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

It is OK not to call yourself a Christian

A great deal of attention is being paid right now to Marcus Mumford, lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons, and I’m sure Rolling Stone couldn’t be happier: religious controversy sells magazines. When interviewer Brian Hiatt asks Mumford point blank if he is a Christian, Mumford gives a long, somewhat rambling response that includes the sentence, “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.” USA Today has picked up this ‘breaking story,’ and so has the Christian press. I imagine that Rolling Stone’s webserver is lit up with people clicking through to the teaser for this upcoming cover article.  Selfishly, I have been feeling relieved that my mid-20s self was not (and had no chance of being) famous.

I would be seen as at least odd and possibly dangerous if I wanted to know all about my doctor’s personal life: his religious beliefs, his parents, his wedding anniversary, whether he gets along with the people he works with, where his house is. I personally interact with my doctors, but the boundaries in such relationships are clear. In contrast, it is totally normal in our culture to be interested in, knowledgable about, or even obsessed with people we will never meet, so long as we have deemed them celebrities. If I show up outside of my doctor’s house, he would do well to get a restraining order. But hop in a bus-load full of people driving slowly past Jennifer Anniston’s house? Just another typical American vacation. I would only be crossing a line if I broke into her house or sent her threatening letters.

Seriously? Sometimes I wonder if the whole culture hasn’t crossed some kind of line – from voyeurism into sub-clinical erotomanic delusion: if we are not convinced that someone famous is in love with us, we at least imagine that they probably would fall in love with us (or at least want to be our friends!) if we ran into them at some imaginary party thrown by – who knows who? This scenario is going nowhere. It’s never going to happen.

So now Marcus Mumford, a person I have nearly no chance of ever meeting, has said that he wouldn’t call himself a Christian. Through luck and musical talent he has become recognizable to millions of people, and so now that gives Rolling Stone the right to ask about his religious beliefs, and me and the rest of the world the right to have an opinion about it? And what exactly would I be hoping to achieve? I suppose if enough of us wrote sufficiently indignant responses, we could turn him off to Christianity even more. That’s possible. I don’t know that his fans will turn from Christianity because of his words, or that me saying they shouldn’t would give them pause. So…?

I can hear my father’s voice in my head now, chiding, “Where’s your evangelistic zeal?” If I care about Jesus, if I care about people caring about Jesus, then I should care that Marcus Mumford, whose lyrics are full of Christian ideas and imagery, made sweeping disparaging remarks about Christianity, right? All this “baggage” we Christians carry? As if no other faith, no other group has “baggage?” So why am I stifling a yawn?

I guess because I know that he is not talking about me. His words say “the culture of Christianity,” but I hear, “The Christians he has met so far in his short life, the majority of those years spent in a specific milleu defined by his family of origin.” So yes, he is uninformed about the full spectrum of possibilities within Christianity. That’s not unusual for someone who hasn’t the inclination or the energy to explore all of those options – which is almost anyone whose religious upbringing makes them tired and just needing a break while they process all that stuff internally (or with hundreds of thousands of fans. Whatever.) Which may or may not be him – again I don’t know him. But he doesn’t know me either, so I’m not getting offended by it.

Lillian Daniel is right: baggage isn’t unique to Christianity – dealing with baggage is part of dealing with people. You need to be in your own little blanket cave to escape all historical baggage other than your own. But telling someone that and having them suddenly get it and change their mind and give church a shot after all is about as likely as a mom changing her teenaged daughter’s mind about fashion by saying, “You aren’t going out of the house dressed like that, are you?”

Or maybe I’m not all bent out of shape about it because the Mumford quote could almost word for word have come out of my own mouth when I was 26. Or 24. Or 22. Or 20. I went into seminary not sure I wanted to claim the name “Christian.” I had some pretty deep wounds that were not healing well given all of the probing they were receiving: “But there are good Christians!” and “That’s not fair!” and “You should really read [Augustine, Simone Weil, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila]” and “Have you really explored all of your church options? I’m [Presbyterian, UCC, Unitarian, Unity, Episcopal, UMC, Pentecostal]…”

It was a painful time, wandering and exploring. Finding out pagans have problems too, and Buddhists have problems too, and New Agey people are as intolerant as anyone else, and finally feeling like I had nowhere to go that I hadn’t been before. Yeah, group dynamics are difficult everywhere. And for myself, wanting to be loving and open and welcoming, having grown up with poor boundaries… let’s just say “where are you going to go? It’s this bad everywhere!” were not exactly the words that were going to make me come running back to mother church. I EXPECTED MORE from the church because church had taught me to expect more of myself – because I grew up believing that Jesus actually meant all that stuff that he said about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and giving away your tunic. If I cast aspersions on the church, it wasn’t because I was more biased against Christians, but because I was more biased against everyone else. I didn’t want to know how people in general could be so petty and hurtful – well, ok, yes I did. But I was much more disturbed by pettiness and hurtfulness and selfishness in people who claimed to love Jesus.

