Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 3:13-17

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 3:13-17
Jesus is baptized by (a reluctant) John the Baptist. A dove descends and a voice from heaven speaks.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 3:13-17
The story is so familiar to me that it's hard to ponder the significance, but I'm going to try. First of all, Matthew implies that John knew who Jesus was, and that John believed Jesus was the Messiah. How does John know about Jesus? Does he know him personally? Did Jesus already have a reputation? Was it another one of Matthew's dream sequences?

In any case, John thought so highly of Jesus that he felt their roles (baptizer and baptizee) should be reversed. But Jesus said no. He said this arrangement is how it should be for now. "We must all do what God wants us to do." This sentence and this scene actually remind me of a sermon my pastor gave about baptism a few weeks ago. He had a completely different take on it than anything I'd heard before.

Previously, I had been taught that baptism was a symbol of being born again, and that it was an outward expression of (1) God's ownership and (2) our commitment to obedience. I grew up in that slice of Christianity that did not really believe that baptism had anything to do with salvation from eternal hell; but, it was a choice you made to show that you were really a Christian. Being baptized meant that you were willing to go anywhere for God...even if it was a tarantula-infested village in Africa. It was a big deal for me to be baptized, because I didn’t want to go to Africa. I felt guilty and then petrified: if I didn’t have the willingness to go to Africa, maybe I wasn't really a Christian! This twisted logic led me to believe that the choice was eternal hell or a lifelong Fear Factor scenario. Baptism (and the decision to be baptized) was just another way to be filled with shame and fear.

Fast forward to today. I’ve been going to a small, progressive church for the past 3 months or so. As I mentioned earlier, the pastor recently spoke about baptism in a sermon. He suggested that baptism is a sacrament that sets us apart...not to demonstrate how holy or righteous we are, or how willing we are for God to use us for His glory. (Ugh. What does that even mean? C’mon. Anyway I digress....) No, baptism, he explained, sets us apart in order to love people. That’s it. There's no mandate to convince people in other countries to believe the same things that a group of homogeneous Westerners believe about Jesus and God. It sets us free to love. "We must all do what God wants us to do." Jesus is being baptized—set apart—to love others; to be the ultimate example of love for us. That concept of baptism rings truer to me than the former interpretation. It’s a concept that I can embrace.

Back to the text. When Jesus came out of the water, Matthew describes the familiar scene: the sky opens up; Jesus sees the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove; a voice from heaven claims Jesus as “my own dear son” with whom he is pleased. That’s the story.

Could it be that THAT is what God is thinking of us when we are baptized?

Ok. I feel a need to take a step back. Am I bringing a lot of my old beliefs—along with some wishful thinking—to this passage? Matthew is telling a story about Jesus to persuade readers that Jesus is the Messiah. I don’t know if I should be scooping out all these ideas about the true meaning of baptism just from this one event. Perhaps that’s all it is: an event that provides another "proof" from Matthew about Jesus. Not meant to convey some deeper, profound truths about baptism.

Even though I went away from "Christianity" for awhile, my brain has still retained so much. I don’t want to fall into the same traps, the same convenient arguments, the same black-and-white theology that attempts to package complex literature (with an even more complex history) into a silly, 20-minute devotional.

Final note: I debated whether to edit out some of these thoughts, but I decided to keep the stream-of-consciousness vibe. It’s a truer snapshot of what’s going on in my mind as I read and struggle through the book.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Tale of Two "Gravity"s

Music has always been a big part of my life. As a small child, I listened to the Music Machine and Psalty the Singing Songbook records. In my teens, I discovered Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Twila Paris. The music I listened to always came from a Christian source. In fact, my first job was working at a Christian bookstore—selling Christian fiction, Christian music, Christian T-shirts, even Christian breath mints. (Testamints. Clever, huh?)

"Christian Music" is that odd genre that is defined more by its worldview than its actual music. And the worldview of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM for short) is mostly and specifically evangelical. The genre has its roots in 60s/70s hippie culture (Jesus music) but has shifted through the years to its current state of bland praise-pop. (Yes, that's a generalization!) I started listening in the mid-80s, so by that time the music reflected the Christian culture of the time. However there are artists who have worked both within and outside the CCM bubble who tweak, challenge, and question the evangelical conventional wisdom of the day. Examples include Nichole Nordeman & Sara Groves from within; Derek Webb from without. These are the artists I kept listening to even as I questioned, rejected, and eventually reconfigured everything I learned about God. (I'm reconfiguring every day, in fact.)

Yesterday a song called Gravity by Shawn McDonald came up in my iPod mix. That song really took me back--in more ways than one! Listening to that song reminded me of another song, of the same name, from a group called Out of the Grey. Both songs have been favorites of mine for different reasons. Both songs are worth a listen. Additionally, each of these songs pinpoints a separate instance in my own spiritual journey.

The lines in Shawn McDonald’s song include “I don’t want to fall away from You / Gravity is pulling me on down” and “Don’t let me lose my sight of You.” In the song, he feels gravity is pulling his focus away from God. He seems to imply that "gravity" is sin and temptation, or perhaps worldliness in general. The song has a  "stop the world I want to get off" vibe—a desire to go to heaven and leave earth behind (i.e., very Christian emo.)

The song, and the way Shawn sings it, is filled with longing--which is probably why it appeals to me. It reminds me of a confusing time in my life, when I wanted to want to attain that elusive feeling of loving God and feeling his presence. For me, the song represents my longing to feel the way that praise band worship leaders feel when they are emoting breathlessly on the church stage about God’s awesomeness. It caused a lot of what's-wrong-with-me introspection. I identify with this particular song in that way, although it’s probably not the way it was intended.

The second Gravity song, this one from Out of the Grey, defines gravity a bit differently. It’s a song about the "gravity" of life; how trying to float above it (like a balloon) is not the answer. This song recommends actually feeling the gravity, and allowing it to "pull you to your knees." The song (and a major theme of the album, which is also called Gravity) is talking about both the gravity of sin and the gravity of real life. It is a reminder not to deny this grave reality: that there are some really shitty things going on in the world.

