not to sing. Not only that, he didn’t tell anyone else they shouldn’t sing. he prevented no one other than himself from honoring America, and he simply made a personal choice consistent with his thoughts, feelings, and experience.

In these ways, it’s a nearly perfect form of nonviolent protest: personal, authentic, legal, powerful, and clear.

And he’s gotten black-balled for it. Colin Kaepernick can’t find a job, primarily because he’s not that great of a football player, but also certainly because of his protest. Teams don’t want the distraction. That is a natural consequence of his actions in 2017 America. If he were at a Tom Brady level, he’d have a job. It would be worth the distraction. But what’s also true is if he hadn’t been true to himself and simply stood and sang, he’d also have a job. He’s good enough in a quarterback hungry league to have a job somewhere. (I, for one, would love to see him in purple and gold backing up Sam Bradford. After all, with our offensive line, we need a QB who can run.) But Kap doesn’t have a job. And he doesn’t because he called out America’s racism in a clear and powerful way.

It’s quite amazing. You can rape women, beat your kid, bet on dog fights, and incur numerous DUIs in the NFL and still have a job making millions. But you take a knee during the anthem, and you’re out. The symbol has become valued above and beyond the way we’re treating humans (and dogs). Our relationship to the symbol is out of whack, and Colin Kaepernick called it out.

He called out the god under whom America is one nation: and that god is the stars and stripes. The god we worship is the flag and the way we worship it is by singing The Star Spangled Banner. And Colin Kaepernick gets the credit for exposing our idolatry. It is exposed as idolatry not because we stand and sing, but because of how we respond to those who choose not to.

We have a nasty disgusting sin of enslavement and genocide in our nation’s system, and we need to get honest about it. Don’t deflect it. Don’t deny it. Start really letting in the cries of the oppressed in our midst. It’s there. I get why so many boo him, and if that’s you, you absolutely have the right to do that. I’m just asking you to really examine why you boo. And I’m sorry but I can’t stomach the “men and women gave their lives to protect our freedom” rhetoric. Imbedded in that statement is the notion that every military action this nation has taken has been one to defend our freedom. We’re fools if we think that’s true.

More often than not these days, what so many women and men have died defending is western imperialism. And that is not a critique of those who have fought and died in those actions, it is a critique of the women and men who sent them there to do it. It is a critique of those at the top who exploit soldiers’ loyalty and send them off to protect national interests in the veneer of “freedom”. This is not always the case, but it is enough that we cannot give military operations a free pass. Those soldiers need to be respected and remembered and taken care of, but not necessarily the causes for which they were forced and sent to fight.

All of that is to say, I stand (or rather kneel) with Colin Kaepernick. I hear the cries, I see the pain, and I don’t want to be party to it anymore. I have a ton yet to learn, and a lot of courage to muster to fight for equality in more than symbolic ways, but for now, when I enter that NFL stadium on Thursday, though Kap won’t be there, he should be, and so I will kneel for him. I’ll sit this one out for you, Kap. And if you ever don my beloved purple and gold, I’ll sit one out with you.

Our White Rubble

My heart is heavy today. Very heavy. As I said in worship yesterday, this all began for me when I was 8 or 9 and my mom wouldn’t let me watch The Dukes of Hazzard- not because of Daisy Duke’s “daisy dukes”- but because of the General Lee and its glorious roof. I didn’t get it. It came back to me in 1991 when the video of Rodney King being assaulted by police offers was released. I got it a little more, but not entirely. Then it seemed to disappear as it was buried in a period where black Americans were imprisoned at a rate never before seen in humanity. It came back to white America in 2014 with the murder Michael Brown, and since then we’ve been in an ugly, endless, futile struggle.

It seems that about every 6-12 months something happens that takes root in our news cycle and we find ourselves in these odd social media debates around race in America. It happened again this weekend. We had actual Nazi flags being flown alongside confederate ones, as wannabe-nazis and KKK members joined forces with torches to march for the preservation of the statue of a military leader who fought to preserve slavery . It’s kind of mind boggling when you think about it.

What this stuff doesn’t take long to lead to among we progressives is a social media pissing contest to see who is the most enlightened. And while we do that, the racists, white supremacists, nazis, and grand wizards celebrate with a can of Schlitz in one hand, and a torch in the other, while progressives eat their own.

I took the bait. So my heart is heavy.brick-white-wall-1468830718LdH

I’m a cis-gender, straight, white, male, Christian pastor. I’m trying to find my way through actually doing something about privilege, white supremacy, and equality. I’m
deeply concerned about the systemic racism that is alive and well in our world and which continues to marginalize and oppress people of color. And I’m trying to do what I can as a faith/community leader to move my sphere of influence to work for a better, more whole, and equal world. And here’s my confession:

I have no idea what I’m doing. But here’s what else: I don’t know if anyone does.

