Old Time Religion: Why I’m a Jesus Fan Boy
Let’s be real at the outset… I’m a white guy who grew up in Texas. When the phrase old time religion gets bandied around I automatically hear banjoes in my head and start quoting scripture in the Authorized King James Version. If at any point while reading this post you begin to hear banjoes or an inordinate number of thee’s and thou’s, keep calm and know it does pass.
I do want to talk a little about old time religion, but a bit older than either the banjo or the KJV. It may seem a bit odd, but current media/faith messes like the Kentucky clerk who uses her personal faith to undermine other people’s civil rights are just the kind of things that remind me why I’m such a Jesus fan boy. I love Jesus, so much. I want the kind of religion, the old time religion, that he taught.
Jesus was always serving and calls us to serve. The work of Jesus was not marked by a denial of service to people not like him. He didn’t seem to have a test of deservedness or reciprocity before offering himself to those around him. Looking closely at the gospel accounts we find people, even his closest friends, constantly wondering why he’s talking to someone that he shouldn’t be talking to. But that’s just Jesus. And it’s what Jesus calls us to do, today. I don’t hate that poor county clerk in Kentucky; I blame the pastors and preachers who taught her that her faith sets her apart and above others in a way that permits her to judge them and deny them their legal rights as fellow citizens. I blame the folks who are egging her on and supporting her illegal and unconstitutional actions in such a way that it sounds like liberty and freedom are not Christian ideas. Liberty and freedom are not antithetical to our faith but part of the foundation of our old time religion.
Jesus loved people, all kinds of people, and calls us to the same. Man, Jesus loved people. All people. The Jesus who said “do not judge” also refused to throw a single stone. He walked his talk. He felt no need whatsoever to judge people before giving them grace. He didn’t need to point out and sermonize their faults before reaching out to heal them. The only exception to this was when he spoke to the religious leaders of the day who did not love as they should be loving. Their faults and sins he clearly enumerated. The only hell-fire and brimstone homilies from Jesus were directed at the religious elite. I am such a fan of this Jesus who had no time whatsoever for the religious establishment when it strayed from the work of God. This is something that every pastor and preacher needs to keep in mind, every day and every Sunday when we stand to make a proclamation.
Jesus did not repay violence with violence, and he taught us to also break the cycles of violence. Jesus did not strike back. Jesus did not taunt Satan when he was tempted and did not raise an army against those who sought his life. But we’ve created a Jesus culture that weirdly smashes him up somewhere between a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger and Rambo with the barest hint of Ghandi’esque rhetoric and dress. We have at times made as a much a violent caricature of Jesus as we daily condemn Islamic extremists for doing with the concept of jihad in their own religion. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, and then did it himself as he stood before Pilate and defined his kingdom as one that did not fight the battles of this world, did not fight back and did not seek world domination. How have we strayed so far from our old time religion? Christians who fight daily for their religious convictions to override their fellow citizens’ freedoms have gone past the edge of the map, folks. They have moved off the path.
Yes, I know that Jesus cleared the Temple courts. I have had people throw that at me before as an example of a violent Jesus. Really? The Temple event falls in the same basket with the condemnation of the religious leaders. Jesus did not go to the courts of Governor Pilate or King Herod to re-order reality, he did it at the Temple. He went to the heart of religiosity and demanded people stop abusing others in God’s name. Once again Jesus is moving against the religious establishment to reassert some humanity and care of people. He quotes a passage that highlights what he is trying to do; the Temple was to be a place of connecting with God and spiritual blessing, not a place of usury where people are relegated to monetary transactions. He is not recorded to have struck anyone, killed anyone, hurt anyone or whipped anyone… though it does sound a lot like he cracked a whip and most definitely moved some naughty folks around. =)
Yeah, give me that old time religion. But let’s just be sure to go back to the time that Jesus was in control of things. It was a time of humbled clergy, served sinners, loved people, less violence and way more grace. It was a time when a dream of a better world created through love was preeminent to a world where those obsessed with their moral correctness self-martyred on the steps of their local courthouse. Ouch, I might have gotten a little carried away with that one. Maybe not.
Jesus said we’d known as his disciples by our love for one another. Anything else we choose an an identifier or mark of faith and religiosity is a distraction, and everything that distracts us from the path leads us astray by our own willful negligence. Lord, have mercy.
There’s an undercurrent of non-affirming Christianity that is sincerely seeking a way to welcome gay Christians without having to deal with gay marriage or the thought of gay people having sex, and it boils down to the idea of enforced celibacy. This means that gay folks are welcome to be gay, but not as whole sexual human beings. What I find most interesting in this proposal is what it indicates about the thinking on homosexuality among straight Christians, namely that more and more are finding it hard to assert that gay is a choice.
