In 2010 I made an active choice to leave the evangelical Baptist tradition where I had received my ministerial training and education.
I remember the moment I made that decision.
I was sitting in my modern theology class during my last semester at Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. The seminary had taken a strong stand on defending the ordination of women in the Baptist church, which is no small feat in the conservative stronghold of Texas. This class, and the time spent studying Social Christianity, lit a fire within me that could not be quenched.
I remember being enamored by the trailblazers of modern theology; Gustavo Gutierrez and Liberation Theology, James Cone and Black Theology, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel.
It was as if a new wave of orthodox Christianity rushed toward this young progressive seminarian like a flood of cool air in a stifling desert of religiosity. In the evangelical world, I would say it was like I was born again.
Then I heard my professor say “now whatever you do, don’t go teach about this in your churches.”
I was dumbfounded.
How on Earth could I possibly take this incredible branch of Christianity and hide it away? Isn’t that why I’m in seminary, to learn about things that relate to people in the pews? What greater message is there than that the God of the Universe welcomes the voices, questions, and doubts of all people, of all races, of all gender? Shouldn’t this seminary that claims to affirm a new voice, a female voice, be one that affirms its students to be the prophetic voice that Christ called us to be.
I knew at that moment that I either had to find a new denomination, or walk away from the church altogether.
I decided to give it one last chance. And thank God I did.
I spoke with my theology professor who encouraged me to look into the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a more suitable fit for my ministry career. “But be certain” he warned “If you leave and go to one of those churches, you won’t be able to come back.”
So I left.
I found a church in San Antonio that was looking for a non-ordained staff member to help the pastor with the ministry programs of the church. That was when I met her, the first ordained female pastor I had ever worked with.
With a sense of humor that only the Divine can conjure up, she also was a former Baptist. She too had questioned the order of her institutional structure years before. And she also received the thinly veiled “suggestion” that if she chose to leave the church, she would never be welcomed back.
I remember watching her preach with such conviction and passion. She breathed the word of God with the unbridled enthusiasm that could only come from feeling, as she put it, “like a fish being thrown back into water.”
She might have been the first, but she was definitely not the last.
In my short time as an Ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have been blessed to know so many women who live the conviction of their souls. I have been able to witness as they push against the current that tries to drown out their voices, and declare the promise of new life for all who seek it.
And they struggle still. Women are raped on college campuses, molested in news rooms, and belittled on buses. They are demeaned and silenced; they are called liars and troublemakers; they are warned and given explanations. But thank God, nevertheless, they persist.
Now more than ever, we need women as pastors and priests. We need women who are willing to stand up and prophetically speak truth, justice, and righteous reconciliation.
Princeton Theological Seminary, a flagship seminary of the PCUSA, recently decided to give the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to Tim Keller, a staunch opponent of ordained women in ministry. A colleague of mine who studied at Princeton recently joined other female pastors in speaking out against the decision, calling it antithetical to the work of the seminary in affirming female clergy. The backlash from students and alumni pressured the seminary to rescind the award.
On Sunday the New York Times contributing Op-Ed writer Julia Baird voiced her opinion on the event, defending that Tim Keller does not affirm the “harsh model of headship” that is practiced by some. (Even though Keller never objected when other pastors, like Mark Driscoll, used his theological framework to structure oppressive systems in their churches.)
In the article Ms. Baird refers to Tim Keller as “Dr.” and “Rev.” However, when quoting my female colleagues she uses their first name, or simply “Ms.”
Perhaps Ms. Baird and the copy editor for the New York Times simply erroneously overlooked this inconsistency.
I hope the intent by the New York Times as not as deliberate as it seemed. Even in it's innocence, it is still quite a dangerous precedent. If history has shown us anything, it is that the first step in oppressing a group of people is to remove them of their titles, and by association, their identity.
I for one am proud to have been, and to continually be, influenced by such strong female voices who challenge the institutions of the day. Because with these voices, comes a new challenge to change the status quo.
But whatever you do, don’t go teaching this your churches.
This morning Ben Carson might have ruined his political career. During an interview on Morning Joe, Carson questioned the legitimacy of the stories of Trumps victims citing “common sense.”
A guest anchor from BBC, Katty Kay, immediately challenged Carson.
“The real reason women who are being sexually abused don’t come forward to talk about their stories is precisely this, they are called liars, are you saying these women are liars?”
Quickly Carson realized that he was painted into an awkward corner, and began to lash out at Kay, saying that she was trying to characterize him as a bad guy, and then repeatedly telling her to stop talking before asking for her microphone to be turned off.
The entire bizarre encounter can be found below.
Regardless of the opinion of Trump or Carson as politicians, Kay brought to light the fundamental situation in the habitual practice of abuse, molestation, and rape of women in America today.
Let us be clear. If Donald is guilty of any of the things he has been caught saying he does, then we have a presidential candidate who is guilty of molesting and raping women.
Perhaps some of you think that the term rape is too severe to be used here.
It is not.
When someone forces their tongue into the mouth of another person, that is rape.
When someone grabs another person’s genitals without their consent or permission, that is rape.
As Michelle Obama said earlier in the week “to dismiss this as locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere".
As a father of a little boy, I pray that this is not the message that we are sending to our children.
As a father of a little girl, I worry about the world that I am sending her out to.
But this is not new.
Rape is not treated as a serious social issue by many in positions of power.