My heart is heavy because all we seem able to do is lash out on the Twitter and Facebook machines about how horrible it is. And it is. And while limousine liberals like myself duke it our for social media king-of-the-hill, nothing changes. It’s not getting better. And I think part of why it’s not getting better is that we seem to be more concerned with rhetoric than we do actual change. We want to hear white supremacy condemned, and we seem to be satisfied with that.

White supremacy needs to be condemned, but if we want actual change in our culture, we’re going to have to do a lot more than preach and post on social media. This is going to take hard work that goes to the soul of whiteness. We don’t get off the hook because we preached about it Sunday. We don’t get off the hook because we called out those who didn’t. We don’t get off the hook because a black friend liked or shared what we had to say. I don’t get off the hook for writing a blog. We’ve got hard work to do. We need to get into our respective white communities and start to have the hard conversations, rather than surrounding ourselves in our echo chambers that make us feel better ourselves. And we need to be supporting and resourcing one another along the way.

My heart is heavy, because here we are again, arguing it out with people we don’t know, most of whom probably want the same end, but rather than helping each other, we’re eat each other along the way. Meanwhile white America will continue dreaming, marginalized and oppressed people will still get harmed as they are buried more deeply in our white rubble, and the Nazis and white supremacists will continue to prop up a 300 year old system that protects their (and my) privilege and power. So my heart is heavy.

It’s very heavy today. The cycle seems endless. Unless those of us who truly do want equality stop tearing each other down, and start helping one another in the fight, we will lose. Or rather, people not like me will lose. Because that’s who always loses.

My Struggle with God and Gender Inclusive Language

Seven years ago I went through a an interview with the the Board of Ordained Ministry pictogram-884043_960_720for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Though it was a cakewalk compared to ordination or commissioning interviews (this was for licensure), it was the hardest interview of my life. I walked away uncertain as ever as to what was happening, and the church to which the Bishop intended to appoint me as Associate Pastor depended on a positive outcome. About a week later my District Superintendent Called me to let me know that I had been approved and all was well to move forward with the appointment. Except for one important note. He said that it would be important for me to make an aggressive and intentional effort at using “Inclusive Language”.

There was one problem: I didn’t know what exactly that meant. I thought it meant not preaching “turn or burn in eternal hell-fire”  kinds of theology, so I thought I was good. I asked if he could clarify for me, and he said, “Well, you speak and write about God as a male exclusively. You’ll want to learn to be more inclusive with your language.”

“Ohhhhh. Well, that makes more sense.”

Side note: There are a whole host of people entering into ministry who have never even heard the phrase “inclusive language”. There are many well intended people getting dinged in board of ordained ministry and district committee interviews for not being inclusive, while they are simply have never had anyone even introduce the idea. Often they need to be taught, not shamed. But that’s not what I want to get to here.

What I want to get to is the wild, spinning, uncertain, clunky, hard, wonderful, and beautiful journey I entered as I began to embrace this. You see, though my language did indeed describe God as exclusively male (104 male pronouns for God in a three page paper- yeah, I went back and counted), in no way did I actually believe that God is exclusively male. But you wouldn’t know it from my language. So I began this journey of having to learn a new language. It was difficult. Physically difficult. I had to restructure the way I formed sentences, I found myself using the passive voice a lot (which I didn’t like), and public speaking (something which had always been easy for me) became much more labored.

But something beautiful also happened. God got bigger. A lot bigger. Now that I was intentional about my language, I was also growing intentional about my imagination. I began to imagine God not only as Father, but also as Mother. I had no idea what I had been missing. God and the world began to break wide open for me, as did gender. I grew more intentional about finding women and girls to lead in various contexts, my views of sexuality both broadened and sharpened, my views on maleness and male privilege birthed, and even the scriptures began to become more alive for me. Within about a year (maybe less) I became not only a practitioner, but an advocate of inclusive language.

Except there’s one problem. Seven years later I find myself in a deep internal struggle with how inclusive language has been practiced (both by me and many in my context) and pushed. I believe what we call “gender inclusive language” is not we practice. What we’ve actually been practicing is gender exclusive language. We are not actually including gender when talking about God, but we are stripping gender from away God. The common theological sentiment is that “God has no gender”. While there is a way in which this is true, there is also a way in which this is false, and what I’ve come to realize is that the ramifications of this stripping away of gender are not merely theological and academic; they are also spiritual. I’ve begun to lose something deeply important in my spirituality- in the way I relate to God.

I had a minor crises of faith over the last week realizing that I’ve lost a sense of intimacy with God over the last seven years. A huge part of that has little to nothing to do with “inclusive language”, but there is also a big part of it that is directly connected to adopting what I will from here on out call “gender exclusive language”. God has indeed gotten bigger for me, and that is a good and beautiful thing, but as God has gotten bigger, God has also gotten unsmaller (yeah, spellcheck doesn’t like that one but I do). God has become distant, amorphous, intangible, even to a certain degree scary- not scary like “Imma squash you like a bug” scary, but scary like “first day of college with an intimidating prof” scary. There is a real sense of intimacy I’ve lost in my relationship with God.

