Author: Belgian Friar

About Belgian Friar

Paul is currently the Pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in St. Louis Park, MN, where he and his wife live and are doing their best to live in the Way of Jesus with their three children. Paul boldly affirms Ferris Bueller's admonition that "life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and slow down once in a while, you might miss it." You can follow Paul on Twitter for a weird mix of tweets about sports, the church, faith, current events and sometimes all out nonsense by searching @belgianfriar.

A Crooked Line

There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek source my source for some definitive
The close I am to fine
-Emily Saliers

When I came to faith I was taught to live on the straight and narrow. I suppose that’s good advice since Jesus did say that. But what did he mean? Well, in the context in which I came to faith it was simple: Stay away from sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I don’t think that’s what he meant, nor do I want to attempt to break down what he meant here. I IMG_2068write today because while on a literal straight and narrow last week, I was confronted with that pesky “crooked line” Emily Sailers is talking about.

The irony of it all is that it took me several hours on a very long, very straight, and at times very narrow road to rediscover the idea that there are many answers to our questions that frustratingly point us in a crooked line. The last eight months have been hard on me personally. There is no single thing or person at fault, and if there is someone to blame, I suppose it’s me. Things kind of came to a head a couple weeks ago, and I found myself utterly exhausted. Thankfully, I am privileged enough that my life allowed me to take a week, shut it all off and hit the road.

So on a Sunday after church, with bags and bike packed, I did just that. I headed out on a quest for an answer to my exhaustion: South to IMG_2109through Iowa, on into Missouri, through Kansas City, and a stop for the night in the bustling town of Junction City, KS. Then I got up in the morning, spent most of the day traversing through Kansas, dipped into Oklahoma, teased the Texas border, nicked the southeastern corner of Colorado, and then crossed into New Mexico en route to see a good and wise friend in Albuquerque. All I had known about Albuquerque until then was that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s business started there and that Bugs Bunny was supposed to take a right there. The road West through Kansas was among the straightest and narrowest I’ve ever driven, and it was on that straight and narrow that I rediscovered the importance of the crooked line.

You see, the straight and narrow is actually too easy. It dictates your every move. It’s certain and predictable, you can “see for miles and miles and miles” (quoting yet another great song), you barely need to think, and Lord have mercy is it ever boring. This is not life. It’s maybe the life we sometimes feel like we want, so we can just set the cruise and mostly tune out, but this is not life. Just look to the round about way of liberation the Israelites took. Life is uncertain, unclear, dangerous, and crooked.

I went on a quest this week, hoping to find some answer to whatever it was that’s been weighing down my soul. I didn’t find an answer. Or maybe I found a bunch. Here’s what
I found:

Days One and Two:
I need to listen to the Indigo Girls more. Amy and Emily make great traveling companions. And when it comes to music that speaks to my spiritual self, they may be my first love. But for my own physical well being, it’s important that I sing along to Amy’s part, not Emily’s.

Day ThrIMG_2084ee: Friends who honor and love your deepest self, warts and all, are vitally important. I am blessed to have many of them. And it’s especially great when those friends also get baseball like you do. Thanks for taking me in, Skip, Susan, and Teo. You took in all of me: My body as well as my heart, mind, and soul. Go Isotopes.

Day Four: The crooked line- that is, the unpredictable and annoying one- calls you to things, and calls things out of you, that you didn’t know were there. You can plan toIMG_2086 ride up to Sandia Crest, but it turns out that this day that side of the mountain was just 65 degrees and buried in clouds. So you go back to the other side (a mere 25 miles away) where it’s 90 and sunny and you hike up the other side instead. 9.7 miles, 2,900 feet, and an infinite sea of thoughts later, and you see that the unpredictability of the crooked line is where life is.

Day Five: 75 and sunny on the other side of the mountain today. So 4,000 feet up to IMG_2113Sandia Crest, I went, completing the most challenging climb of my life. But it wouldn’t be the most challenging part of my day. That came later, sitting on Skip and Susan’s patio allowing them to speak into my life. It’s hard. It’s scary. But you need to find those people. Let people you trust speak into your life. Let them in, way in. You need them.

Days 6 & 7: The road is your friend. It forces you to cut everything off and be presentIMG_2122 to you. Don’t default to the quick and easy fix. You can’t take off on road trips like this whenever you’re stressed, but you can find practices that slow yourself and force you to come present to your whole self: The joy and the pain that coexist within you, that when you allow them to work together, point you in a crooked line. Also, Trevor is good at brewing beer. If you’re ever near Indianola, IA, head to the Zoo Bar and give one of the Into Brews a taste. Without the road, I wouldn’t have gotten there. Jesus turned water into wine. His disciples turn water into beer.

An answer? There is no real answer, I guess. Just maybe, hey, stop trying to crush the earth around you by excavating a straight and narrow path, and slow down and come present to yourself. The world is wild these days. It is- as I often preach- anxious, uncertain, and tired. And in it we all have a black hole’s worth of questions, hoping that somewhere we’ll find the answer. But there’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing you in a crooked line.

Screen Shot 2019-08-18 at 11.50.20 AM


45 Seconds of Stillness on the Pino Trail
(I stopped here for several minutes hiking the Pino Trail near Albuquerque. The video’s not great, but it captures a little bit of the song of stillness the mountains were playing for me.)

About that Pledge

22552327_10213956779215697_8586333183831858625_nI don’t know exactly how long it’s been, but it’s been about at least a decade since I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance. It was when my son was checking out Boy Scouts (it didn’t take) and of course one of the first things you do there is recite the pledge. That’s fine. Makes sense. So we stood up, I started those words, and suddenly I was massively uncomfortable. Something came over me that started within me. The truth is that I don’t pledge allegiance to our flag nor to the republic for which it stands. This may sound overly pious or “high and mighty”, but as a Christian, my allegiance is to a whole other kingdom, one not from this world. To say those words felt idolatrous to me at that moment, and at least since then, I have not spoken those words. It’s like there is a block in me to get them out. My soul won’t allow it.

