Category Archives: Church

Tim Otto: Reorienting the Homosexuality Conversation

My friend Tim Otto wants to talk about orientation.

And he wants to talk about gay people in the church.

But the orientation he wants to address is not sexual orientation. He wants to talk about the need we all have, across the board, to be Oriented to Faith.

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Do we need yet another book about homosexuality and Christianity? Don’t we have enough already?

Well, yes, we do actually need this one.

This book is a rare voice in the conversation, advocating for a genuine “third way” beyond the polarized either/or debate in which the church is reflecting (and influencing) the culture. It is a book that pulls no punches in pointing out the shortcomings of liberals and conservatives alike, and that humbly suggests that each side has a piece of the truth, at very least, that the other side must listen to.

But the greatest contribution of the book is the way that, by the end, it holds up the mirror so that we can see how the very existence of “sides” itself is a demonstration of our failure to live up to the calling we have in Christ.

Otto begins his discussion by mapping the experience of being gay in the church onto the New Testament notion of “family”– a notion that does not line up with the primacy placed on biological family in our context. Tim Otto Pic

What becomes clear as this narrative unfolds is this: we have not created the kinds of communities that make it possible for single people to live the kinds of lives that the traditional church has called both single and gay people to embrace.

The church has ignored the radical redefinition of family as those who follow Jesus, and has baptized instead the two-parents plus children financial unit as the basic unit of familial support. This goes for the mainline and progressive church as much as the conservative and traditional church.

Tim’s story is one of discovering a church that would be family for him. It is a story of committing himself to celibacy for the good of that family’s mission. It is a story of a person who isn’t convinced that scripture demands celibacy of gay Christians. It is a story of a man who is willing to make costly steps of discipleship in the belief that his ultimate identity is not “gay Tim,” but “beloved child of God.”

Foundational to Christian identity is that we are family, bound to one another, called to self-giving love. Foundational to American identity is that each of us is autonomous, an individual, and a consumer. Otto makes the graciously pastoral case that the American church has baptized the latter in the name of Jesus–and that this very misappropriation of Christian identity makes it impossible for us to faithfully love our gay brothers and sisters.

Anyone who attends to this book with a receptive spirit is likely to find cause of repentance. Everyone is likely to find cause for encouragement.

When we are confronted with divisive issues, it is very easy to take and read from that stack of books where we will find a mirror that shows us how beautiful and wonderful we are.

This book offers a different way.

Better than most any other treatment of homosexuality in the church that I have seen, it holds up a mirror to who beautiful and wonderful the way of Jesus is, and invites all of us to live into that with greater fidelity to the costly obedience that he demands.

Take and read!

**
Federal Guidelines stipulate that I have to tell you when I got something for free that I’m reviewing on my blog. I did not get this book for free. I paid my own money for my hard copy. I did, however, get a free pre-publication version that I reviewed and sent back to the author with comments. Also, Tim offers me coffee when I hang out with him and a couple other guys on Wednesday mornings, so you might view that as payment in kind or something.

The Missional Diagnostic Question

Advocates of “missional” church have been attempting to reframe how we think about church, specifically, and what “mission” means for each of us, more generally.

There are a couple of short answers to those questions, as the “missional” movement has framed it. Perhaps most importantly, they want to stress that it is God who is on mission in the world. When we are on mission, we are simply participating in what God was already up to.

But what does it look like to join God in God’s mission? How we answer that question will depend, to a large extent, on how we define God. What stories do we tell that enable us to grasp what it looks like when God is at work?

I would say that, in general, the missional movement has pushed us to imagine a God who is at work already in the world–and by world, I mean specifically the world beyond the walls of the church.

This means, in turn, that God is active in ways that extend God’s lovingkindness to all. This is the God who “causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” This is the God who calls us, in Christ, to bless our enemies so that we can be known as children of this kind of parent.

