Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ramblings of a Pub Theologian

This past Ash Wednesday I had the occasion to walk into a bar wearing my clerical collar.  I am not usually in the practice of doing such things, but I was between services and I needed to run to Manuel’s Tavern, in Poncey-Highlands to confirm the date and time for a night of Beer and Hymns.  Atlanta is a pretty cynical place, in spite of the fact that its full of conservatives and it’s the buckle of the Bible Belt; maybe these things are related.  Anyway, as I walked into Manuel’s I was accosted by a woman who grabbed me by my shoulders and began asking questions:

 “Are you a priest? Can you give me ashes? Wait! What are you doing here?” 

I was about to answer her when she said, “I am so far from God.” And then she stopped talking.  Though my fingers were stained black from administering ashes just a short time before, I had none to give her except those that were on my own forehead.  So, with my thumb I rubbed my forehead and then rubbed hers, and making the sign of the cross, I reminded her that she was dust and to dust she would return right there in the middle of the bar. It became holy ground. My new friend hadn't been to church in years, and didn't feel like she could go because she wasn't good enough.  She would not go to church, but she had no problem stopping a minister in a bar and asking for ashes.

I tell this story because the day after the first Beer and Hymns, I walked into school and was greeted by some of my fellow classmates. I am a seminarian in Atlanta. I was asked by one student how the evening went, but another wanted to know the point of the whole thing. Did we just sit around, sing, and get drunk? There have been a few people who have shared skeptical sentiments regarding the fact that most of my evangelism involves beer, and usually my response is something like, “Well, it’s good to be Lutheran”.  But, I don’t think a smart-alec response is really the way to go anymore.

Let’s be real with each other…

The Church as an Institution has messed up. There are people who would rather go to the dentist than walk through the doors of a Church. It doesn't matter how hip your minister of music happens to be, and it doesn't matter how cool your programming is, there are people who will never…ever…walk into your church.

 So, here’s what I propose: Let’s get out of the church! And while we’re at it, let’s stop doing church for ourselves.  By this I mean, let’s stop perpetuating the Institution for the sake of the Institution…and, ahem, clergy, our own employment security. Let’s stop looking at pie charts and bar graphs that toll the bells of decline and do something about it.  In fact, let’s burn the damn charts. Let’s stop referring to people who are outside the church as spiritual but not religious. Since when is religion a good thing anyway? And we should probably stop using dichotomies like outside/inside, it’s just another way of saying them and us.

So yes, my evangelism does involve beer. It also involves conversation, conversation around a table. If this doesn't seem like the right thing for you, don’t come. There’ll be more beer for the rest of us.

If this seems like your kind of thing, please join us.  We are a gathering of seekers, sinners, and saints. We bring our baggage and stand shoulder to shoulder with other people who share our same doubts, fears and religious PTSD, because some of us have experienced real trauma at the hands of the Church.  We don’t have it all figured it out, but singing and sharing a drink together seems like a good place to start. All are welcome, and means all!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Why My Grandmother Doesn't Need to Punch the Apostle Paul in the Mouth and Get Kicked out of Heaven

My grandmother, Georgia, is one of the great heroines of the Faith after which I try to pattern my life.  She loved God and people, and she was a true biblical feminist.  She used to say that when she got to Heaven, she was going to punch Paul slap in the mouth. Yes. That would be the Apostle Paul.  The guy who gets blamed for a lot of stuff including marginalizing women and homosexuals.

I recently finished a several week study on the passage found in 1 Timothy 5:3-16.  This passage talks about widows, old and young, and how they should be cared for by their families or other women, and what a real widow is, and how they should get married so they don't turn to Satan, and how they are idle gossips, and busybodies...If you're confused, there is a good reason.  No one knows exactly what is happening in this letter supposedly written by Paul giving the early Church a set of instructions regarding Church order.  But that's not what interests me in this passage.  What does interest me is the author's use of language in his set of instructions.  I won't bore you with all of the details of my research, but instead I want to lift up a pattern that I see happening in the 1 Timothy text that I think still happens today.  

