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Stop Making Sense

Ever talk so crazy that people thought you were drunk? Ever babble out a fantastic idea so quickly that it sounded like gibberish and your friends thought about calling for an ambulance? Ever said something or done something while you were so terrified to do it that you thought you might be crazy?

Hold that thought for a moment and think about politics and social policy. Democrats generally think Paul Ryan’s budget proposals are just plain nuts. Republicans generally think that President Obama’s approach to health care is certifiably loony. But Rep. Ryan thinks his budget makes perfect sense; President Obama believes the Affordable Care Act is at least a step in the right, sensible, sane direction.

Most of our political, economic, and social policy debates transpire with the assumption that the most rational, sensible, and logical position should win the day. For many, that is clearly not true. For some it is. I can scarcely believe that western civilization now needs to debate what “reasonable” or “sensible” or “logical” actually means. But here we are.

So, unless we’re ready to spend the time, energy, and expense to recalibrate an entire country’s understanding of what a sensible analysis of the facts might actually look like (and I can’t imagine what that even means), then I say it’s time to stop making sense entirely. (And yes, I’m inspired here by a great song by that wonderfully quirky band, The Talking Heads.)

It seems to me that Christians might have something to offer to all this political brouhaha about the eminently sensible adoption of the genuinely nonsensical. It seems to me that Christians might have something to say about the abundant life that issues from claims that sound so terribly irrational. It seems to me that Christians might actually bear witness to the transforming power of visions for a radically different kind of world – even if, and especially if those visions just don’t make any sense.

It seems to me that when Christians talk so crazy that people think they’re drunk, well, something like the Spirit might be at work. Something like that happened to the earliest Christians during a moment that Christians will celebrate tomorrow: Pentecost. I think it’s high time for some more of that outrageous crazy-talk from Christians and Christian communities. It’s time to turn the world upside down (that’s how the biblical writer of Acts described what the early Christian community did – 17:6). It’s time to stop making sense.

If you don’t think the world today needs overturning, here’s a short list of a world gone off the rails: an unprecedented gap between the filthy rich and the dying poor in the U.S. and around the world; legislation everywhere limiting a woman’s choices over nearly everything about her own body; “fracking” this planet for natural resources with earthquakes as the “cost of doing business,” not to mention polluted drinking water that you can actually ignite with a match; obscene displays of white supremacy among politicians, religious leaders, neighbors, a resurgent KKK; LGBT teenagers killing themselves because of self-righteous clergy who prefer worshipping the sanctity of maleness rather than God. Oh, the list goes on and on.

It is way past time to stop making sense. It is way past time to reject all these sensible proposals for economic stability. It is way past time to interrupt rational discourse with visions.

We need Christians who talk so crazy that people think they might be drunk. We need Christians who live so crazy that their friends and families suggest psychotropic drugs. We need Christian communities with such crazy visions that the news media call them for interviews, and city councils worry about what happens in church buildings on Sunday mornings, and the Department of Homeland Security opens a file on them for fear of sedition.

If you think any or all of this sounds just plain nuts, read the biblical “Acts of the Apostles.” Want a blueprint for a Christian revolution? Ever wonder what the Christian “gay agenda” looks like? Read Acts.

I recently read this wonderful description of Pentecost from Richard Rohr:

We have been waiting for what will come… It is the day we are always waiting for but are never prepared for… It is that day when we can speak and be understood at last, the day when we can babble incoherently and people do not laugh, when it is okay to love God without apology or fear, when we know that all of the parts are different and yet all of the parts are enjoying one another.

That’s one of the best summaries of Pentecost I’ve ever read – and it’s totally bonkers. And I think it’s high time Christian communities today articulated something – anything — with the same visionary power.

Of course, this is hard work. There’s lots of practical stuff we need to address here, lots of strategizing to be done, lots of rational, common sense, logical planning. But I firmly believe that even the best strategy will stumble and fail if there’s no vision animating it.

So, what’s your vision for the world? What’s your vision for your city? What’s your vision for your family, your life? Can we finally stop talking about “sensible” budgets, policies, and rules and finally start talking about the kind of world we want to live in? Can we finally start speaking out loud our visions for the world we want, no matter if it sounds crazy?

Paraphrasing Forrest Gump here, crazy is as crazy does; so let’s get crazy.

Happy Pentecost!

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Groundhog Day and Religious Hate Speech: Time to Break the Cycle

A recent CNN blog post by the Rev. Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. about the Bible and sexuality reminded me of the funny though poignant Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. You might recall that Murray’s character in that film finds himself reliving the same day over and over again.

Whenever I read yet another article, essay, book, or blog on the Bible and homosexuality, I feel exactly the same way as Murray’s character did – caught in an endlessly repeating loop of Bible bashing. This cycle must end, now, so that our churches and the wider society can actually get on with addressing a host of other issues that really matter.

