Redeem Regret, Sin Boldly

Some Christians talk a lot about the forgiveness of sin, but I don’t know many people who actually worry about that very much. I do know quite a few who can’t imagine overcoming their regret.

The difference between sin and regret appears quite readily in those moments (surely we all have them) when we’re plagued by the “might have been, but wasn’t” or the “could have happened, but didn’t.”

To be sure, sin and regret are deeply intertwined, but I still think there’s a distinction worth making between them, not only for our personal spiritual lives but also for the planetary quandaries and crises we face today.

Consider the Easter lectionary for this coming Sunday, which gives us a regretful Jesus. The scene comes from the “Farewell Discourse” in John’s Gospel (chapters 14-17), right before the crucifixion, when Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends and giving them some parting thoughts.

I don’t read much “job well done!” in that discourse. I do see a lot of Schindler in it.

In Schindler’s List, Stephen Spielberg’s film portrayal of Oskar Schindler’s life, the final scene depicts Schindler surrounded by hundreds of Jews, the ones he’s helped to escape from Nazi Germany. One of those gathered there thanks Schindler for what he’s done. Schindler realizes, however, that he could have done more – “I didn’t do enough,” he says. He begins to weep, realizing how many more he could have saved.

I do think John’s Jesus was feeling much the same thing as Schindler; it’s a moment of poignant regret. I can certainly sympathize.

As I write this blog right now I realize that I might have arranged my day differently and accomplished more. I could have taken less time for that so I could do this better (just fill in the blanks for “that” and “this” any way you choose). All those “might have” and “could have” phrases can terrorize us, especially at 3:00 in the morning.

John’s Jesus can help because he’s not just poignantly regretful but also, queerly enough, buoyantly hopeful. In what many of us will hear on Sunday, just one week from Pentecost, Jesus promises that all his friends will be one, united with him and God (14:20) and that all of them – and us – will receive the Spirit of truth (14:16-17).

I take those convoluted verses in John’s gospel to mean at least two key things. First, none of us can bear regret alone, and shouldn’t, because none of us can do everything. In fact, the only way the really important stuff ever gets done is if we do it together – united to Christ and one another in the power of that Spirit.

Second, each of us will always need to pass the torch on to others even though all of us play indispensable roles in God’s wild, crazy, loving, and gracious plan for the world.  No matter how big or how small you think your role is, it’s absolutely necessary.

So what does any of this queerly Christian stuff have to do with the global conundrums we all presently face? Quite a lot, actually.

Regret often surfaces in the wake of risk avoidance. If you’re plagued with regret (like I am), you know exactly what I mean. The “might have been” moment usually occurs because we gave in to one of three fears: 1) the fear of losing something; or 2) the fear of looking foolish; or 3) the fear of making a mistake. Or perhaps all three at the same time.

If the queerly regretful Jesus teaches us nothing else about God and faith, surely it’s this: none of it comes with guarantees. We simply have to plunge in and forge ahead with the vulnerability of trust and take risks. Or as Martin Luther once reportedly said, “Sin boldly – and throw yourself on the mercy of God!” Constantly worrying about the possibility of failure, in other words, will usually prevent us from doing anything at all. (I like to think that the tagline for Pacific School of Religion, where I work – “A Tradition of Boldness” – reflects Luther’s insight.)

Our politicians, elected leaders, legislative bodies, international consultations – everyone, really – needs to start sinning boldly. Holding back, avoiding risk, not taking chances, worrying about what people will think – we don’t have time for that anymore. The planet itself is begging us to be bold. If we don’t do that, the regret really will be unbearable.

Sure, mistakes will happen and everyone will fail now and then. But we don’t have to worry about that. God is always more ready to forgive than we are to take risks. And the confidence Jesus offers about forgiveness also just happens to be the way to fend off regret for good.


Peculiar Pentecost: An Agenda

The tide is turning. Can you feel it? Newscasters and sports figures alike are “coming out.” Marriage and/or civil unions are taking root in more and more jurisdictions (the latest polling numbers now show a majority of Americans supporting marriage for same-sex couples). The Presbyterians will welcome openly gay and lesbian clergy. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and the U.S. Justice Department won’t defend the “Defense of Marriage Act” in court.

That’s pretty heady stuff. The prize, it would seem, really is within reach.