As I mentioned earlier, these two songs pinpoint two separate instances in my own spiritual journey. The first was when I was deep inside the homogeneous, Christian evangelical, politically conservative bubble. My own sin and guilt were vague and were wrapped up in odd little behavioral tasks that I didn’t fulfill and sexual impurity of the mind (and the hand). Ironically, in the Christian culture I knew, anything “social justice-y” was labeled "legalism" and “a gateway to liberalism” (and worse). Thinking about these songs has made me realize how many mixed messages there are in this subculture. No wonder Shawn and I were both confused and filled with vague, existential longing for heaven!

The second song is a fairly good indicator of where I am today. The world is in a grave state. There are so many who are being oppressed, who are poor and hungry. It is overwhelming. Compared to most, I am marinating in riches and privilege. That's the gravity that's bringing me to my knees these days.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 3:1-12

Note: See Introduction for context of this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 3:1-12
Years after Jesus and family settle in Galilee, Matthew introduces John the Baptist. John baptizes many from all over Israel, but chews out the religious leaders when they come to be baptized too.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 3:1-12
There is a lot to unpack in these 12 verses (doing the whole chapter in one blog post was too much). Forgive me if these thoughts are a bit disjointed. Frankly, I have more questions than answers.

People were coming from far and wide to get baptized by John the Baptist. It gets really interesting when, in vs. 7, John starts speaking to the religious leaders of the time--the Pharisees and Sadducees--who also came to be baptized. He starts by calling them a bunch of snakes.

Ooh. Already, we're seeing an impatience and downright anger to current religious leaders. It doesn't sound very loving, does it? It makes me wonder if the real, Christian way to engage with the Dobsons, the Driscolls, the Pipers, et al, is actually one of scorn. Pointing out their hypocrisy and the damage that they do. Doing this seems to follow the example of John the Baptist, at least. It opens a whole other can of worms: who has the moral authority to call these people out? I'm mindful of passages about judging and eye-planks. I don't have the definitive answer.

One of the things I'm keeping my eye on as I read through the Gospels is how Jesus (and others close to him) interact with people who are in power--especially religious power. In this passage, at least, John doesn't show any deference!

I also wonder if some of the Pharisees and Sadducees that came to see John were actually shocked at his words to them. Were all of them arrogant and proud, or were there some who were sincere and followed the law as best as they could? Maybe some of them (most of them?) sincerely believed their way of life and their worldview was THE way to please God? I group myself with them. I used to think this way, too. I feel great conviction from these words. My hope is that these words broke through to some of these men (I'm assuming they were all men at this point, but perhaps not?), especially those whose hearts were seeking, questioning, and humble--stuck in this hierarchy without yet consciously knowing it.

Backing up to verses 1-6 (espec. vs 6): I wonder for what "sins" the crowds are sorry? I always thought of sin as a lack of spending time with God, not witnessing for God, and sexual impurity. (For more on this, see yesterday's post on guilt.) Were they thinking of breaking specific law, or were they thinking of not taking care of the poor and oppressed? Of greed?

My final thoughts on this passage have to do with the judgment that John talked about when he addressed the religious leaders:
  • John said, "Who warned you to run from the coming judgment?" What judgment does he mean?
  • John also gave a metaphor of a tree: The ax will cut you down if you do not bear fruit.
  • He also said that Jesus would separate the wheat from the husks, and the husks will be burnt in a fire that would never burn out.
Arg! HELL! Literally! This passage frightens me. It brings up all the fears I've had (and still have) about eternal torture. It's small comfort that he is directly addressing the religious leaders at this point. As much as I don't like them (or their present-day doppelgangers, the Religious Right), I don't think anyone deserves ETERNAL torment. I can't help but think he is using hyperbole to show the evil of hypocrisy and people who use power over others to oppress. At least, that's what I'm choosing to take away from this passage.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

In Defense of Liberal Guilt

"Liberal Guilt," both the phrase (wielded as a snark-weapon against—among others—rich, white Obama enthusiasts) and the concept, is troublesome. I pass a poor person on the street and think: “something must be done!” yet I’m unwilling to actually do anything but spare a moment of existential angst. This scene is an example of what liberal guilt is meant to convey when used as a pejorative: bleeding heart + zero action.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about the concept a bit differently. What if, instead of smirking at ourselves for this pang of angst, we stopped a minute and really let ourselves feel it. What if we actually took ourselves seriously at this point, and allowed ourselves to go down "into the weeds” of this angst? What if this pang we feel moves us to action? Let me explain further by sharing my own story with guilt.

The Christianity I define for myself today looks so much different than the type I espoused growing up. In those days, I experienced a much different kind of guilt. It wasn’t liberal guilt but a legalistic, behavioral guilt. I felt guilt if I didn’t have my “devotions” for the day. (Having devotions, in fundamentalist language, means setting aside a quiet time each day to read a passage of scripture and have a time of prayer. Not a bad thing in itself, but for me it became a mindless task to check off my "be-a-good-Christian" list. If not done, fellowship with God would be lost—and who really knew what that meant? It was an effective threat!)

Another requirement that I never lived up to (and therefore always felt guilty about) was being a witness for Christ. Witnessing is another fundamentalist buzzword that means telling everyone you know (and also strangers!) that they need Jesus, and if they don’t accept him as their personal savior they will go to hell. Yeah, sign me up for THAT! Because witnessing was so hard to do and so incredibly socially awkward to accomplish, it MUST be what God wanted! We must take up our cross and “suffer” for him…apparently by acting like a know-it-all asshole to everyone we meet! Something about this didn’t ring true for me; however, that didn’t stop me from trying and from feeling guilty when I didn’t try hard enough.

