July 25, 2010

This is for Rick (and anyone else, of course). What started out as a paragraph became several, and maybe a bit too abstract. Sorry if I rambled too much. Just some thoughts.

Many think we are just selfish relativists who want to have our free will without any responsibility or consequence. We are seen and described as non-committal, apathetic-yet-verbose idealists whose primary desire is to buck the system to conform to and justify our own fleshly desires. We are perceived as having near-demonic repulsion to the holy absolutes handed down by wise, God-fearing prophets, teachers, and/or apostles. We may be seen as naïve. Or if we demonstrate that we are not naïve, we are declared as bitter malcontents whose hearts have been darkened by such sins as pride or rebellion.

These are some of the justifications given for declaring many of us heretics, among many other descriptors. And we know these all quite well. In spite of this, and not merely in quick reaction to it, I think the best way to respond is with words such as those spoken by Dean Thomas Ferret, one of the first Protestants who was burned at the stake during a Scottish inquisition: “I am confident my cause is just in the presence of God, and therefore I am not concerned about the consequences.”

I use that quote not because I piously think of myself or others in similar position as martyrs. I wouldn’t dare compare myself to someone who was questioned by an established regime of Christians who were so confident in their specific form of faith that they felt it okay to literally judge the faith of others. Okay, well, maybe I would. Because in the same way that it has been happening for centuries within Christianity, people have felt so determined to defend “the” faith, or at least their form of it, that they have named “their” faith “the” faith. And to this day the inquisitions live on, albeit softly, through various forms in all denominations of what the Catholic church has progressively re-named from “Inquisition” to “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the task of which since 1965 has been defined as “furthering right doctrine rather than ‘censuring’ heresy.” And I think such soft-pedaling is disingenuous.

Regardless, what I want people to know is that most of us really are, on a heart level, confident that our “cause is just in the presence of God.” And while some might say that one who is sincere can still be wrong, which just makes one sincerely wrong, I think the crux of the matter is that Christians have come to define a relationship with God with too tight of terms, including “right” and “wrong.” I know this may get into the whole relativism-versus-authority debate, but I’ll avoid that by just pausing to say that one way I have come to define my faith is with the same words of those who established the Christian Biblical canon: “This ‘seems’ right to us and the Spirit.” In other words, it’s all a guess. A hunch.

Whatever label some try to put on me, I am holding fast to this proposal: Faith is not faith if it doesn’t involve uncertainty. If it doesn’t involve some trepidation, mistrust, struggle, fear, blindness, and dare I say, doubt, it’s no faith for me. And if my version of God is a god whose deadly “justice” needs defense, that god must die, because he is apparently too weak to stand on his own. And if, in order to further the legacy of such a faith, I must reject any perspectives that question, deconstruct, or defy established doctrines, that’s a legacy not worth continuing.

So these views might make me an outsider of sorts. A wanderer. A lost “prodigal.” But in this sense, I’d rather wallow and share slop with my fellow pigs than return to a house that promises an inheritance. Because, in this case, the inheritance is conditional upon my acceptance of too many house rules based on imagined certainty, and such an inheritance, in my view, is fools gold. And many have made that house and that inheritance into more of a self-proclaimed kingdom. But it’s an insular kingdom, an incestuous monarchy.

For these reasons, I am content with my wandering. But I am intentional in wandering. It’s part searching and part enjoying the ride. Part sailing, part motoring, and part drifting. Part communicating and part staying silent. And a lot of listening. A lot of sniffing the air and licking my finger and testing the breeze. And occasionally putting one foot in front of the other, not on a staircase that brings me higher, but on a wilderness trail with lots of blind turns. And I’ve grown comfortable in the discomfort of that. Confident in the contradictions.

It’s like I’m suspended somewhere in-between, but not like walking a tightrope, trying to traverse from one side to the other and calling it a success. More like the neon suspended in a glass tube, happy when the twilight comes. The time when the world occasionally realizes that night and day are different for each time zone. Because that’s when I begin to see that I’m not the only welcome sign in our lonely town. With each flicker of light here and there, little signs popping on, I’m reminded of the beauty in the art of divine randomness. It’s the beauty of holy chaos. Reds and yellows and all sorts of colors blinking on, some in steady, predetermined  patterns, some of them stuttering for a while until they’re warmed, and some haltingly flashing, barely humming in their own discouraged dimness. But we all light up our own little portions of the solitary road, letting travelers know that they are welcome to stay a while, to exit the busy highway and rest.

Straight Guy + Gay Pride?
June 6, 2010

[I would often make fun of gays, lesbians, and anyone else who wasn’t unquestionably heteronormative. Of course I never directly harassed or assaulted “them” because that just wouldn’t be Christian of me, but I would certainly mock them and speak terribly of them behind their backs. Perhaps the most common and most justifiable way I would do this was to tell my Christian friends and family to “pray for them, because they’re really messed up” or something to that effect. I would then segue into mocking them, doing my most flamboyant caricature. And then I’d go back to saying something like, “But just pray for them.”]

