Jason Collins and the You Know What Hitting the Fan

Unless you have lived in some kind of media-sheltered cave this week, even if you aren’t the least bit interested in sports, you have heard about the “coming out party” for NBA player Jason Collins.  His big front page “coming out of the closet” article in Sports Illustrated hit news stands this week and it has been news worthy for all kinds of media outlets ever since.  The opening words of the article, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center.  I’m black.  And I’m gay,” sound the gong of new ground having been broken by homosexuals – Collins is the first openly gay athlete in any of the major American team sports leagues.  The major American sports leagues have been one of the last unploughed cultural frontiers in the drive toward cultural acceptance for homosexuals.  With the publication of Collins’s article, all hell has broken loose on that front.

At the risk of adding more noise to the cacophony this story has created, it does hit at the heart of where my study and thinking have been consumed over the past several months.  Over the winter, I talked with a well known blog about contributing articles at the intersection of sports and theology.  We were unable to put together a working relationship as I could not provide a definitive answer to my “stance” on homosexuality that they approved of.  Somewhere, those guys are breathing a sigh of relief after this article broke!  Next month I’m presenting a paper at the Christian Scholar’s Conference in Nashville, TN entitled “The Power of Sports: A Theological Inquiry into Sports as Exousia.”  In it, I argue that sports is best understood as a spiritual Power – the same rubric under which we would place politics, economics, technology, militarism, etc.  The furor created by the Sports Illustrated article illustrates the powerful and prominent position of sports in our culture.

Additionally, the Collins story has broken just one week after I authored the candid and provocative piece, “Does a Pastor Have to Have an Answer about Homosexuality?”  Ever since my first experience in ministry with teenagers, I have realized that this was the one issue that the church was not ready for . . . and I could hear the footsteps of culture alerting that we had better get ready.  The fight for the rights of homosexuals and their cultural acceptance has gone on unrelentingly for better than a decade now (though the real fight has been waging since the 1960’s.).  Collins acknowledges the recent burgeoning influence of acceptance in his article and how it has paved the way for him to go public, “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.”

There is so much to say about this, and there is no shortage of opinions around the world wide web and from television’s talking heads, but I am interested in mentioning a few ways as to how I believe Jason Collins’s story impacts the church as we attempt to catch up in our reflections on homosexuality.

First of all, this is simply another episode highlighting just how pervasive the homosexual orientation is.  Collins says that he’s 34, black, and gay – but he’s also huge (7 feet tall), articulate, funny, masculine, well educated (he went to Stanford), from a Christian home (he doesn’t state that he is a Christian in the article, but does say, “My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding,”), and, rather incredibly, has an identical twin brother who was unaware of his sexual orientation until last summer when his brother told him.  If nothing else, hopefully, Jason Collins can help us finally cast aside the preconceived notions that remain of homosexuals as only effeminate males and masculine females.  Clearly, one of the messages the church has to learn from Jason Collins is that our churches are comprised of men and women who have a homosexual orientation – they look like everyone else.

Secondly, as Collins states in the article, times are changing.  He says that he couldn’t have done this ten years ago, I think back to the climate in athletics when I was in high school twenty years ago (OK, not quite 20, but close enough!) . . . and to think that there would have been an openly gay player in the NBA – it would not have been believable (and it would not have been well received).  Christian alarmist will bemoan the changing culture and note how the culture is at war with the church and that we must hold true to the timeless teachings of the Bible.  I understand this concern.  I understand the great fear that comes from change.  However, as times change, our study of the Bible changes.  Maybe God’s Word does never change, but as we ask new questions of it, we may face new answers.  I am in the process of reading the book, God’s Gay Agenda, by the openly lesbian pastor, Sandra Turnbull, which I plan to review sometime next week here.  She’s got me thinking about things I’ve never thought about, even though they’ve been in the Bible the whole time I’ve been reading it and earning degrees studying it.  How often have we studied eunuchs in the ancient world?  What do they have to do with homosexuals?  I don’t know . . . I just know that I have spent a lot of time in theology classes and exegesis classes – and we’ve never touched on this one.  New times are forcing new questions upon us, and those new questions are bringing us to new places in the Scriptures.  People who are attracted to the same sex are beckoning the church toward a better understanding of them.  No matter what beliefs you may hold on the matter, can’t we at least agree that, unless you are attracted to the same sex to some degree, there is part of them we just don’t understand?

Finally, this discussion is important (maybe even crucial), but we must keep it in perspective.  Throughout the article, Collins makes the point that (almost defensively) he’s the same guy that everyone knew.  I love the “Three Degrees of Jason Collins” metaphor that he uses – Collins has had a long career in the NBA and has played for several different teams, so no one is separated from him by more than three degrees.  Now, everyone in the NBA is connected to someone who is openly gay.  And he’s been gay all along.  He has a great sense of humor (I love the message he sends to Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in the article – “Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.”  Being gay is part of Jason Collins, it is not his entirety.  One of the important things that church’s must realize in moving forward in this discussion is that sexuality has a place, but must never be at the center of our discussions.  From the way Christians often speak, you’d think that our sexuality was our identity.  Every gay person I’ve ever known has wanted what Jason Collins wants – “Know that I’m gay, but know that it doesn’t define who I am, no more than your heterosexuality defines you.”

That, I am afraid, may be our biggest obstacle.  One of my professors from Fuller, Dr. John Drane, who lives in Scotland, shared an article on Facebook last week about gender and sexuality and noted, “There’s a lot to like about this, but I still can’t get my head around why the main things Christians seem to obsess about nowadays are all about sex of one sort or another. What’s happened that we never hear much about that other three letter word, GOD – except, of course, when God is brought in to back up opinions on the aforementioned obsession with sex.”  Really, really well said.