Women are trying to speak out as loud as they can as their sisters are abused, humiliated, and stripped of their natural rights to stand against their accuser.
Because when they do, they get called liars.
“She was asking for it”
“She wanted it”
“Look at what she was wearing”
And now “When you’re a star…you can do anything”
And brag about it on camera.
Then deny it using every bit of fame, clout, and money you have. Abusing them all over again.
We see it in the sports world where coaches like Art Briles look the other way as players use their positions of popularity to do what they want with whomever they want.
We see it in business where women are forced to be subjected to unwanted verbal and physical advances.
We see it in religious spheres, where boys are abused by religious leaders and stories of female colleagues being abused by men in prominent positions run rampant.
We see it in the entertainment world where wholesome comedians spend years raping women because he knows that when you have money and fame, nobody is going to believe her.
And we see it in politics, all the way to the top where a Candidate for the highest office of the land walks around with the arrogance that none of these
To be in the office of President of the United States and think that this behavior is ok, is to legitimize it for workplaces across the country. It is just another notch in the belt of the boys who want to prove their masculinity by minimizing others.
And it has to stop.
It has to stop for our sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters.
Rape is not a pawn piece in a game to be moved and toyed with. It is not a political football that can be tossed around.
These are people’s lives.
And when you tell someone something long enough, they start to believe it.
Men in dominant positions have been saying that this doesn’t really happen. That it is an opportunistic approach by gold diggers. And they have said it enough times that people have started to believe it.
They’ve said it enough times that it has become a narrative.
A narrative that a politician can use as a talking point, and then throw away once it has given him the satisfaction he seeks.
Hopefully today, that stops.
As a political communications junkie, I have been glued to the electoral process most of my life. I can even remember being in Jr. High and watching Bob Dole’s acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention.
So I have closely watched the evolution of politics over the last 20 years I have seen an amazing spectrum of events. One of those major phenomena has been the evolution and shift of the Evangelical Christian community.
In the 1970’s Jerry Fallwell helped to lead the moral majority that increased their voice and position in the republican right. Republicans since then have used that strategy to try to boost their base, Reagan did it, both bushes did it. And every failing republican candidate has either counted on the Evangelical vote, or lost in part because of it.
The move of the “moral majority” was an attempt to engage conservative ideals in the political process.
But then a funny thing happened, the younger Evangelicals started to change.
Because they are changing, you cannot communicate with them by using the same talking points and sound bite clichés that may have worked in the past. The disparity can go over the head of those who are unaware of this subtle nuance.
It can make people like Wisconsin Senator Sean Duffy (R) quite confused. In an interview this morning regarding Jon Wards piece, Duffy stuck to the typical old school talking points.
What struck me the most was when Duffy declared “I think Christians feel like they have lost they have lost their ability to practice their faith. With things like Obamacare and the Little Sisters of the Poor, people should feel free to practice their faith the way that they see fit…and when you have government attack your faith and that’s what Barack Obama has done to the faith.”
Duffy is repeating the platform of the moral majority, which is so entwined with the republican party that people struggle to distinguish which is which. And in doing so, Duffy sounds less like Jesus and more like Reince Priebus.
There is a simple but significant problem with that, young evangelicals aren’t buying that argument. They push back against the obligation to a political party, they dislike labels, and judgement. They value equality, love, and justice.
In Jon Ward’s piece he talked to younger evangelicals who are not thrilled with Hillary, but also refuse to support the racist and bigoted statements that has come from Trump about women, minorities, and the poor. Younger Evangelicals are generally about tearing down walls, not building up new ones.
Jon Ward put together a great piece about this tension. In the video Ward asks the Pastor of Restoration Church in Atlanta, Leonce Crump, what it means to be Evangelical in America today?
“I do not want to diminish the actual mental disorder of schizophrenia…but I would say its schizophrenic. For some it is a political position, for others it’s part of the Bible that they agree with, so if I’m being honest I don’t know. All I know is that I want to be a disciple of Jesus and lead without any labels, because the labels all falter, and we have faltered underneath them.”
I’ve never really understood vulnerability. I mean, I get it
as a concept, but I’ve never had to experience it. I am a male, who many
people assume, looks like a regular white guy. I am over 6 feet tall and
more pounds over 300 than I’d care to admit.
I never really understood why people took sticks with them when they went out walking, or why my wife felt the incessant need to call me whenever she was walking from her car into the hospital to start her night shift.
While I may not be the most athletic person in the world, I believe that I could physically defend myself in almost any situation or conflict.
I call that privilege.
Maybe you don’t, and I suppose that’s ok. But the day I realized that I didn’t have to walk around, fearing for my safety; because of my size, gender or skin color. Everywhere I go, at almost any time of day, I can be assured, that I will be left alone, or treated safely. I receive the privilege of being treated that way. I didn’t do anything to deserve it, and it shouldn’t make me assume that I am better than anyone.
There are things I have been privileged to have in my life, and other things that I haven’t. Although I look white, I am actually bi-racial; the son of a Mexican Immigrant mother, and an Anglo father who can trace his family history to the 1700’s in Virginia.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that I use my bi-racial status to my advantage. There are times where it is better to be a Spanish speaking son of an immigrant; and there are other times where it behooves me to act like a middle-class white American male.
But not everyone has this privilege.
There are people who are judged pejoratively, solely because of their size, their gender, and their ethnicity.