This leads me to a question that can take you near (if not always right to!) to the heart of whether or not your church community is being faithfully “missional.” It’s a question I posed to a new community that was starting to form a few months ago, and it’s a question a missionary friend of mine was using to encourage a church plant on the other side of the world in the past few weeks.

The question is this: “If this church disappeared, would our community miss it?”

That’s it. If we are on mission in such a way that we are loving our neighbors and seeking their good rather than our own, it will be a cause of grief for our community if our church shuts its doors. If we’re living to build the place, pack in as many as we can, then they won’t care.

In the latter case, have we been obeying the great command to love our neighbor as ourselves? Have we been agents of the God who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike?

Liturgy for Peace

I continue to wrestle with how we as Christian people might respond with wisdom, compassion, and integrity to the world at war (and otherwise lacking peace).

The combination of rightly identifying God as a God of peace, of crying out to God to make that character known in the real world, and of confessing our own failures to be a peaceable people is woven into this “Liturgy for Peace” that we read together at our church’s worship service last night.

A Corporate Confession and Prayer for Peace

We gather in the name of the God of Peace
May grace and peace be ours from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
We gather in the name of the Prince of Peace
The one who says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.”
We gather in the Spirit
Who is our life and our bond of peace.

May peace be upon this place
May we be found worthy, that this blessing might to rest upon us.
Give light to those who sit in darkness and the valley of the shadow of death
To guide our feet into the way of peace
Open our eyes, Lord,
So that we might know the things which make for peace

We confess that we have not been peacemakers
But have sought our own good rather than the good of our neighbor
We confess that we have not been agents of your goodness and grace
But have looked out for our own interests rather than the interests of others
Gracious God, forgive us, your beloved children
In the name of Jesus, extend to us your reconciling peace
May we yearn for peace within our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in San Francisco
May this desire bear fruit in our lives through initiatives of love.

Mother of the world, and of all those who live within it,
You have reconciled this world to yourself in Christ
While were yet enemies, aligning ourselves against you,
You gave your Son Jesus to die for us, that we might be at peace with You
Teach us how to live into the reconciliation created by Christ
So that we might learn what it is to be reconciled to one another

We confess that in our desire for peace, we often assume the postures of conflict
We have taken sides and set up ourselves as judges
We have listened to one side of the story,
And decided in its favor without waiting for the voice we have not heard
We have yearned for victory
And have believed that one side must lose for the other to win
We have seen the conflicts in the world, spurred on by an economy of scarcity
And we have not allowed the upside down economy of your Kingdom’s
abundance to create fresh vision for a world suffused with peace.

Hear our cry on behalf of the Palestinians:
may they know the fullness of life that you have created this world to provide
May they know absence of war
So that they might have hope for their children
May they know freedom upon their own land
So that they might know the dignity of fruitful work
May they know security in their homes
So that they might remember the value of their precious human lives.

Hear our cry on behalf of the Israelis:
may they know the fullness of life that you have created this world to provide
May they know peace upon their own land
So that they might raise their children in a place free from fear.
We pray for the peace of Jerusalem
May they prosper who love her
For the sake of sisters and brothers of all faiths who live within her walls,
We say: “May peace be within her.”

You have promised, O God, that love and faithfulness will meet
That justice and peace will kiss each other.
As your justice and peace kissed in the reconciling love of Jesus,
May we see in the world the joining of justice and peace
Make faithfulness spring up from even the desert ground,
And may righteousness rain down from the sky
Make a way of life in the midst of the desert
Where it seems that only death will reign.
Yours is the Kingdom of extravagant abundance,
And so we ask for vision to see how there is enough for all.

As we cast our eyes around the globe,
we confess that our nation is not innocent.
As we mourn the deaths in Gaza,
our own nation’s war in Afghanistan has cost lives this very week
While we protest the aggressions of our allies
we turn away thousands who come to us for safety and comfort

Forgive us, Father above, for we have confused the absence of war at home for the presence of peace.

