Friday, March 29, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 8:1-17

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

Summary of Matthew 8:1-17
Jesus heals many people physically, including those with "evil spirits."

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 8:1-17
I have to admit that even though I enjoyed reading and thinking about the Kingdom of God principles in Matt 5-7, I'm really struggling with this chapter. I feel like I'm missing needed context. Matthew (or whomever) wrote these words almost 2,000 years ago. Today, our society is vastly different than in Jesus' time; we know so much more about science and disease, for example. What meaning can be gleaned from a book with such a convuluted history of assembly and publication? This project has given me a new admiration for theologians who study not only the text (and often in the original language), but also consider the historical, cultural, and political contexts of the day. If anything, this project has sparked my interest in people who have studied and written on these topics before.

So I come to this text now feeling very unprepared, but also very skeptical. In the last verse of this particular passage (vs. 17), Matthew continues his major theme of attempting to prove that Jesus is the Jewish messiah.
"Just as the prophet Isaiah had said, 'He healed our diseases and made us well.'"
This verse is meant to be a bit of bombshell. Matthew sets it up in the previous verses by describing different times that Jesus healed people physically. Not only does he want his readers to be amazed at Jesus' miraculous deeds, he wants them to know that this is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy about the messiah.

In verses 1-4, Jesus heals a leper. He asks the leper not to tell anyone about the occurrence, but to present himself to the priest (along with a gift according to Moses' law) in order to be declared fit for society again. Two points stand out here:

  1. Not telling anyone of the healing is consistent with the theme of Jesus' teachings in the last few chapters (not boasting of your religiosity around town).
  2. Jesus gives the healed man very specific instructions in accordance with Jewish law. Matthew again seems to be forcing his major theme of Jewish messiah down the readers' throats.
The next healing anecdote told by Matthew has a bit more detail. An officer of the (Roman?) army asks Jesus to heal his servant. Matthew describes the officer as someone with great empathy for the pain his servant is experiencing. The officer also feels that he is unworthy for Jesus to come to his home, but asks Jesus to just "give the order" for healing and it will occur. (Matthew says that the servant was healed immediately.)

Jesus is suprised at the officer's great faith, and tells his followers that many people like the officer will come from far and wide to experience the kingdom of heaven. However, many who SHOULD have experienced it will be "thrown out into the dark. They will cry and grit their teeth in pain." I think Matthew is implying here that God's chosen people have rejected God's chosen messiah, and therefore have been rejected by God. Again, he is trying to convince his audience to accept Jesus as messiah. Perhaps that is also why he describes the character of the army officer in such glowing terms, as one who has absolute faith in the authority and power of Jesus--to goad his Jewish readers.

A side question: is Jesus referring to "hell" in verse 12? Here is where cultural context would be helpful. Was Matthew/Jesus using the terms, metaphors, and beliefs of the day? Or is he implying a literal truth? I don't know! Hope it's the first one!

Finally, Matthew briefly tells of Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, who then "got up and served Jesus a meal." Wow, how many sermons have been preached to women about THAT little anecdote! Then that evening, many people "with demons" came to Jesus and were healed by him. Assuming these miracles did take place, doesn't it seem more likely that the diseases the people had were natural diseases and not evil spirits? But frankly, evil spirits are mentioned quite a bit throughout the gospels. Jesus and the demons actually talk to each other sometimes.

Perhaps you can relate to my frustration and confusion with this passage, and with the Bible in general for that matter. I think many people tend to forget, including me, that the Bible is an ancient text. The customs, beliefs, politics, and understanding of the world were so much different back then. Filtering through all the biases and aims of the author, as well as the historical and culture context of the time, what are we left with? Right now, I'm just not sure.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


When I was a sophomore at Tulsa Christian High School, I sang with a music ensemble made up of approximately 16 students. Before practicing something new, the ensemble director would explain the spiritual and Biblical significance of the song. Once, related to a new song she had chosen (I don’t remember the title), she asked the group a question:
"Why are you a Christian?"
You can imagine the kind of answers given by the students in this fundamentalist Christian school:

  • "Because I love Jesus and he has done so much for me!"
  • "Because God is the creator of the universe."
  • "Because I owe God so much."
  • "Because it glorifies God, which is why he created us."

I’ll never forget one guy, a senior, who answered this way:
"'Cause I don’t wanna burn!"
The pious director frowned. Everyone harrumphed. That was NOT one of the acceptable answers. But holy shit: if we were being honest, that WAS the answer!!

