Saturday, September 10, 2022

The Freedom to Offend




Satanism - What is it?


One of my best friends, Stephen Long, is a Satanist. Does he worship Satan? No. He doesn't even believe Satan (or God) exists. When he meets people, he often describes himself as a non-theist, which, according to him, is an atheist without the superiority complex.

Satan for Satanists is an archetype, a role model, especially patterned after Milton's antihero portrayal of Satan:  Someone who stood up against the majority, even knowing it would fail in the end.

What really upsets Satanists is when they are compared to a troll religion, something akin to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yes, they do engage often in politics and in the legal realm, but they definitely consider themselves a religious organization, with tenets, meetings, dogma, etc.


Blasphemy


Stephen recently wrote a very good article about "Satanic Blasphemy." In it he describes three different types of blasphemy that Satanists normally find themselves in:  "Reactionary," "Transcendent," and "Natural."

Blasphemy is an interesting concept and is one of those hot-button topics that release a lot of preconceived ideas and notions.

What is blasphemy? Merriam-Webster defines it as "the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God" and "the act of claiming the attributes of a deity," which is what Jesus himself was accused of (see Matthew 26:57-67).

Stephen doesn't use this latter definition, but he tends to gravitate towards the first. He describes the Black Mass, which, in my own definition, is a cathartic antithetical ritual to the Christian Mass, renouncing that which previously harmed the people celebrating the Black Mass.


The Black Mass


Once in his Patreon only podcast, Stephen had described the Black Mass in depth to me. It actually had me crying at the end. I do not exactly know why the description of the Black Mass had such a reaction in me, but maybe it was for two reason.

First:  I had come into a new state of acceptance as an out Bisexual Christian male, who was free to be who he is and celebrate worship with other likeminded people. The Black Mass, in comparison to that, was a slap in my face.

Secondly:  Since the Black Mass is a ritual designed to renounce Christianity specifically, I find it truly depressing that such rituals need to be made to renounce what should have been a lifestyle of peace. Christians are perhaps some of the worst people when it comes to dehumanizing and degrading other people, which is exactly the opposite of who Jesus was and is.

Living in a predominately Christian culture, surrounded by and inundated with Christian messages, when one steps out and says they are not Christian, there will be backlash.


But . . . 


It isn't blasphemous to not be a Christian. Jesus certainly wasn't a Christian.

The "blasphemy" that Stephen describes for the most part really isn't blasphemy. It's simply stating "I am not a Christian. I do not worship like you do. Let me be myself."

Unfortunately, being in a predominantly Christian culture, this rarely works out for the best, even when one lives in a country that supposedly espouses freedom of religion.

And the second "but" I have is with one of the Tenets of the Satanic Temple. I have heard the tenets described as being better than the 10 Commandments. That's like comparing apples to oranges.

The Fourth Tenet states that "The freedom of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one's own."

Maybe it's just me, but I do not like this idea of the "freedom to offend." The sentence in and of itself is paradoxical. At one point, they uphold the idea of having the freedom to believe what one wishes to believe, but at the same time authorizes people to offend others. This is hardly conducive at all to forming peace with everyone, but at the same time, most Christians haven't been the best at "loving your neighbor" either.

There is probably a very nuanced hermeneutic to that tenet, but if it is so nuanced, then this tenets isn't expressed very well.


Conclusion?


So, is Stephen the Satanist a blasphemer, worthy of being stoned, like that wonderful scene in "The Life of Brian?" Adhering to its strict definition, no.

Is he a heretic? Well, yes, but so am I. It has become an axiom of mine that we are all heretics to someone else.


Thursday, June 2, 2022

Pride and Acceptance

Quote from Harvey Milk/Artwork by Maddi James


I have a strange relationship with Pride Month. Since being out as bisexual, I hadn't always felt comfortable celebrating Pride. Perhaps it is because I am still learning to love myself and to be who I am despite others' perceptions. Be that as it may, this year I want this Pride to be special for me.

