Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Bishop's Wedding Band

"Do you know the General Rules of our Church?" the bishop asked us as we stood before the Clergy Session.  "Will you keep them?"

These General Rules originated in John Wesley's Methodist Societies, and one of them is a prohibition of "The putting on of gold. . . ."  This is under the heading of "doing no harm."  I was taught in seminary that it had to do with Wesley's insistence that he could not wear gold when his neighbor had no bread, although I don't actually recall reading that in any of Wesley's writings.  (I'd be happy if someone were to tell me where that might be found, if it is true.)

Anyway, the irony is that both the bishop and I (and others of my fellow ordinands) were wearing wedding bands made of gold.  None of us were winking and nodding at each other when we were asked those historic questions and when we answered in the affirmative.  We understood that our context is not that of Wesley.  We understood that the specific rules Wesley imposed on his Societies are not timeless, whereas the General Rules to do no harm, do all the good we can, and to stay in love with God (to use Bishop Job's updated language for the third General Rule) ARE timeless.

So when bishops claim they have no choice but to follow the specific letter of canonical law regardless of whether doing so is an act that does harm, I think they have their priorities backward.  Covenants are living and changing, made of flesh and blood, bone and sinew, love and grace, and not simply words in a book.  So I'll continue to wear my wedding band without the slightest feeling that I'm threatening the integrity of our clergy covenant by doing so, and I'll continue to minister with and to all persons regardless of sexual orientation and without reservation.

What it means to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God changes over time.  Look at our bishops' wedding bands and think of the harm it does to LGBTQI persons to deny them their right to wear one.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Does Being a Jerk Automatically Make You Racist?

I recently ran across a wonderful series of blog posts about "Listening Well as a Person of Privilege" by Christena Cleveland.  As a straight, white, educated, middle-income male, I am such a person of privilege.  In a previous blog post I have recounted my introduction to the idea of privilege a long time ago.  I don't want to have privilege at others' expense, but that doesn't change the fact that I do.  And I don't want my attempts to be an ally to those who do not have my privilege to be clumsy and counter-productive, but surely they sometimes are.

A few days ago Cleveland posted "We Have the Best Version of the Gospel," which began in this way:
Last month I heard a prominent leader of a national movement of mostly white Christians give a talk in which he compared his group’s beliefs to various other Christian groups (including more ethnically-diverse groups). While extolling the virtues of his group’s beliefs he proudly proclaimed, “We have the best version of the Gospel.” Now I’m not interested in busting any one person’s (or group’s) chops, and in fact, I give him a lot of credit for saying publicly what many of us say behind closed doors and in our hearts.  But as a minority group member sitting in the audience, I found his statement to be unfriendly to diverse voices.
 The unnamed prominent leader wound up being Tony Jones, who posted this comment to the blog:
You got the quote wrong. I said, “We have a better version of the gospel.”
“Best” would foreclose discussion and conversation. Thus, I would not say that.
“Better” was clearly aimed at the conservative, evangelical, penal substitutionary model that is regnant in America today.
Your misquote of me makes all the difference. But it seems a misquote works in your favor.
Cleveland updated her blog, changing the word "best" to "better" (except in the URL), but, as far as I can tell, she changed nothing else.  Jones later posted "I'm Tired of Being Called a Racist" to his own blog, which has fueled much heat on the intertubes.  The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of a previous brouhaha surrounding a post of his entitled "Where Are the Women?" in which he wondered aloud why his blog audience is overwhelmingly male.

Until the end of the conference in question in which he gave this talk, every online interaction I've ever had with Jones had been prickly.  In those various interactions, he accused me of misrepresenting him.  He ignored my most scathing Socratic questioning of his positions (obviously because he had no response; victory is mine!).

And I was part of the chorus of Twitter criticisms of the very talk of his mentioned by Cleveland.  I don't have a photographic memory or anything (what's the aural equivalent of that?), so I don't know for certain that Jones said "better" rather than "best."  But he posted his notes for that talk the day after he gave the talk.  Those notes read, "We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today."  This matches up with something he wrote earlier this year: ". . . I think that progressives have a better version of the gospel than conservatives. . . ."

That seems to me to be something entirely and categorically different from "We have the best version of the Gospel," and it doesn't seem at all to me that he "compared his group’s beliefs to various other Christian groups (including more ethnically-diverse groups)" as Cleveland claims.

It's been a few days, and I haven't read anyone actually engage what he said, so I tweeted that sentiment last night.  I've had a few responses, some of which linked to posts that the respondent thought addressed what Jones actually said.  None of them do so, though.  Every one of them indicate that he said he has the best version of the Gospel or some paraphrase of that misquote.  None of them quote him or characterize accurately what he actually said.  Not one.  Zero.  I'm drawing this out intentionally.  NONE of them accurately report what he said.  Some people whom I read regularly and whom I respect are still perpetuating the inaccurate quote and are inexplicably (to me, anyway) pointing me to the posts with the inaccurate quote as if those posts are engaging what he actually said.

When I point this out, I get three kinds of responses:

1) "Better" is no better than "best."  It's still the same.
2) Jones is a jerk in general and in his response to Cleveland in particular, which proves Cleveland's point.
3) Cleveland is a person of color and, if she says Jones's comment was racist or racially insensitive or antagonistic to diversity, then it was.  She gets to decide.

Response type # 1: "Better" is no better than "best."  It's still the same.

Cleveland herself says almost the same thing in her response to Jones's comment on her blog: "I think a key to welcoming diverse voices involves active, intentional and demonstrative 'interpretive humility' that would tend to shy away even from adjectives like 'better.'"  Really?  The Emergent movement isn't better than Pat Robertson?  This is what Jones was saying, not that his version of the Gospel is better than that of "more ethnically-diverse groups."

I'm a mainliner.  We have our own problems, including racism both personal and systemic.  I don't self-identify as part of the Emergent movement, and I'm neither an evangelical nor a post-evangelical.  There is a critique of Emergent that it is led by white males and that it excludes other voices.  That's a related conversation and one that is worth having.  That's not what I'm addressing, though.

Trying to overcome racism is better than perpetuating it.  Becoming aware of one's implicit racism is better than remaining blind to it.  Accurately quoting someone is better than misquoting them.  Am I discouraging diversity by saying out loud these things I believe to be better than others?  If so, so be it, but I tend to think not.

Response type # 2: Jones is a jerk in general and in his response to Cleveland in particular, which proves Cleveland's point.

