Saturday, April 17, 2010

S-F Goes to Canada

Next Saturday, April 24, I'll be a guest on "The Drew Marshall Show," the most listened-to spiritual talk show on Canadian radio. I like the show's tag line very much: "Living messy lives with a real God in the middle of it." (It could be my personal motto!)

I was asked to be interviewed after Grant, a regular reader here who's become a great friend, emailed the program about Straight-Friendly and me. While I'm extremely humbled by this, I'm also very grateful to Grant (and, of course, God) for making this possible. Please pray with me this week that something I say will encourage GLBT and other wounded believers to start making their way back home--as well as inspire all listeners to embrace everyone as equals in Christ.

My interview, slated to run 35 minutes, is scheduled between 2 and 4 PM EDT. Live streaming audio will be available at the show's Website:

I trust as many of you as can will listen in!

Hill People

A city on a hill cannot be hidden. (Matthew 5.14)

Asking to Understand

My family’s roots dig deep into the red clay of northern Alabama, where the Appalachian Mountains ease into pine-covered slopes and low-slung river valleys. Though I’ve heard people from the region referred to as “Appalachians,” we didn’t perceive ourselves as such. When my folks relocated to Chicago, as big-city immigrants often do, they first settled in a neighborhood of people with strong “ethnic” ties—in our case, Southern families. To a lot of Chicagoans, however, we were all hillbillies. As they say, we didn’t take kindly to it. In retrospect, we weren’t ashamed to be identified with “hill people” of Appalachian heritage or the implications that went with it. We just weren’t happy about being stereotyped. We got our first taste of prejudice. And we quickly learned carving through its walls is hard and tedious work—chipping away at the stereotype while hanging on to the truth about ourselves. Mom, in particular, was tireless about this, and she ingeniously taught us both sides of the story by reaching out to Chicagoans of every kind. Our kitchen table became a sociology lab where all sorts of people collected. There I discovered the surest way to break through stereotypes was asking to understand instead of asking to be understood.

Through the years, I’ve brushed against other types of prejudice. Much was gay-related, of course—mostly from strangers or slight acquaintances that mistook my being out and confident as their opening to “kid.” (God has been gracious; if anyone ever hated me for my making, He spared my knowing it.) What continually surprises me, however, is bumping into people with fixed notions about Christians. Some of their ideas derive from the media’s obsession with charlatans, grifters, Hell-raisers, apostates, et al. But I’ve found the bulk of negative Christian stereotypes are wrought from personal encounters with errant believers like those Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 3. We can list them in four columns: egocentric, abusive, deceitful, and self-indulgent. He describes these groups as, “having a form of godliness but denying its power,” telling Timothy, “Have nothing to do with them.” (2 Timothy 3.5) When our paths cross with insincere, nominal Christians, we soon learn neither of us has anything the other wants. We part ways. The challenge comes by realizing how hard it is to shake off stereotypes they inspire. Our attention turns to those who embrace these images, because their prejudices are more damaging to them than us. That’s where understanding them rather than being understood comes in.

A City on a Hill

In many ways, the Sermon on the Mount functions as Jesus’s inaugural address. His recent baptism caps with divine declaration He is the Christ. His interim period in the desert confirms His strength of character and commitment. He exits the wilderness to find a throng of eager supporters. Matthew 5.1-2 introduces the Sermon, noting, “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” The speech calls for sweeping change on a scale no one before or since has advocated. Jesus lays out a grass-roots strategy for completely overthrowing cultural, political, and religious norms by inverting personal values. The least become the greatest, the poorest the richest, the saddest the happiest, etc. This message bathes His followers with conviction that they are avatars of change—role models and key influencers and protectors of Christ’s principles. “You’re the salt of the earth,” He says, “the light of the world.” He climaxes this portion of the Sermon with “A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (v14)

The statement's idealism sets our hearts racing. In reality, though, Jesus turns the phrase to let some air out of His rhetoric. When His listeners hear it, they most likely respond with a collective “Huh?” because it implicitly suggests they’ll be stereotyped as hill people, and knowing who the real hill people are explains why they're perplexed. In 1 Kings 16, we read of several Israeli monarchs, including King Omri, whose reign, like so many, slides into corruption. His only notable deed: “He bought the hill of Samaria… and built a city on the hill, calling it Samaria.” (v24)

The Jews regard no one with more disdain than Samaritans. Everything about them is sub-par. Though they claim a common heritage with the Jews—calling themselves “the lost tribe”—they honor few of Israel’s traditions. They claim to worship Israel’s God. Yet roughly two centuries before Christ, they buckle to political pressures and rechristen their temple in the name of Zeus, merging Judaic and Greek rites into a hybrid faith. Because of this, Samaritans are worse than outcasts. They’re impostors. When they travel among the Jews, they call attention to themselves. There's nowhere to hide. Jesus’s followers hear “a city on a hill” and think “Samaria,” not some Utopia. Jesus tells them they’ll be highly visible targets of prejudice lumped together with people profaned for hypocrisy and weakness.