I want to be clear. This is a choice for me. I’m not comfortable saying it, so I don’t. I never told my son he shouldn’t, nor have I ever prevented anyone else from saying it, and I’m fine if other Christians want to say it, but with one exception: As a pastor, I will not allow it in worship. But when the scouts hold an Eagle Scout ceremony in our sanctuary, go right ahead. There’s really nothing wrong with it on its face (other than the “under God” addition. The first amendment has something to say about that).

So when my town’s city council voted to remove the pledge from the opening of their meetings as a matter of inclusion, I applauded. I felt uncomfortable with its recitation at the one City Council meeting I’ve been to. However, I also thought it might not be a good PR move, especially doing so at a meeting where the Mayor was absent, and that proved to be correct beyond any measure than I think any of us thought possible. But I affirmed their decision because when I am in a situation where we are called to recite the pledge as a group, I feel massively uncomfortable. There simply is an implicit pressure (and sometimes even explicit pressure) to participate. Quite honestly, feeling pressure to recite the Pledge of Allegiance feels to me like an infringement on my religious freedom. It literally goes against my understanding and practice of Christian spirituality.

If you follow the local news, you know this thing blew up. Way up. Fox News picked up on it and ate it up like a juicy steak, which led to the president seeing it and tweeting out false statements that the pledge is “under siege” in St. Louis Park, MN. This led to a national campaign against St. Louis Park wherein anything the city posted on their Facebook page was inundated with comments about the pledge, some of which were outright vile and even violent. Our city council members were flooded with phone calls and emails, many of them threatening and violent, from people across the country, which impeded their work to actually run our city. And it didn’t take long for people to realize that St. Louis Park is in Ilhan Omar’s district, so racist and xenophobic calls for her removal and deportation rang out as speculation ran rampant that this was all her fault.

As this went on for weeks, the city was left with no choice. Their work had been hijacked by a conservative circus, and in order to get them and their big top out of town and out of their way so that they could get back to work, they voted unanimously last night to reinstate the pledge. I didn’t like it, but the more I heard from council members, the more it made sense. And lest you think they “caved”, watch their statements during last night’s meeting. Let’s just say they had words for our visitors. Here is just a little example from my Council Member, Margaret Rog:

“You visitors from Coon Rapids, Lakeville, Orono, Rochester, wherever you’re from. Y’all ought to take your energy for civic engagement to your own communities… I fully expect this conversation with will happen on our own terms and in our own time, but for now to protect the safety and productivity of our staff and community, and to refuse to be played like a pawn in a bully’s game any longer, I am in support of council member Miller’s recommendation.”

All of this leads me to two points:

One: This was never about the pledge. The pledge itself is being used as a pawn in this political game. These people are not concerned about generalized patriotism and “liberty and justice” for all. They are concerned about protecting the man who they think will protect their power and privilege in our culture. This was a campaign rally. Protestors flooded our town with “Trump Forever” signs, anti Ilhan Omar signs, and after the council voted to reinstate the pledge what did they do? They chanted “Trump 2020!” as they exited City Hall. It was disgusting.

For those of you who are truly patriotic, who genuinely love this country to the degree that you believe that it’s ok for us to have political disagreements, who believe it really is ok that I don’t say the pledge and vote on another side of the ticket, and who truly believe in free thought and speech and religion, know this: These “defenders of the pledge” weren’t defending the pledge. They were using it to prop up their candidate of choice in 2020. The perverted your pledge. They manipulated it for political purposes. And embedded in those purposes is (though not exclusively) racism and xenophobia. And in that sense, they defamed it. Don’t be fooled. They used your Pledge of Allegiance to link love of country with love of Trump. And if we are honest, I think we should be appalled by such a perversion of something that we claim is for all Americans.

Two: Part of the narrative that was spun in this is that the Pledge of Allegiance was under siege and being banned in St. Louis Park. People claimed that by the City Council not reciting it as a group before meetings they were being denied their right to say it. This is the kind of false equivalency on which our political climate thrives. Both sides eat this strategy up. The vote to remove it prevented no one from saying it, as evidenced by those who did say it at last night’s meeting.

The analogy I use here is prayer before a football game. If a coach calls a team together to pray, there is an implicit expectation that all do it. It’s a team event. But if it’s not led by or called upon by the coach, but a few players want to pray together before the game, then they have the freedom to do so (or they at least should). I believe this was the heart behind the City Council’s original vote. But by making it no longer an official “team” event, it got spun into it being “banned”, and that was simply not true.

Conversely, however, many of the pledge protestors repeatedly said, “no one’s forcing you to say it. If you don’t want to, then don’t say it.” While this may be legally true, it is patently false in practice. All I need to do here is ask, “how did that work for Collin Kaepernick and the national anthem?” Don’t tell me you’re ok with me sitting out. You’re not and you will make that abundantly clear.

But that’s what I’m doing from here on out. Sitting it out. Over the last decade when I was in a situation where the pledge was recited, I would stand so as to be respectful and polite and not make a scene. But I won’t even stand going forward. That pledge not only still feels idolatrous to me, it’s poisoned now. And all you folk who descended upon my town with threats to my council members and flags with Trump’s likeness cast upon them (a massive violation of flag code, by the way), you can thank yourselves for that. I’m done with the Pledge of Allegiance.

I’m not done with America, though. I do love this country. My heart hurts for it these days, but I do love it. It’s given me a lot. And so, no, I’m not going to “just leave”. I’m going to stay and actually work for “liberty and justice for all”, rather than merely pledge it.


To my “Traditionalist” Friends

ADAM0000To my “Traditionalist” friends:

First of all, let me explain what I mean by “Traditionalist”: I mean basically any Christian (Methodist or otherwise) who holds to any degree of theology that limits or excludes LGBTQ+ Christians in the church. I use the word “Traditionalist” as a way of separating out “Conservative” or “Evangelical” because the truth is there are conservatives and there are evangelicals who are for the full inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the church. The word “Traditionalist” comes from those in the United Methodist connection who support the “Traditional Plan” passed at the UMC special called General Conference session last February, and/or the uphold the current language in the UMC Book of Discipline that limits the membership of and ministry with and by LGBTQ+ people. But is not limited to Methodists. By “Traditionalist”, I mean anyone who upholds these kinds of theologies and interpretations of Scripture.