How we understand the use of language in an argument is key to how we, as modern readers of the Bible, should understand 1 Timothy 5:3-16.  The side that takes possession of the language in a dispute can gain an unfair advantage. For example, calling an interpretation, feminist, infers a bias and thus an attempt to skew the argument. To label an interpretation as feminist demonstrates a microagression in regards to gender and makes the claim that the interpreter does not agree with the predominate point of view; in the case of 1 Timothy, a point of view that is historically patriarchal. Another example to consider is the phrase, high view of Scripture. This phrase was used by those who, during the Civil War era, claimed that the Bible supported their right to own slaves.  Those who did not hold the same point of view were labeled as those who held a low view of Scripture. This same argument is used today.  Recently, while listening to a lecture given by a visiting professor on Evangelical Tradition in the United States, I heard him describe Evangelical Christians, and those who hold a literal view of Scripture, as having a high view of Scripture.  Why are those who hold the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, rather than the literal word of God, considered to hold a lower view? Why do those who hold the high view claim to speak with such authority?
This literal understanding of Scripture has led to some of the most problematic issues that the Church faces today.  In 1972, the Reverend Eddie Fox, an ordained elder within the United Methodist Church, wrote a statement to be included in that denomination’s Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.  He wrote that “homosexuality was not in keeping with Christian teaching.”  The words of  Reverend Fox have been, for the UMC, an authoritative statement that has limited, and excluded, people on the LGBTQ spectrum, not only from answering and living out a call as clergy, but also from the larger Church body.  Recent proposals to make changes to the Book of Discipline have brought further argument from Fox, “The UMC statement on human sexuality needs to be clear, concise and faithful to biblical teaching.  Leaving out that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching would be confusing, especially for members of the church outside of the United States.”  These statements still control the argument regarding human sexuality in the United Methodist Church, a debate which spilled over in the Fall semester of 2013 into the student body of Candler School of Theology as Fox was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award by the Candler Alumni Board. Letters were written to Dean Jan Love and a protest was held on the day of the awards ceremony. Many conversations were held in the halls and classrooms of Candler. Both sides of the argument were discussed and considered, but the side that preferred the statements written by the Revered Fox, the side that claimed to hold a biblical view in keeping with Christian teaching enjoyed preference within the debate. Those on the other side of the debate, especially those individuals on the LGBTQ spectrum felt as if their status as Christians, and even their humanity, were being questioned.

So, what meaning can the modern reader glean from this second-century text?  1 Timothy 5:3-16 is just as significant to the Church today as it was when is was written, for this reason: Today’s reader must ask questions of the biblical texts with which they engage and assess the role of authority with a critical eye, ear, and mind. This text is a part of an ugly history that has been used to control women; a history I know very well. As I child, I fell in love with the stories in the Bible.  I loved Noah, Moses, Jonah, and Jesus. I used to pretend that I was a minister.  I would stand in front of an imaginary congregation and preach, but growing up in a denomination that would not ordain women meant that I could tell these stories in a Sunday School class, not from a pulpit.  By the time I was a teen-ager, I still loved the Bible and it’s heroes, with one exception, the Apostle Paul.

While studying this text, I have thought a lot about my grandmother and other women like her; women who have been told they cannot serve in leadership roles within the Church because of passages from the Bible like those found in 1 Timothy.  Not only have I been thinking about the implications for women, but those who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, and anyone who has known discrimination because of irresponsible exegesis and biased interpretations. So, I write this blog as a letter to my younger self, to those who have known this special brand of discrimination, and to my grandmother.

Dear Grandma:
Before you go looking for Paul, I've got something to tell you...

