Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Can We Talk about Sex, Please?

In the past few weeks, I have had important and revealing conversations about sex in three different contexts:  two different classes and one adult Sunday School forum.  And, in each of those conversations, I came away with the same two impressions:  first, how very important it is for the church to be talking about sex; and second, how very poorly-equipped we are to do it--centuries of taboo and silence don't make it an easy conversation to have, and most of us have precious little practice.  So, mostly, the church and its public leaders continue to say nothing:  nothing about what it means to be a sexual being [and what it means to say that Jesus was a sexual being], nothing about the difference between sex and gender, nothing about what faithful sexual practices might look like in our 21st century context, and nothing about the joy, the giftedness of our sexuality--we're too busy spotlighting its brokenness, apparently.

However, I am deeply concerned that young people in particular are growing up in our churches without a safe place to talk about their own fears and hopes around their sexuality, and without any tools to help them integrate their sexuality into their larger life in Christ.  What message do we think we are sending when we refuse to have the conversations?  Where are we sending them to get their information?   And frankly, I'm concerned about old people, too--people who were raised at a time when no one talked with them about sex, not even their parents, and now they find themselves at a stage in their lives where perhaps conversation would be fruitful and helpful:  What do we say to widows and widowers?  What do we say to those on medication, and those facing treatment for prostate cancer?

For far, far too long, sex has been seen and described by the church as dirty, shameful and sinful, and only permissible in the most restrictive of circumstances [check out the flow chart from James Brundage here: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/a-sexual-decision-flowchart-that-makes-everything-simpler-for-medieval-men/283364/ ].  This has had tragic anthropological ramifications, particularly when it comes to how we view our bodies--and more to the point, how hard it is for us to see them as part of God's good creation.  There is simply no reason this should be, and it is my fervent hope that the generation of public ministers coming out of seminary today [at least Gettysburg Seminary!] are not going to perpetuate that negative pattern, but instead will create the space necessary for the church to have these conversations in a way that is life-giving and nurtures people's relationships with each other and with God.

Why, you may ask, am I talking about sex today?  It's because of this article in The New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/07/opinion/neither-female-nor-male.html?_r=0.  What in the world is a Christian response to Norrie May-Welby? How is the church going to speak to "the global third-gender movement" that is "gaining momentum with a startling rapidity that our laws and language are scrambling to keep pace with"?  I don't have any great answers for the latter question, but I do know the starting place for the first:  Norrie, just like you and me, is a beloved child of God, created good.  Let's start with that step, and then keep walking.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why I Loved "Noah"

Can you stand reading another Christian post about "Noah"?  I'll be brief.  OK--maybe "love" is a bit too strong a word:  I would have loved the movie if it weren't so long and bloated [the bane of all Hollywood epics], but, as it was, I did really, really like it--and here's why.  [Oh, and there are spoilers, so if you haven't seen it yet & want to be surprised, come back and read this post after you've seen it.]

First, it wasn't a retelling of the biblical story, which I know is why some Christians were both disappointed and angry.  But frankly, for my money, what we got was something better: not a retelling, but an attempt to explain what the story means, and why it matters still today.  [In that sense, I felt like it was something along the lines of Jewish Midrash, the wonderful body of work that seeks to interpret biblical stories and "fill in the gaps" as it were, of the biblical text.  So, for example, the movie answers the question on which the Bible is silent:  "How was it that the animals didn't fight on the ark?"  Noah and his family had a mixture of herbs that they burned that kept the animals asleep.]  I especially appreciated that attempt with this particular story, which we have turned into a children's fable, complete with smiling coupled figurines and a perfect rainbow. It looks nice, but it doesn't mean anything--it doesn't make any sense, theologically, when viewed that way, because the fact is, it's about as far from a children's story as you can find in the Bible.  There is terror and horror in this story:  horror for creation, horror for humanity, and especially, horror for Noah.  There's reason why when Noah finally gets off the ark, the first thing he does after building an altar to God is to get drunk and pass out naked.

One of the main theological issues the story wrestles with is the tension between "innocence" and "wickedness."  Noah becomes convinced that God is going to destroy the world by water [Another great aspect of the movie, I think, is that Noah isn't always sure what God wants of him--there is no clear divine voice from heaven, and Noah has to try and sort out what he's being called to do.  Yeah, I get that.], and that God is calling him to build an ark to "save the innocent."  This does not include humanity, of course:  we get plenty of evidence [more than one needs, really] that human beings--led by Tubal-cain [look it up--I had to] have degenerated into monsters; and not because they have given themselves over to debauchery but because they are threatening the very existence of the whole world itself.  It's pride here that stands out--the desire to take God's place and be like God:  "having dominion" and "subduing" are pursued with a vengeance.  [Tubal-cain actually has a pretty big role in the movie:  he is human hubris personified.]

