I love Jesus.
I also understand that the statement makes a good number of people cringe. This makes sense, given that it so often is followed by judgmental statements meant to describe the flaws of those on the receiving end of the invective. I don’t love that Jesus. I don’t even want to know him.
But if you want to understand me you’ll come to understand that I love Jesus. My well-known conversion story–schizophrenic brother committed suicide and I began my fifteen-year path to the pastorate–is part of it. I wrestled intellectually with the Jesus I believed in for years; my doctrine was sound, but my life was not. The process of submitting to God unfolded over the course of years and would be as tedious to read as it would be to write; suffice it to say, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was able to take the necessary steps to create a life that allows me to live with health issues: Therapy with an amazing doctor; a medication protocol that strikes a good balance between managing the most troublesome aspects of bipolar and not so heavily altering my mental state that I lose a sense of self; recognizing and actualizing the need to work exclusively in the village; communicating clearly (and apologizing when I don’t) my needs when bipolar is winning; and myriad other issues.
But the biggest change has been quitting drinking. I tried for years to quit. I would make promises to myself and others that I would break. I let my alcoholism impact all areas of life, dragging others into it as well. My first marriage ended for many reasons, but the biggest was I chose alcohol over everything else, even when I acted like that was not the case. I didn’t do it maliciously–few drunks do–but as soon as I was able to regulate the need to drink because of mental health issues, the final piece necessary to quit was in place.
I attribute all of that to Jesus.
Christology literally means “words about Christ.” In seminary, all students are required to take at least one course in systematic theology, which involves writing a synthesized explanation for the major questions that arise when talking about belief in the Christian God. It is impossible to write a cohesive systematic theology by compartmentalizing each aspect. What one believes about Jesus informs what one believes about the sacraments, the means of grace and salvation, theological anthropology, and the ends of existence. I had this sorted out intellectually, but four years ago I began to feel the need to no longer just preach and teach, but rather to live the principles embodied in and through Jesus Christ.
Regular readers of the blog or those who know me irl will know about the Beloved Community Project. I have thrown myself into the life of the village because I believe that God has provided me the milieu in which I can preach the gospel through the work I do, most often without even saying the name of Jesus. As we’ll talk about in this series, I believe the statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But I do not believe that it indicates the exclusive passage a spiritual life. In following Jesus, I have discovered that the truth is almost always found by following love. I have discovered that a rich, meaningful life is, as Jesus says, understanding that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” I am a Son of Man, the male offspring of a male father–there are multiple ways in which the term is used in biblical documents; in the book of Ezekiel, we see the example I employ above–and by trying to serve various communities, I feel more alive than ever.
But I don’t think everyone will necessarily experience this, nor do I think that my approach is superior to others simply because I believe in Jee-suhs.
I have been a biblical scholar for most of my career; I wrestle with the Bible each and every week I am in the pulpit, which is most Sundays. I take the Bible seriously, but not so I can condemn others to hell while ignoring my own legion of sin. I read the Bible because it helps me in this deconstruction of a false self and the taking on of Christ, like a warm cloak over my cold flesh. I preach to share history, theory, words of comfort, and to issue loving commandments to take Christ into the community with us, ears opened and mouths shut. St. Francis is ever my pastor: Preach the gospel at all times, Aaron, and for God’s sake shut up unless words are absolutely necessary.
This project will reflect the tangy mix that is Pastor Aaron (PA). I love theology and sharing ideas with people; I’m a pastoral theologian. I have little use for theology that does not help us live the gospel in our lives, as we are able and as we discern; the Jesus I know helps me to view situations with a long view toward love, he gives me a nudge when I’m acting selfishly or Iif am benefitting from myriad privileges because it is just easier to remain quiet; and he, in ways I will explain, brings me the greatest and most overwhelming joy in life.
I know, I used to roll my eyes, too. And I totally understand if you just did. Christians and Christianity deserve the disdain and skepticisms many hold. I never run away from that here, which is easy because I do not have the “goal” of converting anyone. I plan to explicate my working Christology here, so when I go out into the world I can focus on being a servant in the ways that people need. I hope that you’ll come on the journey, and please feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.
I’ve had a regular job since I was twelve. I grew up in a family business; to be clear, said business did not provide our livelihood. But it was not a hobby. My father spearheaded the efforts to save one of the few, independent art movie houses in the country, the Little Art Theatre, and we all worked there. Mom baked lemon bars and other treats for the concession stand; my brother was a projectionist; Dad was a hands-on owner; and I began delivering the paper program guides from business to business with my red flyer wagon. Over the years I worked my way from concessionaire to ticket seller to projectionist. One weekend when both Dad and our amazing, incredible longtime manager Jenny were out of town, I was the manager on call. I was so proud of that moment.
