PFLAG Panel (part 1): Confessions of a Naive Gay Christian

Last night I was invited by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Growing American Youth (a local LGBTQ+ youth safe space for the greater St. Louis area) to speak on a panel of religious leaders about our faith tradition’s stance on LGBTQ+ people. I sat alongside the legendary Rabbi Susan Talve, a force for justice in St. Louis over the past several decades, the Rev. Josh Privitt a young assistant minister at St. Peter’s UCC Church, Dr. James Croft, an atheist philosopher and leader at the St. Louis Ethical Society (a good friend who also wrote a great post about the evening). All of us came to represent our traditions’ embrace of people across the spectrum of orientation and gender identity. I would have loved to speak with these panelists about our various understandings of scripture, how we deal with the “clobber passages,” and (especially with James) whether or not religion can be redeemed. That was the panel I prepared for and expected. I was naive.

There was a fifth panelist, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, seated between Pastor Privitt and Dr. Croft. Fr. Larry Brennan of the Archdiocese of St. Louis came to represent the Catholic perspective. (I write about what I wish I’d been prepared to say to Fr. Brennan in a second post). Before I go any further, I have to say, I may have interfered with Fr. Brennan’s representation of the “Catholic perspective” a couple of times during the event. I know too many wonderful inclusive Roman Catholic people to let someone who holds a misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic position define “what Catholics believe.” I talked about my wonderful Catholic friends and cited research that show the majority of US Catholics support marriage equality.

What I came to realize through the event was my level of privilege as a progressive Episcopalian. My experience of faith has been nurtured by churches that have come to see same-sex attraction as a “gift from God” (as the Rev. Ed Bacon once told an astonished Oprah Winfrey). I live, and move, and have my being in faith circles that affirm same-sex attraction; faith communities which are actively learning about trans identity and the use of pronouns.

I realized again last night that I am in the minority. The vast majority of Christians still worship in churches that openly persecute LGBTQ+ people. Last night, after our introductory remarks, the Question and Answer session was almost entirely directed toward Fr. Brennan. With tears and anguish, person after person shared their stories of shame, self-hatred, and friends who had committed suicide. My church is a sanctuary, an outpost, in a tradition that still inflicts so much pain. I am saddened and yet grateful for that reminder. I am also emboldened to continue the work to upset the status quo in Christianity.

Doubt, in Good Measure

Today there’s no escaping Thomas. Our Gospel story centers on a particular character, Thomas Didymus, Thomas the twin, but you know him by another name: Doubting Thomas.

How do we handle doubt? This morning, I want to try and make a distinction between “doubt” as a thought process, and doubt as a posture. Doubt as a thought process, I believe, is crucial for faith. Doubt as a posture can become toxic.

Doubt as a thought process, I’ll say again, is crucial for faith. Without doubt, can you really have faith? I don’t think so. If you know something, beyond a doubt, you have certainty. The Episcopal Church is a sacramental church, which is to say, we celebrate mysteries. What happens to bread and wine on that altar? Somehow Jesus is present. “How?”, you might ask, and I’ll likely respond: “It’s a mystery.” What will happen later this morning when we baptize Mira Carol Powell? She’ll be marked as Christ’s own forever? “How?,” you might ask, and I’ll respond, “it’s a mystery.” Sacramental Christians believe in ancient signs, in tradition, in marking the time and the stages of life. And we do it with mystery.

Sometimes in our Pilgrimage classes, like the one that will start here next week, I get a little pushback. These classes are designed for folks who are new to the Episcopal tradition, or to Christianity. They’re also designed for anyone who is asking questions, exploring doubts, wondering how this faith and church stuff might work for them. I get pushback in part, I think, because much of the church has been in the business of certainty. The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican tradition where we find our roots, has had to hold too many diverse positions together to be certain about much. We’ve argued about the Bible, Bishops, the Eucharist, women, LGBT people, race, colonialism. We try and hold diverse people and perspectives together. So we look to mystery. We say our prayers together, even when we have questions, especially when we have questions. I believe this is one of our strengths as a tradition today.