But, as Noah discovers, it's not so easy to separate out the wicked from the innocent, and he comes to see that he and his family also are implicated in the sin of humanity [Ham has it the worst, of course]; and he comes to the terrible conclusion that humanity itself must cease to exist in the new creation that God will bring forth from the ark.  Therefore he does not procure wives for his sons:  his adopted daughter Ila, whom Shem loves, is barren, so he doesn't have to worry about her.  They all will die in the new creation, and with them, humanity will come to an end.  It's a heart-rending decision, not only when he and his family are forced to ignore the cries of the humans dying in fear and despair outside the walls of the ark as the water rises, but even more when Ila is found to be miraculously pregnant [thanks to Anthony Hopkins' fabulous Methuselah], and bears twin daughters, whom Noah has sworn to kill.

However, when the moment comes, he can't do it:  he later tells Ila that when he looked down and saw them, his heart was filled with only love--and he interprets this as failing God.  But Ila [turns out Emma Watson is not only a great wizard but also a great theologian] offers a different interpretation, suggesting that God gave Noah the choice, and Noah chose mercy over judgment, offering hope for humanity in the new creation--and perhaps that was what God intended all along.

This tension between good and evil runs through the movie--I think that is why they snuck Tubal-cain onto the ark:  even in the midst of what is supposed to be pure innocence, death and evil lurk.  Of course, this tension also runs through the Bible; and it still runs through human existence today--through each of us as individuals and in society as a whole--often with the earth itself in its cross-hairs, just like it was in the movie.  And, this same tension runs through our relationship with God and through God's relationship with us; I'm convinced that the biblical story of Noah is one way the Bible seeks to elaborate on and explain that tension.  The way the movie plays out, we see that clearly, as well as the fact that the happy ending we get comes with a great cost, and actually has a shadow hanging over it.  There is a rainbow of sorts, but it's not perfectly formed, or perfectly clear--I liked that, too.  The story of Noah and the flood is not a children's story: it's a story of overwhelming loss, despair, brokenness and destruction, with only the thinnest, most tenuous of promises keeping the whole thing from shattering into pieces. Yet, it doesn't shatter, and the world, and humanity survive.  Mercy does win out:  in God, in Noah and the flourishing creation we see at the end.  But still:  Ham leaves his family, and we wonder what will become of him, he who has been the most conflicted character throughout the story.

So, as I said, I really liked it, and I'm glad I saw it.  Oh, and one more thing:  I agree wholeheartedly with the opinion of Adam Buff:  this movie has the best visual depiction of the seven days of creation I have ever seen--seriously, it was worth the price of the movie.  It was gorgeous and powerful [and unabashedly evolutionist], and I can't wait until it's up on YouTube!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

"He Descended into Hell"

The past few weeks in chapel we have been reflecting on the different lines of the Creed; and when the schedule originally came out, I jumped on the chance to lead worship today, when the line was "he descended into the dead."  That's the new ELW default position, anyway, although it notes "descended into hell" is also an option--and I think it's a better one.  In fact, I drive everyone around me crazy when we say the Creed, because I ALWAYS say "descended into hell."  

The reason for that is, as far as I'm concerned, "he descended into hell" is the heart of what it means to say that Jesus saves us:  it illuminates so powerfully that God's fundamental disposition to us is as a lover seeking out the beloved, refusing to leave us, refusing to abandon us, refusing to let us live or die alone.  Jesus' descent into hell represents God's presence in the darkest of dark places, the places of the most terrible suffering, the places that before Easter were considered "Godforsaken."  The descent into hell changes all that--there is no more "Godforsaken"--and it points to the reality that God has flooded even the very nadir of human sinfulness with the light of God's own presence.  The darkness now has nowhere to hide.  Regardless of the horrors we experience, and regardless of how abandoned and lost we may feel, we are not alone--God is with us, and promises to walk with us and carry through to daylight on the other side.  Jesus lived his life and ministry in that kind of solidarity, and continued right on up through his death into the resurrection.  It's an almost unfathomable display of radical love--and it changes everything.