It's hard to be on Jones's side in all this, and when he reads what I say here he might wish I hadn't taken up his cause.  He really is, as I've characterized him above, prickly.  He quite often sounds hostile, defensive, and overconfident in his own Ivy-League education (a 2-degree Ivy Leaguer).  As a person of privilege, he has not listened well to Cleveland.  But neither have others listened well  to him.  It's hard to listen well to someone who is pushing your buttons.  I don't know whether he has pushed Cleveland's buttons, but it seems to me that he has done so for those who point to his jerkiness as proof of what Cleveland says about him.

As one respondent to my tweet said, "I’m just unclear about whether or not the comments were racist or not is the conversation," to which I replied, "Ah, I think that was my original point."  The conversation has become about Jones being a jerk, which somehow proves he's a racist or that he discourages diversity.  Is this actually true, though?  I don't see how.  His responses to Cleveland's post and his subsequent responses to others in the conversation cannot determine whether the initial charges are true.  Regardless of whether Jones is a jerk, no one is talking about what he actually said in the talk.  That is apparently, to some people, not the question, but it's my question.

Response type # 3: Cleveland is a person of color and, if she says Jones's comment was racist or racially insensitive or antagonistic to diversity, then it was.  She gets to decide.

I was once privileged to attend a National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations.  I think it was in 1990.  My (mainline) seminary sent me, along with two other students.  In the Q&A at the end of one of the sessions, someone in the audience, who I later learned was Cornel West, used the word "holocaust" to describe the experience of African-Americans.  One of the Jewish attendees objected, saying that for West to use that word in reference to anything other than the Jewish holocaust was antisemitic, designed to diminish what the Jewish people have suffered.  Was it?  If so, was it antisemitic because of the inherent content of West's statement, or was it because a Jewish person in the audience said it was?  If one of the African-American attendees had decided that the Jewish person's objection was racist, would that have made it so?

People of privilege certainly must learn to listen well, and I don't think Jones has done this at all.  But the corollary to that cannot be that anything a person of color declares to be racist or antagonistic to diversity automatically and uncritically is so.

So is it "unfriendly to diverse voices" to say what he actually said, "We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today"?  Or is it even a comparison with "more ethnically-diverse groups"?  For the life of me, I can't see how.

I'm willing to listen, and I want to listen well.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

My Meditation at the Union College Board of Trustees Meeting, Spring 2013

David Miller
Union College Board of Trustees, Spring 2013

In 1986 (I think), Union held a Methodist Heritage Day in the chapel.  President Phillips spoke a bit about our Methodist heritage.  The District Superintendent was here, and he had a few words.  There was music and a performance by Dr. Pettys’s Oral Interpretation class.  I was a member of that class, and we presented a group oral interpretation of James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation,” which ends in this way:

Then God sat down –
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

The passage of Scripture from which Johnson took his inspiration contains the two creation myths found in Genesis.  Dr. Eric Elnes, who will be our Staley Lecturer in the Fall, explains the message of Genesis 1 & 2 in relation to another, influential creation myth existing at the time the biblical story was being told, written, and edited.  He says that Genesis contains creation myths written in conversation with the creation myth of the Babylonians.  He says, if we read only the Bible and not also the Babylonian myth, it’s like hearing one side of a telephone conversation.  We can only make sense of Genesis if we hear the conversation it is having with this other text.  So let’s listen in to both sides of the conversation.

The Babylonian myth says creation is the result of a storm god’s slaying of an ocean goddess, symbol of chaos, in the form of a dragon or sea serpent.  The heavens and earth are created when her body is cut down the middle.  Creation is violent and chaotic.  Genesis replies back, the heavens and the earth are created when God speaks.  Creation is rational and orderly.

The Babylonian myth says only the king is created in the image of the gods.  Genesis responds, all of humanity is created in God's image.  The Babylonian myth says human beings are formed by the gods from the clay of the earth and are infused with the blood of the slain chaos monster.  Genesis says, yes, we are formed from the dust of the earth, but we are filled, not with the blood of a chaos monster, but with the very breath of God.  The Babylonian myth says we are darkness.  Genesis says we are light, so let our light shine!

I think a liberal education functions in a similar way.  I don’t want to make some false equivalency between the Bible and higher education, but I do believe an analogy can be made.  Students are inspired to see themselves as possessing a depth and breadth and height that other voices whispering in their ears would deny. 

Some voices tell students they are no more than consumers.  Service learning says they have the capacity to give.  Marketing tells them they are nothing more than their demographics.  Enlightenment philosophers say they are individuals possessing inexhaustible potential.  Materialism says they are nothing more than biochemical processes.  Performing “The Creation” at a chapel service says they are living souls.  When they read Faulkner or discover their capacity for reason when a professor uses the Socratic Method or excel when no one had believed in them before, these false voices of darkness are revealed to be lies.  Our students are light!  Let our light shine! 

A liberal education reveals to students that they are more than they have been led to believe.  The depth and breadth and height of the human spirit are revealed to students in their studies and other collegiate experiences.

But, as the following stories in Genesis attest, we are fallible human beings, so sometimes our collective voice joins the chorus of the false voices.  This happens when we fail to expect students to fully experience the depth or the breadth or the height that we know they possess or when we treat them as means to an end, perhaps an institutional end—and we know we all sometimes do both of these.  We can also do this when we, whether members of the board, of the administration, the faculty, or the staff treat each other as merely means to institutional ends or to personal agendas—and we know we all sometimes do this too.

Despite this fallibility, an important part of what we are engaged in at Union is the development of the soul, both in the biblical and in the classical sense.  A liberal education inspires students to see themselves in a different light, to bring to light aspects of themselves they never knew existed.

Union College students, staff, faculty, and board members, we are created in the image of God.  Let our light shine!  Amen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013



Clorox bottle stuck in a tree
twenty feet above the waterline.
Come on in.  The water’s fine
as long as you don’t mind the shit and the pee
streaming from the straightpipes.
What keeps me up late nights,
though, is the knowledge that I drink this stuff.
Even with a filter,
this is out of kilter!
What’s even worse than that is the slough
from the mining runoff.
This is no one-off.
It pours into our water supply every day.
Heavy metals.
Regulator settles
for a pittance, considering the way
we have to swallow
what flows into our hollow.
Seems like it’s the case that the trash in the river
is the least of our worries.
EPA’s in no hurry.
They make their promise, but they rarely deliver.
Government’s been bought.
Don’t do what they ought
to.  And we all just accept that’s the way it is.
Well, maybe not all of us.
Some fools say, “Follow us
down to the river for a daytrip
cleanup.”  And other fools get arrested
trying to get the water tested.
And even other fools line up in front of the Whitehouse,
zipties on their hands,
calling out, “Clean up our land!”
You know, maybe those fools are a lighthouse,
revealing the danger,
trying to arrange our
response to mind-numbing irresponsibility.
Will it work?
Regardless, I can’t shirk
my duty to try with all my ability.
Pick up that trash.
Make a splash
in the halls of the powerful by pestering
them.  Call attention
to their pretension.
If we don’t do something, this will just keep on festering.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why I Include Anyone and Everyone in Spiritual Life Activities

In this blog post, I want to address the reasoning behind why I include people of all faiths or even no faith at all in every Spiritual Life activity we have at Union College.  The main reason is that The United Methodist Church values both Christian spiritual formation and interfaith engagement.  In every report I send to the college trustees or to the denomination about our campus ministries, I report on both of these areas.  When Union is evaluated by The United Methodist Church, to determine whether we are working according to the standards of the denomination, I am asked by a denominational representative, “What are you doing to make sure the spiritual needs of people of other religions are being met.”