Or, as I told my father later (when I was preparing to become a pastor), I have very evangelisitic reasons for saying and doing and believing the things I do: if the church doesn’t look any different than any other group of people, then we must forgive those who rightly reject a poor witness. I don’t know Mumford. Maybe he is a capricious ass. Or maybe he is just a guy who got hurt one (or six or twenty) too many times by people who claimed to be the chosen messengers of the God who is Love. I know that was my story.

Would I rather have such a popular singer/songwriter self-identify as a Christian?  Sure – it would be cool to not just have U2 holding the fort, as it were.  Would I rather not feel some trepidation every time I open my mouth to tell people that I am a Christian writer, that I attend church, that I have been a pastor? Would I rather that the whole “Christians are such hypocrites; [any other religion] is cool, though” narrative were not so compelling in our culture? Absolutely.  But countering that narrative is not Marcus Mumford’s job, because he is very much feeling that narrative right now.  Countering that narrative is the job of the Holy Spirit, a job that I (and every other self-identified Christian leader) have been invited to share.

I  can’t speak for Marcus Mumford, but our best hope for drawing people like my 20 year old self back into a supportive Christian community is to be that community – to keep listening, keep caring, keep insisting that none of us are perfect and that God loves each and every one of us better than any human every could. Our best hope is our love – not our indignation.

What does the Lord require of you?

I am returning to my earlier series on giving to roadside beggars with this guest post by Lezley (Peach) McDouall.  I first met Peach at Duke Divinity School – I was a student and she was a teaching assistant, especially well-loved for her gracious and extensive comments on student papers. We attend the same church together, and I value her insight and her friendship.  You can read more of Peach’s writing on the blog of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church.

In response to Sarah’s question about giving money to people who beg, it’s important to begin by saying that my answer is not meant to be everyone’s answer. The movement of the Spirit is delicate and various, sanctifying the whole by blessing each unique part uniquely. So here is what I have been given to understand:

While attending seminary in Berkeley CA, I attended All Souls parish church nearby. This parish had a monthly Open-Door Dinner for anyone who wanted to be fed some chicken jambalaya, rice, corn, and cookies. The task I enjoyed most, which other parishioners seemed less comfortable doing, was hanging out in the courtyard with the folks who were waiting to eat. I made sure the coffeepot and its accessories stayed full, handed out numbered tickets, and invited in groups of 10 ticket-holders at a time so the servers/seats weren’t overcrowded.

Talking to the folks who were waiting helped me understand how incredibly various the stories of homeless people are. Talking to one man in particular, who had been a math teacher, was an epiphany for me. He taught me that most people on the street are chronically sleep-deprived, and that many who are addicted &/or mentally-ill become addicted &/or mentally-ill on the street, self-medicating for sleeplessness, depression, and constant anxiety. That possibility had never occurred to me, or to any housed individual I’d ever talked with about “the plight of the homeless.”

Each person of faith has Touchstone Scriptures that are particularly authoritative for them. Even the literalists have to make some choices. I happen to be something of a ‘red-letter fundamentalist,’ which is to say that while I don’t consider everything in the Bible to be God’s Binding Word On All Generations™, I take the words of Jesus Christ particularly seriously. I tend to read them as if He meant exactly what He said, even knowing that much of what He says is impossible for us.

E.g., “Love one another as I have loved you” (unto death on a cross); “Give to everyone who asks you” (until you have nothing left? See quote 1); “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (yike!); and “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

What does this mean, concretely, about the guy with a sign next to the freeway? It’s way too easy for me to over-think this, to try to guess his particular situation or suss what he ‘really needs’ rather than simply give what he’s asking. So I devised a personal metric:

1) Do I have any cash? (I often don’t). If yes, then
2) Am I, or can I get into, the right lane? If yes, then
3) Is the light red, or (in a non-traffic-light situation) can I stop here without blocking traffic unduly? If yes, then
4) I give money.

I consider that if the above conditions are fulfilled, the Spirit has maneuvered me into a position to help THIS person in THIS way on THIS day. If any question gets a ‘no,’ I consider that this isn’t the task I’ve been allotted at the moment – maybe next time, or maybe some of my tithe will reach them via an agency our parish supports. In any case, I pray for them, hope for them, and ask God to lift up all who are oppressed by this evil economic system, which discards precious human beings as though they weren’t beloved children of the Most High.

I know my metric is simplistic, but it prevents me from experiencing utter anguish and frustration with our political context repeatedly, day after day. I’m already on meds for depression. I help some people, I remove personal judgment of my fellow humans from the decision, and I trust that God is in action in their lives as well as my own. May God soon bring us all to that Kingdom where this decision will be completely unnecessary.