Before I continue, let me clear about two things: When God was functionally and linguistically exclusively male for me, though I did have a certain intimacy, there was an deeper intimacy I was missing, by never imagining the feminine face of God. In no way do I want to go back to that. Not at all. Also, let me also recognize this: As a man who has never had any real physical, sexual, or emotional issues with a man- specifically a father- I hear why male imagery, and especially the father image, are ones to which some simply cannot move. I want to be sensitive to those cases, and confess that it’s something about which I simply know little to nothing.

But I do think we need to find a way to be truly gender inclusive. First of all, for those of us who have been actually practicing gender exclusive language, I think we need to think more seriously about releasing the gender-less God, and begin embracing what I once heard a pastor describe as a gender-full God. And this is a pretty simple theological move, really. Genesis 1:27 tells us that the very image of God is male and female: “God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them; male and female [God] created them.” The first and direct description that we get in the Bible of the image of God- of God’s likeness- is gendered. And for many this has been easy for centuries: “God has gender, so God’s a dude.” No. It says “male and female” not “male or female” (more on this in a minute). So let’s embrace the gender-full God.

Next we need to begin to get more active and bold about recognizing and naming the feminine face of God. This can’t be merely theological. It needs to be practical. Long before there is ever an image of God as father in the Scriptures there is one of a mother. I would argue that this image comes as early as in the Bible’s second verse: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). It is out of the waters of God’s womb
 that the universe is birthed. Later in the Scriptures (much later) Jesus is talking with a religious leader called Nicodemus and talks about the need for us to be “born from above” (or “born again”, if you like) and “born of the Spirit”. Beloved, God gives birth to things. I think it’s okay for us to call her our Mother. Let’s do this. Let’s do it a lot. God our Mother is far too buried in the depths of our linguistic practices. Let’s get her out.

So… for those of you who, like me, have had God as “he” and “father” engrained into you and in it you find great intimacy and connection to God (I get that, I really do), stop freaking out when we paraphrase Genesis 1 with things like “Male and female she created them” (more on this in a minute… wait for it.). And stop freaking out if I decide to shift the doxology to “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ Praise God all creatures here below/ Praise God above ye heavenly host/ Praise Mother, Son and Holy Ghost”. Open up your mind, open up your heart, and open up your ears to a God who is not like a mother, but God is our Mother. She gave birth to the universe, in her you were born from above, and it is from her breast that we are nursed to life and strength and vitality and a whole lot more.

But here’s the thing. Though we need to be sensitive to the ways in which intimacy with a male is a justifiably terrifying image for many, we need to find a way to also embrace the maleness of God. This is where it gets less theological and more personal for me, and where this all ties in to my minor crisis this week. There were a lot problems with my initial conversion to Christianity, but there was also a lot of beauty in it, not the least of which is that it was real and it stuck. Something real happened to me that I’ve tried throwing away and I can’t. A big part of my initial intimacy with this crazy God in whom I believe and have given my life and livelihood is the image of God as “Father”.

At my church we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount, and this week we started chapter six. This is the part where three times in an 18 verse span Jesus says “your father who sees in secret” (Mathew 6:4, 6 & 18). These verses haunted me this week. There is a lot at work here, but part of it is that these verses took me back to my early Christian days when God’s presence in my life was as close, as intimate, and as clear as the air I breathe. Maybe some of it was having a literal father who lived 1,000+ away most of life, but my birthing years as a Christian (though very motherly in that sense and many more) were also of me spending deeply intimate moment with the Father.

Oh sure, it’s all very “Field of Dreams”, but there’s a reason so many of us cry at that movie. Since I’ve practiced gender exclusive language I feel today like I walked away from my Father. I didn’t realize it until this week, but as these verses from the wanna-have-a-catch1Sermon on the Mount haunted me, I realized that part of the lack of intimacy with God in my life these days (can a pastor say that?) is due to stepping away from the image of God as Father. And, quite honestly, more than anything right now, I just wanna have a catch. I miss it. While there is a part of me that has grown in beautiful ways in my relationship with God since become more aware of the ways I gender God, there is also a vital piece of my spirituality that is dying because of the practice that has come out of this awareness.

In all of this I realized that while we need to be careful and sensitive with gendered images for God, we also need to be careful not to abandon them all together, and, perhaps more importantly, not demand that others do. God is, in a very real way, gendered, and when we strip God of gender, I think we take something essential from God. There is a way in which God surpasses gender- that God is something wholly other- but there is also a way in which God is right here giving us birth, nurturing us, feeding us, and having a catch with us. And in this God functions with us in whatever tangible, intimate, and human ways give each of us life. To lose this is to lose a necessary intimacy with God that gives our faith a certain and essential honesty.