It is so goddamn small, midwestern America it just makes you wanna spit, don’t it? Where the hell is John Mellencamp?
But don’t get it twisted. Most of my friends who worked at the Little Art were much better employees than were I, at least after I left for college and came back for the summer to make enough money to fund a period of heavy psychedelic drug use (but still rocking a 3.6 GPA). I used LSD for spiritual development, although I probably couldn’t have put it in those terms at the time. I imagine though that the compadres who co-sojourned would attest to the veracity of the statement. I have always been a seeker.
I had a job in a factory where I got chemical poisoning, so they moved me into the shipping department. I had the job all to myself for about two months, and I loved it. Then, a sexual predator was hired by one of the owners. The boss claims he did not know. To this day I call that bullshit. This person would come to work high on crack, and the owner would not do anything about it because he “liked having a guy my own age around here for a change, instead of all these women and kids.” The grooming behavior started slowly. There was a very attractive woman working in the factory, and she and I were friends. I certainly thought she was wonderful and beautiful, but I knew she had a boyfriend. I tried to not stare. Sadly, my sexism was so deep that I needed to know that another man had “claimed” her before deciding to not leer. But in the mailroom, with just two guys, I engaged in sexist banter of which I am not proud. I won’t pretend that I didn’t, though. Being woke means that you fight sleep. You fight ignorance. I was 19; my journey had just begun. Anyway, the predator established a relationship in which we spoke freely about bodies. It was not long until talk turned to mine. “She has a nice ass, but so do you, man. Seriously. Ladies like a good ass.” Seemingly accidental or socially casual touch started. For those who don’t know, I don’t like to be touched unless I have given you clear and present permission. My bipolar presents as incredible sensitivity to touch. (Again, important to know if I am ever in crisis: Don’t. Touch. Me. I am a big, strong dude and I don’t want to do what I am capable of doing.) After the predator cornered me and told me he was trying to arrange with the owner a road trip in which he would keep me supplied with drugs as long as I stayed in the same motel room, I complained. Loudly. I was not believed. I had a problem with authority. I was melodramatic. I was a whole lot of things except someone who was probably going to get raped. I quit. A year later the predator was arrested for multiple counts of rape. I cried tears of vindication and rage.
I have never written about that and have told the story less than half a dozen times. To be clear, I am not presenting myself as a sexual assault victim (well, not for this story, and sexual assault is a complicated thing). I’ve told you about these jobs–add food service, retail, office settings, temporary clerical positions, being a freelancer for a large educational publishing conglomerate–to say that the words that follow are not without the benefit of great experience.
Here are five things I wish people could know about being a pastor, but when we say them the blow back can be fierce. Perhaps here, in a space in which you are present only because you want to be, the statements can exist one step removed from the immediacy of the emotions that often arise in pastoral situations. Posts like this can be dangerous. If you are in the congregation I serve you may want to think about whether you can handle reading this; if you think your response is going to be defensive, please stop reading now. I submit to those conversations in the proper space and with the proper procedures when they need to be about my professional conduct. This is my safe space. My area to be honest and seek support. My personal expressions of my own experiences. This is not yours to police. I make no reference or allusion to any specific person, but not all experiences I have in my life are bound by pastoral confidentiality.
I’m really fucking religious. And I’m all in on this Jesus thing. Religion is not a competition. God does not call everyone to the same expressions of service and devotion, and not everyone lives out the fullness of their call. This is not a value judgment, it is a statement of fact. One would think. But at a couple critical times in which I have felt that I was being grossly misunderstood in ecclesiastical situations , I’ve pointed out that I am religious in ways that the others involved are not and I’ve been called off-putting. Egotistical. I do not mean that statement as a value judgment but simply as a fact. Why is this even up for debate?
