Saturday, August 31, 2013

It's All of Us

The loudest voices of Christianity are echoes of congregations of my youth. It's strange, now, to consider the rules that I once knew as the primary way of being a person of faith.

No alcohol or at least no public consumption of alcohol. And one could never readily admit to consuming alcohol, of course.

Tattoos were a problem, but not as much as piercings.

"Cussing" was off the table, of course, and certain settings placed even stricter parameters on what qualified "cuss words." 

Swimsuits of any sort were suspect. 

Let's not even talk about sex.

One should read their Bible and pray daily.

It was a tradition, as is most of US Christianity, of personal piety. In the long run, those marks of personal piety would mean that you would be just fine when answering for your actions at the pearly gates of Heaven. 

Personal piety also fits well with the intensely individualized culture in which I live. It's a world of personal responsibility; how would faith be any different?

While I'm not willing to completely discount personal piety, it does have less to do with the reign of God than most believe. The reign of God--kingdom of God for those less worried about gendered language--is a political claim. It's a system. It's corporate, not individual. 

And so is our sin. No, we shouldn't completely stop talking about personal sin. But we have to figure out a way to name our corporate sin, too. Corporate sin creates racist systems. Corporate sin creates opportunities for some, but certainly not all. Corporate sin builds wealth on the backs of the poor. 

Corporate sin is why we must talk about the redemption of the world, not a single person. Corporate sin is the need for a corporate solution. The kingdom of God--all of us, not one of us. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I Don't Want To...

Some time between 2007 and 2010, stopping at McDonald's every Sunday morning became a ritual. That was the era when I started to get up early on Sundays. Working at a church means there's lots to do. I've never been a morning person, including the fact that I can't eat until I've been up for at least an hour and preferably more. All those things mean that I started hitting the drive-thru for my $2.16 morning breakfast each and every Sunday.

At first, I got a sausage biscuit and a large Diet Coke. Over time, it has morphed into a lower calorie sausage McMuffin with no cheese and a large Diet Coke. Many weeks, that's the only incredibly unhealthy food choice I make. Given the insanity of Sunday mornings, I finally gave myself that free pass once a week.

For a long time, I've ignored the problems with McDonald's and fast food in general. I try not to think too hard about the environmental impact even as I deal with the resulting trash--a mountain of trash in comparison to the amount of food. I mustered all my patience, even when I was living in the town with a McDonald's that made "fast food" an ironic claim, knowing that the workers weren't being paid well for their work.

Though my other shopping habits have changed, this one remains. Even as I became more conscious about choosing locally owned places, and shopping at major chains that pay a living wage and offer health benefits to even part-time employees, this habit remains.

Like clockwork, some time between 5:45 and 6:45 a.m., I'm in a McDonald's drive thru on Sunday morning.

And with the recent news about McDonald's and the suggestion of workers taking a second job in order to just live, I realize I've got to change.

But I don't want to. There. I said it. I really don't want to give up my convenience. I really don't want to part with more money for food by going elsewhere. I don't want to attempt to add one more thing to my Sunday morning. I'm also appalled by the marriage of living out my call to systemic exploitation that can so easily be revealed in a single ritual.

I know, too, that if I give up this, other things will have to follow. My $4.86 meal at Subway, for example.

I'm not so naive that I believe radically altering my life with alter the systems of exploitation. Dealing with corporate sin is a whole different ballgame than dealing with individual sin.

Still, Jesus calls me to love my neighbor as myself. I think that means less participation in a system where the guy serving me food earns far less than half the amount I do in a year. Even if I don't want to.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Taking Rides from Strangers

I have a confession: I've started taking rides from strangers.

It started a couple of years ago, when I moved to Kansas City. A couple weekends ago, I didn't think twice about hopping in the ATV of some random guy driving down an access road near Sedona, AZ. There are lots of hiking trails there, with gorgeous red rocks. I was happy to escape there for a weekend, with temperatures twenty degrees cooler than Phoenix and yes, amazing hiking.

The same guy had a cooler strapped in the back and handed out cold bottles of water to weary hikers headed back to parking. I was one of those who had overestimated the difficulty of that particular hike and though I would have made it back to the parking lot just fine, I wasn't about to turn down a ride.