So, instead of preaching a sermon, I wrote a poem [of sorts...].  It's not great--I'm no poet, but it does convey how much this idea means to me, and how much I think it matters for Christian faith today. So, I'm sharing it.

            “Jesus saves”—the Gospel message.
          The how and why—“he descended into hell.”
          Precious hours between cross and rolled-away stone.
          A sermon preached,
          A hand reached-down for Adam, for Eve—
          Pulled out of the pit by the scruff of their necks;
          And still time enough to find Judas, and hold him close and set him free.
          Precious hours between cross and rolled-away stone.

          For this he died:
          Not punishment, not sacrifice,
          But for this:  “he descended into hell.”
          And for this, he lived.

          He descended into hemorrhages:
            Unclean, impure, endlessly washing bloody rags—
          Cut off, cast-out, alone and untouchable.
          He descended into hell.

          He descended into sin exposed:
Nakedness, taintedness, temptress, adulterous;
Called-out, dragged-out, scorned and stoned-almost.
He descended into hell.

He descended into illness:
Demon-possessed, leprosy-ravaged,
Lame and helpless; passed by and overlooked at the Sheep Gate.
He descended into hell.

He descended into wayward:
Astray, off-course, obdurate, and afraid,
Lost sheep alone in the dark, in the valley, in the depths.
He descended into hell.

He descended into death:
Sisters grieving, neighbors weeping—the one no more
Wrapped and rank four days in a tomb.
He descended into hell.

He descended.
For thieves and Pharisees,
For pastors and prostitutes,
For tax-collectors and politicians.
He descended into hell.

He descended.
For the sex-trafficked and the drug-addled,
For the refugee and the migrant,
For the prisoner and the impoverished.
He descended into hell.

But the best, saved for last—the why.
Love, of course.
Love that will not leave alone,
Will not let suffer, grieve alone, die alone.
Love that walks with,
Holds up, carries across.
Love that forges a path, makes a way, builds a bridge.

Divine love that seeks out, insistent;
Self-gives, extravagant;
Draws near, persistent;
Dwells in, steadfast.

Love that says, “forever.”
Love that says, “forgiven.”
Love that says, “yes.”
Love that says, “come.”

He descended into hell,
And hell is obliterated and vacated;
flooded and flushed clean with love’s surging waters.
He descended into hell,
And hell is upended, and ended;
Damnable darkness banished in bright light everlasting.
He descended.

And so it is finished, and so it is just begun.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Where are You Going after You Die?

Where are going to end up after you die?  No, this isn't a question about the state of your immortal soul [actually, I don't believe in such a thing:  Christians confess the resurrection of the body, which is something quite different]--but rather a literal inquiry:  what's going to happen to your body when you die?  Are you going to be cremated?  Donated to science?  Or, if you are like most people in this country, perhaps your body is going to be pumped full of formaldehyde, placed in an expensive metal coffin and buried in a concrete vault.  Not quite "ashes to ashes" is it?

The following article in The New York Times got my attention because one of the classes I am teaching this semester is a "doing theology with your neighbor"--where the students are invited to think deeply about the beliefs and practices of another religious tradition such that their own understanding of Christianity might be both challenged and enhanced.


One of the interesting places for this type of interreligious reflection, of course, are the practices around death--in no small part because they reveal so much about what each religion teaches and believes about the human being:  the worth of the body, the understanding of life after death, and the acknowledgment of the interrelatedness between humanity and the rest of creation--or not.  And, of course, it's also an interesting place where common practice often doesn't match up with official teaching, which, I would argue, is the case for many Christians.

As we become more and more aware of the environmental crisis facing the planet, and also more and more aware of human culpability in that crisis, many Christians are realizing the need for a more holistic and interrelated understanding of what it means to be human--and the kind of practices around death and funerals such an interrelated understanding might foster.  We are a part of, and not above, the ecosystems in which we live; and therefore our own resurrection is bound up with and connected to the grand resurrection and restoration of earth promised in the eschaton.  Surely God is not dependent upon our literal preservation of every bit and scrap of our body to ensure a complete resurrection:  knee replacements, organ transplants, amputations--surely that ship will sail for most of us long before we die. So, why the expensive time- and space-consuming [and ultimately futile] activity of preserving and protecting our bodies after death?  Preserving them for what?  Protecting them from what?

