Roadtripping with Bipolar

ubcutsTomorrow I leave for Winston–Salem, NC for the final mid–semester intensive before I defend my dissertation in August, God willing and if the creek don’t rise. For the first time, we are gathering with other cohorts for a church conference co-sponsored by United Theological Seminary and Union Baptist Church, pastored by Bishop Dr. Sir Walter Mack, who is a longtime mentor at the seminary. In theory, I really want to go.

But there’s also reality. I’m on two new medications, something about which I wrote two days ago, which brings me up to a grand total of ten. Two meds have to be taken with food, one has to be taken an hour before food, seven have the side effect of dizziness, four can cause edema, five can cause drowsiness, and I’m a bit uncertain how these two new ones are going to interact with everything else as it has only been a few days since I started taking them.

I also have problems with large crowds, which sucks because I grew up following Bob Dylan. I’ve seen him live thirty-two times, and it isn’t more because I had to stop a decade ago. I have a pretty kick-ass live show list, but those days are gone. Add to my growing agoraphobia, severe tinnitus, hyperacusis, declining hearing, and tactile issues, events with lots of noise and people are an energy-draining nightmare for me, especially if Miriam is not with me to be an assuring and reassuring buffer.

I used to really like road trips by myself. I’m an introvert who likes complete control over the radio. Of course, we all have the same prep: do we bring food, or eat on the road? Since starting a keto diet, I am decidedly a “bring food” person. Today I finally have to face the wreck that is my car. I still have stuff in there from Julius Caesar, and by “stuff” I mean LaCroix cans and unwashed costume pieces. I am much less anxious driving in a clean car.

Since becoming sick, road trips are exhausting endeavors filled with contingency plans. What if I get too dizzy or fatigued and can’t make the drive in one day? I’ve already scouted hotels along the way and will get up early to make the opening worship. What if I have a bipolar episode, need help, but am unable to communicate? Miriam can track my phone and we’ll check in every hour until I get there. If I don’t respond within half an hour, she’ll know my location and can call for help.

I hope this week is a positive experience, but truth be told I am just hoping to get through it and back home safely. I don’t have children, So I don’t have to negotiate those challenges. I can only imagine the stress and exhaustion. I write as a chronically ill person finishing a doctorate. As a result of my own experiences, I think I am now more sensitive and aware of what I don’t know about others. Sometimes, showing up is the greatest thing a person can give. The energy I will expend just to show up dressed and with a smile on my face is enough to warrant another eight hours of sleep.

At this point, I don’t know what my level of participation and engagement will be; I hope high. Regardless, as I continue to discern God’s presence in life’s challenges, I am increasingly aware of how important it is to be kind to someone who is late, or who arrives a bit disheveled, or who may fall asleep during an event. Too often we assume laziness, poor organizational skills, or incompetence. We so often err on the side of cruelty.

My thyroid and medications are conspiring to tip me over 300 lbs. I’m constantly cold. I hear multiple high-pitched tones all the timealong with two other manifestations of tinnitus, from moment-to-moment I ward off panic attacks, I’m frightened to speak on the phone. I need a ridiculously powerful sleeping pill to sleep, yet I am deeply exhausted most of my waking hours. This is on good days. I push through all of this because life is beautiful. My being there is a sign that I care, that I’m engaged, just like everyone else.

I also call off. I lose focus. It can take me days to make a phone call because my anxiety is so high. I can be so exhausted it is perhaps unpleasant to speak with me because I look sick and/or disinterested. I forget things, misremember details, and can become confused and overwhelmed in certain situations. For all the positives you get with me, there is a growing list of negatives. I’m discovering that’s how it is with chronic illness, the greatest of which, for me, is Bee-Dee.

There are people who go through so much more than what I describe. So. Much. More. But that’s kind of the point. Our culture is cruel. We don’t have to be.