I also felt guilt for lack of “purity.” Purity in fundamentalist language always means “sexual purity.” To be blunt, I think of all the various categories of guilt I experienced, I felt the most guilt after masturbating. Even to this day, that m-word is fraught with such heaviness and ugliness! Even the way it is spelled seems so sinister and degenerate!!! Add to it the fact that I was attracted to men instead of women, and this guilt became so big and so intense that my mind was consumed by it.

Later in my 20s, my energy was geared toward staying a virgin at all costs. That meant gritting my teeth, praying for purity and change, going to Christian therapists, going to ex-gay programs. I was defined by shame.

I point out all these categories of fundamentalist-culture-driven guilt for this reason: There was absolutely no room in my head to even consider those who were poor and oppressed. No room, in fact, to care about the people and the principles that Jesus actually cared about.

I now see my journey of the last 10+ years as a necessary undoing of every belief and assumption about myself, about God, about Jesus, and about people in general. These days I feel differently than I ever have. I feel a new level of confidence--a new lack of shame--about who I am. With this new grace, I am experiencing a new clarity of thought and vision. I’m beginning to see the world outside the tiny bubble in which I grew up. I am seeing injustice. HERE is where I am feeling a different kind of guilt; HERE is where I’m really feeling my true “sin”: in my unwillingness to radically give myself to the poor and the oppressed. To others it may seem like “liberal guilt,” but for me it is something more real than that. It feels like true conviction of the heart.

This conviction--of my own embarrassment of cultural and material riches, while others have it so much worse than I--is another reason why I’m intent on reading through the Gospels with a new perspective. In this unequal world with me near the top of the privilege-pyramid, I can see the "last shall be first" motif for sure. In this snapshot moment of my journey, I can’t emphasize enough this feeling of my own sin--my own failings. My response can only be broken humility. An open heart and open ears. A thick skin. A reliance on God’s grace. Prayer that God will make me more courageous, energetic, and willing to give to and work for the oppressed and the needy. How can I not forgive the minor, day-to-day slights toward myself (real and perceived) when I know that I’ve been forgiven so much?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 2

Note: See Introduction for context of this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 2
Evil King Herod tries to kill the Messiah and commits child genocide. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape, and after Herod’s death they eventually settle in Nazareth.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 2
After finishing this passage, I had three initial thoughts:
  1. Herod was desperate not to lose power.
  2. Herod’s actions in Jerusalem were unspeakably awful.
  3. Joseph sure dreamed a lot!
The chapter begins with mysterious “wise men from the East” coming to King Herod to ask about the Messiah after following this giant star to Bethlehem. Huh. Matthew sure breezed through this part. Who were the wise men? Where did they come from? How did this giant star come into being? Why were they compelled to follow it? How did they connect this star with the birth of the “King of the Jews”? How did they even know about this birth?

Keep in mind, I am simply blogging my thoughts and not using related history texts, concordances, or other supplemental materials. To any theologians reading this: I hope you are not shouting answers to these questions at the screen in frustration! Your comments are welcome.

But then the text concentrates on Herod. Wow, this guy. After the wise men asked him these questions, Herod got confirmation from the religious leaders about the birthplace of the Messiah according to the prophets. Then he used diabolical manipulation to get the wise men to tell him where this child actually was located. Finally, in desperation, after the wise men were told (in a dream) to clear out, Herod did something breathtakingly evil. He ordered all male children under 2 years old in Bethlehem to be killed. Child genocide. I can’t take it in.

For a discussion on whether this genocide was historical or just a myth, see posts by James McGrath and Tony Jones.

What I see in this chapter, besides the horror, is a man desperate not to lose power. So desperate, in fact, that he would kill the Messiah in order to keep this power. What a timeless, common human condition! We see this desparation in politics, in business, in relationships, and, clearly, in the church: people willing to manipulate, lie, cheat, or worse in order to keep power. Matthew's brief portrait of Herod sets up another contrast to the radical teachings of Jesus. (I admit it: I’m already getting excited about reading Jesus’ words in this whole new light.)

In the meantime, Joseph had a dream where he was instructed to flee Bethlehem and go to Egypt for safety. When Herod died, Joseph had another dream to return to Israel. When hearing that Herod’s son was ruler of Judea, Joseph had yet another dream to go to Nazareth. So after 2 chapters in Matthew, Joseph has already had 4 dreams. (What is it with Joseph and the dreams?)

Matthew uses these stories to bring more evidence to his argument that Jesus is the true Messiah: the birth in Bethlehem, the text from Jeremiah “Rachel weeping for her children” (although indicating Herod's massacre as a fullfillment of this prophecy seems a bit of stretch to me), and that the Messiah would be a Nazarene.

Looking at these stories with an objective eye, it all seems pretty unbelievable. My honest reaction? It reads more like a myth than an historical text. However, I’m just going to sit with that thought and let it be. At this early stage, what I’m already taking away from these readings is the stark contrast between what I know of the life and teachings of Jesus and the world and culture that he inhabited.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reformed Relationships

The other day Jay Bakker asked, via tweet, whether Mark Driscoll and the reformed theology folks are the new Religious Right. I don’t have anything to say about Driscoll that hasn’t already been well-said 500,000 times by others more experienced with him and his brand. However, I can share my own experience with reformed theology, how my parents have adopted the label “reformed,” and how it has changed them in a positive way.

Before going further, I should say that I do not personally hold to the reformed theology world view. I also do not want to be (or even sound) condescending about my parents’ beliefs. Those of you who hold to reformed theology: I have no interest in trying to change your mind. We all have our own journey of faith, and have no idea how each of us got to where we are today.