I have made decisions that have major consequences. I follow Jesus Christ, yet had to go into massive debt to do so within the structure and discipline of my denominations. I make very little money, but that’s fine because I am dedicated to ministry. I believe that God puts me in situations and brings people into my life so that we may together serve our community; may show the ways in which love and dedication to the gospel can bring about a joy and peace no drug I ever did gave me. Don’t get me wrong, I have very few regrets when it comes to my drug exploration. Because it was an exploration. All in search of God. I’m ever a seeker. And once I finally realized that God was with me all along, I stopped using. Now, I dream about God. I say good morning to Jesus every single time I get out of bed. I don’t care if this seems odd. My relationship with God is all-encompassing. You cannot and will not find a single area of my life in which my faith has not been placed at the center; again, not a competition. But the casual religiosity of others cannot be discussed in the same way as the intense devotion I display in my thoughts, words, and deeds. I can’t believe that this has proved to be so controversial; one would think that people would want a pastor who takes this whole discipleship thing seriously. What appears to some as frenetic, confrontational energy is actually being on fire for God. It is submitting so fully, so completely, that I often play different roles. Pastoral. Priestly. Prophetic. Profane. It is being really fucking religious.
Sometimes I am the expert in the room, and when I have to keep pointing it out I feel deflated and disrespected. I greatly appreciate the polity of both the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Presbyterian Church (USA). It vests most of the power to the congregation and the respective Council/Session of each. These wonderful, dedicated, passionate, giving people are the Church. Without question, they are the life of this thing we do called church. Effective Sessions and Councils–and I have worked with both, and continue to work with a fantastic Session, thanks be to God!–facilitate fruits of the spirit being directed to areas of need. Each individual person brings with them (it is still hard for me to do the single “them,” y’all, but I do so because my genderqueer friends have lovingly shown me why it is so vital; “him or her” is alienating, if not grammatically superior; I know, I’m a snot, but ugh I’m trying) gifts that serve the church. Some members have a long memory and great knowledge of past ministries. These are invaluable, not only to the community at large but to the pastor as well. I feel so blessed to be able to sit and listen to hours of stories about this place God has made.
But I went to seminary for a reason. I went through the arduous tasks set before persons who go through the process of ordination. The exams. The profiles. The ordination papers. The crafting of a complete systematic theology that is both scriptural and internally consistent. A theology I can talk about, without notes, with scripture citations, through each relevant area. I’m not unusual. Most of us can do that. Why? Hours and hours and hours of study. Prayer. Reflection. Pushing other things away; deciding that some areas of our lives must be fully subsumed by the gospel and that means leaving certain things behind.
One of the things I fear that has happened in certain Mainline Protestant denominations is that the radical leveling, so positive and useful in many regards, puts pastors in situations in which we literally have to say, “I know much more about this than anyone else in the room, but I am being shut out of the conversation.” Or, “I think this is best handled by the pastor and I can report to you as things unfold.” Had I wanted to be a dictatorial or adulation-driven pastor, I would not be a UCCer or a Presbyterian. If I were after that, I could have a megachurch and make millions. This is not boasting. Really. If you’ve met me, you know that I can captivate a room. That shit is dangerous. That is why I constantly try to deconstruct my ego. I do not want to serve me. I serve God. And really following God does not pay well most of the time, but man the benefits are unrivaled.
Pastors have to be so many things–solo pastors with “part time” charges perhaps even more so–within very small windows of time. Our training prepares us to shift gears quickly, and to utilize our knowledge and skills to address myriad situations. Yes, congregational input is vital. It is what makes the church go. But pastors exist for a reason and sometimes I think in any other job context I would be able to say, “Y’all, this is my department and I’m going to make the call on this one.” I am sometimes astounded at the things that are said to me by people who, with the best intentions, need to stay in their own lane. Just because a discussion can be had about a topic doesn’t always mean that it needs to happen. Showing a little faith in the pastor without having to litigate everything to death can go a long way.
You do not own me or my life. I cannot tell you about some of the conversations about me that unfold, both in front of me and when I am not around. I am offering no details because this is not a blog post aimed at my Session. Please hear that loud and clear. I don’t do passive aggressive. Not anymore. I am up front and honest, often to a fault. So if anyone thinks that there is a coded message in here, please know such is not the case. I could not ask for a more wonderful church to serve, and the people are so dedicated it is an absolute inspiration to me. And when I do have issues, I go through the proper procedures as required by the Book of Order.
With that said, churches do not own their pastors. If you hire a pastor for less than full-time, you do not get to decide what they are able to do to make ends meet. We could banter back and forth about extreme examples that belie the statement–of course if I were a sex worker, we might need to have a talk; but I would argue that the talk should be about how a community allows a religious leader to feel so financially helpless–but I had thought this is not controversial claim either, but apparently it is.