I often drive for Uber and Lyft on my free days. I recall one conversation I had with a passenger. I had just picked him up from a gay bar and he needed to unload a lot of frustration with me. He had just seen someone in the crowd who had sexually assaulted him a year ago and needed to vent to someone about it. He was unable to reach his friends on his phone, so he asked if he could share with me. During our conversation, I had mentioned to him that I myself was bisexual, but my story of coming out and who I am was totally different from his. My passenger interrupted me and said:

"But it is still your story."

That it is. I will never forget that.

Pride has nothing to do with exalting one's self for being queer. Pride means accepting yourself for who you are, no matter what people think of you.


Acceptance


That's really the key to it. Isn't it? I am perhaps a different type of queer person. I am a queer person of faith. Not too many queer people can say that because often times the Church is at the forefront of homophobia and shows little love, except when it calls it "tough love," which in reality is shunning and exclusion.

However, the Church that I attend is markedly different. Every Sunday at the beginning of worship, these lines are spoken:

We come from many different paths to gather here for wide is God's welcome and you are welcome here. If you are young or old, you are welcome. If you have brown skin, black skin, white skin or any color skin, you are welcome. If you are married or single, you are welcome. If you are sick or well, you are welcome. If you are straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual you are welcome. If you are male, female, trans, intersex or nonbinary, you are welcome. If you are an immigrant, you are welcome. If you are a refugee, like Jesus was, you are welcome. If you cannot hear or see, you are welcome. If you are fully-abled, disabled or a person of differing abilities, you are welcome. If you are happy or sad, you are welcome. If you are rich or poor, powerful or weak, you are welcome. If you believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time, you are welcome . . .

There is something powerful about these words. Recently, I had invited a gay friend of mine to come with me to my church. His faith is ambivalent and he grew up in a strict fundamentalist church (which he likes to call a cult) and had an awful experience with this church. I had told him my church was different and that we are affirming, but I don't think he actually believed me at the time. That is, until one of my pastors read those words of welcome, I turned to look at my friend and the tears were silently rolling down his cheeks. Afterwards he told our pastors that he felt as if the whole service had been geared towards him especially.

Acceptance is powerful. Acceptance is so close to love that for many people the two terms are virtually synonymous. If I may be so bold, this brings new meaning for me to the words of Jesus:

"I give you a new commandment:  Accept each other. Just as I have accepted you, so you must also accept each other. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you accept each other." (John 13:34-35) Now, of course, the words of Jesus were actually:  "Love each other."

So, for my cisgender, heterosexual friends, accept your queer acquaintances. Don't try to change them. It never works. Let your friends be who they are.

For my queer friends:  Accept yourselves. You are beautiful and loved. You are accepted and loved by God for who you are, just as you are. You do not need to change.

Happy Pride!

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Dealing With Doubt

Image by chenspec from Pixabay 

Being Vulnerable


Judging by the readership of my blog, I shouldn't be too concerned with being vulnerable. My blog has mostly been for my own benefit and not for others. I am, of course, happy when others do read the blog and it has surprised me at just what sparks everyone's interest. I have discovered that what interests me most tends to be uninteresting for others and what I consider to be innocuous turns into a huge blaze of controversy.

So maybe I'm not the best judge on these issues.

Still . . .

I have been plagued with doubts:  doubts mostly dealing with my faith. I miss being certain about what I believe.


Evangelized by Mormons


I once read an article by the philosopher, Peter Rollins, who hosted something he called "The Evangelism Project." It is a unique take and perspective. Instead of going to other communities to evangelize, one goes to a community to be evangelized. I found the concept fascinating. Instead of telling other people what is wrong with the world, we listen to them tell us what they like about the world and what they think of us and what they can bring to us.

So I did this on my own and allowed myself to be evangelized by Mormons. (Apparently they don't like being called Mormon anymore after their prophet gave them a new revelation.) These young missionaries came to tell me about their views and their beliefs and what they think God would have them do. They were openly candid about their belief in the pre-existence of the soul and that they did not hold to a trinity they way traditional Christians do. They asked if I had any questions for them. I asked them what they thought was wrong with this world and how their Church could help. I asked them what they thought was right with this world. I asked them for their favorite scriptures passages from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon. Then I asked them why they were part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, besides being born into it.