Of old you warned the people who called themselves yours,
But were greedy for gain at any cost.
Of old you warned those who did not attend to the wound of your people
But said, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace.
Of old you warned your people not to rest in unjustly gained security,
And summoned us to be ashamed when we failed in justice and love.
Of old you warned your people not to speak falsely in your name,
And to hold our tongues from saying “peace,” where there is no peace.
Of old you warned your people, not to build up diving walls,
Or to white-wash them with in the name of the Lord.

And so, when we build,
May we build on the foundation of the reconciling love of Jesus.
And so, when we speak,
May our speech be seasoned with salt, to give grace to those who hear
And so when we seek security,
May we pursue it for those who are truly insecure:
For the alien at our borders,
For the civilian at the other ends of our guns,
Even for those whom we have labeled enemies.

Through the work of your son, Jesus, make us blessed peacemakers
So that we might be called children of God.
May our light of making peace upon the earth so shine before people
That they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven

Silent Meditation

Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21 NRS)

Patriarchy and Worth

Last summer I gave a talk entitled, “Patriarchy and Worth: The Gospel’s Challenge to an Ancient System” at the Christians for Biblical Equality annual meeting in Pittsburgh.

The bottom line: once you’ve said that men and women are fundamentally equal, you have ceased to participate in the ancient worldview that undergirds male headship and every other incarnation of patriarchy.

And, of course, once you’ve said as a Christian that men and women are equal in the new life we participate in Christ, you’ve undermined the fundamental belief in inequality that demands male leadership in the church and in the home.

Here’s the video. About halfway through it moves from lecture to sermon. Enjoy.

World Vision and Being a Disciple

This week, as the World Vision kerffufel was unfolding, I saw a phrase from Denny Burk that caught my eye. He concluded from his survey of scripture:

Thus it is impossible to be a “follower of Christ” while endorsing or participating in a same-sex marriage.

The idea of being a follower of Christ caught my attention. Immediately I began to think of this in terms of discipleship. And I slowly began to see that it might truly be impossible to be a disciple and continue to support an agency that allows for homosexual marriage as it brings relief to needy children.

What does it look like to be a disciple? Three stories run almost back to back, demonstrating what being a disciple might look like in such a situation.

In Mark 9, Jesus has just predicted his death (vv. 30-32). Not understanding what Jesus was saying, what kind of Messiah they were following, the disciples rambled off on their own conversation.

An embarrassing conversation.

A conversation about which of them is greatest.

Not seeing the crucified messiah before them, they did not see the mirror of the Cruficied that was showing them what the life of following must entail.

And so Jesus had to show them. The kingdom of God is not like they think it is. “Being first,” says Jesus, “entails being last, and servant of all.”

Jesus then takes a child: the low person on the ancient totem pole of social hierarchy. His words are stunning: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me isn’t welcoming me but God, who sent me.”

To reject World Vision is to play the part of the disciples: to place ourselves in the place of being rebuked by Jesus for pursuing greatness through power. To find ourselves rejecting the Jesus who is in the child for the sake of our own attempts to build the kingdom of God in our own image.

The story continues.

John hopes to clarify that the disciples as a group provide the boundary markers, protecting the name of Jesus, and the kingdom it brings.

“Teacher!” says John. (BTW: in Mark, if you want to find someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, look for the person who calls Jesus “teacher.”) “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we forbid him because he doesn’t follow us.”

To be a disciple is to think that our group circumscribes the sphere where God’s blessings are known. Clearly if you’re not with us, you cannot truly be a follower of Jesus.

Right?

Wrong.

Jesus says, “Don’t stop him! … Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

To pull out of supporting an organization that is doing the work of God in the name of Jesus because they do not follow us in the particular way that we are following Jesus–this is to play the role of the disciples.

And the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for placing themselves at the center of the kingdom of God, remaking its upside down nature after their own image.

In the wake of these two rebukes, the third story is all the more shocking.

It’s only 20 verses later. In Mark 10.

The people are bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them (Mark 10:13-16). The children. The ones about whom Jesus has said, “If you receive one of these, you receive me, which isn’t receiving me, but the One who sent me.”

