Monday, July 21, 2014

Preaching the Mystic Vision of Saint Paul

Last Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary reading from the epistles was Romans 8:12-25. I picked it up at 8:9. I wanted to share with my congregation the importance of having a mystic vision. I began my sermon by saying:

“I would describe what we just read as part of a mystic vision. I believe Paul was a Jewish mystic. What I mean by that is that he put a priority on direct experience of God. Mystical awareness is an awareness of the Divine pervading all reality that is generated through direct encounter with God. Later in this letter at the conclusion of a section where Paul expounds on redemptive history he exclaims, “For from God and through God and to God are all things" (11:36). That is a mystic vision of reality. He didn’t get this simply through the Hebrew Scriptures, though there are hints of it there, but he came to this through his own direct experience of the Divine.”

I think most Christians today have very inadequate conceptions of God, which make it difficult for them to think of God in such an all-inclusive, universal, non-dual sense. Many Christians, I think, imagine God as a person much like themselves only bigger and greater—all-powerful and all-knowledgeable.

A mystic vision does not deny that God relates to us personally, but God cannot simply be designated a person. At the very least God functions as a person in the way God relates to human persons, but God is certainly more than what we mean when we use the word. Unfortunately, much Christian language and hymnology contributes to the confusion. For example, when we sing, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

But if we take Paul’s mystical vision seriously, then besides exercising the qualities or attributes of personhood, God is also the very source of life that interacts, intersects, and pervades all reality. Everything is connected and everything participates in the ebb and flow of the Divine Life.

I said to my congregation on Sunday,

"We might even think of the universe in all its dimensions being the body of God. That analogy breaks down, however, because God is conscious within that body at all points and in all parts. The Divine consciousness is always present. As the Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr likes to say, there is no circumference, there is only the center and God is at the center. Every point is a center point where God is, where God dwells in full consciousness. If you could somehow magically travel to the farthest reaches of the universe which is still expanding by the way, God would be consciously present there in God’s fullness.
My sense is that all consciousness from the consciousness of a dolphin to the consciousness of an infant to the consciousness of an Albert Einstein is all connected to the Divine consciousness. In Psalm 139 the psalmist expresses this sense of God’s inescapable presence. God is everywhere anyone and anything will ever be.

The Divine indwells each of us. As Christians, we (along with Paul) identify the Divine with the Christ, because this is the way we know God—through the Christ image. You may have noticed in this passage that Paul uses the terms “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” interchangeably. As Christians we know God through the Christ, and we know the Christ through the historical Jesus, or more accurately through the sacred tradition of Jesus that has been passed on to us.
Sisters and brothers, this is where language simply breaks down. Language can’t carry all the meaning. This is why God language is always symbolical language. We have to use symbols and metaphors and images to speak of God and even then we can only approach a particular aspect of God through the symbol, metaphor, or image. God of course is so much more.”

So much of the spiritual life is about awareness—becoming consciously aware of what already is—so that we can live into that reality, so that we can become who we already are, namely, the beloved daughters and sons of God. I pointed out to my congregation that this is all gift,  

“Did you do anything to earn your place in life? Your very existence and your emergence as a human being from development in the womb to birth to infancy to childhood and even to where you are now has been pure grace. There were many factors over which you had no control whatsoever: your place in history, your genetic constitution, your parents or care givers, etc. At some point you began to exercise some responsibility for your personal development, but you didn’t earn your place in the world. Life has been given to you. 
It’s the same in our connection with God. You are a child of God not because you believed or did certain things. It’s pure grace. But once you become aware of who you are and how connected you are to everything else, you become responsible to participate in the process of becoming like the Christ within you.”
I went on to contrast “life in the Spirit” with “life in the flesh” as two different ways to live rooted in awareness and unawareness. I also emphasized that life in the Spirit engenders hope that this world can be transformed (8:18-25).

