Monday, August 26, 2013

Smashing Oppression...Together!

I'm wary of the Bible. When you've been clobbered with something for most of your life, it's only natural to mistrust it. I've been able to revisit the Bible, in part, by focusing on the major themes of love, justice, and the Kingdom of God. For example, I was always taught that Ephesians 6:12 was a verse about spiritual warfare.

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

One could perhaps interpret the last part of the verse as battling against spiritual forces, but what about the majority of the verse? The more obvious interpretation is that those who follow Jesus are battling against the kingdoms of this world. These kingdoms are the systems that exalt one group of people over another: patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc. We don't battle against flesh and blood; we call out oppressive systems because in the end, these systems oppress us all, even the ones that benefit from the hierarchy.

There is talk that the church is dying; perhaps the reason it is dying is because the church is concerned with inconsequential minutia instead of the business of kingdom building (and oppression-smashing).

The author of Ephesians implores the chruch to put on the “full armor of God” in order to be able to wage this battle successfully. Besides the armor of God, there are three other helpful Biblical metaphors regarding Kingdom building: the body of Christ, the gifts of the Spirit, and the fruits of the Spirit.

When I think of the body of Christ, I think of the church doing the work of Christ here on earth. In order to do that, the church needs workers with a variety of skills. And voilĂ , we are given these skills via Spirit gifts. But what gifts do we see being used? Here's what I've been seeing:

Speaking truth to power

Walking alongside those who are oppressed

Bringing awareness and knowledge, both generalized and highly-specific

Healing those who are oppressed; helping oppressors stop the cycle of oppression

Speaking and demonstrating unpopular truths both inside and outside the church

Bridge Builders
Bringing other people along who are stuck in the cycle of oppression

Some of these gifts overlap. Many people have more than just one gift. Also, although these gifts are not in opposition to each other, they can often feel that way. For example, someone who is a bridge builder may see an activist as being too forceful or strident. The activist may see the bridge builder as compromising. That's really OK. They don't have to be best friends. However, both are missing an opportunity for growth and connection if they despise the other (iron sharpens iron).

How can we tell, then, if someone's actions are "of the Spirit"? I believe one way we can tell by using the fruits of the Spirit metaphor: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Of course, the "fruits of the Spirit" concept has been used as severe behavior modification by those in power and authority. For example, I always mistook kindness for niceness. Being kind doesn't always mean being nice.

I realize that my view of the body of Christ is probably more like a body part of Christ, like the elbow or the chin. My thinking of God and the body of Christ tends to be too small. What other gifts do you see on display in the church? Also, how do you tell the difference between mere disagreement with a fellow Jesus-follower and disagreement with a "false teacher" (see Matthew 7)?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Pushback Against Christian Homophobia

Yesterday's post (trigger warning: extreme homophobia) from The Gospel Coalition reminded me yet again of the importance of Christian LGBTQ allies. I had no desire and no energy to attempt to respond myself. However, two really positive things have occurred as a result of that post:

  1. The Gospel Coalition and those who align with that organization demonstrated that their disgust for LGBTQ people goes beyond their own narrow Biblical interpretation.
  2. The pushback from the Christian LGBTQ community and Christian allies through blog posts and Twitter conversations with TGC has been amazing.
Below I've listed the best articles I found so far pushing back against this article and TGC. These folks are all excellent writers; subscribe to their blogs and/or follow them on Twitter!

Have you read any other articles pushing back against this article or homophobia in the church in general? Please share other resources in the comments!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reflections on Blue

Blue is my color. I always find myself somewhere on its spectrum. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m always sad. Let me explain what I mean by reflecting on three different shades of blue.

Note: When speaking of color, there is always a danger of casually equating White with Good and Black with Evil. It is problematic because white and black are also used to describe race. When I speak of “black” or “darkness” in this post, I am not speaking of a color in the sense that we normally understand the word. True darkness is the absence of all light and therefore of all color; for example, scientists use the term “black holes” to describe phenomena with gravities that are so strong that not even light can escape.

Sky Blue

Think of a cloudless summer sky in the early afternoon. The sun is almost white, and the sky itself is so bright that you can only see a faint hue of color. For me, that color is the color of happiness, energy, and joy. But despite the brightness, that touch of blue still remains; reminding me—even in moments of pure joy—of the gravity of life. Even if every relationship is fulfilling and synergistic, if every project goes smoothly and successfully, and if every destination is reached; even then, it doesn’t change the reality of ongoing injustice and oppression in the world. Like gravity, this realization pulls me down hard; but it also has a grounding effect. I find meaning (and even beauty) in it. Instead of removing joy, it gives it a splash of color. It gives me a reason to move forward.