If you’d like to read the most civil and gentle assertion of enforced celibacy, you can read Mr. Ronald J. Sider here at Christianity Today. His article is the reason I’m writing this post. I would have eventually gotten around to writing about celibacy in our discussions of LGBTQ concerns, but his writing got me thinking, and thinking leads to pacing, and pacing leads to more writing… reminds me of a proverb I heard once, Proverbs 10:19 (NLT), “Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow!” Hehehehe, I can’t turn off the flow…
What is celibacy?
Celibacy is the absence of sexually gratifying physical activities. We don’t find much in the Old Testament about celibacy as the people of Israel didn’t think very highly of it. They had other concerns in mind, mainly procreation. Poor Prophet Jeremiah was commanded to be celibate as a graphic image of coming suffering. Ouch. That’s about it for the Old Testament where the idea of celibacy is not so highly celebrated. Of course, neither was same-sex relations, again as the focus was on making babies. All sexual minorities had a difficult time in those days: any LGBTQ people, eunuchs, celibates and barren women. They simply didn’t have a way to plug into the overall drive to populate the earth.
One of my favorite scenes in all the Old Testament is between Hannah and her husband Elkanah in 1 Samuel 1 (NRSV). She is barren, and her husband’s other wife ridicules her for her barrenness, but her husband loves her and says, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He loved his wife and celebrated their love without the need for her to bear children. Awesome.
And on a side note, Elkanah’s other wife? Yes, he was married to both Hannah and Peninnah. And God heard their prayers and Hannah’s son was the great prophet Samuel. But I thought God “ordained” marriage as one man and one woman? I would swear I’ve seen someone holding a sign that said that. So much of what we have in the biblical narrative lays outside the simplistic models we bandy around in our own day and age.
Sorry, back to celibacy. We have to move into the New Testament where the active redeeming of sexual minorities and marginalized begins to take place in its fullness. Jesus begins this by having women prominently placed around himself and his ministry and they are often the focus of his attention and conversation, to the befuddlement of his male disciples. And who is among the first Gentile converts in the book of Acts but an Ethiopian eunuch!
Jesus also affirms celibacy in a discussion of fidelity and eunuchs in the first half of Matthew 19 (NRSV). It’s a fascinating discussion in which Christ affirms fidelity in marriage by chastising the religious for casually breaking the kinship bonds (bone of bone and flesh of flesh) of marriage. He then mentions some outside the kinship/marriage bonds, those who do not marry, what seems to be three types of eunuchs:
1) natural eunuchs (asexuals? hermaphrodites?),
2) physically altered males (eunuchs made eunuchs by removal of the testicles), and
3) spiritual eunuchs (those choosing a celibate life for the work and glory of God).
There’s room to quibble on the descriptions of the types of eunuchs here, but what cannot be quibbled over is that the option to become a eunuch (presumed to be celibacy) is a choice made by one who can accept celibacy as a calling.
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Paul celebrates his celibate lifestyle. He’s happy to be celibate himself, and he encourages anyone who has the gift of celibacy to exercise it…
1 Corinthians 7:7-9
“7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Let’s make special note of two things here from Paul…
1) celibacy is a gift for one called to it, and
2) Paul is substantially challenging many millennia of religious focus on marriage and procreation. Whoa.
I think the worst thing that happens when we engage this text is to give people the idea that they should just get married if they can’t contain their sexual desires. Marriage is much, much more than that. We shouldn’t read Paul saying there is only denied lust in celibacy and fulfilled lust in marriage. But we also make a big mistake when we don’t engage this text and slip into thinking that celibacy might be something that we may impose on someone not otherwise gifted or called to celibacy.
And how about Paul going up against all the millennia of religious preoccupation with procreation? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon about the way Paul challenged procreation as the basic reason or function for human sexuality and marriage, but there he goes. I know, the chapter goes into more than marriage and celibacy in the sense of calling. It’s a deep and unique discussion on calling as a Christian. But hey, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 (NRSV) is actually an amazingly beautiful exposition of equality between marriage partners. It’s very not-at-all-patriarchal. I like it a lot.
Celibacy in scripture is a choice, a gift and a calling. It is not a consolation prize or a requirement that one Christian might decide to enforce upon another.
An Acts 15 Redux, please!
Ok, let’s get to the good stuff… I am calling for a repeat of the church council in Acts 15! LGBTQ folks want a place at the table with us, the table where we all sup equally of the joys of marriage, acceptance and full citizenship in our churches and civil communities. And so far the straight Christians are not all sure what to do about this insistent desire.
