Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

Right wing news media outlets and a scattering of Christians of many different theological stances have declared that there is a war on Christmas.  It centers around saying Merry Christmas and not Happy Holidays.  Those who think the only way to acknowledge the season is by saying Merry Christmas are offended by those who use a more generic seasonal greeting, Happy Holidays.

Christmas is not the only religious holiday celebrated in December. Hanukkah (Jewish), Bodhi Day (Buddhist), Yule (Wicca), Zarathosht Diso (Zoroastrian), and Kwanzaa are just a few of the religious and cultural celebrations that take place in December.  It is impossible to know everyone’s religious affiliation and it is insulting to say Merry Christmas to adherents of a different faith.

Freedom to practice any religion is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.  It was adopted on December 15, 1791. It established the separation of church and state and prohibited the government from making any law that established a religion. It also prohibited the government from interfering with a person’s religious beliefs and practices.

For all of our talk about religious liberty, our history living it out is less than stellar.  In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Pilgrims who came to the New World for religious liberty promptly established a state church.  Droning preachers reminded people they were going to hell in services that lasted hours. Puritanism has been defined as the nagging uncomfortable notion that somewhere someone was happy.   

Leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson for having the audacity to challenge Puritan theology and practice. I think they were tossed out because the Pilgrims couldn’t stand the thought that some people were not as miserable as they.  And for the record, Puritans did not celebrate Christmas at all.

Christmas has a spotty history.  The first recorded celebration was in 336 c.e. when the Roman Emperor Constantine chose the 25th of December as the day to mark the birth of Jesus. Several years later Pope Julius 1 made it official and declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25.  It was in part an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia Festival. 

The point is that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on December religious holidays. There is no war on Christmas. There is a great melding of religious traditions that mark celebrations in December.  This diversity is, in part, what makes our country great.

So maybe instead of getting all bent out of shape, we might work at acknowledging our American sisters and brothers who embrace other religious traditions. It is a freedom guaranteed by our Constitution. It is also a way to not be a jerk.

Maybe those who are convinced that Christianity is the superior religion might develop some humility and celebrate the great religious diversity that is woven into the fabric of our society. Jesus had some advice for people with superiority complexes; get the tree out of your own eye before you try and pluck out the speck from someone else’s eye.  

Maybe people could remember that the heart of every religion is love.  Religious extremists of every stripe do not speak for the vast majority of people who adhere to that religion. Isis does not speak for Islam and the white evangelical base that supports the Occupant does not speak for Christianity.

There is much that makes this season holy. So get your panties out of a bunch, put on your grown up pants and honor the religious diversity of our great nation.

Happy Holidays.

Beyond the Christmas Hoopla

I am none too fond of Christmas.  Mostly I don’t like what Christmas has become; one huge orgy of buying more things for people who already have too much.  I don’t like how people get their knickers in a knot about saying Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, as if Christmas makes any difference in the way they actually live their lives. I don’t like the thin veneer of holiday cheer that hides franticness and fear, self-imposed impossible deadlines, and Christmas letters describing the Hallmark family. I don’t like how parents buy war toys and violent video games for their children as gifts that celebrate the Prince of Peace.

I don’t like the gluttony of food that adorns the season while so many people are hungry.  I don’t like the phony charity that feeds the hungry at this time of the year, ignores them the rest of the year and refuses to address why they are hungry in the first place.  I don’t like hearing “Hark the herald angels sing glory to the newborn King” over the Muzak at the pharmacy; it assures the ongoing need for my blood pressure meds.

Most of the hoopla of Christmas is an adventure in completely missing the point.

The antidote to the lunacy of it all is John the Baptist.  He is a wiry, hyper man with wild hair and a beard showing the remnants of his last meal: bugs and honey.  His clothing is more akin to rags, and he is yelling himself hoarse with a simple message.  “Repent, you brood of vipers.” Don’t bother looking for cards with John’s message at the Hallmark store, you won’t find them.

John’s call is a steady heartbeat under the increasing noise of the season.  He invites us to hear our own heartbeat; that place of our deepest longing and greatest hopes, the place of our shattering fears and wrenching loneliness.  When we allow ourselves to think beyond our own needs, the sorry state of our world is also part of our own heartbeat and it carries its own brokenness and fears.