For me, I appreciate the theological statement that is made with a "green burial:"  an invitation for God to create life out of our death, and a radical trust that we will be resurrected, not simply as individuals, but as a small but integral part of the glorious, diverse, beautiful cosmos God cares for and loves so deeply.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

In Defense of Chocolate--Perennial Lenten Whipping Boy

OK--this post is somewhat mis-titled:  it really should be "In Defense of Giving Up Chocolate for Lent" which, at least in my community, is definitely the go-to negative example of what you are "supposed" to do for Lent, and what Lent is really about.  But, here's the thing--and this is my "true confessions" moment for the week--I DO give up chocolate for Lent, and I have for over a decade; and I'm not ashamed to admit it. [Well, maybe a little ashamed, given all the bad press, but I'm outing myself now!]  So, I just want to take a couple paragraphs to explain why I do it, and why it has become an important, powerful part of my yearly Lenten journey to the cross.  Now it's true that giving up chocolate isn't my only Lenten practice, and it doesn't stand alone.  However, to be honest, I also need to say that the one year I didn't give up chocolate [caving in to peer-pressure], I really, really missed it--and it didn't feel at all like Lent to me. So, even though it isn't my only practice, I'd be lying if I said giving up chocolate wasn't a central part of my Lenten discipline--and the discipline I cherish the most.
OK--so here's how it works for me:  there are three interconnected pieces to the practice that I find meaningful.  First, I love chocolate--I mean, really, really love it.  I eat it every day, usually more than once a day, and it's a go-to reward/pick-me-up/consolation prize--you name it.  So, it's a genuine sacrifice for me not to eat it for 6 weeks or so.  Am I replicating Jesus' sacrifice on the cross?  No, I am not--and, regardless of what you are doing, neither are you--that's not the point.  Rather, giving up chocolate is way of reminding myself that God comes first in my life, before anything else; and this "giving up" of something I desire is a form of offering something that I love up to God.  And at the same time, it offers me the opportunity to reflect intentionally on all my desires, being honest with myself about the ways they deepen and enhance my relationships with God and others, and the ways they obstruct or weaken them.

And this leads to the second piece:  every time I think about chocolate or see chocolate or miss eating chocolate--and from my vantage point, that is quite frequently!--I'm reminded of God and this Lenten walk, and I'm prompted to say a brief prayer of gratitude for the food I do have, or a prayer of intercession for those who go hungry.  So, with the removal of a daily act that often is quite mindless [popping a piece of chocolate in my mouth as I'm walking out the door and talking on the phone], space has been created for a more mindful connection with God and with others.

Finally, the last piece of this practice is that it gives me a chance to put a little more in the offering plate each week.  I'm not breaking the bank with my chocolate consumption and I'm not actually doing the math--calculating what I'm not spending each week and so on--so I don't want to overstate this.  It's really more about connecting my "giving up" with a concrete "giving to" my neighbor, connecting a "taking away" with a "giving back."

So, there it is.  Say what you will:  giving up chocolate for Lent may be superficial, it may be childish, and there may be a dozen things I could do that would be "better"--that may all be true.  Nevertheless, I have come to truly value--even look forward to--this practice, and I plan to keep it.

Ultimately, though, I think what is most important is finding a Lenten practice that really works for you in the particular time and place you find yourself this year.  One of the things I love most about Lent is that it provides the structure and explicit invitation to a more intentional engagement with one's faith in a way that manifests itself in concrete practices in the world.  Of course, I could take on any number of spiritual disciplines any time of the year, but mostly I don't, so I treasure Lent for carving out the time and place for spiritual reflection and discipline, and offering what I find to be an irresistible invitation to these practices year after year.  I hope you do, too.

And six weeks from now, I'll be the one at the Easter Vigil with the chocolate in her purse, waiting for the joyous proclamation that "He is Risen!"

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Most Un-Christian Legislation

You may, as a Christian, believe homosexuality is a sin.  And you may, as a Christian, marshal biblical and theological arguments to support that belief.  I know those texts, I know those arguments, and I understand the resulting theological opinion.  [Just to be clear, I do disagree with it, however:  I believe that gays and lesbians are sinners in exactly the same way heterosexuals are sinners--by virtue of our common sinful human nature, not by virtue of whom they love.]  

However, what is entirely illegitimate is to take that belief one step further, and argue, on religious grounds, your right not to serve gays and lesbians.  This is what has happened in Arizona:  read the story here--http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/21/us/arizona-anti-gay-bill/
The opening line of the story says it all:   "Arizona's Legislature has passed a controversial bill that would allow business owners, as long as they assert their religious beliefs, to deny service to gay and lesbian customers."  