Some religious groups might separate the two, Christian spiritual formation and interfaith engagement, but, because of the teachings of The United Methodist Church, I don’t make much of a distinction.  The United Methodist Church does not teach the binary opposition of saved/unsaved that some other churches make.  Certainly some individual persons and some individual churches within The United Methodist Church do so, but our common theology does not.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught that the “scripture way of salvation” is a process, and, while there are landmarks to be observed along that process, there is no point before which one can definitively say that one is “unsaved” and after which one is “saved.”  For the Methodist all three statements are equally true: I have been saved.  I am being saved.  I will be saved.  A Methodist understanding of salvation, in the words of Wesley, has as its goal that we would be “saved to the uttermost” (and I’ll explain what that means).

This process of salvation is a journey along a path and not simply a destination.  The landmarks along this path are:

+ prevenient grace—God prepares us to say “yes” to God.
+ justifying grace—God declares us to be just or right with God.
+ sanctifying grace—God makes us holy, actually just and righteous people.
+ glorifying grace—at death, God removes all aspects of our lives that were not wholly just and righteous.

In this view, salvation is not simply a ticket into heaven or an escape from hell, but it is a process by which we are perfected in love.  That is what being saved to the uttermost means.  Wesley goes so far as to say that we can become as holy, just, righteous, and loving as Jesus was.  This is the goal.  When I was ordained, I was asked, “Are you going on to perfection?  Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?”  These are questions Wesley asked all his preachers.

The word “perfection” meant something a bit different in those days than it does now.  Now we think of something perfect and we picture something as if there is nothing in it that could be made better.  In Wesley’s day it meant something more like “fully mature” or “complete.”  So when I say that I expect to be made perfect in love or that you can expect to be made perfect in love in this life, I do not mean that we won’t make mistakes or won’t do the wrong thing on occasion.  I mean that our lives will become completely oriented around love.  I certainly don’t claim to be there yet, but that is the goal.

Wesley sometimes used a house as an analogy for this “order of salvation.”  Imagine the porch of prevenient grace, where anyone can sit around in rocking chairs getting to know each other.  There are no requirements of any kind to sit at this porch.  We can’t reject prevenient grace, and we can’t accept it.  It’s just given to us freely.  Everyone receives this kind of grace from God.  This porch is the place where we meet to decide whether to walk through the door into the house.  The porch is where we learn what walking through the door would mean.  On the other side of the door is a life of becoming perfected in love.  That is God’s desire for everyone, that we would actualize the potential for love that God has breathed into our soul.   What do you have to do in order to enter this kind of life, one in which we are being perfected in love?  Bishop Reuben Job updates the language of Wesley’s rules for the first Methodists:

+ Do no harm.
+ Do good.
+ Stay in love with God.

This is the “scripture way of salvation.”

The door is Jesus’ teachings about love, Jesus’ practices of love, and Jesus’ life of love.  Walking through the door would be my way of saying “yes” to God’s desire that I become perfected in love and would be my way of making a commitment to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.  This is justifying grace.  There is a condition to this grace.  I can reject or accept it.  It is my choice whether I walk through the door, but I can’t exercise that choice without God having given it to me in the first place.

Being saved to the uttermost means cooperating with God’s sanctifying grace, whereby we are made holy, just, and righteous.  And this happens by becoming more and more loving.

This is the question I pose to any and all who would walk this path with me.  Do you want at the center of your life the way of love that Jesus taught, practiced, and lived?  Imagine me sitting on the porch, asking a student or a faculty member that very question.  Imagine them saying “yes.”  Imagine us opening the door only to find a wall with a sign that says:

+ Progressives only
+Mainliners only
+Traditional Christians only
+Evangelicals only
+Orthodox only
+Straights only
+Creationists only
+Christians only

The Book of Ephesians has a name for that wall—“the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14).  This passage uses temple language, and the interpretation of the passage that makes the most sense to me is that the dividing wall of hostility is the wall that kept Gentiles out of the temple proper.  They could come in so far, into the Court of Gentiles, but no further.  Some of the Christians at Ephesus were trying to make everyone who came to Jesus first convert to Judaism.  The author of Ephesians says there is no place for such a division, for such a dividing wall of hostility.  There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles.  Christ has torn down the dividing wall of hostility, allowing any and all to enter into the presence of God.

If, as The United Methodist Church teaches, the goal of salvation is to save us to the uttermost, to perfect us in love, anything that gets in the way of that is a dividing wall of hostility.  So I say, “Down with the walls.”

Imagine me sitting on the porch of prevenient grace with a Buddhist student.  (This is entirely hypothetical.  I have had no such conversation with a Buddhist student.  But imagine it.)  I describe the life that is centered on the way of love that Jesus taught, practiced, and lived.  This person says, “This reminds me a lot of what is said in the Urdana-Varga: ‘Do not treat others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.’  I might be interested in walking with you along the path you describe.”  Should this person reject their Buddhism and become a Christian?  Maybe.  That’s certainly a possibility, if that’s what the person, after much discernment, decided to do.  But that’s certainly not why I’m on the porch talking about Jesus’ way of love.

There are Christians who are as far away from being saved to the uttermost as it is possible to be.  Wesley said that a Christian who started along the path but who was not nurtured toward love often became more “a child of the devil” than when they’d begun.  On the other hand, there are others, who may not identify themselves as “Christians” for one reason or another, whose lives are filled with justice, righteousness, and, most importantly, love.  It seems to me that those persons, regardless of whether they are Christians or not, are being saved to the uttermost.  I would be honored to walk the way of love with a Buddhist or any other human being on the planet, without regard to their culturally identified religion.  Any dividing wall of hostility that would keep these people out?  I’m going to do everything I can to tear down that wall!

Does that mean I think all religions are the same?  No, some expressions of religion are driven by purity, which in their most radical forms, turn into hate. Other expressions are centered on love. Which religion(s) does God prefer, I wonder? I think God prefers those expressions of religion that convert people to love.

