Passing as a Protestant: Another lens on the Bible and human attraction and orientation

Rev. Will McGarvey
January 24, 2014



Passing as a Protestant:  Another lens on the Bible and human attraction and orientation

I am a happily married, out Bisexual man. I’m a parent, and I’m a Presbyterian pastor.

It took me a long time to be honest with myself about being Bisexual. I grew up a member of the LDS church in Salt Lake City, where heteronormativity is a badge of honor. I always knew that I didn’t quite fit in. Mormonism offers much to the white male. Spiritual and familial leadership was nurtured, taught and expected. I present as a white person, though I learned at age eleven that I have African heritage which would have barred me from the LDS priesthood until the 1978 revelation changed the policy. And while the official policy changed, there was still a set of teachings in vogue about a pre-existent life that purported to explain the origin of racial diversity – of how brown and black people were less valiant in a war in heaven than the white people. The stories of Indigenous Americans being cursed with dark skin in the Book of Mormon also contributed to this sense of living in two worlds. I knew I was different, even though my blue eyes helped me pass as white. I was encouraged to be a teen leader in my Boy Scout and Young Men’s groups, but sometimes I wondered if I would have remained a leader if others knew my family’s secret.

It’s easy to pass as a Bi person. I had the normal crushes of childhood and adolescence but I also found myself attracted to a spectrum of people, from the cute boys to the androgynous girls and the fuller figured women. Of course, personality is a prime factor in attraction. I also grew up in the era of HIV/AIDS and the fear of being considered gay kept me from any form of experimentation. I knew I wanted a family and it was natural for me to fall in love with Becky and start a family. In many ways, being a married man, it would have been easier just to stay in the closet. I eventually left the LDS church for theological reasons – never really feeling forgiven – and my sexual orientation played a role in that realization. It was discovering God’s abundant grace and love that allowed me the strength to seek out a progressive, more rational faith. My journey as a seeker took me many places, and in many ways the quest hasn’t been completed. Going to seminary and diving deeper into the historical-critical method gave me a new appreciation for the many voices within the library that is the Bible. Learning the original languages of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles and recognizing the multiple voices within the texts has shown me a diversity of experience within the biblical narrative that is difficult to recognize in almost every English translation available today.

I’ve been pointing out lately in my teaching and preaching that the majority family system in the biblical narrative is polygamy – specifically patriarchal polgyny – or one husband and many wives. Women were given from one man to another as property. Some family systems included women given as treaty brides, slaves, and concubines. Perhaps it’s easier to see in the original languages, but there is a reason why Jesus had siblings despite the tradition that Jesus was the only child of Mary (Mark 3:31-33). Joseph could have had multiple wives. It explains why he is so much older than Mary. It’s most likely the reason why he protected her in marriage when she was most at risk of death or alienation in the community – he was the only person who could protect her. I now wonder if the women who seem to be with Mary in those hardest of days near Jesus’ assassination by the Roman Empire were Mary’s sister wives? Not everyone wants to allow for such a reading. This is the risk of reading a text from a different language and culture, where words can mean many different things in their context. This is also the risk of those traditions that only read centuries old English translations of the Bible – because familiar words and phrases begin to be taken as the authoritative or traditional rendering of a text that may have had a radically different original context. Such translations gloss over stories of warrior lovers such as Jonathan and David – who commit themselves in covenant loyalty. Chapters away, after Jonathan’s tragic death, David laments

“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)

Of course, Jonathan’s father Saul had given David his daughter Michal in marriage and he eventually married or took as treaty wives and concubines dozens or hundreds of other women as wives. The ancient practice of military men taking male lovers isn’t unheard of in the ancient world, but because other parts of the English translations of the Bible describe cultic sex with non-Israelite temple prostitutes as a form of idolatry in the same ways we talk about same gender loving couples today, there continues to be a biased interpretation among the majority of American Christians today. There are seven such texts in the Bible still largely interpreted this way – which means that for many Christians less than .0001% of the text informs their overall paradigm for understanding the diversity of human sexuality.

This is why recognizing that the Bible is a collection of writings from hundreds of authors is so helpful, because it encourages us to look for the metanarratives – while also forcing us struggle with the context and social locations of those narratives that demean or exclude any whole group of people. It forces us to come to grips with with what Phyllis Trible calls the “texts of terror.” The prophets are always instructive in this regard. As the social critics of their day, prophets interpreted the Law based on the justice that people are called into. For Christians, the person of Jesus of Nazareth shows us what love and justice looks like. He always drew the circle wider. It is offensive to me that some of my co-religionists use him as an excuse for their homophobia. I would also include Isaiah 56:3-8, which is one of those texts that universalizes God’s welcome in the Temple – including foreigners and eunuchs, the “illegal aliens and gender variant folks” – not based on any worldly condition but only based on their keeping of the Sabbath and their desire to be a part of the people of God.

I think this is one of the things Jesus embodied during his life – the ever-present welcome of a loving God. If you read through the Torah and then the Prophets, one sees a progression from the social mores of the age of the Patriarchs (with patriarchal polygamy and strict gender constructions), to an Exodus liberation of slaves, to another inclusion of those previously excluded from among the exiles. While some books like Joshua have tried to turn the Exodus into an apology for the conquest of other indigenous peoples, eventually the message of the Prophets included the locals and outsiders into the family of God. Those distillations of the Law are always universal in their inclusion, an example that even Jesus follows.

Let’s admit that not all Christians agree on what the Bible means, nor how it speaks into our modern world. It is natural for people to focus on only one of the many metaphors in the Bible because it fits their particular cosmology. Sadly, some people are heavily invested in a dualistic, cause and effect, worldview and therefore have a Deuteronomic faith that focuses more on right and wrong, rules and punishment, and who is in and who is out that has led to the culture wars Americans have endured for the last century. The multiple authors of Deuteronomy together espoused a cause and effect theology that essentially says: If you follow the law, you will be blessed. If you don’t, you will be punished. Some Christians still live by this code, which other parts of the Bible speak against this as being overly simplistic (such as Job, the majority of the Psalms, etc.).

What if the ancients were wrong about gender identity and sexual orientation? What if our English translations aren’t the best way into understanding an ancient culture’s understanding of human sexuality? For those who choose only a God of cause and effect, the cost they pay is being able to describe God fully as a God of love. Can God be both a puppet-master and gracious? Philosophers for ages have pointed out that one must ultimately choose one or the other view of God.

Furthermore, the Bible in its original languages uses both feminine and masculine terminology for God. A part of reclaiming a progressive, well considered view of the Divine is understanding the context in which God is described in the Bible and then reminding ourselves that our faith is more alive within the Ultimate than any attempt to describe it.   Attempting to enforce pre-modern conceptions of God on post-modern peoples is both an insult to our intelligence and an offense to the ineffability of our experience of the Divine. Who are we to say that God hasn’t changed Her mind and publically come out to accept all her children? If the majority of humanity (over 40% by most estimates) are Bisexual, Pansexual or find themselves romantically or physically attracted to multiple gender expressions, who are we to say that the God who created humanity with such diversity cannot love each and every part of that diversity as well?

Over the last few years, I’ve worked with LGBTQQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, two-spirit) youth and young adults in my faith community. I have found that the time I spent not being out as a Bi-man was a form of lying, of bearing false witness against myself and a loving God. For years this led to hiding my solidarity from those who needed to encounter it the most. Sadly, it was only when I learned that a young man who had visited the church had taken his life that I was convinced that I couldn’t wait any longer to come out, first to my wife, lover and partner – and then also to my faith community.

One of my mentors, Rev. Dr. James Noel who teaches at San Francisco Theological Seminary, ha pointed out that the LGBTQQI2-S community comes to the church every two years at our PC (USA) General Assemblies and begs them to accept us – to love us like Jesus does – in our denominational policies. And then we are surprised when the church says no. I think he is correct. Instead, we just need to take our place of sacrificial service, love and justice in the church. We follow a Teacher/Master/Lord who laid his life down for others. Instead of begging, we need to show the Church another way. The church is forever in need of losing our place of privilege in the world and we can remind the church that it’s not up to them to accept or reject us. We are Christ’s own beloved children and we need to start acting like it. We can live into God’s calling without asking what it will cost the institutional Church because honesty should never be the cost of membership in the church. This is what our youth and young adults are waiting to hear and see. If we won’t follow our own convictions, why should they?

For God’s sake – and for the sake of every queer or questioning teenager – perhaps it’s time we stop passing.


