Jesus v. Trump: The Church Must Render a Verdict

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Sarah Pulliam Bailey has an article in today’s Post about yet another controversy around Robert Jeffress, about whom this blog has previously voiced disdain Alas, it appears that the time has come again in which I must I denounce, in the strongest possible terms, Jeffress’ public theology. Here is the latest from the megachurch pastor: “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” Oy vey.

Jeffress has credentials that are undeniable. He has legitimate degrees from legitimate institutions, albeit ones within the Southern Baptist Convention and with emphases on dispensationalism. He is not one with only a passing understanding of the bible. That’s one of the reasons that he is particularly dangerous. And he is Trump’s go-to pastor for biblical justification of unbiblical things. This blog has featured many, many, many, many, manymany, many entries on Trump, many focusing on religion but not all. I object bigly to any claims that God has anointed Trump a holy instrument.

Jeffress came to prominence with Trump after the two dined on Wendy’s hamburgers. The pastor said that God was going to place Trump in the White House. Trump’s shocking victory gave the minister all the credence he needed; Jeffress–and other pastors, to be fair–is complicit in presenting as a true Christian the man who claims he has never needed to repent for anything. As a pastor myself, I try to steer well-clear of judging the sins of anyone else, which is one of the reasons I am so open about my own shortcomings. I still have an oak tree in my own eye, so there is no need to point out the splinter in someone else’s.

However, I do have the obligation as an Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament to speak out when I feel that the bible is being used in irresponsible ways. Jeffress maintains that Romans 13 gives “the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” He then goes on to argue that objections raised by the previous contextual chapter (Romans 12) only refer to how Christians treat one another. That’s right. Christians only have to love other Christians. You see, the good reverend does not want a president who will follow the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll say it once again: oy vey.

Romans 13 has been written about a lot. I mean, a lot. I had heated, but respectful debates in seminary about the chapter. The definitive work was done by my fellow Finn, Vilho Riekkinen (I strongly recommend Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett, although it is very expensive, so thank God for Logos). These are the main sources of information, along with my not insignificant education. When Paul was writing Romans, Nero was in power. However, it was not yet the batshit crazy Nero, so things were peaceful. Paul was already receiving major pushback from Jews and Jesus-followers, so the last thing that he wanted to do was put another target on his back. Further, as Riekkinen argues in his doctoral dissertation, Paul was trying to negotiate incredibly complex power dynamics. More recent German scholars have argued that Romans 13 refers to Christian relationships with the Roman civic cult. This also helps to situate the whole Matthew 22 “render unto Caesar what is Caesar” advice. Recall that Jesus is holding a Roman coin with the image of Caesar. Said coin would not be allowed in the Temple, so Jesus is saying, the coin has Caesar’s picture, so give it back to him. But you belong to God. 

The notion that Paul was referring to the unholy, unrepentant, arrogant, sophomoric walking id that occupies the Oval Office in-between rounds of golf and bilking the American taxpayer is insulting to any person who takes the scripture seriously. Further, the argument is that Christians are to give respect to those offices and persons who are worthy of respect. The Tanakh is filled with examples of God raising up foreign powers to chasten the people. I can make the argument biblically that God could be using Kim Jong Un. I wouldn’t, though, because I know that is not how scripture works.

Jeffress maintains pastors like me are the problem. Again, according to the Post article,  “It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.” Okay, pastor. I’m game.

How about Proverbs 29:2? “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan.” Or Proverbs 28:15? “Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people.” The first verse of Isaiah 10, perhaps? “Woe to those who enact evil statutes And to those who constantly record unjust decisions.” The prophet Micah said a lot about the sort of financial malfeasance of the current president: “Concerning evil, both hands do it well The prince asks, also the judge, for a bribe, And a great man speaks the desire of his soul; So they weave it together” (7:3). I could go on.

Jeffress pastors a church that boasts nearly 4,000 in worship each week. This is not a place that allows for theological exploration or variety. What is even more frightening, is that Jeffress is filling delusional Trump with talk of being God’s agent, and I imagine there has been talk of ushering in an apocalypse. I’ll be covering that in a series of blogs over the next month. But let we in the Church who understand the damaging and errant words and work of Jeffress and his ilk not be complacent. These megachurches are all around us, luring people in with their coffee bars and promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. Churches that vest authority in the personalities and whims of the pastors, limiting who deserves love and expanding who deserves damnation.

