Touched in the head and dying of the damp: On being sickly and afraid of the AHCA

Had I been born a century earlier, I don’t know if I would have made it. I spent my first birthday in an oxygen tent because I had pneumonia.

I was born in July.

A lot of my earliest memories are of being in the hospital for surgeries. I had ear tubes installed 5 or 6 times; that’s what we called it,, or at least that’s what I’ve told myself we called it to make this a better story. Even my parents can’t remember how many times I had that surgery, how many installations, but I remember the earaches that precipitated the surgeries and made me wish for death even before I could express that thought. By the time I was ten I had already been through the chicken pox, mono (twice), pneumonia (twice), flu almost every year, and at least two major orthodonture surgeries (I’ll write another time about when I had ten *extra* teeth removed). Then there were my allergies, the most excruciating of which was poison ivy. I only have to be within a certain proximity of poison ivy to be infected; I once was so covered a Nurse Ratchett berated me before surgery as I sat in my underoos and she eyeballed the rash on, as Ian Anderson sings in one of my favorite Jethro Tull songs, “the parts they never mention.” She threatened to cancel the surgery, which was a big deal because I knew how hard it was for my parents to get off work in the first place, so being the sensitive soul that I am I took the fact that I got poison ivy as a moral failing. The surgery–my tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, I think, which had to be done because of my jacked-up teeth and to prepare for the retainers from hell I wore for six years–went forward. The list goes on. My back issues started when I was 16; I was once on disability for four months. I had a shingles outbreak–see aforementioned Tull song–while chaperoning a youth retreat at Purdue University, which was a fun drive home.

bobby.jpg
What’s especially funny is that my mom’s name really is Peggy. 

And, of course, you’ll be knowing that I have Bipolar Disorder, which brings with it not only the mental aspect but also the fact that depression writes itself on the body. I went through three years of hell having almost every -oscopy under the sun to deal with my stomach issues and nothing came up because it was my bipolar screaming for attention.

All of this to say, I have spent a great deal of time in bed and dealing with the attenuating anxiety that comes with fearing that everyone sees me as weak. Or unreliable. Or lazy. Oh, I know the intellectual arguments against this and it does not matter how many times people tell me such is not the case, in my mind, there is always the pull between wanting to rest so I can get better and the incessant fear that everything is going to fall apart because I am ill too often. People will stop thinking I am capable. I will be unable to fulfill my responsibilities. I wonder if my decreasing desire to do much of anything social outside church, Xavier, my studies, and the occasional village event is owed less to my being 40 and more to do with the fact that I am becoming even more sickly.

Sickly.

See, that’s the word I think would have been used for me had I been born a century earlier. That’s how it would have been written in the family lore. Oh, Aaron was the sweetest little boy but he was sickly. I imagine that I would have perished fairly young, vanquished by “the damp.” Perhaps I would have made it to early adulthood before dying in an unseemly way, only to be spoken about after a few drams of whiskey. He was touched in the head, that boySmart, but troubled.

I have the unmerited grace bestowed upon me to live in a situation in which I can maneuver my schedule to work around the illnesses. It is one of the reasons I am so transparent and honest: I want people to know that I hate this reality and when I commit to things I do so out of a genuine desire to participate and make a difference. I am writing this right now because I can’t lie in that bedroom any more worrying myself into a tizzy, so I write hoping that my words will communicate the deep, genuine desire I have to not be “sick again.” I wish my eyes were not on fire and my hands blocks of ice. I’m not ready to stop planning or to think that I can’t accomplish the things I want to do, but I also realize I kind of hit the lottery. My friends and family and community are understanding; I have a home and access to medical care. I have work that *barely* allows us to pay the basic bills. If any of these ingredients were to go, I cannot be honest about how resilient I would be. I physically cannot work a 9-5 job. It is important for me to be honest about this; it is important for all of us to be honest about how the loss of healthcare or slipping further into debt can decimate our lives. I have more of a security net than many, but it ain’t much.

I don’t feel sorry for myself and I do not ask anyone to feel sorry for me. My life is an abundance of blessings and I thank God everyday. I did nothing to deserve the incredible life I have been given, so I’m just grateful for it. The flip-side of that is being honest about what frightens me. People like me have a long history of ending up in terrible places, of having our vulnerabilities be too much to defend and we lose control. As I wait for the medication to kick in so I can go back to sleep, I am thinking about how many people have lives that can be destroyed with the single blow of an unfateful wind. Of what might happen if my healthcare goes away; if Miriam and I can’t afford to keep the house when it is passed to us. And I see a country in which a not insignificant number of people would be just fine if I were to die, because my political beliefs mean my physical ailments don’t deserve treatment. A country in which we are content to prioritize making money as a right, but not a society in which we recognize that some people, through no fault of their own, have physical and mental struggles that directly impact their everyday lives and therefore need care. I don’t know any of us who deal with chronic illness who are happy about it, or want to be a drain on others, but for fuck’s sake we are not going to just go ahead and die. That doesn’t get to be part of the deal, okay?

