“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.”


Blessed by a Blessing: Poised on the Brink of Liberation

LGBT people are a blessing to the Church. Many of us already knew this. Now we can start talking even more about why it matters for everyone.

Today the Episcopal Church took two remarkable steps forward. Sadly, the Church of England took a remarkable step backward. These two Christian bodies are related in a “communion” that really does need some relationship therapy – and right there we might find a blessing.

Two steps forward and one step back is actually rather common in the history of institutional Christianity. Christians tend to leap forward, lurch around, and lag behind, sometimes all at the same time. To me, this is not surprising at all. We’re all trying to figure out the Mystery we call God in relation to the mystery of our own lives and the ever-changing cultural patterns around us. If you can trace a straight line through that maze, it’s probably a mistake. The “lurching around” is itself a blessing.

None of us can ever capture the Mystery in our midst. But we do have clues in the revelatory life of Jesus and from the Holy Spirit working continually among us. Among the many bright spots of a church paying attention to those clues, there are three on my mind just now: 1) the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church; 2) the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the non-discrimination canons of the Episcopal Church; and 3) the adoption of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender unions in the Episcopal Church.

The latter two happened just today; the first one in 1976. (Read a great piece on transgender inclusion by my friend and colleague Susan Russell; read a cool Twitter thread on the same-gender blessings resolution here.)

There will be much blogging, bloviating, and opinionating on these General Convention moments. Here I will offer just one bit of reflection on why it matters, and it’s just this: I am blessed by the blessing of transgender people and by the blessing of same-gender couples. Today the Episcopal Church took two important steps in acknowledging that mutual blessing.

“Mutual blessing” may sound a bit arcane, but I think it cuts to the very heart of the matter, not only for LGBT people but for women more generally and also for the whole Church (and actually, for the wider society – this stuff matters for LGBT teenagers who think that suicide is their only way out).

The document presented to General Convention concerning the blessing of same-gender unions is titled, “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing.” That evokes a biblical verse from Genesis when God made a promise to Abram (Genesis 12:2), and it describes not only a biblical rationale for celebrating same-gender unions in Christian communities but also for honoring all of the manifestations of God’s presence among us. (Full disclosure: I chaired the theological resources task group that produced the theological essay in that document.)

Divine blessing overflows in abundance all around us, in countless ways. The Church acknowledges that abundance in its liturgical life by giving voice to that blessing. In turn, that liturgical act blesses all those gathered to witness it and enables all of us to carry that blessing into the world.

I have found this to be true in my own life in many ways, and here again I have three such ways particularly in mind. First, I have been blessed by having ordained women as friends and colleagues. Evidence of the Spirit in their lives is simply unmistakable and my own life would be impoverished without them. Second, I have been equally blessed by friends and colleagues who identify as transgender. Their lives have pushed me, taught me, and inspired me in countless ways. And third, as a single gay man, I have been deeply touched by the hospitality, generosity, and wisdom of the same-gender couples in my life. They are blessed and they are a blessing.

So why do I keep referring to women’s ordination in these reflections? I do so because male privilege and traditions of patriarchal domination infect all three of the blessings I just cited.

The Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Sadly, we need look no further for that infection than what just happened in the Church of England. The General Synod seemed poised, finally, to accept women as bishops. But a last-minute amendment to the policy, then rejected, then tabled, then…what, exactly? All that has stalled yet again the full recognition of the blessing of women in church leadership in the Church of England. (Read about that here.)

As we will soon hear from some quarters, there are those in the worldwide Anglican Communion who would argue that the Episcopal Church is held captive by liberal cultural trends; thus today’s decisions. I humbly disagree. Indeed, I believe something quite different: The Gospel has been held captive by patriarchal ideology for far too long. Today we witnessed the next steps of God’s people crossing the Red Sea on dry ground.

Today the Episcopal Church took two remarkable steps toward freeing itself from patriarchal captivity. For the small role I played in this moment of liberation, I am truly grateful. Even more, I am blessed by this divine blessing of a Church that can listen to the Spirit in its midst. Please, God, may the Church of England listen just as well to the women you have called to lead it’


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.


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.


Apocalypse Kind-of-Now: A Brown Green Season?

Ecological “issues” are an annoying interruption of the stuff that matters now. I don’t really believe that, but my blog posts would suggest otherwise.

I had a plan. Write about the war on women’s bodies in Lent and write about ecology in Easter – the new creation, totally tied to women’s bodies and gender. Lovely plan, but current events intervened.

And that is precisely the problem.

I totally support full marriage equality for all couples; the end to poverty and racism; full agency for women in decisions about their bodies. So why does the very framework that makes any of those possible in any way get such short shrift? I mean the planetary environment upon which each of relies for every breath.

Here’s the thing: “Apocalypse” is nigh; if not “now,” then soon, within my lifetime (if I’m lucky enough to live another 30 years). Hyperbole? Not really. Read just this one among many accounts of what we’re facing right now (here’s the lede of that story, which you shouldn’t read if you are prone to insomnia because of fretting: “The Earth is within decades of reaching an irreversible tipping point that could result in ‘planetary collapse’, scientists warned yesterday.”) Read yet another alarming account here.

Important digression: I adore my ten-year-old godson (oh, God, could he just say ten forever? No…not good. But he rocks my world right now). Okay, my point: Will he be able to live on this planet 30 years from now? Probably, but not likely in the same comfortable way that I am living on it now. That breaks my heart.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that my adorable godson is not the only reason why any of us should care about the environment, and passionately, with urgency. So why should we?