If this is the Christianity that is to remain, the faith needs to die. It pains me deeply each time I say it, but the sort of Christianity that would cozy up to Trump and empower white supremacists has nothing to do with Jesus.

And I love me some Jesus.


Before the Sermon: The Revelation Evaluation


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I have long held that not resting an hour after binging on the Revelation buffet before diving into the world-pool gives the Body of Christ a cramp. I have never preached on the Book of Revelation and for the past eight years of my sermon-giving life, I’ve maintained that I never will. Said declaration can now join “I’ll never be a pastor,” “I’ll never work with youth,” “I’ll never take a pulpit in my hometown,” and “I’m not going to earn a D.Min. from United Theological Seminary” in the Oh, really now? section of God’s file on me. 

First, let’s discuss why I have been so resistant to the Book of Revelation,* hereby referred to as Revelation. I have reasons three.

  1. Almost invariably, Revelation is ripped from its historical context, interpreted literally, and applied to situations that have literally–meant in the true sense of the word–nothing to do with a text written 2,000 years ago. The most painful part of this is the literal interpretation. As we’ll discuss in the next entry of the series, apocalyptic literature is a genre of which there can be some degree of divergence, but by definition utilizes simile, metaphor, cognitive dissonance, appositives, and wordplay lost in English translations. I had someone call me on 9/11 to say that the events were prophesied in Revelation. No, they were not. The writings might help us understand acts of violence and destruction, but we don’t often remember that God’s consistent word has been, “Bad s*** happens when you don’t take care of people around you.”    

  2. Revelation has been used inordinately by those wishing to control, persecute, torture, vilify, imprison, and judge others. Once the text has been ripped from its historical context, it most often is used as a cudgel and sword to strike into submission those seen as sinners. We joke about bible thumpers, but those blows turn into beatings. Revelation has been used to frighten people with the specter of a brutal judgment followed by eternal banishment to Hell’s brimstone bowels. I’ve never heard Revelation used in love by a Christian to a non-Christian. Just look at Westboro Baptist Church. 

  3. Revelation lends itself too easily to hucksterism. Because the text is enigmatic–as we’ll discuss, even early Christians were like WTF?–but filled with fantastical images that strike the fancy of pathos, much of Christendom has been witness to charlatans promising entry into heaven or protection from demons for the low, low price of just enough to keep you hungry and dependant upon the Church. To wit, Revelation is oft-quoted by pastors looking to get themselves a bigger jet. 

A stalwart member of the congregation has told me that one of the reasons she has felt so comfortable at the church is because I pledged to not preach from Revelation. So making this decision is not something I take lightly. I often say that our community is the last stop for some people before they give up on God or church entirely. I try to be acutely aware of problematic texts, hymns, liturgical language, etc., and to preside over a safe, inviting, affirming spiritual space. Revelation rightly makes many people want to head toward the door. 

So why the change of heart?

  1. One frequent criticism of Progressive Christians is that we “pick and choose” what to follow in Scripture. First, let’s admit that Progressive Christianity (PC) is a catch-all term for an incredibly diverse array of thoughts and hermeneutics. There is no single theology or interpretative lens through which we can look at PC. Second, let’s admit that everybody picks and chooses. Do you follow all 613 commandments in the Torah? No, you don’t, because many of them apply to the Temple and are unfulfillable. Wanna argue that Jesus has canceled the debt and the Law is no longer relevant? Then you can’t quote from Leviticus or Numbers to justify the prejudice de jour. But to the crux of the criticism: we must confront everything in our tradition honestly and with a heart that can accept the errors contained therein.

  2. I have feared that I am not intelligent enough, not educated sufficiently in the nuances of apocalyptic literature, or, more to the point, will be unable to situate the text appropriately and still hear an affirming word from God. I listed above many of the things I have said “never” about, only to end up doing them and learning a tremendous amount. I am not meant to be a youth pastor, but children’s sermons at First Presby are beloved by kids and parents alike. My tenure at the church has been rocky at times, but also one of the most significant and inspiring spiritual experiences of my life. It is where God has led me and I never want to serve anywhere else. And being in the original cohort for the MLK Beloved Community Scholars is a true honor. When I face my fears, God works mightily.

  3. I feel a responsibility to the congregation and to those who read my writing to lay bare my concerns, be honest about the challenges, and then walk publicly through a four-week series. I’ve mentioned before that writing is a compulsion for me. I process through the written word, so this will not just be a sermon series. It will be a journey together through a text that has lots of landmines, but we pray for God to show us that which might empower our walk with Christ.
  4. Finally, I feel a responsibility to non-Christians to help craft understandings of the text that can, at least for a moment or two, trip up those who wish to use the Scripture as a shillelagh. If Christians who are tired of being misrepresented want to affect change, we can’t hide from that which is difficult. 

