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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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Church Metrics and the Widow’s Mite: Butts on Pews

‘Tis the season for church stewardship drives and, thus, clergy panic attacks. I suspect many diocesan health insurance plans see a spike in anti-anxiety medication this time of year, and for good reason. Funding congregational ministries is time-consuming and expensive, especially in shrinking congregations.

The latest news about mainline decline only fuels this traditional consternation. Changing demographics, empty pews, a crisis of relevance, worn-out evangelism methods…the list goes on and on. What to do?

I do think attending carefully to demographic studies and surveys, as well as the latest “best practices” about community organizing is important. But perhaps not quite so important as all the panic around it might otherwise indicate.

Theologically, I’m convinced that the Church is in the business of putting itself out of business. The mission of the Church, after all, is not the Church but the coming reign of God. Josiah Royce, an early-twentieth century philosopher of religion, urged us to look for “no triumph of the Christian Church.” He meant that the point of the Church is not the Church but that toward which it is supposed to point: The Beloved Community.

That said, what do we do in the meantime? In this “mean time,” what are we to do before the divine reign of the Beloved Community is a reality? There are many responses to that question that we all need to consider carefully. Here’s just one: stop obsessing about how many butts sit on pews.

That’s much easier said than done when bills have to be paid. But is that the only way Christians want to measure the effectiveness of their witness to the Gospel?

I posted recently about the tragic fire that destroyed a portion of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California. This church has been a beacon of Gospel hope to me in so many ways for nearly twenty years. While I’m torn, sad, and devastated by what that fire wrought, I’m also profoundly grateful for what it has inspired, not only in me but in the small community that gathers there, week by week.

The Rev. Este Cantor, the Vicar at Good Shepherd, preached a remarkable sermon a few weeks ago. The lectionary passages that week included the gospel story of the widow who gave all she had to the Temple while the wealthy gave only a small portion of their wealth. That is of course a classic “lectionary set-up” to encourage people to give more in stewardship season, to give “sacrificially” for the cause. Este didn’t go there. She went somewhere else that I found profoundly moving.

I share some excerpts here of her sermon not only for the hope she inspired among us at Good Shepherd but for the insights to be mined from it about the mission of the Church and how all of us might think differently about pledge campaigns in our congregations. Among those insights, I offer just two:

1. Beware of Institutional Survival
Este’s sermon reminded me of the late Walter Wink’s great insight about institutions: whenever any institution devotes more energy and time to its own survival rather than to its mission, that institution has become demonic. Este took that insight to heart with the familiar story of the widow’s mite:

If we listen to today’s gospel passage carefully, we are warned away from the common interpretation of the gift of the widow, that she is a virtuous model for the ultimate sacrifice. In the beginning of the passage Jesus tells us of the scribes, who wear their expensive long robes, and have the best seats in the synagogues, and who also devour widow’s houses. What is implied is that the true order of the Kingdom has been corrupted. Instead of supporting the poor, the temple is supported by taking every cent the poor possess.

Let’s be clear about that for which we are asking sacrificial giving. Is it only for institutional life-support or a transformed society, a new world? (If you’re clergy, don’t answer that question too quickly.)

2. Look Beyond the Pews
This is a truism worth repeating: We have no idea what our witness accomplishes. If we measure our witness to the Gospel by how many sit in our pews on Sunday morning we will likely miss what the Spirit is doing with what we offer. In the wake of Good Shepherd’s fire, Este offered this in her sermon:

In the midst of the shock and sadness, the chaos and the ugliness of cinders replacing objects of beauty, there have been the unmistakable stirrings of new life. Perhaps the most surprising response came when I walked the neighborhood to pass out a small flyer meant to thank our neighbors for their support and concern, and to assure them that we would rebuild. I thought I would be through in about an hour, but the first neighbor kept me for forty minutes! He couldn’t stop saying how much the church meant to him, how it was an “anchor to the whole neighborhood.” He wanted to know when we would have a fund-raiser and how else he could help us.  Everyone I spoke with was greatly relieved to hear that we were going to rebuild. They gave me their contact info and asked me to keep them up to date on our progress. These were people who have never darkened the door of our church, except perhaps for a neighborhood meeting or a concert. It was as if they worship in this church in a different way. They were obviously very glad that we are here, doing what we do, perhaps even rejoicing that we make our spiritual offerings whether they are with us or not.

