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Bubble-Work: An Advent Agenda, Part 1

Impatient prophets; a cranky Jesus; an apocalyptic Paul – that’s what Episcopalians have been encountering in the Bible lately if they are following the Daily Office lectionary this Advent season. This is hardly the stuff of holiday lights, cookie baking, or shopping malls.

The rhythms of the Christian liturgical year and their attendant biblical texts are supposed to interrupt “business-as-usual” and often quite rudely. Over the last couple of weeks those texts for this season have presented Isaiah’s denunciations of wealthy comfort, Jesus’ confrontations with self-satisfied religious leaders, and Paul’s urgent call to prepare for the coming “Day of the Lord.” I think that qualifies as “rude” two weeks before Christmas, at least in the United States.

advent_bubble3It’s especially rude here in the San Francisco Bay Area “bubble” where I live and work. Professionally, this bubble allows me teach theology and use the word “queer” positively without giving it a second thought. Personally, this bubble keeps me remarkably safe if I want to hold hands with another man in public.

Life outside the bubble is a bit, well, different. I often say that wryly, even tongue-in-cheek. But something usually interrupts that smugness to remind me that my bubble-privilege comes with responsibilities.

Those reminders have been building, nearly tsunami-like on the horizon. They urge me to remember what the Santa-clad Starbucks cups and the roof-top Rudolph on my suburban block can so quickly obscure inside the Bubble: Advent prepares us to be changed by Christmas so that we can change the world.

Among the many ways Advent has been calling me to put my bubble-privilege to work, here are just a few:advent_kadaga_pope

  • The “Kill the Gays” legislation in Uganda has been moving forward, and one of its primary proponents, Uganda Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, just received a blessing from the Pope at the Vatican. Kadaga, you may recall, rather famously promised the passage of this legislation as a “Christmas present” to Ugandan Christians. Let the record of ironic moments duly note this: The Ugandan delegation was in Rome, in part, to attend the World Parliamentary Conference on Human Rights.
  • In the wake of the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to hear not one but two marriage equality cases this term, Justice Antonin Scalia made some rather curious remarks at a gathering in Princeton. He tried to defend the legitimacy of legislation that relies on moral condemnations of homosexuality. More pointedly, Scalia wondered (rhetorically?) whether we can’t have any moral objections to murder if we can’t have moral objections to homosexuality. So I guess people who object morally to my dating another man should feel just fine about killing me as well.
  • The distance between Uganda and Antonin Scalia shrinks considerably in the light of anti-LGBT violence. The number of “official” anti-gay murders in the U.S. in 2011 was the highest on record. The less-than-murder versions of anti-LGBT violence ought also to give us pause.
  • While a gay-friendly Mosque where men and women can pray together held its first service recently in Paris (at an undisclosed location for security reasons), All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena has been the target of ugly emails and threats (from Christians!) just for hosting an Islamic group. Peace on Earth and good will to all? Hardly.

That’s just a short list of the people and places “lost in the valley of the night” and the hope of a “people who are climbing to the light.” Those are of course lyrics from Les Miserables, the film version of which opens on Christmas Day. That musical also includes a question perfectly suitable for Advent: “Beyond the barricades, is there a world you long to see?”

Substitute “bubble” for “barricades” and my Advent agenda quickly takes shape.

advent_candles2Advent is about a new world, the world we long to see when we attend carefully to the visions of ancient prophets, the exhortations of Jesus, and the apocalyptic ranting of Paul. The birth Christians will celebrate in just eleven days evokes far less about the endearing qualities of a baby and much more about the new world God wants to midwife.

I am profoundly grateful for the bubble in which I live and work. Advent urges me to tap that gratitude for a world-changing agenda. In Part Two of this post, I’ll outline just a few nodes of that agenda as we prepare to be changed at Christmas so that we can change the world.

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Norman Bates, Elder Care, and Jesus on the Cross

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) horrifies for more than one reason. The reason I have in mind is only rarely mentioned in treatments of that film: going insane by taking care of an elderly mother who is already dead.

If all you can recall from that film is the now classic image of Janet Leigh’s character being brutally murdered in a shower, I invite you to consider the previous scene. Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, describes his conflicted relationship with his elderly mother. When Leigh’s character suggests that he might “institutionalize” his mother, he strenuously objects, insisting that he could never abandon her. The rest of the film unfolds with classic Hitchcock tension and, well, horror.

All of this cuts close to my bones as I am an only child of an elderly mother. Until recently, I thought I might be going insane trying to take care of my mom in my own home; I refused other options because I didn’t want to “abandon her.” I did that for nearly four years before she moved to a wonderful elder care residence not far from my house last month. My sanity – and thus my life – is slowly returning.

I share this because it’s not just my story. It is the story of a large and growing number of people in the United States and hardly anyone talks about it. I never heard it mentioned in this year’s Presidential debates and I never hear it mentioned in national or state budget negotiations. This is at least odd if not infuriating.

Did you know that Medicare does not cover nursing home expenses except for short-term stays after a hospitalization?

The looming (and already-upon-us) crisis is thus two-fold: emotional and financial. Responding to that two-fold crisis will mean delving into the truly peculiar character of Christian faith and practice.

The Emotional Toll
Through social media I stay in touch with a small group of peers and friends who are dealing with various kinds of elder care. Their stories and anecdotes are by turn hilarious, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and inspiring as we try to support each other as best we can.