Will has been married to Becky for 26 years. They are the parents of Ian, 25, and Megan, 23 (and CoCo and TyTy, their miniature pincers). Will and Becky live in Benicia, CA. Will has served as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg, CA, a PCUSA/UCC congregation, now for twelve years.

Portions of this essay has been published in a conversation hosted by Rev. Janet Edwards with Rev. Will McGarvey, published on her blog November 30, 2012. See more at:

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In response to Barbara Wheeler’s article on the Apology Overture

Barbara Wheeler, former President of Auburn Theological Seminary has written an article in response to overture (11-05) coming before the General Assembly this summer in Portland. You can read the article, entitled “Breach of Faith: Why the Apology Overture is So Wrong” at these links: ( and ( It was posted in both websites with an image that reads: “A measure is coming before General Assembly that breaks the promise of freedom of conscience.”

I thank her for her contributions to the conversation about this overture as those elected and called are to discern it’s content. There is much to commend in her thoughts, such as the preservation of the freedom of conscience we all hold so dear. While I agree with most of the impulses of this overture, I also find much to be addressed for this broad conversation for the church.

On my first reading, I noted that Wheeler makes no reference to the related apology to the Native Americans in overture (11-08). Recently, there has been an important recognition of the interconnectivity of oppressions experienced by communities who have experienced historic discrimination. Unlike that overture, 11-05 does not list and document where the systematic discrimination of LGBTQ people exists within the broader systems of the Church. Nothing is mentioned of those predatory heterosexual pastors who preyed on children of every gender in the Boarding School system among First Nation populations our church was complicit in. (I’ll let you all search out those systems and our complicity within them.)

She does give a nod at one point of the Recommendation of 11-08, as we read these words:

“Even worse, we arrogantly thought that Western European culture and cultural expressions were necessary parts of the Gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition for your accepting the Gospel. We tried to make you be like us and, in so doing, we helped to diminish the Sacred Vision that made you who you are. Thus, we demonstrated that we did not fully understand the Gospel we were trying to preach.”

In addition to not mentioning overture (11-08), Wheeler also attempts to make the recent conversation about the inclusion and ordination of LGBTQ persons a more recent phenomenon. Over the last 10,000 to 500 years, we now know that the Lakota people have recognized three genders and that the Navajo people have recognized four genders. Many other First Nations had their own cultural values that welcomed all of their children. Today, most First Nation peoples call such people Two-Spirit people, and have recognized many of them as spiritual leaders in their communities.

Furthermore, if we as Presbyterians had been reading the Jewish Talmud, we would have recognized that our Jewish brothers and sister have recognized up to six genders for hundreds of years reading the First Testament. If we cannot make the connections to those in other cultures whom we have been presently oppressing, we have no right to ask others for time to make amends. There are eight forms of marriage in the Hebrew scriptures. With just one example, why would we go back to enforcing the marriage of those women won as a war bride?

I’m glad that Wheeler makes passing mention of the changes in church polity over the ages. I would have rather that she addressed the changes in society since the last General Assembly, including the Supreme Court’s decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) which has shown that there has been a sea shift in the legal understanding of the rightful place of LGBTQ people in American civil society. Since the last GA, there is a growing scientific knowledge that the oppression of sexual and gender minorities has led to significant social repercussions. The psychological research of Dr. Caitlyn Ryan at SFSU who has pointed out the mental health disparities for those who are not accepted by their families of origin or congregations (

Apologies can never come too early. An apology, even in one voice, need not be contorted into only a theological apology. Must we not also recognize that there have been decades of abuse against LGBTQ people by ordinary Presbyterians borne out by those individual notions of heterosexist superiority since the original report on human sexuality was submitted to the 1978 GA? The landmark report suggested that there was no reason why LGBTQ people should not continue to be recognized as fully baptized and welcomed members of the community, but it was heartily rejected by the GA which made the exact opposite policy. How many seminarians have been blocked from even continuing their studies at our PCUSA seminaries? How many faithful Presbyterians were barred from serving as Deacons or Ruling Elders because of the prejudices of perhaps only a minority number of members in their local congregations?

Local congregations and Teaching Elders need not fear a reformation of the freedom of conscience from such an apology, but it may challenge them in how they are treating former Presbyterians who seek to return to the church of their birth or past. This is the most efficacious aspect of this overture. If we apologize to those we have spiritually abused in the past, it could mean that many former Presbyterians – even staunch Evangelicals who happen to be LGBTQ – may wish to return to the churches that previously excluded them. Many think that this is an opportunity for every congregation in the church to welcome back those who have been “church hurt” over the years. Who knows, perhaps we could also welcome back those of other traditions who could only find a full welcome within our diversity as Presbyterians.

The most important parts of this overture, to many of us who didn’t write it, includes an opportunity to hear the abuses of those over the last 75 years who are still living who have remained within the church or who have felt forced out of the church – either through session actions or seminary actions. Perhaps this overture can be transformed into an invitation for Presbyteries, Sessions, Seminaries and Synods to explore and hear those stories that have been hidden for many years – in search of some way forward. Those who left for other denominations before our change in policy may also give us wisdom for the future of what it means for us to be Presbyterian into the next century.

This overture doesn’t scapegoat only one part of the church. It also reminds those Presbyterians whose consciences were pricked, but did nothing with their silence since 1978 has been deafening. It is a statement on behalf of all of us, that those who were sent to reparative therapy operations and have been physically and spiritually abused by a so-called therapeutic system that attempts to transform their God-given psyche as a person toward that of the most accepted form in our society is not honoring of their being created in the image of God. This overture reclaims the human dignity of those whom we ignored for the last half century.

I do not find this overture to be a breach of faith. I find it to be an easily edited form of beginning a process of truth and reconciliation that might begin to heal the rift between those who have been abused by the church with those congregations willing and able to welcome them. This is as a first step towards healing the relationship of our beloved church with those who have been the most abused class of persons over the last few decades, and those deprived of their spiritual ministry among the First Nations we so badly abused in attempting to convert them first to our culture – and then to our religion. Delaying such an apology would show that the church isn’t able to own up to our own abuses in any age.

Blaming the victim is never pretty, but unfortunately it is something we have become accustomed to. Like those who have been oppress before us, I say “Never Again.”

Rev. Will McGarvey
Pastor of Community Presbyterian Church, Pittsburg, CA
Presbytery of San Francisco



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An Interfaith post on how we belong to each other

Here is the downloadable version with some of the pictures shared at the Sisterhood-Brotherhood Dinner of the Interfaith Council of Rossmoor, CA.

Rossmoor Interfaith Council Dinner

Rossmoor Interfaith Council Dinner

Beyond Peoplehood

Beyond Peoplehood
Presented by Rev. Will McGarvey
Tuesday, May 28,2013
Sisterhood and Brotherhood Dinner
Interfaith Council of Rossmoor

I’m so appreciative to have been invited to address you tonight.  The Rossmoor Interfaith Council is the oldest of all of our local inter-religious collegiums, and one that continues to be one of our most successful regional consortiums of Interfaith work in the county.  I served on the Executive Board of the Council for some 6 years and left the board for some other work before coming back as your Interim Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, helping the council with the work of renewing our vision and restructuring.  In all that time, this is the first time I have attended the Sisterhood and Brotherhood Dinner.  I now see that this is one of those lesser known gems that occurs in the county, and while this event may seem very natural as an annual gathering for you, I don’t think there is anything like it in our other groups.  So I want to commend you for keeping this tradition alive and well.  And I’d like to encourage you to share it with others.

I’m hoping that what I present tonight will start new conversations, so if it’s possible to talk afterwards I’m open to do so, but I hope that you will find those of other faith traditions in your midst with which to further discuss these ideas.  These aren’t only my thoughts, but they are my interpretations of some of the ideas that are floating around in our culture that may or may not help us move forward into the future that God – however you describe the divine – may be luring us into.

To begin tonight, I’d like to read my translation of Genesis 2 adapted from the Message Translation about the creation of the adam – the earthling – from the adamah – the earth.  There are a lot of word plays that don’t make it into the English translation from the Hebrew, so I’ve taken the liberty add a bit about those wordplays into this translation.  Perhaps we need to understand our creation myths if we are to understand ourselves.  A reading from Genesis 2: 5-25.