Because I believe that systems are a zero sum game when one has something, it is only because another person goes without. This tradition goes back to early Biblical times. Ancient near eastern traditions believed that for one person to acquire something, someone else must lose something. Nothing is acquired from nothing, and every transaction results in a reduction on the other.
If we push back the lens and apply this ideologically, for a person to receive privilege, another must experience vulnerability. For one people group to be dominant, another must be submissive.
And this is hard, because it goes back to the darkest chapters of this nation’s history.
Like it or not, the European ancestors of America have a bad track record of believing themselves to be dominant over another. Whether that be Native Indian, African, Japanese, Jewish, Irish, Catholic, Mexican, or Muslim. There is a strong history of minimizing groups and viewing them as less than the dominant group.
Now when one of these groups is pushed to the breaking point, they react.
Right now, the African American community is reacting. They are reacting to this system that has created a condition, where emotional triggers run deep. As much as we want to pretend like “racism is a part of the past” (or my new favorite) “racism wasn’t a problem until Obama came into office.” There are people alive in America today whose grandparents owned slaves. There are generations of people who lived through the civil rights movement in the 60’s. There are high schools that only this century have completely ended segregated dances, and education.
Saying racism is a thing of the past is a tool of the privileged to feel better about the reality of their oppression over the vulnerable, intentional or inadvertent.
Time and again in scripture we see in both the New Testament and in Hebrew Scriptures, that God sides with the vulnerable. The lectionary passages this week out of Luke speaks of the Rich Man and Lazarus. And how even in death, the rich man considered Lazarus to be beneath him. He even repeatedly orders that Lazarus be sent; first to get water, and then to save his family. Even in torment, the rich man can’t see Lazarus as a fellow child of God…and perhaps that is the very thing that keeps him there.
Jesus tells this parable in order to demonstrate the compassion that we are called to have for the outsiders.
Think about it this way. If I go on a run and I see someone break their leg running because of a hole in the street. I wouldn’t go up to that person and start lecturing them about how “all legs matter,” I also wouldn’t get mad at the person for tripping in a hole. And I certainly wouldn’t callously jog by saying “holes are just a part of life” and “if you just walk around the hole you’ll be fine,” or certainly not “you probably tripped in that hole because of the way you were acting.” That is not solving the problem that injured this person in the first place.
My African American brothers and sisters have been lying on the road with broken legs. And I have been walking by, offering a nice smile and a sympathetic gesture.
But I realize now that gentle platitudes are not enough.
It’s not enough to keep taking people to the doctor to fix broken legs.
It’s time to fix the hole.
Fixing the hole takes a lot of work. It takes everyone. It takes us all understanding what created a hole in the first place, and how to prevent it from happening again. Sometimes it takes restitution, sometimes it takes an apology. And sometimes it just takes a person realizing that they’ve been walking past the hole every day, and finally out loud, acknowledging its existence.
So this is me, saying that I see the hole, and that I want to help fix it.
In whatever way I can.
Well another political year is officially in full swing. Normally I shy away from displaying my political opinions in public. In private, as many close friends will tell you, that’s a different story. However, I try to let the political process evolve apart from the theological process. But every once and a while, the two worlds collide in such a way that becomes impossible to ignore.
Yesterday shots were fired back and forth between Pope Francis and Donald Trump. The Pope issued a statement that said “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not a Christian.” Of course, Trump being Trump, could not let a criticism of him in any way pass by without a comment.
Now I know that the majority of what Donald Trump says is done for shock factor. His entire political campaign is centered around being a megaphone for extremists who feel like they are oppressed because they are threatened by no longer holding positions as the dominant members of privilege in American society.
However, when Donald starts talking about religious matters, as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (the denomination to which Mr. Trump claims to belong) I feel that perhaps he could benefit from education on the Christian faith tradition which he claims is so important to him.
When Donald Trump responded in a press release to the Pope, he made two comments in particular that struck a chord with me.
“I heard the Pope issue a statement about me, so I asked…What did he say, because if it’s good I like the Pope, if it’s bad then I don’t like the Pope.”
Now I know this statement was said somewhat in jest. But the reality is, it speaks to a deeper truth about how people feel about religious leaders in the community today.
For years many of my colleagues have struggled with “fighting battles with one arm tied behind our backs.” When we engage in political or social justice matters we have to balance a conviction of our faith, with the reality that people are on a faith journey that must be respected. We do not have the benefit of teachers or community organizers, because the convictions of our faith that we hold so dear must be held in tension with how we help people grow in faith.
Yet, what Mr. Trump states here strikes the heart of many American church goers.
In the age of fast-food religion in America there is an unspoken pattern where people only attend church or advocate for religious positions from people they agree with. Many churchgoers hold their tithes and attendance in church as a negotiation tool in their quest to be validated that their way of thinking is right. However I learned long ago that if God loves everything that you love and hates everyone you hate, then you can be pretty sure you’re following a God of your own creation.
Trump then went on to punch with his big one liner.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful…No leader, especially a religious leader should have a right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
I know that a person’s faith is a meaningful and personal. But those of us who engage in faith deeply know one basic thing. We are not God. We do not know everything. And we don’t claim to. While individual spirituality is a great thing, there is something also to be said for communal spirituality.