My parents both grew up in a non-denominational, fundamentalist church in the Midwest. They were both still members when I was born; when I was 5 years old my Dad was re-located to Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, we went to another fundamentalist church similar to their former church, but a bit larger. In both of these churches, the teaching centered around personal salvation (going to heaven instead of hell after death) and “behavioral holiness.” The teaching about personal salvation was straightforward in some ways, but eerily vague in other ways. For example, there was always the fear of “losing fellowship with God” because of unconfessed sin. What did this really mean? What were the consequences? What if we have sin that is unknown and therefore unconfessed? I didn’t realize this at the time, but looking back I can see how church leaders (perhaps unconsciously) used this fear as a power-tool for behavioral modification. For my parents (and for me), the result was the constant nagging fear of hell and the ominous "lost fellowship."

In addition to this existential fear, my parents also dealt with the culture of spiritual competitiveness in these churches. One didn’t want to admit to any sort of doubt or disagreement regarding the “fundamentals of the faith.” Without doubt or disagreement, these churches just became more and more homogeneous—not just in theology, but also in behavior and language. And the only way to learn the language is to be immersed in the culture. If you didn’t meet all the criteria of theology, behavior, and language, subtle (and sometimes overt) judgment was passed.

My parents are good people. They have kind and loving hearts, and within their context and their journey they have searched for truth and meaning. Years and years of fundamentalist culture took its toll on them. Eventually (for reasons too lengthy to go into here) they started going to a “reformed” church. Soon afterward, they started sending me links to reformed theology books, blogs, sermons, and podcasts. I could definitely see the excitement and joy they were experiencing, and I had never associated “excitement” and “joy” with my parents and anything associated with the church!

Here’s why I think the reformed movement, and more specifically the new church that they have been attending, has been helpful for them and for our relationship:
  • After a life of feeling nothing was ever good enough for God or others, they finally no longer have that constant nagging fear of hell or of “lost fellowship” with God. They have been able to integrate the Calvinist principle of predestination into their own view of personal salvation and the salvation of others. (It’s out of their hands!)
  • In their new church, theology, not behavior, is stressed. Granted, disagreement with the core tenants of the theology is discouraged, which again makes the church overly homogeneous. However, because of the principle of God’s work on the cross as TOTAL (any “belief” in Christ is completely a gift from God himself), people in the church don’t worry too much about specific beliefs or even behaviors--again, because it's God's work to change hearts, not theirs. It has a mellowing effect; it also contributes to a much less judgmental environment. This was NOT the case with their former churches, where leaders and members tended to be very grace-less about disagreement.
  • With newfound confidence in the work of Christ and their own helplessness, they too have become less judgmental. In fact, until they started going to this church, I did not plan to reveal to them that I was gay. Changing churches and having a more solid theology was transforming for them. Seeing this transformation, I felt compelled to have a more honest and authentic relationship with them. Coming out to them was very difficult; they still look at the relationship I have with my partner as a sin. However, they choose to reconcile my identity as a gay person with their belief that everyone is completely sinful and in need of Christ (who calls whom He will...and no one else.) They see my "sin" as just another one that Christ covered with his death and resurrection. And they love my partner!
As I made clear at the beginning of the post, I have some real and serious disagreements with reformed theology. I know my parents aren't going to change their minds about it, and they know they won’t change mine. However, throughout both of our journeys, we've been able to extend grace to each other. We’ve been able to find a way to love each other even while having profound disagreements. And that more than anything has given me hope that we can have reconciliation between people of radically different beliefs and backgrounds—it just requires authentic relationships.

UPDATE: Shortly after publishing this post, I saw a riveting new post from Rachel Held Evans called The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. It's an amazing post about the implications of reformed theology, and it makes a great counterpoint to this personal story. A must read!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 1

Quick note: at the beginning of a new book, I'll begin by sharing the theme of the book. Every post will then contain a brief summary of the covered passage followed by detailed thoughts. See also Blogging the Gospels: An Introduction for a clearer understanding of the purpose of this series and the perspective I will bring to each post.

The Book of Matthew
Matthew wrote his gospel primarily for a Jewish audience, wanting to convince his readers that Jesus was sent from God as the Messiah.

Summary of Matthew 1
Jesus descended directly from Abraham and David. The virgin, Mary, became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. At first Joseph wants to call off the wedding, but after a visit from an angel, decides to marry Mary after all.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 1
In the first part of the chapter, Matthew shows that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and 14 generations from exile to Jesus. Looks like Matthew is going “all in” at the very beginning. He enumerates how Jesus is not only a direct descendant from Abraham and David, but uses the numbers to show a kind of mystical order and method to his birth. In other words he is saying: Take a look at this, people. 14-14-14. BOOM.

Subsequent verses reveal this theme of Jesus being the Messiah of the Jewish nation:
  • v 18: Joseph was also from the line of David
  • v 21: Jesus will save his people from their sins
  • v 22-23: Immanuel (God with us) prophecy is fulfilled
In the second part of the chapter, Mary becomes pregnant “by the Holy Spirit.” Joseph is described as a “good man who didn’t want to embarrass Mary,” and therefore he calls off the wedding. He obviously thought, as anyone would, that she either fooled around, OR (perhaps?) that he had gotten her pregnant himself. Was it normal for engaged couples to sleep together, or was it the custom to wait until marriage? This is where knowledge of history is important if one really wants to understand the Bible.

It’s interesting to me that the Old Testament prophesies a virgin conceiving and giving birth. From my understanding of the Old Testament, women were generally looked upon as less than men and often unclean. The Messiah had to come from a woman who was “pure.” One can see already how radical Jesus’ teachings would be! He would be challenging cultural norms and religious traditions, yet at the same time fulfilling the OT prophesies in a paradoxical way.

A new perspective I must bring to the reading is the realization that these words were written many, many years after Jesus was born and died. Matthew (was he even the author?) was writing to persuade, and my critical mind wonders how many facts he skewed to make his historical account about Jesus match the OT prophesies. In order to be honest, I have to admit that possibility.