Don’t for a moment think that “going insane” from dealing with an elderly parent is restricted to a Hitchcock film. The phrases and images I hear from these friends include: “I’m losing my mind”; “I’m desperate here, please help”; “I can’t keep doing this but I don’t have any options”; “I have to quit my job to care for him, but then how do I pay the bills?” That’s a short list of the emotional and relational agony of doing this work of love and devotion – and that’s what it is.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Norman Bates is not an outlier. I would wager that some of your friends and colleagues are, right now, on the brink of “Bates-related-insanity.”

The Financial Toll
The “fiscal cliff”? Really? Let me — and so many others — tell you about a fiscal cliff. Those of us caring for elderly parents sit on that edge every day. But don’t just take my word for it,. The demographic statistics are alarming. I have found a modicum of sanity in my life only because of some fortuitous financial resources. The vast majority of people in this country don’t have that luxury. Consider the following factoids from this helpful site:

  • Chance that a senior citizen will become physically or cognitively impaired in their lifetime: 2 in 3
  • Chance that a senior citizen will enter a nursing home: 1 in 3
  • Chance that a patient in a U.S nursing home is sedated or physically restrained: 1 in 2
  • Average cost to stay in a US nursing home for one year: $76,680
  • Percentage of older population with long term care needs who live at or near the poverty level: 40%

So, have an extra $75,000 to throw around to take care of granny? No? What will you do? Are you single, like me? Who the hell is going to take care of you when you get old and “useless”?

Jesus on the Cross
I am absolutely convinced that retrieving the peculiarity of Christian faith and practice can help with our elder care crisis and so much more. How about this: As Jesus suffered in extremis on the cross, he looked at the “disciple whom he loved” and at his mother. Here’s how “John” described that moment:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25-27).

  • John’s Jesus exposes the lie at the heart of today’s religious rhetoric about “family values.”
    John’s Jesus excoriates all those religious leaders extolling “traditional marriage” while their elders languish.
    John’s Jesus urges a robust critique of the “nuclear family” as the building block for late global capitalism.
    John’s Jesus, in the very throes of death, offers a compelling vision for creating a humane and thriving society that values elders by creating homes.

John’s Jesus fuels my impatience for any “Christian economics” that doesn’t account for the care, nurture, and love of the elders among us. The crisis is here. What shall our peculiar Christian faith say about it? Is your church even talking about the social policy implications of all this?

Much more needs to be done today about Christian faith and economics, not to mention families.

Isn’t it time to retrieve the revolutionary implications of the Gospel? Sound too radical? Do you have an elderly parent?

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My God-Given Right to Viagra

Women should pay to prevent a pregnancy but the government should pay to ensure that men can have erections. That absurd opinion is why, in large measure, we’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently in the blogosphere, the press, and public discourse generally in the U.S.  I wish I were making this stuff up.

Some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that just went into effect on August 1 mandate insurance coverage for basic (and sometimes not-so-basic) women’s reproductive health. That’s not the only kind of coverage for women, but that’s the stuff that’s getting all the attention, and for good patriarchal reasons. Let’s recall that since January 1, 2006, Medicare has provided prescription drug coverage for Viagra (among other drugs to alleviate male sexual impotence, and some private insurance companies do the same).

Health care in the United States is wildly and unnecessarily complex, but this much seems clear: Our society is willing to pay for men to “get it on” but not to protect women when men do so. This is yet another sad and alarming instance of the current war on women.

I would dial back that rhetoric a bit if the situation weren’t quite so dire. Alas, there is a war going on, and women’s bodies are on the front line. The now-infamous legislation in Virginia mandating a medically unnecessary “vaginal probe” before an abortion is just one among too many examples. (I blogged about this “war” a few months ago.)

But let’s consider a broader critique that appeared a few years ago about Medicare coverage for Viagra. The mini-outcry then was about covering access to “elective” medical help.

Back then, Dr. Ira Sharlip from the University of California in San Francisco conceded that Viagra and other such drugs “treat a condition that compromises the quality of life but doesn’t threaten life.” But then he added, “There are many drugs that are approved for quality-of-life indications. It wouldn’t be right to single out [impotence drugs] as frivolous when there are so many others in the same category.”

Dr. Sharlip meant things like the “purple pill,” for acid reflux, or intensive doses of Ibuprofen for pain, or knee surgery for better walking, or sinus procedures for better sleeping, or…the list goes on and on. What exactly is “frivolous” when it comes to health and quality of life? That’s a key question for which I have no ready answers. But I do know this: making a distinction between men and women in that equation is wrong.

There are many reasons why I, an Episcopal priest, theologian, and gay man, should and do care about this. Among those reasons is this: the supposed “religious exemption” argument that is now being trotted out by politically religious reactionaries as an escape hatch for caring about women and women’s bodies – and not just women, but everyone who isn’t, frankly, a white, straight, wealthy, married man.

A recent Kentucky appeals court ruling that involved this vague “religious exemption” ought to send shivers down the spine of every religiously-affiliated U.S. citizen, and indeed everyone in this country. In brief: Kentucky’s court refused to intervene in a tenure dispute at Louisville Theological Seminary after tenured faculty had been let go. Because the institution in question is religious, the court cited the “religious exemption” escape hatch and dismissed the suit brought by the fired faculty members.

Is that really the standard we want to set in a democratic society that is increasingly marked by religious pluralism? Do we really want to say that our courts of law provide no recourse whatsoever, even in basic breach of contract disputes just because they pertain to religious institutions?

What about a religious exemption for individuals and not just institutions? Parents apparently have the right to refuse to vaccinate their children for “religious reasons,” even though this could put others at risk in public schools.

Or consider yet another recent court decision, this one by a federal judge who ruled that the Roman Catholic owners of a Colorado heating-and-cooling company are exempt from the mandate to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health-insurance plans – for religious reasons.