Here's the problem.  While Jesus didn't say anything explicitly about gays and lesbians, he did have a great deal to say about one's neighbor and the obligation a Christian has in regards to her neighbor.  In a word, that obligation is love.  Let's take just two of the most famous examples.  First, in the Gospel of Matthew, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” [Matthew 22:36-40].  The second example comes from the Gospel of John, in the hours before Jesus’ arrest. 
After Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and is preparing for his betrayal and death, he says to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

These two verses make clear that love is a primary (if not the primary) mode of being in which Christians are to live their lives:  it suffices as a summary of all the other commandments and prophetic words of the Lord; it is an indispensable core component of fidelity to God; and it is the defining characteristic of one’s identity as a follower of Jesus.  Elizabeth Johnson writes that since God is present in the whole of the world, “profoundly present and committed to the world and every person in it,” “loving God means loving the world.” Thus, it can be argued persuasively that it is impossible to love God without loving one’s neighbor, and that calling oneself a Christian while hating others is a fundamental contradiction.  And, let's be clear about Jesus' understanding of "the neighbor:" Jesus was insistent that the category of neighbor even includes one's "enemy," and that Christians are commanded to love them as well.

So, how does this relate to this situation?  Well, when Jesus wanted to concretize what love actually looks like in real life, he pointed to service:  he makes the connection for the lawyer with the parable of the Good Samaritan; and he makes it for the disciples by washing their feet.  So, one can make a strong case that for Christians, the paradigmatic way in which they express love for their neighbor is by serving them:  giving them food when they need it, clothing when they need it, coffee when they need it, a hotel room, medical attention, a pedicure, etc., etc.  

In short, then, this "religious exception" is a complete and total sham--a perversion of a command that stands at the core of the gospel message, and a pitiful attempt to cloak old-fashioned discrimination and persecution in religious dress.  I, for one, am not buying it, and it needs to be exposed for exactly what it is.  You may not want to serve gays and lesbians, but make no mistake, in acting on that desire, you put yourself unequivocally in opposition to everything Jesus' ministry was about, everything he commanded his followers to do, and everything he died on the cross to free us for.  I can think of lots of names for that kind of behavior, but "Christian" is most certainly not one of them.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Whose Right, and to What Kind of Life?

I don't know where you stand on abortion:  we all know it's an issue fraught with challenging ethical and theological questions, complicated by individuals' personal experiences.  There doesn't feel like there is one good, "right" answer--at least to me--and any time I've had a conversation about abortion with anyone, I end up walking away feeling confused, sad, and frustrated--usually all at the same time!  I fully believe that women should have the ability to end a pregnancy safely, without putting their own lives as risk--and I also think that it's a tragic decision to have to make, which I know has lasting ramifications for the women and the families involved.

However, the other thing that I firmly believe is that all women should have the same access to both birth control and abortion facilities, regardless of their economic situation; and this is why this post in The New Yorker is so unsettling:


As the author notes, issues of race and class are involved in who gets abortions--not least because of who has access to reliable birth control--and where/how they get them.  I was particularly disturbed to read that women in Texas who can't make a 500 mile trip to the nearest clinic choose must travel into Mexico to buy a drug that has dangerous side-effects as the only alternative.

We were just talking in one of my classes about Hinduism, and my students were uniformly [and rightly] critical of the caste system, which oppresses so many people--particularly women--in India still today.  However, they also recognized that even though we don't have an "official" caste system here [and, to be fair, India doesn't either, having legally abolished it in the Indian constitution in 1949], we still have a deeply unjust social system that discriminates against both people of color and people who are poor.  So, in the case of abortion, which is legal in this country and thus should be available to anyone, but in actuality is vulnerable to a wide range of restrictive legislation, we find ourselves with a two-tier system in which the white privileged group has access to safe health care, and the minority underserved group lacks that access.

This also is a theological issue:  regardless of whether or not you think abortion should or should not be legal, it certainly is unjust to have it available only for those who have money and status.  If women have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, then all women have that right, not just wealthy women.  And if women have the right to choose whether or not they want children, then all women have that right, not just white women. Forcing women in poverty to have children when they have neither the desire nor the means to care for them isn't justice, it's surrogacy; and if we want ourselves and our own daughters/wives/sisters/mothers to have access to a safe abortion if [unfortunately] we/they ever need it, then we need to make sure that same access is available for everyone's daughters/wives/sisters/mothers, regardless of their skin color, where they live, or how much money they have.