The disciples, the ones who were just rebuked for thinking that they form the wall of partition between Jesus and the world, they hindered the children.

The disciples missed their chance.

In striving to protect Jesus, they refused to embrace the children.

They missed Jesus.

And they placed themselves in the mortal danger of causing one of the little ones to stumble (that’s at the end of ch. 9).

Withdrawing from support of World Vision in order to faithfully follow Jesus, in order to keep those children from the mercy being offered in the name of Jesus, this might truly be the only way to be a disciple.

Because being a disciple looks like playing power games that blind us to the upside down nature of the kingdom of God.

Because being a disciple looks like establishing our own Jesus-follower bona fides while spurning the notion that Jesus is present in the children standing in front of us, coming through us to find the blessing of Christ.

The roller coaster of the week gone by will be forgotten by most of us in a few weeks time. But what it managed to do for a brief instant was lay bare the tendency that resides deep within us.

It laid bear the rut that is easiest to fall into for those of us who follow Jesus most closely.

It is the danger of being a disciple. It is the danger of being of the company of disciples who fail to see that the cross changes everything.

It is to bring ourselves under the words of Jesus’ rebuke.

It is to be sent out from the presence of Jesus with the calling to relearn to find him: not in the world circumscribed by people like ourselves, but in the face of the child who comes to us in order to find Jesus.

Homebrew

Last week I sat down with Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity fame. He had told me that we were going to talk Reza Aslan, so out of stark fear and an overwhelming instinct of self-preservation, I highjacked the entire conversation, keeping him talking about progressive theology, God being as nice as Jesus, and how to be a Process theologizing youth pastor.

Really, Kirk, God’s love is at LEAST this big!

The proof of the pudding can be found here: “Kirk Have I Loved, but Tripp?

On Blowing Up the Narrative of Blowing Things Up

I was talking with a friend today. She relayed a conversation with another friend. The radical, change-the-world kind of friend. The kind of people I like. (Well, most of the time…)

They had been debating the ethics of destruction of property when the target in view is the bad guys: the animal torturers, the people killers.

Why not demonstrate that there is power arrayed against them?

I was reading a book the other day. It embodied a deep critique of male-dominated religious literature. It put starkly before my eyes the ways that the women in the Bible were assumed to be desirous of whatever man they were given to, that they were treated as appendages to stories and commodified for the boys’ power games.

And it put starkly before my eyes the ease with which we can take up the power we’d been excluded from and turn it on our oppressors. It’s easy to retell the story by reassigning the roles in the same script.

I was watching the Syria situation unfold. It was a situation of horror (actually, it has been for quite some time before chemical weapons were used).

Then we decided to get involved. Someone else was killing and torturing with weapons that we’re not allowed to use. Unless you kill and torture people in another hemisphere while seated in the comfort of Nevada, you’re not allowed to act that way.

So we were going to kill and destroy and torment. Not even for the purpose of changing the characters in the script, but only for the purpose of momentarily playing, “More able to kill than thou.” That was the intended message.

In each, the story of imposition of will by show of force was affirmed as the story by which value, virtue, and place are determined. The narrative of “if I can blow you up, destroy you, I will secure my place and the world be better off” seeps into every crevice because it’s the very water of the ocean in which we live.

When Christians place the cross at the front of our sanctuaries, it is supposed to be a reminder of those great words of Jesus:

It Shall Not Be So Among You

The cross was Rome’s little way of saying that it had sufficient force to keep its power.

The resurrection was God’s little way of saying that God has a different story to tell. God has a power story that overthrows the power stories of the world by refusing to retell them in God’s name.

In a beautiful refusal to play the “I can blow you up” game, the earliest Christians created a new standard of power: walking the way of the cross.

In a stunning escape from the “I can blow you up game,” they did not fall in the colonized people’s trap of striving for the same power and means to power but with themselves in charge.

They surrendered that game to Rome, and claimed different rules altogether. They blew up the narrative of blowing things up.