Unless a “heating-and-cooling company” is now a new way to refer to a church, this ruling surely qualifies as a classic slippery slope. Should I worry that a plumber, who might also be a “conservative” Christian, will refuse to fix my toilet if he finds out I’m not a heterosexual?

In the midst of all this, it’s time for liberal/progressive Christians to be very clear about what the latest health care brouhaha entails, and it’s not about respecting religious freedom. It is instead about whether men have the right to control women. (See this opinion piece in the New York Times.)  This story is, sadly, as old as our species: Men want to have erections whenever they please and make women pay the price. I really do not believe the Jesus I read about in the Gospels would approve.

I no more have an inherent right to erection-enhancement drugs than I have a right to control women’s bodies or, for that matter, the body of any other human being. But what if all of us did have a right to access whatever we needed to ensure the best quality of life for ourselves, our partners, our spouses, our children, our families, and our communities? And what if that included both Viagra and The Pill? That would be a society more aligned with how I read the Gospels.

Let’s be clear about this, too: religious institutions have the right to their religious beliefs and to practice those beliefs. We need to be very clear about that Constitutional “free exercise” clause. At the very same time, religious institutions do not have the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms – at least not in a democratic society. How we adjudicate these complexities will be vexing as we move forward, and faith communities need to be very careful about where they want to plant their religious freedom flag, as these recent courts cases illustrate so well.

The truly peculiar faith of Christians ought to play a role in all these social policy decisions, not by dictating what others should believe about God, but by voicing a vision of human thriving and quality of life to which all deserve access as a God-given right.

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Divine Erotics: God-Talk, Part 3

“Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” is an appalling approach to sexual intimacy (it even borders on the violent). It’s just as bad in religion and theology.

The “quickie” means so much more than it used to. Now everything is quick – news, ideas, meet-ups, meals, research, home-repair, shopping. The Internet seems to thrive on “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” energy – not always, but it’s time to name it where we see it.

I read recently about young adults having social media sex hook-ups. Some of them (rather wistfully, I might add) wondered what it might be like to have an extended conversation with their sex partners but decided to save that for their thirties. Many of these same denizens of Web culture have no desire at all for religion; they already “know” what that’s all about. Neighborhoods, stores, community centers – I wonder whether 18-year olds realize fully that these originally meant physical spaces.

I don’t believe the Internet somehow “caused” all this. I remember a moment back in the late 1980s, when I was a parish priest in the Chicago area. A parishioner, who came to the early service on Sundays, complained to me about how long the sermon was (12 minutes) and how tedious the prayers were (10 minutes). He actually said, “I just want the cookie” (referring to the Eucharistic sacrament).

I confess to indulging in a moment of questionable pastoral sensitivity when I replied, “Gee, Bob, why don’t you donate some money and we’ll build a drive-through. I can just toss the cookie in your mouth as you drive by on your way to the golf course.”

Not a high-water mark in my priestly vocation.

All of this raises some profound questions for me in this third of a three-part series on Christian theology – what it’s about and how to do it.

I mean questions like: Don’t we want to inhabit a space somewhere? Do we want to cultivate a relationship or just “have” one? Do we now think of religion, spirituality, relationships, communities, sex, fun, and pleasure all in the same way? Have they all been flattened to whatever works right now?

We see a brief image, a quick video clip, opening sentences of an essay, a book cover, a billboard or light-post sign – what do we glean from these? Usually impressions, maybe germs of an idea, some hints at substance, hors d’oeuvres promising a meal, if we’re lucky. So where do we go and what do we do with snippets?

To be clear, I’m excited and inspired by social media and all the new technological ways of connecting with others (I blogged about that here). The potential is there and we’ve only just begun figuring it out. And yet I worry.

In a visually-saturated, multi-media culture, I worry that the time-worn approach to spiritual wisdom is now devoid of time, let alone space. The Internet has exacerbated a decades-long trend of collapsing the time-space continuum – no one has any time and there are no more spaces.

Theology is not about information and data. Theology is not a hook-up. Theology takes time and it takes space. Theology relies on sustained attention to texts and practices, formation in ways of thinking and living, arduous engagements with contrary opinions and glorious synchronicities. Christian theology is about bodies and being in relationship with bodies, and that takes, well, time and space.

Okay, theology is off-putting. Let’s call it something else, like “God-relation,” and whatever that means requires sustained attention in a community of accountability that breathes together and reads and serves and nurtures wisdom together. Just like any significant human relationship that isn’t a quickie in an alley. (Quickie aside: I’m not judging particular sexual practices. I’m calling for more thought, especially as it relates to God.)

So I’m tugging at the oars of the boat I hope we Christians inhabit. What I think we’re aiming for is something like a theologically informed spiritual practice for the sake of social change. This won’t happen in November, or even in 2016. Forget election cycles. We have serious work to do on a deep, romantic relationship with the One who created us.

I’ve been suggesting in this blog series some ways to think about that. The recap of the series looks like this:

  1. Humbly guard against idolatry (God-Talk, Part 1)
  2. Follow the creeds as a compass without a map (God-talk, Part 2)
  3. Treat theology as words about a love affair (God-talk, Part 3 of 3)

Adopting these three postures certainly will not heal all the divisions among “liberals” and “conservatives” (and likely won’t heal any of them). But they could well give us something to talk about a bit more productively.

If we’re going to use labels and categories at all any more, I might follow the lead provided by Tripp Hudgins, a colleague at the Graduate Theological Union who has a great blog. He has suggested calling a liberal/conservative mash-up approach “postmodern preservatives.” I love that, though Tripp may well disagree with my approach. But here’s why I like his moniker.