I said,  
“The Divine within will never lead us to withdraw from this world into our own exclusive tribe or colony or group where we care only about our kind of people, and where we just wait for God to take us out of the world. This is why Rapture Christianity is so toxic, because those who embrace it tend to abandon care and compassion and a sense of responsibility to this world which God loves and wants to transform.
God loves this world and is at work in this world and we are called to participate with God. If Jesus and Paul and the early Christians were right about how much God loves and cares for this world, then the Spirit will always lead us into this world with all its suffering and injustice and oppression where we can be the body of Christ, where the Spirit can flow through us to touch and minister and heal and care for this creation.”
I am convinced that a mystic vision is the hope of our planet. I hope more Christian ministers will proclaim it and Christians will embrace it.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Would Jesus Say to Shawshank Redemption's Samuel Norton?

The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movies list. It is punctuated with great lines and saturated with rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of toxic Christianity.

The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. It becomes clear, however, from the moment he appears in the story that his Christianity is in name only. His faith has holes in it larger than the one Andy Dufrense chiseled through his cell wall.

When Andy and the other prisoners first stand before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. When one of the prisoners asks, “When do we eat?” the warden has him beaten. Holding out a Bible, he says to the captives, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.”

Contrast the scene above with the one in Luke 4 where Jesus, in the synagogue at Nazareth, applies Isaiah 61 to his understanding of his mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In one scene, the warden enters Andy’s cell and lays hold of Andy’s Bible. Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth as if in a Bible ping pong match. The warden does not open the Bible, which is a good thing since the rock hammer Andy uses to tunnel through his cell wall is hidden inside.

When the warden hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.”

Does salvation lie within the pages of Scripture? Yes and No. Much depends on what we focus on in the Bible, how we apply what we focus on, and why we do what we do.

In healthy versions of Christian faith the Bible is employed as an instrument of liberation and transformation. In the hands of Christians like warden Norton it is used to clobber our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and to oppress women, keeping them “in their place” under the authority of men.

For Jesus, compassion always trumped blind obedience to Scripture. Love of neighbor, which included both the oppressed and the oppressor, always claimed precedence over biblical prescriptions and precepts. Jesus clearly read his Bible with a bias toward love. Thus he knew which Scriptures to accept and reject, to obey and disobey, to submit to and to ignore and dismiss.

For example, Jesus completely ignored the laws of clean and unclean in Leviticus 13 and 14 pertaining to leprosy when he touched and healed the leper in Mark 1. (“Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him . . . Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean!”)

Also, when Jesus allowed a woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” to touch him, he clearly dismissed Leviticus 15:25. (“If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days . . . all the days of the discharge . . . she shall be unclean.”)

Jesus completely reversed the laws of clean and unclean in these situations: Instead of Jesus being rendered impure by an unholy touch, the “unholy” touch resulted in the leper and the woman being healed and made whole.

Jesus refused to allow Bible literalists to tell him who he was or what he could and could not do. 

Now back to the warden’s interchange with Andy, which ends with the warden quoting John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion what that verse really means. The warden walks in darkness and is about as blind and un-liberated a person as you would ever find. But he thinks he is a Christian.

Religion can easily become a cleverly disguised way of protecting the ego—a way for us to feel secure, superior, safe, and in control. Jesus saw right through this.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus enjoyed hospitable table fellowship, not with the moral majority, but with the immoral minority? The gatekeepers were invited, but they didn’t want any part of those Jesus kept company with. The religious officials were not comfortable around Jesus, while many “sinners” were drawn to him. 

Those who thought they could see were actually blind, while those who knew they were blind found spiritual sight. 

What would Jesus say to warden Samuel Norton? Perhaps what he said to the religious leaders in John 9 when they asked him sarcastically: “Surely we (the religious elite and gatekeepers) are not blind, are we?”