You don’t get to police our Facebook pages. You don’t get to give us an approved list of second or third jobs while we hold a seminary loans bill that should essentially read, “You’re never going anywhere every again, motherfucker!” You don’t get to determine if our hairstyles are okay, or if we should cover up our tattoos, if we are putting on too much weight, or if we are able to be involved in social justice actions because it might reflect “poorly” on the church. These conversations just really shouldn’t happen unless there is a clear violation or conflict of interest.
If I’m doing my job correctly, you’re going to be uncomfortable at times; that’s the nature of following the gospel. I spend a good deal of my time thinking about worship. There is so much work of the people (liturgia) to be done each week. A hymn that helps the caregiver release some of the pain and frustration. A prayer of confession that helps unburden hearts with words they could not fashion on their own; a sermon that illuminates the Word (logos) but also slams it right down in the middle of our collective community and shows us that God’s work is not in the past. Not in the past alone, anyway. It is ever present. It is always leading us from the future by acting on our experience of now.
Following the gospel is hard. And this is not meant to be tough-talk about how Christianity is a way of sacrifices. I mean, it is in some ways but it is also gentle. Loving. Compassionate. Patient. And that can be really hard. The gospel does not make suggestions. Not to me, anyway. Not the way I live it. I am never going to stop talking about race and God. Gender and God. Orientation and God. What is means to be embodied; what it means to connect with our spirits. Sometimes my sermons are going to be preached from the streets or even inside of jail cells. Make no mistake, I will not back down. I will not compromise my commitment to the gospel. If you don’t understand that, such is the point I am trying to make. I’m all in. And if you hang out with Jesus, you’re going to have some really tough moments. But you step into them because God is with you. Always.
I know I’m a lot to take; I know this; but never, ever, ever throw my mental illness in my face or spread gossip about me. Jesus tells us to not be afraid; I appreciate that and all but I often wonder, is my dedication to the gospel going to get me fired? Am I too much, too intense, too loud and insistent and driven? Is my passion and commitment alienating people? I honestly believe that some people simply cannot handle me because they don’t know how to frame up someone who is so painfully honest and transparent; seemingly humble yet egomaniacal; confident but dreadfully insecure; highly intelligent but sometimes staggeringly stupid; open-minded although at times ultra-sensitive and defensive. While I appreciate all the wonderful things people say about me–and, really, y’all will make a boy blush like Marilyn with a beach ball–but I know that I’m not easy. I have to know this; it has to be at the center of my mind almost all of the time, because believe it or not, very few people actually see me going full bore. I tone shit down a lot.
I know, right? Believe me, I want to break up with myself every six months or so.
Here’s the deal. I’m so bloody transparent because I’m trying to communicate something clearly: my bipolar disorder is mine. Mine alone. Unless you are my psychologist or I see your signature on my Lithium prescription, you don’t get to speculate about how my mental illness is impacting my ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I have empowered people around me to speak honestly about how my behavior impacts them. That is crucial. I often don’t know that I’m doing some things, and I try to make it as easy to talk to me as possible. For some, that’s not possible. I get it. There are also several avenues in the denomination that allow for these things to be discussed. There are multiple ways to make it clear in a timely manner that something I am doing is making you uncomfortable, and 99% of the time I want and need to hear about it.
But there are lines.
I am currently the subject of gossip. I know, we all are. But I am the subject of gossip in ways that are deeply hurtful, incorrect, and counter to the gospel. And I see the waters becoming more choppy, so I am going to put out there that a distinct line is being drawn. I am medicated. I am in therapy. I have accountability partners. I have peer advocates on speed dial. I have three dear friends who also live with bipolar and we share some deep, scary, real shit with one another. Sometimes at 3 in the morning because one or all of us are in mania. Or depression. Or, whatever. You don’t need to know. Because I’m on this. So blase speculation about my very real condition based on an abnormal psych class taken in college, which then spins into a rumor that I am confrontational and wild and mentally unhinged is not okay. It just isn’t.
I’m always a pastor. And I have had some massive failures over the past three years. I imagine that I will have them again. Not one of them has gone unnoticed, unexamined, unrealized. These five things are me pastoring to myself. It is me reaching out and saying, please don’t let this conversation be about anything other than these things I need you to know. If you disagree, hold the tongue this time. Maybe examine why you disagree. Is it an emotional response? Are you feeling that maybe you’ve done this stuff? Or are you feeling that this is out of line? Why?
There are incredible things happening in ministry right now. God has showered so much goodness on this little corner of the world and I am so excited to see what is going to unfold. But I had to say this, just once. It is now out there, and I can do no more. I am not interested in any fights, but I am interested in people knowing that pastors have frustrations, too, and sometimes people around them need to know that. Sadly, we often are told not to speak up because it will be embarrassing to the church. To which I respond, “And that’s why people don’t want to join us; we pretend to be something other than what we are.”