Genesis 2:5   At the time GOD made Earth and Heaven, before any grasses or shrubs had sprouted from the ground—GOD hadn’t yet sent rain on Earth, nor was there anyone around to work the ground 6 (the whole Earth was watered by underground springs) —  7 GOD formed the adam – the genderless Earthling – out of the adamah – the dirt from the ground – and blew into its nostrils the breath of life. The Earthling came alive—a living soul!

8   Then GOD planted a garden in Eden, in the east. God put the Earthling he had just made in it.  9 GOD made all kinds of trees grow from the ground, trees beautiful to look at and good to eat. The Tree-of-Life was in the middle of the garden, also the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil.

15   GOD took the Earthling and set it down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.

16   GOD commanded the Earthling, “You can eat from any tree in the garden,  17 except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Don’t eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.”

18   GOD said, “It’s not good for the Earthling to be alone; I’ll make it a helper, a companion.”  19 So GOD formed from the dirt of the ground all the animals of the field and all the birds of the air.  God brought them to the Earthling to see what it would name them. Whatever the Earthling called each living creature, that was its name.  20 The Earthling named the cattle, named the birds of the air, named the wild animals; but it didn’t find a suitable companion.

21   GOD put the Earthling into a deep sleep. As it slept God removed one of its ribs and replaced it with flesh.  22 GOD then used the rib that she had taken from the Earthling to make Isha – woman – and presented her to the Ish – man.  God had separated the Earthling into an Adam and an Eve.
23                     The Adam said,
        “Finally! Bone of my bone,
                 flesh of my flesh!
        Name her Isha
                 for she was made from Ish.”

24                   Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife. They become one flesh. 25  The two of them, the Ish and the Isha, were naked, but they felt no shame.

What a story.  It sounds as if it was first told around an ancient campfire – the story of how their tribe came to be.  God forms the Earthling from the earth and then breathes the Spirit of life into its nostrils – and it becomes a living being.  It sounds like many Native American stories, where the people come up from the ground itself here on this continent, but this is a Near Eastern story that parallels the Persian stories of being created in a self-sustaining paradise where the trees spontaneously produce fruit and the earthlings don’t have to work.  It sounds a bit like the life of Chimpanzees on the recent Disney film about them, but without the rival band of Chimps that live in the land next door.

Except in this story, the Earthling gets created in paradise alone, without anyone like it.  It’s androgynous.  No gender, just an earthling.  If we were to name the adam in English, it would be Dusty.  It is all alone – and it must be lonely, because God starts bringing other creatures before the Earthling to see who would be its friend.  In fact, God parades all of the other animal creatures in front of the Earthling, and it get’s to name them all, but there wasn’t a suitable companion – a true partner among them.  The Earthling wasn’t created to be alone, but to be in a true community of equals.  The Earthling was still related to all of those animals, but it recognized that it was something more – that it needed more to be fully human.

So, the God divides the Earthling into male and female.  The Earthling is put into a sleep and a part of the side of the Earthling is taken in order to separate the Earthling into a female and male human.  It’s only then that they get real names, did you notice – Man and Woman – Adam and Eve.  No shame, just paradise – so far.  The rest of the story tells of why people die, why people do bad things, why people have to work and toil for their food and even why childbirth is painful.  It’s a typical explanation of the human predicament from then on.  But right here this is a picture of idyllic human cooperation and complementariness.  Much of our conceptions of Male and Female come from this story – the way we heard it.  But I wonder if this telling of the story helps release us from the harmful portions of the story.

An earlier Western creation story is similar but very different:  It comes from Plato’s Story of Love and Desire in Aristophanes’ Speech from Plato’s Symposium

“Once upon a time, he says, people were not born separate from each other. They were born entwined, kind of coupled with each other. So there were boys attached to boys, and there were girls attached to girls and of course, boys and girls together in a wonderfully intimate ball. And back then we had eight limbs, there were four on top, four on the bottom and you didn’t have to walk if you didn’t want to. You could roll, and roll we did! We rolled backwards and we rolled forwards, achieving fantastic speeds that gave us a kind of courage… and then the courage swelled to pride and the pride became arrogance. 

And then we decided that we were greater than the gods and we tried to roll up the heaven and take over heaven. And the gods, alarmed, struck back! And Zeus, in his fury, hurled down lightning bolts and struck everyone in two, into perfect halves. So all of the sudden, couples who had been warm and tight and wedged together were now detached and alone and lost and desperate and losing the will to live. And the gods having seen what they’d done, worried that humans might not survive or even multiply again, and of course they needed humans to give sacrifices and to pay attention to them, so the gods decided on a few repairs.

Instead of heads facing backwards or out, they would rotate our heads back to forward. They pulled our skin taught and knotted it right here at the belly button. Genitalia too were moved to the front so if we wanted to, you know, we could. And most important, they left us with a memory. It was a longing for that original other half of ourselves, the boy or the girl who used to make us whole. And that longing is still so deep in all of us, men for men, women for women, men for women for each other, that it has been the lot of humans ever since, to travel the world looking for our other half. 

And when, says Aristophanes, when one of us meets another, we recognize each other right away. We just know this! We’re lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy. We won’t get out of each other’s sight even for a moment. These are people, he says, who pass their whole lives together and yet if you ask them, they could not explain what they desire of each other. They just…do.”

What do we make of such words?  How many of you have heard these stories before?

What kind of Universe do we live within?   How do we live as modern people knowing that our ancestors have conceived of the human beginnings in such ways?  We have heard the term “soul mates” before, but this myth and the way they pictured human origins is quite foreign to most of us.

We must remember that the ancient world didn’t always consider men and women as equals.  Only one Greek city state, Sparta, allowed women to vote.  Athens, the so-called birth place of Democracy only allowed male landowners to vote or participate in the forum.  What was true in Greece was also true in Rome and Jerusalem.  The Pater Familia put the father in charge of his whole household.  Women were given in marriage as property exchanges between families.  Childhood mortality rates were so low that most children weren’t cared for as much as we would like until it looked like they might survive, although upper class families would want to make sure that they had an heir to be able to pass on their inheritance.  Slaves, on the other hand, were the lifeblood of the household.  The man of the house had full sexual access to all of his property, but could start a small riot between houses if he were caught with the family, children or slaves of another man.  Men and women were not equals in the ancient world.  There were stark differences and rivalries between the classes and the rival nations of the world, especially between those who considered themselves civilized and those they considered barbarians.  The ins and the outs.

For the Christians in the room, the words of Galatians 3:27-29 resonate very powerfully about the new unity that was to be lived out within the body of Christ.  This was St. Paul’s attempt to include Gentiles into the new Jewish Christian sect.

Galatians 3:27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

The text preceding this pericope is all about the Jewish Law and faith, arguing that it was faith that welcomed Gentiles into the family of Abraham.  Of course, the majority of Jews didn’t accept this rationale.  For early Christianity, this was a radical new way of thinking about community – attempting to destroy three of the strongest social distinctions of the day: followers of God from the pagans, free people from the enslaved, and perhaps the strongest divide because it cannot be changed – the gender divide.  Or can it?

St. Paul uses another image when he later wrote 1 Corinthians 12:14-28 as he situates each Christian as a part of the very Body of Christ in the world.

1 Corinthians 12:14  “I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together.  15 If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so?  16 If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body?  17 If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell?  18 As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it”

Here is a later text where Paul uses the metaphor of the different parts of a human body as the parts of the Christian Messiah’s body in the world.  If the Christ lives in the world, it get’s expressed by every part of the Christian community.  Now, the Christians of this period would have still excluded the non-Christians of their era, but Paul’s metaphor insists that each person of the community comprises a part of the body that cannot be cut off without significant costs to the whole – and that it is Christ himself who lives within the community of believers.  There still remains exclusivity, but this remains a radical move toward inclusion of outsiders.

In the Gospel of Thomas, an early Gnostic text only found again in 1945 with the Nag Hammadi Library, the 22nd saying of Jesus includes these words:

Gospel of Thomas 22b  “Jesus said to them: When you make the two one, and when you make the inside as the outside, and the outside as the inside, and the upper as the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male is not male and the female not female, and when you make eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then shall you enter [the kingdom].”

It looks like this saying predates the canonical gospels and is cited in the Gospel to the Egyptians as well.  One of the founding myths of the Gnostics was that each soul was divided from an androgynous soul into a male or female at birth – into a specific gender.  A part of becoming one who has the secret knowledge of Gnosticism was one who was able to reconcile the maleness and femaleness of their own person – as well as raising the spiritual above the bodily form of humanity.  This is “recovering one’s original self, undivided by the differences between male and female, physical and spiritual.”  In the words of Bob Funk and Roy Hoover, “The theme of unifying opposites is well known from later gnostic texts.” (The Five Gospels, p. 487)

Unifying opposites.  Much of our Western culture is filled with such dualities.  Heaven and Hell, Spirit and Body, White and Black, Male and Female, Civilized and Barbarian, Modern and Mythic.  Such dualities have plagued Christianity from the beginning.