So . . . if it hadn’t already hit the fan, it certainly has now.  What next, church?  How do we navigate this challenging way forward?  How can we have open conversations where we are free to disagree and diverge in our opinions, and yet still promote an openness that is immersed in grace?  How can we create atmospheres where homosexuals can feel free to talk openly about their struggles and challenges and not feel judged?  How do we address topis of sexuality, but not let them so consume us that we allow our conversations about God to go neglected? And, when push comes to shove, and the rubber meets the road, how do our churches minister to and alongside homosexuals?  Where is their place in our congregation?  We don’t have to have the answers to all of these questions, but we sure the hell better be ready to ask them.

Homosexuality: Does a Pastor have to have an Answer?

As a minister, you get used to hearing people ask you what you believe about all kinds of different issues.  This occurs from people within your church as well as people outside your church – from Christians as well as non-Christians.  Occasionally, I’ll even receive Facebook messages from high school friends and old acquaintances asking my opinion about certain matters – anything from doctrine to politics to current events to interior design – ok, that hasn’t happened, but just about everything else has!  Most ministers become adept at navigating their responses to delicate and controversial issues in order to convey their true feelings while also respecting a diversity of thought and opinion.  Some, like Patrick Mead, even offer an ongoing “ask the preacher” kind of format in his blog. No doubt, we all have our sacred cows and find it difficult to answer both honestly and succinctly to certain matters (just ask me about militarism), but by and large, this is something that comes with the territory and the title.  We are teachers.  Those who preach come from a long line of prophets and Christian leaders.  Our voices aren’t more important than anyone else’s – I firmly believe that – but our voices are often heard by more than others.  Even those of us who preach at small churches like mine carry some degree of influence.  Thus, people are genuinely interested in what we have to say.

Generally, I truly appreciate these inquiries and am humbled that anyone cares about my opinion.  I try to be a constant student, love learning, and make every effort to be as prepared for any question or discussion that may come my way.  The older I get and the more I study and learn – the more inadequate I feel and the more difficulty I have in offering short answers to just about any question.  I find I hate yes/no questions more than ever.  And the more I change my mind about things, the less certain I become about many of the beliefs I currently hold.

And so, inevitably, I find myself asked in different ways, under differing circumstances, and by a broad diversity of people what I believe about homosexuality and correspondingly what I believe the Bible teaches about homosexuality.  I have some pretty controversial perspectives on politics and nationalism (along with a few other things :-)) but I have become more afraid of tackling this topic than any other . . . by far.

If you are like me, you have a short attention span when it comes to reading blog posts and so, if you are truly like me, you probably won’t read this entire thing, because . . . if you’re like me, you can’t write shortly or succinctly about this one, but I’ll do what I can to offer what is at the heart of my struggle here.

In response to one of the most recent inquiries into my beliefs about homosexuality and Christianity and the Bible, I hemmed and hawed and finally said, “I don’t know.”  It wasn’t a cop-out and I wasn’t trying to avoid the discussion.  Honestly, I’ve been studying and thinking about this issue pretty seriously since 1998 when I was first exposed to teenagers who were wrestling with this issue.  I was pretty confused back then, and I find it discouraging that 15 years later, I’m still really confused and unsure.

And now everyone wants to know what I think – well, not everyone, but three or four people.  As of late, it’s become an explosive topic to discuss – even more than in the past.  I’m disappointed that more high profile pastors and Christian leaders aren’t having honest public discussion about the topic.  I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. I’m sure they’re scared to death to open this can of worms.  Sure, the boisterous voices on either the far right and far left of the issue are quick to throw out their zingers and offer their messages of condemnation or salvation, but just look at how many are really quiet.  My tradition is, admittedly, an interesting one, but we have our fair share of public figures, and I haven’t heard many of them address this topic head on.  Thank you for being an exception Sally Gary!

This post is already long, so let me get to the heart of things here.  You want to know my opinion about this matter?  I don’t know.  Honestly.  I don’t know what I believe about it.  I feel caught between a rock and a hard place in coming to terms with a theological articulation that I am comfortable with.  I’ll offer a point or two below to highlight why I don’t know, but first I want to ask the question, “Is it so bad that I don’t know?”  Haven’t we moved beyond the era where pastors and other teachers and leaders have to be “answer men/women”?  Haven’t we been wrong on enough matters to keep us from speaking too definitively on just about anything?  I know this scares the hell out of some people, but just look at the track record of the church.  We’ve been wrong . . . really, really wrong, on some crucial matters in the past.  Southern churches on slavery and later on civil rights, German Lutherans and their dual kingdom theology allowing them to turn the other way at Hitler’s rise to power . . . torture and execution of heretics . . . need I go on?

Even the Bible gets it wrong.  If you’ve never squirmed your way through some of the Old Testament passages that kicked the women out of the camp because they were on their period or that would offer a rapist the woman’s hand in marriage for a fee or read the book of Joshua and considered the countless women and children that were murdered at the hands of God’s people, you have skipped over the icky parts.  Maybe I’m overstating it to say that “the Bible gets it wrong” . . . but my point is that it’s not like this sacred book that we all point to for guidance and truth can just be picked up preached without some unpacking.

For this issue of homosexuality, there’s a lot at stake, and I understand that’s why it’s so explosive.  All wrapped up in this matter are the issues of politics, the sacredness/sacrament of marriage, equality, rights, biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), your view of Scripture, your view of the state, love, parenting, creation, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, science, genetics, and probably a thousand others I’ve overlooked.