It’s high time to jettison the “start-from-scratch-by-following-the-lead-of-culture” caricature of self-styled liberals. It’s equally high time to reject the stereotype of self-styled conservatives who only say “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

“Postmodern preservatives” instead treat the Bible seriously but not just by quoting it and abstracting it from contemporary concerns. They likewise take seriously both cultural and scientific advances but not without drawing from the wisdom of historical traditions.

I actually don’t think this represents something entirely new. I believe “postmodern preservatives” would offer a profoundly constructive corrective to what I consider to be the colossal blunders of modern Western Christianity. And they would do so by insisting that both history and contemporary culture offer vital insights to nurturing humanity’s love affair with God – and God’s passionate desire for us.

I’ll offer more on this in future posts. But for now, can all of us Christians at least agree that we’re trying, as best we can, to respond to the romantic, erotic, loving invitation of the One who created us? We can’t do that with a quickie. It’s going to take time. Let’s make this marriage last.

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Creedal Magnetism: God-Talk, Part 2

We can do anything we want with this planet since Jesus is coming back soon.
Round up gay people in a corral and let them starve to death.
People without health insurance deserve what they get.

Are those “Christian” statements? Why or why not? Each of them was made in various forms and more than once by a self-professed Christian. How do we discern what qualifies as “Christian”? Do we discern it based on what we say or by what we do or both? What if what we say doesn’t match very well or at all with what we do?

I still have a magnet that mom put on the refrigerator in my childhood house. It reads, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” I didn’t quite get it when I was young; it annoyed me as a teenager; and I still have it. I believe that magnet is deeply theological.

I take that magnet message as a clarion call for Christians to prioritize how they live in the world as the basis for evangelism rather than how well we parse our doctrines. These days, I don’t see any point in trying to persuade people to believe in God or to follow Jesus through rational argument. That ship sailed a long time ago.

Creating communities of radical hospitality and compassionate service is the best evangelistic magnet at our disposal – and not because doing so might fill our pews but because it’s the right thing to do and God has called us to do it.

Conversely, the worse thing we can do is exactly what too many Christians have done for too long: make intellectual assent to doctrine the gatekeeper for belonging. While some people may be argued into belief, most people are loved into it. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

As promised, I really am going to write something here about creedal Christianity. I truly am socially “liberal” because of my “conservative” theology. For the latter, I rely on the creedal history of the Christian Church. But my mother’s magnet reminds me that how we live is the best witness to what any of us want to say.

So why then bother with creedal statements at all? Let’s just throw great parties with great food!

Why? Because after two people have fallen in love with each other, they eventually need to talk about their relationship. Because after spending time in the regional park with my dog, I want to talk with someone about the plants, the terrain, and the climate. Because after organizing a neighborhood watch group, I want to talk with my neighbors and find out who they are, what they care about, and how I might be a better neighbor.

The creedal history of Christianity is of course complex and vexing. But I do believe our ancestors in the faith still have something to say to us today about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and what in the world we think we’re all doing. The following are just some of the ways that I continue to experiment with how to think about, treat, and address the classic creeds of Christian faith.

An Impromptu Tag-Football Game at the Family Reunion
There’s no official football field, so the family members take a cooler, a beer bottle, a diaper bag, and a sweatshirt to mark the four corners of the playing area. Someone brought a ball, people are divvied up into teams, and the fun begins. Someone keeps score, but no one really cares who wins. The diaper bag might get kicked out of alignment once or twice, someone might howl at this, but it’s all in good fun. Creeds provide the parameters of the playing field on which we think and talk about God among family members.

An Improvisational Stage Play
Theatrical actors pay careful attention to the stage cues of a director, both in scripted plays and in improvisational moments. Quite remarkably, the most scripted of plays can be performed in various ways depending on the director. Likewise, an improvisational performance relies heavily on directorial assistance. Creeds provide a loose script for faithful actors, and variances in the performances can prompt profound insights. No one performance is exactly like any other. Creeds are cues, not scripts, but they are important.

Open Source Software
Those of a certain age will remember that “software” meant ordering a product from a company that arrived in the mail on a disc. Load it to your hard-drive and it will do what I was designed to do. Open source software by contrast provides basic coding for doing something, but the end user can change the code and adapt it for particular needs. There are limits to what can be done to open source software, but they are vastly different from discs. Creeds suggest theological programming directions and functions, but both pathways and outcomes are in the hands of end users.

My Grandmother’s Recipe Cards
In her own handwriting, my maternal grandmother made recipe notes like “use some butter around the size of an egg or so,” or “stir until it looks like the color of our backyard field in September” or “toss in some salt; stir; taste it; add some more if you like.” This stands in stark contrast to the narrative and instructions one finds in Cook’s Illustrated. Creeds provide general directions, hints at how to proceed, and room to toss in one’s own flavor. I am profoundly grateful for grandma’s recipe cards for that reason, just as I am for Christian creeds.

In the end, what we think and say about God matters. It matters just like what we think and say about the people we love matters; and what we think and say about the environment matters; and what we think and say about our communities matters. All of this matters not because someone will judge us when we get it “wrong” or reward us because we are “correct.” It matters because we want to enrich and deepen our relationships.

I believe the most magnetic, attractive aspect of the universe is God – and it’s reflected in a loving embrace, a brook in the park, a moment of solidarity in the neighborhood. If Christians don’t live this magnetism, there’s no point in evangelism.

Be attractive. Then let’s talk.

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American Idols: God-Talk, Part 1

There are some things for which we do not give awards but which Americans tend to idolize nonetheless. Today I’m thinking especially of individual liberty in relation to the supposed constitutional right to have weapons, as well as the murkier right to private property. (Gird your loins for this take on such Constitutional matters.)