Even though, today, I do not believe such a hell exists, the fear of eternal hell still lingers. Recently, I’ve been struggling with that question: why am I a Christian? Is it only because of this lingering hell-fear? The answer is complicated, and it also depends on what one means by "Christian"! The truth is: I have anxiety around being a Christian and around not being a Christian.

Let me first explain why I have anxiety around being a Christian. First and foremost, the language, culture, theology, and politics of the Christianity I grew up with brought me nothing but shame and fear. Even though today I belong to a church that doesn’t buy into these concepts, I still tend to associate church with the past. Simply sitting in church can trigger those familiar, negative feelings.

The “Christian life” to me meant dogged obedience to vague commands, appeasing a hyper-sensitive and angry God (who, alternatively, would be heart-broken or wrathful at sin), and constant fear of “losing fellowship with God.” (What did that mean exactly? Hell? If I had unconfessed sin during communion, would that negate my fire insurance? They were never clear on this part of theology, which was convenient for those in authority wanting more control over their flock!).

Secondly, try as I might, I just cannot wrap my head around some of the basic tenants of Christianity. Jesus’ teachings make sense to me, as does the Bible when taken as myth and metaphor. But many, MANY of the things that are primary to the theology of the New Testament, including the literal resurrection of Christ, do not make sense to me.

Looking at history from a bird-eye’s view, what outcomes can be seen by the spread of Christianity? To name a few: The Crusades, torture, violence, horror, oppression, and corruption. It can be argued that these things are realities because of sin nature and because human beings have used the Bible for their own evil devises. But today I had a blasphemous thought: what if the writers of New Testament, having gotten further from Jesus’ main teachings, themselves missed the point of Jesus? How much written about Jesus himself was contrived in order to match Old Testament prophesy and the political and conventional wisdom of the day? At least his messages of love and the “Kingdom of God” were captured. But then again, was that what he really taught? Could Jesus be a Shakespeare-like conspiracy? Was Jesus a good man, yet his teachings and deeds blown way out of proportion to match the myth that was slowly (and perhaps unintentionally) being developed? These are the questions we are taught to never ask, let alone allow ourselves to think. But these are the questions I have. These are the questions that make it hard for me to call myself a Christian.

There is a third reason: the problem of evil, which is similar to the hell problem. If God is omnipotent and loving, why the constant pain and horror on earth? Why are some of us born into comfortable and loving homes, and others born into poverty and violence? The reality of the state of the world must be a part of my own understanding of Christianity. And currently, I don't know how to integrate it.

Even so, while it is hard for me to call myself a Christian, it is just as hard for me to reject Christianity entirely. I don’t want to turn my back on it because I could be missing out on something very profound and meaningful. My partner puts it this way (I'm paraphrasing): it is remarkable how religions over history have picked up on common themes, leading one to believe that there are some universal truths that these religions are uncovering. Another wise person (an Episcopal minister) told me that she is a Christian because that is the most culturally relevant way to try to relate to God, whoever God may be. If she were born in India, she would probably be a Hindu. If born in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim. As an American and one who studied Christian theology in seminary, she felt that the Christian identity was so ingrained in her DNA that it would be too difficult to follow another religious path. (She came to this belief after many years in the ministry.)

Taking other religions and universal truth out of the equation, I don’t want to miss out of the relationships I’ve made with other people who are also struggling with the concept of Christianity, the person of Christ, and the identity of God. I don’t want to miss out on trying to learn and live the Jesus way and the Kingdom life. I actually WOULD like the Kingdom of God (as the book of Matthew describes it) to be a reality in me. What I DON’T want is to become is a robot programmed in the language of fear and shame: lacking humor, true emotions, and my own humanity.

Writing all this down, I still have those voices in my head telling me that the path I’m on is dangerous. The voices say things like this:

  • "Jesus is the ONLY way, and you are now merely a worldly Universalist."
  • "Hell is REAL. What you believe now is NOT what the Bible says."
  • "God is going to spew you out of his mouth because you are so lukewarm." (Um, gross.)
  • "Paul predicted that in the end times people would take some parts of the true gospel but deny other parts. You are fashioning such a view of Christianity and that is extremely dangerous."
  • "Other religions are a deception of Satan."
  • "Unless you admit your acts of homosexuality are sin, you are going to hell."

These are the voices I do battle with every day.