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Something About Mary

From Good Friday's Seven Last Words of Jesus.  This is my homily for word number 3, Behold Thy Mother.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mothers sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman here is your son.”  Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
John 19:25b-27

As Protestants, I think, we have have lost some of who we understand Jesus to be because we don’t really talk about Mary.

Mary shows up at Christmas, in TV specials and maybe in a Christmas pageant,
very pregnant, and uncomfortable, riding a donkey looking for a place to have her baby.
She and Joseph find a stable,
the baby is born, angels sing,
there’s a star,
shepherds come,
wise men visit from the east,
somewhere in there, there is a little drummer boy,
finally the family flees for Egypt.
And then we don’t really talk much about Mary until the next Christmas; where she shows up pregnant…AGAIN,
riding that same donkey.
It all fits very neatly into our liturgy and then we move on.

I’m not really sure why this happens. At times, I have thought this was because talking about Mary and honoring her for being the mother of god was entirely too Catholic; for us Protestants, that’s big C.

But what if it’s something else?
What if we don’t talk about Mary because Mary makes us remember that  this whole story about Jesus is just really messy?
Because when we bring Mary back into the story we have to remember that Jesus was someone’s son, not just the son of God.

It was Mary who intimately knew Jesus. It was Mary who felt the pains as she labored in childbirth, and then in the moments after he was born counted his fingers and toes. Mary changed his diapers, and held his pudgy little hands as he learned to walk. She intuitively knew the difference in his cries; she knew if he was crying out in pain or in fear, knew if he was hungry, or cranky and just needed a nap.
In Luke’s Gospel, we read about how Mary’s heart raced in a panic when she and Joseph could not find him as they headed home from Jerusalem and then made a three day journey back to find Jesus sitting in the temple. For three days Mary did not know where her son was...
And then she hears him say to herself and Joseph that they should have known where he would be.
Now, Luke’s Gospel says that Mary and Joseph didn’t understand what he was saying to them, but as a parent, I have to tell you that I read between the lines here, and I think that Mary understood all to well what had happened and didn’t appreciate being worried by a smart-alec, teen aged boy. 

In the Gospel of Mark, we read about how some of Jesus’ family go to get Jesus while he is preaching because they though that he had lost his fool mind.  Was this because Mary had said to her sons, “I'm worried about Jesus, go get him”?

Back to the Gospel of John, it is at the wedding in Cana where Mary tells her son that they have run out of wine. She approached Jesus with expectation that he could fix the disaster of the  moment. She settles things with Jesus and then tells the servants, with a mother’s pride, “do what he tells you”.

Mary treasured in her heart those times of joy, but she also had recall of those moments that were painful.
And now, we read that she is standing near the cross watching the unthinkable happen because there is no other place she could possibly be.
The time that Jesus walked among humanity on earth may have only been around 33 years, but after Jesus dies, Mary is still his mother.

So, I think that, maybe we don’t talk all that much about Mary because she makes us feel uncomfortable. She reminds us that there are people who suffer.  That there are mothers who watch their children die.  She reminds us that there is injustice and that innocent people lose their lives.
In our culture we can separate ourselves from the suffering of other people, from the suffering happening in our world.  We can change the channel on the television or the radio, we can chose not to sit with people who are suffering, we can walk away.

In like fashion, 
We’ve sanitized the stories in the gospels: 
the birth the narrative, 
the crucifixion, 
and even the resurrection because they’re too messy and too painful. 

We would prefer to cast these messy stories in an angelic glow
 like some medieval painting,
everyone looks a little sad, but they’re all still pretty clean.
We would rather leave out details that make the stories real.
I think that Mary is one of those details.
Because it’s easier to think about the pregnant woman on a donkey waiting to have a child 
than a broken woman standing by a cross as she watched her son die the humiliating death of a criminal.

When we reclaim the story of Mary, we reclaim the humanity of Jesus. And as we reclaim the humanity of Jesus through the messiness that was his story, we reclaim the humanity of ourselves, and the humanity of other people. Amen.