So with that out of the way, my dear Traditionalist friends, we have to talk:

As my denomination sifts through the muck of clarifying where LGBTQ+ people fit in (about which February’s legislative actions said they and their allies do not) the conversation quickly turns to what I would define as “straight fragility”. As conversations begin about the harm inflicted on LGBTQ+ people by and through these theologies and the defense and practice of them, the traditionalists often and quickly get offended at the notion that they’ve inflicted harm, and then turn the conversation around by citing their own harm in being labeled things like “harmful” or the oft used “bigot”. I get it. I’ve been there. No one wants to be labeled a bigot. Furthermore, few believe they are. Your intentions are not to be bigoted nor to do harm. Your intentions are to love and to live out the Scriptures as faithfully as you can in your understanding of them. I believe that many, if not most of you, truly intend no harm and are aghast by the notion of being labeled a bigot.

But here’s what: The theology and ideologies that limit and exclude LGBTQ+ people in the church are indeed harmful and they are bigoted. And I know it hurts to be labeled as such, but to believe in and practice such theologies and ideologies necessarily makes you harmful and bigoted as much as you intend not to be. I resisted this for over a decade, and when I came to grips with it in my own life, I was sick to my stomach. I thought I was just being faithful, and I was, but what I was being faithful to was indeed harmful and bigoted. This is why we cannot make room for it. This is why these conversations often get silenced. They are harmful. They bring harm to humans. These theologies do harm, and this is a simple fact that you must begin to come to grips with. I no longer will tolerate hiding harm him “tough love”. The theology is literally killing people.

But here’s the good news: You do not have to compromise your faith nor the Scriptures to let go of these harmful theologies and interpretations and embrace full inclusion. No matter what anyone else tells you, you simply do not. I know it’s scary to imagine letting go of these theologies, and doing so does come at a cost, but that cost is not your faith even though scores of religious leaders may tell you that it is. It took me a solid decade of deep, painful wondering, but I finally came to see the harm my theology and my subsequent practice of it was inflicting. I changed (as have many), and not only did I not lose my faith or the Scriptures, I found that I’ve gained them both. My faith is deeper and more vibrant than it ever has been. The Bible has come alive like a wild and untamed but beautiful, loving and life-giving, beast. I feel liberated like never before.

You will not lose your faith. You will not lose the Bible. You will not lose Jesus. However, you may lose your current church (and this is a painful reality). You may lose friends (I did). You may lose ministry opportunities (I did). Some of you may even lose your job. People will tell you that you’re “backsliding” or that you’re headed down a slippery slope. They may accuse you of compromising your faith and the “inspired word of God”, but you are not. It’s a scary road, but it’s a good and navigable one, and I believe that as you come around the corner toward inclusion you will find life and faith like you never knew. Trust me. I speak from experience. You can let this go and still be a faithful, Bible-believing, and even evangelical Christian.

Again, I know many of you truly mean no harm. But meaning no harm does not mean that you are doing no harm. Furthermore, do not tell me that I am doing you harm, but telling you that you are doing harm. That is merely a thin closed minded defense designed to maintain a status quo. Defending and practicing these theologies simply is doing harm. If you truly want to “do no harm”, you need to rethink these theologies and interpretations of Scripture. It is scary, hard work. But it’s good work. And there really is liberation and abundant life on the other side.

If you’re interested in an honest conversation about this (I’m not up for a theological debate- I’m done with that), let me know. I’d love to chat.

A Spiritual Wanderer Looking for a Home

61131268_10218563119891335_2872481974470049792_n-2So here I sit in the hotel on the eve of the 2019 Minnesota Annual Conference. And I feel homeless. Spiritually homeless. I love God. I love people. I love my local congregation. I love the story of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. And I love the people within this institution, but I’m fatigued of the institution itself. I’ve been in big churches and little churches and suburban churches and city churches and mainline churches and definitely not mainline churches. I feel like I’ve seen it all, and in all of it there are good faithful people, but after 22 years, here I sit on the eve of the most important Annual Conference of my career, and I feel like I did when I was 11; a spiritual wanderer looking for a home.

This week Methodists in Minnesota will gather to talk about “what kind of conference we want to be.” In the wake of our global governing body passing the “Traditional Plan” passing last February (look it up, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m too fatigued to explain it), it’s the right and a necessary conversation to have. But, and I’m just being brutally honest here, what if I just don’t want any of it anymore?

I’m trying to be negative, and I say that because that’s not an unreasonable charge when it comes to me. But I’m sitting here, after 22 years of full-time ministry and on the eve of my 10th Annual Conference, and I feel homeless. I don’t know where I belong. I’m too liberal for the conservatives, I’m too something for the liberals, I’m too opinionated for the centrists, I’m too Methodist for the mavericks, I’m not Methodist enough for the loyalists, I’m too traditional for the contemporary folk, I’m too loosey-goosey for the traditional folk, and, well, I’m tired. And I don’t know where to go. I don’t know “What kind of conference I want us to be.”

The truth is, what I witnessed following The UMC’s General Conference soured me on the institutional church. It’s too much. Too big. Too convoluted for me. I long for a simple and authentic community of people connected in our practice of Christian spirituality. Doctrine, polity, constitutions, preambles, growth strategies, benchmarks, metrics, holy orders, ordination processes, TPS reports… all of these suck the life for ministry out of me. I understand their value, but I also don’t. And I am tired.

As I look around my local community, I see people who are also tired. They’re tired from trying to make ends meet, they’re tired from navigating the ugly and polarized socio-political discourse in our culture today, they’re tired from trying to do all the things you’re “supposed” to do to raise your kids “right”, they’re tired from the parents reinforcing the pressures of culture on them, they’re tired from navigating massive institutional systems in their office 50 hours a week, they’re tired from feeling decentered in this rat race paced culture, they’re tired from their grief after a loss, they’re tired from any number of things.

What nobody needs right now is a religion of any kind that says, “hey, come over here. we’re gonna fix the world.” We need to be inspired, but this kind of talk, when it’s walked out into action seems merely to breed another kind of anxious busy-ness that quite honestly, is not inspiring but expiring.