So it was interesting last week, when journalist David Gibson noted that:

“Pope Francis is warning Catholics not to demonize those who are not members of the church, and he specifically defended atheists, saying that building walls against non-Catholics leads to “killing in the name of God.”

“(T)his ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God,” Francis said Wednesday in remarks at the informal morning Mass that he celebrates in the chapel at the Vatican guesthouse where he lives.

“And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”  Francis explained that doing good is not a matter of faith: “It is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because he has made us in his image and likeness.” 

To both atheists and believers, he said that “if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.”

In a passage that may prompt a theological debate about the nature of salvation, the pontiff also declared that God “has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!”

“Even the atheists,” he said to those who might question his assertion. “Everyone!””[1]

Sure, such a statement is supersessionist, but at least he is using his tradition’s language as a way to increase the inclusion of others.  Heaven knows that even most of us Progressive Protestants have moved away from insisting that it was Christ’s blood that is salvific.  We would insist that Jesus was faithful to his Jewish vision of God’s kingdom, even unto death on a Roman cross.

So, how do we talk about humanity beyond siblinghood?  Sure, some of us are brothers and others are sisters, but what about that small minority of people – the 1 in 2000 who are born with ambiguous genitalia, or born intersex or transgender?  In the ancient world they were mostly known as Eunuchs, those who were made eunuchs after the Jewish exile to serve as bureaucrats in the Persian Empire.  When the priests returned to Israel,    Isaiah 56 goes out of its way to say that these returning eunuchs were included in the family of God, and welcomed back to the temple as well.  Isaiah 56:1-8 from the Hebrew Scriptures:

Isaiah 56:1             Thus says the LORD:
       Maintain justice, and do what is right,
          for soon my salvation will come,
                  and my deliverance be revealed.
2             Happy is the mortal who does this,
                  the one who holds it fast,
          who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,
                  and refrains from doing any evil.
3             Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,
                  “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
           and do not let the eunuch say,
                  “I am just a dry tree.”
4          For thus says the LORD:
           To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
                  who choose the things that please me
                  and hold fast my covenant,
5          I will give, in my house and within my walls,
                  a monument and a name
                  better than sons and daughters;
            I will give them an everlasting name
                  that shall not be cut off.
6             And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
                   to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
                   and to be his servants,
             all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
                   and hold fast my covenant—
7          these I will bring to my holy mountain,
                    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
            their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
                   will be accepted on my altar;
             for my house shall be called a house of prayer  for all peoples.
8          Thus says the Lord GOD,
                   who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
             I will gather others to them
                   besides those already gathered.

This universalization happens in many traditions when they are faced with new realities.  And so the new basis for who is welcome in the Temple doesn’t include bodily wholeness or who your parents are, but whether you keep the Sabbath and follow the laws of God.  In Matthew 19, Jesus says that there are three types of eunuchs, those that are eunuchs from birth who have no desire to penetrate a woman, those who are made eunuchs at the hands of men – usually to become a trusted bureaucrat in the Emperor’s court – and those who are eunuchs by choice – those who take on a celibate life.  In the ancient world, eunuch was an umbrella term for gay men or transgender people.

Such people have often been ignored or vilified.  But these are our children and our grandchildren.  No one is to blame that they are a part of the same diversity that is seen in the animal kingdom, in which over 450 species show gender diversity or sexual orientation diversity.  But sometimes the politics of public restrooms is where their inclusion in our society gets meted out.

This is where the gender binary gets enforced, right!?  At the restroom signs!  Hopefully in our congregations there are more than two options, and we are increasingly adding single intersex restrooms.  And so we have to work to make the world a more inclusive place, with space for the intersex and transgender communities.

You may not know this, but the clown fish is unique, in that if the school of fish they belong to loses all of its male members, the largest female will change their gender to allow the school of fish to continue to procreate.  Nature is that creative in its desire to keep life going.

In cultures around the world transgender people have been celebrated and seen as shaman and spiritual leaders since they can communicate between this world and the spirit world.  In some Native American and traditional cultures around the world, their languages include three genders to include what we would call intersex or transgender people.  In the Mohave and Navajo cultures, there have been four genders, and the tribe would dress their children androgynously until a certain age at which they would watch them and what kind of toys they played with, and they would live out their lives in that way.  Men, women, and women living out male roles, and men living out female roles.  Many native peoples today use the Lakota term 2-spirit people for those who are not either male or female, and there has been marriage between people of all gender identities for generations.

I love the quote on this picture by Pretty Shield, a medicine woman of the Crow Nation (see pdf for the quote).

We have also seen such people in international athletics like Caster Semenya from South Africa, who was winning every race among women until they studied her blood and found out that she was an intersex person with female genitalia but whose testes were active giving her more testosterone than other females.  There are those born with XXY chromosomes whose gender identities may not be known until their endocrine system starts producing either male or female hormones.  Most of the time that matches the genitalia of the person, but not always which brings about hermaphrodite persons.  Some XXY people still present fully as male or female, depending on their hormonal development.  There are 13 clusters of genetic identities between XX and XY.  Most often people with XXY chromosomes don’t even know that they are different.

Just like there is a spectrum of gender identities between maleness and femaleness, there is a spectrum of sexual orientations between heterosexuality and homosexuality.  It’s been amazing to see the shift going on in our culture, increasingly accepting Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people and the families that they are creating.  To watch so many states change their laws to become more inclusive of marriage equality has displayed a surprising shift going on in parts of our culture.  That the Boy Scouts made the national decision to welcome out Gay Scouts is a very significant move.  Scouts can now keep the Scout oath, and be fully honest about who they are without fear of getting kicked out of their troops – or at least be able to find troops nearby that will welcome them.

The Genderbread Person image helps us understand this interconnection:  That Gender Identity is about how a person thinks about what their gender is.  Gender Expression is how they live that out.  Biological sex expresses the genetics and hormones that express a person’s sex.  And Sexual Orientation is who one falls in love with.

We all create families in our own ways, and there is a growing freedom for everyone to define what is family for them.  Much within our culture and language attempts to enforce that gender binary.  There was even a time that our educational system tried to enforce right-handedness.  But we are learning that the human species contains a great amount of diversity.  It’s hard to talk about just brothers and sisters when more and more of our siblings are coming out and talking about their life experience as someone who was born with ambiguous genitalia and have claimed an intersex identity, or those transgender folks who feel like they were born in a body of the wrong gender for how they see themselves.  We have also seen so many celebrities show us that love is love, regardless of the gender of the people they are attracted to, but we are now seeing professional athletes and religious leaders coming out as Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual and as supporters.  We don’t live in a black and white world any longer as the world is displaying multiple shades of grey – not only about what we know about humans, but also what we know about the animal kingdom.

Over the last 100 years we have learned much about human evolution and the history of our planet.  We have learned about the migration patterns of early humans around the world based on the mitochondrial DNA of the different cultures and peoples of the world.  Our knowledge about genetics has helped us realize that even the differences between humans are so small that it questions the very use of the word “Race.”  We have more in common with each other: Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Aboriginees than we have differences.  And, scientists say that there is greater human genetic diversity within the continent of Africa than anywhere else on earth – perhaps since that is where early homonids first evolved and as groups left they had less genetic diversity to share.

The other thing we have learned is how long ago homonids separated from the other great apes.  As we discovered how older species evolved into mammals and birds, we also saw that we were related to the rest of the animal kingdom.  We have 98% of the same genes as chimpanzees, and yet our common ancestors separated over 6 million years ago.  We have been amazed at some of the abilities that Chimpanzees have been able to learn, but we have also recognized the limits of their ability to learn because their brains just haven’t evolved as ours have.  But human development is putting them at risk.  In 1960 there were a million Chimpanzees in the wild.  Today there is one fifth of that number.