Your Own, Personal Pilate: A Pastor Pottymouth Production


Screenshot 2018-03-17 12.13.29Pontious Pilate, by all extrabiblical accounts, was a sociopathic asshole.  That documents produced by nascent Christianity, with the Roman sandal on its neck, paint Pilate as a reluctant pawn in a larger cosmic game is not surprising. From the earliest credal proclamations, Jesus died under Pontious Pilate but not because of him. It makes sense in a way: why poke an already enraged bear? By the time the Gospel of Mark was penned in 70 CE, the Second Jerusalem Temple was razed, never to rise again.

But let us dissuade ourselves from the romantic notion of Christians dying en mass at the hands of the Romans for the greater glory of God. A vast majority of the martyrdom stories from the second century are akin to novellas, stories that fit nicely within a culture that values dying for a cause. The risks were real, to be sure, but there was a choice to be made. You could stand up to the Empire, as did Jesus, or you could accommodate it. An overwhelming number of Christians did the latter. Many of us, myself included, make the same sort of choices.

Like the East Coast crowd and Snoop Dogg at the 1995 Source Awards, Pilate had no love for the Jews. His first day on the job he showed up flying the Roman standards, a direct violation of the previous agreement struck between Rome and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish legal authority. The result? Perhaps the first ever non-violent sit it. Pilate caved, lowered the standards, but he never forgot. He raided the Temple treasury to build the aqueducts, something akin to the mayor of Washington D.C. raiding the offertory of the National Cathedral. Finally, Pilate terrorized and executed Samaritan pilgrims, an action that led to his being recalled to Rome for brutality.

Think about that. Recalled to Rome for brutality.

If scripture were made of tweets, Pilate’s would have looked something like the one sent out by the small, fat thumbs of Der Twittler last night after our racist, jelly-spined Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. (Click here and here for facts and analyses.) McCabe himself issued a statement earlier today. pointing out that he and his family have been bullied and ridiculed by the chief executive for over a year.

The occupier of the Oval Office’s lawyer John Dowd is calling for Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation to cease. Again, this thoroughly corrupt Administration blurs the lines of any propriety, Dowd first claimed to be speaking for his boss but then claimed to speak only for himself, as if anyone would give a flying fuck what this troglodyte thinks were it not for his client. And across the Twitterverse and discussion threads throughout the interwebz, Russian bots and their American enablers are screaming that Pilate really tried to save Jesus. The corruption and abuse of power is breathtaking.

Lent is not symbolic. Good Friday is not about wearing black. We have choices to make. If we are serious about following Jesus, we have to call out the forces that killed him. That continue to kill people today. That kills us spiritually if we excuse evil, or even worse, rally to its side and become agents of destruction. I hold no delusions about the sanctity of the office of the presidency. Andrew Jackson was a genocidal racist. Woodrow Wilson loved Birth of a Nation, the first film screened in the White House. Let’s stop this faux patriotism bullshit. The office is only as great as we make it, and we have let it sink into the sewer and that is how it should be regarded. But I also think it is ridiculous to argue that there is some basic decency in the country that always reveals itself. That has been patently false time and time again; it takes proactive, sustained efforts and a willingness to not tolerate evil presented as being “good at heart.”

There are those who say that faith and politics should not mix. And then there are those who have read the words of Jesus. What we are seeing right now is biblical. If Pilate had anything to do with the historical Jesus’ death—and there are reasons why he might not have—it is much more likely that he took great glee in watching this rebel, this arrogant man who dared take on the Empire suffer a public and brutal humiliation.

Anyone who tries to justify the horrid things this sociopathic man-child does is siding with the Empire, not with Jesus Christ.

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

I was recently told by someone whom I considered a good friend that I have a “daily sob story.” As we parted company, he said he won’t miss it and used a colorful term to paint me as one who cries hysterically at the smallest thing. I wish I could say that I was able to brush it aside as I do many other bombs that are lobbed at me with some regularity, but I haven’t. It hit my soft underbelly. Like many people living with chronic illness, diagnoses don’t stop with the “big one.” Systemic issues reveal themselves, sometimes through drug interactions, sometimes through the stabilization of primary symptoms that allow secondary ones to manifest more clearly. Sometimes a fresh hell is asymptomatic and is simply an unpleasant surprise.