And I don’t know what to do with it all.  Theologically and hermeneutically, I struggle to make homosexuality “fit.”  There’s a lot at stake in order for me to make it “fit,” and slowly around me some of those troubles are beginning to fall away.  However, for good or for ill, I remain reluctant to make that jump.   Experientially, I struggle to make the prohibition of homosexuality “fit.”  Friends, companions, and conversation partners I have had in the past and currently have help me struggle through their created nature.  Why would they have feelings like this?  Why would God make them like this?  What does it mean?  It is like other struggles (alcoholism, etc.) but it’s not the same.  Not by a long stretch.  And so . . . what to do?

I have a good friend who is transgendered and, whether she knows it or not, is helping me think through this as well.  When I say alot is at stake, this comes front and center in the matter of gender identity.  The first question we ask upon a child’s birth is, “Is it a boy or a girl?”  It’s the fundamental black and white question in our society.  But what about when it’s not black and white?  What about when we understand gender as more than anatomical?  When that question becomes complicated, that seems to make the point that everything is complicated.

There are so many related issues under the rubric of homosexuality and I am far from prepared to delve into even a few of them.  For now, I am prepared to let you know that I don’t know.  Many, maybe even most, will look at that as being “soft.”  A cop out.  Wimping out.  Maybe it is.  Maybe I am.  I do believe that most of what I am hearing and reading about regarding the matter of homosexuality from professed Christians isn’t helping anyone.  It’s often vitriol, judgmental, and condescending.  I know that all of it isn’t and that we are becoming more adept at public discourse regarding the issue, but we have a long ways to go.

I also know that there are many Christians who are struggling through this matter.  I know many of them are not in churches that allow them to share openly and honestly the struggles that comes with these feelings and, perhaps, being in these relationships.  I know that I don’t understand what they are going through.  I want to empathize, and try as much as I can, but I don’t understand their struggles.  I am full of my own struggles and know the temptation of pornography, short skirts, and tight shirts.  I know the power of libido and confess my own shortcomings in taking captive those thoughts to Christ.  And I know that I am not in a position of being your judge, and hope that these people can find friends and companions that will help them navigate these challenging waters.  I hope to provide some additional posts in the coming weeks into some of my struggles through this issue, but as for now, I just wanted to say to all those who want to know what I think about homosexuality: “I don’t know.”

Ke$ha the Prophetess?

If I could go back and hang out with some folks from the Old Testament, I think I would have to pick one of the prophets.  I just love how “in your face” they were . . . not to mention how irreverant and crass they were (inspiring my Twitter handle @Crasslyyours).  Whether they’re lying down on their side for a year, running around naked, cooking dinner over poop, or making little figures out of play dough – these were some weird folks!  I’m trying to convince my wife that not getting a haircut is my God-given calling as a prophet of the Lord . . . and currently that argument is not going so well – at least I don’t cook dinner over the toilet.

Now, I don’t really think Ke$ha is a prophet, but she is weird and she is in your face.  She sings . . . or raps . . . or whatever it is she does, with the swagger and crassness that has almost always been reserved for men.  By all accounts she’s trashy (even if she is super smart – she scored 1500 on her SAT and has an IQ of 140 . . . but apparently missed the health classes on STDs and the effects of alcohol abuse) and annoying as she has turned the $ sign into the 27th letter of the alphabet.  However, she has also captured something in the hearts of adolescents that has made her music crazy popular.  She’s smart . . . and she’s talented.

Her most recent hit captures the heart and soul of youthful zeal and carefree living even in the title, “Die Young.”

Strangely, in kicking the year off with a study of Ecclesiastes, our church wound up humming the words to this Ke$ha song.  OK, we didn’t actually hum the words and I was too much of a chicken to actually play the song (that whole “magic in your pants is making me blush” part made me think it a bit inappropriate), but I read the following lyrics:

Young hearts, out our minds
Runnin like we outta time
Wild childs, lookin’ good
Livin hard just like we should
Don’t care whose watching when we tearing it up (You Know)
That magic that we got nobody can touch (For sure)

Looking for some trouble tonight
Take my hand, I’ll show you the wild, side
Like it’s the last night of our lives
We’ll keep dancing till we die.

Most of the time, churches stay away from the Book of Ecclesiastes like it is the plague.  If you do a little research into Ecclesiastes you find that it’s always been like that.  Even the great rabbinic schools of old – Hillel and Shammai were divided about what to do with it – Hillel thought that the message of Ecclesiastes was so troubling it “defiled the hands.”  At Alum Creek this January, we have chosen to study the book through the prism of transitions.  As the writer looks back at his life, he’s really reflecting on the many changes that have taken place in his life: getting older, his family, his job, etc. and through it all, he’s trying to make sense of it.  Why am I here?

The difficult part of reading Ecclesiastes is that it doesn’t really give a good solid answer.  Depending on where it is you happen to be reading, it can sound a whole lot like a Ke$ha song (though the text does not include “wild childs, looking good” – that is not good Hebrew).  Notice the connection between “Die Young” and this portion from Ecclesiastes 9: 1 – 7

“So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.”

When we read the Bible, we like the message to come wrapped up nicely with a bow on it (and probably a cherry on top, to boot).  Most sermons are like that.  What I have enjoyed about preaching through Ecclesiastes is that a lot of times there is no nicely-wrapped ending each week.  Ecclesiastes is authentic as it helps us wrestle with the ebbs and flows of life.  As the all too inappropriate SNL sketch tells us, “This here is real.”

I don’t know what to do with Ke$ha’s song and her less-than-stellar message.  At the same time, I hear in her message the same cry from the writer of Ecclesiastes, struggling with the confusion and challenges of being young . . . or old . . . or middle-aged . . . There is something to be said for living like we’re young  Sometimes I think Christians would do well to kick back on a Ke$ha song once and while and just . . . have fun.

Would Jesus Christ Have Gotten his Conceal to Carry Permit?