Our denomination’s current mission statement (one I’ve embraced) seeks to “transform the world”. And in our efforts to craft and vision new expressions of Methodism, there is this same kind of “bigness” within it, that is well intended and maybe even right and holy, but where I feel homeless is that it all exhausts me. I’m tired of a kind of arrogance that can exist in all forms of Christianity, regardless of where it falls on the theological or political spectrum, that says “we are the answer”. This faith that is supposed to be life-giving is, in its current American forms (I can’t speak for the Church in other nations), leaves me exhausted. And I’m pretty certain there’s data showing the same for our congregants.

As I look at the trajectory of UMC expressions rising up, I get tired. I’ve been doing the “change the world” thing for 20+ years, and, if I’m honest, I’m done. I keep coming back to those beautifully paradoxical words Jesus said:  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The implications of this are many and varied, but I wonder what it could mean for the institutionalized church. What if we need to die to the idea that we are the answer? What if we need to die to the idea that the world is ours to transform? What if Jesus is saying to us, “give up on trying to be the next big thing. just be.”

Maybe the place the church finds real life is not in calling people to be “world changers” through our structures and systems, but it finds real life in dying those delusions of grandeur and simply moving to help people find a Creator-centered, Jesus-shaped, Spirit-led center in their life. What if the “God-sized dreams” we all should be dreaming are actually simple and small?

So maybe I’m not spiritually homeless. Maybe I’m institutionally homeless. Not sure what the implications of it are, but maybe it’s ok.

Libs, Let’s Call Their Bluff on Mental Health and Gun Control

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAfiAAAAJDg3N2VlN2QwLWRlYjYtNDZhMS1iODI2LWM4MzM1NmQ2YjFjZALet me clear right at the top: I am for massive, robust, and comprehensive gun control. I am for the kind of gun control that many might say isn’t “sensible”. I am for very strict limits on access to guns, and I am for mandatory buy-backs of some kind, particularly on semi-automatic assault rifles. I believe that we must somehow decrease the number of guns in circulation more than anything. I also believe that I will not see this happen any time soon, perhaps even in my lifetime.

With all that in mind, I believe it’s time for the left to call the right’s bluff on mental health when it comes to gun violence. The issue of gun violence in schools leveled up today when Denver was forced to cancel school for a reported 500,000 students because of a credible threat there in the week of the 20th anniversary of the tragic Columbine shootings. It ended in tragedy. The subject of the threat got a gun and killed herself. God rest and keep her beloved soul. The right cannot, nor does not, deny that we have a problem with gun violence in this country, but they (I believe wrongly) won’t blame gun access but blame it on the mental health crisis. And we do have a mental crisis. So here’s where I’m at.

Let’s call their bluff.

In addition to radical gun law reform, we need serious mental reform in this country. This is a whole other crisis that demands attention, and, as I see it, mental health issues have been grossly underfunded, underresourced, and underresearched. The right will not pass anything meaningful in regards to gun control (they won’t even let it be studied by the CDC!), will filibuster the crap out of anything if the Democrats gain control of  Congress and the White House (not to mention there are already too many on the left who are also sold out to the gun lobby) and those sold out to it blame the crisis on mental health. So, let’s take what they’ll give us. Let’s craft massive, robust, and comprehensive mental health reform so that, according to the gun lobby, we can fix this crisis.

There are three scenarios that play out here. Either the gun lobby folk vote against it and are totally exposed as frauds. That’s actually a win. Exposing frauds is always good. Comprehensive mental health passes, it does fix the gun violence crisis, and those like me are proven wrong, but we’ve solved the gun violence problem, so I don’t care about being wrong (a grossly unlikely scenario). But even if it doesn’t fix the gun violence crisis, we at least get (hopefully) meaningful mental health reform, and, having exposed that the core issue is not mental health, we can move on to gun control.

Those of us who advocate for stricter gun control need to continue to do so, but we also need to get realistic about what we can do. Since the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas we have seen a mass of young people (most of whom who do not have the power to vote out those sold out to the gun lobby, mind you) demanding robust and meaningful gun control. Yes, we need to work on voting those out who are sold out and controlled by the likes of the NRA, but we also can’t wait. Let’s expose the frauds, and maybe even get some good mental health reform out of the deal.

We cannot wait any longer. It’s been 20 years since Columbine, the day we all kind of woke up and said, “things are different now aren’t they?” Unfortunately, and shame on us for it, since then nothing’s changed. And that is 100% undeniably unacceptable.

UPDATE: It’s been less than a month since I wrote this and since then we’ve had two shootings in which students laid their lives down to attack the gunman and save the lives of other students, one of which is a neighboring suburb of Columbine. Congress continues to shrug its shoulders and do nothing about this crisis. We are at the point where we are expecting our children to sacrifice themselves because we refuse to do anything about this crisis.

My Struggle With Unity

12107836_10207468604055373_992290273295544282_n-2This Saturday United Methodist delegates from around the world will meet in St. Louis, MO for a special General Conference to find the denomination’s “way forward” in regards to its life with people of LGBTQ+ identities. We’ve been in a vicious 40+ year fight over these matters. Real harm has been done and continues to be done because of this.

This week we will (hopefully) get a clearer picture of what our future as a denomination holds. There are three primary plans before the conference, which range from churches and pastors being able to fully and freely include LGBTQ+ identities, all the way to more strict enforcement on denying LGBTQ+ identities. A commission has been working hard for years to find a “way forward” for us. In no way do I want to diminish the hard and holy work they have been about. Thank you, Commission!

But I am struggling.

In all of this, I continually hear the primary push to be to “stay unified”. These efforts and sentiments toward unity are well intended and speak to a heart that longs for peace. It is in many ways the good and right thing to call for. Unity is a beautiful thing. It’s a noble pursuit, and we should heed the Apostle Paul’s words to “mak[e] every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3, NRSV). Unity is good. Unity is of God. Jesus even prayed for it (John 17:21, NRSV). So, yes, let’s pray for and strive for unity.

But if I’m honest, I’m not sure unity is possible at this point, and in fact, may even be a stumbling block for us. The “One Church Plan” appears to be the most palatable and practical solution going forward at this point, and I am in support of it. At a minimum, it removes the harmful language from our Book of Discipline and allows for some congregational and pastoral autonomy for those of us seeking full inclusion and vitality of those who identify as LGBTQ+. That’s good. I need that. If you are a delegate, vote for the One Church Plan. It’s our best shot at progress.