Rev. Mohler’s point, of course, is that “homosexuality” is not a distraction from more urgent concerns but instead the most “pressing moral question of our times.” Really? Now that is stunning. Does Rev. Mohler really consider whom people choose to love to be a more pressing moral issue than, say, global climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, grinding worldwide poverty, epidemic starvation, or genocide? The list of possible issues that just might be a bit more pressing is actually quite long.

To that list I would add this: religious hate speech. And it’s high time that religious leaders across this country held our colleagues accountable for their poisonous rhetoric.

There’s no point in rehearsing yet again why Rev. Mohler’s approach to the Bible is seriously misguided. I have had enough, more than enough, of living in this biblical Groundhog Day. Biblical scholarship on these questions has been, for more than fifty years now, resoundingly clear: biblical writers and their communities had no experience with what we today mean by LGBT people. (For those who are genuinely concerned about these topics, read a short summary of that scholarship here).

This too is clear: it’s not the Bible any of us needs to worry about but instead how people use the Bible to shore up their cultural prejudices. This has been happening for a very long time; many of us are guilty of it. But when people are dying, it’s time to stop.

As a Christian, an Episcopal priest, and a theologian, I am dismayed and appalled by the lack of moral responsibility demonstrated by Rev. Mohler in his cavalier religious condemnation of a whole segment of the human family, as if these condemnations have no social consequences. And he is certainly not alone. Consider the pastor who recently suggested corralling LGBT people behind an electrified fence and waiting for us to die out. Or consider another pastor who advocated prosecuting and punishing LGBT people like there were “historically” (read: stone them to death).

This kind of vitriolic and hurtful religious rhetoric leads far too many of our young people to commit suicide. Too many? One would be too many.

Consider how Rev. Mohler lumped same-gender affection together with bestiality and incest. So imagine you’re 15 years old, a devout Christian, and coming to grips with your same-gender attraction. Adolescence is arduous enough without a religious leader comparing you to someone who has sex with horses and your siblings. Throw peer bullying into that mix and it’s not so difficult to see why our teenagers are killing themselves. (Read this heartbreaking account of just one town’s struggle to keep their kids alive and the appalling lack of religious help they received.)

I am no longer interested in reasonable debate about diverse interpretations of ancient cultural sensibilities with religious leaders who refuse to do their homework. We don’t have time for that anymore. I want our teenagers to stop killing themselves. And I want our religious leaders to take responsibility for their hateful religious rhetoric.

Samantha Johnson (1996-2009)

Rev. Mohler, the blood on your hands comes with names: Jay “Corey” Jones, Jack Reese, Kenneth Weishuhn, Eric James Borges, Seth Walsh, T J Hayes, Samantha Johnson, Aaron Jurek, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clemeti, and far, far too many more. Rev. Mohler, how do you even sleep at night?

In this country built on freedom and liberty, we are actually not free to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater when we know there is no fire. That’s called “reckless endangerment,” and to put people in danger knowingly and without justification is illegal in all fifty states. It’s high time we realized that yelling “Leviticus 20:13” in a crowded high school has the same, reckless, dangerous effect.

How many more teenagers have to kill themselves before our courts of law prosecute these irresponsible and reckless clergy? Isn’t it past time that we file a class-action lawsuit against these purveyors of religious hate speech? How many more cycles of this biblical Groundhog Day must we endure?

Phil, Bill Murray’s character in that film, eventually uses that repetitive day to his advantage. He improves his life, learns new skills, and he even saves people’s lives. And yes, love actually breaks the cycle.

That sounds like the Gospel.

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Faithfully Out of Synch: Holy Liminality, Part 2

Now you see him, now you don’t. He’s just a flip-flopper. Back again (yay!); gone again (boo!). Or to quote (Saint) Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “My, but people come and go here so quickly!”

I could be referring to our crazy-making political climate of late, but I have in mind instead some religious trivia. I actually believe the two go together, or they ought to do so, and rather urgently.

This weekend is a bit religiously messy, chronologically speaking. This past Thursday, Christians celebrated “The Feast of the Ascension.” This marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus “ascends” to heaven (see Luke 24:50-53 and/or Acts 1:6-11, both seem to tell the same story but in significantly different ways).

Okay, so the risen Jesus is now “gone.” But tomorrow is the seventh Sunday of Easter on the Christian calendar. Weirdly, many Christians will hear in church a portion of John’s gospel in which the pre-crucified Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples before he dies (John 17:6-19).

So is Jesus “here,” “there,” or “in between”?