I will be seeing a new doctor in July and I am hoping that like finding the right therapist, this will be a key to my being able to navigate and negotiate my health more successfully. But let all of us finally take a stand against the politics of healthcare. This is not about one side winning; this is about real suffering and dying. This is about a commitment to being a species which prioritizes using knowledge to help people. All people. Because we all need help, in one way or another. There are none of us who can do this on our own. And we are none of us more deserving by merit of our birth. It baffles me that a country that was supposedly founded to stop the abuses of a ruling class has produced perhaps the most genocidal, despotic autocracy in human history. The AHCA will be a death sentence to millions. Literally millions. Some more quickly than others, but the toll will be massive. We can do better.

With the loss of the Johnson Amendment, the time has come for Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity

Today the president signed an Executive Order, once again proving that he is incapable of actual governance according to the strictures of the Constitution, that seriously erodes the Johnson Amendment. Introduced in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Banes Johnson, the legislation does not allow tax-exempt organizations to be both overtly political and avoid paying taxes. This essentially makes the Johnson Amendment an IRS matter, not a free-speech matter, but Evangelical Christians cry foul and persecution, despite the fact that, as John Wagner reports in The Washington Post,  “Violations of the Johnson Amendment are infrequently pursued by the IRS, but evangelicals claim it has been used selectively against them, preventing Christian leaders from speaking freely in church.” Alas, here’s the rub. Too many Evangelical Christians–who voted overwhelmingly for a thrice-married servant of Mammon with a penchant for being handsy and believes Communion is a magic cracker–fear that they can’t be openly misogynistic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, and xenophobic in the name of Jesus Christ.

Jesus-facepalm

In the Evangelical mindset, religious freedom is the ability to deny service to a dying person because he or she is “objectionable,” including even vital medical treatment.  It is essentially saying that being an asshole is a religious right, and the president just gave credence to this so-called “war on Christianity” that is neither war nor against Christianity.

coffee talk .jpg

I don’t hear Evangelicals decrying the genocide of gays in Chechnya. In fact, Evangelical Christians arguing for religious freedom are often the ones who spread rabid anti-LGBTQ hatred overseas.  There is not a reasonable argument to be made that today’s Executive Order is anything other than a wink and a nod to those who wish to scream about the supposed splinter of sin in the eyes of others while ignoring the oak tree in their own. Don’t be fooled; this has nothing to do with following Jesus Christ.

I’m a pastor who is very active on issues often deemed political. I argue that these issues actually belong to the Gospel before they belong to American politics, but I toe the line; I do not mention politicians by name from the pulpit, and I try to speak about on issues, not persons. I do this because if the church I serve were to pay taxes, it would fold. Property tax alone where we are would take a significant portion of our budget; I already am only hired for 18 hours a week, but work much more because I am not a servant of Mammon. I am a servant of Jesus Christ. I find it interesting that most of the leaders claiming religious persecution pastor the largest, most wealthy churches and the pastors have a huge salary. They also are often pastors who more preach self-help (buy my book!) than the Gospel. There are exceptions, but not many.

I don’t want to be associated with them anymore.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a name that is cynically invoked by many Evangelicals, set forth a concept called “religionless Christianity.” It is a controversial idea that if oft-misunderstood. Bonhoeffer argued that religious doctrine interfered with people’s ability to connect with God, especially in an increasingly irreligious world. Bonhoeffer would not have claimed that the answer is nondenominationalism and coffee bars instead of a sacristy. Bonhoeffer taught us that the power of the Incarnation is that God experienced the joys and sorrows of human life, just as we do now; if we want union with Christ, we seek it in community, we seek in solidarity with the suffering of those around us. If we want to understand God, we must understand Christ’s suffering; and if we want to understand Christ’s suffering, we must address the suffering that the world causes to others.

I am a pastor within the United Christ of Christ (UCC) serving a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. I am a firm believer in denominationalism because it keeps pastors accountable; it means that we have to undergo training, that we report to local, regional, and national governing bodies; in the Reform tradition, it means that we pastors have very little power compared with the congregation, which is perhaps the single greatest polity development in the history of the faith (even though I sometimes yearn for the power of a priest, I’m glad I don’t have it). But if today is a signal of what Christianity is and will remain, it needs to go. Our religion needs to die because this travesty of political demagoguery has as much to do with Jesus Christ as does a pine tree at Macy’s in December

It takes money to run a church. Sadly, when many people hear that I am a pastor they make assumptions; my physical appearance does not help, either, as most people aren’t used to a pastor covered in tattoos. They assume that I don’t pay taxes, which I can assure you, I do. We pastors are often taxed heavier because we are considered independent contractors but still receive W-2s. My meager salary is heavily taxed, but that’s okay.  I didn’t take a literal vow of poverty but I did in my heart. I follow Jesus Christ, not Benjamin Franklin. Tax-exempt status reminds us that our goal is to preach the Gospel, not to involve ourselves in partisan politics. To be sure, there are issues that are important to people of faith. And their faith may motivate them to act. That’s fine; we all have that right as citizens. But to argue that religious freedom is the right to drag temporal, secular, earthly politics into the pulpit angers me, both as a minister and an American.

I call upon fellow Christians to rise up against this Executive Order; make it clear that this is not about religious freedom, this is about the unholy matrimony between Evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. This is about a vulgar abomination passing itself off as the good news. If this is religion, call me religionless.

