Thursday, October 29, 2015

Prostitutes & Virgins

Rahab was a prostitute. She had sex with people in exchange for money, goods, or other services. The Bible isn't clear on what the preferred form of payment for prostitutes was. It is clear on the fact that Rahab was important. She helped spies escape from Jericho, and so was saved during the invasion of Jericho, along with her household. If stereotypes about brothels and houses of ill repute are true, then she might have managed to save a few more prostitutes in the process. You can read most of her story in Joshua, if you like. She is remembered as a helpful prostitute more than anything else.

Yet, in Matthew she's listed as an ancestor of Jesus, in Hebrews as one of the faithful role models, and  in James as one who was saved by her works. It would seem that prostitutes, in all their impurity, have a place in the reign of God, maybe even a place of honor.

I need that reminder this week. Some time last week, news of a young bride presenting her father with a certificate of her virginity started making the rounds. I've been in the world of purity pledges and True Love Waits. I've been in the world of "Jesus doesn't care what I do with my penis." I don't think either is a healthy approach to sexuality. However, the full discussion on a healthy approach to sexuality is for another day.

Instead, let me say this: there's a biblical precedent for abstinence until marriage. I'll easily concede that. But let's be clear that precedent is geared toward women. Without apology, these women were property. They didn't come with certificates of authenticity, but they might as well have. "Proof of virginity" comes up a few times. Her virginity, after all, made it easy to know her husband was the father of her children. Dad wouldn't have to worry about someone else inheriting his property. Property of all sorts seems to have been a big concern. Most of the rules about virgins and marriage are tied directly to that world. The awesome seminary phrase I like to pull out to discuss this is "patrilineal endogamy." The short version: men owned property and transferred that property to other men. End of story.

Our daughters, our sisters, our wives, our best friends Women deserve a better story. A story that isn't about their relationship to men. A story that doesn't reduce them to their sexuality. Yep, unabashedly this is a healthy dose of feminism through a Christian lens, in part because Christians suck at telling women they do matter. I'm pretty sure no institution has so firmly held on to traditional gender roles as the Church.

In another few weeks, churches will be telling stories of a virgin giving birth to the savior of the world. Some of them, like my church, will be nervous talking about a virgin birth because science. Others will be worried someone might actually use the word "pregnant" in worship. Most all of them will be a little nervous in talking about conception and childbirth and other things often relegated to private realms, or at least to the realm of women.

We will once again be reminded of the fact that our tradition says our savior was born of a virgin. We will once again see images of a young woman, pure and chaste. Let us not forget, though, that Matthew's gospel, the author who was most adamant that Mary was a virgin, is also the one who tells us of the prostitute in Jesus' lineage. Somehow, the person who worried far more about Joseph than Mary, telling us Joseph would just divorce her quietly, can hold the tension of a prostitute and a virgin    together. More than that, he proclaims it as Gospel.

Maybe, just maybe, we can also learn to tell the stories of prostitutes and virgins side-by-side. Maybe we can even remember the stories we've inherited name both as beloved children of God. Maybe we can live a faith that has room for both Rahab and Mary.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

God is Not Done Yet

God is not done yet. That's my one line confession of faith. It's not the one I made at baptism or that admitted me into membership in any church, but it's what I come back to time after time. I'm just going to go ahead and say that up front.

And I need to say that up front because about every six months, I go to one meeting in particular that makes me give up on Church. That meeting, it's pretty much a guarantee. Actually, a lot of meetings with the larger denomination pretty well convince me that I should just give up. I'll pay some money to a career counseling firm, turn my résumé into something that makes sense in the business world, have plenty of money and weekends free. 

I don't think I'm alone in the reasons for why, exactly, I think I should give up on Church. There are remarkably few people like me at most of those meetings. I'm younger, which I can deal with mostly, except when I realize how radically different our worldviews are. What I care about is decidedly from those around me; it's partly generational, partly worldview, and partly just me. I don't see "it's church" as a reason to feign interest, or to accept mediocrity. Let's not even talk about gender and issues there.