How, I have to wonder, is that experience captured in Pew Research surveys of religious affiliation and practice? Never, ever underestimate the witness of a building, a program, a sermon, a concert, a community meeting! What any church does cannot be measured by how many people sit in the pews on a Sunday morning.

Clearly, Christian congregations face enormous challenges today. Yet the Spirit of God is moving among all of us and doing things that we cannot now imagine or appreciate. I believe this from reading the Bible and from studying Christian history.

But I do all this peculiar Christian work for another reason as well: my worship experience with a tiny band of resolute “sheep” of the Good Shepherd who mourn the loss of their beloved physical space yet insist that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38).

That remarkable declaration of hope from Paul is the heart of the mission of the Church. Let’s reclaim it.

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How to Vote: Food and Sex Edition, 2012

Tax policy is important but mind-numbingly obtuse. Let’s cut to the chase – come November 6, will we cast our votes for a “you’re-on-your-own-and-good-luck-to-you” country or a “we’re-all-in-this-together” country?

Does Christian faith offer anything at all for how we might answer that question?

Let’s start with a five-pound roasting chicken, stuffed with pats of butter and a quartered onion. While it’s roasting, set the table with a lovely blue-and-yellow Provencal tablecloth, two plates of the “harvest pattern” china, two elegant wine goblets and a couple of candles.

You will also want to boil some red potatoes, assemble some cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes on a plate with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and open a bottle of wine. Cut some flowers from the garden and place them in a cut-glass vase on the table. Select the light jazz playlist on your iPod and get ready to greet your enchanting guest with a lovely hors d’oeuvre of smoked oysters and assorted cheeses.

You could also plan a tasty dessert. But dessert will probably entail something other than food.

If you don’t think food and sex have anything to do with politics or religion, you haven’t read your Bible lately (you do have one, right?). Food and sex are often deeply connected if not indistinguishable, especially when we throw religion into the mix, not to mention politics.

Two of the most basic human activities – eating food and having sex – have been the most frequently regulated human activities in nearly every society and historical era, and religion has most often been the means to regulate them. Politicians are usually the ones to insist on enforcing those regulations.

While a bit strange, that does make a certain kind of sense. I believe all humans share at least this much in common: the desire to be loved, to be cared for and wanted. The desire, in other words, for “communion.” That’s a potent and powerful desire, and sharing food and sexual intimacy are just two of the obvious ways to meet that desire.

Of course religious traditions and institutions will want to police something that potent. Look no further for evidence of this than the 50-year debate over whether lesbian and gay people can preside or even participate in the ritual meal of Christian communities, a meal called in some circles “Holy Communion.”

All of this came to mind as I prepared to preach this past Sunday on a set of rather peculiar biblical texts. The Hebrew Bible story about Eldad and Medad is one of my favorites (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). The story begins with complaints about food but quickly morphs into a power struggle over legitimate membership.

The struggle emerges when the Spirit of God is poured out on all the elders of the people, including two of them (Eldad and Medad) who were not, as it were, on church property at the time. This of course prompts a scandal (they weren’t following the rules!) as well as a great aspiration from Moses, who longs to see the Spirit poured out on everyone.

So if you have ever been excluded, marginalized, left out, made to feel less than human because of your skin color, your body shape, your education, your gender, your sexual orientation, your socio-economic status, or just because you didn’t happen to show up at the right place at the right time – well then, Eldad and Medad are your patron saints! They’re standing right by your side, cheering you on.

The lectionary also included a portion from Mark’s gospel (9:38-50) and echoes the same theme but takes it a step further. Those who are not against us are for us, Jesus declares, and then he adds a warning. In everything you do and say, he insists, make sure that you don’t prevent anyone from believing in me.

Let’s put it this way: If a religious institution or religious leaders have ever blocked your path toward God, prevented your deeper engagement with the sacred, or made you stumble on your way into divine life, Jesus said it would be better for them to tie a big boulder around their necks and jump in the ocean.

