"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

Posts tagged ‘bible’

#CalledOut

[This is a letter I wrote to the bishop of the Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church after a speech in which I talked of my faith as someone who is gay. It received no response. I share it for those interested in truthful conversation beyond the UMC’s continued practices of either outright rejection of LGBTQ persons or of glossing over our presence.]

June 10, 2015

Dear Bishop Trimble and Members of the Appointive Cabinet,

Greetings to you in the name of Christ who has set us free.

In just a two minute speech at Annual Conference, the text of which is included below for your reference, I offered a witness with consequences that I know extend beyond the parameters of a debate and vote on Action Item 106. While I am not typically so presumptuous as to imagine myself as the subject of high-level conversations, I also know that you take your responsibilities seriously enough that my words cannot simply be ignored. And so I write to you in order that I might elaborate my motivations for sharing with the Annual Conference my story of faith as someone who is gay.

It is important for me to make clear that I did not offer my testimony simply to be provocative. And though the timing did come just a year after my ordination, it is not the case that I was simply waiting for the protections of full connection before coming out. In fact, I have been out from the very beginning of my candidacy process. I suspect that just as many people overseeing and supporting my candidacy, provisional membership, and ordination knew as much of my personal life as would be the case for any straight person. Indeed, my intention was not to inflame further the tensions over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. Rather, my motivations for making a statement in such a public way were twofold. (more…)

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The Future of the Past

3 January 2016
Isaiah 60:1–6 / Matthew 2:1–12
Coon Rapids United Methodist Church

It might not be the most reverent place to start a sermon. Yet, there is perhaps considerable religious devotion involved, so I’d like to begin this morning by talking about college football. Now, the loss by the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl did take a little steam out of what I had planned for my opening vignette. But the Hawkeyes didn’t quit, so neither will I. Let’s give this a try. At the point in the college football season when Iowa started to look seriously poised to go undefeated, there came to be a lot of angst in the college football world. “What if Iowa were to make the playoff?” people wondered, as if that would somehow spoil the whole thing. One Twitter comment put the overwrought conundrum well. It went something like this: if this were the NCAA basketball tournament, people would be loving Iowa as underdogs, but for some reason with football people are only hating. The comparison is a striking one. I think the difference is that in the men’s basketball tournament, 68 teams have a shot to win the title. For the most part, there’s a basic understanding that the teams who deserve to be in the tournament make it, and then it’s just fun to see how things shake out. But in this new era of the College Football Playoff, only four teams ultimately play for a chance to win a national championship. With so few teams selected, the assumption is that these spots will go to traditional powers, teams we might already think of as potential champions. Generally speaking, when opportunities are perceived to be scarce, we tend to be quick and decisive in our judgments of who “deserves” them, and—no surprise!—the supposed “deserving” are those we already think of as “good.”

We like an underdog. Except when we don’t. It is always a matter of perspective according to what already are our preferences and what we perceive we have to lose or gain. There’s a fine, fine line between whether we will cheer or disparage and undermine an underdog.

The Bible is filled with stories of God’s preference for the underdog, from the exodus from Egypt, to deliverance from the Babylonian captivity, to the Resurrection. There’s a special challenge, then, of reading these stories as white Christians in the most dominant nation on Earth. We risk becoming like those football fans, explaining God and the world in terms that perpetuate the status quo, benefitting the team—or people and nation-states—at the top.

So what do we do? How do we read the Bible to inform our faith and the ways we live in the world, messy and complicated as it is? While I don’t think the Bible can or should function as an oversimplified blueprint for saying, “When X happens, do Y,” taking the Bible seriously attunes our hearts and minds to the good news of God’s love, mercy, and justice and the commission that we be bearers of that love, mercy, and justice in the world. (more…)

Annual Conference Speech

[This is the text of a speech delivered at the Iowa United Methodist Annual Conference on June 7, 2014 in support of a resolution acknowledging the harm of the United Methodist Church’s policies prohibiting the ordination of lesbian and gay persons and the blessing of same-gender unions; recognizing that some clergy are nevertheless choosing to be engaged fully in ministry with persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ), including to perform marriages; and encouraging alternative solutions to church trails.]

It might seem that our response should be simple. It might be said that the Bible is clear and that the Book of Discipline is unambiguous. But we’ve been having this conversation for decades and are having it again here today because the gifts of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons — the ways LGBTQ persons are being blessed by God and are a blessing to others and to the church — raises a fundamental question with which we wrestle: where is God present, and how might we know clearly God’s calling?

Many of you likely feel settled on this issue, but many — perhaps more than we’d think — are uncertain of how faithfully to hold together the Bible, tradition, and the desire to act with love toward LGBTQ persons.

Blessedly, we’ve been having this kind of conversation from the earliest days of Christianity, from which we might learn for the present time. From the time Jesus walked the earth, some followers have said, “You cannot be righteous if you do not follow the food laws.” “You do not circumcise your boys as the law prescribes.” “You do not refrain from work on the Sabbath.” (Indeed, we are doing prohibited work on this day, the Sabbath). “Thus, you are not right with God,” it has been argued.