I could offer lots of logical reasons why taking rides from strangers is ok. Most victims of violent crimes know their assailants. I'm willing to bet a guy isn't just driving down the road looking for victims in a well-traveled, busy place. I could be wrong. Many folks would tell me I'm being naive and asking for trouble by accepting a ride from this guy. The same people would probably say the same about taking a bottle of water from the guy.

Truthfully, though, I'm not even worried about the logical reasons. I'm worried about the other side of the Gospel.

For all the talk about hospitality in the Gospels and the whole New Testament, actually, it's mostly on the giving end. But there's a lot of it. Edicts to remember to show hospitality to strangers. Claims that offering food, water and shelter to someone in need is the same as offering them to Jesus. The apostles who stayed in people's homes. The disciples sent out to stay in people's homes. I could go on.

The other side of that, though, is that someone has to be wiling to receive.

And in our independent, take care of yourself culture, that's hard. It's hard to say, "Please, give me some water." Or give me a ride. Or a whole host of other things. For those of us with financial means, we're used to paying for those services and not thinking much of it.

But receiving is part of living into the Gospel, too. Being vulnerable is part of the Gospel, too, especially in the Christian community.

So yeah, I'll accept a ride from a stranger, again. Maybe even some time soon.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Embodied: Why Incarnation Matters

I know the doctrine of incarnation makes many progressive Christians nervous. On some level, it makes me pretty nervous. It's one of those tenets of Christianity that seems irrational and we've mostly been brushed under the rug as a result. Let's be honest, talking about doctrine at all makes a lot of folks nervous because we think the church has talked about it too much. Yes. And no. The doctrine put only a little too simply: in Jesus, God became flesh and lived among humans.

There's some hypostasis, preexistence and other trinitarian things to work out according to classical Christian thought, but let's just stick to the basic claim of incarnation: in Jesus, God became flesh and lived among humans. It's a claim that makes others from Abrahamic traditions nervous and more than a few within the Christian tradition. I don't know if I believe that God became flesh and lived among humans.

But I do trust in it. It's a claim about Truth I'm willing to make. And here's why.

Pixels on a screen and noises bounced off satellites and towers are not enough. I love Facebook and Skype and Facetime and texting and all the other things that make the distance seem less. Oh, I should add phones to that list.

But the truth? To find someone I keep in touch with whom I've known for at least five years, I'd have to travel over 1,000 miles. To find someone I keep in touch with whom I've known for ten years, over 1,900 miles. Ditto for anyone longer than 10 years. And for many of those people, phone calls and images are not enough. I long to sit with them, to eat with them, to touch them. I want the hugs and the shared laughter and general ridiculousness that only happens in person.

I want the connection that can't be had with disembodied voices and faces. Bodies matter. My body matters--from day to day living to a need for touch. We are embodied people and to think of us as anything else is a problem; we can't know each other apart from our bodies.

So I trust in the incarnation. I trust in the claim that our bodies are good enough for God to take on for Godself. I trust in the claim that God knew we needed to touch and encounter God in the same ways we encounter each other. I trust in the claim that everything in this embodied, broken world, was worthy of God's presence.

I trust in the incarnation. God became flesh and lived among us. It's Truth even if we can never test fact.

Monday, August 19, 2013

No Exceptions

A few days ago, I went to visit a man from my church who was in the hospital. He introduced me to his nurse. She will be entering seminary in the fall, preparing to become a chaplain. We talked some; she had questions for me. They weren't questions about logistics, but about theology. She was quiet, thoughtful, and comfortable in the hospital. I imagine she'll be a very good chaplain.

In our talks about who Jesus is, why I'm a Christian if I think that about Jesus, and the like, there was one question that stuck out from the others. 

The question went something like this: I heard the stories of two men on CNN. I don't remember all about it, but they had done bad things to children. What makes your heart different from theirs?

I think she was looking for an articulation of being born again, at least in some way. I think she was waiting for me to talk about my salvation and their lack of it. I confess, I planned to go look up the stories or at least guess at the stories she was referencing. I didn't. 