I think Christianity has merit. I think Christ provides an excellent example to follow. The only Christianity I can hold onto, however, is one that discounts the dogma that is taught in most Christian churches today. Which means that most people who label themselves Christians do not think I’m a Christian at all, but a heretic. At least that doesn’t cause me any anxiety!

What are your thoughts on all this? Do you call yourself a Christian?

Monday, March 18, 2013

For the Fighters

I’ve been struggling lately to understand LGBTQ individuals who feel compelled to either fight against their gender/sexual identity (a la Christy McFerren) or choose to remain celibate (a la Wesley Hill), because expressing it within a relationship would be sinful.

Maybe "understand" is not the correct word, because I actually DO understand why someone who grew up in a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian environment would fight. I fought against this identity for many years before finally giving up the fight and accepting myself as an unbroken gay man. If I was broken, it was because of perpetual shame and (in order to cope) living in a closet of my own making. So I DO understand why there are people who are putting themselves through this emotional turmoil; it just makes me sad and angry that they feel they need to go through it.

In the article The F Word on the Red Letter Christians site (h/t Micah Bales), the author (who remains anonymous) explains what it is like to both (a) accept the reality of one’s identity and (b) choose to remain celibate as an act of obedience to God. The author describes a horribly abusive childhood home. At 14 years old, he realizes that he is gay; fortunately, a high school counselor "sympathized and explained that there were other people out there" like him.

The first week of College, he became a Christian. Instead of acceptance, he found the need to hide his orientation from his new Christian friends:

"In the college Christian group I was a part of, there were great people, but a large majority of them used the words homo, queer, and faggot. I was in some deep trouble. I had to hide the fact that I was gay. I mean, who could I tell?"
He remains closeted today, and celibate. He may believe it is the best path for him (and even for others for that matter), but he makes it clear he is not looking for an "atta boy" from commenters:
"Now, just so we’re clear: I’m celibate. I’m not planning on having a relationship. You might be thinking, 'Oh, good. You’re one of us.' Afraid not {emphasis mine}. And so we don’t get into a political quagmire that this blog isn’t designed to function for, I won’t get into the reasons why."
But near the end of the article comes the saddest paragraph I’ve read in quite some time:
"And I’d burn every earthly possession I have, empty my bank accounts, quit my job, and terminate every relationship I have for a pill to change over—in a heartbeat—I’d walk away from that pyre buck-naked, unemployed, broke, but straight."
This is so incredibly sad; unfortunately, I have been there. You know what's even sadder? This exact attitude is what many Christians want to hear before they are willing to accept someone as a true Christian. In the comments under the linked article, there are some who give the author an "atta boy" – not only for his stance on celibacy but for his attitude toward his identity. Other commenters are encouraging the author that he is not broken and that he is loved fully as a gay man, celibate or not.

Here’s the dilemma: while I believe that the author’s attitude toward his own identity is very damaging, I also want to honor his story and his journey. In my own journey, I went from (1) fighting against my orientation to (2) accepting my orientation but wishing to remain celibate to (3) extreme anger at being taught that my identity was wrong and sinful. I still struggle with that anger today, especially reading articles like this one. While I was in stages (1) and (2), however, I remember being frustrated by those who were telling me what I believe today: that God accepts me and created me as I am. I felt like they were endangering my identity as a Christian! I felt that if I gave up the fight for change or for celibacy, I would be rebelling against God and therefore God would not accept me. It’s an insidious position to be in!

So how does one talk to someone in stages (1) or (2)? The frustrating thing is that I’m not sure. I’m thankful that more and more Christians are realizing the damage that this obsession with sexual orientation is doing to people. I’m thankful that people like Justin Lee are becoming visible and able to share their stories. The best we can do is to love these fellow strugglers as best as we can; if you have such a friend or family member, by all means continue the relationship. It’s very possible that they will distance yourself from you, because they are fearful of giving up their fight. All I can say is: don’t give up on them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter! Share in the comments, or if you are having trouble you can always Tweet me or leave on comment on my Facebook page.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 7

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

Late last week I published a number of posts. I couldn’t get the words out fast enough! However, in doing so I think I burnt out the blog-writing node of my brain. Today, purely out of a desire to be disciplined in writing, I dive back into the book of Matthew. (In other words, I’m in no mood to write today but I’m doing it anyway.)