But we profess the faith we do as Christians today because of a trajectory of inclusion.* Jesus, Paul, and many of Jesus’s earliest followers looked at the same Bible and disagreed about all of the details of what it means to live in right relationship with God and one another. But they tended toward inclusion, trusting the idea that you will know the faithful by their fruits.

We are a church that is already ordaining LGBTQ persons. We are a church that is already blessing the love shared between people of the same gender. Not because we are rule breakers. Not because “anything goes.” Not because we can no longer name what is right and wrong.

But because we see the good fruits of LGBTQ persons. Because we are committed to honoring the blessing of those God has already blessed as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.

Because ours is a tradition based on the biblical principle that God’s grace is inclusive and available to all. This resolution honors that biblical tradition of both faithful disagreement and seeking to recognize how God is made manifest in the good, life-giving, faith-deepening love shared by and between God’s people.

[I concluded the speech here in consideration of time but had also written the following:
My own life has been enriched and my faith strengthened in no small part by the love and witness of faithful LGBTQ persons. I pray that our church will know the same blessing by finally coming out and naming it. Saying “yes” to this resolution would be a meaningful step toward witnessing to the world God’s love for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.]


 

*I would not wish for this to be construed as replicating the old, problematic notion of Jesus as inclusive over and against exclusive Jews. Rather, we would do well to think about Jesus as a prophet in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. My primary point here is that dominant articulations of Christianity we know today are possible in no smart part because of important ways the Bible was not read literally by early followers of Jesus.

 

It’s Complicated

29 December 2013
Matthew 2:13–23
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa

This past October I completed a significant step in my doctoral work. I had come to the moment when I needed to prove that I know generally what I should know about the New Testament and Early Christianity. This process came in the form of four exams, called general exams at Harvard and referred to at some schools as comprehensive exams. The point is that I needed to showcase a satisfactory level of general or, dare I say, comprehensive knowledge. I’ll spare you the details, but that all went well, and I felt pretty smart for a while—wicked smart, to use the technical Bostonian term. And then I got lazy because it’s somewhat acceptable just to watch lots of TV for a while after exams and before gearing up for the dissertation, so you don’t need to be too impressed.

Even as I’ve been officially certified as generally knowledgeable about the early days of the movement in Christ, still one of my favorite things to say when asked questions about the Bible is, “Well… we don’t really know much about ancient Christianity.” My point is to say that you might think I have a lot of answers, but there’s a lot that I don’t know. And it’s not just because I forgot everything when I refilled the space previously made available in my brain for general exams with episodes from the latest season of Parks and Recreation. It’s because there are many gaps in the historical record, and even where we do have evidence, we are faced with the challenges of making sense of a world so different from our own, with its own sets of questions and concerns that do not necessarily translate clearly today.

The point in saying that we don’t know much isn’t actually to claim that nothing is or can be known about the earliest period of Christianity. It’s a provocative way of resisting easy answers and insisting instead upon asking questions with an attitude of openness to the unexpected and to the unknown. We often want religion to provide clear solutions and so turn to the Bible for such guidance. Truth be told, there was a time I’d flip open the Bible hoping that God would address an issue weighing on my heart by guiding me to the right page. Sure, such a method can bring about creative readings that might even have some sort of value. But if I open the Bible and point to Mark 14:51-52 and read that “a certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked,” what deep meaning am I supposed to get from that?! Even still, in seriousness, we certainly can approach the Bible with questions about living faithfully in this world and be encouraged, edified, and even challenged by the wisdom it contains.

But the reason I often start my answers to questions about the Bible and the Christian tradition by acknowledging that there are gaps in our knowledge is because I think there is great value in having the first response to our searching to be, “It’s complicated.” Discovering and making sense of ancient history is complicated. Translating the past for the present is complicated. Answering the biggest and even smallest questions of existence is complicated. Because life is complicated. And the Bible, if it is indeed the Living Word, is complicated too. And so I start with the answer that “it’s complicated” because I believe that this is crucial for affirming and addressing our own complex circumstances.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we are startled by a narrative that complicates our celebration of Christmas. Or at least it should. Perhaps it’s become so familiar as part of the Christmas story that we don’t think too much of it, or we simply gloss over it. I’ll admit that I can sort of forget about it. I happened to be preaching here three years ago when today’s texts last came up in the lectionary (the three-year cycle of readings we follow), and I remember being so focused on the passage from Hebrews, which we heard again this morning, that I was rather surprised and bothered to read aloud the Gospel text.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

“The slaughter of the innocents” this is often called.  Innocent children murdered because Herod was upset. His pride was wounded, and he feared the loss of his power. This is one of our important Christmas stories. Here in this joyous season we call to mind evil, unchecked power that deploys violence as a mechanism of control. (more…)

Who Cares about the Bible? Part 2

I recently posted about my first article in the Iowa Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) fall 2010 edition of the “Social Questions Bulletin” (SQB). This is part of a series on what it means to take the Bible seriously in ways that are uplifting and fruitful, especially considering the fact that our public debates often deploy scripture merely as a rhetorical tool to win an argument.