Because I realized that the answer I gave, though it was hastily given, came from a deep, uncomfortable place. But I stand by it: nothing.

Nothing makes me different from those men, whatever crimes they committed. 

Yes, my infractions are minor by comparison, but they're present. I don't buy theology I was taught in my youth that said all sin is equal. You better bet it's worse to kill a person than lie to them. I'll take the second offense over the first any day. 

Still, I say nothing makes my heart different, if heart is speaking of the seat of feeling and knowledge, the thing that would be changed by being born again and live on in whatever comes after life. Nothing makes my heart different, if we're talking about the intangible thing that makes us human rather than animal. 

That confession is born of the conviction that God does not love me more than the worst criminal nor has God abandoned the worst criminal. That confession is born of the assurance that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That confession is born from hearing a Gospel that says the person most offensive to polite society has a seat at Christ's banquet. 

That's a sobering confession. I'm not crying out, "I'm unworthy!" Instead, I'm crying out, "All are worthy!" All are worthy of God's love. All are worthy of God's best gifts. All are children of God. 

So still I say: nothing. Nothing makes me different from those men, whoever they are and whatever they did. We are beloved children of God, one and all. No exceptions.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"I'm a pastor."

Sometimes, at those same sort of gatherings where I say, "I work at a nonprofit," it's safe to say, "I'm a pastor." It's an instinctual difference for the most part. Well, kind of. Here's the thing: the younger the group of adults gathered, the safer it is to say, "I'm a pastor."

It's not because the group is closer to my age that it's safer, though. It's because the younger demographic has little or no experience of church, so the statement is benign. These people don't have a warm and fuzzy connection nor a visceral reaction. Instead, reactions waffle somewhere between intrigue that a pastor exists in the real world and lack of interest.

There's a vague knowledge of what goes on at church, but little more. I field questions about my speeches since they don't know to call them sermons. We might have a conversation about the one thing they know about churches or pastors. Often, their knowledge is limited enough that they ask how I could commit myself to a life of celibacy. I smile even as I think about those conversations because those begin with a very basic discussion of the different kinds of Christians.

Just a few weeks ago, I was at one of those gatherings, walking through an art museum. One corridor had a large Christian section. I talked a lot more because I was the only one who know more about the stories behind the art than was written on the placards. I told the stories of Moses and John the Baptist's beheading and the crucifixion of Christ. In another section, someone asked about a festival--I don't remember which one--and I could answer their questions. That painting was by a Mexican artist which led to a me mentioning Santa Muerte. The people with me, who keep up with current events and knew a great deal about drug trafficking in general, had never heard of Saint Death. I realized that even if their news sources had those links, they probably never clicked them. They had no reason to.

As much as the Church has been wringing its hands about the folks my age who have left church, overall, this isn't a generation that left the church. This is a generation that has never been part of the church.

We need to know that. We need to know that we're not worried about reconnections but introductions. We need to stop assuming that, even though the Christian narrative is written into our culture, people can recognize it.

We need to realize that this culture is becoming a place where I can say, "I'm a pastor," and it means nothing at all.

And that's not a reason for mourning; it's a chance for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to transform.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"I work at a nonprofit."

We're having dinner, or playing games, or something innocuous like that. It's a group of potential friends, acquaintances at best, so we're covering the basic questions of hometown, work, things like that. I survey the group. I've lived in five states in the last ten years; this isn't new territory. Along the way, I've learned to gauge better how much to reveal.

So, sometimes, I introduce myself, "I work at a nonprofit."

We move on to other people and other things. I'm welcome. There's lots of laughter. The conversation is comfortable.

And I told the truth. Or at least I did't lie. I do work at a nonprofit. It just so happens that the nonprofit is a church. And I'm the pastor.

I don't tell the whole truth in many groups, though, because I've experienced what happens. People feel uncomfortable around me. They apologize for cussing. They look at the alcoholic drinks in their hands and fidget, even if I have one in my hand, too. They feel like they have to explain their lack of involvement in church to me or tell me about their childhood church. At worst, they spew the hatred they feel for the church at me; it's an incredibly potent hatred.

So, I choose the partial truth instead. "I work at a nonprofit." At least I choose that some of the time.