God doesn't care whether you're Methodist or Muslim, Adventist or Atheist, Jehovah's Witness or Jewish, Baptist or Buddhist, Holiness or Hindu, Presbyterian or Pagan. If your religion turns you into a hateful person, it's the wrong religion for you. On the other hand, if your religion turns you into a loving person, you are born of God (1 John 4:7), regardless of what your religion might be or might not be.

So here we are, you and I, sitting metaphorically on that porch of prevenient grace.  Wesley once said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”  My heart is set on walking the way of love that Jesus taught, practiced, and lived.  My heart is to be made perfect in love and to shepherd others along this path.  Is your heart as my heart?  If it is, I invite you to walk through the door with me, to help me become perfected in love as I help you to do the same, to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God.  I invite you to share your spiritual treasures with me, as I share my spiritual treasures with you.  No matter who you are, I invite you to walk with the Union community as we move closer to love.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

American Jesus Madness -- My Round-Four Picks

The past few days have been busy for me, and I'm way behind in my picks for American Jesus Madness.  The results for Round Three were devastating to my bracket standings, knocking me off my perch at the top all the way off the leader board.  Hurting my bracket, Scot McKnight handily beat #RickWarrenTips, and Mark Sandlin's army of voters demolished Christian Humility.  Stephanie Drury, for whom I advocated in my last post, even though I did not have her down to make it this far in my original bracket, had almost five times the number of votes as Ann Voskamp.  The only aid to my bracket was Rachel Held Evans's win over Rob Bell's Missing Glasses.  I take total credit for her win (no Christian Humility here, either), with my video of her steamroller going over those glasses.  (/begin humility Truth be told, her tweeting my blog post that had that video gave me twice as many pageviews as I've ever had on this blog.  /end humility)  I'm still taking credit for her win.

This leaves the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Considering that half of the horsemen are women, I'm calling them the Four Buckaroos of Biblical Proportions.  Inclusive language is important.  Silliness is even more important.

Scot McKnight vs. Mark Sandlin

What can I say?  Mark's followers vote until their fingers bleed.  Scot's a nice guy, but nice guys finish last.  Buh bye.  Mark Sandlin will have ten times the votes Scot will have, or my name isn't David My-Bracket's-Busted Miller.

Rachel Held Evans vs. Stephanie Drury
Rachel was the runner-up last year, so I am told.  I didn't have Stephanie making it this far.  I had Rachel going up against Homebrewed Christianity in this round.  I had Homebrewed Christianity taking Rachel down this round, but that's not going to happen.  Stephanie had 3,837 votes last round, while Rachel had only 1,374.  I'm rooting for the underdog, which at the moment looks like Rachel.  Vote for Rachel.

Did I mention my bracket's busted?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Union College, Let Your Light Shine and Let Your Soul Fly Free

This is going to be a little personal and more than a little long.  My apologies for the length.

Some months ago I began intentionally, at the beginning of each worship service, to open myself to encounter God.  It might be anything in the service, something the pastor said, the flames of the candle, a hymn, a song by the choir, anything.  One morning last fall, I sat down after the passing of the peace and noticed one of the parishioners, Elizabeth, still standing, waiting for one of her friends to join her.  Elizabeth was 90 when I became her pastor in 2000.  She was still driving then, picking up friends and bringing them to church.  When she gave up driving a few years after that, if the weather was good, she walked everywhere.  She walked the several blocks from her house to church, many more blocks to the post office, everywhere.  She's not doing that so much anymore, as she's now over 100 years old.

There she stood, and I smiled as all that ran through my mind.  I thought of her being at church Sunday after Sunday, as a witness.  In my imagination, I began to see light streaming from her as she let her light shine, and I played with that image.  I began to feel a flow of love streaming from her, and I thought, "Oh, an encounter with God."  All of a sudden, I imagined light and love streaming from everyone in that sanctuary.  It was more than a little emotional.  My throat was all constricted, and I could barely croak out the words of the hymn that I found myself singing.  Later in the service, during the time for prayer requests, I shared my experience.  They give me a little latitude there, letting me speak briefly sometimes when others might not.  I was their pastor four years, before becoming the chaplain at the college in town.  I told them about my experience, saying that I didn't want to keep it all to myself and that I had come to realize that all of us, having been made in the image of God, is always shining, blazing with the fire, the light, and the love of God, but that we're just not always aware of each other in that way.  After the service, one of the parishioners thanked me for sharing my revelation.  I politely thanked her for her kind words, but internally objected that I had not claimed to have received a revelation, only that I had played with this image in my imagination and had found it powerful.  Upon reflection, I have decided that the two interpretations can both stand.  If that imaginary scene builds me up and builds up my community of faith, by faith I receive it as a revelation from God.

A few months later, I attended a continuing education event about campus ministry. During a worship and prayer time, I intentionally opened myself, asking, “How can I encounter God in this time?” We sang a few songs and prayed, and I had the distinct impression of a human figure, a  person, hunkered over against the wind. Suddenly that person stood up and held out their arms. They had one of those wing suits or glide suits, you know, with the webbing between the arms. It was all in one fluid motion. Snap, like the sails of a boat catching in the wind, and this person flew straight up.  Now, this image has several different meanings to me. One, it had a very personal meaning for me as an individual.  But, two, I began thinking about campus ministry in a new way.  We have some good programs here, and every year is a bit stronger than the previous one.  But I knew there were many ways I had been hunkering down against the wind of finances, the wind of problems with facilities, the wind of being a mainline ministry in a very conservative area, the wind of the fear of being too churchy to students who are fleeing toxic church backgrounds.  I thought and prayed and meditated on these two images for a long time -- the light of the image of God shining, blazing even, from everyone if only we have eyes to see and the hunkered figure who finally stands up and flies.

So I did what no sane person should ever do.  I told my district superintendent, the pastor who oversees about forty other pastors as middle management for the bishop.  Middle management likes numbers and stability (stable growth is preferred, to be sure, but stability nonetheless), not talk of fire and light and wind.  But he was asking me whether I wanted to stay another year at this appointment or to move on to another place.  I had to tell him what was in my heart, so I did.  And I cried in front of my boss.  I told him if I stayed, I was going to seek eleven people on campus -- Jesus could shepherd twelve, but I'm no Jesus -- who would commit to spending an hour of worship with me each week, an hour a week in small group, and an hour a week one-on-one.  I said, if I could find those eleven people, the spiritual life of Union College would fly.  He gave me all the support I could hope for, encouraging me to do just what I was feeling I should do.