Let’s remind everyone what happened in Acts 15. Gentiles had begun converting to Christianity and some of the Jewish Christians felt that those new Gentile converts should be circumcised and made to adhere to the Law of Moses as a prerequisite for being in the church. Paul and Barnabas didn’t want that to happen and in the interest of settling the debate they go to Jerusalem to put the matter before the church elders and apostles. They go and tell the story of the Gentiles’ faith, and Simon Peter steps in with a great idea… don’t put rules on them that even we can’t tolerate.
6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Others agree, and James steps forward to outline a simple down-to-bases list of things to ask the Gentile Christians to avoid: idolatry, fornication, meat from strangled animals & blood. It seems totally sensible that they are asked to avoid association with idols, though it was probably a bit difficult as the new converts would be confronted with civic gods and household gods at every turn in daily life. The fornication they are asked to avoid is porneias, or a general sexual infidelity. Sounds legit, as we are called to be a people of covenant, both with God and one another. The meat of strangled animals and blood part seems weird to us today, but would have made much more sense to people steeped in purity rituals than we are.
We need a Simon Peter to stand in our midst, a rock, a voice of wisdom and liberating courage to say, “Enough with our reticence. Enough with our burdensome ideas and rules. We need to celebrate the faith of our sisters and brothers and not do anything more that causes them to stumble or lose hope.” And then we need a James who can help us chart a course of grace. Our Peter and James don’t have to be males, we just have to listen and make a move in faith.
What if we straight Christians would look and see God moving in the faith and lives of our amazing LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and would celebrate? What if we chose not to try to bind impossible conditions on these sisters and brothers, something as horrible and as unscriptural as enforced celibacy, but instead decided to welcome them into our shared down-to-bases understanding of God’s will for sacramental and covenantal relationships and life?
We would be faithful to ask for things like…
- Purity. We’re all called to live lives of purity, avoiding unrestrained sexual activities and lusts that can overwhelm us.
- Fidelity in Marriage. We’re all called to be faithful and committed life in the covenant of marriage.
- Full Offering of Gifts. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be sharing their full gifting with the church to help us grow and mature in faith, just as we are each dependent and in need of the other, and we all share this responsibility to one another.
- Grace & Hope. And finally, as we recognize that we really aren’t two separate people at all, but one family in Christ, we would ask that our LGBTQ sisters and brothers would extend us a healthy dose of grace to overlook our delay in celebrating their faith and to join us in a deeper and more faithful hope that better days are coming for us all.
I’m going to go sit in the corner of my living room now and savor the dream. I’m going to revel in my belief that our God will be found to be much bigger than our divisions and worries. I’m going to be watching and listening for the Peter and James that God will raise up among us. And then she speaks, I’m going to be there to sing a hymn of the purest praise to our awesome God.
O my God! My God of impossible dreams and limitless peace! May your people of every nation, tribe and tongue, every color and continent and island, every gender, every sexual orientation and every corner of your amazing world call on you in joy and hope! May all of us join together in praise of you and love of one another! Speak and make us listen! Amen!
In the last blog I emphasized the need to hear LGBTQ Christians tell their own stories and to let them have a voice of their own. We learn a lot when we listen and allow our brothers and sisters to share their journey. A sentiment I’ve heard many times from straight friends who get to know an LGBTQ Christian, or even have a chance to worship with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, is something like “Hey, they’re just like us!”
Yes, they are. Their faith is built on the same hope and trust in God’s grace and God’s love. They wrestle with similar doubts and fight similar temptations and trials. They are people. They are Christians. They are us. We are they.
Today, I’d like to share something that many allies and LGBTQ Christians are excited to share across their Facebook, Twitter and blog feeds, the keynote address from Dr. David Gushee at The Reformation Project conference in DC last weekend: “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities”
Dr. Gushee shows us a path for change. He uses a powerful analogy and an historical precedent for how the church can intentionally change our views and our interpretations of certain passages. He shows us that when faced with damaging and problematic teachings and interpretations, “We have repented before. We have changed before. We can do it again.”
This is a powerful address, and not a short one. Yes, it is an hour long, but very worth the time. Grab a comfy seat and your beverage of choice, settle in and soak it in. And see if you catch a glimpse of me in the audience in the opening few moments (red sweater, bald head)! =)
And have a blessed, amazing Sunday!
With a heart heavy and sick over the pain, alienation, rejection and struggle of my cherished LGBTQ neighbors and sisters and brothers in Christ, I make this sincere repentance and confession public: I have been too quiet an ally. I’ve coasted easily along in my too passive affirmation of my LGBTQ neighbors, and I am sorry. I was wrong.