Midnight Blue

Think of a blue sock or shoe that is so dark that you mistake it for black. Midnight blue is almost as dark as charcoal, but still has a tiny hint of color. It’s the shade of blue that looks and feels like utter hopelessness. When I feel that hopelessness, I visualize it as an inky dark sludge coursing through my body—even reaching my fingers and toes. It is physically heavy. For me, this “sludge” is midnight blue rather than black. The touch of color represents the spark of life that fights against being extinguished. I still feel that spark of life in the seemingly complete darkness.

Tragically, so many lives are devoid of even midnight blue. Driven to despair and utter hopelessness, they see suicide as preferable to living in pain. Some of those who are driven to such a desperate option are young people who are told they are sexually broken; this turns my midnight blue heart to FIERY RED. Just like the emotions associated with sky blue, these emotions compel me to act.

Ocean Blue

Think of a tropical location with white sand and clear blue water. The sun’s reflection sparkles on the ocean, and the transparency of the water allows you to see deep below the surface. Ocean blue is the color I strive to be. I want to be transparent—without masks, without hidden motives—in order for others to see me, not someone I pretend to be. Transparency makes true love and connection possible. It makes life risky, difficult, refreshing, and meaningful. Sort of like the ocean.

A friend once told me that he thought the verse “Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4) referred to those who are able to bring outside that which is inside. Meaning, those that mourn are those that can authentically express their emotions and live life more fully human. This verse came to mind as I meditated on the color blue, and what that color has come to represent linguistically. Feeling “blue” has come to mean feeling sad. But similar to how my friend saw “mourning,” I have found new meaning to being blue. Blue is a reminder of the realities and complexities of life, it represents hope in the darkest of times, and it aspires to transparency and authenticity. It means more to me than just being sad.

What about you? Do you also resonate with the color blue? Do you have a different "life color”? What do you think about my friend’s interpretation of “mourning”?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Doubt, Love, and Connection

Doubt is my constant companion. I used to think I had doubt, but that doubt was more inwardly focused: Am I really a Christian? Does God love me? Will God reject me if I give in to my same-sex attraction? That type of doubt assumed that the existence of God, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the evangelical doctrines of Jesus’ death and resurrection were beyond question.

Today, for me, nothing is beyond question.

A few months ago I started reading through the book of Matthew in an attempt to blog through the Gospels. I ran out of steam, primarily because of doubts about the Bible. I decided to pause that project in order to read other books. Books that dealt with my questions and fears. Books from people who also wrestle with these doubts.

One book I read was Amy Hollingworth’s Letters from the Closet, which I reviewed in detail on Amazon. The book is not a "how-to" manual on relationships or a story about how Jesus arrived to magically save the day. It's a book about authentic love and connection. It's a book where ongoing doubt is a necessary part of the story.

Three other books I've read recently further explore these themes of love and connection which transcend doubt:

The Road Less Traveled (M. Scott Peck)

I first started reading M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled in the mid-1990s. I couldn’t finish it because I don’t think I was ready for it at the time. I picked it up again a few months ago, and this time I was hungry for Peck’s message. This book provided the best argument for the existence of “God” I’ve ever read. The primary focus of the book is not an apologetic for God’s existence, but on the healing power of Love. To very briefly summarize: despite the law of entropy, the universe keeps striving for something better. Human beings also strive for improvement despite a desire to remain constant. Peck identifies this higher force for good as Love. Love is the power of the unknowable God—is the unknowable God.

For me, the leap of faith comes in choosing to understand this unknowable God through Jesus. But what is the best way to know and understand Jesus? The most accessible tool we have is the Bible. Yet the history of how the Bible was written and canonized is fraught with plagiarism and political corruption. Furthermore, after Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of Rome, Christianity transformed into just another kingdom of the world; it has rarely looked like the Kingdom of God (as described in the Bible!). And what about the mystery of the Holy Spirit?

The Heart of Christianity (Marcus Borg)

An author who has helped me sort through (and sit with) these questions and doubts is Marcus Borg. Borg is a respected scholar and Jesus historian. I put a lot of stock in what he has to say because his knowledge about what is known about Jesus the man goes way beyond what the Bible reveals. In The Heart of Christianity, Borg describes two paradigms of Christianity: the existing paradigm and the emerging paradigm.

Note: The emerging paradigm described by Borg shouldn’t be confused with the Emergent Church movement, although there are some ideas that overlap.

Borg argues that while the existing paradigm for Christianity (i.e., a traditional understanding of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible) has “worked” for many people in the past, it has less and less relevance for fewer and fewer people. He is careful not to disparage the existing paradigm, but instead describes the practice of an emerging paradigm of Christianity with topics such as Biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, Kingdom of God ideals, and the emphasis on (and the different definitions of) belief.