The problem I find we run into is this issue with those darn pronouns, isn’t it? Our English pronouns are limited to be either specifically gendered or gender neutral. So the tendency to be inclusive is to go neutral (which we can only do in the plural), but this brings us right back to functionally (if not intentionally) stripping us of a gender-full God.

I want to offer two solutions. One, why can’t we just mix up the pronouns? Let’s not go maniacal and start doing word counts on our sermon manuscripts to make sure there’s perfect equity, but let’s mix it up. I’ll be honest, after sever years of avoiding pronouns, I’m starving for one; not just because it offers more linguistic opportunity, but I find pronouns (though admittedly limiting) are more intimate than saying “God” 18 million times and using terms I’ve never been able to embrace like “Godself” (I know it works for some, but I’ve tried it on and it just doesn’t fit for me). But we have to actually mix it up. We must embrace a gender-full, and not a gender-specific nor genderless God.

My other solution I’ve only come to since my views on sexuality and gender identity have broadened. God is gender-full, and I am beginning to wonder if God is in this sense  genderqueer. “Female and male” God created us to reflect the likeness and image of God. God is not exclusively male, nor is God exclusively female. God is gender-full perhaps in the most full and beautiful way possible. We are born out her womb and also nestle up into his breast (John 1:18). What if we embraced a genderqueer God? That is, a God who is not genderless but truly full of gender? This is, after all, a bigger and broader God than one entirely stripped of Gender.

And what if the pronoun is, as many genderqueer people prefer, “they”. What does Genesis even say but “let US make humankind in OUR image”. Why, then didn’t the writers of Genesis follow this with “So God created humankind in their image, in the image of God they created them; male and female they created them.” Yes, it may sound polytheistic, but it does so no more than “let us make humankind in our image” and I haven’t seen anyone challenge that. “They” is admittedly gender neutral in some senses, but in a genderqueer context, it seems to me that it is more gender-full than neutral.

All of this is to say this: Let’s not rob ourselves of a certain kind of intimacy with God by stripping Them of gender. Let’s also be graceful and generous with one another in our language about God, but also let’s allow ourselves to push each other by broadening and stretching, not restricting, our language about, to, and with God. Let’s break the mold wide open and give this wild, crazy, beautiful God the kind of intimate moments that we have with one another: Moments of laughter, and tears, and anger, and fear, and comfort, and struggle, and love, and peace, and home.

I love God my Father. And I love God my Mother. And I want them both. I need them both. As someone who grew up in a home where mom and dad did not get along and could no longer stay together, I guess maybe I need a God where male and female are inseparably held together in a beautifully queer and life-giving way.

Help me out with this one. I think we need to talk about it more. I think we all need some pushing and stretching in this. Let’s not lock ourselves in. Let’s ride the crazy ride of exploring this endless, beautiful God.

Peace, friends.

Pep Rally or Game Plan?

IMG_8391Last week was the Annual Conference of the Minnesota United Methodist Church. It’s our big gathering. Our clergy and lay members gather in St. Cloud, MN to reflect on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re headed. It’s a fun and fruitful time, but also an exhausting and exasperating time (at least for me). What I fear, however, is that what our Annual Conference has become (or is becoming) is a mere pep rally when it should be a locker room talk.

It’s like this: My daughter’s fast pitch softball team really struggles, and that’s okay. What I find amusing, however, is often we’re in a game and losing by as much as a dozen or more, and they chime in with one of these cheers that seem to be what the bench does in softball. It’s a call and repeat cheer that goes something like this: “Janey is her number (repeat). 7 is her name (repeat). Even though we’re mixed up (repeat). We’re gonna win this game (repeat).” Then everyone goes on in unison chanting, “Hey don’t be a fool. Somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one having fun in the sun…”. A few of us parents chuckle every time, because while calling out this cheer, they are down by double digits and have won one game all season. They’re not gonna win this game. And they’re far from number one.

As our Bishop mentioned this year, the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is the fastest declining conference in the nation two years running, yet sometimes I felt like we’re cheering within that truth, “…somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one…”. While we need encouragement, and need some atta-girls and atta-boys, I felt very strongly this year that we were getting a game plan in the locker room, but we were treating it like a pep rally in the gym.

Our key note speaker was Rev. Junius Dotson who is the Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, and his talk reminded us of what this is all about- of in fact what being a United Methodist is all about. It’s about discipleship. He said that if we can’t connect to our “why”, then what we do will have little to no effect. He was talking a lot about our personal “why” (that is, our personal purpose in this world) but he was also talking about our communal “why”. As we look at our Conference and the churches that make it up, we must ask “why do we exist?” Well, if we’re United Methodists (which we claim to be), then no matter what your church’s mission/vision/values are, the answer to that question is easy: We are here- that is my church and your church exist- to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s it. That’s our collective, communal “why”.