But I’m not popping the champagne cork just yet. Sure, backlash is a real possibility. But I worry more that the sights are set too low. Legislative and judicial victories rarely change hearts and minds, for example. And changing an ordination policy doesn’t automatically change congregations. And what kind of change do we want, really?

A similar dynamic seems to have seized the first disciples of Jesus. On the brink of the risen Jesus’ ascension, they ask him whether that profound moment of resurrection signaled at long last the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6).

The disciples’ question is not quite so random as it might appear. The “kingdom” they had in mind was the only benchmark they had ever known for the good life. Surely in that moment, when even crucifixion can’t thwart God’s mission in the world, it’s time for the “happily ever after” moment and roll the credits. I mean, really, after death is conquered, what’s left?

Quite a lot, apparently.

Here’s the peculiar part: the resurrection of Jesus was not the end of the story, not by far. According to Acts, those disciples still had an amazing adventure stretching before them. The Spirit they received on Pentecost empowered them to take up the Jesus-revolution where Jesus had left off – and take it even farther.

A short list from Acts offers a glimpse of what that looked like: overturning economic systems that keep the poor in poverty (4:34-35); resisting institutional authorities jealous of their own power (5:17-26); dissolving social and class boundaries (8:25-40); and reshaping cultural and religious standards of propriety (10:9-30). In what is perhaps the best shorthand description of what a peculiar faith can do, Acts declares that those early Christians turned the “world upside down” (17:6).

That’s pretty heady stuff, too – and that work isn’t finished yet either, not by far.

Prior to that Spirit-led adventure, the disciples seemed stuck in a first century version of the “gay agenda.” Since the 1980s, that agenda could be summed up with a single phrase: “demanding a place at the table.” I’ve worked hard on that agenda myself. Yet I’m haunted by that “Holy Ghost” who seems much more bent on overturning tables than adding a few more chairs.

The Feast of Pentecost (June 12 this year) offers a great opportunity for an agenda set by that peculiar Pentecost. Maybe “vision” is better than “agenda” – a vision where not everyone looks the same or acts alike or buys into the institutional systems that are, actually, killing us.

A Pentecostal agenda begins with some peculiar if not impertinent questions: Why are health care and tax benefits attached to marriage at all? When will more of us resist the forces of global capitalism that seek to turn everyone into a market niche so we can buy still more stuff while the planet slowly dies? Why are there so few LGBT-identified people at immigration reform rallies and labor union meetings? Now that openly gay and lesbian people can serve in the armed forces, when will we start dismantling the military-industrial complex that compels so many low-income people to enlist because they have no other job prospects?

Even that short list of peculiar questions makes the so-called gay agenda seem rather tame.

Those first disciples asked the risen Jesus the wrong question (as I’m sure I would have, too). Wrong, because the resurrection doesn’t “restore” anything; but it does make everything new – or rather, that’s the promise. And the promise starts to take root when we hear Jesus say this to his disciples: ”You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8).

Well, power to do what, exactly? That’s the question Pentecost ought to pose to every Christian community. Not every community will answer it in exactly the same way and the peculiar visions that emerge will need the insights from all the others. Those first-century disciples quickly discovered something similar, and something else as well: that peculiar Pentecost turned the world upside down.Thank God.


Apocalypse Now or Later?

Harold Camping and his fervent followers in Oakland, California believe that the world will end this Saturday, May 21. (Read about the prediction here.) It’s rather easy to ridicule such beliefs and dismiss this group as just bizarre. But have you read any church history lately?  The whole history of Christianity, from the very beginning, brims over with peculiarities, with one bizarre moment after another.

And what about the Bible? Are those ancient texts really less strange than Camping’s sermons? This Sunday, many Christians will hear a portion of John’s Gospel from the Easter lectionary, including this promise from Jesus: “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (14:3). To me, that sounds only just a little less peculiar than what Harold Camping is preaching. (Read my take on the queerness of the Bible here.)

Given the trendy enthusiasm for atheism these days, some would insist that just believing in God at all is really peculiar if not downright queer.

So I’m not troubled by the oddity of Camping’s predictions. If you’re not odd in some fashion, then you’re really not Christian. I do worry, however, about those among his multiracial, multi-generational community who have forked over their life savings to bankroll the multi-million dollar media campaign that has brought all of this to our attention.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the world does not come to an end on Saturday. Well, who’s going to manage all those really angry, newly-poor people?