My hope is that you will join me on this odyssey; it’ll be a lot shorter than Homer’s version, but not nearly as good. 

*Please note the singular. Let’s promote biblical literacy; there is no plural, only Zuul.

After the Sermon: This Little Piggy Had None

Ephesians 4:1-16


Sticky Wickets 

Imagine if you will that your life is going to end in six months. You’re not sick or suffering, but for whatever reason, you are convinced the end will come on January 1. What sort of decisions would you make? What perspective do you imagine you might have, believing that existence will change in a flash? It might be death, it might be a transformation, it might be many things you don’t know, but you have zero doubt that it will end. And then imagine that you are wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?

And then imagine that you are spectacularly wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?

That’s what we have with Paul.

The Apostle Paul was confident that Jesus was going to come back within a generation. The problems with such eschatology have been covered myriad times on the blog, so I shan’t rehearse it here. But Paul wrote to communities he was seeking to usher through the interim period from Jesus’ death to his return. The fact that Paul was wrong is not insignificant, but does it mean that we must dismiss everything he wrote?

I don’t ask this rhetorically. I struggle with Paul, but I keep coming back. My faith in Jesus is much different than Paul’s faith in Christ. I follow Jesus because I believe he displayed definitively how to live; if others agree, great. If not, that’s cool, too. Paul puts so many dollars into the “Christ-is-gonna-return-really-I-swear” jar that I wrestle with how to understand Paul’s writings without turning them into something they are not, but also readily admitting that they are riddled with error. At least, if we insist that every word in the Bible must be literally true.

Again why biblical literalism is deadly to an intelligent faith.

Ephesians 4:1-16 is an important passage because it illustrates the challenges that come with reading Paul. Some scholars* argue that the epistle was not written by the Apostle or to the Ephesians. Even within the Bible itself, there are details difficult to reconcile. Acts 16-20 relate exciting details about Paul’s time in Ephesus, culminating in a demonstration against him by Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths who have seen a decrease in orders of icons for the Temple of Artemis. Christians were bad for the bottom line. When Paul tried to speak to the angry assembly at the theater in Ephesus, he was shouted down and escaped before being killed. His final address to the Ephesians is basically, “I taught y’all everything you need to know and if you don’t get it right, that ain’t my fault. P.S., I’m out.”  However, none of this “history” is reflected in the epistle. There’s more in common between Ephesians and Colossians than there is between Acts and the letter under consideration. That’s not surprising, as Acts essentially presents the trials and tribulations of the early Church to be near facsimiles of Jesus life and death.

To the Epistle, We Go

Verses 1-6 are an exhortation: we are to strive for unity in all things, just as God is singular in unity. For Paul, this is all related to the eschaton, the end time. He is pushing for unity because he believes that those involved in rancor and division won’t make the cut when Jesus comes back. Verses 7-16 are sort of like an instruction manual. Paul is telling believers the way that the Body of Christ should be formed.

For me, this is where we can set aside the eschatological overtones of the chapter and glean wisdom that is timeless. In v. 8, Paul applies lines about Moses ascending and descending Mt. Sinai to receive the Law to Jesus’ resurrection, intimating that Christ went to the bowels of the earth and to the reaches of the heavens. It is interesting to note that ancient cosmogony had earth as the lowest rung of the celestial ladder, so perhaps the message is that God’s presence encompasses the reaches of creation? Perhaps metaphorically Jesus went into the bowels of the earth when he visited those living in caves? Or perhaps we just recognize that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?

Or perhaps we should just acknowledge that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?

Verses 11-13 are often misread, in my estimation, due to the overlay of eschatology.  This extends far beyond believing that Jesus will come back in the end times. Eschatological readings of these verses turn’s Paul’s interim ethics into an instruction manual for how to run the Church 2,000 years later.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” 

Too often the hermeneutic applied to these verses is: “There are different amounts of the Spirit available to others depending on their role.” This belies Paul’s central assertion. 

What Christ represents is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between God and humans. Jesus, through his life and death, shatters that which separates. God’s grace, when met with our corresponding faith, forges a new body in the fires of Love: the Body of Christ. This metaphysical entity is made incarnate through prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and saints. We are united through faith, yes, but not everyone is called to the same ministry. Not everyone has the same gifts. However, I reject outright the notion that there is a necessary hierarchy within the Body because Paul does not say that one role is more important than another.