He then goes on to say even harder stuff about cutting off body parts if they are offensive, which would be better than missing out on the big heavenly banquet that is yet to come.

I read this admittedly unsavory gospel passage as an urgent reminder: nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than following our desire for divine communion. And God help those who block any person’s path toward that desire!

I read this passage, in other words, as a proclamation of the ridiculously offensive generosity of the Gospel. God invites everyone to the feasting table – no exceptions, no kidding. The ones we like and the ones we avoid; the ones we admire and the ones we despise; the ones who seem to us so clearly deserving and those who seem worthy of nothing but punishment – all of them, all of us, are invited to the Table, no exceptions, no kidding.

Early Christian frescoe of an “agape feast.”

“Ridiculously offensive” generosity of the Gospel? Yes. How could it not be in a world such as ours so deeply marked by unrelenting divisions, violent hostility, and entrenched partisan and sectarian bickering? These divisions are actually so deep that they just seem “natural.”

Make no mistake: regardless of one’s political loyalties, it is deeply offensive to suppose that not a single one of those dividing lines matters. That is the good news of Christian faith. We really are all in this together.

Make no mistake about this, either: there are indeed religious communities today – from Minnesota to New Jersey and San Francisco – that are policing, monitoring, and regulating who may have access to the feast of divine generosity. These communities and their leaders are doing this based on whom people choose to love. This should be a source of deep outrage for all people of faith, just as it was for Jesus.

God sets the Table and invites everyone, without exception.

All of this might not help you make ballot decisions about everything, but I hope it inspires you to proclaim the kind of good news that really could change the world. And our world longs to hear it, that eternal call of the Lover to the Beloved: “Come, my love, the feast is ready; and I have prepared it just for you.”

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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 1

I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.”

Set aside for a moment how problematic those labels are. Set aside as well (just for the moment) how detrimental the polarization of these labels is. I’m convinced that a lot of Christians work hard to occupy that very peculiar and apparently contradictory space that I just declared, but few talk about it. There are good reasons for the silence – this is a precarious and complicated space, not at all easy to describe let alone defend.

I am convinced that so many of us stumble over this particular moral/political issue because we try to craft positions in the abstract, philosophically or theologically. Think about the scientist creating an ideal laboratory environment for an experiment. More often than not the lab results don’t work out there in the “real world” because context nearly always trumps ideals.

So I want to frame this attempt at describing my “pro-choice-because-I’m-pro-life” position by turning to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. I’ll say more about the position itself in Part 2, but here I want to underscore how important it is to frame it with real life and not abstract principles.

I take Michael Crichton’s story and Spielberg’s film as the quintessential judgment on all human attempts to capture, contain, control, and circumscribe the untamable energies of life. I also see in that film a poignant testament to context; even the best ideas and well-laid plans will falter and fail without due attention to the particularities of contextual realities.

Keep both the vagaries of life and the complexities of context in mind as I offer just three Jurassic observations to frame what I’d like to propose in Part 2 of this mini-blog-series. (Click here if you need a primer or refresher on the film).

Paddocks and Ghettoes
John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park in Crichton’s story, was both a genius and a fool. He tried and ultimately failed to separate carnivores from herbivores in elaborately protected “paddocks.” Okay, let’s just call them ghettoes.

Nothing in the U.S. (I would argue any country) is free from the dynamics of race and class and more broadly the attempt by every society to cordon off some segments of the population from the others. The attempt to do that in Jurassic Park by separating meat-eaters from veggies proved disastrous. Every similar human attempt ends in precisely the same way; we are likely witnessing just the latest iteration of that failure in the uptick of gun violence in the U.S.

We cannot have a conversation about “family planning” (and everything that innocuous moniker implies) without talking about gated communities and “sacrifice zones,” those places where U.S. society has consigned all the expendable ones, all the “undesirables,” all those who might stand in the way of corporate profits. For more on this, I cannot recommend highly enough two recent books by Chris Hedges concerning this vexing morass of social and political issues. (See/read the Bill Moyers interview here.)

It would certainly be easier if we could approach all of our ethical dilemmas by analyzing ideal states. Have you ever said “well, all things being equal” when trying to make an argument? I have. Sadly, there is no such state. We can’t pretend we don’t live in a society of paddocks.