Let me start out by saying that there are millions of people who have more complicated diagnoses, who do not have access to the same quality care, who do not have supportive family, friends, and colleagues, or the ability to advocate on their own behalf. Frankly, it is sad that we’ve turned illness into a competition in which we have to qualify or defend our own realities lest we seem like we’re complainers looking for attention. That was essentially the accusation levied at me, one made a few months ago that still hurts enough that I am writing about it now, less than twenty-four hours after a new diagnosis.

For those who may not know, here’s my deal. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder three years ago. I had been self-medicating with alcohol for years, which I continued to drink through the first year of my diagnosis. The initial mood stabilizer I was on, Geodon, caused me to have a nervous breakdown and I contracted viral conjunctivitis, a rare side effect, which did not do much to improve my mental state. I had to resign from a job that helped me pay for insurance. During this time, I gained 20lbs. I then switched to Lithium, which has been great at stabilizing my mood, but in three years I have gained 50lbs. I’m on three other medications to help manage my bipolar depression and General Anxiety Disorder.

My exhaustion level for the past few years has been pretty much beyond description. I’ve battled insomnia most of my life; natural and over-the-counter remedies do not work for me, and because of my weight I snore like all three stooges. I had two sleep studies late last year (just in time for the charges to be applied to the 2017 deductible, charges we’ll be paying off through 2020) that revealed I stop breathing 133x/hour. Diagnosis: severe sleep apnea. The CPAP machine is amazing and I use it religiously, but my exhaustion still remains. I take a sleeping pill with a dosage that made the nurse at my doctor’s office say, “Wow.”

Since I was a child, I have had problems with my ears. I was told that I would most likely lose my hearing around the age of 60; granted, this was in the early 80s and we have amazing treatments and hearing aids now. With that said, I have severe tinnitus, hyperacuity, and I need to have tubes put in every year (my hearing is declining rapidly, but the tubes should restore about 25%). There’s other stuff: I have become hypertensive. I have edema problems. Psoriasis. I just received a new diagnosis (see below). I am currently on ten medications.

Here’s the deal: I know that there are a lot of people who deal with many of these conditions individually or in combination. Some may deal with them all. I don’t believe I am special and I’m not asking for pity. I just want to make that clear, although I doubt it will stop the jackasses from making jackass comments.

When someone has the courage to speak up and say, “I’ve got some shit wrong with me and I’m not doing so well today,” I think the decent thing to do is not to belittle that person for being sick. Granted, my primary illness is a mental one. I see a therapist every week and I spend a lot of time trying to work through my paranoia and defensiveness, but it is fucking devastating to be ridiculed for sharing one’s struggles.

Chances are, there is someone in your life who is sick, broke, and tired. The energy it takes me to call the insurance company to appeal a decision is legion, and I ain’t got many. From the moment I wake up, I am thinking about how to time my meds, my meals, my water intake, how to manage if certain symptoms arise, feeling guilt and shame that I am unable to do the things I promised I could do because, well, because I’m sick, broke, and tired.

This week I began two new meds. The first is a new mood stabilizer that is weight negative that we hope will be able to replace Lithium, but that transition will be slow. The second is for my new diagnosis, a hypoactive thyroid. This could be the root problem of the weight gain, exhaustion, joint pain. Anybody who is on multiple medications knows that it is a bit of a roulette. This comes at a particularly bad time, as next week I am driving down to Winston-Salem for the mid-semester intensive for my doctoral program. I am terrified that I will not be able to make the drive in one go—I once had to stop overnight in Columbus on a trip to Cleveland—or that I will have dizziness, fatigue, confusion, etc. while I am there. Yet, if I miss the event, I have to repeat the semester, which simply is not an option.

I write this in hopes that at least one person will stop and think before they say something nasty to a person who deals with chronic illness. Stress is a killer. Feeling guilt and shame for simply stating facts about your life is bullshit. If nothing else, if I can’t reach the jackasses doing their jackassery, perhaps I can reach others who want to ven but feel they can’t: own your truth, you’re not alone, and I’m here whenever you want to kvetch.