Jesus said:

“If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Is there a bit of Samuel Norton in all of us? I suspect there is. If we are certain that we see, then we are probably blind, and our sin (our illusions, ego defenses, false attachments, addictions to power, control, etc.) remain.
Healthy religion and authentic spirituality have nothing to do with being correct or citing Bible verses. Nor is it about wearing the right badges or shouting the right pledges. There is no “Roman Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” that lead to salvation. There are no five steps, or six principles, or seven habits for highly spiritual people. 

What we Christians have is Jesus. And the real test of genuine faith is whether or not we have the passion and will to imitate him—to love the way he loved.

There are two dramatic scenes that I like to imagine represent the outcomes of these two different approaches to Christianity (or religion in general):

Scene 1: When the warden’s money laundering is exposed and the authorities come to take him into custody, he looks over at a message hanging on his office wall about God’s righteous judgment coming soon. Next, he pulls the trigger that ends his life.

Scene 2: On a night of heavy thunder and rain, Andy crawls through the hole he has patiently dug month after month, year after year from inside his cell. He reaches a pipe barely large enough for a human body, full of sludge, which eventually empties into a creek beyond the prison fence. With the storm as a cover, he busts through the pipe, crawling through the sludge. When he eventually “dumps” into the creek, he rips off his prison clothes in a moment of jubilation celebrating his new found liberation.

Andy’s experience can be our experience when we follow Jesus into a larger world beyond the prison walls of Bible worship and toxic religion—a world permeated and pervaded by love of God and love of neighbor.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

When Prejudice Disguises Itself as Holiness

Prejudice disguises itself as holiness when passages such as Romans 1:26-27 are employed to clobber LGBTQ persons. The text reads as follows:

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Here is the problem with turning Paul into an anti-gay proponent: Paul, along with most ancient moralists, would have regarded same sex relations as an expression of excessive or exploitive sexual behavior by heterosexuals. It is not likely that he would have had any understanding at all of same sex attraction as a sexual orientation set early in life. Paul’s knowing about sexual orientation is about as likely as his knowing of atoms and electrons as basic elements of our universe. He would have been totally unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has no choice, and sexual behavior over which one does. Paul and everyone else in his day most likely believed that everyone was “straight.” The idea of sexual orientation or the possibility of a same-sex committed relationship were not even on their radar.

If one applied the same reasoning that Paul employed in Romans 1:26-27 to what we know today, then one could very well argue that for same-sex oriented persons to have sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex would mean acting “contrary to nature”—contrary to one’s unchangeable basic sexual orientation.

It is common for anti-gay proponents to argue that gay marriage denies the natural order. This is such a weak and misguided argument. It certainly sounds lame when Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 11: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Does nature really teach that? Are families who have children through adoption (rather than through procreation) perverting the “natural” order of things? Is my Down Syndrome daughter sinful because she has an additional chromosome with the resulting consequence of limited mental ability? Her state is definitely not “natural.”  

But let's come back to the likelihood that Paul would not have had any understanding of sexual orientation as an unchangable state. An example of how limited knowledge impacts the meaning of Scripture (both the original meaning intended by the biblical writer and our assessment of its relevance) is the way the Gospel writers understood and attributed diseases like epilepsy, psychological disorders, and even birth defects and disabilities to the work of unclean spirits or demons. They simply didn't know any different. 

Another example is the way ancient people conceived of the earth as the center of the universe and the way biblical writers believed in a three-tiered cosmology consisting of God’s heaven above the dome of the sky, the earth in the middle, and sheol (the abode of the dead) below the earth.

In holding to these beliefs they were simply echoing the common beliefs of their time and culture. They did not have available the accumulated knowledge we have access to.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it could be proved that Paul did know something about sexual orientation and still condemned same sex relations. Would that settle the issue? Does that mean that God is against such relations?

I have spent my life studying the Bible and it is central to my faith, and one thing that has become crystal clear to me is that the biblical writers got some stuff dead wrong. They certainly got God wrong when they imagined that God wanted Israel to utterly destroy any group of people who got in their way of taking possession of the promised land.