Still, the story is powerful. Just the name Immanuel is powerful: God is with us. I’m looking forward to observing what happens next.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Blogging the Gospels: An Introduction

It's been at least ten years since I've actually read any part of the Bible for myself. I'm ready to start reading it again, with a brand new perspective. This new perspective is shaped by a number of things:
  • the long, difficult journey of self-acceptance as a gay man
  • the rejection of fundamentalist Christianity (a.k.a. Christianism)
  • the flirtation with atheism and the full embrace of doubt (Christian Agnosticism)
  • years of therapy, including four years working with a Jungian therapist
  • a season of moderate depression, followed by joining a small, progressive Episcopal church
  • a sudden and jarring revelation of my own privilege, thanks to difficult but extremely useful conversations happening around the subject in the blogosphere 
Concerning the concept of privilege from a Christian perspective, please read these excellent posts from Susannah Paul, Kathy Escobar, Christena Cleveland, and Rachel Held Evans.

It also seems a fitting time to start something new, because today is both Martin Luther King, Jr. day and the 2nd inauguration of President Obama.

Like many Americans, I had a respectfully solemn yet vague admiration for Dr. King. Not unlike the word  privilege, I viewed him as a blunt object that Liberals used to shame others; I viewed him as a great man, but that we had quite enough streets named after him, thank you very much. Also, I was too busy wallowing in my own shame and struggles as a evangelical Christian trying to rid myself of homosexuality: No time to think of others less fortunate! However, reading Colin Woodard's book American Nations did a lot to change that perspective. When one looks at the history of North American culture, one sees how slavery, segregation, and a racial caste system became so deeply embedded. Understanding this history helps me understand the incredible, amazing, enormously miraculous work of King. He is without a doubt the 20th Century's biggest game-changer. He was also a follower of Jesus and a believer in non-violence and non-hatred. He showed an staggering amount of grace to his enemies. If this isn't Christianity, what else could it possibly be??? He inspires me to want to re-open the Gospels and look again.

Today is also President Obama's 2nd inauguration. Unlike four years ago, I'm not super-hopeful. Don't get me wrong: I am a big Obama supporter--I think he's a good man, and I think he's a smart man. However we also have a large percentage of our population (and a majority in Congress) that truly hates and fears the man. This, I believe, is mostly projection of the fear of economic, cultural, and technological change that is happening separate from the political landscape, and the panic of the (slightly) dimished influence that the white male population has had in this country. (See, again, American Nations.) My hope is not in Obama, and I am fairly certain he doesn't want that's a lot of pressure to be "the Messiah"! No, my hope is in individuals who want to see Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Truly, the change I want to see in the world can only begin by living out that change on a daily basis. Here is where I fail, here is where I need grace, and here is where I can understand the concept of "forgive others as you yourself have been forgiven." When I see the innumerable injustice in the world, how much have I been forgiven by not doing all I can, daily and aggressively, to reverse this injustice? This is where Christianity finally makes sense to me. I feel a passion building inside of me for justice...this has got to be--it MUST be--God's spirit moving.

So, for these reasons and with these new perspectives, I intend to read the Gospels. I'll be posting my thoughts as I read through them. I'm doing this not because I am any sort of theologian, but just to share my own experience in hopes that it challenges, comforts, and inspires you, too.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Road to Authenticity

Jung and I: Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the concept of “taking oneself seriously” in defiance of the old cliché. In Part 2, I shared some of the foundations that were laid by believing in the desperate wickedness of my heart, and introduced the Jungian concept of the Shadow. A brief disclaimer before I dive in to this post: I am in no way a Jungian expert. I am simply sharing my own experience, and in that experience I developed my own understanding of the Jungian Shadow. If you are a Jungian expert, apologies in advance for any misrepresentation or oversimplification of the concept.

The Shadow is a true part of ourselves that we hide in response to something that shames us, usually in childhood. It’s important to understand that not all of the “shaming” activities that form this Shadow are necessarily unhealthy. For example, a child could be screaming and crying in a restaurant, or being loud in a movie theater or library—and a parent will tell the child “no” or “be quiet” or “you shouldn’t do that.” The child learns that this is bad behavior, and compensates. That “bad behavior” in a sense becomes a part of the child’s Shadow.

For me, I compensated for all the shame of having a wicked heart—wicked above all things (Jer. 17:9). Any sort of exuberance, any sort of self-confidence, was not to be trusted and was therefore relegated to the Shadow.  So, when I experienced other people exhibiting these traits (exuberance or self-confidence), a few things were happening, internally, in rapid succession: 
  1. I was seeing something that I had rejected in myself as bad. 
  2. I was projecting this “badness” or “wrongness” onto the exuberant/self-confident person.
  3. I had a strong reaction of distaste and judgment toward them (and, in effect, toward myself).
  4. I had a longing to be like this person because it was a part of me I had neglected long ago. (I didn’t know the reason why at the moment; I only could feel the longing.) 
  5. I hated myself for wanting to have these traits; for the jealousy and envy I felt. 
  6. Because of the intense feeling of self-hatred, I started hating the person even more for making me feel so horrible. 
A vicious, pernicious cycle!

In time I started to recognize this Shadow. I began, in a sense, to integrate the Shadow back into my own life and consciousness. These realizations came through years of discussion with my therapist, through reading, and through recognizing the feelings as they immediately happen (note: this is MUCH harder than it sounds).

Doing all this required intense self-reflection, and to do that I had to wrestle with the phrase, "Don't take yourself too seriously." Through the help of my therapist, when I instinctively tell myself: “don’t take yourself too seriously” I think: actually, this is the time to get serious and listen. “Taking yourself seriously” means that you are searching to know yourself. That you listen and understand what you are feeling. That you pay attention even to your subconscious—some would say especially your subconscious—through dreams. (Dreams—now that’s a whole different subject altogether. Fascinating, but beyond the scope of this blog.)

I don’t want to give the impression that I have overcome all the negative feelings, or that I have fully integrated my Shadow. I still struggle mightily with feelings of guilt and shame and with feelings of jealousy/envy that can grow into hatred. But the concept of the Shadow and of “taking myself seriously” have been two great tools to overcome these complexes and live life more fully, more authentically, and with more meaning.