They saw in Christ the inscribing of a new narrative, and called others to join it: in faith, entrust yourself to God, even to the point of death. See our hopes fulfilled by the God who gives life to the dead.

The Christian calling is nothing if not a relearning in every generation how to tell the story of the Crucified in our personal lives, in our life together, and in the public sphere that will always, it seems, strive for its place by the power of the sword.

Manna

Manna. Bread from heaven.

This is what God gives the hungry Israelites in the wilderness. It is bread from heaven. It is life.

Yes, it’s life.

But only if it’s treated properly.

There are a couple of things you can do with Manna: (1) You can eat what you’ve gathered that day. Or, (2) you can put it in a jar to remember the times when God was faithful in the past.

There’s one thing you can never, ever do with manna: you can’t keep it around. You can’t gather on Monday, hoard what you’ve gathered, and eat off it for the rest of the week. Keep leftovers, and you’ll be looking at maggots in the morning.

Manna is good. Manna is divine provision. Manna is life.Manna

But it is only good for the day on which it is given. To honor the reality of manna given by God is not to try to keep living off of what God gave the day before, but to be stirred to confidence that God will act, again, today.

Manna isn’t just about manna. We face the same challenge continually as people who would walk in faithfulness to God.

God does something amazing–in our lives, in our church community, in church history–and the easiest thing in the world for us to do is to keep going back to this old thing in hopes of continuing to draw life and nourishment from it.

Maggots have protein, so yesterday’s manna can sustain us for a long time, but it’s not the divine provision. The divine provision is only found when we faithfully take what is given for the day and move into the next day with humble, faithful expectation that God will provide for us again.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

We will go out looking for manna. We trust you will provide again tomorrow as you did yesterday.

Pete Rollins, speaking at an event recently, made this claim:

The greatest obstacle to our next experience of God is our last great experience of God.

If we find ourselves stuck looking back at the manna in the wilderness, we’ll never see when the true bread comes down from heaven in the person of Christ. If we find ourselves looking back to the bread in the wilderness, we’ll miss the bread of life given to us each week on the communion table.

How do we honor yesterday? Not by trying to live today on yesterday’s gifts, but by being stirred to faith that the God who so acted then will so act today as well.

From Faith to Follow

I keep coming back to Confessions of Faith. As I dance around this (repeatedly) there’s one major thing I’m trying go get to: we as Christians have regularly created the impression that being a Christian is defined by thinking/believing the right things.

Thinking the right things isn’t bad. At some level it’s necessary. But I don’t want to say with, say, Philip Schaff, that belief in the content of the creeds is “necessary and sufficient” for salvation.

So what if our recitations of our shared narrative began with a phrase other than, “I believe,” a phrase that was was self-involving in a different way?

What if we recited together, instead, something like this?

I worship God the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought us up out of the house of bondage, the God who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all and raised him from the dead;

And I follow Jesus the Messiah, his only begotten son, who was anointed son of God by the Spirit, taught us with authority, healed the sick, fed the hungry, embraced the outcast and the sinner, cast out demons, beckoned us to follow, took up his cross, loved me and gave himself for me, reconciled the world to God, was raised from the dead and enthroned as Lord and King, and sent his followers and Spirit out into the world;

I receive the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, given by Christ that I might walk in faithfulness, receive forgiveness, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, and receive a share in Jesus’ own sonship, speak in God’s name, extend forgiveness, make peace among people, heal the sick, feed the hungry, embrace the outcast and sinner, cast out demons, take up the cross and pour myself out in self-giving love for the good of my neighbor, be raised to newness of life, and thus live and reign with him forever.

That’s what I’m getting at. There are lots of good, true things in our statements. But how do we talk and think about who we are such that we are always remembering that our statements are self-involving? Not merely involving of our minds, or our “hearts,” or our beliefs, but summoning us to participate in the narrative of the coming reign of God?

Thoughts?

Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.

Seriously.

Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”