Well, that, and also you know how I feel about that whole keeping my mouth shut thing…
There were four of us guys in the van. Driving through a neighborhood of Dayton known for money. Racist money. Don’t read that as a castigation of people who live in the neighborhood. Like most other places where we Americans lay our heads, there is a mix of people. Good people and bad people. Giving people and taking people. Privilege and responsibility. But this neighborhood has a history and scars.
Four of us. Three Black. And me.
“You don’t really want to be caught on the side streets here after dark. You will get pulled over.” I advised. One guy responded: “We need a White person in the car.” A second looked back at me in the rear seat and said, “Not you, Aaron. You Black.”
We all laughed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart swelled. I felt a not insignificant degree of pride. And why that is the case is complicated.
Cultural appropriation is real. It is damaging. It is insulting. And sometimes, it is literally deadly, like when Whites take the intellectual or creative property of a person of color and monetizes it for their benefit and not for the benefit of the artist. Read about the history of rock and roll. Black artists saw their creations repackaged and made palatable for White America; record companies and managers got rich; artists like Elvis Presley, even though he personally despaired of the inequities, made millions off the creations of Black writers and musicians, many of whom died in penury and obscurity.
I’ve written before (and before and before and before) about issues of race and Whiteness. I feel like anyone who knows me and wants to actually follow my philosophy and theology needs to read my blog. And I think it is fair to say that; I have grown tired of having the same conversations around Whiteness. I am exhausted by White fragility. And that has become clear to some people. As a result, I have been called divisive. Exclusionary. Angry. It pains me to hear this, and believe me I have done everything I reasonably can do to make people who accuse me of this to feel heard and listened to. To me, the problem is that I just won’t say, “We can agree to disagree.” If you want people of color to simply stop talking about their race or experiences and just see everyone else as “the same,” I’m not going to say I’m okay with it. People have the right to their opinions, yes. But your right to your opinion does not mean I have to stop talking about mine because your feelings will get hurt.
I just spent the week with fellow doctoral students at United Theological Seminary. We heard from Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Pastor Rudy Rasmus, Pastor Roz Picardo, incredible men of color who are bringing the light of Christ into the world in loving, positive, affirming ways. Each of them took time to talk with me or pray with me, to encourage me and ask about what the Lord has laid upon my heart. Yet, I know that each one of them, pulled over at the wrong time by the wrong cop or in the wrong situation, they could die. Sure. Any of us could. But their chances are much, much higher. Seriously. Click on the hyperlinks and check out these men and what they are doing. It is incredible.
I attend an amazing seminary.
I have locs. I wore a zoot suit at my wedding. I’m loud and wear wild clothes and shoes. As I write this, I am listening to Miles Davis. My favorite filmmaker is Spike Lee. James Cone’s God is Black changed my life and my theology. I’m the only one who is not a person of color in my cohort, including the mentor. United’s doctoral studies student body is predominately non-white. I feel completely at home and have never been given the stinkeye. In other contexts, I have been accused of being a wigger. Of wanting to be Black.
And, honestly, I guess that’s kinda true.
I hate the concept of Whiteness. I hate what it represents and what it has done. I hate how it has attempted to homogenize complicated and different European and Scandinavian cultures into some boring amalgamation that is also violent. Destructive. There are very few places left on the earth where this insidious creation has not imprinted itself. It has pervaded my faith tradition. It violates those of others. It necessitates something like Black Pride. Latinx Pride. Native Pride. No culture or group should have to shout and scream that their cultures or lives matter. Whiteness does that. Whiteness causes that. And I want no part of it.
But I can’t just pretend that I’m not “White.” I am. I reject the label, but not the consequences. Not the reality. Not the responsibilities that come with the privilege. And I will use my privilege until I don’t have it anymore.
I use that line a lot. Recently, someone asked me what I meant by it. “Well,” I said. “I see three ways I lose it. One, I end up in prison because of justice work. Two, I die. Three, the culture changes and it no longer exists. And if I can only chose two out of the three that I think will actually happen, I know my decision.”
It’s not that I want to be Black in that I want to change my skin tone. I don’t. I love my parents and my family. I am deeply proud to be my parents’ son, and that includes being fiercely attached to my Irish and Finnish heritages. And the way that I choose to be American is heavily influenced by African-American history, culture, religious practices, intellectual contributions, and entertainment. I don’t want to be color blind. I love African-American culture and attitudes; the fierce ways that love and faith are expressed; how laughter is often loud and raucous, smiles quick to come, individuality encouraged.