I now have a different understanding of the verse: the heart is wicked above all things, who can know it? The heart is unknowable because of the shame and guilt that even normal, everyday life can bring. We compensate and we hide, and our true selves are twisted and bruised. We put guards up. We develop fear and use various techniques to quell the fear. Shame, also, has us hiding, not wanting us to show anyone what’s behind the armor. With all this fear and shame, we are kept from true connection with others. And here we are again at the true meaning of life: love. With fear and shame, love can’t live—true connection isn’t possible. Becoming fully authentic is vital in order to have connection with others. As I step my toe back into Christianity, I am learning how to come to God, and to others, just as I am.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Desperate Wickedness

Jung and I: Part 2

In Part 1 I touched on the phrase “don’t take yourself too seriously,” and how my Jungian therapist turned that phrase on its head. Today I want to share how that phrase came to define my life and why it was leading me down a destructive path.

Why was this phrase so harmful for me? The reason is because I really believed it. I believed it because I was taught that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9). That concept and that theme were drilled into me at church and at school. It was foundational. Another “proof-text” that I lived by: “All our righteousness is like filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). I didn’t bother with the comparison with God’s holiness; I saw the verse and I immediately equated myself, my thoughts, and my actions as worthless and dirty. These concepts informed my own opinions of other “dangerous” philosophies and beliefs. Anything that hit on self-esteem was PRIDE. Anything that advised to look “inward” for answers was extremely dangerous—just asking for trouble not only from “the flesh” but from evil spirits.  Even though I wasn’t raised Pentecostal, I still grew up with a healthy (i.e., unhealthy) fear of the devil, of demons, and of their influence in everyday life. I was afraid of the dark. I read the popular Frank Peretti novels of the time and then hid under my covers singing praise songs to ward off evil spirits. 

These concepts of wickedness and worthlessness help account for (1) the distrust I had of myself and my own thoughts and (2) the danger I felt of trusting my own power rather than God’s. But what was “God’s power” or “Spirit” in my life, and what was my own “flesh”? What was (*shudder*) demonic influence? It all helped to form a very strong foundation of self-hatred, self-distrust, fear, and shame.

With this foundation in place, my game plan for living--as a child, teenager, and young adult--was to excel, to please authority, and to pray for God to keep me “in truth.” I made sure to get straight A's at school. I also learned how to adapt my personality in different situations in order to be accepted by others. This last bit was tempered, however, by the fear and shame. I was very easily moved to feel guilt, so “having fun” and “goofing around” were difficult for me. I was constantly haunted by my sins of commission and my sins of omission…I couldn’t keep track of them all. So I was never very popular growing up; I was never totally unpopular though, because I learned how to be nice.

I grew up in Christian schools, churches, even jobs, until I was 23 or so. That meant that my niceness was very acceptable to authority. Also, being in Christian high school and Christian college, I encountered a lot of people in the same boat as I; so, I had friends. I didn’t feel that I truly connected with them though.

There were also people, both in my Christian bubble and those I saw outside the bubble, who were “rebellious.” People who intimidated me by their apparent lack of restraint. Looking back, I remember I was fascinated by those I labeled as rebellious because they seemed so ALIVE. It was like they had an energy and a fire that drove them to laugh without shame. And let me tell you—I hated them for that. I hid it well—from myself and from others. But I longed to be like them; I just didn’t understand that yet. All I knew is that they made me feel stupid, they made me feel ashamed, and they made me feel like I was nothing.

What I know now is that this reaction had to do with my Shadow. The Shadow is a really tricky, almost slippery concept in Jungian thought. Almost transcendental.

In Part 3, I attempt to explain the Shadow concept and how it related to my own healing experience.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Andrew Marin and Living in the Tension

Perhaps you've heard the news that Andrew Marin was uninvited from a panel discussion at the UN about the international criminalization of homosexuality. That's bad news. As a gay, non-evangelical Christian with evangelical family members, I believe in what Andrew Marin (and the Marin Foundation) is trying to accomplish. I only found out about his blog and the foundation late last year, although I was vaguely aware of the "I was wrong and I'm sorry" movement. I don't know exactly what he believes regarding homosexuality, except that he believes in the worth and value of all people, and that the church has treated the LGBT community so poorly to the point that countless people have been hurt, damaged, and broken. The hopelessness and shame have even led many to suicide.

Andrew Marin and others are attempting to bridge a gap that seems impossly wide. (He could be the Don Quixote of our time in fact--dreaming the impossible dream!) That gap is streched further by hardline activists on both side of the argument.

Here's the interesting thing: I truly believe the "hardline activists" for the LGBT community--those who don't support Marin and/or have no patience for evangelicals who struggle with the issue--are also doing good work. Hear me out: if it wasn't for the loud and strident voices in support for gay rights, where would I be today as a gay man? Would it even be safe for me to live and work openly as a gay person? I don't really want them to stop doing what THEY are doing, either.

This is what makes Marin's job so incredibly difficult and noble. As the "front lines" of LGBT activism march on, there are earnestly searching people who are, in effect, left behind. People who want so bad to turn away from this notion of the gay person being "in sin," yet feel that they can't because they would be betraying their faith. Good people who go to church and wonder why God "hates" gay people but feel no hatred of their own; still, because they believe the Bible tells them so, they need to stand firm. People who are truly loving in spite of what they have been taught since infancy. It's incredibly difficult to betray a belief taught in childhood and nurtured through a lifetime. What I believe Marin is doing is creating a safe space for people who don't want to lose their faith (a faith they feel is impossible without believing an certain interpretation of the Bible) yet long to love, reach out, and understand. They are in fact desperate to love, because being a follower of Christ is counter to hate.