What I discovered was that these were young men who really hadn't been tried in their faith yet. They were extremely friendly, but seemed uncertain as to some aspects of their faith. Their faith hadn't been tested yet. There's nothing wrong with that. I admired their commitment to the faith and their willingness to say they didn't know the answers to some of my questions (especially when I brought up the controversy surrounding their Book of Abraham).

Then I realized that I was probably no better than them when I was their age. I was all sorts of arrogant in my preconceived notions.


What am I doubting?


I am perhaps going through a crisis of faith right now. This is to be expected.

I reach out, trying to touch God, to somehow feel God through prayer and meditation. Nothing happens. I feel nothing.

I watch a friend slowly die of cancer, desperately clinging to his faith, but in the end still dies, having to be sedated to relieve his pain. He prayed to God to heal him, but he wasn't healed of his cancer and succumbed to death. I heard many people give out platitudes, saying his suffering is over and he's no longer in pain, but he's also dead and died in pain. That death had no beauty in it for me.

Is God even there? If God is there, I certainly don't believe that God is all-powerful (omnipotent) or all-knowing (omniscient). As someone who subscribes to panentheism, I can have some hope that God is everywhere (omnipresent).


History repeats itself.


Growing up I often heard the phrase, "History repeats itself," and "no one listens to their elders." So I thought, "What would it be like if we actually did listen to our elders?" So I tried it out. Often times this worked out quite well, but I also lived quite a bland life. The only "outrageous" thing I did was bring my Bible to school. I rarely dated. I went to few dances and had actually very few friends.

Maybe it was because I risked nothing and tried to learn from the mistakes of what previous people did.

I love the TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." One of my favorite episodes is called "Tapestry." In it the main character, Captain Picard, has a life threatening injury that damages his artificial heart. He got the artificial heart when he was a foolish and brash young cadet, who got into a bar fight. Since then he regretted that bar fight and had to live with the consequences of those actions. While unconscious, he is given the opportunity to reverse that decision and go back into time to that bar fight. When the time comes, he avoids the fight altogether and it warps his future. Instead of being a captain of a starship, he is a junior grade science lieutenant, who never advanced his career and never took risks. Although he avoided getting the artificial heart, his own life become a life of mediocrity.

I often think about that show when thinking about my past. I rarely took risks and ended up with a life of mediocrity. It was only when I took risks that my life experienced challenge and excitement.


What does that have to do with anything?


As I think on all this, I realize just how risky it is to doubt about the existence of God, to doubt about eternal life, immortality, and what happens when we die. I am scared to think that God doesn't exist. I am frightened when I think of dying and no longer existing in consciousness. I am afraid to confront the evidence of the non-existence of God.

Some people who are more secure in their faith criticize me for this. That's fine. They can do this.

There are times when I do see the divine, rare as it may be. I try to recapture it, but it is elusive, fleeting, temporal.

I felt close to God when I was meditating by doing a body scan. It was mind-bending, overwhelming, and left me filled with wonder. When I tried to re-create that scenario, it wasn't quite the same as before.

I felt God at the birth of my children, feeling an overwhelming sense of love that overcame any other sense I had known. It is hard to describe the love for your child unless you have had that same experience before.

I often saw God in unexpected places, just like the story of the Good Samaritan, in non-believers:  in atheists, agnostics, and Satanists. I saw God in the devoutness of a Muslim praying at the break of dawn, or whirling in a Sufi trance. I saw God in the tattoo of my friend, which only held coordinates of a Buddhist temple he once meditated at for 4 hours.


But then I saw hate . . . 


I saw hate in the message from a superior in my former denomination, who told me that he stalked me on social media, seeing which posts I like to determine just what type of Christian I was.

I saw hate in the message from my former pastor, who told me I could worship with them at his congregation, but not be a member.

I saw hate from a group of members of my former church, who felt it was their duty to gossip about me and felt it was their duty to weed out undesirable people in that denomination. They certainly succeeded with me.