However, when it comes down to it, I want justice more than unity. As I said, unity is good, but can I really be united with a congregation that, because of my uncompromising ally-ship with the LGBTQ+ community, would never have me as its pastor? The abject exclusion and denial of LGBTQ+ people is not a mere “theological difference”. It is a fundamental difference in how we view the mission and work of Jesus Christ and subsequently the call of the church. We’re not talking about predestination and free will here. We’re talking about who gets to participate fully in God’s mission.

While Jesus did pray “that they will be one”, let us not forget that Jesus also said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And let us not forget that he came to the religious establishment in a 36 verse tirade saying things like “Woe to you… For you… have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). Jesus isn’t interested in unity here. He wants justice. Or perhaps better stated, Jesus is not going to let a facade unity sedate the hard work of justice, equality, and equity.

Jesus’ “sword” is not a literal broad sword meant to kill and destroy, but it is a small metaphorical sword meant to make precise cuts- cuts that cleanly and carefully split. It is a sword that cuts between those who desire to maintain rigid boundaries on the “Kingdom of Heaven” and those who desire to follow Jesus in breaking those boundaries wide open. That is the work Jesus is about in the Gospels. That is the good news: that Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and its borders are breaking wide open.

How do I truly unify with people who seek to guard the borders of the Kingdom while I feel called to break them down? In times like these, though intents may be pure and noble, unity can too much function as a paralyzing sedative for justice. Too often we silence voices and sedate passion in the name of maintaining unity. That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.

The harm has already been done, and the subsequent division is already among us. Even with the passage of the One Church Plan, I am hesitant to call LGBTQ+ people into a “Church” where colleagues and churches in our connexion still may see them as less than. I appreciate the autonomy, but I think we need to be honest about the degree to which this autonomy is naming a separation more so that claiming unity. And that’s ok. Let’s just name it. Let’s just name that we have irreconcilable differences.

Chalking these differences up to mere “theological diversity” is a harmful kind of unity as it reduces categories of humans down to a theological debate. It asks those identifying as LGBTQ+ and their allies to accept the abject rejection of them as mere “theological differences”. At best it leads us to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” way of being, but regardless, it continues to silence and marginalize and harm. I recall what Bishop Sally Dyck said at General Conference 2016, “As United Methodists, we have one category of humanity that we declare to be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’. And when I read this Gospel story [Matthew 9:1-13], all I can say is… that seems incompatible with Christian teaching.” Where is there unity in incompatibility?

These differences come with real harm in a church that traditionally demands, “do no harm”. I want unity. I really do. But I want justice more. If I have to choose between unity and justice- a choice I would rather not have to make- I choose justice. If it separates me from you because of these significant differences between us, that’s ok. Let’s just be honest about it. Let’s not continue to silence in the name of unity.

Some Thoughts on Ilhan Omar, Antisemitism, and Islamaphobia

Dp0yMDBUcAEe3M0.jpg-largeMy heart has been deeply troubled this week by the situation with my representative, Ilhan Omar. I’ve been a supporter of hers since 2016, when her campaign for the Minnesota House took off. Her story is in a very real way a story of what is possible in America. A young, female, Muslim immigrant from Somalia rising to serve in public office with a bold and (I think) prophetic voice is a beautiful story, regardless of your politics. If you can’t appreciate it at its most basic level, even if you hate her politics, your political allegiances are blinding you. When Keith Ellison chose not to run in the fiercely Democratic 5th congressional district in Minnesota, she was primed to step in, and I was proud to place her sign in my front lawn as a resident of MN05.

But then things got complicated. It began with her reversal on BDS, and then things really blew up this week with her “It’s all about the Benjamins” tweet. She has been accused of antisemitism pretty much since she ran for the state office in 2016. And let’s be clear, she’s got a history of tweeting out antisemitic tropes. She just does, and she needs to (and has) owned that (contrary to what I heard on Fox News, she has apologized for the “hypnotized” tweet). Her carelessness in this regard is a problem. But I still believe that Ilhan Omar is not antisemitic, and I still believe that not only is she a valuable presence in Congress, but she’s also an important and even a necessary one.

After the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last November, my heart broke. I had to do something. I headed to a vigil held at a synagogue in St. Paul and it was overfull. Standing room was at a premium to the extent that people were “saving seats” in standing room only spots. Two women came in looking for somewhere to stand and were told that a spot they found was “saved” (can you do that?!?). I had some room by me, I waved them over, and one of them was Ilhan Omar. Yes, she was in the middle of a campaign, and, yes, it was a week out from the election, so, yes, we could argue that she was only there for political gain. I don’t believe that’s why she was there.

1549908303046-AP_19038782491539Ilhan Omar was a Somali refugee. She knows violence. She knows genocide. As of 2016, she is a young, female, Muslim immigrant in public office. She knows hate, she knows racism, and sexism, and ageism. She is a hijab-wearing Muslim immigrant in post-September 11th America from one of a few countries which our President has characterized “shit-hole countries”, and from which he has attempted to ban people from coming to the United States. Ilhan Omar knows what it’s like to be hated and marginalized because of her religion, her sex, her skin color, and her nationality. She knows what it’s like to be afraid. I believe that’s why she was at that vigil that evening.

That said, I also think that we have seen that Ilhan Omar has a lot to learn about antisemitism and the ways in which it has played out in the West and in the US specifically. And her apology, which I know at least one Rabbi in her district has accepted, spoke to that learning. The history of antisemitic tropes in this country is very real, and every time those tropes rear their ugly heads, many Jews get nervous, and rightly so. They simply should not be tolerated.

However, while Rep. Omar has some work to do in this regard, we all do too. While antisemitism is alive and well, and our Jewish friends were right to sound the alarm, Islamaphobia and xenophobia are also alive and well- and I would say more so. Ilhan Omar is going to question Israel’s role in the conflict with Palestine. She just will. How she does that matters, but she will raise questions. And we need her to.

The reality is that Israel’s hands are not clean in this conflict. Israel needs protection, to be sure, but its hands are also not entirely clean. Ilhan Omar brings an important voice to America’s role with and protection of Israel, and I fear that anything she says with a critical eye toward this conflict will be seen as merely antisemitic. We must do better in entering the complexities of these issues. And though she has made some real mistakes this week, I believe much of the response to her mistakes are deeply rooted in fierce Islamophobia and xenophobia. We need to come to grips with this reality.