But I know I’m not Black. I can shave my beard, cut my hair, cover my tats, and close my mouth. Well, theoretically I can do those things but anyone who knows me will attest that Aaron doesn’t shut up easily. And Aaron is gonna do Aaron.
I’ve got a couple dear friends who are designers. They run a rad shop in YS I will be blogging about at some point in the future, but I’m pitching a T-shirt idea and if you think you might want one, comment and let me know. I think if we can gather enough interest, we might be able to get it done. The shirt will say: “I’m not White.”
The great thing is, almost everybody gets to wear it. POC can obviously wear it, and it might spark some interesting conversation. But the thought of White people wearing a shirt saying “I’m not White” is provocative. It makes a statement. I don’t accept that label. At all. I now check “other” and write in that I identify as Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. While there are no genetic tests that can “prove” this, genealogy and family lore lead me to believe the chances are good enough that saying so is not appropriative. The beard and locs honor my ancestors and the culture that is part of my heritage.
But when it comes to understanding myself as an American and a Christian, rejections of Whiteness are most authentic to me. For me. And while I try not to judge those who embrace Whiteness or see things differently than do I–and I certainly try to show respect–the notion that my speaking about these issues consistently and loudly is somehow divisive will simply not fly. I will not sit down. I will not shut up. I lead with love, but love does not always speak words you want to hear. Love isn’t always about feeling good. Sometimes love is about feeling bad. And I don’t mean that as suggesting persons should feel bad about themselves: I mean that love is sometimes about making us feel the bad that results from our impacting someone else in a negative way.
Racism is real. We have major, important changes to make. We are in the midst of another Civil Rights movement and I plan to play my part, to do what I can when I can with who I can for as long as I can. I will make mistakes. I may not see them, but if they are pointed out I will respond and make changes. I will apologize. I will try to see my error first next time.
But I will not ever stop. Not until I’m dead and gone or racism has given up the ghost.
This week has been amazing. I love my cohort and I feel filled with the Spirit of God. I’m going to enjoy the rest of this day that the Lord hath made by taking a nap while snuggling with a cat. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.
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The Yiddish expression yada yada yada derives from the Hebrew word yada (pronounced with a long first a), which means “know.” So yada yada yada essentially means “you know, you know, you know.” A way to indicate that you’re cutting to the chase, making a long story short.
Above is a clip of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, when Elaine yada yadas sex. In Hebrew, the word “know” can also mean to know someone sexually. Same with the Hebrew word for “lie down.” It can be literal, like lying down with someone. Or it can mean to know someone carnally. Similar to our English word sleep. If I were to say, “I slept with someone not my wife last night,” you would probably ask for clarification before smacking me in the face. Maybe not 😉
The words “know” and “lie down,” along with the idioms used in connection with a cloak or wing being spread for protection are throughout Ruth 3. The Hebrew is filled with double entendres; and add to that the fact Ruth and Boaz meet on the threshing floor, biblically the site where prostitutes meet their johns, and you’ve got yourself an exegetical stew going.
Seminary is not the most risque place. Most of what we study is really important and heavy. We have to be prepared to deal with a wide variety of possibilities. But every now and then, things get juicy. I’ve found there are two types of religious people when it comes to talk about sex. There are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get interesting; and there are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get uncomfortable. I’m certainly the former.
The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest in the canon, but also one of the most enigmatic. Lots of congregants have come up to me after service over the past few weeks to express they feel like they are understanding the story for the first time. I mention this not to commend my own preaching, but rather to say that sometimes English translations fall flat. What is at play here in Ruth 3 are commentaries on the nature of power. Who is really in control? Is it Naomi, who sets the plot into motion? Is it Ruth, who goes to the threshing floor to uncover Boaz’s “feet,” which is clearly a euphemism for male genitalia? Is it Boaz, who wants to bed Ruth but is looking for a way to make it culturally justifiable? Numerous books and articles have been written claiming one over another.
Power is as power does.
Boaz clearly has no levitical responsibility to Ruth,that is no legal requirement to marry her as a next of kin. She is a Moabite and not a blood relation. He might have a legal responsibility to Naomi, but most likely not, as she is beyond child-bearing age. We must ask why Naomi forms her plan: is it for her safety or for Ruth’s? Both? Why does Ruth go along? Because she has pledged herself to Naomi? Or because she understands this will be the only way she can discover any sort of protection.