Perhaps even more importantly, though: Marin is reaching out to bridge this unbridgable gap to help young people who are at risk in the church. If earnest evangelical Christians are not included in the conversation, how will their LGBT children feel safe to talk about it with their parents? We don't have to agree, but we can find common ground, which could be the difference between merely a difficult adolescence and a hopeless one.
Marin and others like him "live in this tension" as he calls it. By creating this safe space, some activists see an unforgivable compromise. In reality, it is just part of the bigger picture. In the meantime, those of us who support Marin and understand what he is doing can only support, encourage, and pray for him. And we need to develop thicker skins while keeping our hearts open. Tension indeed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Taking Yourself Seriously

Jung and I: Part 1

We’ve all heard the phrase “don’t take yourself too seriously,” right? At first, it seems like reasonable (if clichéd) advice. Who wants to be around someone who exudes self-importance, self-righteousness, and has little or no sense of humor? When I hear that phrase, I hear “hey dude, lighten up!” So when I went back to therapy for the fourth (fifth? sixth?) time, and the therapist told me: "the problem is you don't take yourself seriously enough," I was more than a little skeptical.

Let me back up and provide a little more context. By this point in my life, I had come to terms with homosexuality. I had been living in Portland, OR with my partner for about 2 years or so, and I was pretty much done with God, done with the church, done with Christianity, and done with anything resembling it. Hearing church-speak or Christian code words—no matter who uttered them—filled me with anger. I was not out to my parents or any other family members (except a close cousin), and I had grown distant from them. Things were going OK with my partner, but otherwise I felt like I had no purpose; I felt like I was drifting. I didn’t like myself very much; I still felt awkward and anxious around other people. This was where I found myself when I went back to therapy.

We seemed to have a good connection, and I felt comfortable talking to him. He told me early on that he was a “Jungian” therapist. I had no idea what that meant, other than he was a follower of Carl Jung. All I knew about Carl Jung was that he was the second most famous psychologist next to Freud.

Throughout our therapy, he taught me the Jungian concept of the Shadow, which according to Jung is a part of every human being. But what I remember most and what affected me the most was this concept of taking oneself seriously; soon I would begin to understand just how crucial this concept was for my own personal healing. It was the starting point on the way to finding an authentic spirituality and reclaiming (and “redeeming”) my identity as a Christian.

In Part 2, I discuss the problem of Jeremiah 17:9 and Isaiah 64:6.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bully Dog Therapy

Amazing stuff is happening already in 2013. Momentum continues to build for the affirmation of LGBT people in the church and for marriage rights in the country. It all starts with a few brave souls coming out, and then it becomes an iterative process: people speak up, which gives more people courage to come out, which changes hearts and minds of loved ones, which creates more allies to speak up...and the cycle continues.

It's funny how sometimes there are things to celebrate in life even as other parts of life seem to go awry. Today has been crap-tacular. More to come (not today) on why; for now, all I want to do is share a pic of Archie. He's the best damn bully dog I know.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Shedding Shame

One of the many phenomena of the 21st Century social media boom is online friendships. I have a few friends on Facebook and Twitter that I have never met in person, with whom I have forged a true connection. One such friend is a man I met on an online group called Cedarville Out, which is an LGBT alumni group from Cedarville. (Not sanctioned by Cedarville, of course!)

Sad side note: Please take a minute to read about the proposal to remove the philosophy department from the school. (h/t: James McGrath)

This man who I will call Steve grew up in a very conservative Christian environment, was married shortly after graduation, and recently came out and got divorced. His experience is not uncommon; but, like all of us, his personal experience is completely unique. His ex-wife is supportive. His family, generally, is not. We connected in part because we have similar professions, we both love and own a French Bulldog, and because he is smart and funny as hell on Facebook.

We recently had an exchange over email concerning the holidays. Steve shared some of the recent struggles he's been having with his family, with the changes going on in his life due to coming out, and with life in general. Putting on my fix-it-make-it-all-better hat, I shared some of the things that have given me hope in the last few months: a new church, some progressive Christian bloggers, and Brian McLaren books, to name a few. He told me, without any rancor, that he definitely did NOT want anything to do with the church or with God right now. (I.e., Too soon, dude. Too. Soon.)

It hit me then: duh...that's how I've felt for the last 15 years. Throughout those years, slowly but surely, my spiritual "trajectory" was radically changed. The trajectory went, not just in a new direction, but in a new dimension from the one I was on before.

The trajectory included a time of anger, yes, but it also included a time of profound relief. Relief that I no longer felt shame for being gay--for being Kevin. I went through a long process of shedding my Christian skin...deep enough that I was shedding even my identity as a Christian. And it felt sooooo good. It felt like I was finally becoming real...Velveteen Rabbit! (...apologies to Maria Bamford). I've never felt so much peace! This place was my "rock bottom," and from where I've been buidling ever since. And rock makes a good foundation, no?

Happy side note: Does this analogy remind anyone else of the dragon and Edmund in one of C.S. Lewis' Chronicals of Narnia? I forget which book contains the scene...but it puts the analogy in a new perspective!

So...Steve...where you are right now is a great place to be. I hope you are able to feel some of that same peace from having shed (and continuing to shed) all that shame, and you continue to realize that you are good and worthy, and that you do not deserve rejection from your family or from anyone.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Christian Agnosticism

Being a gay Christian is like a piece of legislation grudgingly passed by the House of Representatives and grudgingly signed by President Obama. Both sides see too many fundamental flaws for it to be considered worthwhile. Some see it as dangerous, harmful, and a slippery slope to the other side.