The antidote to all that breaks us and breaks around us is in John’s simple call to repent.  It means to get a new heart, to receive what is offered from the abundant and gracious heart of the One in whose image we are made.  The way of life to which we are invited in this season is a transformational way of loving the world. John announces that the old ways are getting the boot and the new way is one of radical acceptance of those who are different.

As a rising tide of hatred and intolerance threatens to drown all decency, it is a timely and needed message.  As people of faith we are called beyond mere tolerance, a low bar at best, to genuine love and acceptance.  It is far beyond what we are able to accomplish under our own steam.  After all, there are times when we have trouble loving the people we are supposed to love.  Complete strangers who look different, talk different and smell different are just beyond the pale.  That’s why we need someone like John the Baptist telling us it isn’t just about us and what we can do on our own.  It’s about getting a new heart and turning toward the Source of Love, the One who makes us far more than we can be on our own.

John isn’t the Source, he just points to the Source.  Follow this guy Jesus, he’s the real deal.  His teachings right what is wrong with the world and heal what is broken in us. Or to quote John, “repent you brood of vipers.”     

This season is less about a baby than it is about a way of life. It is high time we stopped worshipping the baby and freaking ourselves out thinking about whether or not Mary had sex. Who cares? It is just a diversion away from the demands of a radically loving God whose abundance aches to flow through us.  

All the ways we miss the point are diversions away from John’s unapologetic call to life lived in the transforming embrace of a God who dreams of a new world where peace is the norm, there is enough for all, our fears are transformed by love and our deepest loneliness is met with renewed purpose.

We don’t have to eat bugs and honey, but let’s hope the whole repentance thing catches on.

 

 

Climate Change: Economics, Relationships and Theology

A new report on climate change authored by 13 U.S. government agencies builds on what we already know. If we don’t change how we live on this planet, the planet will change how we live on it. We will see this in more destructive weather patterns like hurricanes and tornados, an increase in devastating fires, increasing food shortages and rising sea levels.  The response of the Occupant, not surprisingly, is to bury the report and attack the credentials of its authors and the agencies they represent. It is a report of his administration. Go figure. 

Climate change has been news for thirty years. A New York Times article cited reports built on 100 years of data beginning with the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. He was the first to estimate the impact of coal burning on the temperature of the planet.  It is now accepted by 97% of scientists that greenhouse gases have widespread detrimental effects.    

As usual, statistics only tell part of the story; the rest of it is economic, relational and theological.  Over 85% of the world’s energy comes from burning coal.  It is the most economical fuel in the world.  There are over 1200 new coal plants in varying stages of construction throughout Asia.  It is the most accessible source of energy for developing nations to satisfy their increasing need for electricity as they raise themselves out of poverty.  It is difficult to sell the idea that the world shouldn’t be burning coal when the Occupant is rolling back regulations on coal burning here in the United States.  If the richest nation in the world isn’t concerned, why should the poorest nations stop accessing the main component of their economic growth? 

This is where the economic meets the relational.  Despite the Occupant’s “America First” rhetoric his coal policies do not serve the American people or the planet.  It traps coal mining states in an economic niche that costs its residents dearly.  We will see an increase in black lung disease and deaths from mining accidents as the “need” for coal increases. Meanwhile the government continues to roll back health care reform and protection for workers in general.

Falling back on a cheap energy source also stunts investment in alternative energy sources that are better for the planet, like solar and wind. It is interesting how government subsidies continue to go to the coal and oil lobbies while monies for alternative energy have all but dried up.  It may have something to do with the fact that the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal industry lobbyist.

All of the above demonstrates a striking selfishness regarding others and the planet.  Many are quick to say “not my problem,” except it really is.  The earth is not a limitless resource.  There is a limit to how much the planet can absorb of the impact humanity has on its water, soil and air. We are seeing the edges of that limit drawing closer.  There is a plastic ocean floating in the Pacific that is three times the size of France. We are now realizing how short sighted it was to ship our trash out to sea and hope “the ocean will take care of it.”  This is just one example of many.    