The Episcopalian Madeleine L’Engle, famous for her children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” wrote in ways that challenged her readers. She wanted them to ask questions about God, family, even the nature of the universe. Her most famous book was rejected by countless publishers before it found a home. The publishers initially told her the questions were too big, the themes were to heavy on science, for a young audience. The book went on to win the Newbery Medal.

On one of her book tours, a child asked L’Engle about her faith. She said, “Do you really believe without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe with LOTs of doubts and I base my life on that belief.”

L’Engle brings me to the distinction I want to make about doubt. There’s a difference between acknowledging doubt, thinking through questions, looking for evidence, and adopting doubt as a spiritual posture.

Yesterday a crowd of thousands gathered in downtown St. Louis, one of many such crowds in cities around the world, to march in the name of science. One of the signs held high in the march in St. Louis was on the Post Dispatch’s homepage last night. It had a picture of a Bible and a caption that said, “This is not a Science Textbook.” I thoroughly agree.

Have you ever been disbelieved? Especially if you were telling a story that was important to you? We typically think of children in this kind of situation. A young person tells a story, and the adults all nod their heads and then someone turns and says, “but that’s not possible.” The child is frustrated and disheartened “but you HAVE to believe me,” she says. No one is swayed. Have you known that kind of disbelief? Have you been so disbelieved?

Many in our society have used the Bible as a tool for dis-belief. Scientists who have spent careers refining data, pushing the edges of discovery, almost unanimously agree about human-caused climate change. And they have been disbelieved. The Christian tradition has been used to sew doubt in the validity of science. Many Christians have taken a posture of doubt toward science. They call themselves climate “change skeptics.” Our country is making some dangerous gambles on policy enabled by this doubtful stance. Yesterday the scientists took to the streets.

Scientists would tell you, doubt in the right measure is important. You have to question your hypotheses, you have to look for the evidence, but when you’ve heard the science and you doubt anyway, that’s doubt to a different degree. These folks tend to call themselves “climate change skeptics.” But that kind of doubt, that posture of doubt, is not just skepticism it’s cynicism. That kind of doubt can be toxic to your soul.

Now many climate change skeptics, would say they are distrustful that government can do anything about the science. That is the sort of cynicism I worry can be toxic. When science and government have worked together, we’ve gone to the moon. We funded cures for diseases like polio. Government, in a democracy, is the people acting together. Cynicism would have us say: “why bother? you can’t fix it anyway.” Cynicism leads to inaction, depression, an inability to make change.

Scientists, as a whole, and I know, it’s dangerous to talk about groups of folks as a whole, but the scientists I know tend not to be cynics. Folks who spend their lives testing theories, looking for answers, they tend toward hope. They want to try and conserve our planet, or, if there’s too much damage done to save a particular system, to find ways to help us adapt and live with the change. Scientists also tend to drive folks nuts when they get down to the bare bones of what we can know. Push a scientist or a theologian too hard and they both start talking about “mystery” and they’ll have the same wistful look in their eyes.

Which finally brings me around to Thomas. You did know I would make it back to scripture. Didn’t you? In the Gospels, today’s story is Thomas’ big part. He’s been mostly offscreen, a name in a list of Jesus’ followers. No other action centers on Thomas, but he does have a couple of lines before today’s story.

Late in the Gospel, Thomas, sensing the danger ahead as they approach Jerusalem, says to his fellow disciples. “Let us go, that we might die with him.” Thomas has a sense of what is to come. A few chapters later, Jesus has said told them Thomas is right, he will die, and he’ll go to his Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says in response, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says to Thomas that famous line, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Thomas had given his life to this Jesus. We don’t hear the story of Thomas’ call in the Gospels, but whether he was a fisherman like Peter, James and John, or a tax collector like Matthew, we can presume Thomas gave up his way of living to follow Jesus. And his few words in the Gospels give us the sense that he’d given his heart as well. Thomas was all in. So it would make sense that Thomas was disappointed, grieving, depressed. I can understand why he might have avoided that upper room at first. He’s not ready to jump at this sign of hope. He’s been burned. So Jesus meets him. “See the scars. Know that it’s me.” Only then Thomas will say, “My Lord and my God.”