But there’s something else I worry about even more: the severe division of humanity between those who will escape the catastrophe and those who are left behind. That’s the core of Camping’s message and why we see his billboards along Bay Area highways.

Philosopher of religion Edith Wyschogrod identified the root of this problem as the “great sorting myths” of Western culture. She means those grand narratives that divide the saved from the damned, or the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25:32-33). Those myths, Wyschogrod argues, have inspired some of the most distressing moments in Western history, fiercely punctuated by Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and gas chambers.

To be sure, one can read the Bible as supporting those sorting myths, just as Harold Camping is doing right now. But there are just as many, if not more ways to read the Bible quite differently.

In that same portion of John’s Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus declares that in God’s house there are many mansions (14:2). Don’t skip over the queerness of that image too quickly. (Think of Dr. Who’s phone booth that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.) That Gospel image ought to stretch our credulity far enough to imagine that there really is enough divine grace to go around for everyone and not just a select few.

(For you theology geeks out there: I do subscribe to the “doctrine of election,” but it’s Karl Barth’s version – everyone belongs to the elect. And if that isn’t queer, I don’t know what is.)

I find it helpful to recall that the original meaning of the word “apocalypse” does not demand some kind of doomsday catastrophe. That Greek word just means “revelation” or “unveiling.” In that sense, what we read in John’s Gospel is thoroughly apocalyptic: the unveiling of God’s wildly generous hospitality that will make room for everyone, no exceptions.

Queerly enough, I consider myself an “apocalyptic Christian.” Worlds actually do come to an end, and quite regularly – the world of one’s personal relationships, the world of professional work, the world of economic stability, the world of thriving ecosystems. All of these “worlds” and many more do on occasion come to an end.

The question all those world-ending moments pose is not how to find the “escape hatch” where we can scramble out with our friends and loved ones and let everyone else go to hell. The question is rather how to live in and through world-ending moments with others, and to do so with faith, with hope, and most especially with love (1 Cor. 13:13).

I pray for Brother Harold and his community, just like I pray for all of us. In this Easter season, may we find the faith and the hope to live into that love that is stronger than our many divisions and disagreements; stronger than any world-ending moment; stronger than death itself.


Jesus Would Run the Ad

Jim Wallis has now responded to the brouhaha. Sojourners Magazine recently refused to run an ad that shows two lesbian moms and their child being welcomed in a church. (Read the back story.)

As one of the key voices in “progressive Christianity” in the U.S., this decision by Sojourners is obviously disappointing but not terribly surprising. Sojourners’ position reflects a common though bizarre incoherence at work in many Christian communities. It comes down to this: we’ll support civil rights for lesbian and gay people; we just don’t want them in our churches.

Do Christians really hope and work for a civil society that is more welcoming than their own churches? Christians will insist on inclusive legislation but not an inclusive Gospel? Really?

Wallis offers six points in his response, most of which sound pretty good. (Read his full response.) He notes, for example, the position Sojourners has taken on anti-bullying and the commitment Sojourners has made to civil rights for lesbian and gay people. Sojourners has even welcomed gay staff members!

Points five and six, however, buried at the end of his response, offer a reminder of how easily even moderately supportive language can beguile me in a hostile religious culture.

Point #5: Sojourners’ commitment to ending the war in Afghanistan, addressing the national budget, and securing immigration reform take priority over engaging with the controversy the lesbian ad would provoke. The logic here is foreshadowed in Point #4. There he reiterates the “core” of Sojourners’ calling, which is focused on poverty, racism, and the stewardship of creation. Alas, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to add on the concerns of LGBT people.

The “if only we had more time” argument highlights the Achilles heel of most self-proclaimed progressive organizations. Let’s call it the “laundry list” approach to social justice, and it goes like this: We’ll address poverty first, then move on to race, and then we’ll try to squeeze in the environmental issue.

A far queerer and therefore more Christian approach would recognize all these “issues” as tightly interwoven with each other, including LGBT concerns. Poverty is always already gendered; race is always already sexualized; budgetary policy (can you say “marriage”?) and immigration policy cuts to the heart of many lesbian and gay families and their children.