For many if not most Christians, the gay issue is the line in the sand. Once you cross it philosophically, you are officially “out there.” Sure, there are other issues that define the barriers of Christianity, but for many, one’s stance on “the gay thing” is currently the single most combustible topic. One might be considered merely “iffy” if they were to deny or question some basic tenets of the faith. But if one even vaguely affirms the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT/Q) community, they have crossed a line that deems them truly deceived.

Churches that welcome and affirm non-hetero people represent the ultimate edges of Christianity. Even if those churches were to believe some of the most conservative doctrines in Christendom, if they, for instance, allow a gay man into leadership without requiring him to denounce his “lifestyle” as sin, they are a “weird” church, or a cult or something like that, but they are certainly not really Christian. Because affirming non-hetero individuals is, for many, the one thing that is most definitely incompatible with the Bible.

So doing what I did this past weekend was a big deal: I marched in a gay pride parade. Yes, I am straight (and so is my wife). And no, I wasn’t there to protest. I was there to walk beside and affirm my brothers and sisters who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and those of other non-hetero nature. And I wasn’t alone. I was with many other Christ-followers from my church. And there were scores of others from other churches as well. And we joined with thousands of others in the streets of Austin and celebrated the beauty of us all.

The cheers were amazingly celebratory when the crowds watching us realized we were a church, and when they saw our banners, which said things like “You can love God and love gays too!” and “God loves everybody!” Onlookers whooped and hollered in agreement.  People pointed and took pictures of our signs, some teared up, some gave us hugs and high-fives. And some looked confused. And to be sure, this was definitely the first time I’ve ever seen the LGBT community actually cheer for Christians. Because Churches are known to be the ones that protest pride parades, not march in them. And because Christians are, unfortunately, the last people expected to fully accept, much less affirm LGBTs.

But enough of this dancing around the issue. What you really want to read in this post is what I believe about homosexuality, right? What side of the line do I stand on? So here it is:

I believe that what I believe does not matter unless it helps make things better. I believe that God has not pronounced that my approval or disapproval of someone or something has any credence whatsoever. What I do or do not deem as “sin” will change absolutely nothing. But I do believe that when I am face to face with another human — when I look into their eyes, when our hands touch or when we exchange a smile — if I can see them as beautiful and valuable to the universe, as a representation of God, and not just as an anonymous representative of an argument or a mindless pawn of the devil — if I can treat them with the same love that I so desperately seek — I think we can get a glimpse of the better way of living that Jesus talked about. When we join hands as humans instead of pushing against “the other,” we can create a tiny spark of divine beauty that opens a door to let God’s plan enter our lives. That’s what I believe is the Kingdom of Heaven. And while there are  arguments on both sides of the line, none really matter in the big scheme of things. But actions do.

That’s why I believe that every Christian should march together with LGBTs in a pride parade at least once. Whether I do or do not approve of something or someone makes no difference. But the way I see people does. The way I treat people creates either an environment that’s open or closed to divine possibilities. My words and actions — not my beliefs — determine, moment by moment, whether God’s will is or is not being “done here on earth as it is in Heaven.”

And when I allow God’s spirit to talk more than me, I begin to see that the line is in fact drawn in sand, not concrete. And God made the sand; we just decided to scrawl in it. To make ourselves feel more secure, perhaps? To call the best players over to our side to ensure that we’ll have the winning team in a meaningless game? I say these things not as a statement that I’m on the opposite side of some line, nor to demean people who disagree with me. I say these things because a powerful love that I feel deeply tells me that there does not have to be a line. But if there is, I choose to let God do the drawing. Because his artwork is so much more beautiful than my little lines.

Of course, many would say that God’s already drawn a firm line on this issue, based on the same ancient middle-eastern laws that also defined menstruating women as untouchable, and on the opinions of the first Christian missionary (Paul, not Jesus). So this is why LGBTs are the untouchable lepers of our society. I just choose to believe that God’s drawing does not consist merely of a series of straight dividing lines. I suggest instead that what some may see as a singular dividing line is really just a tiny section of an infinitely big circle that includes everyone.

My LGBT friends are precious, beautiful people. And one of my gay friends has been for me an amazing example of what a real man should be: integrous, loving, genuine, honest… Because people like this are in fact people like all of us, these individuals deserve the same rights and privileges. They deserve for their loved ones to be able to visit them in the hospital and make decisions on their behalf. They deserve to have their marriages acknowledged…as marriages. They deserve to be left alone. They deserve to not be mocked by people like me. They deserve the unconditional love of God as much as anyone. And they are not untouchable.

I think I may have caught a little glimpse of God’s artwork this weekend when we gathered with thousands of others to celebrate the touchableness of each other. And especially when, in an incredibly rare moment, people actually rejoiced and cheered when Christians came around…

Circles and Boxes
January 27, 2010

This is in fact how many people see it…

A couple years ago I reviewed David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ book, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters. In it the Christian researchers give statistics attesting to the realities of Christianity’s image problem and the reasons behind it. Importantly, they add that Christians must realize that the negative sentiments “outsiders” express are not merely because they are critical, or even “deceived.” These sentiments are the result of personal experience with Christian family or friends.