And This is Relevant How? 

Lots of Christian communities are facing daunting realities. Aging congregations, shrinking money supplies, ever-increasing building maintenance demands, shrinking staff, and jackasses who call themselves Christians causing many people to run in the other direction, all conspire to make us think about what it means to exist in unity. Is the Body of Christ on life-support and should we pull the plug?

Not yet. If we can have a Body of Christ that actually follows Jesus, that appreciates and affirms the gifts of all, that does not try to replace Christ with a human being on earth. Yes, structure is important. Pastors should have extensive training and be held accountable, but pastors are no more important than teachers or evangelists. Further, seeking unity does not mean that everyone needs to get in line with what the priest says. Or what the governing body of the church declares. Unity requires that we all have a place at the table and we listen to one another. We pray, we turn to Scripture for guidance, and we follow our hearts that are in submission to God.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul thought it was all going to end. Fast. That doesn’t mean, though, that he wasn’t right about some things. The Body of Christ requires toes and heart valves. You don’t want the roast beef piggy doing the work of the left ventricle. I’m a big fan of opposable thumbs and big toes, though. So instead of being concerned about who is more important or has more power, let us focus on the wonderful ways in which God has made human diversity.  Otherwise, this little piggy will have none.

*I recommend highly reading Stephen E. Fowl’s excellent commentary on Ephesians.

After the Sermon: Love Jesus; don’t be a jerk

A little Theolonious, just because now is always a good time for some Monk.

I’ve studied Paul, but not in the way I have studied the gospels, most especially the Gospel of Mark. However, one can’t earn a master of arts in theology and a master of divinity degree without knowing a thing or two about the Apostle, as Thomas Aquinas rendered him in the Summa Theologica. There are things I legitimately don’t like about Paul–his emphasis on the Parousia (the second coming) and his rather arrogant approach to Peter and James–but some of my disdain has been alleviated through prolonged, in-worship study of individual epistles. I’ve written before about why I think biblical literacy is essential, but I began my faith journey as a scholar. It is only since serving as pastor at First Presby that I’ve realized how talking scripture in worship helps head meet heart. Two weeks in, and I feel that what’s happening in service is special and powerful.

Our narrative lectionary passage comes from Ephesians 2:11-21. We’ve already considered the context and approach of our current study. We focus on thematics this week while looking towards consideration of the structure, as it pertains to life in Christ, further down the road in our journey through Ephesians.

Paul begins with a simple statement that has complex implications: “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.Y’all, remember that you once were on the outside looking in; you know what it is to feel alienated and left outYou know where that desperation lives.”

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.,” he continues. I’ve written previously about blood atonement theology, and I will once again caution us to approach Paul shed of the contributions that Sts. Anselm and Aquinas later provided. For Paul, Christ going to the cross was an act meant to bestow upon Gentiles a pathway to God. But even more importantly, this act was and is meant to break down the walls that separate us. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Paul often is criticized as anti-Jewish, but that rips him from his own context. Paul was a Pharisee, meaning that he most likely had memorized the Torah and he was a keeper of the oral law Pharisees claimed had been given to Moses, was then passed to Joshua, and so on until the time of Jesus. Pharisees are not remembered well or accurately in popular culture, largely because Christian apologists and officials have oft-depicted them as the driving force, along with Judas, behind Christ’s execution. Further, in Church imagination, Jesus and eleven disciples became Gentiles, leaving Judas the only Jew. We Christians cannot downplay the horrors that were visited upon Jews in the name of Christ, but I also encourage Christians to not blindly support Israel, especially given the terrifying existences the Palestinian people have to live under Israeli rule.

“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” Paul continues, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Paul recognizes that there were many stumbling blocks for Gentiles to enter the covenant community. Circumcision, an image Paul uses often, is an external sign of an internal commitment. Paul, like Jeremiah before him, says that God is more concerned with a circumcised heart than he is a circumcised penis. 

Circumcision is a requirement that stretches back to Abraham. It is a way of drawing lines and boundaries between those who belong and those who don’t, similar to the clean/unclean dichotomy that fuels much of the Torah. This makes sense given the context of the Semitic peoples vis-a-vis other religions. For much of the ancient world, that which played out on earth was divinely ordained. When the Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians who were defeated by the Persians who fell to the Greeks who so greatly changed the face of greater Mesopotamia that the next Egyptian and Syrian empires were Hellenized, it was always understood as god or gods defeating one another. The Jews offered a different theological context: their God was acting through opposing armies to punish them for violating God’s law.  