Part 2 is now also available in MFSA’s Spring 2011 SQB. In this essay, I think about the problem of the fact that many sides of issues can be debated by quoting biblical texts. So if you can stand on one side of a debate and quote scripture to make an argument, and I can stand on the other side and also quote scripture to make my case, where does that leave us? What do we do with this reality? If the Bible can’t always be a decisive mediator or, more strongly as some seem to purport it can be, a definitive rulebook, what can be the role of scripture in public religious and social life?

I find John Wesley to be quite helpful on this matter because he takes the Bible quite seriously — considering it the primary source for Christian teaching — without taking it entirely literally. Instead of creating a list of thou shalt nots, Wesley’s reading of the Bible seeks out the promises that God makes that will become evident in our lives through faith. Of central significance is God’s promise of grace for those who believe and love God. Stated in its simplest form (as if that’s really possible), love for God will bring transformative grace into a person’s life, which will translate into love for others. So at the end of the day, we know we’re leading “biblical lives” when our faith manifests “good fruits.”

The consequence of this kind of reading of scripture for communities of faith is that we are compelled not to make make preemptive judgments about what “proper Christianity” looks like (such as when we say that if you are lesbian or gay, you are “obviously” and “inherently” not fit for ministry). Instead, we are called to wait and see what work God might be doing through others to bear good fruit in the world.

Of course, this kind of openness makes things complicated (or maybe not so much?), so more can and should be said… Lucky this is a series! But for now, “Part 2″… (more…)

Who Cares about the Bible?

I’ve begun writing a series of essays for the Iowa Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) newsletter, “Social Questions Bulletin,” on how the Bible is used in church debates with an eye toward developing a public hermeneutic (method of interpretation) that is grounded in the life-giving nature of scripture, rather than (solely) in its rhetorical value as an authoritative source for Christians.

The impetus is, well, many circumstances generally but specifically, a vote of the 2010 Iowa Annual Conference (a regional organizational unit of the United Methodist Church). Following Arizona’s passage of its severe anti-immigration law, SB 1070, United Methodists around the country organized to propose Annual Conference resolutions denouncing the xenophobia represented and further incited by the legislation. Perhaps most poignantly, the resolution brought forward in Iowa called for a period of prayer and a spirit of compassion in the midst of fear.

The resolution grounded itself firmly in scripture and the Methodist tradition, beginning with the following:

WHEREAS:  Throughout scripture we see evidence of God’s call to welcome the sojourner,
WHEREAS:  We are called through our baptism to stand against evil, injustice, and oppression…

The footnote to the first statement highlighted the biblical call to care for the stranger and outcast, referencing Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33-34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35, and Hebrews 13:2.
(Read the full resolution here: Final 2010 Resolution on Immigration for AC Floor (as approved by Legislative Section II) June 2010)

Of course, support for immigrants is generally perceived as a politically “liberal” position, and so the conservatives in the church were ready with a response. I’m assuming they ceded the fact that a majority of people might feel compelled to respond in some way since the Bible speaks so clearly about care for our neighbors (who are, to be sure, everyone). Thus,an alternative was brought forward saying simply that “God calls for love” and that “Christians have differing views on the complex issue of immigration,” so we should pray for comprehensive immigration reform. (The full text can be read here.) Basically, it was a way to say something without saying much at all.

The substituted resolution felt more comfortable (“less divisive”) to people, and it passed. What was most striking to me, though, was that scripture was totally and completely axed from the substitution. What does it mean when we claim at one moment that the Bible constitutes the primary source of Christian teaching and then at another time toss it aside as it challenges us toward places we do not want to go?

Moreover, I am absolutely certain that those who proposed and advocated for the scripture-less substitute resolution are among the same folks who reject the ordination and full participation of LGBT persons, ostensibly on the “literal” basis of scripture. I have long had this cynical suspicion that people don’t actually care what the Bible has to say when engaged in church debate; rather, scripture serves as a convenient rhetorical tool to win an argument since it is afforded such primacy by Christian tradition.

After the astounding rejection of the Bible as a source for thinking about immigration that was displayed at the 2010 Iowa Annual Conference, I say it’s time to stop pretending that we take scripture seriously… and do it (or don’t but at least admit to it)! Certainly, the challenge is how we take the Bible seriously since interpretations will invariably differ (which I don’t think is such a bad thing). As a biblical scholar in training, this issue is an especially crucial one to me, and so I have begun a series of articles for the Iowa MFSA to consider how we might engage in processes of (re)reading the Bible so as to build up the church rather than tear it apart.

My first article was published in the Fall 2010 “Social Questions Bulletin” (but the topic has been on my mind recently, and so the post now), which can be found here, or you can read the text below. The next essay is coming quite soon. (more…)

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