Affirming Christianity

One of the benefits of having so many new visitors to the blog is that I am discovering broken links!

For a long time, one of the websites listed under “Sarah’s other writing” has been a blog that I contributed several articles to in 2012. This blog, “Affirming Christianity,” was convened by a seminarian in Wales, and I was the only contributor from “across the pond.” The common thread among the contributors was our hope for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life and ministries of the church.

Several people clicked through on this link, or tried to, only to discover that the link went nowhere. So I’ve deleted Affirming Christianity from my list of other writing.

The easy thing to do would be to just let this pass without mentioning it, given that I have so many new readers from across the United Methodist spectrum. But that would be dishonest.  Not that my convictions have not changed since 2012. Instead, I feel even more strongly that the church has too often offered a poor witness in its treatment of sexual minorities.

Particularly in this post, I’m focusing on the “LGB” in LGBTQ — same sex loving people whose love has been labelled “sin.”

The reasons for my convictions are many, but I began on this journey when I was in the third grade: I was given a Bible by my church, and I began reading it. I read it voraciously. And while I spent most of my time reading and re-reading the gospels and Genesis, I left no part untouched. And I discovered something in Genesis: we are responsible for one another. And I discovered something in the Gospels: Jesus put the real lives of real people above the strict observance of any rules.

Here’s one example of this: each of the four gospels records stories of Jesus healing people on the sabbath.[1] Arguably, if Jesus is God Incarnate, then everything he did in life is significant – he need only have broken the sabbath once in order for us to discern some lesson pertaining to this rule. However, Jesus heals on the sabbath so frequently, he seems almost to have gone out of his way to break the sabbath in this way, to the consternation of the religious authorities. On another occasion, when his disciples were plucking grain to eat on the sabbath, Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”[2] Keeping the sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and doing any kind of work on the sabbath was punishable by death.[3] But Jesus was repeatedly much more interested in what the impact of this rule was on actual human beings. (If you are interested in reading more about Jesus’ sabbath healings, check out this article by Morgan Guyton in Ministry Matters.)

There are a lot of “rules” in the Bible. And a lot of them we ignore for various reasons, and other ones we observe strictly. Now, imagining that there is a “rule” in the Scriptures against same-sex intimacy (which is arguable, but I’ll concede it for the purpose of explaining the first step of me getting to where I am with respect to same-gender loving people), Jesus’ regular refusal to strictly observe the Sabbath gives us a model for reading this (or any) rule: Following the example of Jesus, our first thought when we encounter a rule in Scripture ought not to be, “Obviously, God desires for us to always follow this rule!” Instead, Jesus’ own behavior invites us to ask, “How will the unilateral application of this rule impact the lives of actual human beings?”

If you have sat across the table from someone crying as she recounts having been rejected by her pastor as a teenager after confiding that she was attracted to other women…

If you have known someone abundantly gifted for ministry who could no longer serve because he wanted to marry another man (knowing that choosing between marriage and ministry would never be demanded of a person who wanted to marry someone of a different gender)…

If you have heard story after story of straight women who were married to closeted gay men (men who could not acknowledge that they were gay because they were good Christians, and “good Christians aren’t gay”)…

If you have encountered people with stories like these, then you know the answer to this question. How do the exclusionary policies of the UMC impact the lives of actual human beings? It separates them from their church community, it deprives the church of their good gifts, it alienates them from God. It is not the love of some people for others of the same gender that does this. It is the rule that calls this love “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Like the UMC Book of Discipline, the Bible can be read as a book of rules that must not be broken. When the Bible is seen as a rulebook, then prooftexting is bound to happen – Christians will read for the rules. Perhaps it is not surprising that a denomination with so many pages of rules tends to view the Bible as a book of rules when it comes to determining whether it is a sin for two people of the same gender to have sex. Finding a place in the Bible where this kind of sex is apparently forbidden or labeled as sin makes rule-oriented Christians feel more comfortable – they feel they have a clear “answer.” But what if “sin” does not mean “breaking ‘the rules’”? What if sin is something else altogether? What if sin is about our relationship with Jesus? What if we sin when we obstruct others’ relationships with Jesus?

Long before I had heard the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual, long before the word polysexual had even been coined, my scripture reading was informing my answers to those last four questions. It still does.