So I talked to my student leaders.  I gave them each a stone with a cross engraved into it, and I told them a story about spiritual depth.  Then I told them about my two images.  I told them that I see the beauty, truth, and goodness of God inside them. I told them that any of them who would commit to be one of that eleven, I would commit to helping them to dig deep; to discover who they are; to find their own unique beauty, truth, and goodness; and to polish the image of God within them until it shone, until it blazed, until they could spiritually fly.  And I cried in front of my students.

One of them texted me later that day: "Your words this morning were so uplifting.  Thank you so much for the rock.  It holds a special place in my heart.  I stepped out of the room and felt like a whole new [me] just by listening to your words.  Thank you!"  I share this not because I think my words are so great but because this is a testimony of the fire that she feels burning inside her and her yearning to fly spiritually.  And others of my student leaders -- not all but several -- share that yearning for depth, a yearning for more.

Each meeting we've had since then, we've included worship and prayer time.  Each meeting, I've expanded my vision of what we can become together.  I explained centered-set Christianity, where there is no in-group and no out-group, but that the center of our common spirituality could become the way of love taught, practiced, and lived by Jesus.  I said that whoever is moving toward that way of love, regardless of what they believe, regardless of even whether they identify as a Christian, would be living the spiritual life that Jesus calls us to live.  As the first of the Phoenix Affirmations puts it: "We affirm that the Path of Jesus is found wherever love of God, neighbor, and self are practiced together. Whether or not the path bears the name of Jesus, such paths bear the identity of Christ."  Each meeting, I've invited them to share what they are receiving from God in their own personal spiritual practice.  Together we are weaving a common vision of what we yearn to become together.

Today at lunch, I shared this with a faculty member, and she was very encouraging.  This evening, over dinner with some students and that faculty member, I started a discussion of the "nones."  You know, the growing number of people who answer the question of religion with "none of the above."  I also mentioned  that Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons recently said that he wouldn't call himself a Christian because of the baggage the word carries.  I opened the table and mostly sat back and let the students talk.  They agreed that "Christian" is in some ways a bad word, that they sometimes feel like apologizing for being a Christian because Christianity seems to be against everything they are for.  (I want to note that not all of the student leaders in this campus ministry are Christians.  The vast majority of our campus community will self-identify as either Christian or some kind of post-Christian like the "nones."  But a small segment of our campus community are members of other religions, and I have made certain that some of the student leaders in our campus ministries come from other religions.  Most of those leaders self-identify as Christian, but not all.)

Some of what they said tonight has always been the case.  There have always been hypocrites in the church.  But much of what they said shows an increasing divide between what the church has been (and still is in most places) and where the spirituality of people, not only this generation, is headed.  They cited the same things the polls have cited; Christianity is anti-gay, anti-science, too interested in one specific brand over against all others ("My clique is holier than your clique"), doesn't pay enough attention to social media as ways of connecting and learning about spirituality.  These are the student leaders of the campus ministries at my college.  We need to listen to them!

Later this evening, I attended a concert on campus with the band Appalatin.  It is a fusion band, its members coming from South America, Central America, and Eastern Kentucky.  Appalachian Latin.  Appalatin.  The small son of one of the band members was right down front, bobbing and dancing to the music, and I thought of his light shining, teaching those of us who have been socialized into just sitting there and nodding our heads or tapping our feet, if only we had eyes to see.  Then I imagined all of us shining, blazing forth with light and love.  It was an enjoyable image, and I thought of how we squeeze God into church services and don't think of spirituality in such a secular setting.  But I was experiencing spirit or Spirit or whatever you might want to call it.

I was startled when the band introduced a new song, saying it was about letting our light shine and letting our soul fly free.  Light shine and soul fly free?  After just talking today with my friend at lunch about this very thing?  And after just thinking about that child teaching us how to shine and how to fly?  I perked up!  I wish I could link to the song or at least its lyrics, but, alas, it is not yet released and not available anywhere except at their live performances.

So is this coincidence, synchronicity, or God?  Yes, of course.  It is all three.  I do not believe in some magical figure in the sky pulling strings, controlling my destiny.  But I do not discount the magical and the mythical, even while embracing the empirical and the rational.  See my blog post entitled, "Simultaneously Embracing the Magical, Mythical, Empirical, and Rational" for a full explanation of this.  This post is already too long.
So here is how Appalatin has inspired me tonight.

The life of the Spirit at Union College (Spiritual Life) can become our common life as lived out in the tension between the rootedness of home and the fusion of my spiritual home and your spiritual home.  There can be no in-groups who think we have all the answers, that we are the only holy ones.  There can be no out-groups that are considered to be wrong or ugly or bad.  We all have spiritual treasures to share with the rest, just as Appalatin has Appalachian musical treasures and Latin musical treasures.  Their fusion creates music that is unique and beautiful, and the fusion of our spiritual lives at Union can create something unique and beautiful, too.  I'm not talking about some easy lowest-common-denominator kind of spirituality.  Traditional songs from Ecuador gain new beauty when played with an Appalachian twang, and "Shady Grove" does so when played with a Latin beat.

Spiritual Life at Union can become our common life as lived out in the tension between the handcrafted and mass culture.  One of the musicians of Appalatin plays on traditional Ecuadoran instruments that he made himself.  Many of the songs they play are written by themselves.  But they also play on mass-produced instruments and play songs known and loved by many.  Try "My Old Kentucky Home" in an Appalatin style (unfortunately, also not yet available online) as an example of both rootedness/hybridity and handcrafted/mass-culture.  In worship at Union, we're going to sing songs by Mercy Me (or plug in your own mass-produced Christian music) and by John Newton ("Amazing Grace"), and we're going to handcraft our own songs and our own way to sing them together.  We're going to help each other discover who God has created each one of us uniquely to become, and we're going to stay in touch with each other via text, Facebook, and Twitter.  We're going to share inspiring material we find online (I hope not sickly sweet, false stuff; I hate that stuff), and we are going to write our own liturgies that express the longings, the hopes, and even the fears of our own hearts.

Lastly, Spiritual Life at Union can become one that spreads the love around (and this bears repeating from above), centered on the way of love as taught, practiced, and lived by Jesus, regardless of whether you call yourself Christian; regardless of whether you call yourself anything at all; regardless of whether you have experienced the fullness of God or whether you feel empty, fractured, wounded right now.  We can all spread the love around by recognizing the beauty, truth, and goodness in each other, and by engaging together in our rooted/hybrid, handcrafted/mass-produced spiritual practices of love.

So there!  That's me standing up!  I'm through hunkering over.  I feel more than a little vulnerable, but, if you've read this far, I suspect you're sympathetic to what I've had to say.