The gun control debate is dominating the blogosophere lately and this question has popped into my head a few times.  Really, I don’t have any really strong feelings about gun control.  I think there are too many guns in the world and I would like to see fewer of my Christian brothers and sisters talk about them as if they are sacred, but as it stands as a political conversation, I think the whole debate is muddied by politics, dirty money, and . . . well, crazy people.

Guns mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  I live in a part of the country where hunting is a huge deal.  Hunters love their guns.  I’ve never been a big fan of hunting and am not sure I could kill an animal with dry eyes, but I respect their rights to want to hunt (hey, at the end of the day it keeps fewer deer from my front fender).  I am also coming to better understand the urban culture of protection and defense better.  Professional athletes have largely opened our eyes to their need to feel “protected.”  My house has never been broken into.  I have never been held at gunpoint or knife point . . . so who’s to say that wouldn’t change my mind about everything.

IT’S OUR RIGHT!  IT’S ONE OF OUR LAST LIBERTIES!  These are the kinds of things I hear Christians saying and see them writing about in their public forums.  I put it caps because more times than not they seem to be yelling.  To say it is a passionate base would be an understatement.

But today, I conjure up the spirit of Charles Sheldon and his century-old quandary of “What Would Jesus Do?”  One of the chief problems of Sheldon’s question is that it sets us up to create a Jesus who looks a lot like ourselves.  None of us are very good at seeing Jesus at odds with our own personal beliefs and stances.  He lived in such a different time and era, this question often serves as a more of a red herring than anything significantly contributing.  But, when it comes to America’s love of guns, I think it is a valid question to ask.  Would Jesus get his conceal to carry permit?  Would he feel the need to protect himself just in case he was threatened?  If someone tried to kill him?  We need good guys to use guns to stop the bad guys . . . so the logic goes.

And this is where the Bible gets tricky.  We want to uphold Jesus as moral exemplar . . . while at the same time acknowledging that . . . well, he was Jesus.  So, we cut ourselves slack at times and provide caveats for following his example.  The prospect of more and more innocent Christians throwing their bodies in front of firing weapons is disgusting and seems to prove the aforementioned point.  Unless someone stoops to the level of the shooters, how will they ever be stopped?

I understand these questions, and I respect their motives.  And yet . . . it’s hard to see Jesus strapped with a pistol to the inside of his robe.  I think even the most robust Christian gun-lover would have to admit that – it’s hart to picture.  It’s hard to picture him raising his eye to the sight of an assault weapon.  It’s hard to see him defending himself when he was attacked . . . be cause he was attacked . . . and he DIDN’T defend himself.  It was part and parcel with his message.

John Howard Yoder and others talk of the power structures of our world being organized and ordered by God, but not necessarily meant for Christian participation.  Perhaps the only way to stop a tragedy like those that have happened in recent months is to fight force with force.  But this is not the way of Jesus.  It’s fallout from a Fallen world – and it is not meant for the Christian.  We must believe that Jesus’s death was not simply a one time redemptive event (thought it was that), but that it was also an example of what the new kingdom looked like.

I don’t have strong feelings at all about gun legislation.  I think that discussion exists as much to distract us from reality as much as anything.  My concern is for the tone and rhetoric used by Christians when speaking of weapons.  Perhaps asking Would Jesus have gotten his conceal to carry permit is too far afield and instead we should be asking How would Jesus talk about guns?  How would he talk about the “right to bear arms” . . . we all realize that that’s not in the Bible, right?

Why I’m (Still) a Member of the Church of Christ

ImageLast week I began asking some friends and acquaintances to share their perspectives as to why they remain a part of the group of churches known as the Churches of Christ.  I have begun receiving their answers via email and will be posting here in the coming weeks – hopefully about two every week.  I very much appreciate everyone’s time and energy spent on this request and look forward to the dialogue that follows (sorry I didn’t interact with the comments from the previous post – that will change). I am going to officially kick the series off today by offering my perspective as to why I stick around these churches.  (Though, full disclosure entails that I share up front that they pay me – so let’s not deny that this isn’t a factor!) ImageFirst, let me offer some broader perspective of who the “we” are that this series is talking about.

Through my years of living and interacting within this Christian tribe, I have determined the best word to describe us is “enigmatic.”  I have a tendency to embrace uniqueness, so I may be overstating it a bit, but my interaction with other Christian groups has reinforced the fact that we are a pretty weird group.  The fact that there even is an “us” is sociologically quirky in itself.  There is nothing determinative that we comprise a unique sociological ecclesial structure. We have no formal denominational headquarters or make up.  We have no clerical or professional order.  We have been anti-credal since our beginning.  Our connections with one another are loose at best.  And yet, we’ve managed to comprise some sense of an identity.  We have our own insider’s language and relative doctrinal consistency.  While there is certainly diversity, it probably doesn’t exist to the degree that we would like to believe.

We have fundamentalist tendencies, at times, but aren’t fundamentalist.  We have the feel of Quakers, but aren’t Quakers.  We often times look like card-carrying Evangelicals, but don’t quite fit that bill either (you can see a treatment of that in the book Evangelicalism & The Stone-Campbell Movement).  We are significantly rooted in the South and throughout the Bible Belt, but have some interesting outliers (like Pepperdine).  Like most “reform” movements, we haven’t tended to play well with others, often leaving us largely isolated from broader theological and ecclesiological conversations.  And, probably no one would argue, we have seen significant changes to this Movement in the past ten to fifteen years.  So . . . why is it that I stick around this enigmatic group?

Image

While the above cartoonist wasn’t referring to the “Church of Christ” specifically in this cartoon, it certainly resonates with me.  So why choose to stay around here?