I identified as a Christian (at 5 yrs old) long before I identified as gay (realized I was gay about 10, didn't identify as such until 19 or so...but boy oh boy THAT is another story...). However I’m much more confident and secure in my “gay-ness” (ha) than I am in my Christianity. That is why these days I choose to label myself a Christian agnostic. What does that mean exactly? Being a technical writer by trade, I will use bullet points to explain:
  • Even if the Bible is inerrant (and I have serious doubts about that – see anything written by Bart Ehrman), most of it has been grossly misinterpreted and abused in order to wield power over others
  • Nevertheless, I believe the Bible is an incredibly useful book when taken in historical and literary context
  • IF it is true that God requires holiness and perfection, then my only hope is that Christ’s death and resurrection covers that for me
  • I don’t believe in a literal hell in the sense that I don’t believe God sends people he created to a place of eternal torment – if a hell like this does exist, I don’t want to have anything to do with God
  • I believe that loving and seeking connection with other human beings, NOT as a means to an end (thank you Andrew Marin), is the ultimate purpose in life
  • I believe truly following Christ and his teachings brings a lot of personal fulfillment, difficulty, joy, and pain
  • I do not believe in proselytizing in regards to theological dogma – I believe in loving people where they are, and sharing my journey (if asked) – I believe in listening to others and learning from them
  • I don’t know 100% for sure if God exists, and if God exists, what exact form he or she has. I choose to relate to God through Jesus and through a Christianity based on loving people. Whether the person is an athiest or a fundamentalist doesn't matter. (Side note: in general I find it much easier to get along with athiests than I do with Christians. The athiests I know have better things to do than try to convince me that there is no God. And they appreciate that I don't ever try to convince them to my specific thoughts and opinions about God.)
  • I fail at loving people almost constantly
This is a snapshot of my spiritual journey today. What about you?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Compromise (ugh)

I've been pondering the word compromise lately. Truly, it is a word that our culture despises. Compromise seems to imply giving up in the sense that (a) we give up something in order to “get along with” or “move forward with” someone else, and (b) we quit fighting and bow to another’s wishes or demands. We give up. We quit. We lose. And in our heated, competitive culture, losing is not an option.

I’ve been reflecting on that word; looking at the history of the word. I plan to write a future post reflecting further on this word and what it really means, and what it can mean. For now I want to share a related anecdote. Yesterday I responded to commenter on a post by Rachel Held Evans about Louis Giglio. It was a civil exchange; someone asked a question and I provided my own experience as an example to answer the question.  Then another commenter wrote a response to me: 
Just want to say how much I appreciate that maturity. I can't begin to imagine what you have gone through. While I believe gay sex is sin and therefore wish that you had chosen a different lifestyle (I'm probably assuming a lot here) I believe that if you are prayerfully making your choices in good conscience I will have the privilege of seeing you in heaven where we will get all of this sorted out!
Let me share with you my first, visceral reaction to this comment: I saw the word “lifestyle” and I immediately got angry. I couldn’t see the rest of the comment after I read that word. What, do you mean my lifestyle of getting up in the morning, going to work, eating, drinking, sleeping, looking for happiness, and trying to be a good person? I didn’t respond right away. I took a deep breath and just let it sit. This person did compliment me on my “maturity” after all, so I hung on to that.

Then, in the next 5-10 seconds, when I stopped reading and just skimmed the rest of the comment. My mind interpreted the comment to read: “if you prayerfully consider changing, then I’m sure to see you in heaven!” RWOAR! Shoopy angry! Shoopy smash! I still didn't respond.

But a funny thing happened. I re-read the comment myself this morning, more carefully. It was much more graceful than I remembered. Even the phrase I was angry about (“wish that you had chosen a different lifestyle”), the commenter self-corrected and admitted “I’m probably assuming a lot here”.

The point is, when I let my initial visceral reaction just sit for a little while, and came back to the comment and really read it…I realized this person was trying to reach out. This person was trying to engage without “losing” their own convictions or identity. They were, in fact, trying to compromise. (If you are having trouble seeing this interpretation, read the comment again, and imagine that you have grown up being taught that being gay is the worst sin against God and against human nature. Having grown up in that culture, I know what it means to even begin to engage the thought that homosexuals might not be damaged, sinful people.) Maybe instead of losing, quitting, or giving up, compromise can simply mean having an open heart.

I’m still wrestling with the concept, and perhaps “compromise” is the wrong word to use. But I still plan to reflect on the word and maybe even try to redeem the word from its more sinister meanings.

Friday, January 11, 2013

American Division

One thing that causes me chronic low-grade anxiety is that the U.S. is so divided in opinion and vision. Hostility and fear undercut any attempt to come together to find common ground. I have had a vague sense that this division has always been true in my country, but not until I started to read American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America did the reasons become clearer. I'm only half-way through, but it has been extremely illuminating so far--providing context to all the outrage that permeates American politics and culture wars. Highly recommended for those who enjoy history or who are just tired of political shouting matches (T.V., radio, social media) where the only objective is to win the argument.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Louis Giglio Conundrum

Today a Christian activist against human trafficking (Louis Giglio), who was invited to lead a prayer at Obama’s 2nd inauguration, is removing himself from the program. (h/t Robert Davis). Why? His LGBT views. He is against same-sex marriage and believes that homosexual people are broken, needing therapy of the “ex-gay” variety. I am not sure if he holds to these exact views today, but he released a statement that he does not want to be the cause of others with another “agenda” to take the focus off a day of unity. I am really torn about this. I am a gay Christian, and I certainly do not agree with his views on homosexuality. However, does that negate the good work he does prevent unspeakable human atrocities? In comparison, me not having the liberty to marry my partner in the eyes of the federal government seems well, petty, compared to those who are sold into slavery.

I don’t know much at all about Louis Giglio, about his effectiveness as an advocate, his other beliefs, etc. The fear I have is that the people who are in this horrible, horrible system will not get the attention they need simply because an advocate of theirs who was initially given this huge platform is now leaving that platform because of his views on the LGBT community. Of course, him removing himself from the ceremony is different than specifically being removed. I'm sure he wasn’t encouraged NOT to remove himself (he may have been strongly encouraged to do so). All in all, the perspective seems very “off” to me. It leaves a bad taste. What do you think?