If you're one of the eleven God is sending to stand up with me, to commit to spending an hour a week together in worship, an hour a week in small group, and an hour a week one on one, contact me.  If you have been inspired by this vision and want to be part of what's happening, but can't quite commit to all that, contact me.  If you can be my partner in this endeavor in any way, please contact me.  And lastly, if you are the person God is sending to be my spiritual director, with whom I can meet for an hour a week (in person or online) to be guided by your beauty, truth, and goodness as I continue to discover my own beauty, truth, and goodness, which comes from God, please contact me.  I need you!

Union College, let your light shine and let your soul fly free!

God bless!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

American Jesus Madness -- My Round-Three Picks

The second round of American Jesus Madness is in the books.  First the bad news.  Homebrewed Christianity, which I had predicted to win this round and to eventually take it all the way, lost to Ann Voskamp.  I totally blame myself.  If I had found some decent music on their podcast, I'm sure that would have swayed the voters.  Now for the good news.  That was the only match-up I got wrong this round, which puts me in the sole lead with 44 points.  Boo yah!

Now for my pics for Round Three voting:

#RickWarrenTips vs. Scot McKnight

McKnight had more votes (778) in the last round than #RickWarrenTips (741), but that's not much of a difference.  The way I see it, #RickWarrenTips might have been a flash in the pan, but it was a brilliant flash. Can't explain all the....  You know the drill.

Christian Humility vs. Mark Sandlin

I have a confession to make.  I have Christian Humility over Mark Sandlin in my bracket.  But I have to gotten to know Mark a bit in the past few days.  Not much, just online banter.  But that's enough for me to suspect that he might take this round, too.  This suspicion has absolutely nothing to do with his 4,630 votes in Round Two.  Absolutely nothing.  Still, if I am to continue my winning streak, Christian Humility must continue its streak and proudly defeat Mark.  Nothing personal, Mark.  Please don't turn the Christian Left against me.

Rachel Held Evans vs. Rob Bell's Missing Glasses

Last round, I called Rachel a "juggernaut, rolling over all comers."  Watch this video of a steamroller going over a bunch of glasses, as you vote for her.

Ann Voskamp vs. Stephanie Drury

I hadn't revealed this before, but...
So, as a Homebrewed Deacon, I'm taking Homebrewed Christianity's loss personally.  I will use all of my considerable resources to take Voskamp down!  (Actually,that exclamation point was about the extent of my resources.)  Vote for Stephanie Drury!  (I managed to find another exclamation point, doubling my available resources.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

American Jesus Madness -- My Round-Two Picks

The first round of American Jesus Madness is history, and my picks have me in a four-way tie for first place among the bracket leaders.  Our domination of this first round (14 out of 16 is 87.5%) is only surpassed by the beatdown The Next Pope gave to Pope XVI (92% to 8%).  And our knowledge of American Jesus Madness is even greater than Christian Humility's victory over Mark Driscoll, a mere 78% over Mark Driscoll's 22% (which is still an ass-kicking).

As for the two I got wrong, one was a squeaker and one was a blowout.  Joel Osteen's Mullet, which must die(!), edged out Joel Osteen's Smile 53-47, but Stephanie Drury annihilated Tony Jones 86-14.

My Second-Round Picks

Tim Tebow vs. #RickWarrenTips

I like funny, and Tebow is never intentionally funny.  On the other hand, take my #RickWarrenTips, please.  Okay, they're funnier than that, so vote for them.  Just like sirloin tips, #RickWarrenTips are best served with a nice, brown gravy.  Still not funny?  Take my word for it, #RickWarrenTips' jokes are a huge upgrade to mine.

Scot McKnight vs. The Next Pope

When the bracket first came out, nobody knew who The Next Pope would be.  When I filled out my bracket, The Next Pope had been named, but I didn't know much about him.  Now there's been lots of coverage, and I'm starting to wish I had The Next Pope to beat Scot McKnight.  But I don't, and I'm nothing if not loyal... to my previous self.  So I predict that McKnight will overcome all this media hype and beat The Next Pope (who shall not be named).

Joel Osteen's Mullet vs. Christian Humility

The mullet is vainglorious and must be humbly smitten by the humblest humility there is, Christian Humility.

"DJesus Uncrossed" vs. Mark Sandlin

Mark complained that my vote in Round One wasn't confident enough, then he offered me alcohol.  DJesus, on the other hand, promised he wouldn't djrink of the fruit of the vine (corn comes from a vine, right?) until we djrink it together in the kingdom.  Followers of DJesus have been saying for centuries the kingdom is near, the kingdom is at hand, but the kingdom never quite arrives.  I'm pretty sure I'll be in Greensboro before DJesus comes into his kingdom.  Here's my vote of confidence for Mark Sandlin.

Rachel Held Evans vs. Peter Enns

Enns, who must have had an inside track with the Creator, didn't sweat Round One, instead jumped straight to Round Two by exclaiming, "What, I have to go head to head with Rachel Held Evans (assuming I get past Ken Ham)?"  He's right.  RHE is a juggernaut, rolling over all comers -- Lifeway Christian Stores, Biblical Womanhood, and now Peter Enns.  Sorry, Peter, gotta call it like I see.  Evans for the win.

Chick-Fil-A vs. Rob Bell's Missing Glasses

I feel so dirty that I had to vote for either Hobby Lobby or Chick-Fil-A that I desperately need to redeem myself by projecting Chick-Fil-A (a person, according to the Supreme Court, a loathesome, loathesome person) to lose to an inanimate object.    Glasses it is.... er, Glasses it are.... er, Glasses they are....  Vote for Glasses.

Homebrewed Christianity vs. Ann Voskamp

In my first-round picks, I commented on the horrible music on Voskamp's web site.  Listen to the opening music on this episode of Homebrewed Christianity.  Ugh, wait. Try this one.  Can barely hear that one.  Anyway, surely there's some good music in a podcast that has a recurring Theology of Rock theme.....  Still hunting.  Just vote for them while I find good tune-age on one of their episodes.

Christian Decency vs. Stephanie Drury

I underestimated Drury in Round One, which I am not going to do in Round Two.  I predict there will be nothing decent about the way Stephanie Drury treats Christian Decency.  She will trounce it like she was Reese Witherspoon in Pleasantville.

So go vote.  There are only a few hours left.

Clergy Authority and Controversial Subjects

In response to Rob Bell's recent statement which seems perhaps to be affirming marriage equality, Homebrewed Christianity asks, among other questions, "How do we give voice to issues that our congregations may not be 100% with us?"  Here is an anecdotal answer from me.