We’re not likely to hear a conversation about liberty as a form of idolatry in our courts of law, but it’s high time to have that conversation in our churches. Is it really okay for humans to do whatever they want? Do we really want to codify that idea? Is there nothing that Christian faith and theology can offer to these questions?

As promised, this is the first of a three-part blog series on theological ideas and why they matter. And they matter not least for the people who were killed or injured in Aurora, Colorado today and for the many species that are, even now as I write this, going extinct on this planet.

St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa)

I begin with this fourth-century quote from St. Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.”

I take Augustine to be urging two things at once: to adopt a profound humility in our theological reasoning and to avoid idolatry at all costs. (Whether he himself managed to do this is beside the point.)

Individual liberty (a modern, western, Enlightenment concept) might seem a bit out of place in a cautionary tale about humility and idols. But I believe liberty might well stand as a cypher for western modernity’s presenting sin: putting the human in the place of God. This has been happening slowly but surely for about three centuries now, at least.

The many benefits of the Enlightenment’s stress on individual autonomy and human rights notwithstanding, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” come with a significant theological and, I would argue, social cost. Concerning the former: forgetting that Christian theological traditions have never understood freedom to be synonymous with the absence of constraint (spiritual freedom is always for the sake of doing something in particular not anything at all). Concerning the latter: elevating individual freedom over the common good (individual thriving is never an end in itself but something to contribute to the greater good). I believe both are illustrations of Augustine’s cautionary note about humility and idolatry.

Consider first the unrelenting, grotesquely well-funded, and usually vitriolic rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. For them, apparently, any gun-control legislation whatsoever is a pernicious infringement on the right to “keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We are facing yet again another moment when U.S. citizens ponder the role of guns in our common life. I think it’s important to note that violent crime has actually been decreasing steadily in the U.S. over the last few years, but mass killings have seen an increase. I’m not so sure that tighter gun control laws would have prevented what happened in Aurora today. But I don’t think that’s the point.

I think the point is the stress on individual liberty, that the individual reigns supreme in all matters of social and economic policy. I believe that is a form of idolatry, of replacing God with the human. Christians should say so, regardless of the policy implications.

Consider, second, that every single oil well, gas drilling operation, and fracking enterprise relies on a murky notion of the right to private property. (In those cases, property owned by corporations, but apparently the U.S. Supreme Court believes corporations to be individuals. But don’t single out the Supremes on this. I’m always amazed that the U.N. General Assembly’s “Declaration of Universal Human Rights” in 1948 included “private property” as one of those rights, in Article 17).

Here individual liberty comes home to roost in some vexing ways. Can you do anything you please with the property you own? No, but the constraints are wildly loose, and just try arguing any constraints at all in some parts of the U.S. and be prepared to talk to a shotgun (see the first consideration above).

The very notion that human beings have a “right” to “own” property and do with it mostly as they please flies in the face of a very traditional Jewish and Christian concept: stewardship. I’m well aware of the critiques of the biblical notion of stewardship over creation derived from Genesis. That said, are the problems with the concept of stewardship more difficult to deal with than the free-range property rights of corporations and, yes, individuals?

“Stewardship” means that what one stewards is not one’s own property. It is entrusted to that person or community for the one who does “own” it — or in this case, the One who created it. Sadly, most Christians seem to talk about stewardship only in relation to fundraising, and the planet is in peril because of it.

I return often to a wonderful 2009 book by a sociologist, James William Gibson: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. I believe his thesis can be reduced to this: environmental change won’t happen unless and until we cultivate a re-enchantment with nature. And we are faced with severe obstacles in that task on nearly every front, not least is the modern western view of “nature” as simply a “grid of private property” (page 72). Just imagine flying over the U.S. from San Francisco to New York. What would you see out the window of that plane? Mostly property lines – state, corporate, and individual. Where is the Creator of all this?

There are of course many other forms of American idolatry – the flag, the institution of marriage, free-market capitalism, home ownership, and the Super Bowl, to name just a few. And of course, theology itself can easily become an idol, and Augustine was particularly keen to guard against that.

I’ll make suggestions in response to all that in the next two blog posts in this series, including how we might think about creedal statements in Christian history and also how the “erotic” is indispensable to “traditional” and “classic” Christianity. So stay tuned.

For now, as a beginning, I’ll offer this: Extolling the virtues of individual liberty belongs on a slippery slope toward idolatry, to replacing God with the individual human. I think that’s where any discussion of theological ideas – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, radical, or reactionary – needs to begin. Are we trying to deal with an encounter with the living God, the Creator of all, or an idol?

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps our Muslim sisters and brothers say it best:

“There is no God but God (lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh).”

That claim could, quite literally and practically and thankfully, change the world.

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“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…”

I sat transfixed by my Twitter feed for the last two days. Trust me: that’s unusual. I was watching two historic votes unfold at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where I really longed to be, but couldn’t.

Both votes concerned the same resolution: whether to approve the provisional use of a liturgical rite to bless the lifelong covenants of same-sex couples. It passed in both houses of the convention by wide margins and I was glad to see it happening “live” on my computer. (Here’s the report on that vote.)

I was grateful for that Twitter feed for another reason: I could see how those opposed to this resolution were responding. Their responses were not surprising, but they did remind me of the old English Victorian ditty about weddings, “something old, something new…”

The objections seemed to orbit around a deep concern that this resolution represented a “new” theology of marriage (even though the approved materials were not about marriage per se, nor is the approved liturgical rite a “wedding”; the materials were instead concerned with the “blessing of a lifelong covenant”).