We are admonished in Hebrew Scripture to be stewards of the earth’s bounty.  We are told to “till the earth and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).  To be a steward means to care for something on behalf of another.  We are stewards of the earth on behalf of the Creator.  This is the second creation narrative in Genesis. The problem is that the first Creation narrative in Genesis 1 is more familiar. In this narrative it states that humans are to have “dominion” over the earth.  That has been interpreted as permission to exploit the earth, its resources and its people in the name of progress. The word “dominion” is a translation error.  When translated correctly both creation narratives agree that humans have a sacred duty to care for the earth and its vast resources.  It is troubling to think that hundreds of years of plundering the earth is encouraged by one mistranslated verse of scripture.

Being good stewards means that we are as concerned for others as we are for ourselves.  It is what most of the gospel, and a good part of the Old Testament is about. In a practical way it means being as concerned for coal workers in Tennessee as we are for the people of Japan in the wake of their nuclear disaster. It means we are as concerned about drought and famine in other parts of the world as we are about our own grocery bill.  It means we are as concerned about the oil pipeline traversing Native American lands as we are about the price of gas at the pump.  It means we are as concerned about our carbon footprint as we are about the price of cucumbers.  It means that we see ourselves as members of a global community whose well being is intimately tied to our own. It means we take seriously the responsibility we have to “till the earth and keep it.” 

Sources:

www.claimbentorah.com

www.nationalgeographic.com

www.newyorktimes.com

 

  

Holding Gratitude with a Breaking Heart

Those of us who sit at tables laden with food in the company of friends and family are quick to count our blessings and give thanks for all we have.  It’s a good thing and perhaps we should do it more often.  Others who sit at tables with barely enough food or who are alone or lonely also may be quick to count their blessings. 

Counting blessings isn’t about what we can touch with our hands or what we can see with our eyes.  If that were true we would have to assume that the blessing train left without a majority of the world’s population.  It is difficult to claim blessing when most of the world doesn’t have the basic things needed to survive. Thinking that we are objects of God’s favor can only lead to the conclusion that those who do not have enough are on God’s not-so-favored list. 

What we have is not completely of our own doing.  What others lack is not completely of their own doing.  There are some variables that rig the system.  Most people who are born in poverty live in poverty for the rest of their lives.  There is the occasional story about persons who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and broke the cycle, but they in no way offset the number of people who live in poverty from generation to generation.

Most of us are quick to judge the poor as lazy, unmotivated, unwilling to do menial labor and somehow undeserving the advantages that many so easily take for granted.  In our society of rugged individualism, we see ourselves as “self-made.”  We have worked hard, gone into debt for our education and climbed our way to whatever socio-economic stature we have at the moment.  However, those of us who enjoy a comfortable standard of living have depended on others along the way.  There are parents, teachers, mentors, friends, employers who “gave us our first break” and others who have smoothed the immediate path ahead of us and encouraged us to move forward. This is not true for everyone, and without those “breaks” it is almost impossible for one to survive in this country. There is no place in the United States where someone can work a full time job at minimum wage and make ends meet. 

We have created a permanent underclass of people, and our economy depends on people working menial jobs for substandard pay.  All the while CEO’s make millions in a free market capitalist (read predatory) economy. 

This has been true from the beginning of the colonizing period in what is now the United States.  We have a revisionist view of history where the Indians and the Pilgrims sat down together and shared a bountiful “thanksgiving” feast.  The first mention of any kind of thanksgiving was in 1627 as the colonists celebrated the brutal massacre of the Pequots.  The Thanksgiving Holiday we know today was instituted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as an effort to unite a country torn by civil war, a war fought over the predatory economy predicated on the slave trade.

It’s hard to look honestly at what is true about our history and our lives while holding onto a traditional Thanksgiving holiday. Discomfort is a good thing. Realizing that most of the country and most of the world do not live as we do is a beginning. A stance of true gratitude acknowledges the abundance and steadfastness of the Divine and asks that we live in faithful response.  Such a stance is the root of generosity and compassion.  Discomfort and gratitude are the burr under the saddle of our complacency, for God’s abundance is not just for us but for all people.

It means that our gratitude for what is true in our lives is held with a breaking heart for what is true in the lives of others. As people of faith (such as we have and such as we hope for) we are called to bear witness to the relentless generosity and abundance of the God we say we believe in.  We do so by our own acts of generosity, compassion and kindness.  We do so by gathering with honest gratitude, the kind that realizes that our lives are not of our own doing; we are part of a whole that needs us and our action to make God’s abundance known in tangible ways to those in need.