A Bluegrass Eastertide: In the Garden with Stephen

This Eastertide I have been connecting the narrative lectionary texts to a gospel song, loosely defined as “bluegrass gospel.” I married into bluegrass royalty; my lovely wife’s parents were (and still are) part of The Hotmud Family, a band that originally included legendary songwriter Tom “Harley” Campbell. Much more on that next week, but suffice it to say I am not a picker and a singer, as true bluegrass musicians define it. I do play a mean guitar and I’m told my singing voice makes people want to stay in the room, which is always nice, but I’m not claiming festival-worthy gospel. However, on Easter a confirmation you and I sang “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The next Sunday, my amazing wife Miriam joined me for a sendup of the Staley Brothers’ version of “Angel Band,” and this past Sunday a member who grew up in this congregation and sings with Soul Stirrers group, joined me for “In the Garden,” my maternal grandmother’s favorite hymn. I did my best Johnny Cash meets Hank Williams interpretation to match the amazing voice of my singing partner, and it was a pure joy. Sadly, I did not record any of the songs BUT this Sunday I am going to Facebook Live the end of worship when we play a very special tune. I’ll link it in a future blog. Click here for the scripture selection    

The problems of the present often have interesting effects on the past, don’t they? Our contemporary woes can seem so potent and acute that we yearn for a time before they emerged. We humans have a remarkable capacity to forget previous pains, to produce in our minds a time in which things were better. Perhaps they were, but often our woebegone present can produce rose-colored glasses through which we gaze upon a time that never really existed. This is frequently the case with talk about the early Church: we imagine a holy assembly when in reality, as Acts 6 makes clear, it was a hodgepodge, not unlike today. There is something both comforting and deflating about this: the Body of Christ has always been a tenuous community trying to make a go at following the example of Jesus, and we’ve never quite gotten it right.

Today’s passage begins with griping; the Hellenists—the Gentiles, the non-Jews—are complaining against the Hebrews that the work of the Church is not being done: widows are going without food. The Twelve—Judas having been replaced by Matthias—gather everyone together and say, “Look, we can’t all do everything and there’s lots of important work. The community has made it clear that we need new ministries, so let’s select some people from within the community to focus on feeding those in need.” What we encounter here is remarkably telling; while the Church is moving more toward hierarchy, with a top-down approach, this need for ministers comes from the bottom-up. While Luke, the author of Acts, does not use the word “deacon,” literally meaning “servant,” that’s essentially what we see: the ordination of our first diaconate. And notice that the seven deacons each have Greek names. This also is telling: in order to address the concerns of the Hellenists, the community selects servants from among their numbers. The community recognizes that being invitational means bringing as many voices and perspectives to the table as possible; it means not vesting power in the majority alone, but rather it is offering equity to all who submit to God’s call.

Thus, we encounter Stephen. A deacon. A servant of the second generation; the biblical witness uses descriptions that were originally applied only to Jesus’ disciples: successful healings, effective preaching, signs and works. The power of the Holy Spirit has not skipped a generation.

This is not the only language that is repeated from earlier in Luke’s work. Stephen’s arrest, trial, and execution are remarkably similar to that of Jesus; while Stephen is not accused of claiming to be the Son of God, the dynamic is the same. The religious council does not recognize that God is working in new ways; they claim to defend tradition, but Stephen says that there has been nearly constant rebellion against God since the time of Moses, and like Jesus he is to be a rejected prophet for pointing it out. Stephen criticizes King Solomon, about whom he charges apostasy for claiming that the Jerusalem Temple contains the presence of God. Stephen quotes Isaiah and uses the oft-repeated refrain, “you stiff-necked people,” eliciting the words of Amos and Jeremiah, before accusing the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, of murdering God’s agent.

Many scholars believe that the story of Stephen’s trial is a narrative archetype rather than the minutes of an actual event; the story is written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death at a time in which it appears that the Hellenists and the Hebrews were splitting from one another. The harsh words of Stephen most likely are those of a Gentile-Christian community that feels persecuted by their Jewish siblings. This is common in the New Testament; many scholars believe that Jesus’ harshest words against the Pharisees don’t actually come from him, but rather from the second-generation follows who wrote the text. Ditto with Acts 6; what we likely have is an argument between two religious groups using the same scriptural traditions to accuse the other of doing it wrong.

We are a people of stories. Each week we gather to hear stories of sacred scripture; during prayers of the people, we tell ongoing stories from our individual and collective lives, asking for spiritual solidarity; as a congregation, we honor those who came before us by learning about our history and continuing to emphasize the spiritual, ethical, and moral principles that have carried us through seven generations. Each day, we add to the story and we can rest assured, for good or ill, future generations will talk about what we have done. during our own time.

The story in Acts reflects a community making sense of rejection; a community trying to manage fear by discerning meaning out of even the most dire of circumstances. The story in Acts is a reminder that no matter what is going on, our basic tasks remain the same: we are to take care of one another. Amidst clashes, even deadly ones, the widows still need to be fed. The Word of God needs to be proclaimed. There never was a time in which that wasn’t the case, and there never was a time in which doing that was not difficult.

Part of following God is wanting—needing—to feel that there is a place of safety, even as danger abounds. Our song today, “In the Garden,” reflects just such an experience on the part of its composer, C. Austin Miles. He wrote:

One day in March, 1912, I was seated in the dark room, where I kept my photographic equipment and organ. I drew my Bible toward me; it opened at my favorite chapter, John 20-whether by chance or inspiration let each reader decide. That meeting of Jesus and Mary had lost none of its power to charm.