It comes down to one of the biggest struggles in American dialogue today: Multiple things can be true. That is, Ilhan Omar has some work to do in her work and language and understanding around matters concerning Israel, but also, we as a nation have even greater work to do in our abject fear (and sometimes straight-up hatred) of Muslims, especially ones who look, dress and identify as Rep. Omar does.

In my defending her, I have been labeled a “Jew hater”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. My love and admiration of the Jewish faith is deep and goes back decades. As I said, antisemitism is a very real thing and Ilhan Omar has to be more careful in her rhetoric on matters concerning Israel. But I also think what we’ve seen this week is a lot of (not entirely, but a lot of) answering antisemitic rhetoric with Islamaphobia. When my Jewish friends speak out about this, I really listen, because I too still have much to learn. But I also think the vast majority of us also have a lot to learn from Ilhan Omar.

I stand by Ilhan Omar. I want her to do better, and I believe she will. But I stand by her, and I stand by guarding the worth and dignity of all humans, just as I believe she does. Friends, let’s stop with the tribal mentalities, the polarizing rhetoric, and the inability to enter into the complexities that come with this so-called “melting pot”. America continues to grow in its vast array of identities. It’s beautiful. But that beauty is going to come with tension, because this thing called “difference” is hard. But it is that “difference” that could make this country step into a true greatness beyond its wild American dreams.

Tumbling Down We Go

rabbithole2I feel things deeply (shocking, I know). Today is one of those days when the feelings are taking the deepest of dives. That is to say that feelings are deep and rich, not necessarily and purely dark or despairing.

Over the last 7-8 years or so, I’ve become more aware of the ways in which my position and voice can be used for good in this world, not just in the Church. I’ve come to see that, especially in a society where Caesar asks for our opinion, the Church (and by that I mean the people that make it up, not its institutions) should be having more of an effect on the world. We should be relevant and active in shaping a more just and equitable society, both at the micro levels of our neighborhoods and the macro levels of national and global politics. Because of that, I have become far more politically active and aware than I ever thought I would be.

Today here I am, sleepless in St. Louis Park, feeling deeply grieved about the condition of this country which I really do love and of which I am supposed to be “proud”. Some would say “shut it off, Paul”, which is good advice, but that’s also all too easy. It’s too easy for a privileged, white, cisgender male like me to just “shut it off”. This morning I’m acutely aware of those who can’t do that, because the consequences of our currently reality necessarily keep them awake.

I’m acutely aware of 800,000 government employees who aren’t getting paid, some of whom are beginning to face very real personal financial crises. I’m acutely aware of a President who in that context tweets about how “strong” the economy is right now. I’m acutely aware of the way that this country so quickly moved from what we know now was merely a veneer of unity after September 11, 2001, and into increasingly deep and profound polarization and paralyzation. I’m acutely aware that while the cold wind howls, I sit inside with a hot cup of coffee in warmth, safety, and security, while countless others in this nation live today in cold, uncertainty, and fear.

So, no, I’m not going to shut it off and bury myself in the healing balm that is Jim and Pam’s relationship in The Office: Because it’s not really a healing balm after all. It’s sand into which I bury my head. So I’m going to look around at it all, and do the only thing I know to do when the deep feelings rise up. I’m going to write. I’m going to write these words here on this “page”- these relatively unfiltered, somewhat stream of conscious, and more than anything, hopefully, honest words.

You see, I am not proud to be American. And I don’t think you should be either. I know for some that’s blasphemous because your context tells you that the worst thing you can do is not be proud of his “great” nation. But there’s no reason to be proud to be an American these days. I don’t need to cite the reasons why. You know. In a nutshell, it’s this: We’re a mess. If we were a sports team, we’d be right to show up to games with paper bags over our heads. So, no, I am not proud to be an American, and I really don’t think you should be either (but of course, that’s up to you).

What we need to do is ask, where do we go from here? What’s the end game? Right now it feels as though the end game is mere and total self-destruction and implosion. I have no idea where we go from here, nor what the end game really may be. Except to say this:

Don’t be afraid to feel the anxiety and uncertainty in these times. Too much in our world today, deep feelings beyond joy and bliss are dismissed, criticized, and even shamed. Don’t be afraid to feel deeply. Get help with those feelings if you need it, but don’t be afraid to feel. It means you’re alive. It means the blood is flowing. Yes, you may need to shut it off for periods of time, but let yourself be sad, angry, or frustrated, but also joyful, blissful, or content. Let us not anesthetize ourselves into spiritual and emotional comas.

This is a complicated world, and these are deeply complicated times in our nation. And though today I am sad and angry, and though today I believe it’s all going to get worse before it gets better, there is one thing that sustains me and to which I cling. It’s this great gift to humanity called imagination. The beauty of the deep dive of feelings is that with them comes swirling currents of imagination. There is more.

We must never cease to imagine new and better worlds than the ones we currently experience. We must let those imaginations for a new and better world capture and captivate us so that we can work to build them- so that this work becomes work we can’t not do. So for me, on this cold, sleepless morning, the feelings are deep, but I will keep dreaming. I’ll keep fighting, I’ll keep awake, I’ll keep working, I’ll keep believing that there is more, that what it is right now will not always be, that the story isn’t over.

As I said, I’m not proud to be an American today. Nor do I think you should be. I think we should feel the abject dysfunction of this nation right now, and I think we should let it grieve our hearts. I think we should take that deep dive into the rabbit hole of what really is, and maybe there we will find a wonderland. A wonderland where there are things that are scary, but where this is also an endless imagination for what could be.

Good News: The “E-Word” (Reimagining the Gospel V)

news_011017_770x347_mediaToday I wrap up “Reimagining the Gospel”. What is this exactly? Is it some kind of hack systematic theology of my own making? Is it just basic theology that’s been written and talked about in a million times? Probably both to some extent. Mostly I think it’s me finding my way out of what I perceive to be the damaging areas of the conservative evangelicalism that was the entry to my Christianity, while not losing the power of the Jesus story that I do love. So if you’re still here, thanks for coming along on the journey. Today I wrap it up with “Good News: The ‘E-Word;'”.