The trick is that there’s another why beyond that. Everybody wants to have a positive impact on transforming this world. The way I like to phrase it is restoring shalom to the world or working for wholeness in the world. The “why” within this is, “why do we need to be disciples of Jesus Christ in order to transform the world?” To put it another way “to what degree do we believe that being a disciple of Jesus Christ actually does that?” Do we believe it at all? As Junius Dotson indicates in his short video at seeallthepeople.org, are we merely trying to “fix” our churches? Or are we working to partner with the Holy Spirit in transforming the world?

 

 

If we are going to be who we say we are- which is United Methodists- then we must trust that being a disciple of Jesus Christ can actually transform the world. And I don’t mean this some God-awful imperial way with sword and spear. I mean this in an actual Jesus way with basin and towel. This does not make us the saviors of the world, but it does mean that we believe that when we give our lives to the ways and rhythms of Jesus, that we believe that our own personal worlds (that is, our hearts, souls, minds, and even bodies) can be transformed; that our local worlds (that is, our homes, neighborhoods, cities and communities) can be transformed; and that (as redundant as it sounds) our global world can be transformed.

The “why” of the Church for United Methodists is the transformation of the world by being disciples of Jesus who go a make disciples of Jesus. But as one of the “TED Talk” speakers at Annual Conference said, “making disciples is hard work”. There is no quick fix to this. That’s why Jesus said in his most thorough and exhausting teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, “The Gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14, NRSV). [Side note: If there “few who find it” what might this say about churches that draw and woo the masses?] Being a disciple requires being disciplined in an intentional way of being or rule of life.

To put it another way, being a disciple of Jesus requires a method. It’s time we in Minnesota put the “method” back in Methodist. We don’t need anything new. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, or even come up with a whole new mode of transportation. The method has already been laid out for us, but you might have to crack open that 2016 edition, or even dig up an old dusty edition of the Book of Discipline (which perhaps we should rename the “Book of Discipleship”).

Go ahead do it: Listen the binding crack and smell those fresh thin pages. It’s not just there only to tell you about restrictions on property sales and how many people should be on Trustees. It’s actually got the whole game plan of discipleship outlined for us in paragraph 256.1, which also refers us back to the General Rules (we keep using that word- I do not think it means what we think it means) in paragraph 104. And when you’re done with that, give paragraphs 216-221 a good reading as well. This is our game plan, folks.

We don’t need to ask, “what’s your/our discipleship method?” We should be asking, “how are you structuring the discipleship method?” We already have the method! That’s why we’re Methodists! It’s laid out for us in the Book of Discipline, but beyond that there is Disciples-Making-Disciplesmore help in doing this. Go grab the “Developing an Intentional Discipleship System: A Guide for Congregations” at seeallthepeople.org, and perhaps work through this with your leadership team and staff. Also consider ordering the three part series of books recently released, the first of which is written by Minnesota’s own Rev. Steve Manskar called Disciples Making Disciples. The others in this hat-trick of resources help us in fanning this out to our children and youth (perhaps our biggest failure so far as conference), and are called Growing Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Children and Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Youth.

I challenge all of us Minnesota United Methodists (clergy and Lay Leaders and Lay Members to the Annual Conference) to read these books over the next year, and then maybe the planners of our 2018 Annual Conference could find some space for us to talk about what we’re learning from them, and, more importantly, what we’re doing about them. This is our game plan. We’re not number one, nor are we even number two. And the point, of course, isn’t winning (by no means), but that statistic should give us great pause. It should cause us to look at our game plan pretty closely. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of pep rallies. I want to get back into the playbook and make sure I understand and begin to run the game plan.

We have work to do, friends- hard work. Let’s be honest about that. This is hard work. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t Tweet well (I’ve tried). It’s not a quick fix. It takes immense focus and discipline. But it’s beautiful work. It has the power to change lives, change our communities, and change our world, and even enliven our very own souls as we lead our congregations in it.

It is in fact why we have a “people called methodists” at all. Let’s put the method back in Methodist.

Let It Break

Collapsed potThere’s a lot I don’t know. When I was in my 30s I didn’t think there was a lot I didn’t know, but as I’ve moved into my 40s I’ve become acutely aware of just how much I don’t know. But at the same time, I have been distracted lately but something that seems clear to me, and something we simply must come to grips with:

The United Methodist Church is not united (alert the media). The more we say that, the more we let that in, the better at this point. There are some really well intended, smart, wise, sacrificial people working really hard to find a way forward for us to avoid a schism, but the reality is that one already exists. And as much as I have liked to blame this division on the challenges of the cultural differences that exist in a global denomination, I think I’m beginning to see that this schism isn’t merely global. It’s local, it’s national, it’s not defined by geographical boundaries. On one side we have a movement seeking inclusion and equality with the LGBTQ+ community, and on the other side we have a movement trying to preserve our Book of Discipline’s exclusionary stance on such matters. As for me, I will continue to do what I can to battle for inclusion, but at the same time, I think we also need to come to grips with the idea that a split may actually be what’s best for us. The rift within the body may be too great. But more so, why are we so afraid of splitting?