If we’re going to talk about contraception, abortion, and reproductive health, we must talk about the racial and economic paddocks in which those issues exhibit a range of meanings and implications that fall well outside our neat-and-tidy moral systems.

Lab Coats and Cassocks
The managers of Jurassic Park sought to control such a potentially dangerous environment with one simple innovation: ensuring at the time of conception that every dinosaur would be female. This would guarantee no unwanted reproduction – “unwanted,” of course being a cipher for “disrupting our plans for making profit from a well-controlled theme park.”

There’s a long and troubling history in western culture of trying to control reproduction, from the pseudo-science of racial differences rooted in phrenology to the eugenics programs supported by some of the biggest corporate financiers in the early 20th century. I mean folks like Carnegie and Rockefeller.

Human reproduction has been one of the most highly regulated activities in nearly every human society in every historical era. Religion has most often been the preferred way to regulate it. Let us not, however, assume we have passed into an enlightened era where science corrects religion’s excesses. The development of the birth control pill originated with those who were mostly concerned with eugenics, with controlling human reproduction based on race, ethnicity, ability, and “desirability.”

One might wish that science played a stronger role in today’s political discourse, but we must not think that everything labeled “scientific” is value-neutral or benign. Today’s reproductive technologies and their applications alike are deeply embedded in the discourses of what matters to the dominant culture of this society.

We should also remember that the Jurassic Park experiment failed. The dinosaurs found a way to reproduce, or as Sam Neill’s character put it when he found a dino egg out in the field: “Life found a way.” It always will. And surely that alone should inject a bit more humility in everyone’s approach to what “life” means.

Roars and Whimpers
The penultimate scene in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park features a T-Rex roaring beneath a fluttering banner that reads, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” Old paradigms never exit the stage gracefully, or with a whimper. They usually roar their way into oblivion.

Of course, the sequels to Jurassic Park make clear that even dinosaurs can make a comeback. So let us consider carefully our current political and social climate with reference to a centuries-long legacy of male privilege in western culture. I hear it roaring, do you?

I do not mean that men are dinosaurs. I mean that the system currently still shaping North Atlantic societies that organizes its polices, institutions, laws, and religious communities by stratifying a society based on maleness is doomed, no less so than T-Rex or the Brontosaurus – but none of us should underestimate the effects of those final roars.

T-Rex will not go quietly into that good night and there are plenty of whimpers in that roar’s wake – not least are the cries heard from women who might be forced to have abortions, which “progressives” don’t like to talk about. (Check this out in China, but also in Massachusetts.) How can we possibly have a conversation about life, about contraception, about science, about human thriving while all our voices are drowned out by the roar of white male privilege?

I would love to consider what life means and what conception entails without the roaring voices of mostly male politicians who want to insert vaginal probes in women’s bodies, or those who think there is such a thing as “legitimate rape,” or lobbyists who pretend that race, class, and economics play no role in crafting social policies about reproductive health.

Maybe someday we can; but not today. So in Part 2 I’ll suggest why “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are just about the most misleading labels one could imagine for this topic of deep concern, how we might talk differently about this vexing topic, and what a peculiar Christian response might look like. Stay tuned…

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“In God We Trust” — But Which One?

It’s printed right there, on U.S. currency: “In God We Trust.” Is that true? If so, which god would that be? The one worshiped by the Sikhs who were gunned down in Wisconsin? The one worshiped at First Baptist Church of Oak Creek, just down the street from where the Sikhs were killed? Are these one and the same “God”?

In 1956, the 84th Congress of the United States passed legislation, signed by President Eisenhower, that changed the official motto of this country from e pluribus unum (“out of the many, one”) to “In God We Trust.”

This is a rich vein of material to mine for theologians, but everyone in the U.S. needs to pay attention to this, whether citizen, green-card holder, atheist, conservative Christian, cultural Jew, observant Muslim, and so many more. Much depends on how people understand this motto, and not just for internecine religious debates, but for crafting social policy, engaging with our political process, navigating cultural differences, and nurturing interpersonal relationships – everything, in other words.