Finding Your Own Way

There is no shortage of grief and loss in our world. Hundreds of people in California have lost everything, many have lost their lives and there are still hundreds missing, many of whom are presumed dead. There have been over 300 mass shootings in the US this year, each victim leaving behind shattered families and friends. As the “holiday season” looms larger all the losses come into clearer, sharper focus. For some, the loss of what never was and never will be is the greatest sadness of the season.

The language most often heard on the heels of loss is about “moving on.” And it is usually said way too soon and is way too shallow to mean anything.  The language of moving on neglects the reality that grief is a process that takes time.  There is no magic formula for getting through grief, no handbook and no one way to find one’s way.  It’s why the language of moving is so hollow. 

Grief is a multi-faceted and complicated process that is as unique as each person’s loss.  It never ceases to amaze me how some people assume they know more about your life than you do. People “should” all over you:

 You should keep busy.  
 You should get out more. 
 You should be with people every day.
 You should get an anti-depressant from your doctor.
 You should be feeling better by now.  
 You should be grateful his/her suffering is over and s/he is in a better place.  
 You should try and keep your chin up. 

There is no end to the stupid things people say in an attempt to be “helpful.” Mostly people mean well, but they are often overwhelmed at the enormity of your pain and don’t know how to just be with you in it.  This will take a lot of energy out of you, so marshal your time with people who “don’t get it.” The people who can show up to your pain are not always the people you expect and sometimes the people you assume will be there aren’t able to be, for reasons that are not clear. It’s one of the things that can complicate grief.

When it comes to the holidays, do what feels right for you.  There is no right or wrong answer regarding how to survive the first, the second or the fifteenth holiday season.  There is your way, and that way may change from year to year and that’s okay.  Realize that no one is an expert on your life but you.

People also blab out all kinds of pious platitudes that fail to honor loss:

 It was God’s will.
 His/her suffering is over.
 He/she is in a better place.
 All things are better in time.

Death does not come as punishment or reward for how one lived or failed to live.  Death comes because we are created human.  We all have expiration dates.  Don’t let anyone sell you some theological garbage about God’s will when it comes to dealing with loss.  Find people who can help you think through what you believe and don’t believe, what works for you and what no longer works.  Sometimes long held beliefs fade when life falls apart, and you are left to rework your faith in light of your experience.  There is no one way to look at the Divine on the other side of loss.  Find people who can be with you in the questions and back away from people who have answers.  You need to find your own answers.

Ultimately the meaning you make out of loss is up to you.  It isn’t work someone can do for you, and the only way out is through. If the truth is told, in some ways grief lasts forever. It is the price you pay for deeply loving someone.  The good news is that grief changes in acuity as time goes on.  It isn’t always like a jelly fish stuck to your face.  There will be times when you ache with loss and it feels like yesterday even if it has been years.  There are other times when you glimpse a different life and it is okay.

Mostly, I hope you will be gentle with yourself in this season of (often artificial) cheer.

This Is What Makes America Great

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: at 29 she is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress
  • Jared Polis: First Openly gay Governor of Colorado
  • Jenny Durkan: First openly lesbian Mayor of Seattle
  • Danica Roem: First transgender woman elected in Virginia statehouse
  • Andrea Jenkins: First openly transgender black woman elected to Minneapolis City Council
  • Vi Lyles: First black Mayor Charlotte, NC
  • Kathy Tran: First Asian American woman and daughter of Vietnamese refugees elected to VA House of Delegates
  • Tyler Titus: First transgender person elected to public office in PA
  • Sheila Oliver: First black Lieutenant Governor of NJ
  • Sharice Davids: First openly lesbian Native American woman elected to Congress
  • Deb Haaland: First Native American woman elected to Congress
  • Kim Reynolds: Iowa’s first female Governor
  • Rachel Rollins: Massachusetts first black Attorney General
  • Janet Mills: Maine’s first female Governor
  • Marsha Blackburn: Tennessee’s first female Senator
  • Catalina Cruz: New York’s first DREAMer elected to public office
  • Susan Ruiz and Brian Woodard: Kansas’s first openly gay lawmakers
  • Eliza Guzman and Hala Ayala: First Latina women elected to Virginia House of Delegates

This incomplete list represents the growing number of legislators and leaders in the United States who are GLBTQI, culturally diverse, female, or people of color. What is significant is not the number of seats won and where they were won, it is a commentary on the changing political landscape of the United States.  It is a hopeful sign in the midst of much that seems hopeless.  It is a step toward a government of the people by the people and for the people.  The election of such diverse national and state leaders is a clear signal that how we do business as a nation is going to change.  The under-served populations are finding and claiming their voices. 