One longtime objector to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, a priest and a theologian, described this historic moment as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” Needless to say, I believe this moment is instead Biblical, Christian, Anglican, and not only seemly but holy. (Read his brief statement here.)

Testimony offered during General Convention 2012

I feel privileged to belong to a church where these divergent opinions are aired, debated, prayed over, and voted on. No one is compelled to agree with the final decision. All are welcome to stay. Indeed, LGBT people have stayed for many decades, even when their institutional church home appeared committed to excluding them.

A diverse Christian body (as St. Paul noted in at least two of his letters) is a healthy Christian body. And I believe we learn the best from those with whom we disagree. I’m grateful for the objections to Resolution A049 (which approved the same-sex blessing materials) because they have further honed my own theological thinking.

Here I’ll share just a few of many insights those objections have prompted, some of them old, some of them new…. (Full disclosure: I had the great privilege of contributing to those materials approved by the convention, so I write here as someone with a good bit of knowledge about the theological rationale.)

Something Old
One objector was very clear: this resolution will change the Christian theology of marriage. Really? Which theology is that? Choose one from among, oh, a dozen in Christian history so we can know what’s changing. Perhaps it’s St. Paul’s version (who believed that marriage was mostly a distraction from the more important work of ministry); or maybe it was Tertullian’s (who believed that Christian marriage was a counter-cultural critique of Rome’s patriarchal household); or maybe it was St. Augustine’s (who thought sex was a rather distasteful aspect of marriage and much preferred friendship). One might also want to mention the 13th century ecclesial statutes about how priests ought to treat their concubines…

There’s some good stuff and bad stuff in the Christian history of marriage theologies. Which will we choose and why? The materials approved at General Convention tried to present some good stuff for all of us to consider.

Something New
Biblical and historical material about committed, intimate relationships is remarkably varied. Those of us who labored over the materials for General Convention were committed to bringing those varied historical traditions to bear on an ostensibly “new” cultural situation: the loving, fruitful, and committed relationships of lesbian and gay couples.

This commitment is actually both new and old. Just ask African Americans about the history of marriage during slavery, or anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding “mixed-race marriages” which weren’t overturned until a 1967 Supreme Court decision). Or just ask women about the history of being treated legally as property by their husbands (that’s more modern than most people would care to realize).

The genius of Anglican Christianity resides in part in its ability to adjust and adapt to shifting cultural patterns while doing so with deep theological commitments. Asking the English reformers of the 16th century about all this would be wildly illuminating.

“New” is not synonymous with “bad” nor is it a cypher for “better.” We need deep and sustained theological reflection about change, and I believe the materials approved at General Convention provide the tools to do precisely that (and I can’t wait for their published form later this year so that we can start using all of this great stuff!).

Something Borrowed
Those of us who worked over the last 2.5 years to craft the materials for this General Convention were deeply committed to Scripture and Tradition. Like any other matter of concern for Christians, this is a challenge. How do we reflect theologically about new things in relation to old things?

We do so by borrowing from the spiritual inspiration of our ancestors. In this case, we did that by turning to the rich symbols and spiritually textured images of “covenant” in the biblical witness and historical traditions. The covenant God made with Noah, the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made with the people of Israel, the covenant God made in Christ.

God calls of us to reflect that grace of these covenantal moments in the relationships we form and nurture. Marriage can do that, so can a monastic vow, so can ordination, so can deep friendships, and so can the lifelong committed relationships of same-sex couples.

Yes, I realize that I have used a wedding ditty to organize my reflections here. While General Convention did not approve a “wedding” liturgy for provisional use, its approval of a blessing liturgy signals a vitally important conversation Christians in all denominations need to engage: Why do we Christians want to bless relationships in church? Why does this matter?

So here I’ll return to that ditty and note this: the task groups who created these materials rooted their work above all in the gracious covenant God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. That covenant is made visible in the sacrament of baptism, which evokes the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, the very source of our common life as Christians.

Hey! There it is! We can find the last bit of that Victorian wedding ditty in the waters of baptism…

“….something blue.”

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Jesus and “Obama-Care”: Christian Socialism Inches Forward

No, Jesus was not a socialist (viral FaceBook images notwithstanding). But he did preach a radically prophetic message and he also lived it, including all those stories about miraculous physical healing.

The current brouhaha over healthcare in the United States is not “just” a secular, public policy issue. It is a deeply Christian one. A deeply spiritual one. And therefore a deeply human one. How we treat our own bodies and how we help others treat their bodies and how we structure our “body politic” so that no one need suffer just because they don’t have money or just because they don’t have a job or just because they are not legally married – all of this cuts to the heart of nearly every worldwide spiritual tradition and practice, including Christianity.

For those who think Christianity cares mostly or only about “saving souls,” reading gospel accounts of physical healing and restoration might be a good idea – perhaps especially when vilifying access to healthcare these days so often relies on describing it as “atheistic socialism.”

Christians using the Revised Common Lectionary this coming Sunday will hear not just one but two among many such healing stories – and both about women! (Yes, that mattered then just as much as it matters today.) The snippet provided by the lectionary from Mark’s gospel presents a bold and audacious woman reaching out for help – Jesus provides it (somewhat despite himself, one should note), and a grieving religious leader whose daughter had died.

There’s lots of intrigue to read between the lines of this short passage – politics (who has access to the healer); religion (circumventing proper clerical hierarchies); and culture (who counts, what matters, and how power is distributed).

Let’s just focus on the “access” part. The audacious (and, sadly, nameless) woman in this Markan passage (5:21-43) tosses aside political, religious, and cultural taboos to get what she needs – access to healing. Now this could be an isolated, stand-alone story with no further implications for our own political, religious, and cultural climate today. But St. Paul suggests otherwise.