A split is not failure. Splits have been the story of Christianity from the beginning. Prophets have been working for and calling for reform since the beginning. From a Christian perspective, reform began with a radical movement working for increased justice in a system that needed it. As with Luther and Wesley, Jesus had no plans on “splitting” from Judaism, and nor did he or his disciples ever do that. They loved their faith, but they also wanted to see some reform within it. Eventually the reform they sought led to a whole new kind of faith expression. The same was true of Luther and the same was true of Wesley.  But what ended up happening? Splits. It’s seems to be the natural course of things. So why are we so afraid of it? Denominational splits are only failure to the degree that The Reformation was a failure.

That is not to say that we should seek out splits or be quick to split. Part of what has made past movements so powerful is their leaders’ commitment to seek reform before split. There is no virtue in quickly grabbing our ball going home. But at some point you have to come to grips with the reality that it is time to go home. We can no longer play nice anymore, and the best thing for both of us is to split. I am reminded of a roommate situation my sophomore year in college. An old high school friend and I decided to room together. At first it was fun, but then it started not going so well. We got to a point where for the sake of the friendship I moved out. We’re still friends today. At some point you have to stop denying that something’s not working.

When the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church brought the election of Bishop Oliveto to the Judicial Council as an invalid election because she is a professing Lesbian, rather than waiting for the Commission on the Way Forward to do its work, the degree of our division was exposed. It’s time to split. But why are we so resistant to it? Since when is the Church afraid of broken things? We are in the business of broken things. A broken body is our M.O. It is out of broken things that God brings new and beautiful life. So I say, beloved, let it break.

Yes, there are massive administrative complications, not the least of which are property and pension. And I don’t want to minimize these, as they have very real and felt consequences. The challenges in an institution this large cannot be dismissed nor denied, but at the same time, how can we preach the Gospels and at the same time let institutional complexities drive us? When we worry about who will retain assets in a split, I cannot help but hear Jesus saying “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And when we fight to stay in a destructive relationship for the sake of pension, I cannot help but hear Jesus telling a rich young man that if he wants to follow him he should sell and everything he has, give it to the poor and then come follow him, to which the text tells us “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). If the complications of property and pension keep us from leaving our comforts and systems to follow Jesus, then when these texts come up in our lectionaries we owe to it to our congregations to say “this doesn’t apply to us.”

All of this is to say I think it’s time we got honest about a split. A denominational split, whether it’s into two things or splintered into many, is not failure. It may in fact be the way of God through space and time. The Biblical narrative is rich with stories of the organizing structures of God’s people coming to places of fracture, and more often than not, beautiful things come out of it. And of course the ultimate example is the literal breaking of the body of Christ. The very body of Jesus was broken- split- and why? For us: “This is my body broken for you…” It seemed like failure at the time. It seemed like it was all over. But on the third day something so glorious and beautiful rose from the brokenness that Jesus’ followers didn’t even recognize it.

Might it be so too with the United Methodist Church? Breaking may seem like failure, but perhaps it is only to the degree that the cross was a failure. What if we simply name the divide that is already here, and just let it break? There will be a hard, hard, “three days” to follow it, but I believe that on that “third day”, something will rise out of it that is so beautiful and glorious that I might not even recognize it… but I sure do want to be a part of it. Yes, Jesus prayed “that they may all be one”, but he did so on the precipice of breaking his body. Is it possible that we might be more “one” in breaking than in trying to stay together? So I say, let’s let it break.

This is not to say that God planned this (or any other) division. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about God in my life, it’s that God works with the clay at hand. And sometimes the clay becomes so brittle that it needs some water, and then needs to be picked up, thumped on the wheel, and then reshaped- sometimes into separate pieces. I wonder if all too often we apply Biblical metaphors to our personal formation and not enough to our communal formation. God may be saying that it’s to time to form something new here, but, unlike clay, we are a living organism with agency. We need to let God reshape us. It’s hard, yes, and there will need to be some grieving, but there is also incredible opportunity. This may be it for the United Methodist Church as we know it, but it’s not the end of God, God’s people, and God’s good Earth.

So let’s let it break. Let’s stop trying to hide in the safety of the wombs of our systems, and let’s move toward the new life to which God may just be leading us.

Evangelicalism at Iliff School of Theology (Wait… What?)

IMG_8059The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. In 2012 I wrote a piece I called My Journey to No, which was my way of not only publicly opposing the Minnesota marriage amendment to ban same sex marriage, but it was also my way of publicly announcing my theological shift in regards to the humans I had previously whittled down to the “issue” of homosexuality. That is, I had moved from someone who bought and taught conservative evangelical theology on “matters of human sexuality” to someone who believes in a more generous Gospel of Christ, and believes that not only should LGBTQ people be accepted fully into the fold of Christianity and humanity, but also should be called to be our leaders, teachers, and mentors in and of the faith. It is statements like this that I know often upset my evangelical sisters and brothers, but the truth is we cannot hold a generous Gospel in one hand, while holding a charge against Bishop Oliveto in the other.