“I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can”: On the surprising depth of Paul’s theology of the cross (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

huge-tiny-.gifThere are times when I hear about the religious beliefs of others and I shake my head, wondering how anyone could believe such claptrap. Take, for example, Scientology. Like, seriously. How could anyone believe the story of Xenu and thetans? Then I remind myself that the Christian story is absolutely outlandish. It defies logic to the point of absurdity. We forget this to our detriment, and today’s words from the Apostle help us to confront the fact that God purposefully has used the preposterous to reveal the nature of God’s power.

Let’s establish a few important things. Paul is writing in response to a letter the church in Corinth sent to him, a letter which is lost to history; Paul is writing to a mixed community, Jew and Gentile together, that is struggling to co–exist without reverting to division and confrontation. Most potently, Paul centers his theology in an impending end-time, an apocalyptic eschaton that will happen within a generation. Paul puts a lot of eggs in that basket. Of course, Jesus has not come back yet. On that count, Paul is way wrong.

But today’s passage shows that Paul’s theology of the cross is much deeper than simply believing that the blood of the lamb washes you clean, requiring nothing more of the individual until Christ comes back. Sadly, this is what often passes for Pauline theology. I describe it as, “I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can.” In fact, Paul seems to purposefully refrain from using some of his favorite eschatological sayings in these early verses; his focus in on what God has done, not what God will do. Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is: “Look, you’re reverting to these positions of division and making something profoundly simple unnecessarily complicated. I’m passing on to you the same thing that I learned, that Jesus was handed over to the authorities, tried, beaten, crucified, killed, and on the third day, raised. That’s all you need. Understand this and you will be unified. This is wisdom, everything else is foolishness.”

I’ll admit, this is a theology one might rightfully fear. It appears, perhaps, to require that a person believes in something fantastical and absurd because, well, Jesus. Literally, “because Jesus.” And we Christians are largely responsible for such a shallow understanding of Paul.

Paul’s argument is sophisticated, a reality expressed more clearly through the original Greek than it is in English. It is important to establish two things right off the bat: one, Paul sees the world as transient and therefore no wisdom can come from it; and two, creation is fallen, and the world is in active rebellion against God. So, again, why do we expect wisdom from human endeavors? Any attempt to engage Paul’s theology has to accept these assumptions. Paul believed the end of the world would be an act of wisdom.

Eschatology is not at the center here, as I mentioned before because Paul is using harsh language to describe what God has done in the world through Jesus. Paul juxtaposes σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ (wisdom of God) with μωρία (moria), a word often translated as “foolishness.” However, μωρία is actually the root word for moronic. So, Paul is saying, “There’s the wisdom of God, and then there is the moronic claptrap given by the world.”

Paul then goes a step further. He says, “What passes for wisdom is moronic. The people whom the world elevates as wise are morons.” They believe that might makes right, that God is always on the side of the victor, that wealth and power are always signs of divine favor. When the moronic passes for wisdom, how then is God to be heard?

Remember that Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, often called Greeks by Paul. “You Greeks love your wisdom,” he says. “And you Jews love your signs,” he adds, able to speak from experience about both as a Hellenized Pharisee. God, therefore, has flipped both of these conventions like Jesus rearranging tables in the Temple: God’s wisdom is that a peasant, itinerant Jewish preacher submits to the crushing power of religious and civic authorities, turning the cross, a sign of torture and imperial oppression, into the definitive symbol of God’s redeeming, liberating grace.

Think about that: foundational to our faith claim is that Jesus teaches us how to live the life we are designed to live by being rooted in the knowledge that God’s love, compassion, mercy, and justice prioritizes the least of these. As an eternal reminder of the seemingly absurd notion that God would side with the poor and the oppressed, we have the wisdom of the cross. It is in and of itself a scandal, something embarrassing, something that draws the ridicule and ire of the world, but it reminds us that God’s love is subversive. God’s love takes us to uncomfortable and difficult places, but our assurance is that God is with us. God is Emmanuel.