I suppose the simplest answer as to why I’m a member of the Church of Christ is that my mom is.  That’s how I was raised.  I’ve never traced the Church of Christ lineage back in my family, but I know it goes through my mom’s family in Lima, OH, and we are one of the only families I’ve met that doesn’t have a Southern connection somewhere.  I’d love to go on some long rant about how I went and tried all other Christian brands and other faiths and found them wanting only to return – but in reality, I think I still find myself here because that is where I am comfortable, and some way, some how, the providence of God has seen fit to form his relationship with me in this context.

Looking at the surface, it’s easy to argue for providence.  I grew up in a tiny Church of Christ in Defiance, OH – the only one in the county.  There is a quirky little chart in Mac Lynn’s compilation of Churches of Christ (the 2000 version is the most recent I have) that shows the most populous counties in the U. S. without a Church of Christ.  The list contains about 100, and of those 100 you’ll find Williams, Van Wert, Henry, Putnam, and Shelby counties in Ohio, and Adams county in Indiana  – each of these counties are within 60 minutes of where I grew up.  The two Churches of Christ in Defiance and Paulding counties (my mom now goes to Paulding) are the only Churches of Christ in a six-county area of Northwestern Ohio.  You can imagine that we might have been a little backwards.  All the same, some way, some how, God chose to place me in this quirky little group and has formed my faith in him here.

The Defiance Church of Christ had their 50th anniversary celebration a few years ago and they had some former ministers come back and speak at a special weekend event.   I wasn’t invited.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never been invited to speak there since I’ve started working again in Ohio (that goes back to 2003).  We’ve never spoken of it, but I think they realize that we see things quite a bit differently.  Some of the leaders (read: men) see that as threatening, and so – it is what it is.  I’m not bitter, but I think it is a good testimony to the acrimonious environment that governs many churches in that area.  I attended Lipscomb University between 1997 and 2003 and worked for a Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, and was exposed to the other end of the Church of Christ spectrum.  Suddenly, I was living in an area that had a Church of Christ in every nook and cranny of the city.  I worked for the West End Church of Christ for about four years while I was there.

My journey within the Churches of Christ went through the usual season of disillusionment, in my early 20’s, as I was finishing college and beginning my ministry at Alum Creek (where I am now).  The church in Defiance has some extreme dysfunction – dysfunction that extends well beyond the Church of Christ name.  It took me awhile to separate the two.  All churches have dysfunction – few would argue against that point.  Allowing myself to sift through the dysfunction and find the salvageable pieces has led me to a reinforced confidence of why I stick around “our” churches.

The greatest thing I learned in the church of my youth was a love for the Bible.  I was taught to cherish and learn all I could about the Bible.  And I did.  I remember diligently reading the Bible on my own even though that was never modeled in my home.  I loved learning the stories – we didn’t start regularly attending until I was close to 11 or 12, so I had missed out on all the VBS-like stories everyone had learned.  That steadfast commitment to the Bible has always stayed with me.  I may not agree with alot of the conclusions my faith mentors promote, but I diligently share in their high view of the Bible.  It’s hard to find a Church of Christ that doesn’t hold a high place of Scripture.

I don’t think we have the corner on the Bible, like I used to, but I think that we do well upholding the Word of God as precious and unique.  I like that it gives us a reference point that many denominations lack.

I resonate well with our view of the sacraments (though we would never call them that).  Communion and baptism are so central to the story of God, and I appreciate our theology of these two.  I’ve had to wrestle a bit with our baptismal theology, and I’m probably not able to unilaterally endorse the exclusive salvific focus that we tend to have – I still think it is so essential and see great benefit in a perspective that emphasizes believer’s baptism over infant baptism.  The weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is being re-discovered by many denominations – it’s nice to be part of a group that has practiced that for a long time.

There are few Christian groups that live out the Reformation doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”  My doctoral paper this month is going to be in this vein.  I believe that we may be living in a time when this doctrine will come more fully to bear than ever before – and I believe that churches like ours have an easier time assimilating this idea into practice.  While I would never want to give up the unique calling that I have as a vocational pastor/minister, too many Christian groups have created a chasm and the professionalization of ministry has created a new nuance between clergy/laity that I hope we can continue to avoid. The Churches of Christ may have a tendency to not fully appreciate gifted preachers, teachers, and writers, but we have been able to leave a place for most everyone at the table of leadership (except women . . . which many of us are working on . . .)

I’ve already rambled on way more than I’ve allotted my guest columnists in coming days so I should wrap up here.  The greatest attribute I see in the Churches of Christ and what keeps me most optimistic is our autonomy.  As the missional conversation of the past decade has emphasized a focus on local contexts, our churches should be fully equipped to jump right into this.  While groups like the Southern Baptists are autonomous, they carry with them the baggage of the denominational hierarchy and bureaucracy (it’s not that that is all bad, but for the sake of this perspective, it’s more of an obstacle to local ministry) our churches are truly “locally owned and operated.”  The more we can embrace that self-identity, the better prepared we will be to engage in ministry.

In the end I see the people and congregations I have been a part of within the Churches of Christ like good parents.  They haven’t been perfect.  They haven’t always made the right choices.  They aren’t always going to affirm the direction that I choose to go.  But they are largely the reason I am the way that I am.  The positive seeds of a high view of Scripture, the emphasis on simple worship (Richard Beck calls acappella music “theologically weird” – I love that image), the autonomous structure, the Anabaptist tendency towards pacifism, the radical insistence on the priesthood of all believers – these are all values I have learned from my Church of Christ parents.