So when Paul says that Jesus has eliminated the need for “commandments and ordinances,” this does not necessarily translate into an abolition of the Torah itself. When he writes that reconciliation comes through the cross, that does not necessarily mean that everyone has to approach God through the cross. I think Paul is arguing that God has provided a way for Gentiles to be in relationship with God, much as the prophet Mohammad will do centuries later for Arabs and Africans. Today, there are people of all backgrounds and ethnicities in each of the Abrahamic faiths. Each tradition establishes, in various ways, paths for people to connect with God.   

The most important part of the epistle, at least for me, is that God is in the business of pulling down boundaries. The blood of Christ is connected to redemption, yes, but in Ephesians we learn that redemption must involve other people. Christ’s mission is meant to erase hostility and produce peace. Paul clearly argues for a new community. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” The problem, in my view, is that Christianity quickly became about drawing boundaries similar to those transgressed by Jesus and declared irrelevant by Paul.  

Paul is writing to a group who clearly feel they have been left out. Abraham was given bloodline and land by God, according to Jewish tradition, and Gentiles do not have the bloodline. But Christ on the cross is not just about reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, it is about the hostilities we hold in our hearts as individuals. Paul uses body imagery, particularly the Body of Christ, Σώμα του Χριστού, to demonstrate that God provides to all the means of grace through faith, and this produces a community dedicated to eradicating hostilities. It is a sad irony that a vast majority of Christian history has been defined by the violent drawing of lines, the transgression of which frequently resulted in torture, death, condemnation to hell, or all three.

“In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God,” this week’s passage concludes. Paul has a mystical side we often miss, at least I have because, as previously noted, there are some major stumbling blocks with Pauline theology. But Paul believes that the breaking of Christ’s body replicated in the Eucharist should be juxtaposed to the unity of the Body of Christ, the community God forms. 

I imagine that some reading this might accuse me of special pleading; elsewhere Paul appears to make it clear that the only way to God is Jesus, most especially in Galatians 3:23-29. In fact, 3:28–“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”–is so special to me that I have it tattooed on my left forearm. However, I reject the notion that it is about exclusivity and supremacy.

Paul had lived on both sides of the wall, as it were. The author of Luke claims that Paul was a Roman citizen, but Paul never makes that claim. He was, however, a Pharisee involved in the trial and sentencing of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. His world was bifurcated by two factions, his faith tradition and the occupying power, Rome. It is most reasonable to see Jesus Christ as the way in which God reconciled Judaism to Gentiles. Paul believed that nothing short of complete destruction of all cultural barriers would bring peace. It is so telling that Paul sees Jesus as a peace agent on both the micro and macro levels.

But Paul was wrong in some fundamental ways. He based most of his ethic on the belief that Christ was coming back within a generation (see especially 1 Thessalonians), so for him community was the primary focus. He spent his life trying to reconcile people to one another, with Christ as his guide and justification. I lament the ways in which Paul’s ministry was interpreted or used as a template, because Christ has not come back. I am doubtful about the Parousia, something I’ve touched on before, but I believe deeply that Jesus is peace and joy. In my own life, I have been able to transgress cultural boundaries and decry institutional injustices because of Christ. Internally, I have been able to destroy those labels bestowed upon me by others, or as is more often the case, by myself.

I see nothing to be gained by telling other people to abandon their religions or traditions. I see no reason to be obsessed with telling atheists and agnostics they are going to hell. First, they aren’t because hell is constructed through superstition, misreadings of texts, the desire for power, and, most especially, the influence of Dante and Milton. Second, Jesus only got worked up and started shouting at people was when they were not doing what God requires, which is extending grace, compassion, love, mercy, and justice. Y’all have likely seen the signs on the interwebz:


So what we can take away from Paul, those of us who are not that jazzed about blood atonement, is that taking care of one another is so central to following God that Jesus went willingly to the cross as an act of solidarity with those denied blood. Jesus calls to him those who are willing to get rid of labels that divide, but not in abstract ways. God calls us to come to the table as siblings, and to speak our truths. But let us not be more focused on getting other people to believe in Jesus than we are in following Jesus ourselves.