In some Christian circles (very similar to the one in which I grew up), there is no reason. We actually don’t have to care. The theological logic goes basically like this: God created a good world; humans screwed it up; God sent Jesus (oh, after that Israel interlude, of course) to save us; those who believe all this will go to heaven, a literally disembodied, unearthly place where we don’t have to fret about things like nuclear power plants, plastic choking our oceans, massive extinction events, or potable water.

I’m really not making this up. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of a certain type truly believe that Earth is disposable; God will create a new one.

Let me be clear: I have no desire to set up an “us versus them” scenario here in which us good liberal Christians save the planet while those fundamentalists destroy it. That would be easier to write about, frankly. More accurately, there are some Evangelical Christians who are far more passionate about the environment than many of the liberal, “progressive” Christians I know.

Now that’s peculiar. And I take a great deal of hope from it. Decades ago Lynn White, Jr., wrote a devastating essay about religion and its deleterious effects on the environment (read about it here, and yes this is a Wikipedia link). Taking his critique seriously means that we need compelling religious and theological reasons why priority #1 right now is the planet itself. Thankfully, those reasons are ready-to-hand. (Check out this, and this, and this.)

But we do have a problem: current events will always interrupt us. The latest sound bite, the latest outrage about women’s bodies, LGBT people, the economy, war….all of these will always interrupt what we need to do and say right now about where we live, right now.

I don’t have any solutions to the problem of compelling interruptions. I issue only a plea: Let us please figure out how this long “green season” in the Church year after Pentecost can inspire all of us finally to do something about a planet that is dying, right now – our planet, this “fragile earth, our island home” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 370).

Come on. Let’s figure this out – for my beloved godson, your grandchild, your niece, your neighbor, the puppies your dog is about to have, the litter of cougar cubs that will be born this year, the salmon spawning in our rivers, just take your pick  – let’s figure this out for all of us, for all of them, for all.


Faithfully Out of Synch: Holy Liminality, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Memo to PBS: Jesus Supports Marriage Equality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about “enchantment”?

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

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

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

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

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


Radical Nuns Take Over the U.N. — World Peace Declared and the Church Objects!

That is, of course, a ludicrous headline, worthy of “The Onion.” That said, and given some of my past experience with Roman Catholic women religious, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they made the attempt.

Moreover, given the latest absurdities from the Vatican concerning apparently “rogue nuns,” I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Church objected to world peace if it didn’t conform to orthodox doctrinal standards. I wish I were making that up. Alas, the Vatican recently voiced its objection to the compelling and effective social justice ministries of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, even though those ministries are perfectly aligned with more than a century of Catholic social teaching. (Don’t try to make sense of institutional Christianity; it will make you crazy and drive you to drink. I’m here to testify.)

So let’s pause here. Take a deep breath. Perhaps we can frame these absurdities with the peculiarities of Christian faith. Sure, radical nuns taking over the United Nations is ludicrous. But consider the following story. Is it any less ludicrous?

Two friends are walking down a dusty, deserted road. They are sad and grieving over the death of a friend. As they talk about their lives and the state of the world and their grief, a stranger joins them on the road. This stranger has truly mind-blowing things to say about the meaning of life and those two friends are spellbound.

They invite the stranger to join them for supper. As they sit down to table, they finally recognize this stranger as their dear friend who had died. In that very moment, the stranger disappears.

That’s a rough paraphrase of a classic Easter season story from Luke’s gospel (24:13-35), often referred to as the “Emmaus Road story.” It’s one of my favorites. I like to pair it with the story about “doubting Thomas” that so many Christians heard this past Sunday. I like to pair those stories because both of them diffuse our obsession with certainty. Both of them dethrone human hubris. Both of them elevate doubt and humility to spiritual virtues.

I take both stories as cautionary tales for theologians (like me) and institutional Christianity more generally. Any attempt to make absolute statements about God, Christian faith, or spiritual practice will always fail. Always. Like the risen Christ in the story from Luke, God will always slip through our fingers in that very moment when we think we have it all figured out – or more pointedly, all nailed down, understood, captured, and controlled.

The truth of any religious tradition or spiritual practice does not reside in how well we talk about it or parse its doctrines or ensure its systematic coherence. No, the truth of any religion resides in how we live it, and how our living promotes liberation from oppression, social justice, human flourishing, and planetary thriving. If that kind of effective spiritual living runs counter to doctrinal articulation, it’s high time to adjust the doctrine. The entire history of Christianity bears painful witness to this.

To be clear, I’m not promoting intellectual laxity, moral libertinism, or “laissez-faire spirituality.” I believe Christians ought to make bold claims, strike outrageous social postures, and preach like our lives depend on it (because they actually do). But I also believe that we should infuse all of it with a healthy dose of humility. After all, we could be wrong; we have been wrong in the past; we will be wrong again.

Alas, institutional Christianity’s besetting sin is not boldness but safety; not risk for the sake of life but the status quo for the sake of survival; not reckless creativity but staid conformity, and mostly for the sake of power and privilege. And by “institutional Christianity,” I do not mean only Roman Catholicism.

So here’s a modest proposal for this Easter season. If even the most wonderful news of all time – the resurrection of Jesus – can slip through our fingers in the blink of an eye, then we might want to handle our doctrinal positions a bit more lightly.

Here’s the more pointed version: If the Church can’t control the risen Christ, then maybe it shouldn’t try to control radical nuns who are actually living the Resurrection in their work of social justice and human flourishing.

Is doctrinal adjustment too high a price to pay for new life? Really?