My older friends tell me of a time when most people, at least in the US, thought church was mostly good. Christian was the default. Even folks who didn't attend church knew they should. Very few spoke ill of the church. I'm willing to believe that was once true; trusted friends say it was so.

But it's not any more.

That anger that I'm not willing to have heaped upon me--there's usually a good reason for it. Rejection by the church, sometimes for things as silly as coming late or sitting in the wrong place, is often the reason. Other reasons include forced church attendance, lots of talk of hellfire once there, and failure to include newcomers in the community. That's just a few reasons. There are more, many, many more.

When I worship at an Episcopal church, as I sometimes do on Sunday evenings when I long to simply be part of the congregation at worship, I always appreciate the confession of sin. This part rings especially potent, "We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent."

We need to say something like that more, the voices of the whole church joined together. We're talking about institutional sin, here, not individual or even individual congregations. As a whole, the church has done things that has left beloved children of God angry and bitter.

And I think, if we figured out a way to do that, I would say I work at a nonprofit far, far less.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I Met This Guy...

It's been at least two years, maybe more, since I met the guy. I don't remember his name. I'm not sure the name he told me is his real name, or anything close to it. But I do remember him.

He was in his late 50s or early 60s with a neatly trimmed beard. He wore a clean but battered t-shirt and dark khaki cargo shorts the night that we talked. We met at the local food bank, where we spent the evening sorting out the carrots that could be distributed from the ones too rotten to make it from the food bank to the local food pantries. We talked, we laughed, and we talked some more.

I eventually realized it was safe to utter what I often keep secret, "I'm a pastor."

If he went to church, he usually went to a UU congregation. But he didn't stay in place long enough to find a church home. Instead, he moved every few months, staying ahead of various law enforcement agencies. He was a construction foreman. He completed his work with day laborers, often undocumented. His crews did a good job, so he was always able to keep work, even though he moved often. He lived this life so that he could offer the day laborers--often underpaid, often exploited day laborers--a few months of steady work at a fair wage.

He'd kept up this lifestyle for several years by the time I met him. He talked about what he was doing without reservation, but with some fear.

I take his story with a grain of salt on some days and as he told it on others. But it's stuck with me.

It's stuck with me because he's breaking the rules and he's living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel marked by the poor hearing good news.

The Gospel marked by the proclamation that the reign of God belongs to the poor.

The Gospel that says the poor are invited to the table.

The Gospel that sees a mark of conversion as giving what you have to the poor.

The Gospel that says, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

The Gospel that says there is no greater love than laying down your life for a friend.

This man, who does not claim to be a Christian, gets all that. He gave up his life and chose a place at the margins of society. Actually, he chose to become a criminal.

Maybe that's why his story has stuck with me most of all. Too often, we've confused Christianity with making good citizens. We expect Christians to be obedient to the state, even using the narrative of a Christian nation so there's not too much scrutiny. We forget that the one who started it all was, indeed, a criminal. It wasn't long before his followers were considered criminals, too.

I'm still sorting out what it all means, but I still remember this one day, when I met this guy.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Conjuring: What Will Save You?

Sometimes, when I least expect it, a central tenet of my faith comes at me in a whole new way, kind of like that car out of nowhere when you're driving down the road. That happened, again, and I suddenly find myself talking about salvation. Me. Who knows that language has all sorts of issues. Me. Who talks about transformation more readily than salvation.

But here I am, talking about salvation, all because of a horror movie.

I love horror movies. I know that. Most people who are only acquaintances know that. It hits home a little bit more, though, when I look at my DVD collection or Netflix recommendations. Dark, twisty, things jumping out, mess with your head sorts of movies--I just can't get enough. I especially love the ones with a theological twist. Yes, I know, that's not surprising either, given my profession. I own all of The Exorcists and The Omens. I've seen a long list of others with similar themes. A horror movie is the only genre that regularly gets me to the theater of my own free will. Well, maybe a dystopian theme, too.

Given all that, of course I saw The Conjuring on its opening weekend. I just couldn't wait any longer. Plus, a cool movie theater is a great way to spend a hot Phoenix afternoon.