Summary of Matthew 7
Do not condemn others, but be aware of the deeds (and consequences) of false prophets. Living the kingdom life is hard, but the Father responds to those who ask and search for it. Your life’s foundation is solid when you follow the principles of God’s kingdom.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 7
Jesus tells his listeners not to condemn others, because God “will treat you exactly as you treat them.” He equates condemning someone with trying to remove a speck from someone’s eye when you have a log in your own eye. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the eye as the basis of this metaphor: noticing the “log” in one’s own eye takes a great deal of humility and self-reflection. It is a lifelong process. Kingdom-living includes having a pure heart (5:8), and it’s no coincidence that the result of having a pure heart is that they will see God.

The “do not condemn” verses are some of the most overused, proof-texted verses in the entire Bible. Many use these verses as a shield against any type of criticism. But throughout this sermon, Jesus has a LOT to say about the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day. In fact, Jesus warns his followers to be very aware of false prophets, and that one can tell false prophets by their deeds (vs. 20). It isn’t too difficult to see the damage that has been wrought in the name of Christianity: spiritual and sexual abuse, corrupt political coalitions, gender and racial inequality, the oppression of the poor (and the rise of expensive mega-churches), and the continuous amoeba-like splitting of denominations and sects, just to name a few.

The question I ask myself then is: am I condemning these people, going against what Jesus teaches? I can see the “bad fruit” (vs. 17-19), and Jesus tells his followers to watch out for those that produce these consequences. If I’m honest, there is definitely a tension between these two sets of verses. I know that people have condemned ME in the past for a variety of reasons. But I think it’s important to call out “false prophets” when their deeds/bad fruit are obvious, such as those I listed in the previous paragraph. But what about individuals we know and love? What about those we run across in day-to-day life or even encounter online? In these instances, with individuals, Jesus' message of “do not condemn” becomes clearer. We don’t know everyone’s story, background, challenges, hurts, trigger points, or the specific point they are in their life’s journey. It’s a wretched thing to be shamed or accused of being a “bad person.”

It’s also kind of interesting that Jesus refers to the speck in your friend’s eye. We can only see clear to help a friend when we have a continuous spirit of self-reflection, humility, and love. Relationship is vital!

And look! Look what’s there in verse 12! The Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. This is what the Law and the prophets are all about. That statement is crazily profound. I know that I don’t want to be condemned for the long, arduous journey I’ve taken as a gay man navigating the mysterious nature of life and God. But I would want others to defend me and stand up for me against the power structures that exist today, whether these structures are religious or political (or a combination of both). Furthermore, as someone who does have a certain amount of power (white male American citizen), I appreciate the opportunity to understand how I can support others who are more oppressed, and even how my action or inaction might be part of the problem. Of course I don’t enjoy hearing that, but it makes it easier to hear when it’s coming from a friend or at least from someone who I know is trustworthy. Perhaps this is where vs. 6 comes into play: do not throw your pearls before swine. Interestingly, this verse comes right after the “do not condemn” verses. That is, if you are speaking truth to someone with a loving intent and a pure heart (very hard to do!), make sure that the person is in a place where they can listen. Better yet: someone who trusts you/is a friend.

I’ve skipped around a bit because of the interesting tension between verses 1-6, 12, and 15-20. Let’s look next at the verses I skipped. First, vs. 7-11: these verses are very encouraging to me, because Jesus reassures his listeners that if they will search for the truth, if they ask for it, they will receive it. Continuous self-examination and living out the kingdom life is difficult and can be very discouraging. But there’s no better foundation for life (vs. 24-25) and in fact is life. In vs. 13-14, Jesus talks of the narrow gate leading to life and the wide gate leading to destruction. The narrow gate is living as a member of God’s kingdom: it goes against the conventional wisdom of the day, even (especially?) the conventional wisdom of the typical American church. Following the Jesus way leads to LIFE, to meaning and fulfillment. I truly think this is the reward that Jesus talks about throughout his sermon.

Close to the end of the sermon, Jesus gives a dire warning. Vs. 21-23 is a favorite passage of pastors that like to use to scare their followers to obedience. However, can it be that he is talking mostly to those types of pastors? With all that Jesus has preached in the last three chapters, with the contrasts he’s given between kingdom life and what the religious leaders of the day taught, I’d say it was very likely.

In conclusion, Jesus says that those who follow these principles are wise and have a strong foundation for life; those who don’t will lack this foundation. Matthew remarks after the sermon is complete that the people who listened were surprised at his teaching, and that he taught with “authority” and “not like their teachers…” Again, we see the contrast of Jesus with the religious leaders of the day.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Importance of Allies

Yesterday reminded me of the vital importance of straight allies, especially when standing up against the homophobic culture of the church. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to those of you who responded to the article I linked to yesterday.