We are a nation of immigrants, children of immigrants, slaves, children of slaves and native peoples.  We have not been well represented by white patriarchy, big business and profit making corporations.  We have not been well served by back room business deals and quid pro quo politics which make promises that benefit a few.

By changing leaders we change the narrative.  When we elect single mothers the conversation includes affordable child care and housing. When we elect Native peoples the conversation includes righting historic injustices.  When we elect people of color the conversation includes combating the racism that still runs through the fabric of our society. When we elect LGBTQI people the conversation includes equal rights. When we elect educators and health care professionals the conversation includes public education and health care as basic human rights. When we elect people who represent values over political alliances, country over political party and responsible world citizenship over narrow nationalism, we begin to ask different questions:

  • How do we live as responsible global citizens in a global economy?
  • What kind of planet do we want to leave to our children and our children’s children?
  • How do we embody a public ethic of love and respect for all people?
  • How do we build a sustainable economy that benefits all people?
  • How can we be responsible to the poorest and most vulnerable members of our country and our world?
  • When will we learn to work together for common sense gun control and hold the out of control gun lobby and its bought and paid for legislators accountable?

Mark Twain said that politicians and diapers need to be changed regularly, and for the same reason.  This is a move in the right direction.  Our political system works when we participate.  If you voted, thank you.  If you didn’t vote, think about why and remember it is a right denied to many. 

If “your” candidates didn’t win, don’t withdraw from the political process.  Continue to ask the questions that will make our world a better place for everyone.  Think beyond “you” and “yours” and include those whose needs are different from yours.  Realize you are a citizen of a global community. Practice generosity. Seek the well-being of others.  

 

 

Values You Can Take To The Polls

It seems the loudest voice in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the white “evangelical christian” voice.  The problem is that this voice is not evangelical in the true sense of spreading the life giving word of God.  Neither are they Christian in their following of Jesus’ words and teachings.  They are a socio-political block with a conservative political agenda designed to roll back human rights (especially women’s rights), reproductive rights, care for the poor and disadvantaged and stewardship of the environment while catering to the richest members of society.

As we go to the polls on Tuesday, here are some thoughts to ponder:

  • “The arc of the universe bends toward justice.” (William Sloane Coffin)
  • Love is the essence of every major religious tradition in the world.
  • Spirit is the holy in all of us and in creation.
  • Creation reveals God.
  • We are God’s agents of love, peace and justice in the world.
  • The teachings of Jesus are our guide and guard.
  • Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew. There is no room for anti-Semitism in the Christian faith.
  • Jesus was a person of color. There is no room for racism in the Christian faith.
  • Mere tolerance is a low bar for people of faith.
  • The first and second testaments stand on equal ground.
  • The Bible inherently favors the poor and disadvantaged.
  • Jesus’ harshest judgements were focused on the wealthy and the religious leaders who colluded with them.
  • The Christian life is a life of dissent against the injustice of the world.
  • All paths to God are equally valid; those who claim the name of Christian choose one path among many.
  • We are called to preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, to use words (St. Francis of Assisi).
  • Healthcare is a right not a privilege.
  • Those working full time should earn enough to support their family.
  • There is enough for everyone’s need, not everyone’s greed.
  • The world would be a better place if humans practiced what they preach when they claim the name of Christian.
  • The gospel agenda is non-partisan.
  • We cannot give into the politics of despair, fear and powerlessness.

Vote the values of the gospel.

 

Living Into the Mystery; Why Gender Can’t Be Legislated

Last week the Occupant hinted at legislation which would narrowly define gender by the genitalia with which one was born. It reflects the rising tide of intolerance for any group outside of white heterosexual cisgender males.    

The Occupant’s mindset reflects one theological school of thought, that of many white evangelical fundamentalists. They maintain that LGBTQ people, especially the transgendered, are particularly broken and are on roller skates to hell. However, people of faith, particularly the mystics, have known for centuries that sexuality and gender in all its diversity are holy gifts. 