As I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, “Rabboni!”

My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches. A woman in white, with head bowed, hand clasping her throat, as if to choke back her sobs, walked slowly into the shadows. It was Mary. As she came to the tomb, upon which she place her hand, she bent over to look in, and hurried away. John, in flowing robe, appeared, looking at the tomb; then came Peter, who entered the tomb, followed slowly by John. As they departed, Mary reappeared; leaning her head upon her arm at the tomb, she wept. Turning herself, she saw Jesus standing, so did I. I knew it was He. She knelt before Him, with arms outstretched and looking into His face cried “Rabboni!”

I awakened in full light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has since appeared. That same evening I wrote the music.

Christianity is a religion that requires us to face the world and not ignore the ugliness. At times, that is terrifying. But in our submission, in our dedication to following the man from Nazareth, in our willingness to walk the Jerusalem Road there is an assurance that God is with us. That’s really what is happening in Acts. And also in Miles’ song: Christians turning to our shared sacred story and expressing the unshakable faith that following God means we are never alone.

There is no perfect Church. There is no perfect person. There is always more to a situation than what we see, whether we want to admit it or not. There is always the possibility that we are wrong; it will always be the case that there are people who want to kill us: spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally. But God never leaves us, even when we’ve made a right mess of things. Sometimes, that’s all we’ve got and all we’re going to get. The secret is to realize that it is enough. Amen.

 

Christianity is Weird: An Easter Sermon

download (1)

Explaining Christianity is an interesting exercise. I suggest starting out with the really reasonable details.

Well, you see, we follow this man named Jesus.

Okay, what’s so special about Jesus?

Jesus was a friend of the forgotten, a protector of the abused, an activist for those not given a voice. He engaged in nonviolent resistance against corruption in both government and religion.

Wow, yeah. He sounds like a great guy.

He was

I notice you say “was.” Because he died a long time ago, right, after a good long life.

This is where our story takes a turn, right?

Well, not exactly. Yes, he died—kinda—a long time ago, but his life was not long. And his death was…painful.

Oh. That’s too bad. Leprosy? Demon possession?

No, crucifixion. Public crucifixion. Actually, all of his male friends either turned on him or ran away, but it has a happy ending!

And here. Right here is where it starts to get a little, well, unusual. Here is where many people get stuck, or turn away, or feel downright confused. We believe that God became flesh, modeled for us how to live a life of service, compassion, justice, and love, went to the cross in an act of solidarity and sacrifice, and died. Then, after three days that aren’t really three days, he appears in a new body (kinda) proclaiming the good news that death is not the final word.

I say this as someone who believes it: our story is weird. We Christians will say boldly that we are not ashamed of it, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t acknowledge that if we are going to proclaim it, we should be honest about the stumbling blocks. What are we celebrating today? For those of us who journeyed into the upper room and to the foot of the cross on Thursday and Friday, who waited in the tomb with Jesus on Saturday, what did we just do? Why do we gather this morning in song and prayer?

These questions go back to the time immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and reports of resurrection. The Apostle Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus but claims a resurrection encounter on the Damascus Road, says that if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. He puts the whole of the Christian confession on the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. This was not the only opinion, however; at the same time, communities gathered around  Wisdom traditions, such as the one recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, that regard Jesus as a teacher, make no reference to crucifixion or resurrection, and claim that the Kingdom of God will arise from shifts in consciousness, much like what is found in Hinduism and Buddhism. Some, like the Docetists, argued that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, he just appeared to; this is the view recorded in the Quran.

Easter also comes at the time of Pesach (Passover), the Jewish celebration of God leading the Chosen People from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Exodus becomes the paradigm of Jewish spirituality: God is always offering us liberation from that which oppresses: addiction, greed, anger, self-hatred. The Exodus moves from death to life. Easter coincides with numerous fertility rites and traditions from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, and Persian cultures. Christ descends into the underworld, as do Ra and Odysseus and Osiris. The word Easter derives from the word Eostre, who was a pagan Anglo-Saxon Goddess, who also is found in Norse mythology as the goddess of spring. The mytho-poetic is written all over this time of our season cycle.

When we proclaim “He is raised, he is raised indeed,” we are making a faith statement. But not all of us make it in the same way, with the same understanding, with the same needs, with the same affirmations, with the same trepidations. The literal resurrection of Jesus Christ has been the single biggest stumbling block of my faith life. I scoffed at it as a child; I tried to intellectually understand it as an undergraduate; I tried to rip it apart as a graduate student. And then my brother died. Everything changed. I re-approached it. First as a myth. Then as a metaphor. Now as a parable, a koan, a mystical riddle meant to push us past the limits of reason and into a spiritual understanding of existence. Of what it means to be imago dei, made in the image of God. Of what is required to imitatio Christi, to imitate Christ.

I fear that much is lost when we insist on having arguments regarding the literalness of the resurrection and there is no room for dissent or interpretation. On one hand, we see that the resurrection is literally true each and every year. We have yet to experience a year in which spring does not come, in which fertility and fecundity do no return, in which the long, cold winter does not give way to the victory of saplings and bulbs pushing through the soil. Each year we see birth, ascendency, decay, and death. Resurrection is, at its heart, a declaration that death does not win and that life will out. On the other hand, resurrecting bodies sounds a lot like The Walking Dead.