We’re smack dab in the midst of yet another potent time on the Christian calendar, that peculiar liminal time between the ascension and the particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost just a week from now. I wrote a bit about the holiness of liminality roughly seven weeks ago, on Holy Saturday. I love that day, that peculiar day when Jesus is dead, but not yet risen, yet wonderfully busy harrowing Hell. Not least among his glorious tasks is dragging Adam and Eve of their graves (as one particular fresco that I love depicts it).

I truly believe that such religious arcana actually matters for how Christians think about how we live in a world that’s so clearly gone crazy. (Surely I don’t need to catalogue the myriad ways our world has recently gone off the rails.)

To navigate the madness, I seek faithfully to live out of synch with it by taking John’s Jesus to heart when he prays this about his disciples, both then and now: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world (John 17:16).”

Too many Christians, in my view, have read that verse as a kind of divine permission to absent themselves from “worldly concerns.” To the contrary: I read the Johannine Jesus as urging his disciples to live out of synch with the world’s standards of reasonable, proper, efficient, and respectable proposals for sustaining the way things are.

Among the many ways to read the gospel texts, for example, taking them as testimony to “business as usual” would seem quite a stretch. I cannot imagine any of Jesus’ disciples thinking of themselves as champions of the status quo. Jesus instead seems at nearly every turn to lead his disciples into troubling both the religious and civic order of things. In today’s courts of law they would qualify as “disturbers of the peace” or stand guilty of “disorderly conduct.”

Shouldn’t these pioneers of Christian faith set the standard for the (dis)orderly life of God’s people today? Shouldn’t the Gospel lead all of us who claim to follow it into profound acts of disturbing the cultural peace?

Along with many others, I’ve been noticing just how much religion and politics have been blending of late in our public discourse: whether women actually have any rights over their own bodies; whether couples of the same gender can get married; whether economics ought to have anything to do with the “least among us.” The list goes on and on.

There are many ways to analyze all these confluences of religion and politics. Here’s just one: In an age of profound change and anxiety, the default position is certainty, dogmatism, and safety. The final cry of any civil or religious institution in the throes of fear is, of course, “But we’ve never done it that way before!”

Quite remarkably, that posture is precisely what the Gospel urges Christians to avoid. So what it would it mean to live out of synch with both religious and cultural trends? I don’t know precisely. But I’ll venture this: The dry, institutional certainties of the past (whether civil or religious) won’t save us. Only the scary vagaries of a future we cannot see and for which we risk everything will bring us into the orbit of the risen and ascended Christ.

I’m thinking a great deal about that claim this weekend in my own life. And I’m wondering how it might translate into our public discourse about social policy.

The risen Jesus won’t be tied down and domesticated. Certainty is not a theological virtue. But faith is. And so is hope. And love most especially is. Could we imagine, in this liminal season as we await the Spirit’s manifestation, a politics of risk that privileges love above all else?

That’s precisely what the Apostle Paul urged (1 Corinthians 13:13) – love matters above everything else.

How clichéd can we get? I mean, really. Isn’t that just a Hallmark greeting card we toss into the recycling bin?

But how about this: What if love is what we do in all those in-between times when we can’t figure out what’s really going on? What if love isn’t about certainty or dogmatism or safety or anything else we try to confect to soothe our wounds of anxiety? What if love is mostly about risk without any guarantees?

What if those are the very questions those first disciples of the risen Jesus asked as they watched him disappear into heaven?

Let’s answer those peculiar questions and change the world.

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“Behold thy Mother” — Marriage, Family, & Salvation

Jesus created a family. Would voters in North Carolina or at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church recognize it?

That question occurred to me as I read the full transcript of President Obama’s interview this week about marriage equality. He mentioned the word “families” or “family” explicitly at least five times and referred to the various families he knows even more. (Read the transcript of the interview here.)

In fact, Mr. Obama talked about families more often than he talked about fairness and equality. And that’s exactly where the emphasis belongs. Fairness and equality matter so much because families matter so much.

Those who are opposed to marriage equality seem to worry most about what will happen to the “traditional” family. So on this Mother’s Day weekend, Christians might want to pause and consider just one traditional biblical family, the one Jesus created.

Go back to Good Friday for a moment and to John’s gospel. As Jesus is suffering the throes of an ugly death, something quite beautiful happens. He looks around and sees only a few of his intimates nearby, including his mother. And then he speaks to her: “Woman, here is your son.” Then he turns to the “disciple whom he loved” who is also standing there and says, “Here is your mother.” From that hour, the disciple took Mary into his own home (John 19:26-27).

So who is this “disciple” in the story? Is it the same one, the “beloved disciple,” that reclined so tenderly against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper? Is it the author of the gospel itself, who recounted the first miracle of Jesus at a wedding? And by the way, where did all the other male disciples run off to at this moment, leaving just this one man with some women at the foot of the cross? (About that question, many gay and lesbian people could offer hundreds of anecdotes in response; but I digress.)