It is easy to pick a passage out of the Bible like “two Corinthians” and use it for your own political or theological pandering. But as Presbyterians, as believers in a reformed faith, we believe in being a confessional church. That is to say, we gather together and make statements and declarations of faith time and again that testify to grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, justice and reconciliation that is found through scripture. We don’t always get it right, and so we revisit those ideas and re-write our confessions to God, because we have the humility to know that we can’t get it right on our own all the time. We are reformed, but always reforming.
In fact, more often than not, those who have traditionally thought that they had their theology right independent of others, tended to be the most dangerous people in history.
So yes, Mr. Trump, the Pope questioned the statements you made as contradictory to the faith you claim to hold on to.
As do I.
Because time and again in the Bible we find passages like:
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. You shall treat the immigrant who travels with you as the native among you, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the immigrants who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” (Ezekiel 47:22)
The gospel is inherently a message of inclusiveness, of welcoming the outsider. Giving water to the Samaritan woman, and watching those same Samaritans do the good that we ought to do by helping the man beaten and left to die on the side of the road.
So yes, the Pope is questioning how you reconcile the faith you claim to hold with the reality of scripture. And as religious leaders we consider it our responsibility to defend the faith against those who would use it as a tool for political and militaristic power.
Especially when it builds walls.
I have a confession to make. And you might not want to hear it.
We clergy, generally HATE weddings.
I hate to break it to you, but we do.
I know people want to think that their wonderful special day was amazing, but most clergy that I talk to would prefer to NEVER do a wedding again.
It has nothing to do with you personally. You all are wonderful people, and truth be told, once we are there and doing it…we actually are glad that we did.
But everything leading up to the wedding we hate.
Before you get really upset let me try to explain why we hate weddings.
It all really comes down to this, in a wedding, WE are the afterthought.
People plan their weddings and they think about the colors, the dresses, the hair, the flowers, the makeup, the decorations, the tuxedos, the bridal party, the rehearsal dinner, the photographer, the cake, the reception hall, the food, the band or DJ, the first dance, the last dance, the limo, the exit, the sparklers or bubbles or rice. But they never seem to think about us.
We are the afterthought.
We are the concept that crosses someone’s mind at the last minute.
“Oh, who is going to officiate?”
“The associate pastor from my grandma’s church…I don’t really know who it is…”
On top of our already hectic week, we cram in a ceremony that we can very easily mess up.
So we are highly stressed, but we do it (sometimes hoping that this will get you to come and join our church.)
Then, once we pronounce the magic hocus pocus words, you leave. You run down the aisle as if you are excited to get away from us as fast as you can.
We hate weddings.
I was licensed into ministry about 8 years ago, and in that time I have performed somewhere around 10-15 weddings. I can’t tell you exactly how many because they all kind of blur into one another.
So last week, on my birthday, the Supreme Court voted to allow gay marriage nationwide. Two close friends of ours who have been together for 10 years called me up. First, they were in tears because it finally was passed and they wanted to share the moment with us as their friends. Secondly, they wanted to know if I would be willing to perform the ceremony. Now my wife and I are close with this couple so I agreed almost immediately.
They put an announcement on Facebook, telling their friends that they were going to get married at the high school where they first met at 8:30 that evening, and wanted as many people to attend as possible.
Lisa and I took the kids to dinner before driving over to the high school to perform the ceremony.
We weren’t sure how many people would be there. Lisa figured it would just be the 4 of us and our kids.
As we pulled into the parking lot I was blown away.
There was a group of 30-40 young adults and kids, each one happier than the next.
Little kids running around playing, adults talking and laughing. All of whom came out at 8:30 on a Friday night with only a few hours warning.
Since I had my clerical collar on I was easy to spot. I got a combination of smiles, and strange looks, from this group who likely has not set foot in church in a long time.
We walked over to the oak tree by the entrance of the school, and a hushed awe fell over us as I began.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”
As I went through my process, I looked at these two beautiful people in front of me.
They are both great people, but neither one of them expresses extreme emotions. One of them I had never seen cry before that day. But they took that
moment, so reverently, so seriously, more so than I had seen in any wedding I had been a part of before.
I have seen brides and grooms be happy, and joke, and laugh, and whisper to each other.
But I have NEVER witnessed two people treat the ceremony with as much reverence and awe as these two.
This wasn’t just a thing to them.
It was more than just having a piece of paper, or a religious hoop to jump through.
It meant more than dressing up and playing princess for a day.
When they said “I do” they meant it. They knew what it meant to say they would be together for richer or poorer (a phrase I’ve had some brides ask me to keep out of the vows!) To be there in sickness and in health.
I felt an authenticity and a sincerity in their voice that I had not experienced in so many weddings before.
After it was over their 10 year old daughter gave an amazing speech.
“I’ve seen these women” she said “be told that their love wasn’t real, and that it didn’t exist. But all of you are here because you love them, and you know that their love is real…and I’m proud to be their daughter.”
Driving home I thought about how many people say that this marriage isn’t real. That it doesn’t mean anything, that it makes a mockery of “traditional marriage.”
All I could think was, I wish EVERY marriage I did was as heartfelt and sincere as this one!
I was privileged to stand there with them, to make the pronouncement that they longed to hear.
I was honored to stand before a group of people, as a symbol of the religious community, making manifest the notion of love, grace, mercy, and
I tried to balance the convictions of the religious community who would probably be upset at what I had just done with the conviction of my own experience of commitment that I had just borne witness to.