The lectionary this Sunday also includes a snippet from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (and if you ever despair over today’s ecclesial culture, just read both of those letters and imagine the community Paul was dealing with!). On the surface, this is a strange and even rather boring little passage from Paul’s letter. But I think it carries a wallop (2 Corinthians 8:7-15).

Paul is apparently dealing with a community marked by uneven resources (sound familiar?). Some have lots of “means” while others have none but lots of “eagerness.” Paul wants them to work together to complete the good work they started. (And I can hardly resist reading this passage from his letter through the lens of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding healthcare reform: “it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”)

Paul is crystal clear in this passage. Those who are blessed by abundance and those who are in need must work together as a single body, each providing what the other lacks. Paul cites his own religious tradition for this by noting, and I quote: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” So, “Occupy Rome,” anyone? I mean of course, ancient Rome…oh, okay, today’s Rome, too. Who has “too much””? Who doesn’t have enough? These are not “socialist” questions only; these are profound biblical, Christian questions. Why aren’t we asking them in our churches?

I love this passage from Paul. Abundance is not a sin. Neither is need. The point is that all work together so that all have what they truly need.

Ordinarily I would feel like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse to connect the dots here. But given the vitriolic rhetoric over healthcare reform in this country, I think it’s worth doing.

So herewith I connect the dots: If you’re wealthy and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that access to healthcare is available to everyone, like Jairus in Mark’s story. If you’re middle-class or poor and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that your insightful gifts are offered boldly and audaciously, like the woman with a hemorrhage in that same story from Mark.

So, no, Jesus was not a socialist. But Paul clearly was, and he was a socialist because of his encounter with the risen Christ.

People waiting for health services at a “free clinic.”

Worried about that label “socialist”? That’s okay. Just read his letters to the Corinthians. Oh, and his letter to the Romans, too. Read those letters in their entirety, not just snippets. But don’t miss this: We are all members of a single body. If anyone weeps, the whole body weeps. If anyone rejoices, the whole body leaps with joy. No member is expendable. No member is better than any other. We’re all in this together. That’s called “socialism.” Or rather, that’s called the Gospel – Good News.

The “Affordable Care Act” just affirmed by the United States Supreme Court is not a panacea. We have much more work to do. And here’s the truly peculiar thing: Both Jesus and Paul gave us the theological reasons to do that work.

So let’s do it.

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Pride Also Comes After a Fall

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and stride on with dignity. Wouldn’t you take at least some pride in that? I would.

After far too many years of trying to make up for what I thought was a fatal flaw in who I am as a human being – after, that is, falling prey to hateful rhetoric from both civil and religious leaders – I’m proud to take my place among so many others who struggle to hold their heads high and make a contribution to their communities, to the Church, to the world. After falling so many times under the weight of shame and humiliation, I’m proud to join in solidarity with all those seeking to express their God-given dignity. After falling for the lie that gay is sinful, I am so terribly proud of all those whose lives bear courageous witness to something entirely different.

Pride does sometimes come after a fall.

The correct biblical version, of course, is that pride goes before a fall. Here’s the full verse: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). That’s a classic in ancient wisdom literature and rather troubling to those of us who want to celebrate “LGBT Pride Month,” and for those of us here in the San Francisco Bay Area who will witness the largest LGBT pride celebration in the U.S. this Sunday.

Isn’t pride a sin? Or at the very least, isn’t pride the condition for the possibility of sin? Generally speaking, yes, I think that’s true. Nearly every classic work of western literature has this theme lurking around somewhere in the background if not explicitly in the foreground of its plot.

We’ve certainly seen ample evidence of arrogance and hubris leading to spectacular falls in our lifetimes and even just recently. Moammar Gadhafi comes to mind, and so does Jonathan Edwards.

Add to those indicting examples some recently thought-provoking pieces out in the blogosphere about why all these “pride” festivals are messed up:

  • Sara Miles makes a persuasive case for embracing the themes of liberation, freedom, and justice of the day and not the pride. I mostly agree with her.
  • Mia McKenzie makes the same point as Miles does but in a much more pointed way (white gay men not accustomed to this kind of reflection should pour themselves a cocktail before reading her piece, but it is a must read). I mostly agree with McKenzie, too: unless and until all these “pride” festivals deal seriously with the critical intersections of race, ethnicity, class, economics, sexuality, and gender, we probably don’t have a lot of reasons to be proud of ourselves.
  • David Halperin (a scholar who often makes me kind of crazy) has a great op-ed in today’s New York Times about the risks of losing a distinctive gay style for the sake of prideful assimilation. (Since Halperin is a historian, I was a bit surprised that he stressed “style” so much at the expense of, well, history. I’m constantly amazed by how little the younger students in my classes know about the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, but I digress…)

So yeah, I get it. And that said, I’m still a fan of speaking about LGBT pride. Like everything else, pride is contextual. The term is way too blunt to cut through much of anything in our complex socio-religious and political culture.

A huge part of the problem here is Christianity. There’s a lengthy tradition in Christian circles of contrasting “pride” with “humility.” The former is the devil’s playground; the latter is the divine homeland. Left unspoken is how often pride circulates as code for describing oppressed populations trying to express their God-given dignity, and how often humility’s spiritual benefits should soothe the humiliation of a community seeking basic human decency.

Younger generations, take note: this is not a new conversation. It wasn’t so long ago that white people regularly derided “uppity” people of color when they asserted their rights; some still think similarly about the President of the United States. It wasn’t so long ago that pious men perpetuated the subjugation of women by extolling their spiritual “humility”; and some still do so today under the guise of “traditional family values.”