I’ll close with this: I once met a young man who asked me in line at Subway if I had heard the good news. I responded with, “the good news about what?” He said, “well, about Jesus.” I calmly told him I was a pastor, and he broke into a big smile. I found out through conversation that he had converted just a few weeks before, went to a non-denominational church, and was “just starting my walk with Christ.” My blood was almost boiling, but I focused on Jesus and extended compassion. “Brother?” I asked, “what would you have said had I said no?” He didn’t know, and I told him that was a problem. “My brother in Christ, why don’t you focus on your own journey instead of asking others about their own, unless you are willing to listen and respect them, not proselytize. Because, frankly, I don’t want you out there representing us when you ain’t got a clue about what it takes to assume responsibility for someone else’s spirituality.” I might not have said exactly these words, but it was something like that.

Love Jesus; don’t be a jerk.

#bipolarstrong: Like Thundershirts, but for People

I used to hate hashtags. To me, they were number signs, pound signs, or tic-tac-toe boards, in that order. Alas, when I began integrating them into my Facebook use, I began to appreciate the subtlety and nuance that emerge. The ways in which people are able to communicate thoughts, be humorous, connect with others who can relate, educate those who cannot, and connect to communities that are trying to affect positive change.

#bipolarstrong is obviously a take-off of “Army Strong,” which I didn’t like when it debuted, for myriad reasons, but mainly because it meant the retiring of the “Be All You Can Be” jingle, which my friends and I repurposed many times for the purposes of D&D and pretty much any other riff on it that our addled teenage minds thought was funny. But as I grew in experience and through challenges, I began to understand that there are particular strengths that go with specific disciplines. Nurse strong is different than Army strong, but they both are strengths. Ofttimes, there is a sense of connection within the various communities of strong. I remember listening to a report on NPR when the new slogan was released; everyone who was interviewed didn’t like it, except for one person. A soldier who said, “I know what Army strong is, so, yeah. It’s true.”

I am at a good place right now, but people who live with chronic and invisible illnesses will know that “good place” often means managing at least half of the attenuating challenges. I have excellent doctors now. Insurance is working in some major areas, but not in others. However, given what the present Administration wants to do to healthcare, I’m pleased. The surgery on my ears has helped. All wonderful things. But I also am not sleeping; I had one good night in which I had one cycle of uninterrupted REM. Since then, it takes at least 3 hours of actively trying to sleep (please; no advice, as I have tried everything and simply have to go with a system that works for me), and when sleep comes a myriad of things wake me up: apnea symptoms, snoring, having to pee (I dehydrate incredibly quickly, so I drink water constantly), or the cats. The tinnitus is so loud now that I have to have both white noise and another form of low-volume sound to be able to attempt mentally blocking it out.

A big problem has been clothes. My tactile issues have impacted my life more than I’m really willing to talk about now, but I have finally found some items that work. Therefore, I have bought these articles in every color I could find/afford. Thank Jesus, if he has a hand in textiles, that these items are also very good on our budget. I need flowing clothes that are also fashionable.

Today I received a new element. While I want flowy clothes, I am also a bit like Temple Grandin in that I also need to be constricted to remain calm and secure. So I bought three compression shirts, and I have been wearing one for about 4 hours. It is not so tight that I can’t breathe–seriously, how do people do corsets?–but tight enough that I feel held together, literally and metaphorically. They’re like thundershirts, but for people.

#bipolarstrong to me means knowing both my limits and my needs. It is addressing that which I can before asking others to help but asking for help when I need it. It means communicating with people and acknowledging that it is strange to have some of these conversations, I get it, but for the betterment of our relationship, having it necessary. I hope that, in return, people will feel that I will receive the needs of others as their statement about what I can do to help them feel heard and safe.

Bipolar strength is born of weaknesses addressed.

After the Sermon*: Reflections on Ephesians 1:1-14


Marcion was a terrible antisemite; this second-century theologian believed that the Christian Scriptures should contain only certain Pauline writings and the Gospel of Luke. Absolutely nothing would be utilized from the Hebrew Bible, which Marcion believed was inspired by the evil destroyer God YHWH; Jesus was sent as a God of love to overthrow this demiurge so any references to the Tanakh would have to be removed from Paul and Luke’s works.  With that said, Marcion wrote prolifically and we know that the Pauline epistle often referred to as “Ephesians” was thought by Marcion to have been written for the Laodiceans. The earliest manuscripts do not contain the phrase en Epheso (in Ephesus). It’s important to be honest from the start; studying Scripture means admitting what we don’t know.