Today what bothers me most are the 100+ plus comments on her article affirming not just her story, but her assumptions and conclusions. Paul, a commenter, puts it this way: her conclusions “reinforce the wall around the sheep.” I fear that many will use her story as proof that homosexuality is a choice; parents can point to her as an example to shame their kids into “fighting” against their sexual identity. The ones who suffer the most are LGBT youth growing up in those types of churches and family dynamics.

This is why straight allies are so important. We need more people to push back against this mentality, especially in the church. Not to question someone’s story and experiences, but to challenge the notion that this experience can and should be the norm for others. To challenge those who are looking for even the smallest "proof" to validate their own ignorance about LGBTQ people.

Yesterday reminded me of something else, too. I want to be an ally to others who also suffer oppression at the hands of the world (and, so sadly, the church), but who aren’t necessarily in my demographic. This calling is how Christianity makes sense to me. Following Jesus means dying to self (i.e., my own privilege) and standing up for those who are seen as “less” in our society.

Once again, my deepest thanks for those of you who helped stand up against oppression yesterday. I pray I recognize the opportunities to do the same.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Response to Christy McFerren

Christy McFerren is a blogger and author who claims that her same-sex attraction has "ended," but not without a fight. She has a book out called First Steps Out, with the subtitle How Christians Can Respond to a Loved One's Stuggle with Homosexuality. I have only come across her writing today, in the Prodigal Magazine article: On Homosexuality: It's OK to Fight (published in late August of 2012).

You really need to read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:
During my struggle, I was at times almost overwhelmed by a relentless, internal pressure to make a decision that would define me in the long term. I contemplated “coming out,” not because I was suddenly proud of it, but because I was tired of fighting… particularly after a failure. I was exhausted and humiliated. I wanted to disappear; not confess to loss again. Pride’s temptation to turn struggle into statement, wrong into right, was intense. In these moments, depression weighed heavily on me. Vision for life faded in and out, like a boxer reeling from blows to the head. But I just wouldn’t lay down on the mat and quit. It felt too much like making a deal with the devil. I knew the pressure to come out was a demand for my agreement with darkness, and would turn my heart to enmity with God.
Honestly, I am at a loss on how to respond. The article has so many assumptions about who God is, what Truth is, how God feels about homosexuality, that it's actually fairly pointless to debate the subject with her. Plus, this is her story, and there is truth to that. However, I did feel the need to leave a comment. Here's what I wrote:
Hi Christy, first I want to say that I respect your story and your journey. Being a gay person (or someone you would probably prefer to call "person struggling with same-sex attraction"), I have to admit that my reaction to your post is sadness. More than sadness, I feel anger. I don't want you to feel "attacked" personally because I know that each person's journey is their own. I just want to let you know that the assumptions you make about God and about homosexuality are ones that I categorically reject. I also believe that the assumptions you make about God and about homosexuality will cause harm to LGBT youth, especially in the church. I have no doubt you have a heart that desperately wants truth and longs to please God. But you must consider that there is a considerable amount of doubt regarding this issue, even just theologically speaking. (Let alone scientifically.) Homosexuality is NOT a choice. To say so is incredibly misleading and incredibly damaging to LGBT folks. You chose a path of fighting against your sexual identity; you did not choose homosexuality in the first place. I hope that as you share your story and your meet other people, your mind will change regarding God's heart toward his LGBT children. God loves you no more and no less because you used an iron will to fight your identity. I know I won't change your mind, but I felt I must speak up. Again, your story is personal and in no way do I wish to disparage your story nor your heart. Please don't disparage my story and my heart and other LGBT individuals and families by making broad assumptions that God is displeased with us.
Christy responded to me in the comments section of her article:
Hi Kevin, I respect your story and your position. At no point did I make any assumption or indicate in any way God is displeased with you. However, I will tell my story with the same conviction you tell yours, because there are those who wish to fight, as I did. It is not for you to determine whether that will harm them; it is THEIR choice, after all, not yours, or that of the LGBT community. People need to be told it's Ok to fight if they desire to, and you won't be able to silence that message on the basis of any emotions, fears, or postulations of harmfulness, which as you say, cannot be proven. You must respect my freedom and the freedom of the many who wish to align with traditional theological interpretations to fight their homosexuality according to their convictions. I speak no condemnation to those who wish not to fight, and want to be at peace with their decision to align more with a theology like that of Justin Lee. My heart is not that we judge or condemn it as sin, it's that we continue to offer options regarding people's sexuality. Hope that makes sense and thanks for taking the time to tell your story. Christy
I responded back to Christy:
I understand, Christy. I disagree with you about what you present in your article regarding assumptions about God. It is crystal clear from your article that you believe homosexuality is a sin, so there is no need to try to sugarcoat that or step away from your position. Sin displeases God. In your eyes, I am a sinner because I "choose" to live a "homosexual lifestyle." We all have the freedom to believe what we want and say what we think is right--but this does not come without consequence. I DO agree with you, however, that it is ultimately up to the individual to decide whether to fight against it or not. In no way do I want to "silence" your story nor your point of view. However, rest assured, I will be speaking up loudly, clearly, and with conviction my own position, just as much as you intend to do with yours. People also need to be told that God loves them. This is NOT a choice. Having said all this, I do sincerely wish you the best in your personal, professional, and spiritual life.
Let me ask you, dear reader: what is your response? If you met her or someone who believed similarly, what would you say? I invite you to leave a comment here, or at the original article.