I’m “TORN” As I Write These Words
This is not really about me. This about my LGBTQ neighbors, my beautiful LGBTQ sisters and brothers who have had to speak for themselves for far too long as I held back. And yes, with the little paragraph title above I am shamelessly and joyfully putting myself into the story of Justin Lee‘s book, Torn. In his story is where I want to be. In his story, and stories like his, is where I intend to live and breathe and speak. It was reading his book last year that started an itch in my soul. I knew I was too quiet, I knew I must do more, but I didn’t.
My Privilege Is My Hurdle
I’m an educated Caucasian, male, heterosexual, Christian, clergy… does it get any more privileged than that in the West? I don’t have to talk about things I don’t want to talk about. I don’t have to defend who I am or apologize for myself, or for displays of public affection, or who I fall in love with, or who I want to marry, or if I can call myself a Christian. This is my privilege, and this is my hurdle.
I have chosen to speak out for marriage equality before here and here, and I even said that I’m not scripturally or spiritually condemning of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and I even promised to speak more about the biblical reasons and my journey to that position, but then I didn’t. And no one called me out on it. No one said, “Hey, you said you’d talk more about this!” And so I didn’t. So I sat in my privileged silence.
I repent of that silence. I repent that I have not been a strident, informed, vocal and down right annoying ally for my LGBTQ neighbors. I have waited too long and been too quiet, but no longer. Why now? People are funny. Among straight allies we have this stupid one-up-manship thing going on. No matter when I came out as an ally, another ally had been out longer and told me how late I was and attempted to passively or aggressively shame me. It’s happened again and again, and honestly it’s held me back. Allies seem to love their LGBTQ neighbors, but not other allies very much. That’s probably a sure sign of a disturbing stream of paternalism, my friends. We have to be careful. This past weekend I listened to some amazing LGBTQ people sharing their stories of the years and years it took them to finally be honest about their sexuality and find wholeness. They had long journeys to speaking out. They emboldened me. Their stories matter most here, not mine. I am joining their journey, and I’m so blessed to have been loved and welcomed. I am blessed to have them as my allies.
God and The Gay Christian
Last year I read Torn by Justin Lee (two years ago I got to sit at the Wild Goose Festival and have a beer and slice of pizza with Justin and just chat: still a cherished memory). This year I read Matthew Vines‘ book God and The Gay Christian. When I read it I knew I being called from my silence and I purposed to attend The Reformation Project conference in DC this past week. What a blessing that was for me. I sincerely pray it was as much a blessing for every other ally and especially every other LGBTQ brother and sister who attended.
Matthew’s cherubic face makes me feel old and his scholarship makes me feel dumb. Thank you, Matthew! Old guys like me need more kicks in the tush. Allyson Robinson was amazing. David Gushee (Changing Our Mind) was phenomenal. James Brownson (Bible Gender Sexuality) was a humble guide. And here are two bonus round transcripts from the conference, #TRPinDC:
1. Dr. David Gushee: “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities”
2. Allyson Robinson: “The Three Temptations of the Affirming Church”
You’ve heard my repentance, and now for my confession. This is where I want to go on the record, out loud, with sincerity and full conviction saying: LGBTQ affirming theology is good theology. LGBTQ affirming exegesis is good exegesis. LGBTQ affirming ecclesiology is good ecclesiology.
That’s it. And I really will be blogging more about why I make that confession. I will unpack my understanding of what the overall scriptural message is in relation to being LGBTQ affirming. I’ll unpack why I believe that affirming theology, exegesis and ecclesiology are good. This blog entry is already feeling too long, but I want everyone to know where I stand, without any reservation or equivocation. I will be carrying the LGBTQ banner, loudly and annoyingly. My LGBTQ sisters and brothers deserve no less, no less of my love, no less of my concern, no less of my energy and my time.
I Will Listen, Love and Journey With You
One last thing. I do hope that people share this blog, for one very important reason: If you are LGBTQ and you need a brother, a friend, a pastor… I am yours. I am at your beck and call, at your service and I will listen to you, love you and journey with you. Find me on Facebook, on Twitter, and if you’re local to DC or Bethesda, come stalk me at Starbucks. I am yours. Be alone no longer.
Loving my LGBTQ sisters and brothers is never a repudiation of my heterosexual brothers and sisters, even the non-affirming ones! If you want to chat about this, and will do so civilly in a Christ-like manner, then I am also yours. I’m happy to go deep with you, prayerfully and meaningfully.