It also means making decisions, so despite the arguments set forth by various scholars to the contrary, I affirm the consensus view. The epistle was written by Paul while he was imprisoned; it bears striking resemblances to the Colossians epistle, in terms of both shared language and thematic emphases; Paul stresses the relationship between Christ’s blood and the redemption of humanity, as well as develops doctrines of faith and grace, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology. The structure of the letter is significant as well, mainly because it appears to reveal liturgical elements which inform our understanding of early Christian worship. To facilitate clear communication, I will refer to the epistle as Ephesians with the reader understanding that, as explained above, decisions have been made based upon informed assumptions.

I spent the weekend playing Julius Caesar. This morning I had to turn to God, which presents an interesting dichotomy. Caesar is about the power of humans who believe they have been made divine, the New Testament is about the power of God being made human. I’m a method actor, in that from call until curtain, I like to be called my character name and I basically stay in character. I’m not strident or stringent about it, but when I’m on stage I am not myself. I am my interpretation of that character. When I am in the pulpit, I try to get as far away from acting as I can; I am most myself in worship. Quite a jump after just a few hours of sleep.

This morning was a truly joyous service, primarily because it was about as casual a service as we’ve had; our incredible music director is on a well-deserved vacation, and the replacement is a beloved and insanely talented local pianist. Sadly, our office manager has been ill so it was left to me to format the bulletin, and even using a Word template I messed it up. The service began with me laughing at myself and making corrections, and instead of the usual organ-based service, we sang in full voice to the piano. We took extra time at the passing of the peace, which already is regularly and famously long. We saw faces we have not seen before, faces we have not seen in a long time, and the faces we look forward to seeing every week. Our prayers of the people were intimate and filled with the Spirit. And I preached on the floor, holding the Bible, and referencing basic notes included in the bulletin. I give you all of this detail because I had only basic tentpoles for the sermon. I called upon the Paraclete, the Advocate, to be our guide. What follows are words inspired by the reflections I offered in service.

Paul never knew the historical Jesus. He was a Pharisee who saw Christ as the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and as the agent through whom the salvation of all could be achieved. Whereas traditional Judaism traced identity via bloodlines, Paul believed that Jesus’ blood brought everyone to God via faith. It is often said that Paul was a blood atonement theologian; that is correct only if we remove any vestiges of Augustine, Anselm, and Luther. Augustine is responsible for our notion of original sin, specifically that it is passed through the sex act. Anselm used the ideals of feudalism to picture God as one owed a great debt by humanity, a debt that humans are unable to pay because of its vastness. According to Anselm, only God can pay it, but if humans have no role it will not be efficacious. Therefore, God becomes human in Jesus Christ and through his blood pays the debt owed by humans. Through faith in his resurrection, we humans can benefit from God’s grace in both this world and the next. Luther added notions that were perfected by the Puritans, evident in the near obsession that many Evangelicals have with sex, abortion, and the gayz.

In Ephesians, Paul presents himself as an apostle because of God’s will; this whole will thing is important to him. Remember, Paul had no claim to authority within the established Church. Unlike Peter, Paul did not know Jesus. Unlike James, Paul was not related to Jesus. Peter and James started as disciples–mathetai–essentially students who learned at the feet of the master. Apostle literally translates as “one sent out.” Apostles sow the seeds and then move on to the next town, shaking dust (the ancient world equivalent to flipping the bird) off their feet at those who do not offer hospitality. Paul talks about the will of God, perhaps because as a Pharisee he would believe that the age of the prophets ended in 400 BCE. Whatever the reason, Paul believes that God is moving people through Jesus Christ.

I am usually wary of and wearied by Paul, but in the selected passage for this week he sets forth some really important ideas. First, he offers a systematic theology for how the Abrahamic faith is open to non-Jews. Regrettably, this has terrible ramifications for the Jewish people, something we should not, but sadly must pass over now with lament. For me as a follower of Jesus, it is a transformational moment in history. Second, Paul cuts through legalism with a radical emphasis on faith; this is not to say that rules aren’t important, but the best of religion seems to emerge when we throw out what keeps people from meaningful relationships with God. Third, a meaningful relationship with God can only come about when we are in relationship with one another. Christ is the head of the Church, Paul says, and believers are the body.  As Maria Portokolos says, “The man may be the head, but the woman, she is the neck.” Jesus as the head helps us to see clearly, to hear fully, to think compassionately. As the body, we must direct these thoughts and visions in the direction where Christ’s love is most needed.