It was a good movie, overall, and other watchers have agreed. It's getting mostly positive reviews and there are rumors of a sequel. It's got just enough based in reality creepiness to satisfy those who aren't as crazy about gory horror movies. There are parts that will mess with your head. It is part of a long line of particular ilk of horror movies about exorcisms yet manages to engage and surprise. That's not always easy to do.

Yet, the resolution was anything but satisfying, at least for me. Because it was unlike any other similar horror movie in one way: there's no clear notion of who or what would save the family in distress, even though there's no doubt they need saving.

Yes, there's a clear answer to that question in the movie in the couple whom God had brought together. At least kind of. But there's not an answer to the broader question about who is saving the family in distress.

In every other movie of this sort, it's clear that God will do the saving. Maybe through priests, maybe through the church, maybe through a person who doesn't know they're following God but can't escape God. But it is God who saves. There's no doubt. There's often theology I disagree with and theology that is downright heretical, but it's still theology.

Not in The Conjuring. The film waffles from a transcendent God, to the power of the Roman Catholic Church, to the power of the evangelical movement, to humans themselves. In the end, though, there's no claim about who did the saving. Instead, it seems to be the product of a postChristian culture that doesn't know what claim it is actually making about what is transformative and worthy of pursuing.

It's from a perspective that has no clue what or who saves.

It's not a secular claim about who or what saves. Whoever wrote this film doesn't know what could save even though there is a clear need for salvation.

So I'm wondering, here in the midst of an individualistic, consuming-to-the-point-of-being-parasitic society, how to talk about salvation better.

Because maybe, just maybe, the problem is an unwillingness to answer the question, "What will save you?"

And you should totally see the movie so we can talk about it some more.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

What the Hell Am I Doing?

By this point in my life, I've made a few long distance moves. Three, in fact, after college, which is its own sort of crazy, life-altering long distance move. Each time, there's a moment when reality begins to settle in and I wonder, "What the hell am I doing?"

It's a bit of fear and anxiety. It's mostly questioning my sanity, wondering if what I'm doing isn't crazy after all. When I started seminary, that moment came when I was sitting in my (crappy) campus housing apartment, during the middle of one of the worst heat waves Atlanta has ever seen. It was over a hundred degrees every day that month; the inside temperature of the poorly insulated, old windowed apartment never got below eighty, even at night. And one day, sitting there, came the question, "What the hell am I doing?" 

When I moved to Kansas City, the question came somewhere in Illinois, driving across a bridge. The woman riding with me was talking on the phone; I was spending too much time in my own head, even as I drove the UHaul down the road, towing my truck behind. I will never again drive a UHaul and tow a vehicle if there's any way I can avoid it. Looking into the distance, driving through what then felt like the middle of nowhere, I started asking, "What the hell am I doing?"

And when I moved to Phoenix, the question somewhere in New Mexico, the land of beautiful rocks and no cell phone service. I made it across Kansas, which apparently has no McDonald's or chain gas stations west of Lawrence, to Oklahoma and Texas, but in New Mexico, I started to question things. I think it was the abandoned town I drove through. Driving across western states gives new meaning to what I think of as the middle of nowhere. So I wondered, "What the hell am I doing?"

I don't know if that question ever goes away in the midst of major life changes. For young adults, though, those major changes are often a way of life rather than occasional. Young adulthood is the time for education and starting a career wherever it can be started. Those things often mean physical location changes and even more often mean spiritual and mental location changes. We're transients of a different sort, but transients just the same.

My answer to, "What the hell am I doing?" has ended, each time, with the claim that I'm following God. To Atlanta. To Kansas City. To Phoenix. I still hold to that claim.

More than that, though, I am convinced that God is just fine with my questions of "What the hell am I doing?" And all of our moments best summed up by "What the hell am I doing?"In fact, even if I was following my own whims and fantasies, God would be there, too.

For that's a place of faith, too. Whenever I think of my life's absurdity and God's presence in that, a scene from the show Judging Amy, when a former Roman Catholic priest now living as a woman until he can afford gender reassignment surgery, says, "Faith is the belief that it will all make sense in the end."

Until then, it's ok to keep asking, "What the hell am I doing?" God's there, too.