Since that's a lot of me talk that maybe doesn't make a great deal of sense, here's a conversation from a recent version of that meeting that I often use to convey why, exactly, these sorts of meetings make me give up on Church:

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "You're the new pastor at Chalice?"

Me: "Well, I've been there well over two years, so I'm not really new any more." 

Ignore the look from the sweet elderly lady.

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "We haven't been there since the building was dedicated."

I nod nicely in response. 

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "I wonder something. When we were there, they were talking about moving the chairs to face the opposite direction. Did they ever do that?"

Me: "I haven't moved the chairs since I've been there, but I don't know what they did before."

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "Well, I thought you might have seen pictures."

Me: "No." Because there are about seven hundred things more important to the history of the church than how chairs are or are not arranged. You know, things that are relevant to ministry and the future of the church.

I hope that adequately conveys the reason I now go home from these meetings to watch Netflix accompanied by chocolate and wine. 

Ok. Rum or tequila, actually. It's how I avoid actually sending in my résumé. 

I know, most certainly, that I'm not alone in my occasional desire to give up on Church. I know many people who have and who are. I know your reasons may be very different from mine. 

But, at the end of the day, I remember that deep confession: God is not done yet. 

When I see the kids who don't have adults to take care of them, people barely scraping by, illness, loneliness, church people worried about the arrangement of chairs--everything that makes anyone wonder, "Where is God?" then I confess: God is not done yet. 

I need that reminder from the Church because I'm pretty sure I'd forget if I were left to my own devices. God is not done yet is not my confession alone; it's a confession born from the faith handed down to me by many faithful before me. It's written in every story of healing, in every letter to a church, in every prophet's words: God is not done yet. All the things that break my heart break God's heart, too.

And so I hope, I pray, I confess: God is not done yet.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Anniversary of a Death

A year ago today I walked into a hospital room. I didn't know when I got in my car that day that I would receive news that death was near. I found out after I donned a gown and gloves, according to protocol for that unit, and walked down the hall. His family was gathered. The machines would be turned off; I would have been called soon. And so we settled into that hospital room. We prayed, we sang, and then we waited. We waited for several difficult, beautiful hours. I was not there for many, but not all, the hours of waiting. 

The pain of those moments is real, but I'm often amazed at how fully sacred texts speak promises that cannot be forgotten in those moments, "But we do not others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 1:13). I've been present at deaths several times. It remains amazing to watch people of deep faith walk into death without fear. There is grief, to be sure, but it is not a hopeless grief. Christians are, after all, a resurrection people. 

I'm one of the people who is less certain about what comes after death. I'm not banking on eternity or bodies rising from the ground. My confession about death is this: whatever comes after, God is there. On a good day, I believe that we are only more fully in the presence of God. But I am always aware that my grief is a hopeful one. 

The funeral sermon for that man was punctuated with the line from scripture, "Well done, good and faithful servant." It's from Matthew 25, a vision of the final judgment, when Jesus names all the things that those who follow him do. For a retired chaplain and pastor, it was well-suited. I imagine, though, it would have been well-suited even if he'd chosen a different vocation. 

His stoles, a sign of the office of clergy, now hang on my wall and occasionally around my neck; his wife gave them to me a few weeks after his death. They are a deep reminder of the great cloud of witnesses that holds me now (Hebrews 12:1). I am certain that cloud of witnesses only grows larger with the passage of time. 

On this difficult, but beautiful, anniversary I cannot forget one of the great gifts of the Christian faith: we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We trust in and occasionally live in the the thin places, where God could break in and fully take over at any moment. We are never too far from the holy, for God calls us to be partners in what God is doing in this world. By virtue of our name, Church, we are called out to a holy purpose. The Christ who has called us and bound us together remains with us; the Spirit breathes new life into us with each passing day. We do not grieve as those who have no hope for we are resurrection people, trusting that life can and will overpower death at any moment. 

Today, I am so grateful for this cloud of witnesses.