I saw hate in the drunken eyes of the man who choked me for being bisexual, who wanted to "beat the homosexuality out of me" like a "dog in a cage."

I saw hate in the words of my termination as an ordained minister of The Salvation Army, stripping away the identity I had.

The vast majority of reasons I have for not believing in God come from those who say they love God. It is that hypocrisy I cannot stand. They say they love God, but then shun a whole group of people because of their orientation.

They say they love God, but then call for the death of other people because of their belief system.

They say they love God, but worship a Flag in God's place, pledging allegiance to a country that murders millions with the push of a button.

A friend once told me that he and I don't worship the same God. At first I was saddened because I thought of this man as a brother in faith, but then I realized that in some way I was glad. I didn't like his God, who would condemn the vast majority of humanity to eternal conscious torment for not believing in the right way. What use do I have for a God like that?


My Mantra


Anne Lamott has this quote I have mentioned before and has become a mantra for me:  "The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty."

And while I see the truth in this statement, sometimes it brings me no comfort. The anguish remains and the doubt plagues at my heart, unforgiving in its relentlessness. The loneliness of this world in the paradox of social media overwhelms me sometimes. 

I don't have a happy ending for this blog. One thing I do realize, though, is that if my faith and the practice of my faith does not make this world or myself any better, then that faith is useless. It is totally worthless and a sham.

My doubt is part of my faith. I don't think I would have any faith without it.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

A Progressive New Year

Practical Jokes


I used to be the king of practical jokes. The key to doing a practical joke is to not be around when the joke hits. I was the last person people thought would do a practical joke. One of the best ones I ever did was in college to one of my professors. I attended Asbury College (now University) and had a Christian Ministries professor.

I had received a scholarship from Campus Life, which is a now defunct Christian youth magazine that was called Ignite Your Faith, before going belly up. Because I got a scholarship from them, I also received their magazine. Every so often, they would send me a stack of postcards with about 500 Christian universities, colleges, and seminaries, which I could fill out and request more information about their institution. The Internet was around, but in its very primitive form. So requesting this information was by snail mail.

So, as a practical joke, I filled them all out in one of my professor's names. I held no animosity towards him. In fact, he was one of my favorite professors and I thought he could take this joke very well.

Imagine spam mail, but just in the snail mail version. This is what happened to him. Slowly he became inundated with huge envelopes from all of these colleges and universities around the country, thinking that he wanted to attend their college as a prospective transfer student. I made one mistake. I anonymously left a note for my professor on our attendance sheet, which said, "Have you gotten any mail lately?" He shrewdly compared handwriting and deduced that I was the culprit. On the very last day of class, before finals, he had a huge box of mail that he dumped in front of me on my desk and told the class what I had done.

He took it good-naturedly and even remarked that one of the letters he received was from a fellow student he had been in college with that he had to fire from the college newspaper.

This practical joke had been good-natured, but Jesus told a parable of a practical joke, that was not good-natured at all.




The Parable of the Weeds


Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds appeared.

"The servants of the landowner came and said to him, 'Master, didn't you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?'

"'An enemy has done this,' he answered. The servants said to him, 'Do you want us to go and gather them?'

"But the landowner said, 'No, because if you gather the weeds, you'll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at the harvest time I'll say to the harvesters, "First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn."'" (Matthew 13:24-30 CEB)


I like this parable a lot. A farmer had planted some wheat in his field. Someone maliciously went and sowed weeds along with the wheat. The Greek word for the weeds (sometimes called "tares" in older Bible translations) is thought to be ryegrass, a type of plant that looks similar to wheat as it grows, but doesn't produced seeds for human consumption and is often a culprit of hay fever.

As the crop grows, the farmer's servants notice what has happened and offer to weed out the ryegrass. The farmer declines this, saying that they might accidentally pull out wheat along with the weeds. It would be better to wait until the harvest time when it would be much easier to sort the good crop from the weeds.