I want to end this post in prayer, and will do so with my appropriation of one of Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 3… “This I beg of our God, our God who is rich in love, strength and beauty: May you and I be overwhelmed by the Spirit, immersed and lost in Christ, to the point that we have a wider, deeper, higher and lengthening grasp upon the awesome love in which we are steeped, stewed, sent and spent. This is God’s glory and God’s great work among us, in the Church of every place and time, a glory and work which transcends the limits of our feeble and precious imaginations, hopes and dreams. Glory! Joy! Love! Grace! So be it, now and ever, world without end. Amen.”
I had one of those moments in the car yesterday… my six-year-old is rifling thru my CD’s and holds up Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason and asks, “Um, Dad. Can we listen to this one?” Somehow thru tears of pride I choked out,” Oh, yes son, we can.”
I love that album, because you see, I also love to hear the gospel, no matter who’s sharing it at the time. Listening to that album back in ’88 was my introduction to the song On the Turning Away… these days I also have a concert version of it on the album, Delicate Sounds of Thunder. That song captures the heart of Jesus so perfectly when he’s announcing his life’s dream (and God’s desire) of making the world a better place for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. (Luke 4:14-21)
The CD was still in this morning as I drove to work so I skipped over to track 5 and dug on it again… have you ever really thought of all the power structures and systems that Jesus just ignored? He could have gone after the Roman political structure… the church did after only a few hundred years, but not Jesus. Jesus didn’t need political backing.
On the opposite of the political spectrum he ignored the cause of the zealots who fought Roman power… Jesus didn’t bother with being an anti-establishment activist.
Jesus also ignored a highly organized and earnest Jewish religious establishment… even though he seemed to have several Pharisees who believed and followed him. At different times you can almost get the feeling that if he had just toned down a little of the rhetoric, stopped talking about the poor and disenfranchised so much, and focused more on the average person’s sins and on being good Jews a little more, he could have gone far.
But then, he never really left the whole Jewish system behind either… always at the Temple, always at the feasts, always reminding people of the heart and intent of the Law.
What do we often do today? We strive in the opposite directions… we crave political power and political results, either left or right of the aisle. We might even proudly go guerilla activist in defiance of the powers that be. We seek opinion leaders in culture and woo them or pay them big bucks for motivational speeches. We bow to religious systems and build empires based on the potency, or lack of, in these theocracies.
While Jesus preaches good news to the least likely to receive any.
I’m actually in a good mood today… for reals. I hope you don’t think I’m ranting in a morose fit of depression. I guess I’m just feeling a little out of touch with Jesus’ folks. I haven’t spent much time lately with the disenfranchised, defeated, disheartened and dispossessed. My bad.
Peace, y’all! Todd
I was talking with a friend today about “doing church” and it’s nature/mission/meaning, etc… and as we talked about doing this thru Jesus instead of Paul I was able to bring some thoughts together about a related subject. I don’t think we can talk about ecclesiology without talking about epistemology. The American Heritage Dictionary defines epistemology as “The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.”
You see, thinking “post-modern-like” precludes a deep abiding suspicion of anything like emperical/cognitive certainty. I mean that I can create certain constructs for understanding things and decoding what I see, read, touch, taste and reason… but at the end of the day all I have are some shnazy constructs. Philosophically speaking, I can perfect my reasoning abilities, but still not attain to a full-proof reasoning that is more accurate than my own emperical limitations, experiences, personal bias and desired end game. Chaos Theory stings a little at first, but then you just start feeling numb.
When was the last time you read your Naria, and I don’t mean blah, blah and the Wardrobe. I mean The Last Battle when Aslan blows up everyone’s constructs. So at the end of time for the world of Narian Aslan welcomes the devotee of another god accounting his righteousness and faith as service to the true God. The eagles fly in the new Narnian sky and exclaim that they’ve been blind up to that point… only now do they truly see, see colors, see light, see beauty.
Lewis’ point is not to assert the classical universalism. In fact Aslan points out that he and the other god are not the same God, not the same but opposites. And the new constructs do not invalidate the previous ones, but complete them. Lewis is painting a narrative of deep humility, when we just might find ourselves called “further up and further in,” only to find out that we didn’t know this part of the journey was coming. This type of raw humility could only be a descendant of nothing less than unabridged faith… faith that God is larger than my biggest construct and greater than my worst fault and more gracious than my best effort. I would like to think that I am anticipating the shock and surprise I will feel at the coming journey, not the dismay of those who disagreed with me.
So, let’s go on to talk about church… faithfully constructing away at the job, but realizing that at the end of the day, God owns the right to turn west when we go east, jump north when we fall south, and laughingly/lovingly take our hands and call us to an even newer place, new beyond our hippest hip… further up and further in.