At the same time, we have found our common mammalian ancestor, a small rodent like animal that was the first warm blooded animal with a placenta.  This animal weighed around 6 grams and lived in trees feeding on insects 65 million years ago.  The surprising thing is that this animal evolved about 200,000 years after the demise of the dinosaurs.  This is our common ancestor with all mammals, both land mammals and those that live in seawaters.  All mammals share different traits, such as three middle ear bones, milk to feed our young, bodily hair and warm blooded.  So it should come as no surprise to us that Elephants have a culture, and can communicate with one another.  In fact, Elephants mourn family members when they die.  We also know that dolphins and whales can communicate with each other.  We have recordings of whale song that can travel miles away in the water.  A few years ago, I took my family to Alaska and while we were off the coast of Juneau we watched a pod of 16 whales work together bubblenetting for krill.  The whales must be communicating with one another as they swim down in a spiral around a school of krill, letting air bubbles out to keep the krill within the cylinder while they take turns swimming up the cylinder gorging themselves on krill.

As we understand more about human evolution and as we recognize our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom, we have to admit that we are related.  Some of you know those people whose relationship with their pets seems to be just a bit too close, but maybe they recognize something of a consciousness within their pets.  I’ll tell you, when my two miniature pinchers want something, like to be let outside, they know how to communicate it.  And if you look at Facebook for any amount of time, you will see more pictures of cats and cute pictures of other animals that are almost anthropomorphic.  Still, while humans are usually at the top of the food chain because of our technological prowess, we too can become a part of the food chain.  All life on planet earth is related to one another.  Each of our bioclimates have evolved to include all of the parts of the system.

At some level we know that we are related to the animal kingdom, though we often deny it.  We often even deny the many bacteria that is a part of our digestive system that start to digest us within 30 minutes of our own death.  We are a part of the cycle of life, and perhaps we need to find a way as modern people to come to terms with this truth that honors our relationship with the natural world.  And perhaps in our older age, we will find the impulse to share what it is we have learned with those younger than us so that their psychological and educational evolution can occur at a younger and younger age so that the great human experiment can move forward with what we have learned – rather than without it.

We belong to each other.  We know this even more today because of what our Quantum Physicists are telling us, for when we try to look at the universe we find both a creative and destructive universe – a fractal universe.  What they found when attempting to look at sub-atomic particles is what is called Quantum Entanglement or Quantum Weirdness.  When Erwin Schrödinger realized that light is both a wave and a particle, he also saw that when you look at one particle it affects another particle that is connected to it.  Some particles are connected to particles nearby, sometimes to particles light-years away, and so there is a strange interconnectivity between all things on a sub-atomic level.  If Newtonian physics did a good job of predicting what happens in the natural world when one force acts upon another force, when we look at a Quantum level there is an indeterminacy.

What this indeterminacy means is that until it is observed an object has no definite value for that property…..  In common experience a coin facing up has a definite value: it is either heads or tails. Even if you don’t look at the coin you trust that it must be a head or tail. In quantum experience the situation is more unsettling: material properties of things do not exist until they are measured. Until you “look” (measure the particular property) at the coin, as it were, it has no fixed face up.”[2]

So, if the Universe is 13.82 Billions years old – since the Big Bang or the Big Bounce from the conflation of a previous universe – and the earth was the product of a collision of two planets 4.5 Billion years ago that reignited the earth’s mantle and created our moon – we are a natural part of a Universe that has been conspiring on our behalf – to bring human consciousness to fruition for all that time.  If we know that our bodies are 93% stardust, can we tell if the stardust that is in our left hand came from the same star as the stardust that is in our right hand?

What are the Interfaith theological implications of this knowledge?

The first is that yes, in fact, we belong to each other.  We are all a part of the same web of life.  If even the very atoms and particles and magnetic fields of our bodies are interrelated, and as far as we know we are the only sentient beings in our relatively young Universe, then we are the Universe itself conscious of itself.  Despite the fact that our philosophies, religions and languages constantly tell us that we are autonomous individuals, we need to remind ourselves that we are interconnected with every other part of the Universe.  Our actions and beliefs matter.

As E.O. Wilson has noted in his book “The Social Conquest of Earth,” it was the cooperation of tribalism and the campfire that allowed early humans to evolve into communities that cared for infants and the aging in order to expand the opportunity for survival against outside threats.  We weren’t individuals fighting off snakes in the trees any longer.  It was the move to the savannah that allowed us to become communities.  But here’s the rub, over the last 10,000 years we’ve been expanding the tribalism that has served us so well into villages, towns, cities, city-states, bio-regions, states, and nations.  And for the last 100 years we have been experimenting with allowing multi-national cooperative states, like the U.N. and NATO and the European Union and the African Union to attempt to work cooperatively for the benefit of their regions and continents.

But at the same time, multi-national corporations and banking interests have risen with the strength to divide and conquer the needs and desires of these other cooperative bodies.  So first, will we be able to evolve out of our tribalism – both our religious tribalism and our other tribalisms writ large in national, cultural and linguistic circles?  Because if we aren’t able to do so, we won’t be able to break down the tribes and competing factions necessary to survive on a planet with declining resources.

I’ve mentioned some of the Christian Scriptures that lend themselves to this impulse.  I would also add Micah 6:8

Micah 6:8          God has told you, O mortal, what is good;

                  and what does the LORD require of you

         but to do justice, and to love kindness,

                  and to walk humbly with your God?


And as the Koran says in Sura 29:46

“And argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say we believe in that which has been revealed to us and to you; and our God and your God is one and unto Him we submit” (Quran 29:46).

It is also consistent with the first two points of the 8 points of Progressive Christianity:

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who…

1 Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus,

2 Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us,

As Robb Smith, co-founder of Chrysallis and Integral life said in his TED Talk “The Transformational Life

The invitation was sent 14 billion years ago … it says “Congratulations, you are the first self-aware species in the known universe who is interconnected to every other member of its species on a single planetary biosphere….” [We are invited] to move beyond a scared sense of self … beyond egonomics … and relate to each other empathically.”[3]

It’s a huge step for some, but essential for moving toward a Siblinghood of all people.

Second, there is a great diversity within all of life – and that is a good thing and we should encourage that.  In fact, we should expect diversity, of thought, of religious expression, of cultural habits, of philosophical persuasions and commitments.

Sura 49:13 of the Koran says,

O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Quran 49:13).

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has long talked about Ubuntu – the South African saying of “I Am Because We Are.”  And that’s true for people of every ability, dissability or diffability.  In an article about his new book “God is not a Christian,” he says:

Our diversity is beautiful – it would be so terribly boring if we were all the same! Conformity is stoked by fear of not being loved, and an expression of a need to belong. Let’s love each other – warts and all. Let’s dare to be beautiful in our own truth – and still belong. Unselfish self-assurance, compassion, an inner knowing that our humanity is caught up in one another’s, that we are inexorably diminished when others are humiliated, oppressed or treated as if they were of less worth than us – these are some of the inner qualities that will save us as a human race….

Peace, prosperity and justice – we can have them all if we work together. There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’. God is not a Christian but neither is S(he) an adherent of any other religion because no religion has monopoly on God. All major religions have love and compassion at their core, they promote tolerance not violence and hate, and most have their own version of the Golden Rule – treat others as you wish to be treated. They all recognise that human happiness ultimately comes from our relationship with each other.

In truth there are no outsiders, no enemies – unless we put them there in our minds. Black and white, rich and poor, man and woman, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist, Hutu and Tutsi, Pakistani and Indian, – all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognise our interdependence, we become fully human….

Let’s make our humanness our way of life. Like when we pass the homeless and take time to look them in the eye and talk. When we meet the mother suffering from AIDS and are not afraid to take her hand and wipe her tears. When we remember that no one is a refugee by choice. When we hear of awful offences and never forget that inside there is goodness in everyone and that we have not walked in their shoes. When we do not judge or label others too hurriedly – because as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said “when you label me you negate me.” When we relate as human beings despite our differences, recognizing that ultimately we all want the same thing – happiness.”[4]

We have seen this courage in the person of Malala Yousafzai, the 15 year old Pakistani girl who has stood up to those who would scare her and other girls away from their right to an education.  She has said,

“God has given me this new life, a second life.  And I want to serve the people.  I want every girl, every child, to be educated.”

“I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school.  All I want is education.  And I’m afraid of no one.”

“I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly.  Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”

Christian mystic Henri J.M. Nouwen said it this way:

“In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.”