When I hear Jesus’ words, “don’t doubt, believe.” I hear Jesus imploring Thomas: “Don’t become a cynic.” Don’t let life and loss drag you to a place that is hopeless. Faith is not so much ascribing the right constellation of ideas. Faith is a posture toward life. Jesus doesn’t want Thomas to check his brain at the door. Jesus doesn’t say: “believe despite the evidence.” Jesus says, “here I am.” Jesus wants Thomas to choose life, to choose hope, to choose resurrection.

As Christians, we say we are “Easter People.” When we baptize someone we say, “you are Risen with Christ.” New life is always possible. Your life can be new today. You can lean toward that “indescribable and glorious joy” Paul talks about. The nineteenth century Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks said, “The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.” How can your life be new today? How can faith help you lean, through the doubt, to new life?

“I believe with all sorts of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” Doubt, in the right measure, is crucial for survival. If you can’t hold doubt, you can’t handle mystery, and what is life if not mystery. So doubt, in good measure. But be careful, because too much doubt can bruise your soul. When you adopt doubt as a permanent posture toward life, you can push away important data. You can push away good news. You can push away faith. Be careful.

Can you believe with all sorts of doubts? Can you, like Thomas, base your life on that belief?

Go the Extra Mile

What relationships have given shape to your identity? Stated more succinctly: Who has shaped you?

Many of us can point to a teacher who introduced us to our favorite subject or author. Many of us can recall a friend who recommended a style of music, or our favorite band. Sometimes to our chagrin, we’ll find ourselves sharing an opinion and then say, “O gosh, I sound just like my mother. She would have said that.” We are shaped, all of us, by our community, consciously and unconsciously.

In my previous gig, my old job, I worked for The Episcopal Church’s office for “Lifelong Formation.” I was the young adult and college-student specific minister, but I loved the name of the office “Lifelong formation.” No matter our age, or sense of maturity, we are, all of us, in formation. We have been formed. We continue to be formed.

So, how are you shaping up?

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar pretty high. “Be perfect,” like God is perfect. A priest friend in Connecticut recently wrote that while perhaps Beyonce wakes up “feeling ‘flawless,’ most [of us] rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” Perfection can seem unachievable.

I think part of the problem we have with this Gospel is a problem of translation. You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is “telos.” If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos. It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional. To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection. And according to Aristotle, in life, we don’t reach telos. Telos is the goal toward which we strive. Perfect, in this sense, is not the enemy of the good. Perfect is the direction toward which the good is shaped.

Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. Jesus was a preacher, a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shaped people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shape people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have, the Sermon on the Mount. How do we preachers relate to our greatest Preacher?

In the great mosques each Friday, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Traditionally Islamic pulpits, unlike our pulpit, have stair-steps that face out toward the people. The Friday preacher climbs several stairs and turns around to look out over the gathered crowd. In the mosque, the preacher traditionally stops one step short of the top. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. The current preacher gives a sermon as a substitute. Formation belongs to the master.

With a similar sense of humility, I want to offer a couple of thoughts on Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel. Jesus turns his hearers’ expectations upside down. “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resit an evildoer.” “You have heard it said…love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These words may seem foolish in today’s climate, but this is the perfection toward which Christians have sought to be shaped. Still, reading Jesus’ words today can create a sense of tension

I want to look into this tension for just a moment. Formation is happening all the times and it can happen when we are tense. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain to the edge of tree-line and seen the little bristly pine trees up high, you’ve seen tense formation in action. Pine trees that high up have raw bark on one side of their trunk and just a couple of branches pointing in one direction on the other. They look like little scraggly flag poles. Those sad trees have been blown into their shape by the wind. I bring them up because the winds seem mighty strong these days. Will you be shaped by incivility? Will you respond to hatred with hatred? Will you respond to mockery with mockery? Will you respond to cynicism with cynicism?