I care about this for at least two interrelated reasons: 1) how to promote critical and constructive theological thinking in Christian communities about what we mean by “God”; and 2) how conceptions of “God” shape our common life in an increasingly diverse nation like the United States.

These are huge concerns, and a single blog post can’t possibly address them adequately. Here I want to make just one point and expand on it later in future posts.

Here’s the point: The God who is everywhere in general tends to be nowhere in particular.

I know that sounds woefully abstract, so let me back up a bit. That point began to gestate when I was young and saw, for the first time, Cecil B. DeMille’s wildly extravagant film The Ten Commandments. The burning bush, the pillar of flame, the boiling mountaintop – of all these rather campy film effects awakened my desire to find God somewhere and not just vaguely everywhere.

I grew up in a religious tradition (Evangelical Christian) that stressed what I like to call the “OmniGod” – this is the Creator God who is omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all loving). I was taught this from a very early age. God was, one might say, ambient to the culture of my youth, something like the fluoride added to the water supply by the government – unseen, tasteless, but helpful in the long run.

Eventually, I found that “always-everywhere” but “nowhere-in-particular” deity rather unsatisfying, and also a bit ironic. The conservative Christianity of my youth likewise stressed the incarnation of that God in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.

I take that emphasis on incarnation as a clarion call to pay attention to the concrete and the particular as much as if not more than the general and the abstract. This matters in a religiously and culturally diverse nation like the United States, and for at least two reasons.

The Risk of Religious Monopoly
The God who is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular can tempt a religious community to claim exclusive access to the God in whom everyone should place one’s trust. This can lead to the particular, and therefore limited understanding of one religious tradition monopolizing all the other others. A religious monopoly invites hubris rather than humility; it invites hierarchical control rather than shared inquiry; and it invites spiritual practice that is more akin to a museum exhibition than a living tradition. A religious monopoly can also quickly spill over into a cultural monopoly, as the latest wave of anti-immigration energy in the U.S. suggests.

The Risk of Homogenous Communities
If God is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular, then diversity becomes a big problem to solve rather than a huge gift to embrace. Differences of opinion must be silenced and subsumed under one broad banner; divergent approaches are treated as threats to uniformity; faith communities become isolated silos or religious versions of a gated community.

If God really is generally present everywhere, then God will show up in all sorts of particular places we might not expect, in traditions that our not our own, and always, as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah declared, ready to do a “new thing” (Is. 43:19; 65:17).

As a Christian, I find in Jesus Christ the patterns, rhythms, sensibilities, and insights that I believe I should seek wherever and whenever I’m looking for God, whether I find God in “Christian” settings or not.  And when I do believe I’ve found something of God in non-Christian settings and people, that insight could well revise what I think about Jesus.

A religious monopoly afraid of diversity, by contrast, sits perilously poised on the brink of idolatry. Stamping a religious declaration on money suggests the same thing about a nation.

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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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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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Saving the Planet One Dogmatic Doctrine at a Time

Ideas matter. They matter all the time, but especially in times of peril – social, political, and ecological peril. We live in such perilous times today.

These days, ideas matter in direct proportion to every degree of elevation in the planet’s mean temperature (the double entendre here is useful). All of us need to take action now for this planet, this “fragile earth, our island home.” But we won’t get very far without sustained and careful thinking and deliberation. Ideas matter.

I don’t mean that ideas matter in isolation from action. That binary distinction is more than a cliché; it’s as furry with mold as the old blue cheese I recently found in my refrigerator. No one does hardly anything without thinking, even when some forms of thinking have become a habit. Ideas matter.

Consider just two recent examples of the clarion call for thinking carefully and deliberately together about our world. The first comes from Bill McKibben, a leading environmental advocate and writer. His latest piece in Rolling Stone is one of the more sobering assessments I’ve read about our global climate change crisis. McKibben himself describes the piece as among the most important he has ever written.

The second comes from someone I don’t know on a website I only recently found. Alan Goldstein describes in concise and compelling ways the current economic and social crisis our planet now faces. I find his analysis on target but his proposed solution weak.