Behind the Bingo Card

"If you have to explain the joke, life’s just not worth living” – Stanley from Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist

We all have family dynamics which we learned to navigate as a child. (Too often, children are required to navigate abuse and neglect in order to survive.) I was lucky enough to grow up in a loving family, but we had our share of dysfunction. For example, most of the men in my family have great difficulty expressing any type of strong emotion. As a child, I inferred from this behavior that it wasn’t appropriate to have, let alone express, these emotions, especially as a male. My Dad, uncles, cousins, and grandfather are ALL known as laid-back with a great sense of humor. Both of these characteristics are valued highly in the men of the Shoop tribe.

Through reading, counseling, and general life experience, I’ve learned that the strong emotions I wasn’t supposed to feel were relegated to my Shadow. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that a major theme is the integration of the Shadow to consciousness, therefore becoming more whole. I still use the coping mechanism of humor when things get “too heavy.” But when I’m paying attention (i.e., taking myself seriously), I’m able to express/enjoy the humor AND try to understand what’s behind it.

All this to say: there was a lot going on behind the development of the Progressive Christian Bingo card I posted yesterday. To date, it is the most-viewed post I’ve ever published. It was meant as a good-natured ribbing toward the bloggers I’ve read over the past 4-5 months; the writers who make me laugh, make me cry, and make me angry; the writers who challenge me to write (and to live) more deeply, more authentically, and more richly; the writers who make me ask more questions.

Bloggers: even though I “agree” with what you write much more often than not, sometimes I get really angry, sad, confused, and frustrated reading what you have to say, both on your blogs and on Twitter. So in all honesty, the card was a bit of an expression of those emotions, too.

I feel uncomfortable not only with the topics covered in these blogs (which is a good thing!), but also with how groups in general tend to use the same words and phrases over and over again until they lose their meaning, especially to people outside the group. This phenomenon can be seen in evangelical culture, the broader Christian culture, conservative culture, liberal culture, etc. Every sub-culture has specific language, rhetoric, and unspoken rules. This truly doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but I need to remember when I use these words, I’m using them in a way that communicates the precise concept/value/opinion that I am trying to communicate. If I misunderstand the word or concept, I could use it in the wrong context and possibly communicate the opposite of what I’m trying to say. If necessary, I must define or redefine terms (or use different terms) for the purpose of communicating a specific idea. Finally, I need to recognize if these terms are code and/or triggers that can turn a healthy dialogue into defensive, yelling competitions that damage relationships.

My “readership” is quite small, but I was still a bit nervous to post the bingo card. Will someone stumble upon it and be offended? Will I be held up as an example of ignorance, of going too far, of white male privilege run amok? Thankfully that hasn’t happened. (Yet!)