The word “evangelism” or “evangelical” is a big word these days. Progressives, whether within Christianity or not, tend to hate it. It’s got all kinds of baggage with it. I think part of this series has been me trying to come to grips with this word because if we are going to be Christians we must necessarily be “evangelical” to some degree. But not “evangelical” in the sense that we normally mean it these days. Not in the sense that it’s nearly a denomination unto itself and is a quantifiable demographic.

I mean it in what I believe to be its truest form: The word literally means “good news”. It comes from a Greek compound word made up of the word “EU” (εὖ), which means “good”, and “aggelos” (ἄγγελος), which means “message or news” (it’s where we get our word “angel”. Angels are messengers). The two come together to mean “good news”. When you see the word “gospel” in the Bible this is usually (if not always) what the Greek word is. When we say “the good news of the Gospel” what we are actually saying is “the good news of the good news”.

I say all that because it matters in terms of where we are today in regards to these words. The word “evangelism” or “evangelical” has been hijacked by (or perhaps more accurately said, given away to) a certain sect or denomination of Christianity. It has come to be associated with a version of Christianity that is rooted in some of the ideas I’ve been breaking down in this series, but it is also largely connected to a white, male-dominated, American nationalist expression of the faith.

This is a stream of Christianity to which I once belonged. It has some really good and well-intended people within it (I mean that); its commitments to Bible study, prayer, and corporate worship are admirable; and it also has created a culture of damaging hyper sexual focus which limits women, colonizes minorities, and all-out excludes people who identify as LGBTQ+. And it does all of this in the name “good news”.

What I want to do is reclaim and reimagine this word “evangelism”. It means “good news”, so somewhere in it’s beginning it was a “good” thing. Good news should be good. People should like to hear good news, but most of what ends up coming out of evangelicalism doesn’t sound good at all: As we looked at in Part II of this series it tends to begin with “you are filthy sinner condemned to hell and without a savior that’s where you’ll be for eternity”.

That’s not good news! That’s really bad news! And it’s why so many of us refer to “evangelism” as the “e-word” and want nothing to do it. Because deep down we’re actually evangelical and therefore we don’t want to spread bad news! With that in mind, I want to close this series by looking at one story from Jesus’ life that, at least for me, reclaims evangelism for us.

It’s the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. It contains in it one of the hallmark verses of evangelicalism, “…for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (19:10, NRSV).   But let’s take a look at what happens in this story to reframe what may be actually lost and which Jesus saves.

The traditional reading of this story is that Zacchaeus, who is a top dog in the nasty and exploitive business of tax collecting, is a bad man- a sinner headed for eternal hellfire. When Jesus comes to town everybody wants to get a look at him, including Zacchaeus, who is short in stature, but it is also implied that he is short in character as well. He climbs a tree to see Jesus over the crowds, Jesus sees him, calls him, and goes to stay at his house. It is there that Zacchaeus repents and then Jesus proclaims that “salvation has entered this house today” and Zacchaeus is saved. The point is that we are like Zacchaeus: Lost, filthy sinners in need of being found and saved, but we must repent.

What this has translated to, however, is simply this: Those in the Church who have clearly and boldly professed Jesus as Lord are found and saved, while those who have not done so are lost and condemned. It has propelled millions of Christians over time to view our neighbors as “lost sinners” to whom, in the name of “good news”, we must go to say and “you’re lost and condemned and you need to be found and saved.”

What I want to propose here is that it is not Zacchaeus that is lost. It’s something much bigger. First of all, let’s look at Zacchaeus’ name. It literally means “pure” or “clean”. But by virtue of being a tax collector, Zacchaeus is labeled as “unclean”. When Jesus goes to his house, Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for having gone to “be the guest of one who is a sinner.” That is, by virtue of going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus has yoked himself with one who is “unclean”, which would render Jesus unclean.

Before we continue we need to back up a bit and look at Jesus’ literal name. It literally means “salvation”. That’s what “Jesus” means. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to be dedicated, and there this old prophet guy called Simeon looks at Jesus and says, “my eyes have seen your salvation”. By virtue of his name, wherever Jesus is, so too is salvation. He’s literally looking at “salvation”. So Zacchaeus’ name literally means “pure/clean” and Jesus’ name literally means “salvation.”

OK, now back to Zacchaeus and Luke 19.

We don’t know all of what happens, but if we look at what is recorded in this story Jesus never says anything to Zacchaeus other than “Get out of the tree, I’m coming to your house” (my paraphrase). He doesn’t say, “Hey Zach, here’s the deal: You’re filthy sinner and you’re headed to hell unless you accept me.” He merely says, “I’m coming over”. And this is scandalous. Because remember Zacchaeus is considered “unclean”, and Jesus can’t go over there or he too will be considered “unclean”.

There are two ways to look at this: One is that Jesus overcomes the “uncleanliness” and makes Zaccaheus clean, and that’s all fine and good. And then because of that we must go to the “dirty” places in the world and in the “name of Jesus” make them “clean”. We must call out their “dirtiness”, hope that inspires them to repent, and then they will be clean, worthy, and good. And we’ll call this pointing out of how unclean people are “evangelism”- that is, “good news”.

But there’s another way that for me is a whole reframe in terms of what “evangelism” could be and I think should be.

What if Zacchaeus isn’t unclean? What if Jesus goes over there because Jesus knows that the “uncleanness” of Zacchaeus is a lie and that he actually is clean. After all, his name (and in this sense his character and nature) means “clean”. What if this primary character is named “Zacchaeus” because the whole point is that he’s not unclean, but is “pure”? And what if Jesus doesn’t need to say anything about his “purity status” because merely by virtue of saying “I will dwell with you in your house”, Jesus is saying “you are clean. You are pure. It is at your most basic/core level. It is what is most true about you.”

Zacchaeus isn’t loss. What’s lost is what’s most true about him. He has entered into the nasty and ugly field of tax collecting, but at his core, he is “pure”, “clean”, “beautiful”, “beloved”. What’s lost is his name. It’s not that he “hasn’t accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior” and therefore he’s condemned. It’s that the world has gotten the best of him to the degree that he doesn’t remember who he is, he doesn’t remember what his name is.