This is the Realm of Heaven


Just a note about the word, "kingdom." I have many friends who object to the term, mostly due to the masculine implications of the word and assigning gender to God. My own church likes to use the created word, "kin-dom," to imply that we are all kin with each other and with God. If the word is a stumbling block to you, think of it more as a "realm."

This realm is not something we are striving to work towards when we die, but is something for us to establish here and now. This parable, especially, shows us how we should treat each other. Often we like to evaluate and judge people immediately and consign them to hell. We want to harvest the crops too early. This has happened so often:  the Spanish Inquisition, the Peasant Wars of Europe during the Reformation, the Salem Witch Trials, "Farewell, Rob Bell," etc. When Rob Bell wrote his extraordinary book, Love Wins, many Evangelicals, like John Piper, felt that he had left Christianity because he dared to critically look at our understanding of Hell.

People are quick to judge and slow to be patient.

Jesus said that we shouldn't do this. Leave any "judging" to God. God will handle it. 

And we? What should we do?

Live life. Be kind to each other. Possibly the worse thing to do is to exclude someone from your community because they are different. Maybe they think or believe differently than you. Maybe you believe that they don't worship the same God as you. So what? Treat them as if they were created in the image of God because that is exactly what they are.

When the Harvest time comes, in whatever way God sees fit for that to come, let God do the work. It's God's job anyway.

Let us make this New Year one where we treat everyone as if they are loved by God.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Progressive Christmas - the Kwisatz Haderach

O Little Town of Bethlehem


Image by 2427999 from Pixabay 

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah's forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out of you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth; he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5a CEB)


Recognize the picture? It is the new Berlin Wall and it is located in Bethlehem, separating the Palestinians who live there from the rest of the Holy Land. If ever there were an abomination on this Earth, this is one of them. One of the greatest tragedies of our times is that the three great Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism cannot live in peace in the land of their birth.

I visited Bethlehem once. It was one of the most spectacular and at the same time saddest places I had visited in all of the Holy Land. The wall separated Bethlehem from the rest of the country. Even our Jewish guides were not allowed in Bethlehem because of the animosity there. We had Palestinian Christian guides, who informed us that the number of Christians had gone down significantly in Bethlehem, which at one time was 50% Christian. According to our guides, the population of Christians had been depleted by the Israeli government, which had been exacerbated by this wall. I find it sad that many American Christians equate the Israeli government with the Jewish people, when this is not the case. The Israeli government doesn't speak for Judaism just like the American government doesn't speak for Christianity.

This city, this little town, however, has become a symbol for Christmas.


The Prophecy


This prophecy, as with other Messianic prophecies quoted in the New Testament, had a much different meaning than its Christian one. The prophet, Micah, is one of the 8th Century prophets. He lived approximately 800 years before the birth of Jesus. At the time, the nation of Judah (and Israel) had been harassed by the Assyrian Empire. They were looking for hope. It came in the form of this prophecy. Just as David had been born in Bethlehem, so would the coming savior. However, it wasn't sins that the people needed to be saved from:  it was the Assyrians. If you keep reading on, you will notice that the antagonists are the Assyrians and this savior would rescue them from this empire.

That didn't happen.

But the prophecy remained and people sought other meanings from it. So when a young Jewish rabbi from Nazareth, but born in Bethlehem, started preaching, this prophecy was in people's eyes again. Perhaps this is the one to deliver us from the Evil Empire, but this time from Rome?


I'm troubled.


When I read these prophecies again, I am filled with consternation. I don't know why our Christian ancestors insisted on hijacking this prophecy and say it was meant for Jesus. Maybe it's my 21-Century logical mind that is getting in the way. Perhaps Christians back then saw parallels between these ancient prophecies, which had no obvious connection to Jesus, and said that these were similar to them.

If we are to believe the Gospels, even the priests and religious scholars at the time believed that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.

But why the obvious deviation? What is going on here?