Nearly five years after writing My Journey to No, last Wednesday I found myself in the Iliff School of Theology chapel in a near full-on heave cry as I was led in one of the most powerful worship experiences of my life. Bishop Karen Oliveto was scheduled to preach, even though she had just returned home from hearings in New Jersey regarding whether her election to the Episcopacy last year was valid simply because she is a publicly professing lesbian. I can’t imagine the painful words she had to endure in those hearings…

…Oh wait, yes I can imagine those words, because for the first 15-20 years of my Christianity I believed those words, I said those words, and (and here is where I really cringe) I taught those words to teenagers. You see, I was an evangelical. That meant that I had a responsibility to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, which when it came to LGBTQ people meant “you’re an abomination, but I can help you.” We can spin it all we want, but that essentially was our “good news”.

As soon as I saw Bishop Oliveto walk in I felt tears well up. The worship experience was beautifully crafted and led mostly by Iliff’s LGBTQ community and included great music, including a powerful acoustic rendition of “Blessed Assurance”, as well as some other beautiful choruses and original pieces. But in all the beauty, something wasn’t right in me. I couldn’t figure out what. My soul was aching as though it was waiting to crack open and unleash something. What was this about? I’ve been through this. I’ve come to terms with my evangelical past and have since worked to be an ally (not always well, but I’m learning). What was happening? Why was my soul so unsettled.

The coup de gras for my aching soul came when a fellow Iliff classmate read a poem they wrote for this occasion. It cannot be described, nor can it be merely read. This was true poetry: It needs to be experienced. Take six minutes and give it a listen/viewing (yes it’s a six minute poem, and it needs to be, and it’s beautiful):

As the recitation went on, I found myself beginning to mildly convulse as I tried to hold back the tears that were beginning to pour out from my soul like a spring of abundant life. I didn’t want the drama of my soul to distract from the beauty being breathed into the Iiliff Chapel air.

The poem finished and I was torn open in all the good ways. This unveiling of my soul felt like what I imagine the tearing open of the veil of the Holy of Holies to be. Something was exposed. Then it hit me. How many students have I silenced? How many teenagers sat in my youth rooms desperately needing a safe space to be, express, and live into who they are, and I silenced them? I know there’s grace, and I know I’ve changed, and I even know that in those days, my motives, though misguided, were not to cause harm. But I did. My intentions do not change the fact that I silenced. As students gathered for confirmations and baptisms, I put white robes on them to homogenize them when perhaps all they wanted or even needed was to live into their unique, colorful, fully alive, and not always normative selves.

My soul laid bare, I collected myself, as Bishop Oliveto began to preach. I can’t tell you what an honor it was to be in that space with her and other dear friends, most relatively new but one I’ve known for well over half my life- one whose story is intimately and inseparably tied to mine. In Bishop Oliveto you could see that the pain was real and deep, but more so, it was not the final word. Resurrection will have the final word. Resurrection will precede the final punctuation mark of her story. And mine. And yours. Hope began to swirl in the air with the grace of gentle but felt summer breeze. The kind that messes up your neat and tidy picnic table.

And then another classmate of mine for whom I have great admiration sang a song he wrote for Bishop Oliveto. The poem broke open my aching soul, and this song became a healing balm for it, not closing it back up, but leaving it laid bare and vulnerable and free: “I’m made in the image love…” poured into the air like an aspirated baptism drowning me in grace and healing with every breath. Listen to it. All of it:

I walked out of this worship experience with an undeniably felt experience of the very Spirit of God. She swam through that room with a kind of power and beauty that takes your breath away. In a time of such bad news in the life of LGBTQ United Methodists, hope, grace, and healing echoed off the walls of the Iliff Chapel that morning.

Bad news came later in the week. On Friday the UMC Judicial Council ruled by a 6-3 vote that Bishop Oliveto’s election to the episcopacy did violate church law. It was another crushing blow in the hope for inclusion in the United Methodist Church. But I did not leave hopeless. Still wet from the drenching of the Spirit in chapel on Wednesday, my soul rose in protest against this ruling. And isn’t that what worship is? A protest? Isn’t this thing we call worship- that is, the gathering of the community- intended to be a protest against the current condition of the world? A protest against bad news?

As the world spits out more bad news of hate, exclusion, destruction, and fear, the gathered community is intended to stand in opposition as a anthem of good news. The Greek word in the New Testament that translates to “good news” is εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion). It’s where we get our word “evangelical”. In this sense, at its most raw, evangelicalism is a protest against the bad news of the world. Because of this, the only word I can use to describe my experience in the Iliff Chapel on Wednesday is “evangelical”.

The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. It’s becoming a more common story, that of people leaving evangelicalism. But leaving that worship experience on Wednesday, I’m not so certain I left evangelicalism eight years ago. I may have just finally found it.