For some of us, the resurrection of Christ is literal in the way described in Scripture. To others of us, the resurrection narrative points to a deeper, mystical reality in which we find meaning and purpose in life by thinking about the ways in which death is defeated over and over again. All without our doing. All without our control. We know that each one of us at some point will shuffle off these mortal coils, and then. Well, and then. That’s the rub, right? And then, what?

For the disciples and later for Paul, the “and then” has to do with a manner of living. I personally may not be overly thrilled by how so much of our faith tradition has come down to policing what other people believe rather than inspiring ourselves to continue Jesus’ work in the world, but the fact remains that once you affirm the resurrection as true—not necessarily factual, but true—your life changes. If death is not the final word, what then is the point of life? What is the purpose of our time here? Is it pure pleasure? No pleasure, no matter how delicious, can be sustained indefinitely. We build up tolerances. We require more and more, often to the detriment of other things. Pleasure so often leads to pain. Or is the purpose of life the acquisition of wealth and power? Despite the massive mausoleums and private pyramids, no potentate or monarch has managed to take anything with them. The purpose of life seems beyond our sense pleasures. It seems it cannot be purchased in cash or on credit.

For every Christian, the declaration that he has risen, he has risen indeed, says something about ourselves. It means that during Lent we have been walking the Jerusalem road, crosses upon our backs, dust in our eyes, confusion in our hearts, and that we sacrifice our sense of self, our individual notions that we are somehow separate from all of creation, and we have asked for death. For the death of our egos. We have asked God to kill that self that nods along on Sunday but forgets to live the Gospel on Monday. Easter is a proclamation that if we on Good Friday do the difficult work of dying to that which separates us, on Easter Sunday we will be reborn into an eternal community that animates us to work for justice, mercy, love, and compassion for all.

It’s weird, this Christian story. I think it is important to recognize that; it is easily ridiculed and lampooned, and frankly, we Christians kind of deserve some of that because we are sometimes rather simplistic in how we describe it. Too much telling people that if they believe the wrong things, they will go to hell after death. Not enough talking about following Jesus so that others no longer have to live a life of hell. We don’t talk about how the resurrection story is another way to say that hope springs eternal. When we proclaim he has risen, he has risen indeed—which, just to be clear, I believe—let us be proclaiming ourselves as a people who know that only light can drive out darkness, that only love can conquer hate, and that if we want to be filled with life, we should start the process of dying to our temporary, artificial selves so that we may embrace our identity as those with stardust in our bones and God in our souls. Amen.

 

Costly Grace in the Age of Trump: Hostile to the Gospel (It’s Hard Out Here for an Apostle)

bonnhoeffer1.jpg

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a good Lutheran. Before he traveled to Harlem in 1930, he ascribed rather heavily to Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” worldview. There are the earthly and the spiritual realms, errors in the former can lead to banishment from the latter. Bonhoeffer also sided with Luther over Augustine as it pertains to the nature of grace: for Augustine, grace is the opportunity to realign one’s loves in the proper order, placing agapic love upon the zenith, and thereby line up with God. Luther, who was an Augustinian monk, regarded this as impossible. Human nature can never be justified to God through any action of our own. Therefore, grace is free, radical, all-sufficient, and not dependent upon any manner of works.

While at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer encountered two figures who would change his life: the pacifist Jean Lassere and the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Both men, in different ways, were socially active and engaged. They challenged Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran notion of two kingdoms, challenges that became increasingly relevant as Hitler’s Nazis signed a concordat with the Roman Catholic Church and installed a Reichsbischof in the German Evangelical Church. The meddling of the earthly kingdom into that of the spiritual kingdom was troubling, to be sure, but for Bonhoeffer, the concern was more complicated.

There are some basic ingredients to Christian theology that come in myriad flavors. One of the basic questions any theological system must address is this: Who is Jesus Christ? This is known as Christology. From Christology falls just about everything else. For example, theological anthropology and ontology. These can overlap. Essentially, what is the intrinsic nature of the human person (ontology), and what is the current condition of the person (theological anthropology)? That must be connected to how a person is saved (soteriology). For a vast majority of Christians, the answers concern grace and faith. Then we must ask, what are the means of grace or the signs of faith (sacramental theology)? What is the nature of the Church (ecclesiology)? The questions continue, and we’re still dealing with fairly basic stuff, in terms of a systematic theology. This talking about God stuff can get complicated.

To those outside, this may look silly. Heck, sometimes I think it is silly and I am a pastoral theologian. For me, it is silly when it becomes what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace. When theology is undertaken for its own sake; when it is used to justify the Nazification of God’s community; when we engage in what Talmudic scholars sometimes refer to as pilpul, hairsplitting, theology is dangerous in its vapidness. While we argue about why we should not act, Bonhoeffer noted, we call upon a grace made available only because Jesus Christ did act. He took the cross upon his shoulders and invited the nails into his body so that the redemptive work of God could be done. Christ’s suffering on the cross not only led to a means of justification, a way that we can be set right with God, but also to a new ontology. A new being. How dare we call upon grace so easily when it was brought about so painfully?