Did God really command Saul to kill even the women and children of the Amalekites as the Bible says in 1 Samuel 15:1-3? (“Thus says the Lord of hosts . . . Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox an sheep, camel and donkey.”) Is this the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies, to pray for them and do good by them? I don’t think so.

Some biblical writers were wrong in believing that women were inherently and morally inferior to men and incompetent to lead as 1 Timothy 2:11-14 teaches (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”)

And let’s be honest about biblical sexual mores: They were all over the place. Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced throughout the Old Testament without a single word of condemnation by any biblical writer. Not a single judgmental word. 

Why not? Because patriarchy dominated in ancient Israel. Even Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”) which Jesus referenced in his argument against divorce was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. They believed a man could become “one flesh” with more than one woman, through the act of sexual intercourse.

Consider the following sexual mores found in the Old Testament (almost always favoring male power and dominance):

  • Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of brides and property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). 
  • A man could not commit adultery against his own wife; he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife. And a bride who was found not to be a virgin was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21). 
  • When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with his eldest brother (serial polygamy?). If he died without producing an heir, she turned to the next brother, and if necessary to the next, and so on. Jesus mentions this practice without any criticism (Mark 12:18-27). 
  • I suspect many Christians would be surprised to learn that the Old Testament nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults, as long as the woman’s economic value was not compromised.
  •  And of course there were those practices considered taboo: sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period was strictly forbidden (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24); nudity was forbidden (2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa 20:2-4; 47:3); and semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them ritually unclean (Lev. 15:16-24).

Does the Bible present a clear sexual ethic? Obviously not. Any honest and sincere interpreter of Scripture who is truly interested in truth should concede this.

And what contemporary Christian would argue today in favor of slavery even though there are clearly some biblical passages that condone and support it? Most interpreters (even those who believe in biblical inerrancy) understand that there is a deeper tenor and ethos of Scripture that emerged from Israel’s experience of the Exodus and from the life and teachings of Jesus, namely, that God identifies with the outcast and marginalized, and God’s passion is to liberate the oppressed.

The same logic should be applied to the handful of biblical texts that condemn excessive and exploitive same-sex behavior and say nothing about committed same-sex relationships.

So why do many Christians today reject what we know about sexual orientation and insist that the Bible is clear and right when condemning same-sex relations? I believe their biblical literalism and their deluded concept of holiness are nothing more than a cover for their entrenched prejudice and fear that they are unwilling to acknowledge.

Every interpreter and faith community must pick and choose which texts will have authority in their lives and communities. The question is not: Do we pick and choose? We all do. The more pertinent question is: What will guide our picking and choosing?

I would advocate that we use reason, common sense, our best sense of what is good, right, just, fair, and loving, and the clear and obvious themes that dominate the Jesus tradition in the New Testament through which Christians should filter all other Scripture.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus says nothing about same-sex relations or relationships?  Jesus, like everyone else in his era, would not have had access to the knowledge we possess today about fixed sexual orientation. Still, Jesus does not utter a single word of judgment. What Jesus does condemn, however, are attitudes and actions rooted in prejudice, greed, and intolerance, and he exhorts us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.

I believe all sexual mores should be critiqued by the love ethic of Jesus. Such a love ethic is mutual, caring, loving, and non-exploitative. Jesus challenges both heterosexuals and LGBTQ persons to question their sexual behavior in light of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and love—that which is truly in the best interest of the other person.

I believe that Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons are not only misinterpreting Scripture and standing on the wrong side of history (like the pro-slavery Christians once were), they are in my opinion betraying the very one they call their Lord.

I suppose we all (I’m certainly no exception) have called evil good in order to justify some bias that we pass off as holiness. We all have blind spots. However, growth in spiritual awareness, sensitivity, and compassion exposes them.

Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons pursue a false holiness they can measure, mandate, and control. They are not interested in the holiness of grace—grounded in honesty and humility and expressed through faithfulness and forgiveness.