Point #6: Sojourners is committed to engaging in dialogue in its editorial pages but will not take advertising about divisive concerns that have become, for people of faith, “political wedge issues.” Here, apparently, we are invited to suppose that racism, economic injustice, military interventions, monetary policy, saving the environment, and border enforcement have all lost their edge as political wedges. How about this instead: two women raising a child are not a wedge; they’re a family.

Wallis concludes by noting that Sojourners always tries to ask what Jesus would do, and that Sojourners will continue to ask that question about LGBT concerns.

Brother Jim, the queerly Christian answer is clear: Jesus would run the ad.


The Queer Promise of Easter in a Culture of Death

Any society that celebrates death is in cultural trouble, and I would say rather deep trouble.

This particular kind of trouble is not new to the United States, though it would take much more than a short blog post to catalogue the many examples. The recent eruption of jubilation across this country to celebrate just one man’s death halfway around the world only adds to the list.

Let me be clear: I am not sorry that Osama bin Laden is dead. He was a fomenter of violence and terrorism across the globe and a mass murderer (even of his own people). Whether rightly or wrongly (probably a combination of both), bin Laden catalyzed two major U.S. war efforts, drained the financial resources of more than one country, and caused untold heartache in dozens of countries. The statements from the families of 9/11 victims that have been broadcast in the wake of his death bear witness to the deep wounds, the scars, the grief that this one man, in some fashion, has caused.

So I’m not sorry he’s dead. But I don’t celebrate his death, either.

That distinction, though subtle, is an important one for Christians who claim to be an “Easter people.” Easter celebrates God’s decisive victory over death. We taint that celebration if we find anyone’s death a cause for celebration and jubilation, and perhaps especially when that death is violent.

Just over a week ago, Christian communities gathered for an Easter vigil celebration. On that night, many heard the story of how God rescued the ancient Israelites by leading them across the Red Sea on dry ground. This divine act of salvation, however, came at the price of drowning Pharaoh’s entire army, both horse and rider, in that same sea.

The Israelites celebrated their rescue in song (Exodus 15:1), and I would have done the same thing. But then, I have to wonder: did any of them grieve for the dead Egyptians and their families?

We don’t know. What we do know is that the Israelites spent the next forty years wandering in the desert. I’d like to think that they spent that time learning how to mourn the deaths of their oppressors. Perhaps their wilderness sojourn inspired a broader vision of divine liberation – a vision in which both oppressed and oppressor alike would come home to the Promised Land.

Isaiah seems to have been inspired by that kind of expansive vision when he writes about all the nations (not just a select few) streaming to the Holy Mountain, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and people learn war no more (Isaiah 2:2-4).

The trajectory from Exodus to Isaiah marks a remarkable evolution from tribal warfare to universal peace. I wonder what happened to that vision when I see college-aged students celebrating bin Laden’s death outside the White House by chanting “USA! USA!” as if we had just won the World Cup. I don’t know how else to describe such a scene except with words like “ghoulish” and “ghastly.”

The life-changing, world-altering insight that violence only breeds more violence is of course not new. In more than one gospel account, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

The risen Jesus practiced what he preached as he came back from death, still bearing the scars of his torture. To the very ones who had abandoned him, he said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-22).

A second century theologian by the name of Origen took that peace still further, and rather dramatically, by declaring that not even Satan and all his fallen angels would be excluded from the eternal offer of love and grace.

How queer can Christianity get? No, really. How far are we willing to take this? I honestly don’t know. I do know that throwing a party because someone was shot in the head falls a bit short of the queer promise of Easter. I’m not trying to be facetious; I’m genuinely appalled by the specter of dancing on someone’s grave.

Let me suggest this, and not without a little trepidation: The queerly good news of the Christian Gospel invites us to imagine that someday, somehow, not only the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Israelites, and not only the Roman soldiers and the disciples of Jesus, but also all the victims of terrorism and al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, will find themselves gathering in the same banquet hall, preparing for the same feast, and deeply engaged in the kind of reconciliation none of us can presently conceive.

I’m not sure any of us – myself included – can really bear the queerness of that vision. But quite frankly, I’ll take the discomfort and offense of that queerly Christian posture over the jingoistic, even blood-thirsty ejaculations of so many of my fellow US citizens over these past twenty-four hours.

Surely, Easter queerly promises something different, something better than that. Surely it does.