That doesn’t mean everyone espoused those beliefs.  That doesn’t mean that each of these views was articulated.  But it’s alot like the influence of my real parents – sometimes they articulated what they wanted to impress on me, sometimes it was implicit, and often they didn’t even realize it when they were doing it or what it was they were impressing upon me.  I have taken what they have given me, and I am living out my faith as best I know how.  It wasn’t always evident growing up, but I think most of the folks who I attended church with wanted more than anything else for me to have a relationship with Creator of the Universe.  Like a parent who is left to watch their child blaze his or her own trail and pray that they have done what they were supposed to do, I believe that those within the Churches of Christ are in a good position to do  the same – “Let’s pray that we have given them what they need to live into the kingdom in his or her own way.”

Christmas Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

There is no mistake in your blog feed – I have a new post for my three followers to peruse!

Christmas is one of my favorite time s of the year.  My family was always able to make it a special time when I was a kid, and that has carried over to when I had a wife, kids, and family of my own.  Christmas was a time my mom worked hastily in the kitchen making candy and cookies that have helped keep my blood sugar and cholesterol high.  It was a special time with our family.  We had our traditions, and for the most part they revolved around family.

Christmastime has become even more special now that I have my own family.  Mary Beth and I were married a week before Christmas.  At first I kind of hated it since there are so many other things going on that time of year, but it has become a special part of our tradition to celebrate in the midst of a celebratory time of year.  There are even more opportunities for things for us to do than there would be if we had gotten married during another time of the year.  Then, just because that wasn’t enough, Clark’s birthday is January 7, so we kind of start the celebrating a week early, and keep it going a week after New Years.  So . . . Christmastime has a special places for the Metzes.

The reality of the religious significance of Christmas has played a pretty minor role in our family until more recently.  Nativity scenes were looked upon as way too Catholic for my family growing up, and we regularly heard sermons about how “We celebrate Christ’s birth every day.”  That may have been the case, but December 25 seemed to be one day we were definitely NOT going to celebrate Christ’s birth.

As I have grown, I have found an appreciation for the Christian piece of the holiday.  Our church has embraced the significance of the celebration by catering our services to the Nativity accounts during Advent, and we have conducted a Christmas Eve service for several years.  That, too, has become an important part of our Christmas traditions.  Our kids have a nightly ritual of opening a door on an advent house to reveal a piece of the nativity which presents us a chance for a daily reminder of Christ’s birth.

I say all of this to make my point that I am in no way a Christmas scrooge.  No matter what your perspective is regarding this holiday, I probably can empathize with you.  There are times when I want to scrap the whole thing as irredeemably commercial.  There are times when I want to learn from my Catholic friends and integrate the high ecclesiology and reverence that I so often lack.  There are times when I am just overwhelmed by gifts and “stuff” and all that and think we should “occupy Christmas.”  There are times when I am encouraged and inspired by the generosity and gratitude of others.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is a great time to look in the mirror – Christmas really is a mirror.  Our thoughts and emotions during this time of year are indicative of who we really are and where our faith really is.  Those who are especially dogmatic about not celebrating Christ this time of year often have so elevated dogmatism and doctrine that they can lose the relational and celebratory side of faith.  Those who are especially dogmatic about celebrating Christ this time of year may be guilty of under-appreciating his birth throughout the year and instead attempt to take their “Jesus” pill in a big dose this time of year.  Those who speak loudly against commercialism this time of year can fall into the trap of not appreciating a God who gives freely and appreciate the gifts and things we are blessed to have.  Those who indulge into the throes of debt and become overwhelmed by shopping malls and their online orders this time of year can equally miss the point of being satisfied in Christ alone.  Me personally – I think I fall guilty on each account at some point.

Any missions class begins with the idea of cross-cultural engagement.  If you desire to reach a people group/culture, you have to learn their language, learn their customs and traditions, learn how they work, and what makes them tick.  You have to learn to love them for who they are and what they do – not as potential “converts.”  Did Jesus set out to convert anyone?  Seems to me what he offered was “life” (John 10:10 anyone).  He offered the kingdom – a new way of living and seeing life now – not some kind of fire insurance for the future.  This way of life impacted the way they lived here and now.

Christmas is a time to celebrate.  It is a time when our culture chooses to celebrate.  I understand it is not this way for everyone – and that is a different topic for a different day.  But, whether it’s Hanukkah, Kwanza, winter solstice, most of our culture chooses to celebrate in some way.  It seems to me that one of the most detrimental things we could do is sit back with our arms crossed and say, “We can’t do this.  This is just too messy.  This isn’t biblical.”  Or whatever other reason we may offer.  Instead of yelling what we’re against, what if we went out of our way to engage the culture, to show why we can celebrate, to show how much fun we can be – an why!  Certainly, we can live among this culture as aliens and strangers and find ways to celebrate alongside those in our culture while not imbibing in paganism or hedonism.

We tend to be most critical of the things that are closest to us, and I think that is largely where many of us fall when it comes to talking Christmas.  It’s such an easy target. And perhaps, that is where our look into the Christmas mirror can reveal something important to us.

Mary Beth and I were able to spend several days in New York City at Christmastime last year.  Having heard about the mystique of the City for years, it was incredible to be able to experience it ourselves, and I feel as though we walked around every day and took in all the “pagan” aspects of the season: from the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center to ice skating in Central Park (OK, we didn’t actually ice skate but we saw other doing it!), and went to Mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral .(not pagan, obviously 😉 . . . and like Paul in Athens, saw alot of yearning and wonderful God-desires manifested in different ways.  As citizens of the kingdom, we celebrated our freedom and our life and the grace we have received everywhere we went.  We hope that we can continue to do that in whatever way we choose to observe (or not) the Christmas season.

Pondering Rob Bell, Ishmael, and the Non-Elect

Rob Bell has been the most recent Christian to stir up the challenging task of relating the Christian message in a pluralistic world.  Just sniffing around at this issue is enough to draw ire from many Christians.  Bell has certainly lit a firestorm amidst the blogosophere.  What I’ve been encouraged about, and what really is one of the merits of our times, is that his book has opened the discussion (or really just advanced it).  Most people have used his book to open the topic – one desperately needed for our times.