Clearly the mystics are the minority report in the world of faith; their perspective is often far too radical to maintain the hang ups Christianity has about sex.  In the mystical tradition sexuality is imbued with holy blessing, a sacred part of our humanness, given to us for mutual delight and fulfillment.

The scriptures used to condemn the LGBTQ community are narrowly read. They are interpreted through a particular contemporary cultural lens that leads to assumptions about biblical texts that simply are not true.  The ancient world did not have words like homosexuality (the word was invented in the 1800′s), transgender, gender fluid or gender queer.  In reality the bible has very few verses about sexual behavior. The ones most commonly cited have to do with sex in a patriarchal society, power dynamics created by socio-economic status and property ownership.

Cherry picking specific verses out of context is not a faithful rendering of the text. Biblical interpretation requires understanding of ancient near eastern history, exegesis (you can look it up) and contemporary theological commentary. Judgmental comments fuel hate and intolerance and the Occupant needs no help to do that. Educate yourself about the faith you claim and join the resistance to the rising tide of hatred and intolerance.

We need to look closely at our sacred texts to elicit themes that can inform our thinking. We must take the overall message of Scripture and use it to define our actions in the moment.   Here are a few themes to consider: God’s love for all people is unconditional.  Period.  All people are created in the image of the Divine, not just straight white males. God created us as sexual creatures. We honor the holy when we enjoy the good gift of our bodies in ways that honor each person. Our bodies are temples of the Spirit, not just straight white male bodies, but all bodies.    

Spirituality and sexuality are two sides of the same coin.  They live in the deepest part of our being. It is the deep emotional intimacy, companionship, steadfastness and tenderness through time that bring the deepest satisfaction in human interaction.  True intimacy is a spiritual connection with another that may or may not be expressed through sexual contact. We live fully into the mystery when we discover who we truly are and choose to share our bodies with someone who honors us as we are. 

Gender identity cannot be legislated.  Almost one and a half million people identify as transgender; they cannot be legislated out of existence.  Instead we need to bring the informed resources from our sacred texts and our faith to the public sphere. We must speak up and speak out for those whose voices are silenced by misunderstanding, hatred and prejudice.  If we keep silent, hatred wins. 

Intimate Partner Violence, the Bible and Hope

The bible is full of violence.  It’s tempting to think violence is only in the Old Testament but there is plenty in the New Testament.  Jesus comes to mind.  There is also the adulterous woman who was about to be stoned, the murder of Steven and the repeated imprisoning and beating of the disciples. 

Much of the violence in the bible is against women and sadly this violence rarely finds justice. The ancient world was a patriarchal and oftentimes violent place. That’s another blog post for another time.  This week we focus on biblical texts that are taken out of context as a way of excusing intimate partner violence.  The worst offender is from Ephesians 5.

“Wives obey your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22). Like most verses taken out of context, this one has a wider perspective that is essential to faithful interpretation.  The segment begins in verse 21,

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives be subject to your

husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as

Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.  Just as the

church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, subject to

their husbands.” 

 

I know; it is hard to take.  Remember this is the first century C.E. and things were different. In order for these verses to make sense the next part of the passage must be included:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for

her…In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. 

He who loves his wife loves himself.” 

 

It’s important to take this all together.  Being subject to one another presupposes the covenant relationship of marriage, property rights notwithstanding.  The verses acknowledge mutuality between women and men. It assumes the husband will consider the wife, love her and honor her body.  The obedience of the wife is dependent on the man keeping his part of the relationship.  In fact, there are more instructions to the husband about how to treat his wife than there are instructions to the woman!  Taking one verse about the behavior of women out of context is an unfaithful rendering of the text. 

Another text that is often misquoted and misinterpreted is Jesus’ teaching on divorce found in Mark 10; it has a corollary in Matthew 19.  The Mark passage sets the stage with a question from a group of Pharisees (they were religious leaders).  “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

According to the Rev. Graham Van Keuren, Pastor and Teacher at the Congregational Church of Somersville, Somersville, CT, “Judaism in Jesus’ day was split down the middle regarding what justified proper divorce. There was one school, following a teacher named Hillel, who taught that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason, such as being a bad cook.  There was another school of thought, following a rabbi named Shammai, who taught that infidelity was the only reason a man could divorce his wife.” 