For Bonhoeffer, one’s new being is not realized by simply saying that one believes in Christ, accepts salvation, and awaits the heavenly reward. That is cheap grace. That is grace that is all about us as individuals, a grace that allows us to be sanctimonious about the sins of commission undertaken by others and self-righteous about our own sins of omission. We condemn what others do and blithely ignore what we don’t do that Jesus requires us to do. Cheap grace says that we do not have to follow Christ into a world that is hostile to the Gospel. And I’m not talking the bullshit “war on Christianity” hostility fabricated by those who fear losing privilege White and male and Christian; no, I am talking about a world that is hostile to the Beatitudes as a bill of rights; a world that bleaches Jesus’ skin, puts a rifle in one hand and a drug test in the other, and preaches about how no one ever gave him a damn thing when he was hustling in Nazareth. Cheap grace assures us of our easy salvation and preaches the assured damnation of those who say otherwise.

Costly grace requires that we get woke. And I know that not everyone likes this term or concept, so I hesitate to use it because the conversation might derail, but it is the best one for our topic. Costly grace means that we call upon God to transform us. We submit. We follow the example of Jesus, not in abstract ways but rather in concrete ones: we serve others, we pay attention to the needs of those around us, we understand that in a world hostile to the Gospel suffering is to be expected. Christ suffered, and through service to others we not only realize our own true nature, our ontology, we see the image of Christ in the eyes of our neighbor. Others manifest Christ for us as we do for them, and together, in community, we are the means through which Christ is made evident in the world.

What Trump is doing with his agenda stands against everything Jesus Christ said and did. I am not offering any words about those who support the man in the White House. Not now. When I do my words are used to sideline the discussion. You’re a pastor and you shouldn’t be writing about stuff like this, I hear on the reg. You are dividing people; keep your spiritual realm out of the earthly realm, they say. To do that means to call upon cheap grace, and I can’t do that. To do that means that I don’t think it is important to follow Jesus in the world. It means having a religion that is based upon really nice ideas but holds that any actions that impinge upon capitalism or government are unseemly. It means saying blessed are the poor, but not our poor. The poor of Jesus’ time. Blessed are the peacemakers, but not those antiwar, snowflakes who burn the flag and decry perpetual bombing of the Middle East under the guise of national security and a nebulous war on terrorism. Cheap grace is believing it is Christian to refer to human beings as “illegals” and regard “refuge” as a synonym for terrorist.

Costly grace means being committed to the concept of community, no matter the challenges. Costly grace means Beloved Community.

I hear Howard Thurman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer calling me from the pages of books, and their voices sound an awful lot like Jesus.

I have the feeling this is going to be costly. Thanks be to God.

Why I Can’t Criticize Dave Chappelle

CW: Mentioning of hate crimes, transition surgery, transphobia.

trans

I know Dave Chappelle, but I don’t know Dave Chappelle. We live in the same town. He is three years older than me, but I moved here the year before he left to go live with his mother in D.C. I knew his father, a most wonderful man, and one of his siblings. The latter and I were in a play together, Member of the Wedding, which was how I first met Dave. He was just gearing up to start his run at comedy. I was enamored from jump street. And while we would run into each other numerous times over the years, I have always been better friends with our mutual friends, if that makes sense. He knows who I am, but I have exactly zero relevance to his life. I just want to make that clear. I’m not trying to claim some intimacy with him, or to act like my opinion should matter to him at all. I really like Dave, and I love the fact that he can live here and be a husband and a father.  We both play roles in the village and try to be positive citizens. Over the years I have helped run interference between Dave and tourists, especially after he first moved back and everyone was wondering why he went to Africa. I love the fact that he came back here. And I know why he came back.

Yellow Springs comes with responsibilities. If this place shapes you and grabs you, and you continue to claim it as part of your identity, even if you no longer have a residence here, it means that you need to carry our values. Imperfect values, to be sure. But ones that are a better starting point than perhaps any other place in the United States. At least for me. In a country where a great number of my generation did not learn about the Civil Rights movement in school beyond reading the “I Have a Dream” speech, I was educated by people who participated in the movement. I lived in a place where Coretta Scott studied (but wasn’t allowed to do her teaching co-op in the very school system in which I was learning). Dr. King gave a significant speech here in 1965. I knew that Yellow Springs from decades before the current movement has been a rare haven for GLBT families. I grew up with dear friends who had two dads or two moms. Women have had more of a voice here than in surrounding areas (but misogyny knows no zip code). My father worked at a college that was lampooned on Saturday Night Live for believing in sexual autonomy and agency so much, a group of female students–some queer, some non-White, all powerful–pushed forward a sexual consent policy that nearly 30 years later is being recognized as the template for institutions to take seriously sexual violence. (I am also not saying that sexual violence does not occur on Antioch College campus, either.) All of this to say: before I was a Christian, I was from Yellow Springs. This place prepared me for the dirty business of following Jesus.