Ever since reading Leslie Newbiggin in seminary, this issue has really resonated with me.  Newbiggin’s work has really opened the can for the current discussion.  If you haven’t read Foolishness to the Greeks, or his best known book The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, you’ve missed a really important voice in this area.  John Hick’s inclusivism (Christian universalism) has always been appealing to me, but I’ve just never been able to get there theologically.  Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and his idea of the “anonymous Christian” has helped ease my mind somewhat, but, in large part, I remain confused and unsure.

Which brings me to Ishmael.  I understand the great impulse of the Great Commission to go into all the world, I get that, I respect that, and I want to honor that.  For me, that is one end of the theological balance.  Certainly, Paul, Peter, etc. had a passionate desire for Christ to be preached.  However, the story of Ishmael causes me a bit of a theological crisis here.

We’re studying Genesis on Sunday mornings, and any time I come to the story of Ishmael, I become conflicted.  More than anything, I feel for Hagar.  The poor and marginalized woman brought into this mess by the underdeveloped faith of Abraham.  And yet, it is so strange what happens to her and her son.  God blesses them.  And this is no old-grandmother-blessing-you-at-the-table kind of blessing.  This is the real deal!  Have you read it lately?

“Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”  The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”  (Genesis 16: 9 – 10 and then later when they are sent away, “Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”  (Genesis 21: 20)

What?  Ishmael will be blessed beyond measure?  A great nation?  These are the same promises that were given to Abraham . . . father of the Jews . . . father of Christians.  I admit to not having studied this at great deal, so I am speaking out of ignorance here (even more than usual!), and I know there is a great connection with Ishmael and Muslims.  So . . . what are we to do here?  I am not interested in the Muslim connection, but rather the theological foundation at play here.  I think Walter Brueggemann is dead on here, which has partly led to my theological crisis: “God’s concern is not confined to the elect line.  There is passion and concern for the troubled ones who stand outside that line.”  (p. 153 from his Interpretation Series Commentary on Genesis).

“God’s concern is not confined to the elect line.”  I wonder how many non-Christians would believe those words would come from the lips of a Christian.  NT Wright has a really interesting video over at the Altar Video Magazine site that I find interesting and relevant: see here.

Like I said, I’m not sure where I’m at with all this stuff.  You can throw your accusations out and I’ll just avoid them, not just to avoid them, but because I’m just not sure.  I have really appreciated the dialogue recently.  Above were some of my more structured ideas, but below are some more scattered questions and thoughts that have been bouncing around lately:

– The more determined we become to isolate salvation to a moment, the more challenging it becomes.  I’ve been thinking about this at nursing homes.  Most Christians I know understand the mentally handi-capped and severely mentally ill to be under the auspices of grace.  But how does that work for all those nursing home patients who have slowly deteriorated?  “They had their chance and now it’s gone?”  I’m just not sure how to deal with this intersection of life and death/body and spirit.  It seems like we paint a picture of God who is cruel when we imagine a God who sits around waiting for these mentally-incapacitated patients to die off so they can go to hell.  Maybe that’s too harsh a way of putting it, maybe he’s grieving them all along, but then why is there nothing to be done for their soul at this point?

– A Bible passage that has really convicted me lately is Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heven give good gifts to those who asks him?  So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . .”  It’s an interesting line of logic.  We have these impulses towards good, imagine God’s!  I’ve never heard this applied to the topic at hand, but it seems relevant.  If I can imagine a world that is good and where a man is forgiven for his crimes rather than punished to death, why couldn’t God?  After all, as Matthew teaches, I am evil.  Imagine how great his illustration of grace would be!  While I haven’t read it yet, I get the idea that this is the gist of Rob Bell’s book.

– Also, there’s all those people who were living all around the world at the time that Jesus walked the earth.  What about the ancient Eastern cultures?  Do they simply represent a long line of hell-bound people who were never within the influence of Israel, and who, until the apostles reached them were condemned to hell?  With the above point in context, it just seems hard to swallow.

– But, I should end that there’s the other end of the theological balance to wrestle with as well.  So many of those early disciples gave their life for the faith.  Even today around the world, martyrs abound.  What are we to say of them?  The Bible itself shows them in a special light.  I think sometimes we are mistaken to believe that we can all just gather around the campfire at night and sing Kumbayah and “Imagine” with John and Yoko.  This is where realism slides into idealism.  There are missionaries all the time risking their lives.  There are Christians dying for their faith.  And then theirs Ishmael . . .

Would Jesus Say the Pledge of Allegiance?

I’ll go ahead and say it – I’m biased.  So are you.  I wish I could just set aside my bias and look at things from a purely absolute kind of way – that’s just not possible.  So . . . admitting my bias up front, I make this statement: I just cannot picture in my mind Jesus Christ himself – the Son of God and our Savior – standing up with crowds in the community, placing his hand over his heart, looking upward toward the stars and stripes and reciting the following words (remember, the Son of God . . . saying these words? . . . )

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I’ve had this conversation with countless people.  Hardly any agree with my position, and few understand where I’m coming from.  I just don’t think Jesus would have been able to get past the first two major clauses.  Can you see a red letter edition of the Bible with the words, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands”?  Jesus’ allegiance was clearly not to Rome . . . or even to Israel.  He didn’t come as a zealot to fight the government by force, but he just as clearly did not come acquiescing his politick through syncretistic approaches.

I suppose the argument comes that perhaps America is a “less bad” nation than Rome so we have an exemption.  That if Jesus were American born and had been part of a government “by the people, for the people” that that would have changed everything.  And that is something we just can’t know for sure.  I have my bias there, and you have yours.  My chief aim of concern is whether or not Jesus wants us offering our allegiance to anyone, anywhere.  To an extent this can call into question our allegiances to sports teams, universities, regions of the country, products we buy, etc.