The book profoundly resonated with me. It helped me understand that even amidst a thick fog of doubt, one can still practice Christianity and find meaning and purpose. I cannot say it better than how the publisher describes it: “…the Christian life is essentially about opening one's heart to God and to others.”

Faitheist (Chris Stedman)

Connection with others is a major theme of the latest book I read: Faitheist by Chris Stedman. Stedman is young gay man who identified as an evangelical Christian for a time, but now identifies as an atheist. His passion for social justice, however, has been a constant. Today he works as a Humanist Chaplain and an advocate for interfaith organizations.

I loved this book so much. Stedman is incredibly generous to engage with those of us who enjoy "religious privilege" in the U.S. His message of love, connection with others, listening well, and solving social ills together is so desperately needed. He’s gotten some forceful pushback from anti-theists and some atheists—those who believe religion is a primary reason for the world’s problems. But in risking criticism, Stedman reaches out in an effort to understand those with whom he disagrees in order to find connection and to work side-by-side overcoming oppression and injustice in the world.

The other day I was walking downtown (where I work) in order to grab some lunch. The concepts of love and connection were running through my mind. As I passed a woman on the sidewalk, it occurred to me that I’m connected to her. I am part of her. She is part of me. I immediately felt great compassion for her. This all happened so quickly and the compassion I felt was so acute that it’s difficult to describe accurately. However, it was a glimpse into something very true. If we truly love someone, we feel a connection that binds us to that person. That connection is what could allow us to have an empathy that goes beyond just “feeling bad” and compels us to action. Not guilt, not duty, not gratitude. Love.

Love and connection is the common theme in these four books. Love and connection could heal the world. No matter what details I believe about it, if Christianity can’t help me love and connect with others, it’s worthless.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


I have to admit that I’ve been pretty sad lately. Actually I’ve been sad, angry, and confused. It’s a thick, dark sludge of pain that has been heating up and is starting to bubble up to the surface.

To explain, it might help to briefly summarize my own history. I am someone who grew up with a loving family, but whose family was (and is) surrounded by Christian fundamentalism. Notwithstanding the love of my family--which made it bearable--I can describe living in this environment using three words: fear, shame, and coping.

I was/am afraid of:
  • a god that would send human beings to hell (eternal conscious torment)
  • hell
  • cruelty and the capacity for cruelty in human beings
  • meaninglessness
  • other people’s anger and pain

I felt/feel shame about:
  • being gay
  • sexuality in general
  • laziness
  • cowardice
  • physical appearance

I have coped/cope with this pain by:
  • pleasing others to win approval/affirmation
  • behavior modification
  • constant diet and exercise planning
  • turning off/numbing painful feelings (withdrawing)
  • losing myself in books, TV, games

In January of this year, I started writing about this history and my continuing journey. After a period of church detox and therapy, I needed to reconnect somehow with God and spirituality. Writing about it and sharing it has been very healing for me. I’ve met other sojourners who have helped me understand myself and the world better through their writing and their friendships. The whole blogging experience has shown me the potential for a more meaningful life by loving well.

However, I still see these patterns of fear, shame, and coping in my own life. They keep cycling back in different forms, in different situations. When I look back, I can see growth; I know I have been more honest and authentic with myself and with others than at any other time. But the same coping mechanisms are still present and easily accessible. Using these old ways prevents further growth. When I use them—and it is so easy to do so—another cycle of shame and coping begins.

My guess is that I haven’t fully grasped how fear and shame tore my humanity to shreds. I also believe I haven’t fully mourned the loss of the god of my youth. That god was also a coping mechanism. He (my god was definitely a “he”) was anyone I wanted to be on that particular day: comforter, savior, santa, father, or king. Maybe this is one reason I still so readily rely on those old ways of coping: I’m trying to hold on to youth itself.

As I look back over the list of coping techniques, I think I can see a way forward. If I can somehow be aware of when I’m using these techniques...even just being aware of when they occur could be valuable…

Regarding the loss of my own image of God (and using this image as another coping mechanism), I’d like to quote Morgan Guyton, an amazing writer who is also a pastor, who provided an astoundingly brief but accurate summary of the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek:

“…Zizek makes the provocative, paradoxical claim in his recently published behemoth of a book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism that the most faithful way to be a Christian is actually to be an atheist. In his reading of the New Testament in the light of 'death of God' theology, the cross represents the death of the idea of a transcendent god. Subsequent to the cross, for Zizek, the Holy Spirit becomes the collective 'spirit' of the faithful community rather than a transcendent being outside of that community.”

This really speaks to me. It's close to where I stand at this particular moment in time. For now, I am abiding in the mystery of the unknowable God and learning how to truly mourn.