Also at question is the sort of protection she is asking for; is it marriage? Is it permission to live on the land and do more than glean for food? Does she present herself to Boaz to seduce him and trick him into protection? Or does Boaz meet her there so he can purchase her services. The bestowing of six barley complicates the matter even more, as it could be seen as a bridal price, a payment for, ahem, services rendered, or something even more symbolic, like the restoration of six generations of Elimilech’s line. Interpretations abound.
What is the protection here? What is the security? What is the bond between Boaz and Ruth, Boaz and Naomi, Ruth and Naomi? What kind of family will they be?
The system has let Naomi down, and Ruth is an outsider. Can it be made to work for her, and in turn for Naomi, too?
God is in the business of redemption, or forgiveness, of bringing wholeness out of brokenness. But God does not work with magic wands. God works through people and situations. And here, in this beautifully complicated story, we see the ultimate outsider, Ruth, being an agent of redemption. Being one open to God using her to bring together what life has rent asunder.
So often we think we know what a good person looks like; we imagine that if God were going to use someone for good in our lives, those people will likely look like us. Think the same things as us. But this story shows us that God works in mysterious ways, unusual ways, ways that may seem foreign or even uncomfortable for us.
For Christians, the example of Christ mirrors that of Ruth. Jesus went to those who were forced to the periphery and affirmed their blessedness. He brought them into the center of his community because they are at the center of God’s heart. Are we open to that happening with us? For us? To us?
I’ll meet you on the threshing floor.
Listen to this:
If you are anything like me, you are having this reaction:
So Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that trans* friendly businesses were more of a threat than Daesh (no shit), has come out in favor of Donald Trump because he is a strongman. Okay. That’s a stupid thing to want–you’ve got a doctorate, Bob; read a book on the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe–but it is not totally unreasonable. We’ve seen that on all the continents. And while I think it is a ridiculous political desire, I have to admit that it is one that has shaped politics in the past. Generally for the worse, but people do pull the lever for a strongman. Fine
But the asinine contention that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would not make sense for governance (which is in itself not necessarily a wrongly stated position) because Jesus didn’t claim that it was a governing philosophy shows the danger and limitation of biblical literalism. To wit, Rev. Dr. Strongmanwanter believes that Christians should be against homosexuality because it is in the Bible. Yet Jesus says exactly zero things about homosexuality. But, you might object, there are prohibitions elsewhere. Yes, there are; kinda. But Jeffress argues that the Bible does not say anything about government.
Yeah, no. Evidence? The Torah. Kiiiiiiinda filled with laws about how the covenant community should be formed and governed. Now, there are a lot of caveats. And Christian fundamentalists most often don’t get that the covenant code is not for us; Jewish fundamentalists often forget that the laws are applicable only in a Jerusalem that contains the Temple. Despite the nuances that most certainly are not being discussed in any real form here, it is safe to say that the Bible is absolutely concerned about how a society is governed.
Reasonable people will hopefully agree that Jesus was Jewish and was interested in helping to reform and rejuvenate the religion. (Marcus Borg’s Jesus, A New Vision, is a great starting point for people wanting to understand this perspective.) He wasn’t a law-maker, but he was a law-interpreter. In the Jewish tradition this is know as midrash. Notice how Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” and then goes on to say something that emphasizes the Spirit of the law over the letter of the law? That’s midrash. It’s kinda a big deal.
See, we Christian pastors need to read more than the Bible because we are charged with midrash. It is what we do with our sermons. We need to read books about the Bible. About history. Archaeology. Sociology. Linguistics. Literature. And the good pastor knows this; he has an impressive education from schools that I might not have chosen to attend, as I am not a Southern Baptist, but that are accredited by reputable services and that is no joke. Seminaries lose accreditation if they do not follow strict guidelines; schools like Liberty University don’t get accreditation or try to create their own agencies to circumvent the standards. All of this to say that Jeffress knows better. He knows that Jesus’ words directly relate to the power dynamics that exist between people and the religious hierarchy; the people and the Romans; the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans; and how they pertain to the people’s relationships between themselves. I find it most probable that Jeffress has read or is familiar with Walter Wink’s work on the roles power plays in Jesus’ vision of the faith. In a nutshell, Jesus is anti-strongman. Jesus’ entire ministry is about the kin-dom of God, which he imagines (according to John Dominic Crossan) as God sitting on the throne of Caesar.