Own the Label

The Samaritan label has stuck to this day. Like it or not, much of the world sees us as hill people. It seems we have two options. We can mimic ancient Jewish society by reviling hypocritical and weak-minded people who claim a common faith heritage with us. But all this does is create tension and legitimize negative Christian stereotypes. Or we can own the label and prejudice that comes with it by being a city on a hill in the idealistic sense. The Gospels give us two superb examples of how we do it, both of which display the art of setting aside our need to be understood in deference to understanding the needs of others.

In the first, a Samaritan woman meets Jesus at a well. He asks to share some of her water. Aware of how Jews feel about Samaritans, she’s confused. “Sir, I’m a hill person. Why would You want to drink with me?” she asks. Jesus replies He can give her living water that will sate her thirst forever. She wants to understand this and her honesty results in a life-changing experience. The second instance comes in Christ’s parable of a Samaritan who ignores common prejudice to care for a badly injured Jew. While none of the victim’s compatriots risk the time, money, and reputation it would cost to help him, the Samaritan defies stereotype by fulfilling the law to love one’s neighbor. Jesus tells this story to a lawyer, asking him who is the story’s hero. The lawyer says, “The Samaritan—the hill person.” Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10.37) Yes, being labeled as hill people creates problems. No, it’s not pleasant to deal with. But only by owning the label can we overcome the prejudice affixed to it. Only by using its disadvantages to understand and care for those who misjudge us can we debunk the “hill people” stereotype and free them—and us—from its damaging effects.

Samaria—home of ancient Palestine’s “hill people.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3.6)

Conflicting Accounts

Coming off Easter always finds me feeling uneasy about the disharmony of the Gospels. While they tell the same story, their facts don’t match up. Women who accompany Mary Magdalene to the tomb in one version are replaced by others in another and completely missing in another. Matthew and Mark report one angel greets Mary; Luke and John give us two. And so on. One suspects the event’s magnitude would demand uniform telling, simply for credibility’s sake. Yet we end up with four conflicting accounts of Christianity’s defining moment, which means some of what we read is wrong—inaccurate at the very least, but also possibly exaggerated, even fabricated out of whole cloth.

If the “Easter variations” were the sole example of biblical incongruence, we might dismiss them as four writers adapting the narrative for specific purposes, as is the case. But glaring contradictions and inaccuracies abound in Scripture, starting with Genesis, which doesn’t even complete its first Creation account before launching a rewrite. Then there’s the issue of authorship and revisions. Roughly half of Paul’s epistles are penned by surviving followers, some of whom make no effort to conceal references to developments that occurred after his execution. The Books of Moses, the first five Old Testament volumes, are subjected to numerous revisions that filter the original content (recorded pseudonymously after Moses’s death) through the knowledge and needs of each new editor. None of this would be unsettling but for this: The Bible is God’s Word. And how we account for its anomalies indubitably affects its vitality and relevance in our lives.

Take It or Leave It

Oddly enough, textual lapses posed no problem for ancient readers. Manual transcription of the written word inherently allowed for inaccuracies and editorial interference. Not until mechanical print made exact replication possible was the premise of Biblical infallibility remotely possible. Even then, translating original texts presumed a margin of error due to linguistic gaps, poor penmanship, and common misspellings. The push to view the Bible as “the infallible Word of God” is surprisingly recent, launched in the mid-1970’s by a cluster of influential evangelicals. The notion took hold in conservative circles, which embraced the entire Bible, word for word, as their bedrock of belief. Yet doing so created a huge contradiction infallibility's proponents have yet to resolve. If every word in the Bible is factually indisputable, why is faith necessary?

Taking Scripture at face value eliminates doubts that spring from its inaccuracies and contradictions, which ends up less ideal than it sounds. Infallibility's “take it or leave it” proposition shuts down the conversation before it begins. But the Bible is God’s prime communication channel to humankind. It’s given to open discourse between us, to draw us into dialogue with Him, and to prompt leaps of faith in spite of its logical challenges. It’s meant to fly in the face of empirically proven facts and human understanding. Accepting what we read without question is not the same as believing what God says. Indeed, they’re exact opposites. The former relies entirely on what we see, while the latter relies exclusively on faith in what we’re told. In 2 Corinthians 5.7, Paul says, “We live by faith, not by sight.” And in Romans 10.17, he succinctly describes the Word’s function in faith formation: “Faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” The Bible is given to engender faith, not to validate it. If we think it proves anything, we miss everything it’s supposed to do, namely to teach us how to live without proof.