And the last theme I will leave with you tonight is that there is room for us to evolve further into the future – and we do so not just for ourselves but so that we can help God evolve into the future with us.  If we are the Universe conscious of itself after 13.82 Billion years, then God needs us to evolve our consciousness so that the very concept of God can evolve out of the archaic, magical, mythic, rational, and postmodern conceptions into a new cosmology that matches the best of what we know scientifically with the best of what we know spiritually.  We need to reclaim the ancient practices of each of our traditions – of meditation and yoga, of centering prayer and labyrinth walking, of reconnecting with nature through pan-psychic prayer and better eating and weight training. Every approach has some truth that brings about full human flourishing.  In the words the Jewish Phenomenologist Martin Buber – every practice trains us how to approach each and every part of the Universe as a holy Thou – rather than an it.  As we train ourselves to meet each part of the Universe as a holy Thou – rather than an object we can use – then we are truly living.

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber said it this way:

…isn’t it time for you to wake up? …You know that in the deepest part of your being, you can wake up, don’t you? You have been searching for how long now? Well, it is time for the Great Search to end. As long as you are searching, you are looking for a future moment that will be better than this moment, but it is this moment that holds the entire key…. So stop searching….[5]

Andrew Cohen describes it this way:

“Those who seem to be most alive, most in touch with life and their own creative powers, are individuals who are demonstrating what it means to live on the edge of their own potential. They may be musicians, artists, writers, politicians, engineers, scientists, philosophers, or mystics. Living on our edge is really, really important, especially if we don’t want to live a life only half-lived—a life lost in mediocrity, ambiguity, and existential confusion. In the way that I see it, the full glory of what it means to be alive only begins to reveal itself when we are actually on that edge. That’s when we are truly alive—consciously alive, creatively alive. When we push towards that edge in ourselves, we allow Spirit’s true face, the creative force in the universe, which I call the evolutionary impulse, to reveal itself right now through you and through me.”[6]

What is Evolution, really?  Again, Andrew Cohen:

“Evolution is a cosmic process that is going somewhere in and through time. And we are all part of that process. This simple fact is potentially life-transforming, but it’s also hard to grasp at a deep level. The process that created us is moving. We tend to see the world around us as static. But it’s not. It’s going somewhere. We’re going somewhere. Awakening to this truth about all of manifestation changes the way we see the world around us and our place in it. The biggest and most important part of this awakening is that we discover our power to affect where the process that created us is going. We realize the ultimate reason for our own existence: to be a spiritual hero, to boldly take responsibility for the future of the process itself.”[7]

Thank you.

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A Pastor responds to the Spiritual But Not Religious

UCC colleague Rev. Lillian Daniel has written a few pieces recently about the growing Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) community.  She has even written a book on the topic.  Her Huffington Post included in the title the words, “stop boring me,” and says most SBNR folks just want a personal spirituality rather than the messiness of faith in community.  The post does include many uses of the phrase, “these people,” perhaps too many times for my personal liking since it sounds like a form of “othering.”

I must admit that I did find some resonance in the post the first time I read it, especially the sentences,

“You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.  Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.”

Sister Lillian’s September 2011 article in the Christian Century was a bit less harsh, pointing out the diversity of religious experience among the folks we meet everyday.  For the good folks that make it out of fundamentalism, very few find a good, safe, progressive religious home they can call their own.  There  just aren’t enough of them everywhere yet.  For the man who did find a warm and welcoming community, his divorce cut him off from his only spiritual home.  In response to him saying that he has now found God in nature, in experiences at feeling at one with nature, in reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings, rather than hearing sermons, she writes:

“The spiritual-not-religious are likely to say they see God in their children, at least when they are doing loving things or saying something winning about God. These spiritual-not-religious adults don’t want to hear about God at church, but they seem never to tire of hearing about God from their own children. These are the people who keep sending out the e-mails with “cute things kids say about God.”

“My kid said, ‘Mommy, I think God is like the rainbow.’ Can you believe the wisdom of that?” says the proud spiritual-not-religious parent. These people’s children are always theological geniuses.”

Something about her overall approach has turned me off.  Perhaps it was her response to Marcus Mumford’s cover story interview with Rolling Stone.

“I know what it feels like to want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word.

A few years ago, I grew tired of people claiming to be “spiritual—but not religious,” because I do not believe this is enough. In a culture of narcissism, religious community matters. In our “have it your way” spiritual marketplace, religious community that is rigorous, reasonable and real is still the most nutritious item on the menu.

Yet often when I say this, as a minister myself, it is received with howls of complaint from people who want to do the God thing solo.

Their argument goes something like this: I like the idea of Jesus but I can’t stand the Church. Therefore, I want to identify directly with the primary source, Jesus, rather than with the annoyingly fallible human beings who have tried to follow Him but failed.

They describe to me a personal privatized journey free of the sins of the historical Church but with a direct hook-up to the guy who got it all started. What all of this implies, however, is that the person who loves Jesus privately is somehow better at it than those who try to do it with other people.”

Even Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist on the Pantheos Blog Portal makes a good point:

“The problem isn’t that we look at Westboro Baptist Church, or conniving televangelists, or Ted Haggard and assume all Christians are just like them.

The problem is that we’ve seen the best of what Christianity has to offer and we still want nothing to do with it.

Too many “good” Christians still believe homosexuality is a sin.

Too many “good” Christians still believe women aren’t wise enough to make decisions about their own body.

Too many “good” Christians still believe in Satan, hell, heaven, miracles, prayer, and zombies.

Too many “good” Christians still believe Jesus is coming back in their lifetime.

Too many “good” Christians still believe the Bible reveals more truth than science and they want to rewrite school curriculums to say so. (Hell, nearly 80% of Americans believe in either Creationism or God-guided evolution.)

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned Mark Driscoll yet.”

For his part, Marcus Mumford (whose song Awake My Soul we will be singing later this month at my church) was asked in his Rolling Stone interview,

Does he still consider himself a Christian?

“I don’t really like that word,” he tells senior writer Brian Hiatt in his band’s first Rolling Stone cover story. “It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, ‘Jesus was awesome’ – they’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus. I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.” Mumford emphasizes that while his spiritual journey is a “work in progress,” he’s never doubted the existence of God.”

Perhaps the real issue here centers around two very different things:  God talk in America and increasingly around the world has been seen as an expression of the Christian Right, and the death knell for rock bands (even soulful rock bands) is being labelled in the so-called “Christian Rock” section.

Second question first.  What rocker with any amount of success wants to follow the path of the many promising and yet failed music careers of those whose careers was scrapped in the Christian Music Market.  I can’t blame him one bit for eschewing such a designation.

But yes, let’s admit it.  There is a genuine difference between the Christianity of rational fallacies, spiritual abuses, and political/communication empires of the patriarchal Religious Right and the Christianity of historical critical hermeneutics, inclusion of women and other sexual minorities in leadership, and progressive social justice agenda of the Religious Left.  But both groups are using the term “Christian,” a term first used of the followers of Jesus in Antioch, Syria in the first century.  After 2,000 years of schisms between East and West, Catholic and Reformed, and now Pentecostal, Mainline Liturgical, Dispensationalist, Emergent, Fundamentalist, Mainline Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, Eastern Orthodox of 13 varieties, as well as the big tent within the Roman Catholic Church’s expressions.

I don’t think that Pastor Lillian would argue with these differences, but why should she attempt to make anyone take on a label that they are no longer comfortable with?

Let’s admit it, there is a problem with the Church.  It’s not just that the church is dying, but there is such diversity among religious experience for so many people that finding a community that will usher someone into an experience of the divine is not always available right around the corner.  As a Pastor of a local ecumenical congregation and the Executive Director of our local Interfaith Council, I’ve seen some unique religious communities become regional rather than local churches.  But because it is difficult for congregations to survive without meeting the needs of their local communities, this has made it harder for these communities to survive in our latest depression.  (Ask your local church Treasurer whether this is a depression or not, I won’t argue it here.)

Apparently, after leaving the Vineyard movement’s dispensationalism Marcus isn’t willing to be associated any longer.  Still, you can’t escape the inherent spirituality that gets expressed in his music.

We also have to admit that for the last 50 years the church has been at the center of one of the largest cultural and religious wars we have seen since the Second Great Awakening (1830-50’s).  This time around, instead of arguing around just “historically theological” issues we have allowed the churches to have been drug through the wedge issues of the political parties on the issues of evolution, creationism, civil rights, abortion, immigration, women’s rights, housing rights, employment non-discrimination, marriage equality rights.  Some churches have even been conscripted into these debates by arguing that their “Religious Liberty” to discriminate in the public square has been restricted when they lose their federal grants for social justice programs when it doesn’t agree with their doctrines.  Can you tell the difference between the freedom of religion and imposing your doctrines on the whole country?  Social justice for all people is a different thing.  Keep doing that, but make sure it’s for all people – even LGBTQ families.