Pretty much everyone I have had this conversation with believes they can offer their pledge to the government but it’s just not as central/important/meaningful as their pledge to God.  I see where they are coming from . . . I just can’t get there myself.  As I’ve often stated, there is much to be thankful for in this country, and certainly God has blessed it.  Maybe he’s blessed it because there were some God-fearing members among the Founders.  He’s also blessed it in spite of a great deal of misgivings and atrocities.

It’s certainly un-American, but not un-Christian to remind people today that this nation was founded on the pursuit of freedom and liberty and all of those oft-quoted important qualities – but it was also built on the annihilation of entire nations of American Indians and on the backs of enslaved blacks.  And how tired people grow of hearing this reality . . . but how can a Christian ever ignore it and act as if it was just collateral damage in some great Christian plan?  How can the Christian believe that the God of all people inspired this wonderful nation’s creation to come at the obliteration of entire cultures of people?  How are we to interpret this history as Christians?  Is this simply collateral damage?  Is this simply the “cost of freedom”?

I don’t have a sufficient answer here.  You can quickly turn to the Old Testament and illustrate to me how God often poured out his wrath on his people through the military conquest from foreign nations.  You can show me the atrocities that were done at God’s request.  I don’t understand those texts.  I suppose here I am left to vacillate.  I can appreciate the other perspective here.  However, the God that Christ showed me in the New Testament highlights that my role is not in condoning or participating in such fallen powers.  I will let God do what God is going to do, and stay faithful to my calling as a citizen of the kingdom.  At this point I am left with two options – either the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament (the Marcionite heresy), or Jesus was furthering the revelation of the Old Testament – again, don’t understand it, but I certainly can’t picture Jesus obliterating men, women, and children in the conquest of Canaan.

Last night as I flipped through the television channels in a few moments of “down time” I came across the fiery and well known preacher John Hagee.  He was in the midst of retelling the story of George Washington from Valley Forge noting how incredibly evident it was that God was with him.  He interchanged biblical texts and early American documents with such ease it was difficult to know which was which.  He received a roaring applause of approval at his calls that “It took sacrifice and commitment to fight off tyranny then, and it will take the same to fight off the tyranny in Washington today!”  The co-opting of the kingdom of God could scarcely be plainer.

As Christians, it is our belief that God is in control of history.  Our belief in Scripture assures us that God will redeem and renew this world – with or without our help.  It is time for Christians to make that their rallying cry during election time.  Let the apocalyptic message of Revelation pervade our politics instead of the constant call for “moral values” or “winning America back” or whatever other token phrase may arise.

It’s my least favorite time of the year – election time – where the idolatry of American Christians is as prevalent as ever.  We are called to be the colony of Christ-followers living out a subversive faith with no political allegiance – not morally-equipped powerbrokers ready to take back the government for God . . . my understanding of sovereignty says it’s already his . . .

A New Beginning: Theological Vacillation

Welcome to the second chapter of my blogging life.  I began blogging in 2004.   The blog is entitled God, Superman, and the Buckeyes – kind of a collection of musings on my favorite three areas of life.  Inevitably, however, my time was more devoted to thoughts on God and theology than any of the others.  The blog began as a personal space to post pictures and thoughts on our new family (our first child was born shortly after the beginning of SuperMetz), and slowly acquiesced into a place of theological reflection for me.  My blogging speed has slowed greatly over the past year and a half or so, and I have used some of that time to contemplate a new project – which brings us to this place.

Vacillating most often produces negative connotations.  Thoughts of indecision, weak-heartedness, blase, etc. typically dominate the spectrum of thought.  This is particularly true within the realm of theology.  Vacillating is most often the accusation hurled by fundamentalists at, in their view, liberals who are “wishy-washy” and don’t want to commit to “truth.”

I see theological vacillation as our only option as creatures of an omnipotent and omniscient Creator.  I had a professor in college who would often say, “I’m not wrong about anything that I believe . . . as far as I know right now.”  The underlying idea being, no one knowingly holds fast to things that they know to be untrue (well . . . almost nobody).  But certainly we are wrong about much of what we believe.  I’d be willing to bet that I’m wrong about more things than I’m right about (now if that doesn’t make you want to check this blog out regularly!)  We are fortunate to live in a time of unprecedented abilities in knowledge and communication, and it should be easier for us to see this fact than anyone before.

So . . . my hypothesis goes for this blog . . . do we have anything left but vacillation?  Is that not what we are left to do for the entirety of our lives?  Vacillate between one option and another, holding on to one truth, until another truth more clearly evident than the other presents itself . . . as situations change . . . as the world changes . . . as I change . . .

I intend to use this place as a place of vacillation.  Basically I’m telling you up front that I will contradict myself, I’ll say two things that seemingly can’t both be true, I’ll change my mind (often), I’ll take things back, I’ll say things differently than the way I had intended . . . I’ll vacillate . . . about some very important things . . . about critically important things . . . about things that you don’t think any Christian should.  And I think . . . in the end . . . it’ll be OK.

I hope to find a blogging groove over the next several weeks.  I’ll be tweaking the format and appearance of this blog a bit.  I’ve been reading pretty voraciously this year and so my mind has been in several different places with lots to reflect upon.  I will probably be dividing my posts between a couple different areas: theological – this is always my primary interest; pastoral – I am a minister and I seek for all my reflections to be grounded in practice; political – one of my chief areas of interest is life at the intersection of faith and politics for Christ-followers, lending to some extremely challenging topics.  It’ll be a blast and I hope that you will be along for the long haul.