They also note that Christians should “avoid being defensive about the culture’s push to remove Christianity’s power in society,” and that “if the enormous number of Christians in this country has not achieved the level of positive influence hoped for, it’s not the fault of a skeptical culture.” In fact, they add that young Christians themselves are hesitant to raise the Christian flag because they too see Christianity as embarrassingly judgmental, confusing, insensitive, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, hypocritical, and anti-homosexual, to name a few.

Some of the stats include:

  • Percentage of young non-Christians (“Outsiders,” ages 16-29) who see Christians as judgmental: 87% …Same question for churchgoers of the same age: 52%
  • …anti-homosexual > Outsiders: 91% …Churchgoers: 80%
  • …not accepting of other faiths > Outsiders: 64% …Churchgoers: 39
  • …out of touch with reality > Outsiders 72% …Churchgoers: 32%
  • …insensitive > 70% … Churchgoers: 29%

My purpose here is not to smear Christians or call out facts that many already know. It’s just to reiterate the point that any religious group that defines itself by what it must abstain from will obviously be defined that way by others…by what the group is against, not for. Now, I know that many Christians are trying to get beyond this; I have pastor friends who are working incredibly hard to simply offer love and healing to people. And I know that many Christians would say that they in fact really define themselves by what they are for: God’s grace, the principles of love taught by Jesus, intimacy with the holy spirit…all positive things.

But when one examines the qualifications of those things, it becomes apparent that the religion really does define itself by what it excludes more than what it accepts. An example… The benefit: Christians believe in the power of God’s all-encompassing grace which is available to all. The qualifications: “Jesus said that no man can go to the father except through him, the son (Jesus),” so no one is allowed to truly experience God’s grace unless he/she believes that 1) Jesus is God’s son 2) Jesus was born of a virgin 3) Jesus died on the cross and that process served as the only possible substitutionary atonement (payment) for the penalty of sin passed down from Adam 4) Jesus resurrected from the dead 5) Proclaim all these beliefs publicly 6) Be baptized (this may or may not count as the public proclamation) 7) Be filled with the holy spirit (preferably with the evidence of speaking in tongues, depending on denomination) … and I could add more, but I’ll stop at 7 because that’s God’s number. 😉 The theological explanation for this says that God’s grace is “sufficient but not efficient.” In other words, it’s power is based on the condition of our choice to accept it [on the terms given us by the church, to which Jesus gave all authority when he left earth].

So the circle of inclusion quickly gets smaller and smaller, the number of “acceptable” fewer and fewer. And don’t forget that, according to Christian teaching, “In the last days there will be a great ‘falling away,'” in which many Christians will become deceived themselves and will “backslide” and fall out from under the covering of God’s grace. So the circle gets smaller still. And all this makes me wonder if God’s grace, according to religion, really is all that powerful.

I choose to believe that it is, but the only time we get the picture of graceful inclusion is when a preacher is trying to “pull in the net” during an emotional altar call, or call for salvation. And this is what enforces the negative salesman image of preachers…Get in as many as you can without telling them the details of the deal. “Grace is the free gift of God for all,” it is said. “…Except…oh by the way…just sign here…”

So what’s my solution? I suggest that God’s grace is bigger than religion, bigger than Christianity, bigger than whatever box we humans try to fit God in, and yes, maybe even bigger than our ability to reject it. But I think that when we think we’re rejecting “God” we’re really just rejecting the notions of God that we’ve been taught.

This past Sunday at Journey we talked about the labels we put on God. And we had an illustration at the end of the gathering: A light box was up front. But the light was having a hard time illuminating the room because the clear side of it was covered with numerous strips of tape, so the light was very dim, only enough to let you see the overlapping lines of the tape strips. The strips were all the labels we put on God, maybe things like, “male” or “white” or “patriarchal” or even “Christian” or whatever. But at the end of the discussion we all lined up and one by one walked to the box. We each pulled a strip of tape off the clear front of the box, and with each removed piece of tape more light shined through. First a small shaft of light pierced through a split in the tape. Then another. Then another. Then light was getting more intense as it burst through all but a few strips around the border, and those got peeled off until the light emanated powerfully from inside the box and lit up most of the place.

I saw this and thought, “Maybe we should try to let God speak for himself.”

I know that’s hard because then who is to say that voice is verifiably that of God according to whatever criteria we come up with. Because even though the words touched the person who heard them and that person is better because of whatever they heard and however they heard it…even if it was through a tree growing beside a waterfall or a young man being nice to an old lady or a cartoon on YouTube…We must then gather a committee and debate and make sweeping proclamations and whoever has the best argument wins. After all, that’s how we got the Bible, aka, God’s Word.

There must be a better way, or as some like to say, another world is possible. I think God’s word, and God’s grace, is bigger than us. Bigger than all our little circles and boxes, no matter how nice we dress them up.