All the while, I kept hearing the voices of opposition who claim that this union “destroys the sanctity of marriage”
What I witnessed was not people who wanted to make a mockery of marriage.
What I witnessed was not people who belittled marriage.
What I witnessed was not people who took the vows flippantly or half-heartedly.
What I bore witness to was a sincere promise of a long lasting commitment made before family, friends, and God.
Dare I say, what I saw, was that WE could have something to learn from THEM about what marriage is really all about.
Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible, but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek their own good, but the good of others.
1 Corinthians 10:23-24
Probably one of the biggest struggles in being a progressive American is that incessant need to validate everyone's beliefs and opinions.
Far too often, in an attempt to embrace the notion of being open-minded, we find ourselves shying away from decrying actions by those with whom we disagree.
But once in a while, something so abhorrent and disgusting presents itself that even the most compliant and non-confrontational person must stand up and say something about.
Yesterday, President Obama went to Oklahoma to visit a federal prison, and to speak on criminal justice reform (the first sitting president to do the former and one of the first to do the latter.) When he arrived in Oklahoma however, he was greeted with what can only be described as the most thoughtless protesting gesture in history.
Now, political theater and its imagery has made its way through Obama's tenure in office. Complete with depictions of the President dressed up as Hitler or Stalin, to billboards with the president looking like the anti-Christ. And while these pictures are powerful in their attempted political imagery, they are rooted in illogical assumptions and falsehoods about political theory.
Many people have criticized the fact that President Obama has been disrespected more than any other sitting president. From Joe Wilson's “You lie!” during a speech to congress, to the Republican Party cheering as the President marks in the State of the Union that he has no more presidential races to run. While disrespectful to the President in ways that no other modern President has endured, yesterday’s event was possibly the greatest act of impudence in his presidency.
Regardless of one’s personal opinions regarding the Democratic President's policies, there is some manner of respect and decency that one human being should be afforded. The waving of the confederate flag, and all that it has stood for, in the face of this nations first African American President is axiomatically no different than waving a flag of the Third Reich in the face of Joseph Lieberman or Eric Cantor as they drive through town, saying you are doing it to show pride in your German heritage.
Yes, you have the freedom to do whatever you want. This is a country that permits, fights for, and defends those freedoms. But it is also the responsibility of those in decent and educated society to stand up in the face of those actions and call them what they are. Ignorant, classless, and stupid. And it should be the responsibility of the political and religious community to see these disrespectful actions and call a spade a spade. Not in the back rooms with other like-minded individuals, but in front of those people, friends, co-workers, and family members to whom we would normally just shrug our shoulders and say “well, what can you do?”
Looking at pictures from yesterday, the first thing that popped into my mind was the passage from 1 Corinthians at the top of this post. Freedom in Christ, and Freedom in America means that you can do anything you want…but it doesn’t mean that you should, and perhaps it’s time to stop.
Note: special recognition should be given to Oklahoma Congressmen Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Frank Lucas, as well as Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (all Republicans) who called the actions “disrespectful”, “embarrassing” and “inappropriate.”
June 18, 2015
I just got back from vacation and jumped right into VBS at a church where I started working as an associate pastor less than a month ago.
I haven’t time to unpack my bag (which is conspicuously stuffed in the back of the closet and zipped up, pretending that it has already been cleaned out, when in reality I’m just pulling clothes out of it as needed…sorry Lisa.)
So I have been out of the loop of current events, and had no idea about the shooting at an AME church in Charleston until I came into the office this morning and found my Facebook feed blowing up with comments and articles pertaining to the event, and the shooter.
I absorbed all of the articles as quickly as possible, and I couldn’t help but notice how quickly everyone had already dug the poles for their ideological battles.
Of course Fox News weighed in by putting Bishop E.W. Jackson of Fall Church in Chesapeake, VA who said that churches needed to arm their pastors because of “rising hostility towards the Biblical message.”
A full video and transcript can be found here.
It’s no surprise that Fox News wants to control the message of antagonism towards the religious right in this country.
Unfortunately, when it comes to this shooting…they could not be more wrong.
Among the deceased was church pastor and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney (D). Rev. Pinckney was a strong advocate for social justice and racial equality in South Carolina. On the last day of his life he attended a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, campaigning in South Carolina for her. He also advocated for body camera mandates for police officers after marching with Al Sharpton following the shooting of unarmed Walter Scott on April 4th in North Charleston.
All of this is to say Rev. Clementa Pinckney was not the gun toting, conservative, religious right pastor that Fox News wants him to be.
He was a progressive, liberal, social justice oriented, civil rights activist. And to use him as a banner to advocate for more guns for the religious right is a disgrace to his work, his name, and his death.
Two years ago Rev. Pinckney gave a speech that encompassed much of what he really believed and stood for.
“Could we not argue that America is about freedom, whether we live it out or not, it is about freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness? I would argue that’s what church is all about. Freedom to worship, freedom to be what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you’ve got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you have to die to do that. Sometimes you have to march, and struggle, and be unpopular to do that. Many people say to me, why would you as a preacher want to be involved in public policy? To them I say that our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are a part of the life and the community within which our congregation resides.”
Rev. Pinckney died alongside the members of his community, praying that they be used as God’s hands and feet for the work of equality and justice in the world.
E.W. Jackson and the media pundits want people to believe that this is a struggle against the religious right.
But before we use this event as a poster board for our own political gains, let us first recognize the reality.