I think our culture has hit the height of its pendulum swing toward individualism.  I see good signs that we are ready to ride the pendulum back towards communitarianism.  Unfortunately, it is the economy that is forcing us into bartering and community sustainable agriculture, but perhaps we will use these new economies as a way to teach us how to create new communities.  Ironically, this has been the fodder for many Emergent communities who have found the call toward smaller, more informal and accountable communities so attractive.

We can admit that most of our churches are really country clubs full of the same kinds of folks.  But when we are ready to create truly inclusive communities with people of diverse thoughts and feelings, we may really then become the Church.  Pretending that this is available everywhere, especially for the musical child of Dispensationalist Pastors, is ludicrous.  While Lillian and I may pastor progressive congregations that have a history of social justice, liberation theology, and is conversant in inclusive theology, I have found that the group that has the hardest time being welcomed into my congregation are the newly out LGBTQ people from Fundamentalist and very Conservative church histories.  They love seeing other Gay and Lesbian couples worshiping together with a diverse racial-ethnic mix.  They experience our radical welcome, but some of them don’t know our theological language.  Some of them don’t stick with us long enough to learn it.

Church isn’t just a place where we “put up with each other.”  It’s a place where we are challenged into being the best follower of Jesus we can be.  If that’s the only title someone can accept at that particular moment, then so be it.  It took me six months of ministry to recognize that what I was being asked to be was an Interfaith Chaplain.  It opened a window into my ministry.  Titles don’t matter.  I can love the Taoist as much as I love the member of the Jesus Seminar.  I can minister to those who do Yoga every week as much as I can serve the traditionalist who cries when Mozart sings from our organ.  I can do Christian centering prayer along with my Buddhist friends.  I can love the Republican as well as the Democrat – though both groups have issues with me as a Green.  It’s all church to me and I don’t have to demand that any one of them calls themselves a Christian in order to be a part of the family.  I don’t think Jesus had such labels, and I don’t think we should either.

But here is the kicker for us at this moment in time.  How we talk about the SBNR will be a greater indicator as to whether they will feel welcomed in our midst when the pendulum swings back towards community.  We are in the midst of significant cultural, scientific and narrative change.  All of our institutions are in the midst of momentous change and transformation.  Perhaps when we have a common cosmology again there will be an opportunity to win back some of these hearts and minds.  Perhaps when the Church stops the physical and spiritual abuse of our colonial predecessors we can earn back the trust necessary to do real ministry.  Perhaps when the Church becomes followers of the ways of Jesus again – both as individuals and as congregations – then we will not have to endure the words of Mumford and Ghandi:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

It’s up to us, not those who struggle with us.  We must be the Christ, living for others and serving the world if we expect anyone else to take on the title.

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A Landmark Day For LGBTQQ Candidates for Presbyterian Ministry

Today, Sunday, July 10th, is a landmark day in the PC (USA) for many reasons.

What has received the most attention in the press and the social media outlets is the passing and implementation of Amendment 10-A, which returns the church to our historic pattern of recognizing the gifts officers bring to the church.  Since 1997, with the imposition of an unclear, and seemingly discriminatory paragraph into the church constitution, there has been an official excuse to discriminate against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer and Questioning candidates for ministry as Ministers, Elders, and Deacons.  What some saw as a clear reading of scripture that such officers in the church should be chaste in singleness (read celibate, despite the Confession’s multiple polemics against clerical celibacy), or defining covenant fidelity as only within a marriage between one man and a woman.  The way this paragraph was worded, it included defining anything which the confessions call sin as barring one from service in the church (such as usury, gluttony, avarice, etc.) though the intention was to bar the LGBTQQ community from open service in the church.  Of course, LGBTQQ people have always served the church, but they just couldn’t be honest about who they are and who they loved without putting themselves at risk of being censured or removed from office by the church courts if someone found out.  As you can imagine, this paragraph has kept many from keeping the 9th of the 10 commandments – not only for those who bear false witness against others – but also for those who have not felt safe to be honest about oneself.

Also approved at our last General Assembly was a hotly contested new Form of Government, or the governance portion of our church constitution.  Such changes to the constitution include a few legal changes, such as a change to preclude double jeopardy in our church courts.  But these changes also include a reclaiming of terms for our officers once used in the past as well.  The United Presbyterian Church (USA) used the terms Teaching Elders for pastors and Ruling Elders for those elected from the congregation to serve on the church Session (now a Council).  Deacons continue to be those officers in the church that serve the community through hospitality, support, and nurture.  Every member is a minister or servant of God’s purposes in the world.  At the reunion of the northern and southern strands of Presbyterianism in 1983, pastors were given the title of Ministers of Word and Sacrament.  Perhaps this title was used to emphasize their role in leading in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as being the primary teachers in their community.  Or perhaps, this title was used to bring the terminology of Pastoral leadership closer to those of our ecumenical partners whose clergy served in more sacerdotal (priestly) roles.  Whatever the case, I believe that the return to the historic terms of Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders is an important corrective to the “Clergy-Laity divide” to which many pastors have contributed, and so I as a Teaching Elder will celebrate this change.

But today also gives us a more important movement within the Spirit of God among us.  As one of the Gay Ruling Elders at the church in which I serve has noted on his Facebook page this morning, “Let the healing continue.”  Today also offers us the opportunity toward healing the church.  Over the years, I have seen over a dozen wonderful, creative, trained, Candidates for pastoral ministry in the PC (USA) (and more orthodox than I am) give up on their call among us not only because of the perceived constitutional barriers, but also because of the culture of fear and disdain which that part of the constitution has created among us.  By returning to our historical principles local congregations and presbyteries (regional bodies) – those governing bodies that know the candidates best – will now be able consider candidates based on their life and faith, their calling and discipleship, and their promise to live into the constitutional questions to which they vow.  It has always been a principle among us that congregations and presbyteries have the freedom to call those whom they feel called to serve them.  But by removing those discriminatory words noted above, we have allowed those congregations and presbyteries who choose to ordain and install an LGBTQQ Elder (Ruling or Teaching) or Deacon.  This moves the decision making back to the community in which the ministry of the person will be received.  This allows each of us to live out our freedom of conscience, so carefully preserved for individuals and congregations in our constitution.

But all of this context brings me back to my own experience of this last weekend.  From Thursday to Sunday, I was honored to be invited to meet and support a group of around 25 of our Presbyterian LGBTQQ Inquirers and Candidates for ministry at a rural retreat center in Colorado.  I am a member of the National Board of the More Light Presbyterians, a movement working for the full inclusion of all people in the church since Rev. David Sindt stood up at the General Assembly in 1974 with a sign that said “Is anyone else out there Gay?”  We at More Light Presbyterians have always worked with Presbyterian Welcome (NY City Area welcome ministry), That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS – begun with the ministry of Rev. Janie Spahr, Lesbian Evangelist and continuing under that apt leadership of Lisa Larges), and The Covenant Network of Presbyterians (organized to overturn G-6.0106b and work for equality for all in the church).  In this special weekend held each year (organized by Presbyterian Welcome), members of all of these groups together support those Inquirers and Candidates that have been most at risk of being ignored or excluded from leadership in the church.  We come together to hear each other’s stories, to support one another in whatever context we find ourselves, and to worship together.  As you can imagine, because not every congregation or presbytery is as supportive as another, strict confidence is kept about where each gathering occurs and those in attendance.

This year’s retreat was a special experience for us all, where hope, peace, and love were celebrated because of the possibility that Amendment 10-A (now G-2.0104b in the new Form of Government) will make a difference in the way we Presbyterians treat each other.  I heard that many of those who were close to giving up on the church, or thinking about continuing their ministry in the church as academics rather than in pastoral ministry, now find themselves reconsidering God’s calling on their lives given the new openness within the church.  While everyone’s story was different, a significant number shared the experience that the congregation in which they were born and baptized rejected them when they were honest about who they are or whom they love.  These are Seminarians who have studied our scriptures, and have a Reformed understanding of the theology of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the covenants that a congregation makes to welcome, accept, and nurture those who have come to maturity in the Sunday Schools and Youth Groups of our churches.  They have been to Triennium and they have served as Young Adult Volunteers around the world, and seek to give back the grace they have received to those around them.  The church at large needs to hear that these future ministers, who have read section G-4 on the Church and it’s unity and G-5 about Membership and Ministry in the church in our former Book of Order, have been rejected by their own church families – and biological families – for religious reasons.  While some of the Candidates have found the courage to find another congregation or presbytery in which start over (which can mean an additional 3 years or more of delay to one’s ordination process), others are fearful of trying again.  One only has to consider how many years Lisa Larges has been a Candidate in my own presbytery (since 1983) to conjecture about the number of baptismal covenants we as Presbyterians have not kept to our own children.