It’s one thing to worry about pride among the powerful and quite another to worry about it among those whom the powerful systematically crush.

In 2010, this gay pride marcher embraced a Christian who was displaying a sign apologizing for the harm the Church has done to LGBT people. I’m proud of this moment, this photo, this idea.

In short, I’m not ready to let go of the importance of “pride” for this month or this weekend, not even when the drunk drag queen falls off the Absolut Vodka float in the parade, or when someone’s grandmother is scandalized by men wearing leather harnesses and very little else, or when all those dykes on bikes rumble through San Francisco streets with their breasts gloriously exposed and bouncing about.

For each of those “scandalous” persons we see on cable television there are thousands of others who see those images and catch a glimpse of how their lives could be different – enjoyed, loved, embraced. I mean all those in rural Wyoming, uptown Manhattan, and suburban Atlanta who might at last pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and stand with dignity before God, amazed and grateful that they have survived and wish to thrive.

I mean all those “different” teenagers who might otherwise kill themselves but for that one glimmer of hope that they need not be ashamed.

I would call that “pride.” And I am profoundly grateful for it this weekend.

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Salvation Aims Too Low: Christian Insights from a Multimedia World

What do LGBT Pride Day, the lectionary for Proper 7, and the New Media Consortium have in common? Probably more than just one thing, but at least this much: Salvation aims too low.

Of course “salvation” enjoys a rich and multilayered history. I have in mind here how so many U.S. Christian churches have obsessed over who is “in” and who is “out” – who, in other words, is saved?

To me, the Gospel answer to that question is resoundingly clear: everyone. By hook or by crook, God will ensure that no one – not a single one – is lost. (If you have trouble with that claim, I recommend reflecting on the gospel parables of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14, the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10, and the pearl of great price in Matthew 13:45-46, among many others.)

I know there are multiple ways to read the meaning of “salvation” in Christian history. I draw on many of them for my own spiritual practice, my reading, writing, and teaching. I’m grateful for them all. But I truly believe that the divine salvation train is bigger than any of us can imagine. It’s bound for glory and everyone has a ticket.

So let’s stop worrying about that. In my experience, letting go of my anxiety about my personal and individual salvation has enabled me to focus on what matters just as much and often more: changing the world.

Everyone has a ticket for that train bound for glory. Period. Now, what do we do about the “station” and everything around that train?

All of this came to mind just recently when I attended a wonderful conference on educational technologies. No, it wasn’t just for “techno-geeks” (otherwise, I wouldn’t have attended). It was much broader than that, including some inspiring visions for what in the world “education” even means.

So here are the “dots” I want to connect moving forward. I don’t how to connect them yet in much detail. But I’ll post ongoing reflections on all of this:

  • LGBT Pride Month: So when did an annual occasion for insisting on common human dignity and civil rights become a moment for advertising vodka? Been to a “gay pride parade” recently? You’d think queer people are the poster children for Abercrombie and Fitch. The commodification of social justice is certainly not new to LGBT people (just ask any African-American, Asian-American, or Latino/a person about that!). But if “salvation” means I can buy a cocktail, acquire a cool wardrobe, or buy fancy gadgets with rainbow emblems then I’d say “salvation” is aiming far too low.
  • Lectionary Proper 7: This is obscure to most people but urgent for most preachers who follow the Revised Common Lectionary in their churches. The biblical texts for this Sunday, June 24, offer a familiar story (David slays Goliath) and a familiar miracle (Jesus calms a storm). But I’m particularly struck by the reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (6:1-13). To the Christians in Corinth at least, Paul had an urgent message: stop waiting for salvation; salvation is now. Right now.
  • The New Media Consortium: That sounds geeky. And it is. But that’s not all it is. I enjoyed being on a steep learning curve at the consortium’s annual summer conference last week. There I was spurred to reflect not on education (a static, pre-packaged product) but instead on learning (a dynamic, iterative process) and of course I couldn’t help but think about Christianity and salvation. Amazing speakers prompted me to consider that imparting information belonged to a bygone century and I was confronted at every turn with thinking about learning as a “social construction of knowledge” (faith) relying on a collaborative effort for “creative innovation” (social justice ministries), and still more on “open networks of divergent opinions” (church).

So how do I connect all these dots? Here’s one way: Get rid of products. We’re overloaded and bloated these days, not just with information but with a gazillion products. Do we really need spirituality, let alone salvation, added to that list? No more religious products. It’s time for religious and spiritual process.

(And yes, theology geeks out there, that’s not a new idea. But it’s high time we retrieved that ancient insight for today.)

The Apostle Paul wrote passionately to the Corinthians about his own “open heart,” a heart with no restrictions on affection. And he urged the Corinthians to “open your hearts wide also.”

That message sounds no less relevant today than it did nearly 2,000 years ago. For those uncertain about including LGBT people in all aspects of our civil and religious life, consider erring on the side of an “open heart,” with affections unrestricted. For educational institutions still rooted in a traditional university system – detached, isolated, exclusionary, and with protected domains – consider the “open heart” of social media networks, with free affiliations, collaborative problem-solving, and networked innovations for the benefit of all.

No, I didn’t drink the techno-Kool-Aid. I’m not naïve about the challenges LGBT people face nor the real tendency toward commodification in social networks. But I am hopeful. I’m hopeful about the prospects for LGBT people on nearly every front; and I’m hopeful about institutional Christianity, which has morphed and adapted continually for centuries; and I’m hopeful about theological learning in seminaries, where amazingly creative and thoughtful people can seize the moment and change the world.

Change the world? That sounds like “salvation” – the kind a whole lot of us would gladly seek.