I get chills just thinking about the potency of this theology for our own time. However, that does not mean that Paul’s cross theology is not still problematic. Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes resistant to Paul because of how Paul has been used in damaging ways across the millennia. Yet, imagine how powerful and liberating this message must have been in the first century as the war drums between Rome and Jewish rebels became increasingly louder until they burst in 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. Think of how immediate Paul’s theology of salvation makes God if you are poor if your whole life is spent being denigrated by others, called foolish, told you are unworthy of God? God’s wisdom, God’s redemption, begins by seeing that God defies categories.

Lent reminds us that God’s message has been consistent across time. If we want to know God, we must love others. We must reject false wisdom, push back against the moronic promises of a world that is at war with peace. What God has done through Christ is purposefully absurd on the face of it. Who would look for a God made manifest in a rebellious, heretical, provocative, and thoroughly debased Jewish preacher who ended his life nailed to a tree? The answer? Those who know that God is not to be found in the structures of power that oppress those whom God has prioritized. Our faith claim is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule if we believe that money brings happiness, violence brings peace, fear brings loyalty, and morons bring wisdom.

Lent faces us with big questions. What does the cross mean? What does it point us to? What does it reveal about God? And when we pick up our own, what are the contours of the cross? What is the wisdom we take upon our backs as we march toward our own metaphorical crucifixions? What will we die to in the world when we are resurrected in God’s wisdom? Who is the God we have discovered in the unlikeliest of places? Let us keep our eyes fixed on the City of David and continue to kick up the dust on the Jerusalem Road. Amen.

After the Sermon: The Jesus You Find


I love to listen to stories told by couples or friends who have been with each other for a long time. Generally, it goes one of two ways: the story is seamless, they riff off one another, pause for laugh lines, and bring to life their shared experiences. Or, they interrupt one another. Bicker. Challenge the facts. Both approaches, in their own way, have merit.

We have the latter today. Mark and John are the original Bickersons. Mark reports the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John, the first four men to respond immediately to Jesus’ call to be fishers of human beings.

Last week, we considered John’s accounting of Nathanael’s call. Nathanael, who appears only in the Gospel of John, tells us a lot about John’s Jesus. He’s the things we have come to expect, having read Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called the Synoptic gospels—all of which were written before John—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, King of the Jews. But to John’s Nathanael, Jesus is the fulfiller of all prophecy.

According to John’s reckoning, Jesus attends the wedding at Cana, and records his first and most universally celebrated miracle, turning water into wine. But then, he goes to the Temple, an event that the Synoptics all record as happening at the end of Jesus’ ministry. John puts it in the beginning.

John also makes some other significant changes. “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem,” he reports. Seems straightforward enough. The Greek word ἀναβαίνω (“to go up”) was used in reference to religious pilgrims. But Jesus does not behave like one on a pilgrimage. Not because of the actions that he takes in the Temple, but rather for the actions he does not.

Throughout John’s gospel there are references to the “Passover of the Jews,” and central Jewish festivals like the feast of Tabernacles and the feast of Dedication do not concern Jesus and his disciples religiously. Jesus does not participate. There is no last supper in John’s gospel. In other words, John presents Jesus and the disciples as Christians for whom Jewish festivals are meaningless.

So, Jesus comes to the Temple, not as a pilgrim who then discovers his father’s house defiled but rather as one who is objecting to Jewish worship itself. According to an expert on the gospel of John, “Jesus could not have waited until the end of his ministry to effect his protest in word and deed against this kind of worship.”[1]

Here is where, were our two friends Mark and John to be sitting on the couch telling the story of Christ, the bickering would start. Jesus was Jewish, Mark would say. His mother was Jewish. His brothers and sister? Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. They were Jews who did Jewish things because in case you forgot: Jewish.

The bickering would continue after John says, “The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty–six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Uhh, Mark would interject, are you trying to say that Jesus was 46 years old? He was thirty, thirty–three at the most, so check your sources!

We would most likely witness full­–on arguing after John concludes, “But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” We can imagine Mark shooting back, Jesus told people to be quiet about his identity because there were people trying to kill him. He was a human being with human emotions. He lost his temper. He got irritated with people. He had to because that is the nature of human love. But Jesus spent time with people, getting to know them, encouraging them to be their best selves. That was kind of his whole bag.