Both of these pieces illustrate my point: ideas matter. Among the ideas that matter are religious ones generally, and theological ones in particular. Just read the daily newspaper. Religious ideas are fueling war, conflict, economic policies, social configurations, ecological positions…the list goes on and on. So how curious that neither McKibben nor Goldstein offers even a single word about religion!

How human beings think about God (or not) in relation to ourselves, to other humans, and to other animals has a profound impact on how we live (even if our practice doesn’t always match our theory perfectly or even closely). So how then do we think about God? And how do we deliberate together about our thinking? And how do we put our thinking into action and how does our action reshape our thinking?

I care about these questions as a human being, as a Christian, as a priest in the Episcopal Church, and as a theologian. I’m grateful for the responses in various venues to my recent blog post that suggest that others care about this, too.

So I decided to assemble a series of blog posts to describe how I approach theological ideas and the difference they make in how Christians live. That’s a ridiculously huge topic, so these are more like conversation starters.

I’ll begin with this: There is no grand solution for our planetary problems. There is no universal, all-encompassing strategy for human thriving. We all seek in vain for the pill, the method, the text, the location, the practice, the rite, the community, the guru, the geography, the school that will cure what ails us.

I’m glad there is no such thing or place or person or community that can do that. Because what we have instead are shards of beauty, slices of the piercingly poignant, the strands of awe dangling in the breezes of forests, the pimples of delight on the chin of lovers, the absurd glory of dead pets, and the stains of thumb-marks on pages turned in cherished texts.

We take all of this into our wildly graceful moments of human relationship, into our fumbling attempts at creating transcendent communities, and our visceral responses to weather reports.

All of this is the stuff of religion and theology. But few would guess it from reading media reports about denominational gatherings. If Christian theology can’t go back to the campfire where we all sit together and tell stories and shape communities of action and practice, then we are doomed.

But I don’t believe that. I believe religion generally and Christian theology in particular can help turn the tide toward flourishing – what God has intended all along. My next posts here in this blog will offer suggestions about how Christian communities might make ideas matter. Stay tuned. And please add your voice – without it, we’ll be stuck, mired, buried in a culture that denigrates ideas.

Don’t let that happen. Ideas matter.

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Brazen Women, Cross-Dressers, and Canine Caskets

That’s one way to summarize the recently concluded 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and apparently the preferred way for no less an American institution as the Wall Street Journal.

Religion can make people a bit crazy. But what exactly is in the New York City water supply that would lead a WSJ writer to describe General Convention as a spectacle of “sheer ostentation” loaded with a “carnival atmosphere”?

Was WSJ’s Mr. Akasie writing under the influence of martinis (a fault of my own, which I freely admit) when he described the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church “brazenly” carrying her staff of office? Brazenly, really? Or perhaps it was a martini or two later that led him to describe Bishop Jefferts Schori as “secretive and authoritarian” during her “reign” thus far. (Anyone who knows her – as I do – finds that ludicrous in the extreme.)

Granted, name-calling is actually quite effective – but in grade school. Presumably we leave behind such childish behavior in adulthood, and if not in our personal lives, then certainly in our professional lives and most certainly if we’re reporting news or even commenting on it in the pages of what was once a prestigious newspaper.

The WSJ was not alone in its bizarre spin on the business of the Church in Indianapolis. Bloggers are of course free-range anyway, but some online sites have come to be trusted locales for thoughtful reflection and reporting. Belief.net used to be one of those trusted sites. Alas, that train left the station some time ago.

If anyone needs any further evidence for Belief.net’s demise, the recent screed by its “senior editor” about General Convention should suffice. There we learn that the pioneering action of Convention to include gender identity and gender expression in the church’s non-discrimination canons amounts to an endorsement of “cross-dressing clergy.” (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

If nothing else, the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net make The Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon look reasonable and mainstream by comparison. I wrote just recently about Fr. Harmon’s description of the Convention as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” (I will try to resist wondering whether Fr. Harmon paid these other writers to look foolish…)

So, yes, religion can make people temporarily insane. I get it. But here’s what I believe is the real take-away from all this absurd reporting on General Convention: religious patriarchy is shuddering in its last gasps.