Jesus was inherently political is the Greek sense of the word; politics is that which relates to the people. In many ways, our weekly liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is a form of politics, because it concerns our relationship with God (and one another). For Jeffress to argue that the Bible supports a “strongman” is ludicrous. If God likes a strongman, why does David win? If God likes a strongman, why did Jesus come as a carpenter and submit himself to the cross?
I don’t like to question other people’s faith, but Jeffress’s words make me think he would have made a great campaign manager for the Romans.
*The author is aware that Tiberias was emperor during Jesus’ ministry and execution. But Tiberius/Pilate doesn’t have the same zing 😉
I was raised in a decidedly nonreligious household, and while there was decent religious diversity in the local schools I really did not know the difference between a Hindu and a Buddhist until I went to university and began studying religion seriously. My introduction to Islam came from a gorgeous musclebound lacrosse player at Kalamazoo College, where I started undergrad studies, while he sipped from a 40 oz. of Mickey’s Ice. The first time I heard the shahada, I was drinking Zima and wondering if the guy was gay or if he’d kick my ass if I tried to make a pass at him. He wasn’t and I didn’t. But the claim, “There is no God but God and Mohammad is God’s prophet” will always be tied to that dorm room in Michigan and my crush on a straight boy.
I wish that I could tell you some of my closest friends are Muslim, but I can’t. I certainly have Muslim friends and acquaintances, and I have done multifaith work with Muslims on college campuses and within communities. I have colleagues and former colleagues who are Muslim, and we try to stay in touch with one another to let each other in on what’s happening, events upcoming, challenges, and other information that helps us be of service to one another. But a deep, significant, sustained relationship with a Muslim or a community is something that has yet to occur in my personal life. Some of that is owed to context and circumstances (there is no mosque here in YS, so the village may not be as attractive as say Springfield or Dayton, where there are vibrant Muslim communities), and some of it is owed to the fact that many Muslims feel rightly wary of self-identified Christians. Especially White men. In the main, “my” people have not been so good to the Muslims.
And that sucks. I mean, I know I have a proclivity to be on the “wrong” side of many social issues that rankle Christians. I am pro-choice. I affirm GLBTQ+ persons and their rights to be married in a church if they so desire (would be kinda hypocritical of me not to, seeing that I am queer). I am critical of the State of Israel for its apartheid-like policies toward Palestinians. So that can put me at odds with people in my own tradition, but don’t get me wrong: I am decidedly and proudly Christian. In terms of theology, I’m somewhat conservative. While I do not believe Jesus is the only way to salvation (however you might define that), Jesus is the only way for me. I confess the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, a rather recent development, but I don’t hang my entire theology upon it and I do not think one needs to take it literally. I reject a blood atonement theology, but I confess the cross as essential to Christ confession. I believe the pastorate is polluted by people who do not undertake the proper training and education, but I am adamantly against the taxation of religious organizations (unless they clearly violate 501 (c)3 regulations). I believe in original sin, but not as Augustine defines it. And I think that Christians should be able to explain in some detail how they understand the Apostle’s Creed before they are allowed to weigh in on serious theological discussions. So, yeah. I’m also a bit of an ass and an intellectual elitist. There’s an entry fee to play with the adults and too many Christians are infants with no purchase.
Thank God for grace, because I’m a bit full of myself.
But the most important thing–and this actually seems to me to be a conservative position–is to be in relationship with God’s children. Not just the ones like me. Not just Christians or men or White people or progressives. Everyone. And this is the most important thing to me because I take Jesus’s interpretation of the shema literally: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength…
“and love your neighbor as yourself.” Like, I can’t make that metaphorical. I can’t turn it into an allegory or use an analogy that gets me out of loving my neighbor, especially my neighbors who are being persecuted and oppressed. So, I’m kinda obligated to do more than just say I support American Muslims. I need to show them I love them.
Here’s what I am doing/going to do. For the next six weeks during the children’s sermon, I am going to be teaching them the Five Pillars of Islam and how they connect or don’t connect to Christian teachings. I have already been in contact with a local imam, and we are going to be hosted by a mosque in September, with a reciprocal hosting by us occurring in October. During the time before our first visit, I will be writing entries in the “Imam Jesus” series that aim to help other Christians educate their kids on Islam and encourage them to develop significant relationships with their Muslim neighbors. These will grow out of the sermons and questions asked by the kids at First Presby.
This is my mantra: Less talk, more work. Less empty sympathy, more significant solidarity. Less ignorance, more knowledge. Less hatred, more love. Inshallah.