The Gospel of Mark was written first and, crudely stated, presents Jesus as a man-god. The Gospel of John was written last and presents Jesus as a God-man. They sit on opposite ends of the couch, our two friends, and see Jesus much differently. That tension (or diversity, depending on your perspective) lives in our faith tradition because it is part of life. We can love someone with whom we disagree, even vehemently.

We each of us see things differently. Sometimes these differences are picayune. Sometimes they are prominent. Sometimes we sit on the couch right next to each other, holding hands, and sometimes we are each jammed up against opposite arms, staring daggers and grinding teeth. It can be difficult when we feel that someone else’s perspective is so alien, so hostile to our own, that we don’t even want to be in the same room.

There is merit to a Jesus who is more human. This Jesus is not only relatable, but also seems necessary if we are to imitatio christi, imitate Christ in our own lives. On the other hand, a Jesus who is perfect, who is the exemplification of divinity on Earth is powerful and represents the love of God in transcendent, transformative ways. There are lots of Jesi in–between. There is a Jesus that meets us in every situation, whether we find ourselves sitting right next to him or plastered to the aforementioned couch arm.  Amen.


When I purposefully chose the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary gospel portions for this Sunday’s worship, I didn’t know why I was doing so. There was just a nagging feeling in my gut. Because the information has to be sent to the paper on Monday by noon, I sometimes look back from the vantage point of Saturday and ask myself what I was thinking with a sermon title choice, or a decision to deviate from the lectionary we have been following.

This weekend has been difficult for me personally because of a recent piece that appeared in the local paper. I will pass over it without comment except to say that I understand being a public figure, I will be subject to criticism, fair or unfair. I’m a loudmouth who can have a poison pen. I know that backlash comes with the territory.  What was published is an attack piece, plain and simple.  Therefore, it is beneath my dignity to respond in print or to give a point–by–point refutation.

As someone who writes about following Christ and holding myself accountable for my actions, though, I try to reflect upon criticisms, even the ones that I feel are off–base. I think it is too my detriment if I do not, especially as someone who wishes to be a positive influence in the community.

My Christ was unrecognizable to the author of the…I don’t even know what to call it. Article is wrong, essay is too generous, and letter isn’t quite it either. But to the author, either I espouse a Jesus they’ve never seen or the implication is that I’m a hate–monger. I think it is important to get to the heart of this because it is an important issue to me. I try to be consistent and transparent in my life, perhaps too publicly but that is what I choose. And I try to emulate Christ in a way that is an ongoing mea culpa for the Church as a whole.

It is my responsibility to follow the Christ I see and feel, but always to remain humble and attentive to the experiences of others. It is important that when I use harsh words to denounce structures and systems that stand in opposition to the Gospel, those words be spoken with a genuine love that is rooted in understanding that each person bears the Imago Dei, the image of God. I believe I have been consistent in doing just that, and when I do not I have always recognized it, apologized, and worked to do better.

Just yesterday, at our community meal, I made four new friends who are exploring spirituality in vibrant and exciting ways. While none of them are Christian, their words helped me draw closer to God. In our conversation, we learned from one another and planted seeds of compassion within the fertile soils of our hearts. I still smile just thinking about the powerful energy we experienced together.

I write this addendum because it is important to me that people who read my work know that I am not someone who acts differently than he professes. People are important to me. Especially those whom Jesus tells us to prioritize. I will not help create spaces and call them safe, only to invite in and tolerate people whose ideology is based on destroying others. I’ve said it before and will again, if that makes me intolerant, so be it.

The Christianity I follow is not based on confrontation, but it is also uncompromising. Homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia: there are all grave sins that have put millions of victims in their graves. For those who wish to have transformation and healing, I offer to be on that journey. For those who want to justify prejudice, there is no relationship for us to share except that of mutual sinners who’ll have to answer to God.

I thank you for your time. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

[1] Ernst Haenchen, Robert Walter Funk, and Ulrich Busse, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 182.