[1] Matthew 12:9-13; Mark 3:2-5; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-11; 9:1-16

[2] Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

[3] Exodus 20:8-11; 31:14-15

O, Hamsters, let’s go down – down to the river to pray

My daughter was slow to engage with hymn singing tonight, so my husband began playing Down to the River to Pray (United Methodist readers can find an arrangement in Worship and Song, #3164) They had sung it during communion on Sunday morning, and she had been disappointed that they stopped after five verses – she was wanting to add, “O Grandmas, let’s go down.” For starters.

So my husband played it long enough for her to sing verses inviting grandmas, grandpas, great-grandmas, great-grandpas, preachers, and then, with a self-conscious giggle, hamsters. (Public service announcement / disclaimer: hamsters are not meant to get wet. Please do not take your hamster down to a river, whether to pray or for any other reason.)

The self-consciousness is new. A couple of years ago, my daughter would have naturally turned to invite the animals to pray without any embarrassment. Perhaps she has come to realize that most people don’t consider animals in the same way that she does. Myself, I consider her love for non-human animal creatures to be a spiritual gift. Certainly, her love of animals has been a spiritual beacon to me – life with her has been a daily reminder that God’s providential care is not limited to human beings. I say “reminder” and not “lesson” because I learned this truth long before she came into my life – it is written all over the Bible.

The last couple of chapters of Job are the most obvious example of this. Job wants to know if God is paying attention, and God says yes – God is paying attention to Job, but not just to Job. God cares for every creature, and observes their every secret moment. Not just human creatures, but ostriches, hawks, and mountain goats (see especially Job 39). But if this is an obvious place to find God’s providential care for animals in the Bible, this is not the only place. The last verse of Jonah is curious. Jonah is angry that the Ninevites (who were Assyrians – enemies of Israel) were spared God’s wrath, and God is given the last word, asking, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NRSV, emphasis mine)

Of course there is the matter of God going to the trouble (or calling Noah to the trouble, depending upon how you look at it) of rescuing so many animals from the flood. Granted, this is a dodgier example, as these were only representative animals, and the story necessarily implies that a lot more were drowned. But still. Every preschooler knows there were not just people on that boat.

One of my favorite scriptures on this theme is Deuteronomy 25:4. Tucked between a rule on whipping as punishment and an explanation of Levirate marriage, this verse seems almost a non sequitur: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (NRSV) This rule takes “do unto others” to the animal kingdom – you get hungry on the job, right? So does an ox.

In spite of all of this (and so many more), before my daughter was born, I had a tendency to devalue the animal kingdom, relatively. Surely people mattered most of all. For example, I might give to environmental groups, but only because the environment mattered insofar as it mattered to human survival. But her gentle (and continuing) insistence that animals were worthy of a lifetime of focused attention was convicting – my anthropocentric thinking meant that I was putting people at the center – but only God belongs at the center! Some things – most things! (maybe even all things?) – were not created for the benefit of human beings. Animals and all other created things have value not because of their usefulness to humans, but because God made them and called them good.

Recently, the local chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers held a yard sale to raise money for continuing education for the member animal keepers. I did something I would never have done eight years ago – I filled up the back of the station wagon and headed to the Duke Lemur Center to donate a bunch of items for their sale. Taking my daughter around to the Museum of Life and Science and the Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue, I’ve met a lot of folks who are caring for God’s creatures with integrity. That’s important work. Not because failing to care for abandoned animals would be an affront to human nobility. Not because lemurs are cute or tigers are awe-inspiring. No, it’s important because these animals are God’s beloved creatures. And if I love God, then I cannot draw the line at caring about animals, plants, and places that are not demonstrably useful to human beings.

Welcome!

I have been noticing an increase in traffic to my blog over the past week, and I’m supposing that it might be driven by readers of the Adult Bible Studies Sunday School curriculum.

For those unfamiliar with this series, it is a United Methodist curriculum for adult Sunday school classes, based on the scripture selections of the Uniform Series. This summer, the theme is the prophets (beginning in June with Amos.) And I wrote the student booklet for the summer quarter. In the “Meet the Writer” section, at the end of a brief bio, this blog’s address is printed.

So – if you are here for the first time because you saw my blog address in your Sunday school book, and you were curious – welcome!

From time to time I will be posting things here that might be helpful to teachers preparing these Sunday school lessons, but I hope that they will prove to be of general interest as well. Like my post earlier today about sycamore figs. Enjoy!