In 1992 the General Conference of The United Methodist Church was held in Louisville, just a few hours from where I was serving my first full-time appointment as pastor.  As it was within easy driving distance, I went to the Conference a few days. When I returned, one of the prominent members of the tiny, rural, United Methodist Church where I was the pastor asked me if I had put those delegates straight about homosexuality (yes, we as a denomination have been arguing about this since before then).  I answered, "Yes, I did.  I told them they were sinning by excluding people based on their sexual orientation and that they should repent and follow Jesus."  His eyes widened, but he didn't respond in any way, and he never brought it up again.

When I was doing my paperwork for ordination, way back when, I said that I felt that my calling and my request for ordination was multi-leveled.  I am certainly called to present the faith as it has been historically passed down through the centuries.  I am also called to present the faith as uniquely expressed in my specific tradition, that of The United Methodist Church.  In addition, while I am not called to be Reverend Lone Ranger, I have a calling to speak from my own individual conscience, which may or may not align with official pronouncements of the church at large or of the UMC in particular.

As it relates to homosexuality, I said, I will obey the rulings of my denomination, but I will do everything within my power to overturn those rulings in order to minister to all people and to allow all people to minister, regardless of their sexual orientation.  When I met with the ordination committee, not one question was posed to me about this.  This surprised me because Kentucky is the home of the most conservative stream of United Methodism.  I asked my counseling elder about this, and his response was that the committee was satisfied that I had wrestled with the issue using all the resources of the church and that agreement with official positions of the church is not a requirement for ordination, while obedience is.

I am frustrated with the slow movement of my church on this matter, and I am less inclined to obey than I was as a young man.  But I still feel that a multi-leveled calling and authority are operative for me.  Sometimes I am called and have authority to say, "Thus says the Lord."  Sometimes, "Thus says the church."  And sometimes, "I personally feel the church is wrong about what God is saying in this context."  I think it's important to be clear about what level of authority I am exercising at any given time, but all three, I think, are indispensable.

Friday, March 15, 2013

American Jesus Madness -- My First-Round Picks

The American Jesus Madness 2013 bracket is out.  It's irreverent; it's timely; and it's loads of fun.  Before I reveal my first-round picks, I have to say that I'm disappointed that Darkwood Brew and Wildgoose Festival aren't in the playoffs.  Maybe next year.

Okay, here we go!

Tim Tebow vs. Ray Lewis
Tebow can't pass, and Lewis is overrated.  But my pick has nothing to do with football.  Tebow canceled his speech/sermon at that gay-hating church, while Lewis thinks Psalm 91 is plural.  Tebow for the win.

#RickWarrenTips vs. Mark Driscoll Tweets
Mark Driscoll says things that are so vile, that I will never vote for him to win anything.  So I've got to root for #RickWarrenTips.  Can't explain all the reasons here. (Like no one else blogging about the brackets will say that tag line.  It's gold, baby!)

Scot McKnight vs. Albert Mohler
I follow McKnight's blog.  He's more evanglical-ish than I am (which is not at all!), but I enjoy reading him most of the time.  Albert Mohler, on the other hand, never ever ever says anything I could possibly advocate.  I even Googled "Albert Mohler says something kind" just to see if there was anything, and nope.  Nada.  I'm writing Scot McKnight's name in my bracket.

Pope Benedict XVI vs. The Next Pope
The Next Pope is now The New Pope, who has the disadvantage of not looking like Emperor Palpatine, but he does have the advantage of  being accused of being involved in the kidnapping and five-month torture of two priests in his diocese who leaned toward liberation theology.  Innocent-looking evil wins over evil-looking evil every time.  The Next Pope.

Mark Driscoll vs. Christian Humility
I'm not sure why Mark Driscoll gets in here twice.  Maybe his tweets are sublimely Driscoll-esque or something.  No clue.  It's interesting that Christian humility should compete for something.  "Look at me!  I'm Christian humility, and I beat Mark Driscoll!"  But I'm voting for Christian humility anyway.  I hope Christian humility kicks Driscoll's ass!

Joel Osteen's Smile vs. Joel Osteen's Mullet
Look, I had a mullet.  Once.  In the mid-80s.  For a little while.  But even Bono got rid of his.  Eventually.  Didn't he?  Surely, he did.  Anyway.  I don't trust Osteen's smile, but the mullet has to lose.

History Channel's "The Bible" vs. "DJesus Uncrossed"
Despite the fact that Southpark did a better violent Jesus, I'm not too partial to depictions of myths as "history."  Besides, if you vote the wrong way, DJesus will kill you.

Mark Sandlin vs. Justin Lee
I follow Mark Sandlin and his blog The God Article.  Good stuff.  On the other hand, I had to Google Justin Lee to see who he is.  I recognize his pic, and it looks like he does good stuff, too.  But it has to be Sandlin.

Rachel Held Evans vs. Biblical Womanhood
Not only can RHE beat biblical womanhood in this bracket, she beat biblical womanhood every day for a year.  Evans, hands down.

Peter Enns vs. Ken Ham
Peter Enns does not believe in a historical Adam.  (Neither do I.)  That means he does not believe that human beings rode dinosaurs.  That's no fun, at all.  But Ken Ham now claims he doesn't believe humans rode dinosaurs, even though this is in one of his books.  So I'm bummed about not getting to vote for someone who believes that humans rode dinosaurs.  But, since Peter Enns and I are in touch with the same reality, whereas Ken Ham is crazy, I'll have to vote for Enns.  Reality wins!  (I hope.  Please let reality win this time.)

Hobby Lobby vs. Chick-Fil-A
Hmm, should I vote for those who beat down those sinner heterosexuals or those who beat down those sinner homosexuals?  American Jesus Madness, you have indeed put me in a dilemma.  (Mmmmmmmm, chicken!)  Chick-Fil-A wins.  I feel so dirty.

Rob Bell's New Tan vs. Rob Bell's Missing Glasses
Don't care.  God loves both his new tan and his missing glasses equally.  Flipped a coin.  Rob Bell's Missing Glasses it is.

The Gospel Coalition vs. Homebrewed Christianity
I don't know anything about the Gospel Coalition.  It's like Justin Lee.  I can't know everything nerdy and theological.  But I do know Homebrewed Christianity.  They are featured prominently in every issue of my Emerging & Progressive Christianity newspaper.  Just this past issue Tripp Fuller was in it four times: 1) "tripp drinking a Straight Up Saison on Untappd," 2) "tripp drinking a Saison d'Epeautre on Untappd," 3) "tripp drinking a Dasein on Untappd," and 4) "tripp drinking a Dead Guy Ale on Untappd."  Anybody who can drink that much and still say "ontological difference" without slurring, gets my vote every time.