Oh, no! Not another Aziz Ansari piece! (Or, What’s so difficult about consent?)

consent .jpgWhether or not Grace’s complaints against Aziz Ansari meet the legal or moral definitions of assault is being discussed widely, with lots of good think– pieces exploring the nuances.  This is not one of those.

I write as a forty-one-year-old married man who has been a serial monogamist since I was a kid. I never had a one–night–stand (although I made out with a ton of people). But I had situations with girlfriends and longtime partners in which communication was poor. Or too much alcohol was involved. Or I was being selfish, or pushy. There were two times in which I did not heed the first no. I heeded the second, but the damage was still done. I wasn’t as safe as I once was; I had excuses, we always do, and it wasn’t intentional. But it took me looking beyond my own sexual desire to understand that I felt entitled to someone else’s body and that isn’t a good look for anyone.

I share this because I am reading so many men becoming defensive, responding something like, “OMG, we can’t do anything now without being accused of assault.” That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t mean that at all. What it does mean, though, is that we need to get serious about talking consent. We need to talk about it with one another, fellas. It needs to become part of what we think about when we think about having sex with another person. Sex is not masturbation with a meat puppet. It is an intimate act with another autonomous person who has agency.

I hear some men of my generation encouraging the generation of men behind us to “protect themselves from these women who just want to destroy men.” Consent talk, therefore, is just about guys protecting themselves from false accusations. It is not about the potential damage we can do to women. The Ansari story, in particular, seems to be Exhibit A in the menagerie of ridiculousness, according to the interwebz and twitting machine. She had bad sex and is now ruining Ansari’s life. See, though, any positive that might come from discussing the nuances of this situation is sullied because the mindset is that of adversaries. Men need to protect themselves from women.

To be sure, women have to engage in a totally different calculus, so I am not speaking to that. But this notion that there are millions of women looking to accuse of assault every man with whom they sleep is preposterous. It minimizes the real dangers of hook-up culture. I am not a sexual prude or puritan in the slightest, but frankly, if you’re a man who thinks that consent is only to protect yourself, you might want to reconsider your choice of sexual partner. Consent conversations are about trust and limits; they are about taking a few minutes before getting extremely intimate and asking, “So, what’re you thinking we should do?”

Consent is sexy. Safe words are hot. Asking questions, giving feedback, making suggestions, checking–in: all of these make for much, much better sex. Not always. Consent is not a guarantee that you have good sex. But it does help guarantee that you are at least getting the bad sex you signed up for.

I hope that enough men, especially Gen Xers, will talk to their sons and nephews, to their cousins and godsons about consent. And, of course, it is not just for heterosexual sex! The seismic shift, though, has to occur with the upcoming generations of boys understanding how to properly respond to clues both verbal and non–verbal. I hope that is something on which we can all agree.


Can anything good come out of Nazareth?: On God’s shitholes

9ChristianCaves.JPG“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael wonders aloud in today’s passage, the timing of which once again proves to me God’s continued guidance of us through Scripture.

Just a few days ago, the president of the United States allegedly referred to certain countries as shitholes, implying that the people from said countries are, well, the shit that fills the holes. Both Nathanael’s question and the president’s reported statement have the same underlying factor: assumptions about an area and a people they do not know or understand.


         Settlement in the area called Nazareth^ began during the Middle Bronze Age and continued through the Iron Age. Archaeology tells us this, as the great Jewish historian Josephus mentions nothing of Nazareth. It appears that the area was uninhabited after the Assyrians conquered the North in 722 BCE, but by the time of the Hasmonean Dynasty (c. second century BCE), there was a population of about five hundred souls.

Jesus lived in what St. Jerome terms a viculus, a Latin word that can describe both a small village or an alley. The Galilee—think of it as a province in which Nazareth is situated—was already looked upon with a bit of side-eye from those in Judea. Galilee was far from Jerusalem and was populated by persons who practiced Judaism in ways that were different from those in the South. Sadly, those customs have been lost to history, but we know enough to know that Nazareth was rarely used as a positive word. Where is he from? Nazareth? Oh, I see…

There is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated with the unfolding of time and a little insider knowledge.