One can only imagine Paul’s reaction to this fledgling doctrine of infallibility, but his admonitions about Scripture firmly indicate it would fall between dismay and horror. Aside from his prevailing message of God’s unequivocal grace through faith in Christ, his recurrent theme is freedom from textual servitude. As we’ve already seen, however, his vehemence against enslavement to the Law doesn’t discount the value of Scripture. Indeed, he insists it’s a vital component in helping every believer achieve maturity. He counsels in 2 Timothy 2.15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” “Correct handling” in Paul’s view entails abandoning literal interpretation of Scripture so it can speak directly to our hearts and spirits. Literalism spawns legalism, the thing Paul abhors most of all because it enforces rather than inspires. It puts us back where we were before Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection—playing by the rules instead of living by faith. In short, literalism (and its nasty cousin, legalism) negates the cross.

“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3.6. His word for “Spirit” is pneumos. Breath. It’s the same word John uses when the Risen Christ first appears to the disciples: “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20.22) Both of these images overtly echo Genesis 2.7: “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Paul tells us Christ’s sacrifice forever freed God’s Word from the page, replacing “the letter” (grammatos, literal text that can be broken down into prescribed meaning and usage) with pneumos, the breath of life. Our competence as ministers of God’s boundless grace and acceptance depends on faith to believe this.

When we open the Bible, we look through its contradictions (versus around them) to see God’s Spirit in every word, between every line. Facts take a back seat to faith. The Spirit Jesus breathes into us and the one Paul finds in the Word are one and the same. It mysteriously brings the reality of God’s truth to life, on the page and in us. It inspires us to take leaps of faith despite all doubt and contrary evidence. The “infallible Word”—grammatos—can’t accomplish this. It’s permanently set, inert and unresponsive to changing times and needs. In contrast, the inspired Word—pneumos—is eternally relevant and vital. It breathes. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

(Inspired by a comment posted by Jeff on the Straight-Friendly Facebook page.)

The Bible’s truth and relevance aren't visible on the printed page. They breathe through the words and between the lines, brought to life by the Spirit.

Monday, April 12, 2010

When Shepherds Stray

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? … Why did you not obey the LORD?” (1 Samuel 15.17-19)

NOTE: We typically distance our discussions here from current controversies. Today's post is an exception in an attempt to ground our thinking about the present crisis in Rome. It is longer than usual, yet woefully inadequate in many ways. I ask you read it prayerfully.

The Terrors of Trust

Trust is a powerful thing. Confidence in parents or leaders, pastors or supervisors makes all the difference in our lives; it’s the medium through which we learn and prosper. Only when we reach positions of leadership and respect do we discover the terrors of trust. They riddle us with dread of misguiding those who look to us. Opportunities for failure abound. So, while experience, expertise, and willingness earn trust, maintaining it hinges on our ability to put those who trust us first and our personal needs and longings last. This is a terrifying prospect, because it begs the question “Can I be trusted?” Furthermore, damage caused by broken trust is directly proportional to its perceived value. Some avocations—parenthood, life partnership, teaching, political office, faith formation, etc.—are deemed sacrosanct. We presume people in these positions will cherish our trust above their interests. Thankfully, the vast majority of them do, which is why honored trust isn’t as remarkable as broken trust, because what is “history” if not one continuous saga of abused power? What is “scandal” if not bad faith’s showcase? And, since we’ve learned nothing from the past, today’s news is overrun with people reputed to be trustworthy who prove they’re not. None of these is more troubling than the faith crisis confronting the Roman Catholic Church. It grieves all of us—Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers—in its galvanizing depiction of exalted leaders wedged between honoring trust and protecting interests. It’s an ancient drama, one we see play out in the life of Israel’s first king. A review of Saul’s story provides some valuable insights into what happens when shepherds stray.

The Evolution of Leadership

To reap the full benefit of Saul’s lesson, we must retrace the evolution of leadership in Israel. While God knows Israel will eventually ask for a king, this isn’t His intention. His plan calls for a tribal government guided by a chief prophet who voices God’s concerns and desires. Judges mediate local matters in accordance to divine law and military leaders serve on an ad hoc basis per the prophet’s orders. Israel’s neighbors are all absolute monarchies, whose successions are predominately determined by internal power struggles—a collection of nations ruled by warrior kings. Leadership by brute force and its corollary—divide and conquer—are anathema to God’s organic approach to nurture Israel as a people unto Himself. But Israel’s people become convinced they also need a king. This wounds Samuel, the most exemplary prophet the Old Testament offers. God consoles him, saying, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” (1 Samuel 8.6) He sets down very specific duties and rights for the king, which Samuel publishes, along with this warning: “You will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (v18) Nonetheless, Israel insists.