It was a trick question designed to scope out which school of thought Jesus followed. And Jesus was having none of it.  His answer was another widely quoted bit of scripture often found in wedding ceremonies; “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.  So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The passage goes on, and in verses 11 and 12 Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” We get caught up in the adultery language and lose the shock of the passage in its original context.  According to Pastor Van Keuren, women weren’t even allowed to divorce men, so for Jesus to mention it was completely radical.

The point of all this is that Jesus equalizes the relationship between women and men.  He refuses to participate in the patriarchal property-based understanding of marriage and affirms the rights and equality of women. Jesus always speaks for the most vulnerable.  He refuses to play by the rules of violence and power.  His teachings say that the powerful should give up their privilege to the vulnerable.  The abuser should stop using violence against those who are powerless to resist. In the ancient world the wife was vulnerable to her husband.  As such the husband was not to use his power to victimize or violate the wife. In the way of being in the world that Jesus teaches, power is only used well when it enhances someone else’s freedom. 

Scripture cannot be used to justify intimate partner violence.  It is unfaithful to the text and unfaithful to the God we claim to follow. There is no excuse for intimate partner violence. 

October is Domestic Violence (intimate partner) Awareness Month.  If you, or someone you know is suffering at the hands of their husband or partner, get resources at the National Domestic Violence Hotline website (www.thehotline.org) or call 1-800-799-7223 or TYY 1-800-787-3224.  Help is available, and so is hope.

Spiritual But Not Religious

I hear it a lot: “I am spiritual but not religious.”  When I was a full time church pastor, these words bugged me.  They don’t so much anymore.  Now that I am retired, I don’t always go to church and I see things from a slightly different perspective.

I am familiar with all the arguments against church participation.  The church is full of hypocrites. Truth be told, few of us are completely consistent in our actions and professed beliefs. The church can be petty. The church often bears witness to people at their worst, especially when there are conflicts. The church can be exclusionary. Often the church is not a place of hospitality for those in need but a place where you have to conform to be accepted. The church is sometimes irrelevant. The more the church stays the same, the more irrelevant it becomes.  As the old saying goes, “the church fiddles with her skirts while Rome burns.” The church and its language are anachronistic at best. It’s hard for many to get excited about worship when most of the music is by people who have been dead for two hundred years, and the dust in the rafters is almost as old as dirt.   

 Still, there are things about the church that I value. For example, learning from people I don’t particularly like isn’t easy. However, the only hope we have of learning to live together in the world as a whole begins with the people who get under our skin. Being with people who are different than we are is a lesson in unity which is not to be confused with uniformity.  I value the sacraments and the reminder that I my life is about more than “me and mine.” In baptism we become part of a wider community. Every time I witness a baptism I commit myself to the child and family to help them grow to maturity in faith and actions. Sitting at the communion table, sharing cubes of bread and thimbles of grape juice is a reminder of the community of people around the world who are joined together by similar beliefs and commitments. In communion we re-member and put together what has been broken apart. We focus on what makes us one and not what makes us separate. The church at its best is a community that calls us beyond the hypocrisy, pettiness and irrelevance to become the beloved community.

Sure, all of this may be just nostalgia and BS on my part.  Let me know what you think about this.  But I think there is more to church than the nonsense of the institution and the pettiness of its people.  At its best the church is a gathered community where people come to be encouraged, challenged, comforted and spurred to growth.  If we “do” church “right” we see that all the great religions of the world lead to the same place. The message is universally about love, care for one another and God’s creation and a world where everyone has enough. Most of the time we don’t do it right, so we build walls of prejudice and misunderstanding instead of bridges of commonality and a shared vision for humanity.

There is a danger in going our separate spiritual ways, because there is little to challenge and ground us in something larger than our own beliefs.  We are set adrift in a complicated world with just our own little rubber raft floating in the small sea of our own understanding.  Church is one answer but there are others.

I believe we need communities of practice where we find the kind of nurture and confrontation that helps us see our blind spots.  I believe we need to be with people who are like us and people who are different from us. Consistency in what we believe and how we live matters. Being spiritual but not religious has its strengths and limits.  The church also has its strengths and limits.  We each have to find what is right for us.  Anyone who seeks a vital faith needs others to keep growing.