I recently watched the first installment of Dave’s Netflix shows. A lot has been written by voices more important than mine. But I work very closely with the trans community here; it is hard for me not to become emotional when I talk about how sacred those relationships are to me. This feeling is mirrored by only two others: the relationships I have been able to have with men and women of color, and the relationships I have been able to form with Muslims. In each, I have had to unpack my privilege, to listen and receive anger that I had no right to ask be held back, to examine my own complicity in structural oppression. But it is both much more than that and less grandiose. It is the opportunity, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, to affirm someone else not as Kant defined, not as a “not-I,” but as a You. A person who exists independent of me, who should be seen in as much totality as possible, affirmed as being created imago dei. Those experiences and identities: trans, Black, Muslim–they matter. They matter as do my own identifiers. The rub is, only together will we see ourselves and discover God.

Dave’s words about trans persons hurt me because I knew the hurt that they were causing others. It hurt because I pastor a church that has dedicated part of its ministry to declaring and creating safe space for trans persons. It hurt because I know on the weekends when we are a tourist trap, some trans persons who will walk downtown in the middle of the week stay away. I received messages asking if I was going to talk to him, or if I was going to write anything. I posted an article on my Facebook page (written by an African American male) and a conversation ensued that went along the lines that I thought it would.

So, here goes: I’m a White, Christian dude. Doesn’t matter how I wear my hair, the tats I get, the academic work I do: the fact is I am a White dude. I get it; that used to piss me off, but see above and the relationships I have developed. The fact that I can’t fully understand an experience because I have not lived it no longers sounds like a criticism to me. It is a fact. No one is saying I am a bad person, at least no one worth listening to. But at the end of the day, Dave is a Black man and a Muslim. Within both of those cultures, there is deep transphobia. And Dave is at the more enlightened end of the spectrum in that regard. I may have wished that Dave would’ve taken the jokes in different directions, but you know what? That does not matter at all. I’m not a world-famous celebrity; I have not walked away from millions of dollars to follow my path; I do not have the right or the standing to assume license and tell one of the greatest comedians in American history how to write a bit. I don’t have the right to tell a Black, Muslim man that he is insufficiently progressive on this issue. It would just be wrong on so many levels.

I’m not trying to sound egotistical, but I’m writing this because a number of people have asked me to say something to Dave or to write about the situation. I’ve really struggled with this, but in the end I have decided on what you’re reading here. Transphobia is deadly. Trans women are particularly vulnerable;  trans women of color are even more exposed to attacks upon their bodies and persons. Perceiving them to be men in dresses is damaging and devastating, and I strongly disagree with perpetuating that image except to expose and destroy it as a pernicious lie. But I am not Black. I am not Muslim. I operate in different contexts and have a different perspective. Dave and I might live in the same town, but we don’t exist in the same worlds. I can’t criticize him, but I will continue to try to live my life as a close ally to the trans community.

I understand that for some, I am a traitor. I am not drawing a clear line in the sand and saying that certain words or ideas, when expressed by anyone, are unacceptable and will be decried loudly. I get that position. I can only say that there are others in the community who are doing that; I am not one of them because I have taken vows to be a person of service. I have friends who are genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of trans persons, but they are confronting it and trying to work through their emotions. It is easy to say that it should be easy, but for some, it is not. They are dealing with family expectations, ethnic and culture influences, religious decrees, and an overall popular culture that lampoons sex and gender non-compliance. Taken in isolation, even one of these would be enough with which to wrestle. Taken together, we have a battle royale. I think it is important that those persons who are in the fight feel like they have someone to whom they can speak, and that is where I come in. At least, that’s what I am telling myself. As I said, this has been a tough situation for me to read and to discern how I should act or not act.

The conversation is important. If nothing else, I can take a side on that; it is vital that we really talk through the emotions and reactions. In that way, Dave shows once again his power and influence as a cultural figure. For me, though, I just can’t call him out. I can’t criticize him. I will criticize the position, and I will actively fight against the damage that arises from some of the attitudes expressed in his bit. Reducing transitioning to genital manipulation perpetuates the notion that being trans means defying nature. I have held a person who shook visibly as she described just one of the beatings she sustained, men screaming about her “missing” genitalia amidst raining blows. But I was once further back on my own journey to conscientiousness, and I know that there are still areas of my own life fraught with phobia. Glass houses and all that.

I never want to use being a White dude as an excuse, but I also want to recognize the situations in which being a White dude means I should shut up. I get the deep irony that in order to express that I am shutting up, I am writing a not short blog. Let us all chuckle at that, and then try, as Bonhoeffer said, to see one another so that we may better see ourselves. And, for those of us so inclined, to see God. And with that, I’ll shut up now.

Reading Luke with Dr. Thurman: When God Sees You, Look Back

thurman .jpg

The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a pastor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurman was a pastor to King in every sense of the word, but today I want to talk about his influence as a pastoral theologian. A theologian whose thought animates as a pastor, gives the sense of a lived faith, a directional ministry, a spiritual connection to both God and humanity that becomes a raison d’etre. A reason for living. Perhaps even more than his own father, Rev. Martin Sr., or Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was King’s closest ministry partner from the Montgomery Bus Boycott on and pastored in Cincinnati at Revelation Baptist Church; perhaps even more than them was the influence of Howard Thurman on Dr. King. Thurman was the first ever African-American Dean of Rankin Chapel at Boston University. In 1944 he left a tenured position at Howard University to start the first truly multifaith, multiracial, intentional community, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which is still open today. Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited inspired those like Dr. James Cone to develop what is now called Black Liberation Theology. Howard Thurman, the grandson of slaves, who helped Dr. King see Jesus as being bigger than Jim Crow. Howard Thurman, who spoke often of how he learned the truth about God from his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who learned it from a minister, who like her, was enslaved.