What I’m trying to say is the bingo card was an expression of strong emotion around both the concepts I’ve been reading about lately and the words that are used to represent these concepts. Humor is how I’ve learned to cope with the junk rattling noisily inside my head. (In fact, using the Dr. Katz quote at the beginning of this post is an expression of the emotions I’m feeling about this post!) The challenge now is going beyond the initial expression and understanding more of what’s behind it. These topics and these words make me uncomfortable. That’s a good sign! It means both the concepts and the emotions around them are primed and ready to be wrestled with, understood more deeply, and integrated.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Progressive Christian Bingo

Gospel Blog: Matthew 6:16-34

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

Summary of Matthew 6:16-34
Jesus continues the theme of serving the Father with a pure heart (with a focus toward "heavenly" rewards) rather than for fame and other earthly rewards.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 6:16-34
Very recently, a famous pastor tweeted the following:
"A young girl in our church recently counted every time I said the name 'Jesus' in a sermon. She reported it was 67, not including the opening and closing prayers. I love my 'job.'."
For those of you who have been reading these gospel blog entries: can there be a better example of what Jesus was telling his followers NOT to do? Before, I would have been hesitant to call someone out like this, fearing it would be judgmental or disrespectful. However, reading these few chapters, Jesus challenges and sternly lectures the religious leaders of the day about their hypocricy. In fact, he uses these men as the primary contrast point in this sermon. The wonderful Stephanie Drury, responding to this particular tweet, puts it this way:
"The logic seems to be that if you say 'Jesus' a lot it means your sermon is extra-infused with Jesusness. But Jesus told the Pharisees their longwindedness and showing off their knowledge of the Torah was utter wankery and was all the reward they were going to get."
Can I get an Amen!

NOTE: Looking ahead, I see that chapter 7 begins with 'Don't condemn others and God won't condemn you.' I condemning this pastor for his tweet? I'm going to save this little gem until next time. Cliffhanger!

Back to the text. Jesus tells his followers how to fast, just as he told how them to pray: secretly. He goes so far as to advise them to give the appearance of not fasting. The reward achieved by fasting (enlightenment? more connection with the Father?) is diluted if it is done to get attention and affirmation from others. As a sort of conclusion to the prayer and fasting bits, Jesus tells the crowd to store their treasures in heaven, not on earth.

All these themes of kingdom living continue to strike me as beautiful (even if impossible). The ethic is both others-centric and God-centric, yet these two concepts are unified so closely that you cannot help but follow one of these without following the other automatically.

The next verses, 22-24, are fascinating. Jesus tells the crowd that the eyes are a window to the soul. I can't help but think of those in our culture who are dead-eyed despite the smiles plastered on their faces. From reality-TV stars to celebrity pastors, what these dead-eyed folks have in common is that they are striving for treasures on earth. Fame. Affirmation. Attention. Power. Control. Money.

Let me take a step back and confess my own shortcomings. I long for ALL of those things. I can get especially desperate for affirmation and attention. (Just ask my partner!) But rather than using these standards of kingdom living to judge ourselves and others, perhaps it is a tool to help us measure where we need the most help. And by "help" I don't mean behavior modification. Maybe this is where the concept of "repentance" comes in? We see where we lack, we admit it freely, and we ask for help. NOT so that God will make us "better Christians" (whatever that means). But that our lives will have more meaning. So that we can actually be light and salt to the world. So that we can be people defined by our love and connection, rather than defined by our pride and our victories in spiritual competition. Our eyes can't help but shine brightly when we have meaning, love, and connection! These gifts MUST be at least a portion of the "reward" that Jesus keeps talking about throughout his sermon.

The chapter concludes with Jesus telling his followers not to worry about normal, day-to-day needs, such as food, water, and clothing. With the context of everything Jesus has said in his sermon so far (treasures in heaven vs. treasures on earth), it makes sense for him to pivot to talk about what this might mean for mundane, day-to-day life.

I am disappointed with this portion of his sermon, however. Sure, the birds and the flowers thrive and are beautifully adorned. But there's a shitload of horrible stuff happening in the world. Millions upon millions DON'T have enough to eat or drink. Evil and famine and injustice permeate our planet. Jesus says in verse 33 to "put God's work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well." This verse is more familiar as "seek first the kingdom of God...." So, is this REALLY true?

I'm seriously struggling with these verses (25-34). Perhaps these words shouldn't be taken as a literal "if-then" promise. Perhaps they only "work" if we apply them to ourselves and not projecting them onto others. Perhaps it is simply another principle to follow. It's moments like these when I remember why I don't really believe the Bible (at least as we have it today) is the "inerrant word of God." Surely our interpretations are far from inerrant. My experience with the world runs counter to what's written here. Once again, I don't have the answers, nor do I know the reasons why. But that's OK.