Ann Voskamp vs. Tim Challies
I have no idea who either of these people are.  I'm voting for the woman.  I don't care what the conservatives on the Supreme Court think about Affirmative Action.  Ann Voskamp gets the vote.  (Oh, God!  I just Googled her and went to her website.  The automatic music on that site is awful!  Then I found and went to Challies's web site, where his latest blog post looks very interesting.  I wish I had done this before submitting my official bracket.  Maybe Affirmative Action is wrong.  I'm so confused.)

John Piper vs. Christian Decency
"Jesus doesn't love everybody the same way" (John Piper).  'Nuff said.  Christian Decency for the win.

Tony Jones vs. Stephanie Drury
I'm voting for Tony because he's a man!  Affirmative Action will not get the best of me this time.  Where are all the women on my blog?  And where are all the men?  Nobody ever reads my blog.  Could I be both misogynistic and misanthropic?  Or just boring?  *sigh*

So there you have it, folks.  My picks for Round One of American Jesus Madness 2013.  What are your picks?


Update:  It was late when I first posted this, and I left out the Popes, the Bible, and DJesus, just what my conservative friends say I do all the time.  I've corrected that in this post, but not yet in my life in general.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Atheism for Lent, Stages of Faith, and Pastoral Matters

I have followed with great interest the online conversation about Peter Rollins’s Atheism for Lent project.  Micah Bales has offered a critique of this project, and there has been some back-and-forth between Bales and Rollins.  One of the sharpest points of Bales’s critique was the assertion that some people find themselves in such dire straits that they could not possibly continue if they gave up God for Lent.  Bales writes, "How can someone ask me to give up God for Lent? I might as well give up breathing!"

As a college chaplain, I encounter people all the time, faculty, staff, and students alike, who find themselves in a season of doubt.  Some, when they express this, are defiant toward me, expecting that I will condemn them for their doubt.  Others are apologetic, and still others fearful.  Some are suffering a dark night of the soul, and their experience of the profound absence of God leaves them with a sense of great loss.

I never condemn any of them, neither the defiant, nor the apologetic, not the fearful, nor the suffering.  Instead I tell them that questions, doubts, agnosticism, and even atheism are all perfectly legitimate stages of faith.  I then share with them a brief synopsis of James Fowler’s work on this subject.  As our cognitive abilities develop, our experience of faith develops along with our developing conceptions of God.

Very briefly, the faith experience of the infant is one of trust in whatever it is that meets the infant’s immediate needs; the infant trusts the nipple that feeds and the stroke that comforts.  The toddler has a magical faith that functions as wish fulfillment.  The older child moves to a mythic-literal faith in which maybe mountains don’t get moved today by faith, but they did “back then” in the time of the ancient stories.  The adolescent moves into a conventional faith and believes the things that the people important to him or her believe, people like parents, peers, and authority figures.

Most people stay in this stage of faith and never really reflect on their faith.  Some people, though, move into a new stage, which Fowler calls the Individuative-Reflective Stage, one in which the faith that has been bequeathed to them is critically examined.  Critical thinking itself becomes one’s mode of faith.  Most of the time, there is some form of demythologization that takes place.

It may be the case that someone critically examines the faith bequeathed to them and largely accepts it as their own, albeit in a new, demythologized form.  For these people, the process is simply part of their maturation process, one that is fostered by the people and institutions important to them.

A large number of people negotiating this new stage of faith, however, do not have persons and institutions in their lives that encourage questioning and doubting.  For some, it is not merely the case that questioning and doubting are discouraged, but it may be that persons who question and doubt may even be expelled from institutions and emotionally cut off by family and friends.  This is a double loss for those who find themselves in this situation.  Not only are they losing the way they once processed their faith, but they are losing the powerful dynamic of community and relationality.

So what I do is promise a safe environment, a community filled with relationships that can handle questioning, doubts, agnosticism, and even atheism.  Everyone is actively welcomed.  No one gets condemned.  This community includes people who haven’t yet begun to doubt and who are startled when the chaplain of the college gives them permission to do so.  It includes people who are actively doubting.  It includes people who have given up the notion of God and who make no claim to be religious in any way at all.

It also includes people who have gone through this stage of faith toward another stage that holds this critical questioning/doubting/unknowing in tension with a renewed sense of trust in the tradition that holds their symbols and stories of the divine, of the sacred, of God.  This is an attempt to retrieve the magical, the mythical, and the conventional but not in a literal fashion.  This is a stage of faith that focuses on the tension, one that honors the symbols and stories of faith but that declines to return to a pre-critical form of faith.

Atheism for Lent is a project decidedly in the critical, Individuative-Reflective stage of faith.  It cuts away the magical, the mythical, and the conventional.  Some have argued that Rollins should hold up whatever God may exist after this cutting-away in order to keep people from despairing at the loss of that which is being cut away.  He writes elsewhere that his project "starts from the affirmation (God as some-thing) enters the negation (God as no-thing) and unfolds a negation of negation (God as a some-no-thing or, in a Kierkegaardian sense, as radical subject found beyond the realm of thing-hood – in the affirmation of life)."

I don’t know his plans for writing, but I look forward to his books that explicate this last move.  I want to hear what he has to say when he is focused on God in this way, in addition to what he has to say when he is focused on the second move.  But I think he is saying right now that we shouldn't jump so quickly to the last move.  It seems to me that doing so would short-circuit his second move.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What's Wrong with this World is the Idea that God Loves Everybody?

Westboro Baptist Church spokes-hater Steven Drain says "that mainline Christianity is chiefly to blame for legitimizing" same-sex marriage in part by "erroneously preaching that God loves everybody."

I think he might be right, except for the "erroneously" part.  Christianity, like the Judaism from which it sprang, has had two streams.  One stream says God is primarily holy or sovereign or some other such characteristic that separates God from humanity.  God loves only the particular group that is likewise pure, whether said purity is moral, doctrinal, or simply by God's elective fiat.

The other stream says that God's primary characteristic is love.  God loves everyone and exemplifies that love via the particularities of the Jewish and Christian peoples.

These two streams have been in conversation with one another and indeed have struggled against one another.  I believe that Jesus took sides in this conflict and chose love.  He didn't say the most important commandments in his tradition had anything to do with staying pure or believing the right things but simply loving God and loving one's neighbor.

If God expects me to love my neighbor, as The Christian Left reminds us, it means to love my homeless neighbor, my Muslim neighbor, my black neighbor, my gay neighbor, my immigrant neighbor, my Jewish neighbor, my Christian neighbor, my atheist neighbor, my disabled neighbor, and my addicted neighbor.  If I am to love all these neighbors, surely God loves them more.  And that makes all the difference in the world in how we treat each other.

WBC says we love our neighbors by telling them God hates them.  I think we love our neighbors in part by telling them God loves them and by treating them as I would want to be treated myself.