This is a rather peculiar moment. In the midst of profound suffering and on the verge of death, wouldn’t Jesus have other more pressing things on his mind than family planning? On the other hand, what else could be more urgent than what will become of those he loves once he’s dead? Could families be a matter of life and death? And isn’t that how many Christians would also describe “salvation”?

In this wonderfully peculiar gospel moment, Jesus explicitly creates a family. I would guess that this particular family had already been formed prior to this moment, but here Jesus doesn’t want to leave any doubts.

Nor should we have any doubts about this: only a very few jurisdictions in this country would even recognize what Jesus created as a family. And I wonder what would happen if Christian churches took a vote on it. Would our synods and general conferences and assemblies vote to recognize the mother of a dying man and that man’s male companion as a “family”?

The beloved disciple took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his own home. Today, that household arrangement would face significant hardship without social security survivor benefits, IRS allowances in the tax code, and access to health insurance. These aren’t obscure social policy details, which is exactly why Mr. Obama spoke so frequently this week about families.

Some gay and lesbian couples cried as they watched our President declare support for marriage equality and “straight” allies shouted with jubilation and many religious leaders voiced a hearty “Amen.” They did this because of the most biblical and traditional reason there is: family.

In this Easter season, Christians celebrate the promise of new life. Mother’s Day celebrates the traditional family. Jesus wonderfully blended the new and the old as he was dying, by reminding us what family really means, just as President Obama did this week.

So here’s a peculiar thought: Mr. Obama’s interview would hardly be newsworthy if more politicians and religious leaders alike actually read the Bible.

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Memo to PBS: Jesus Supports Marriage Equality

“See, I am making all things new!” That’s a great biblical exclamation for this Easter season (Rev. 21:5). But apparently the news media didn’t get the memo. That’s not terribly surprising, but I did expect more from PBS.

I have come to expect that both Fanatically Xenophobic (FOX News) and the Moderately Socialist News Broadcasting Company (MSNBC) to play the tired old religion-hates-gay-people card. It makes for great ratings. But the PBS News Hour?

The News Hour led their broadcast today with the great news that President Obama has declared his support for civil marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples. The story then shifted to the analysis part. And upon whom did PBS call to discuss “both sides” of this issue? Evan Wolfson, of Freedom to Marry, and the Rev. Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church, who is opposed to marriage equality. (Here’s the clip.)

Really, PBS? Did you just again trot out that silly old trope about religion never really catching up to the real world? Really?

So, PBS News Hour, you chose today, when the President of the United States – a man of deep faith – declared his support for marriage equality (and even cited religious reasons for it!) as the occasion to perpetuate the tired old cliché that religion is the opponent of fairness and equality? Really?

So, PBS News Hour, please consider that people of religious faith who fully and actively support full civil rights for LGBT people are not an anomaly, an aberration, or statistically insignificant. We’ve been raising our voices as best we can for quite a while now. Seriously, please do let us know what more we can do to get your attention. Seriously.

For now, PBS New Hour, please consider this, just from my little corner of the world:

The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Pacific School of Religion (a seminary!), where I have worked since 2003, has been striving tirelessly for full marriage equality for all people. We’ve done this by joining our efforts with many other religious organizations, faith communities, clergy, and congregations all across the country. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, the Center’s Coalition of Welcoming Congregations (more than 200 congregations) has spoken loudly and clearly about its support for civil marriage equality. (Read the Center’s statement issued today about the President’s support of marriage equality.)

The Episcopal Church, in which I am an ordained priest, will this summer consider a variety of materials for the blessing of same-gender relationships. Moreover, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism (among many other religious bodies) all support civil marriage equality for same-gender couples.

So, PBS, why am I picking on you? Because I’ve come to expect more from you than all those other television hacks trying to pass as journalists and who care only about ratings and advertisers.

Why am I picking on you? Because what you did today illustrates a much wider problem about religion reporting in the United States, a problem that has profound consequences not just for LGBT people but for immigration policy, international relations, and economics.

Why am I picking on you? Because LGBT teenagers are killing themselves, humans are destroying the planet, the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day, and we’re drowning in health care costs – and progressive people of religious faith actually have something to contribute to all of this! Would anyone know this by watching your newscast?

My peculiar faith as a Christian, an Episcopal priest, and a gay man convinces me wholeheartedly that Jesus supports full marriage equality for all people. And that’s just the tip of the religious iceberg of what I and so many other Christians believe Jesus would support in the effort to create a society in which all people thrive and flourish.

I’m more than happy to redouble my efforts to get the word out about the socially and politically good news of the Christian Gospel and to mobilize as best I can my friends, colleagues, and the hundreds of thousands of other Christian companions in this country who believe likewise.

That’s what I’ll do. Now, PBS News Hour, what will you do?

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.