A few months ago I shared with you something I learned about Jesus’ words: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” That line can seem pretty pathetic, weak, but I once heard an African theologian explain how she read strength in Jesus’ words. She said that to turn the other cheek you had to turn your whole face. “Turning the other cheek” means looking your assailant in the eye. It means facing hatred with humanity.

Jesus strikes a similar vein of wisdom with another oft-quoted line from this sermon: “go the extra mile.” You may have heard that one before. You might have seen the words on one of those black-bordered motivational posters that seem to hang in ever Human Resources Office maybe with a picture of running shoes. Well, these words belong to Jesus, and they are as surprisingly radical as anything he preached.

“Go the extra mile” referred to a specific policy in the Roman Empire. Rome learned this tactic from the Persia, an earlier empire with great territorial ambition. “If anyone forces you to go one mile” references the power that a Roman Soldier had over anyone who lived in territory conquered by Rome. The soldiers marched across the empire on Rome’s highways, and they carried heavy equipment. When a soldier got tired or didn’t like the look on someone’s face, by law, he could impress a bystander to carry his pack for up to one mile, but no more. All along the road there were mile markers to facilitate this service to the Empire.

In this context, Jesus’ words, “go also the second mile” would have shocked his hearers. This policy was hated, understandably, by the occupied people. Being forced to march away from your work, to spend precious time and energy for no pay, was humiliating. Why would Jesus want to make it worse? As a tactic for calling the system of oppression into question, Jesus’ idea has legs. Can you imagine the Roman soldier, looking at the tired farmer who he has just marched a mile away from his field, as the man sets off another mile down the road. “You don’t have to continue,” he might blurt. The oppressor is forced to see beyond his prejudices. The soldier is faced with another human being, someone who is paying him a kindness, and he has to ask questions about the legal and social framework empowering some at the expense of others.

“Go the extra mile” read this way reminds me of another preacher, who stood just a step below Jesus. I’ve seen Dr. King’s words, his commentary on Jesus’ message on many signs and t-shirts lately, maybe you’ve heard these words too:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These days, I think we are having to become more conscious about the question: “who is shaping you?”

Who do you “friend” on Facebook? Who do you “follow” on Twitter? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who do you watch on television? In a political climate that seems to reward bragging lies and hate speech, in a social media world that rewards salacious rumors and outrageous headlines with more clicks and “likes,” it is easy to become blown about by the winds.

Question the value of that formation. If you find yourself anxious because of what you are reading in the paper, or on some blog site. if you find yourself angry in response to a news story on the radio, hit pause. Go and find some good news. Facebook won’t point you there. Twitter won’t raise these items up to the top of the feed. You’ll have to go and look.

Read some poetry. Pick up a collection of Dr. King’s sermons. Take the time to reconnect with a friend or spiritual advisor over the phone or better yet over a meal. Take a walk down in Tower Grove Park and keep an eye out for the owls. Look for good news. Open up the Bible. Go and find THE good news, the Gospel. Spend time with Jesus, the master preacher. If you’re on your smartphone clicking through articles and getting angry before you even get out of bed in the morning, well you’re already starting the day so many steps behind Beyonce. Get intentional about your formation.

A number of us gathered on Wednesday night as we continued our conversation about “Faith and Activism.” We read an article by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest. His writing focus on the connection between political activism and contemplative prayer. Richard says, unless we are deeply formed, all our activism is likely to burn us out.

That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.

“Go the extra mile.” These words from Jesus ask us to question our operating assumptions. If you really want to “resist” systems of oppression, Jesus says, surprise the oppressors with persistence, with kindness, with service, with love. Be formed, deeply formed, by life-giving love.

This isn’t easy work. We won’t get there alone. Perfection isn’t a goal that any of us can reach on our own. To stretch in that direction we will need to be intentional about our formation. We will need solid communities who know how to support and challenge one another, communities like Holy Communion tries to be. We will need friendships. We will need worship. We will need to return again and again to Word and to Table. We will need the words of Jesus. To reach for perfection, we will need to ask: who is shaping me?