It was rare that enslaved preachers were allowed to preach in the open. Most often the Bible was controlled and interpreted by the landowner, or a local white preacher who was brought it. The message was always one of submission, of divinely-ordained bondage Reading the Bible on their own, or hearing it as told by another slave was considered dangerous; Christianity was used by slaveholders as a tool of oppression, but it was turned through righteous rebellion into a source of strength. Negro spirituals are the original texts of Black liberation theology, songs about deliverance at the hands of a faithful God. Religion can sometimes be a surreptitious act. Every now and again an enslaved preacher would get to take the pulpit publicly. This could put the preacher in danger if the wrong people heard God’s Word, if they actual heard it and understood that it was an indictment of them; they couldn’t punish God but they could punish God’s messenger. In the pulpit could be danger, but take the pulpit these preachers did. Miss Ambrose, years later, with young Howard at her feet and snapping beans, told him about one time when a minister said to us, You are not a slave. That is not who you are; you are a child of God. Thurman writes later in his life, “it gave to them a sense of roots that were watered by the underground river of existence.”

This unknown minister, in about a dozen words, was able to cut through the mental chains and provide a viable identity to rival the one constructed by the oppressor: You are not a slave; you are God’s child. I imagine this minister, who could not have known that these words would plant themselves inside the soul of the greatest pastoral theologian since Martin Luther, learned the revolutionary truth by listening to the stories of Jesus.

Once again Jesus is teaching in parables. Two men. One wealthy, dressed in the finery of purple robes. The other, clad in rags held together by pus from purple sores. One tended to in life by servants, the other by dogs. But then, the great equalizer. Death. Angels come not for the rich man, but for poor Lazarus who goes to be with Abraham. The wealthy man does not fare so well. To the underworld he goes, tormented and in agony. He calls across the divide to Abraham, asking for mercy, when he sees Lazarus. Lowly Lazarus. The rich man begs for help, but none can be forthcoming; not because Lazarus is unwilling, but because the actions of the wealthy man have fixed a chasm that cannot be bridged or traversed. His alienation is of his own doing; desperately wanting to save his affluent family members from the distresses, the moneyed man requests a messenger be dispatched by Abraham as a herald. Alas, the patriarch declines. God has sent more warnings that we can count, and it never does any good.

Imagine in the time of Jesus, being poor and hearing this parable. Yes, it might give a feeling of giddy satisfaction that bullies eventually get a comeuppance. Yes, it might help you feel that suffering does not have the final word. But underneath that, there is a profound message: God sees you. God does not see you as a mass of sores or one without two coins to rub together: God sees you are one to be carried away by angels. You are not a slave; you are a God’s child.

This parable often is interpreted as being about the afterlife; a continuation of the ideas expressed in Job and Daniel. A shining example that one reaps what one sows. And perhaps it is; there is certainly ample evidence for that being the case. But I think Howard Thurman would want us to see the underlying theology. First, it was the greed and selfishness of the wealthy man that contributed to and compounded Lazarus’ suffering. Each day one experienced plenty and the other want. Second, wealth and poverty did not prevent the men from dying. Nothing we do here can thwart our demises. Three, there should be no confusion about how to live. The wealthy man cannot claim ignorance, and neither can we. Moses and the prophets, understood here both as historical figures and also as metaphors for parts of the Hebrew scriptures, are available to all. We know that God requires mercy, kindness, compassion, and love. We know that we are our siblings’ keeper.

It might be argued that the theology here is straightforward: we should do nice things for others so we don’t go to hell. Again, maybe. But I think the message is more profound: we must be aware of the ways in which our behaviors might cause others to suffer. All of us, on some level, contribute to the suffering of others. That is just the nature of human experience. The question is, are we aware of it? Do we do it knowingly? Willingly? And how do we discern God’s presence in our lives? Or evaluate whether we are living authentically? Do we look at the wrong things and declare that we have God’s favor? Do we mistake temporary, material wealth with knowing that God sees us and we see God back? Because that chasm is ours to build. And while I don’t think hell is at the center of the earth and we go there after we die, I do believe that hell is very real. I believe that we create it here and now, and we do so with our words, thoughts, and actions; hell, as St. Augustine said, is distance from God. It means not being seen; it means believing lies about yourself and others. It means believing that you are a slave.

I don’t think that fearing hell helps us see God. Maybe it does for you, and if so that’s great. It doesn’t help me and I know that it doesn’t help a lot of others, and Jesus is in the business of helping people. I think that each one of us wants to feel valued. Understood. Loved. Most of us desire peace, comfort, adequate food, and a safe place to live surrounded by those we love. God helps us see that if this is our desire for ourselves, we must work in this world to make it possible for others. Wealth and poverty only exist in relationship with one another; we cannot get rid of one without addressing the other. And while the Bible is not a textbook on economics, it does contain truth about the dangers of greed and serving mammon. And these dangers have long-lasting effects that go on after our bodily deaths. God tells us this not so that we will fear, but so that we will love. Fully. Radically. Unabashedly. For that is the only way to cancel a chasm. Amen.