The blindness of Christian pro-slavery advocates was eventually exposed. I am hopeful that the day will come when Christian anti-gay proponents will either acknowledge their blindness or else their anti-gay bias will be exposed as non-Christian.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Is On the Wrong Side of History

The church I pastor  (Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, KYis affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group that broke away from the fundamentalist dominated Southern Baptist Convention in 1991.

Cecil Sherman was the first Executive Coordinator of CBF and I distinctly remember the story he told to a small group of pastors that met with him in 1992 who were in much prayer and thought about leading their churches out of the SBC to be part of the new organization (CBF does not call itself a denomination, but it clearly functions as one).

Dr. Sherman told us that he was part of a group called “the Peace Committee” formed at the height of the controversy, which (in theory) was to be a safe place where moderates and conservatives could try to work out some of their differences and coexist. Sherman made, I thought, a generous offer. He said to the conservatives, “Let the moderates have Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and one other school of your choosing and you can have the other four theological schools [that included Southwestern Theological Seminary in Texas, the largest seminary in the world at the time]. We each can do theological education our way.

Prominent SBC Pastor Adrian Rogers, who was also on the Committee said, “We don’t want four of the seminaries, we want all six of the seminaries.” It was that spirit that drove moderate Baptists out of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Last year our church discovered that CBF has a restrictive hiring policy that is condemnatory toward the LGBTQ community. The Coordinating Council adopted this policy in October of 2000, but our church leadership only became aware of it last year. On the CBF website the policy is titled: “Organizational Policy on Homosexual Behavior Related to Personnel and Funding.” It reads as follows:

As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness. We also believe in the love and grace of God for all people, both of those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not. We treasure the freedom of individual conscience and the autonomy of the local church, and we also believe that congregational leaders should be persons of moral integrity whose lives exemplify the highest standards of Christian conduct and character.

Because of this organizational value, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.  

The church I pastor is a welcoming and affirming congregation. We not only welcome LGBTQ persons as members into our fellowship, we welcome their service and leadership (no position of leadership is closed to LGBTQ members). For obvious reasons we found the CBF hiring and funding policy deeply offensive.  

In October of 2013 I sent a letter with the unanimous consent of our deacon body to the new Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter. It read:

Dear Ms Paynter,
Congratulations on your new position as CBF Executive Coordinator. I wish I did not have to correspond with you on such a serious matter, but I must.

Our church recently became aware of the CBF organizational policy on homosexual behavior related to personnel and funding that was adopted in October 2000. We are a welcoming and affirming congregation, and find this policy very disturbing.

The policy “does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice.” Our church would come under that ban since we affirm the LGBTQ community as equal members. The policy justifies this on the basis that “congregational leaders should be persons of moral integrity whose lives exemplify the highest standards of Christian conduct and character,” obviously judging  homosexuals as persons lacking in moral integrity and high Christian conduct and character. We do not believe sexual orientation in and of itself says anything about a person’s “moral integrity” or “Christian conduct and character.”
It was the unanimous decision of our deacon body that I write and express to you our concerns. We have two important questions, the answers to which will determine the level of our continuing support of CBF.

First, is this policy being currently implemented? Secondly, is there any formal discussion going on (committee, group, etc) that could lead to a change in this policy?

If there is I would be glad to be part of that discussion. I believe that change best comes from within, rather than without.  
Your response to these questions would be much appreciated.
Grace and peace, 
Chuck Queen, Senior Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, KY

The letter was sent and we waited. No response. Did the letter get lost? The letter was sent a second time. In July of 2014 we are still waiting for a response.

It took the Southern Baptist Convention a long time, but finally in 1995 the denomination formally apologized for its support of slavery and racism. For many years the SBC stood on the wrong side of history.

I wonder how long it will take the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to realize that with regard to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers it is on the wrong side of history. How long will it take for them to apologize for their condemnatory policies toward our LGBTQ sisters and brothers?