I trust that I understand many of the reasons and rationales of my colleagues who grieve at the passage of Amendment 10-A.  They have been articulated in my home Presbytery, as well as the Layman and Presbyterian Outlook.  Many of their views are ones I too have held at one time.  I  grew up as a Son of the Utah Pioneers, and was an active member of the LDS Church until a year after my two-year mission in New England came to a close.  I grew up with the strict gender norms of our U.S. culture, though women weren’t included in the formal leadership of the LDS faith.  I heard the biblical arguments against same-gender-loving people, but I also knew of a member of my Young Men’s group who had taken his own life because of the lack of options for his life.  After marrying Becky, two of our LDS nephews came out of the closet, and we found ourselves among their only supportive family members.  After our conversion to Protestantism, we swam in the waters of Radical Evangelicalism and eventually found a wonderful Welcoming and Affirming American Baptist Church where I felt the call to volunteer Youth Ministry.  A Youth Minister friend compelled me to consider a full-time position in Youth Ministry at FPC Salt Lake City.  While considering the position, I read the whole book of Confessions, and as I admitted to the group this weekend, when I got to the Confession of 67, I finally realized that I could be a Presbyterian.  I thought, “If this was a group centered about living out its faith in peace, justice, anti-racism, gender equality and love, then I was all for joining up.”  Of course, there are times since that initial reading of C67 that I feel as if there was a “bait and switch” based on my experience in the church, but this is still my church, and I will continue to live C67 out, despite the protestations of others in my presbytery, synod, or those throughout the church, for I find the ways and actions of Jesus of Nazareth expressed within that Confession like no other.

So, I understand those who see 10-A in the context of desiring to preserve biblical authority, but after this weekend I have to wonder if my colleagues understand the level of pain, oppression, grief, and even PTSD that members of the LGBTQQ experience when what is most natural about the way they love another child of God is described in terms of sin or abuse, rather than the ways that the ancients described the idolatry of worshipping foreign gods through temple prostitution in a Canaanite or Greco-Roman temple.  What was most interesting for me, as a now self-avowed “off the charts liberal” pastor in the church, was the high level of orthodoxy and connection to Presbyterian tradition that I found within these candidates for ministry.  I found men, women, and transgender siblings of every generation whose only goal is to live out their Reformed faith.  I found a community that is ready to live up to its own theology – and living faithfully together as colleagues with their straight siblings of every theological stripe.

While I hope my presence and support wash helpful to them, the blessing was all mine for the time I was able to spend with them.  Based on our larger group conversations, the plethora of ideas for new ministries shared over meals, and the depth of worship lead by these siblings in Christ, I have great hope for the future of our church, if we live into this considerable moment in our history together.

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What the PC (USA) confessions say about marriage

In December, 2009, Carmen Fowler, the President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and Executive Editor of its publications wrote an article in The Layman: Raising the Standard entitled “What the PCUSA confessions say about marriage.” (find the article at

In this article, Fowler uses the analysis of Alan Wisdom of the Institute of Religion and Democracy to note that the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s “General Assembly Task Force on Christian Marriage and Civil Unions ‘pays no attention to major sections on marriage in three of the church’s confessions.’

Portions of the Second Helvetic Confession (5.246), the Westminster Confession (6.131-.136), and one paragraph (9.47) of the Confession of 1967 were cited, all of which support heterosexual norms as expressed in Euro-American culture.

Fowler then writes,

“Our Confessions could not be more clear. We are not free to lead the people of God according to our personal preference or even our conscience. We are bound to lead the people of God according to the Scriptures, and our interpretation of the Scriptures is to be instructed by our mutually agreed upon confessional standards. I took a vow and so did you. As we consider the definition of marriage inside the Presbyterian Church (USA), let us be found faithful.” 

It is easy and convenient for Fowler to mention what the Confessions say about marriage, but she neglects what the scriptures themselves say, and leaves out an important part of the Confession of 1967, which also places marriage among those relationships within society where injustice and discrimination, both racial and sexual orientation discrimination, occur. The Confession of 1967 (9.44) reads,

a.   God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his (sic) reconciling love he (sic) overcomes the barriers between brothers (sic) and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men (sic) to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen (sic), however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.  

The way I read this, we are called to defend the civil rights of all people, including overturning the discrimination written into U.S. law with the “Defense of Marriage Act” which separates LGBTQ couples from the 1,138 Federal benefits and responsibilities that come with Federal recognition of their marital rights.  As American Christians, taking any other stance denies our equal protection under the law and the social equity and justice to which Jesus called us.  We already have good policies on employment and housing protection for LGBTQ persons in the PC (USA), but you wouldn’t know it since our policies haven’t been shared widely by the denominational leadership.

Fowler also fails to mention that the form of marriage that is almost a biblical universal is polygamy, specifically, patriarchal male polygyny (multiple wives).  Jews didn’t begin to decrease the practice until the 10th century CE, and then mainly in Europe.  While there is a complex polemic in scripture about how such polygamist families struggle to find harmony in such relationships, especially around legitimate heirs to the throne, the practice of polygamy explains Mark’s recognition of Jesus’ siblings, most likely by another of Mary’s “sister-wives.”

Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.”  (NRSV)

In fact, instead of marriage, both Jesus and Paul encourage celibacy  unless one cannot control their sexual urges.  See Matthew 19:10-14 and 1 Corinthians 7:8-9ff.  Marriage, then, was the backup position for the weak.

What Fowler and others argue with their facile conflations of scripture is a cultural argument to uphold heterosexual privilege and superiority.  To pretend that the scripture is univocal in its support of heterosexual monogamy is to impute one’s own cultural biases into not only the confessions, but our present conversation about the authority of scripture.  The scripture is the higher authority, after all, and if the confessions contain historic, cultural misconceptions about the meaning and forms of marriage in the Bible, then they must be reconsidered, first in the light of the love of Christ, and then in light of the witness of scripture.

This conversation is most meaningful right now as the Presbyterian Church (USA) is on the verge of removing the most discriminatory language in its Book of Order (part 1 of the constitution) which attempts to bar same gender loving people and people of minority gender identities and expressions from leadership in the church as Ministers, Elders, and Deacons.

As we stand at the precipice of ordination equality in the PC (USA), let us prepare our hearts as a denomination to extend the full hand of fellowship to our LGBTQ siblings by fully accepting and celebrating the baptismal covenant of each and every child, by blessing and rejoicing in the covenant faithfulness of all couples seeking marriage, and fully embracing the gifts of all those called by their congregation or Presbytery for service and leadership.

For then, we may just be able to express “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (G-1.0200)  For we are called as a church  to a new openness to its own membership, by affirming itself as a community of diversity, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, and conditions, and by providing for inclusiveness as a visible sign of the new humanity;”  (G-3.0401b)

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PresbyMEME: Why I am voting yes on Amendment 10a

Questions for the PresbyMEME:

As you know, I’m a Minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we have been debating the role and inclusion of LGBTQ persons since the early 1970’s.  Unfortunately, while this conversation has centered around who get’s to serve as leaders in the church, we have not had deep conversations about human sexuality, the diversity of sexual orientations (both historically and today), gender identity, gender expression, and those who are born with ambiguous genitalia, (who, a generation ago were just assigned a gender, but who, today are given more and more freedom to choose their gender identity).

I was fortunate enough to explore these questions in the safety of a seminary education and a diverse congregation whose loved ones stand up to include them.  I feel blessed to be better prepared to offer pastoral care that is more informed having learned from my LGBTQ siblings about their lives, hopes and dreams, their chosen families, and the blessing it is to be able to claim one’s identity for themselves.  If our church has any hope of living into our calling to be the Beloved Community, we have a long way to go.  My hope, as a husband, as a father, as a pastor, as a board member of More Light Presbyterians, is that we Presbyterians could be the family we say we are.  I have yet to see it, though I work and pray for such a kin-dom.

Thanks to Bruce Reyes-Chow for the invitation to participate in this meme.  You can see other, better responses at:

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