Monday, March 4, 2013


TW: Abuse, Depression, Suicide

It was the summer between my 4th and 5th grade year that I first felt depressed. I don't know why I felt depressed that day, but I vividly remember the feeling. I was in the shower, and this wave of hopelessness and despair just kind of washed over me. It didn't make me want to cry; I just remember that I had to reach out to steady myself on the wet tiles. I felt a heaviness that made me want to shrink inward.

I've had episodes like this ever since, to varying degrees and lasting anywhere from a day to 5-6 months. My depression has never been what I would call extreme. On a scale of severity from 1-10, I've never experienced anything beyond an 8 out of 10. (10 being so much pain that the only relief is suicide; 9 being a depression so crippling you cannot get out of bed or move.)

There are many reasons why I get depressed, including (but not limited to):

  • Brain Chemistry
  • Sustained Shame About My Sexuality
  • Aging and Body Shame
  • Spiritual Confusion and Panic
  • Hyper-Sensitivity and Social Anxiety
  • The (Age-Old) Problem of Evil in the Universe
  • *NEW!* Privilege Distress

NOTE: I plan to talk about my own recent experiences with privilege distress, and why it is a natural feeling to have when emerging from one's cocoon, in an upcoming post. Hold me to it!

My own experience with depression involves transforming any negative emotion into an emotion with which I am more familiar. For example, if I experience anger with someone or at a situation, I don't know what to do with that anger. I immediately become afraid of the emotion. Instead of focusing that anger outward, I direct it inward:

You're a stupid, lazy asshole anyway, Kevin, so why be angry? You deserve to feel badly. Plus you can't do anything about it anyway, so why bother?

As horrible as that may sound, I feel like I can deal with this emotion (self-loathing) because it is familiar. With this familiar emotion hovering in the background, I can cope by zoning out in front of the T.V. or the computer, by getting lost in a murder mystery novel, or by eating junk food.

The good news is that this happens less often. I take medication for depression, and have worked with many therapists. I have many tools in my psychological toolbelt to understand this feeling when it does happen.

But it still happens. I felt it this weekend, and I'm feeling it (somewhat) right now. And it still SUUUUUUCKS. And I still get confused. And I still feel hopeless at times. And I still try to transform any negative emotions into a deadening depressive feeling of hopelessness.

Do you struggle with depression? Do any of these feelings and experiences ring true for you? If someone told me they were depressed and didn't know what to do about it, here is what I would tell them.

PLEASE NOTE: I offer this advice ONLY to those who stuggle with mild to moderate depression. If you struggle with severe depression, have been the victim of abuse, or you have thoughts of suicide, my advice would be to consult a medical professional immediately.

Tell a medical professional.
If you have a primary care physician, tell that person. If anything, it just helps to tell someone. Whether or not you want to take medication, I still suggest you talk to a doctor to understand your options. There are many naturopathic and theraputic options.

If you can, find a therapist that you trust AND that you connect with on a personal level.
I understand that not everyone can afford to consult with a therapist. However, if you have medical insurance, check to see what's covered. Look online for therapists in your area and ask about insurance and/or payment plans. If you feel comfortable, talk to a trusted friend and ask them to help you find someone.

Have compassion for yourself.
I can't stress this point enough. Much of my own depression stems from self-loathing that came from years of shame. Allow yourself to feel badly, but don't beat yourself up about feeling badly. If it helps, I believe God shows compassion to us.

Allow yourself to go down "into the weeds."
Are you angry, sad, lonely, or fearful? Whatever the emotions are, stop for a minute and contemplate. Allow yourself to pause. You don't have to understand why you are feeling how you are, or what you should do to get better. It's enough to try to name the emotion that you are actually feeling. In my experience, this exercise is much harder than it seems!

Finally, there is a quote from Carl Jung (from his work Mysterium Coniunctionis) that I have hanging up on my cubicle wall at work. This quote speaks to me profoundly, because my depression often leaves me feeling dead inside. I hope you find something here that is helpful for you. I offer it to you, with no additional commentary:

"If you will contemplate your lack of fantasy, of inspiration, of inner aliveness, which you feel as sheer stagnation and a barren wilderness, and impregnate it with the interest born of alarm at your inner death, then something can take shape in you, for your inner emptiness conceals just as great a fullness if only you will allow it to penetrate into you. If you prove receptive to this 'call of the wild,' the longing for fulfillment will quicken the sterile wilderness of your soul as rain quickens the dry earth."