God vests the monarch with full administrative and judicial power over the realm, yet—unlike neighboring rulers—Israel’s king remains beholden to Him and His prophet. In this respect, the monarchy functions closer to a pastoral position than a seat of power. To underscore the king’s third rank, God selects a candidate, Saul, from the smallest tribe, Benjamin. This not only obviates any infighting and coalitions among the larger tribes, it signifies a certain disdain for the position in God’s sight. Saul, we’re told in 1 Samuel 9.2, is “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others,” which makes him a big guy without big tribal backing. He’s perfect. To win the people’s trust, he’s endowed with prophetic gifts and leadership talent. The Israelites hail their new king with gusto. Then things start falling apart. Saul’s power and status overwhelm him. He stops listening to God’s direction and starts making decisions to protect his rule. When he forgets whence he came, he strays.

Things come to a head when Saul disobeys God’s order to rout Israel’s longtime foes, the Amalekites, down to the last beast. But he returns from battle with a herd of trophy cattle. Though he knows it’s wrong, he tries to spin his decision as obedient by sacrificing the livestock in worship. In return, God says, “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” (1 Samuel 15.10) Hoping his war spoils will ratify the nation’s trust in him, Saul loses faith with God. In 1 Samuel 16.14, we read one of Scripture’s most tragic verses: “Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.” The pastoral instincts are gone, replaced by a plague of ruinous doubts and jealousies. Saul eventually dies at his own hand. He’s succeeded by David, a shepherd so deeply flawed he has no choice but to trust God’s guidance and protection. And even though he also makes grievous mistakes, he remains honest before his Maker and God repays his humility by exalting him as the greatest leader in his nation’s history.

A Reckoning

The Vatican’s current crisis shakes us because it evidences broken pastoral trust on so many levels. Everywhere we look, we seem to find shepherds who’ve strayed. At the root of the problem are the reckless men who placed their personal desires above their priestly vows and their parishioners’ faith. We see people tormented by small beginnings taking advantage of their prominence. As we wrestle with our own feelings about them—and the issues multiplied from their misdeeds—it’s important to anchor our thoughts with a clear understanding of what their malfeasance represents. Sexual abuse of every kind is not about physical gratification; it’s a heinous leverage of power by individuals burdened by a sense of worthlessness. As such, the responsibility to end similar abuses—not only in the church, but also in the home, classroom, workplace, and elsewhere—falls to us. Belittling anyone is not acceptable. Beyond the effect it has on those we diminish and us, it spreads our evildoing to innocent lives.

Thus, while we watch in horror as pastors we trust fail to respond quickly, effectively, and unilaterally against this pervasive sin (which plagues all communions, not only the Roman Catholic one), we must realize this is a reckoning for the entire Body of Christ. We call for kings. We construct thrones. We cede power and trust. God’s plan for the Church is no different than His design for Israel. He grants our request for self-government, but reserves governance to Himself. Pastoral leadership, from the Pope down to the illiterate storefront preacher, is the Church’s underpinning, not its pinnacle. When Christ ordains Peter, He says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16.18) We see the pastoral imperative in action as Paul writes in Romans 1.11: “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.” We hear this note repeatedly in the epistles—making strong. The show of strength the Roman church presently seeks will only come when its leaders forsake their ambitions to honor their followers’ trust, when their sights return to the rock and their minds leave the clouds. Every pastor from every denomination must follow this prescription lest he/she stray. Every believer should do likewise.

The visibility of their errors doesn’t relieve our duty to listen to our true Shepherd. God is speaking to us. We are dealing with our misplaced trust in kings. We are reaping unjust and inadequate responses to problems we as a society created and then ignored. When shepherds stray, the sheep have two alternatives: bleat with alarm or repent themselves and return to the right way. In 2 Chronicles 7.14, God vows, “If my people, who are called my by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (v14) The onus is on us. We can’t foresee whether or not the shepherds who’ve strayed will reawaken to their duties. They may go the way of Saul and destroy themselves. Right now, in the absence of shepherds, our prayers must attend to the flock. Our trust in God remains, and must always remain, sound.

When our shepherds stray, we are all called to a reckoning. We are all responsible for the losses and confusion that result in broken trust.