The reality is that Rev. Pinckney was committed to the fight for equality and justice for all of God’s children; black and white, rich and poor, male and female. And to minimize that, is to dishonor his life’s work, his death, and his name.
The church has a phenomenal ability to be a place of great social change, not secluded escape.
While the E.W. Jackson’s of the world seem to think that the church should be an ark to escape the perceived waters of violence and hatred brought on by progressivism, the church has the potential to be a gathering place for those seeking to fight for the rights of the voiceless and underprivileged.
In the same message Rev. Pinckney said that nobody working in the church wants for it to be a museum, and even though tonight the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston is a memorial, I pray that it would return someday soon as a place of living faith. I hope that it would create, not soldiers for a political cause, but advocates for social change.
If we are the church of God, conveying the message of the gospel…which (at its heart) is a message of inclusion, love, grace, acceptance, mercy, and forgiveness, but we refuse to live out those attributes, then we might as well just shut the doors down and turn the building into a shooting range.
Perhaps that’s what E.W. Jackson wants. But I hope that it would be something more.
And I think Rev. Clementa Pinckney would have wanted that too.
December 15, 2014
I remember when I was younger, I used to love Christmas. I still do. My wife is an agnostic whose favorite season is Halloween, so you can see we have extremely compatible tastes and are a perfect fit to go through life together.
But part of the joy of Christmas is this idea of believing in miracles.
One of the things that is so beautiful of that time of year, especially for children, is this idea that they will go to sleep with aspirations of their greatest desires and awaken to find that where there was previously nothing, now arose this bounty of blessing.
I remember the first time my son was old enough to understand the notion of Santa.
When he went to bed there was nothing under the tree, and we told him that when he awoke he would find presents from Santa under the tree.
Now Ethan is the type of child every parent wished they had. In his short 5 years on this planet, he has always loved to sleep in. He never wakes up before 10 if we do not wake him. So (until my daughter was born) my wife and I never understood what it was like to have a child wake you up in the morning.
That morning, my wife and I got up early to make breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my sun run out of our room to the Christmas tree early in the morning without so much as a “how do you do.”
I followed him to the tree to see this look of amazement. What we told him was indeed true and this place where there was once nothing now there was a bounty of presents.
In his mind, there was no way that we could have gone out and bought them…so it must have been this…miracle.
While so many people love to beat down the materialistic nature of Christmas, one must be able to stand outside of it and see the beautiful metaphor that society is painting for us.
That the children, who still feel a sense of awe and wonder carry within them the faith that we once had…belief that is time and time again returned with blessing and reward.
I wonder if it is the same awe that the shepherds felt when they came upon the baby Jesus in the manger.
When I did youth ministry we would always have a white elephant gift exchange. I would tell the youth that they had a $5 limit in a gift and then I would go out and buy a gift that was about $25. While it was nothing phenomenal, it was a gift that was more desired than the other options. This was made even more powerful by the lack of expectation to receive such a gift.
To really drive the idea home, I wrapped the gift in the ugliest, stained paper bag I could find.
I would watch as the youth oftentimes passed by it, opting for the bigger and nicer wrapped gifts…which contained within them, a lesser gift.
And in that moment of great shock the youth were blown away by this fundamental truth that adults have come to know “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
That is why the Birth Myth is such a beautiful piece of literature.
The scene is set
Here come shepherds, the lowliest of the low. The most humble, and possibly detested of society at the time. And they have been revealed by someone they never met, that the hope of their future, and the hope of their families lives is found in a barn feeding trough.
As unimaginable as that sounds they still decide to go to this barn and there they see a baby. Now the narrative tells us that they were amazed. But, is that just a literary painting?
It took almost an insane amount of faith already just to go to the barn and then to add on top of that, the fact that this hope, comes from a baby?
I would have checked out.
And I know that I am not the only one. I know this because we all struggle to see truth in a being that we perceive as lesser than us.
A few years ago I was working at a church where a woman named Ronda routinely attended.
Ronda was clearly an outlier to our system. In a church where everyone was dressed nicely and formally educated, Ronda was as opposite as you could get.
Presbyterians are known for being and intellectual denomination. We pride ourselves on not succumbing to the emotionality of other Christian denominations.
Ronda was emotional.
We love to use logic and reason. Nothing excites a Presbyterian more than saying “actually…” to correct someone when we know they are wrong.
Ronda was uneducated.
Presbyterians seem to love to demonstrate that they have their lives together. Perhaps attributed to a Calvinistic history, one where people want to believe that they were predestined to have such a good education and a nice life.
Ronda was a mess.
But Ronda had something that the rest of us could never comprehend. She had this spirit of faith and love that everyone else in the church lacked.
We would all wake up in our nice big houses, shower, eat, and put on our Sunday best, then begrudgingly go to church, hoping that everything would go the way it was supposed to. Ronda would wake up in her small one bedroom apartment, skip showering, and put on the most comfortable mumu she had, put her uncombed frizzy long hair in one long pony tail and then walk 2 miles to church…with a boot on her leg.
When the affluent would walk into the church they would do so critical of whether the coffee was made, or the donuts were picked up, whether the worship candles were lit, or if the right flag was displayed outside.
Ronda didn’t care about any of those things. She stumbled into the front church, and would declare in her proudest and loudest voice.
“I am entering the gates of Gods house with thanksgiving. Thank you, thank you, thank you Jesus.”