I’ve written on this before (here) and it’s not going away. So here are just two more reasons why all of us who care about the gloriously peculiar faith of Christians need to focus our attention on male privilege, and then I’ll add a final Pauline note. (Oh, and don’t miss this great piece from the Bishop of Arizona about similar topics.)

1. Men Aren’t Brazen (Even When They Are)

So when’s the last time you heard the Archbishop of Canterbury described as “brazen”? I might be out of touch with language on the street, but I have never, ever heard the kind of description of a male bishop that Mr. Asakie used to describe the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori:

Bishop Jefferts Schori is known for brazenly carrying a metropolitan cross during church processions. With its double horizontal bars, the metropolitan cross is a liturgical accouterment that’s typically reserved for Old World bishops. And her reign as presiding bishop has been characterized by actions more akin to a potentate than a clergywoman watching over a flock.

Where in the world does anyone begin to parse that bizarre paragraph? I would of course love to know what it means to carry a cross “brazenly.” Did this man pass high school English? More to the point: Women are “brazen”; men never are, even when they do exactly the same things.

Still more: why the gratuitous description of our Presiding Bishop’s tenure as a “reign”? That word might well have appeared in stories about the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope or occasionally other male bishops, but not very often.

The Presiding Bishop leaving General Convention (thanks, Susan Russell). Note: no “brazen” staff in hand.

God forbid that women reign over anything.

2.  Men in Dresses Kill Puppies

Ludicrous? Yes. Nonsensical? Yup. But that’s what we get when we combine the Wall Street Journal with Belief.net. Mr. Asakie took great pains to include the resolutions concerning liturgical rites for companion animals in his article (apparently just the attention to non-human animals is enough to spark ridicule, and that speaks volumes).

Meanwhile, on Belief.net, Rob Kerby finds news from General Convention “stunning” and for mostly the same gendered reasons:

The headlines coming out of the Episcopal Church’s annual U.S. convention are stunning — endorsement of cross-dressing clergy, blessing same-sex marriage, the sale of their headquarters since they can’t afford to maintain it.

A friend of mine on Facebook said it all (and I paraphrase a bit): “Men who dress like mothers and insist on being called ‘Father’ are objecting to transgender inclusion?” Well, indeed. But that’s not all. Please do not miss that property management and finances are linked in a single paragraph to gender issues: women can’t deal with money. (Oh, I am so glad my mother is not reading this…)

Look, if a supposedly “senior editor” at belief.net equates transgender concerns with “cross-dressing,” we have some issues to discuss, not least would be how men treat all those who don’t “dress” like creatures worthy of care, respect, and dignity – like non-human animals.

The link between misogyny and animal abuse deserves its own blog post, and I’ll do that soon. For now, suffice it to say that the denigration of women and the facile dismissal of the rites for companion animals belong to an important constellation of issues around male privilege.

3. St. Paul Screwed Things Up – Thank God

Don’t even try to create a coherent theology from Paul’s New Testament letters. I think it’s much more fruitful to notice where Paul gets carried away, where he waxes eloquent and crazy. Where he just can’t contain himself because of the wildness of the Gospel and pushes all the known boundaries, his own included. There are many examples of this in his letters. I have Galatians 3:28 in mind right now.

I know that’s overused. It’s critiqued, parsed, sliced and diced to within an inch of its life. But let us try to listen again to Paul’s exuberance: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

Just try putting yourself back in first century Palestine, a Roman province, and consider the implications of what Paul wrote. He upended, overturned, dismantled, and dissolved all the basic social and religious distinctions shaping his society.

Whatever that biblical passage might mean for us today (and there are so many things!), surely it’s time to rethink how much energy and time and money is spent on maintaining gender role distinctions – okay, let’s be honest: male privilege. That would actually be a rather modest reading of Paul’s letter, but let’s just start there.

Those of us in Christ would no longer describe women as “brazen” when they do the same thing as men. We would no longer describe gender difference with terms that men use to belittle women. We would no longer abuse non-human animals as if they were women. Actually, we wouldn’t abuse anything at all.

I think that might count as progress. And if Christians actually lived this peculiar faith, journalists might be less willing to look so terribly foolish.

Oh, and lives might be saved, too…