Re-Imagining Maundy Thursday

towel-and-basin-2When you don’t grow up in something, you tend to be more curious about whatever that something may be. Call it a blessing or a curse, but that’s how I am about church stuff. I didn’t grow up in church, which means that there is little that the church does that to me is unquestionably necessary, and because of that I’m constantly asking why, and I’m particularly prone to do so with what we call things (I love words). From a language standpoint there may be no stranger day in the Christian calendar than Maundy Thursday. Some churches ignore this strange word all together and simple call it “Holy Thursday”. Some churches ignore the whole day! But even if we’re not asking why is it called ‘Maundy’, we still should at least ask what this Thursday before Easter is all about.

First let’s get this out of the way: It’s not “Maunday Thursday”. It’s not like Jesus snuck in an 8th day of the week, although I don’t think Jesus would argue with singing “eight days a week I love you” to us. It’s Maundy Thursday, which is a strange word begging the question “what in the world does maundy mean”?

Before we dig into that, let’s look at what it has come to mean functionally for the Christian church. It’s become the descriptor of the Thursday before Easter, and it recalls the scene in John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples feet. This is where it gets confusing. You see, if you read the Gospels closely you’ll find that in John, the disciples gather prior to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, but what doesn’t happen is what we call the “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” (without getting mired in the details, the chronology gets messy). Isn’t it kind of amazing that the most central activity of the Christian Church through history (on par with baptism) does not happen in one of the Gospels? That aside, this gathering gets placed on “the night before the festival of the Passover”, so traditionally we think of it as what we now call Thursday. So we have this gathering on the Thursday before Easter and central to it is often Holy Communion (because that shows up in Matthew, Mark and Luke just prior to Jesus’ arrest), but in John we get the most awkward of all Christian practices: The foot washing.

In the midst of the meal, Jesus gets up and washes his disciples’ feet. This is a profound act of humility and service, and when he is done he says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14, NRSV). Later in the scene Jesus says what is known as the “new commandment”, which is, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35 NRSV).

Here’s where it all comes together. There are some big words (at least as I understand it- Jewish friends, please correct me if I’m off base here) when it comes to 1st Century Jewish people, which Jesus and his disciples were, by the way . Two of those words are “covenant” and “commandment”. Keep in mind that neither of these are meant to eradicated in Jesus, but are meant to be fulfilled and extended him, which is why the Christian Bible contains the “Old Testament”- or “Old Covenant”- as part of its sacred story. In Luke, Jesus mentions a “new covenant” (this is huge, but a whole other post). In John Jesus mentions a new commandment. There are the 10 commandments. Then there is the “greatest commandment” in the Gospels. And here, in the final hours of Jesus’ life he gives a “new commandment”. The Latin word for “commandment” ismandatum (see where this is going?). This scene in John 13 is (in our modern day western way of tracking days), in this sense, “Mandatum Thursday” or “Maundy Thursday”.

The heart of the day by virtue of its name is the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved us. The example that Jesus had just given to his disciples about what that love looks like was in washing their feet. It was in humbling himself in service to the other. I think one could take the back half of that new commandment and rephrase it to say, “by this everyone will know that you’re disciples: the degree to which you pick up the basin and the towel in love for one another.”

There is nothing wrong or bad about having another worship service during Holy Week on Thursday. There really isn’t. It can be a beautiful and powerful service, and though these Maundy Thursday services are too often viewed in relation to Holy Week how the NIT is to March Madness in college basketball, you should go if your community has one. You really should. It’s part of the Holy Week journey.

But I also wonder if there’s something we’re missing about this “Mandate” Thursday, about “Commandment Thursday”. I wonder if it’s a day when we shouldn’t “go to church” as much as be the church. I wonder if it’s a day when we maybe also shouldn’t go to work or school. After all this is the new commandment. That’s heavy stuff. Maybe this should be the day when the church, as it is spread across the globe, should grab the basin and towel and head out into the world in service to it. Maybe it should be the day that we remind ourselves of some of Jesus’ last words to us, and indeed his last commandment to us, and in this sense a reminder of what we’re all about. What if the church was all over the dirt of the earth, not ceremonially washing feet, but metaphorically doing so in service to the communities in which we live and which we are called to love?

In Matthew Jesus’ last words to us are what is known as the Great Commission, and the church often sees these words as our “marching orders” (so to speak). Those words are, in short, to “Go and make disciples…”. But in John Jesus tells us how “everyone will know that you are my disciples.” It’s not by gathering in a sanctuary or worship center and singing songs, hearing a sermon, and engaging in some kind of ceremony or ritual. It’s not by how much Bible we know, how often we go to church, and how many activities we engage in. No, everyone will know we are Jesus’ disciples by how much we love one another as exemplified by the degree to which we lay ourselves down in service to one another and the world- that is by the degree to which we are a people of the basin and the towel.

Have a blessed Maundy Thursday, everyone.