I heard Ronda, and I was reminded of the shepherds. The lowest in society, looking for a sense of hope, anywhere that they could find it. Even in a baby lying in a feeding trough in a barn.
I honestly can tell you that, if there were shepherds who did go to this place where they were told that they would find liberation and security, and then see a baby…and STILL have faith? Then that would be faith that could move mountains.
And it is the central message of the Christ narrative.
In the moment of our least possession, hope exists to receive something.
In those times when we feel like all is lost, faith comes to us…because there is nothing left. And in those few and far between beautiful moments, the universe responds.
At the moment of Christ’s birth was this foundational statement…
Here, you will find freedom and security, hope and peace, grace and forgiveness.
It is what we all search for, isn’t it? When we step out in faith and hope, we want all of those things. It’s somehow biological to want them. From the youngest child to the oldest person. Even the toys that we buy for our kids at Christmas, they have within them the hope that those things will give them that love.
Salvation happens when that faith exists. The faith moves beyond our physical abilities to do ANYTHING. It hopes that in the moment where you are powerless, everything will still be okay.
I have been fortunate enough that I have yet to see my children go into surgery. But, I have been surrounded by those that have, and I can only imagine what that level of faith takes. For you to take this life, a life that you gave up everything you ever had for, and hand it off to another person…not to watch, or teach, play with…but to cut open, and attempt to save. It’s more than I can imagine.
But when we take those moments, large or small…and we push away from our own physical abilities and into a space of hope and prayer, that it will all work out.
November 30, 2014
“There was a boy, he was 9 years old. His name was david, and he was a witness in a human trafficking case. The information he gave me was invaluable. He sould have single handedly won the case, but the bad guys got to him first and they killed him. But here the amazing thing even after losing his son, the worst thing that could have happened to him, the dad found religion. He became a believer. One day I just had to ask him ‘How, after going through something like that, could you come out with faith?’ He said ‘In a man’s lowest place, there is no fear. Without fear, there are no limits, and that’ he said ‘was God.”
Agent J Martin Bellamy, Resurrection
A few months ago I was actively looking for conversations with anyone who would listen. My wife was so sick of hearing me talk about all of these same religious and theological ideas that she was thrilled if I found anyone else to talk to. One night we were at a friends house for a couples game night. Midway through the night I was cornered in the kitchen by a friend of a friend named Mary.
Mary was the type of person who was a self defined agnostic, she started questioning me about my career.
I usually relish these conversations because, as a progressive liberal clergyman, I get to voice my opinion about contemporary social issues that fly in the face of what most people would expect me to say. Generally I get to show off that I’m “not like any other pastor” that they have met.
However, with Mary it was different.
As I boasted about my pro-choice, gay rights, and evolutionary interpretation of scripture it appeared to make her even more and more upset.
“So, what is it that you preach?” She asked
“Well, I preach a message of love, inclusion, embracing the outsider, and justice.” I replied
“Well, are you up front about this in the pulpit, about what you really believe?”
“Well, not always, it’s hard to get people to really listen if you push it all out there.”
“So then you lie to them?”
“No, not lie, I just allow them to have their interpretation.”
“That’s just semantics, you’re lying” She said
I tried desperately to understand what really was underlying her frustration.
A few weeks later in a conversation with my father I began to realize it. As much as an agnostic as Mary claimed to be, as much as she was turned off by religion because of how she saw it affect close friends and family around her, Mary was a faith person.
I’ve met numerous faith people in my life.
My sister is a faith person.
The difference between our worldviews could be as different as our names, Reuben and Heaven.
Faith is such a fundamental concept of any religious system. It is with some embarrassment that I have to admit, I am not a faith person.
You see there are 2 types of people when it comes to religion; faith people and law people.
I’m a law person.
I need a system of rules and regulations that define morality.
I love getting in conversations with people who wonder how I can be liberal and Christian.
“It’s simple” I say “my liberalism has laws.”
So many conservatives believe that being liberal means getting to do anything you want; they think it means absolute freedom and pure lawlessness.
In fact it means none of that.
My liberalism is rooted in the notion that all people deserve the love of God, even at the expense of my comfort. All people deserve forgiveness. All people deserve to be welcomed and included. All people deserve equality, and when you believe in a zero sum economic game, you realize that this means that sometimes you have to sacrifice for their equality. Spiritual liberalism means that you must be willing to see a spark of the divine in all people, and be seeing this spark; you must be willing to treat all people as divine, even when you don’t feel like it.
I need these rules. I think we all do. Some people may disagree, but my interpretation of scripture has led me to believe that this thing we see as “original sin” is rooted in those things. To be linked back in to the ways of God is to abandon these sinful behaviors and see people the way God sees them.
So the rules make sense to me.
However, there are other people. People like Mary, people like Heaven. For them, the system of rules doesn’t work as well as the system of faith.
I was brought up with a concept of Victorian era purity standards. It is a mentality that many evangelical Christians are raised with. It is rooted in covenantal language of punishment and reward. The concepts fit quite well if you think about it (so long as you don’t think too much.) If you abstain from sex until marriage, then you will be rewarded; with a virgin bride or groom, a positive sex life, and an essence of purity. Should you choose to sin, well then you could contract an STD, you could get pregnant, or you might ruin your life and get stuck in a marriage long before you want one.
Of course this way of thinking leads to slut shaming and an unhealthy shame for all things sexual, leading to guilt and shadowy secrets, but it fits the system well.