Philip is the fourth disciple to be called, according to the Gospel of John. They are in the Galilean town of Bethsaida, and Philip goes looking for Nathanael, an apparent friend, and says to him: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” This is curious phrasing. Andrew, just a few verses before today’s passage, tells his brother Simon, whom Jesus renames Cephas, or Rock, that the Messiah, the Anointed One, has been identified.

But that’s not what happens here. No, Philip makes an important, but bold claim: Jesus is the fulfillment of all prophecy from the Hebrew Bible. He cites no book, no chapter, no verse. This Jesus, Philip tells his friend, is the real deal.

Nathanael is uncertain, as we’ve discussed. He is simply reflecting the attitudes of his time. In just a few chapters, Nicodemus will be queried by the chief priests and Pharisees after asking that Jesus be extended equal justice: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”

Philip does not give Nathanael an explanation or a defense of Nazareth, he simply says, “Come and see.” But it is he who is seen by Jesus, who in John’s gospel is more God than man, even before Nathanael knows Jesus’ name. Nate responds by extending two more important Christological titles: Son of God and King of Israel. Can any good come out of Nazareth? How does Messiah, Son of God, King of Israel, and fulfiller of all prophecy grab ya’?


         Above, I wrote that there is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated in the fullness of time and with some insider baseball. I submit to you that Nathanael’s call story largely is about needing to scratch beneath the surface. Don’t assume you know a place or its people if you are not from there; don’t rely on the prejudiced assumptions of others as a basis for your behavior. God sees you, the text says, from the most surprising of places.

For much of modern biblical studies, Nazareth in the first century has been considered a backwater burg. It was a place one left, not a place from which one came. But archaeology began to change that opinion in the late nineteenth century. A Neanderthal skull was discovered in 1934, dating human occupation to the Middle Bronze Age. Beneath the present-day Church of St. Joseph and the Church of the Annunciation are two caves that contain great marvels. The first, a painted plaster cross and a mosaicked floor with prayers to Jesus in Greek that likely date from before the time of Constantine (c. 4th century).

Even more telling, there is evidence of an original building constructed over the caves; the building was situated north-south, toward Jerusalem. It was likely a Jewish–Christian synagogue, again sparking heated debate regarding the split between Judaism and Christianity.

Also uncovered was a mikvah, a ritual Jewish bath, dating close to the second century. By the fifth century, the whole lot was buried as a church and monastery, likely a pilgrimage stop by the sixth century, was built and dedicated.


         See what happens when we dig beneath the surface? See what comes up when we don’t regard a place as a crap–hole with people to match? We find magnificent things.

It is important to remember that Jesus was born on the periphery, that the circumstances of his life helped him to understand intimately the challenges and stumbling blocks that assumptions can produce.

It is also important to remember that Jesus tells us, what we do for the least of these among us we also do to Jesus. We do to God.

My own personal political feelings aside, the Revised Common Lectionary is leading millions of Christians to this story today. That can’t just be a coincidence. Whether or not we think the president actually said the horribly dismissive and presumptive words, as Christians we should be stopped short that this text has come up now.

If ever we wonder whether or not scripture is still relevant, moments like this, at least for me, banish all doubt. Christian denominations and individuals around the world are stepping up. They are saying, “We know that good comes out of Nazareth.

When Nathanael saw Jesus and understood him, Nathanael not only changed his opinion but also started speaking up. Yeah, this guy from Nazareth. I’m telling ya’. Not what you expected, huh? Me neither, but I think that says a lot about our limits and God’s expansiveness, no?

I also like to imagine that there was some pride among the inhabitants of Nazareth. Not all, as Jesus was rejected at home and abroad. But I like to think about the little kids who suddenly stood a little taller, felt a little more seen because someone was willing to challenge the notion that Nazareth, and her peoples, were worthless. May we all remember this before we assume things about others that could cause them pain, or to feel unseen, or before we shut our own hearts to the work that God so often does in unexpected places. Amen.  


^I relied heavily on the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entries for archaeological information regarding both Galilee and Nazareth. Any errors or incomplete assessment of the evidence are mine alone.