What Jesus does is simply by staying at his house he reminds Zacchaeus who Zacchaeus is. He reminds him of what is most true about him: You are not “unclean sinner”, but you are “pure, clean beloved child of God.” When Jesus says he’s come to “seek out and to save the lost”, it’s not about people who strayed away from God and are now lost. It’s about people so beat down the oppressive powers and rhetoric of hate that they have lost a sense of what is most true about them: That they are beautiful, good, worthy, and beloved.

Evangelism- “good news”- is not saying “hey, you’re lost, and I’ve got the answer for you. Subscribe to my religious expression and context and you’ll be saved from eternal hellfire.” Evangelism is making sure that people know how beautiful they are. It’s making sure that all humans see their value and worth in this world. I don’t know about you, but I can get fired up about that. That’s some actual “good news”.

So this is my reimagining of the Gospel: The good news (the “gospel”) is that you are beautiful and beloved of God. And the story of Jesus is making sure that those for whom society has buried that truth the most know it. He uncovered that beauty so deeply and so broadly and in such an empowering and therefore subversive way, that the powers that be killed him for it. And it was a message he deemed worth dying for.

So in the end, if you believe anything, believe this: You are beautiful. You matter. You are the beloved of God in whom God is well pleased. And that, my friends, is, if you ask me, the good news. That is the Gospel. Let’s not be shy about it.

“Community” (Reimagining the Gospel IV)

22539774_10213956785415852_7759923055122320501_nSo it’s been over a month since I posted the last installment of “Reimagining the Gospel”. This little thing called Advent and Christmas kind of hijacked my writing mojo. So far we have dealt with the idea that the Gospel must begin wherever a person is (“Here”), that the “good news” is that our primary identity is “Beloved”, and that sin is a reality but it’s not about breaking rules as much as it is denying our true identity. So what’s next? Well, that’s the question. What’s next? What’s next is the way in which we live out this identity.

This idea that what is most true about us is that we are the “Beloved” and that we are worthy of that love, runs the risk of becoming an entirely internalized and individualized notion. And while we need to internalize this and claim it individually, it cannot stop there. Belovedness suffocates within us if it is never breathed out in community. This idea of belovedness is not just a nice idea to make us feel warm and fuzzy, but it’s actually how it is that we live and move through the world together. This thing we call “our faith” is not personal but necessarily communal. And its greatest enemy may just be the kind of proud individualism out of which the bedrock of the “American Way” is built.

When I read the Book of Acts, one of the things I see is an authentic community of people, wholly (and “holy”) dependent on one another not only for their faith in Christ, but for their regular daily living as well. The classic passage at the end of Acts 2 says “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:44–47 NRSV).

It’s funny: When I read this passage in suburban American contexts suddenly the Bible is something not to be taken literally. A man living in a fish for three days, yes, that is literal, but “holding all things in common”  and “selling possessions and distributing the proceeds to the poor”? Slow down, sailor. We can argue the merits of free market capitalism as the only or best way for a nation to operate, but as Christians, we must wrestle with the idea that there is something in it that is distinctly un-Christian. Or that at least leads to something distinctly un-Christian, which is a fierce individualism that keeps us from not only sharing resources but sharing our very lives as well.

We are the Beloved of God. Every one of us. And that Belovedness is to be the primary and guiding value of all we do. We are to inhale the belovedness of others into ourselves and exhale the belovedness of ourselves into others. God is a necessarily communal God, to the point where Christians believe that God so loves us that God showed up as one of us to be in an in-the-flesh relationship with us.

Later Christ dies, ascends to heaven, and then sends us the Holy Spirit in a new fresh and powerful way, and what’s the immediate outcome of it? Being together, sharing life together, living communally. And living communally to the point where the ritual act that differentiates these “Christian” Jews we call the “early church” from more mainstream Jews of the time is what we call today the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion.  The primary ritual act was a meal shared together.

This speaks to the way in which our faith is communal, is relational. And this relationship is not just something we do for an hour on Sundays. It’s the whole of the faith. It’s what defines the faith. The way we live out Belovedness is by being so enraptured by it that we live in intimate, generous, honest, and fearless love toward one another and with one another in this world. It means that we recognize that we are all in this thing called life together. It means that we live closely and intimately with those in our faith communities, being what Eugene Peterson calls in The Message translation of Acts 2, “deep-spirited friends”.

But it also means that when we’re out in the world, out in the marketplace, that all those with whom we interact are treated as the Beloved as well. The gas station worker, the loan officer, the car who cut me off (I know.), high schooler not giving a crap about the road and just crossing the street to get to McDonalds without a care in the world, the annoying guy in the cube next to me, the stray dog, my literal neighbor, the grunter at the gym, even the very soil and water we need to survive are to be treated as God’s Beloved. Because they are.

This sounds nice, and it is, but it’s also tough. You see, when someone “has need”, that is, when someone doesn’t have enough, when there isn’t enough food in their cupboards or a sufficient roof over their heads or proper clothes on their back, it becomes difficult for them to know that they are the Beloved. There is a message embedded in it that you don’t matter. So not only the marketplace, but the very structures that govern the marketplace are in need of deconstruction of individualism and a reimagining rooted in belovedness.

We need each other. We need to share in our belovedness. We need to reclaim the communal nature of this faith. We need to understand that this world, the whole world, from the small farmer way out in “flyover country” to the biggest most populated urban centers, are part of one connected and communal system. We need to be a part of that system (because we can’t not be), but we also need to take critical looks at the ways that system can hijack communal belovedness.

When we come to the communion table, we are not just performing some ritual act of forgiveness. No, we are claiming that we are in this together. We are making a bold claim that God is not only present in the bread and wine, but is also present in you and in me. This is why we pray “pour out your spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine…” In order to experience the fullness of God’s presence in my life, I need to experience you in my life. Every encounter we have with another human is sacred. It is holy. For we, that is, we humans, are the Body of Christ, and therefore we cannot live out this faith without living in and growing in such a community.

[Stay tuned for the final installment of “Reimagning the Gospel” entitled “Good News”, wherein a will reimaging the “e-word”.]