I couldn’t vocalize the concept at the time, but it was the root of covenantal theology rising to the forefront. I believed in a system where if I did good, I would be rewarded, and if I did bad, I would be punished. Now I was being “punished” even though I did “good.”
Many people don’t know the evolution of Satan.
If you read the Bible chronologically, the notion of “Satan” doesn’t really come into play historically until the Jews are in exile. Up until this time the concept of covenantal theology worked for them. Do good, and good will happen, do bad and bad will happen.
All of a sudden, when they were in Babylonian captivity and exile, they had to know what had gone wrong. Much of the struggle of this problem of evil can be seen through the book of Job.
The conclusion, it must be an outside actor, a Satan figure that is allowed to cause this evil in the world.
The notion of having Satan does well to solve a problem of cognitive dissonance, but is it a healthy concept for understanding the struggle for individuals in the world?
The true essence of Christianity is the notion of faith. Aside from what many in the conservative evangelical circles might have you believe, it has nothing to do with the universal “right and wrong” attributed to covenantal theology. It isn’t even about a Satan figure with a pointy tail and a red pitch fork standing over your shoulder telling you to do bad things.
The essence of Christianity is in faith.
When we have faith, we have no fear. The concepts of fear and faith are paradoxical, they cannot co-exist in the same world.
The message of Christ was all about coming to this place of no fear.
When Christ came, he came to those without power. He came to people without money, the ones who were the lowest of the lowly, the outcast of society.
These people are prime targets for fear.
They were afraid of tax collectors who take their money. They were afraid of religious leaders who would make them outcasts. They were afraid of political leaders who would take their lives.
But Christ came to them and said, above all else, there is no fear, there are no limits.
When you take fear out of the equation, then the debt collector has no ammunition to leverage, the oppressor has no weapon to strike with. When you have no fear, even of death, then the power of anyone to come and take your life is gone.
This is the essential message of faith. A life of freedom.
This is the everlasting life that Christ promises.
A life of faith.
November 16, 2014
Tonight my son wanted me to read him a bedtime story. He loves when I read him things (as long as it’s nothing that I might actually enjoy.) So I read one of his recent Clifford the big red dog books. After I was done reading to him, he asked if he could have a toy.
I obliged and walked him to his room, after he picked one up (and I picked a lego out of my foot) I heard him mumbling something monsters. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was asking his Ninja Turtle to protect him from monsters.
My son has been talking more about his bad dreams (and I find it interesting that he cannot separate fiction from reality. For him, what exists in his dream does not exist in the real world. I recently had to explain to my son why he didn’t have a toy when he woke up because he remembered getting one from “The Red Store” 5 minutes before in his dream. And we want to think that this being…which cannot distinguish a basic reality such as that…and regress it 4 ½ -5 years, and take this minute sub being without and credible scientific certainty and claim that IT…is a life.
But I digress, I took this as an opportunity to help to evolve my son by explaining to him the difference between the dream and reality.
“Yeah dude” (That’s not a typo…in terminology from my four year old son to his father…the being that gave him life, I have regressed from dad, to Reuben, to dude…DUDE, like a frickin surfer.)
“I told you not to call me that”
“Good Enough…Did you know that when I bought that for you last week, the lady at the checkout said it was a magic ninja?”
My son FLIPPED out!
“Really Dad?” (Now I’m dad…I buy you a toy, I’m dude…I buy you magic, I’m dad)
“Yeah…all you have to say is ‘Rafael, can you promise to keep monsters away from me and protect me in my dreams?’”
“Do you wanna say it?”
A look of terror comes over his face…he looks at the rubber green toy ninja like it’s a God!
“I guess so”
“I don’t know what to say”
So I decide to lead him
“Dear Rafael, can you promise to keep the monsters away and protect me while I sleep.”
He repeats every word like he believes it.
That’s when I realized it
“I just led my son to his personal lord and savior…Rafael!”
It was a beautiful, and sacrilegious, and cute, and sad, moment all rolled into one.
But then I began to think. What is it really that I am doing?
In that moment, I didn’t suddenly become a fundamental Christian. In fact most people would think I crossed over into full fledged atheist.
What I experienced in that moment was this blissful notion that my son was able to take his hope and prayer and in FAITH, step out and believe in his heart that he was going to be protected and kept safe, perhaps not just for that moment, but for eternity…by his ninja turtle.
The moment was no less special because I said the name Rafael, than if I said the name Jesus. You cannot escape the reality that in that instant my son experienced a phenomenal moment in the life of every human being.
The church calls this moment salvation. The moment when one steps out of an undoubtedly small existence and say…I choose to hope, I choose to believe, I choose to have faith, I choose to meditate, I choose to trust that my well being is not contingent on the things that I have…but on the fact that I have hope and salvation in this act of placing my trust in another.
It is a moment of letting go…of abandoning one’s own strength and power and allowing the concept of “maybe” to come into their life.
And if a person finds that moment through a process called Christianity, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Islam, or Paganism, or Agnosticism, or even Atheism, then they have truly encountered the divine.
It is this idea that unites us. For you see the things that push us to division are the very things that are necessary for all of humanity to exist as an organism.
So I kissed my son, and I saw him drift off to sleep with the most peaceful look I have seen on his face in a while.
And I knew, I know…that I will remember that moment as profound and meaningful in his life.