Julius Caesar, for all his faults, believed in the community called Rome. And it cost him his life. Same thing with Jesus, although it should be perfectly clear who I bat for irl. But one cannot understand the kingdom of God unless one understands that it is a direct answer to the kingdom of Caesar. The tragedy is that so much of the American Church looks like it has Caesar sitting on the throne of Jesus. We who follow the gospel are the only ones who can change that, and the best place to start is with ourselves. Amen.

*This is the first entry in a five-week series.


Why Uzo Aduba is the best advocate the mental illness community has right now

Warning: this contains spoilers for season five of OITNB

This is not the first time I have written about the Orange is the New Black character Suzanne Warren, nor the first time I have opined about mental illness in media. In the main, I am not a fan of how mental illness is portrayed in films. I really did not like Silver Linings Playbook. I despised The Virgin Suicides, including the novel, and as Black Cindy says about Girl, Interrupted, “just think of the whitest movie ever made.”

In fairness, most of the objections I have to the way mental illness is portrayed on television and film are borne of industry and production restrictions. A psychotic killer on Law and Order may get three or four episodes of character arc, but they are almost always criminally insane. Most of the time they have gone off their meds, and some doctor who has only read their file makes definitive statements about how the person can be apprehended. These are police dramas, procedural shows that are not looking to explore the nuances of mental illness. In films, most often the constraints are owed to screen time for characters and the need to show extremes of behavior in successive scenes. More and more, I simply do not watch shows or films in which mental illness plays a major role, frankly because I am tired of seeing my community portrayed as criminals when we stand a much higher chance of being victims of crimes rather than the perpetrators.

But Uzo Aduba has changed that for me. Season one of OITNB seems almost like a distant memory now; a highly sexualized “Crazy Eyes” who pees on the floor as a warning is replaced in season two by a complicated Suzanne Warren, an African-American who was adopted by white parents and at 10 years old was the emotional equivalent of her 6-year-old sister. Suzanne, who is at Litchfield Correctional because she innocently detained a young boy who tragically died when he fell out a window, is sexually inexperienced but deep-feeling; she is highly intelligent, both in terms of cognition and emotions. She free-associates with her words and actions and tries to explain to others things they can’t understand, but I do. As a person with mental illness, I see not Uzo Aduba trying to affect mental illness, I see Suzanne Warren, a character who is channeled by the actress, exhibiting behaviors I know very well.

One of the issues explored in the current season is medication. “Loony” Lorna Morello has taken over the pharmaceutical bay during the riot, which stretches through the entire season. When inmates come seeking their meds, Lorna tells them that they don’t need them, that pills are used to control them, or as she says, “sand down your edges.” Suzanne says several times that she does need her meds, but finally agrees that she’ll go off of them. As the hours pass, Suzanne becomes increasingly agitated by the extreme circumstances around her and the loss of routine. Again and again, Suzanne tries to communicate with others until she enters crisis. Black Cindy secures medications, but they are the wrong ones. As it just so happens, she grabs lithium, which is a medication I take. On first viewing I did not think the writers handled the introduction of medication carefully enough; Suzanne goes nearly comatose after the drug is administered, which is not what would happen if someone who wasn’t on lithium took a single dose. However, on a second viewing, I see that Suzane simply crashes when she is made to feel safe. I have gone catatonic for hours at a time, unable to respond to even my wife’s voice, after a mania or mixed episode.

bullshit .jpg

Chances are you have seen this meme or some form of it. It is utter bullshit, hopefully for obvious reasons. If not, ask yourself: would you say that to a diabetic requiring insulin or a cancer patient taking chemotherapy? Of course not.

OITNB presents this meme for a sustained critique, in many ways, by playing the storyline out for several episodes. Suzanne, like many of us, requires medication. To be sure, medications, especially in prisons or mental hospitals, can be over-prescribed or administered at artificially high dosages. But Suzanne is only able to begin the process of regaining herself when she has both medication and a safe environment. I know from experience that being surrounded by loving, supportive, informed, and compassionate people helps me to dedicate my energy to being well. When either is taken away, I self-destruct.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to tell Uzo Aduba how much I appreciate her, how much I relate to and love Suzanne Warren. I am aware of how lucky I am, much of it through nothing other than a genetic lottery, to be where I am. I write about my mental illness because I want, in some small way, to make a difference for the community I am in through no choice of my own. But Ms. Aduba is doing more through her art than perhaps anyone else in the world because the show reaches such a diverse audience. I don’t know of a single person who watches OITNB who doesn’t love Suzanne Warren, and for many people, it is the first time they have ever seen the humanity of someone called crazy.