Jesus: the Kwisatz Haderach


My parents introduced me to the movie and books of Dune. When David Lynch's version came out in the 1980's, they said I might not understand it, but I probably would like it. They were right about the latter part. Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, was an atheist, but he often wrote about religion and how it was used to manipulate the masses. Dune is no exception to this. A female order, called the Bene Gesserit, wanted to create the perfect man. As such, they had a eugenics program to create a male version of their order. They were also adept at infiltrating cultures and planting prophecies that would benefit and shield their members, should the need arise.

The version of their messiah was called the Kwisatz Haderach. He was to be a type of superhuman who could have the memories of all of his ancestors. The protagonist, Paul Atreides, became this promised Messiah, but came a generation early. He and his mother used and manipulated the prophecies the Bene Gesserit had created. Paul was the Kwisatz Haderach, but he was also something more.

Sometimes I wonder if Jesus were like this.

People tried to manipulate and use Jesus. They used prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures to link him to being the promised Messiah. They were looking for a deliverer, but Jesus became more than this.

Jesus is famously quoted in his "Sermon on the Mount" as saying:  "Don't even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven't come to do away with them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17 CEB)

And then Jesus promptly went and changed several laws, making them more humane than they were before.


Jesus - the Messiah


I look at Jesus:  this young man, killed by religious people for being too liberal and committing heresy. Killed for not renouncing the claim that he was the Son of God. Executed for treason by the Romans. This man became a synergy of the human and divine. He became much more than the prophecies. He became something unexpected.

I, a mere human, have been trying to figure him out for such a long time. Jesus is more than the prophecies that we manipulated into saying they applied to him. In many ways, I am getting to know him all over again. He is more than I had imagined.

This Christmas, I celebrate him again, hoping to pattern my life after his.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

A Progressive Advent - The Virgin Birth

Photo by Francesco Ungaro from Pexels


Mansplaining


I feel quite inadequate to address the concept of Mary and the Virgin Birth. Growing up Protestant, we were definitely taught to respect Mary and to believe that she was a virgin when Jesus was born. That was supremely important. Afterwards, we were taught to continue to believe that she and Joseph had other children, including James and Jude, who were believed to have written the Epistles of those same names.

The Catholic view of Mary was very foreign to me growing up:  Revered, exalted, portrayed as a perpetual virgin and the "Queen of Heaven." This fascination seemed for me tantamount to a worship of Mary. I have since come to realize that this is false misconception, spurred on by the hundreds of years of animosity between Catholics and Protestants.

Which brings us to this week's lectionary reading from Luke 1:26-38 (CEB):

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named, Joseph, a descendant of David's house. The virgin's name was Mary.

When the angel came to her, he said, "Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!" She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob's house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom."

Then Mary said to the angel, "How will this happen since I haven't had sexual relations with a man?"

The angel replied, "The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God's Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled 'unable to conceive' is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God."

Then Mary said, "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be with me just as you have said." Then the angel left her.


EWTN


Growing up, I remember sometimes scrolling through the endless amount of channels to watch. I no longer have cable, but back then it seemed (for a teenager) that it was a necessity. Still I got bored. Occasionally I would wander onto the Catholic channel, EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). There I would see this kind old nun, Mother Angelica, host these great programs. Sometimes they would even do televised rosaries. That was my first introduction to the "Hail Mary."

The repetitious nature of the rosary was alien to my Protestant ears and torture for my younger sister. She hated listening to it, so I would keep it on the channel anyways to spite her. Siblings will be siblings. However, the "Hail Mary" has its roots in this scripture passage.


The Controversial Part . . . 


Do I believe Mary was actually a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus?

No.

Do I believe it was necessary for Jesus to be born from a virgin?

No.

(Let the online debates begin.)

Here is my reasoning behind it and my caveat. More than likely after several years, I will have different thoughts on this subject.

Neither the Gospels of Mark nor John make any reference that Mary was a virgin. Mark actually takes pains to point out that Jesus had other sisters and brothers (see the end of Mark 3). Mark was most likely written before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nowhere in the writings of Paul (or the pseudo-Paul epistles) do you find any mention of the virgin birth. Again, Paul wrote his letters before a single Gospel was actually written. If the Virgin Birth were so important, why isn't it mentioned anywhere else in the Bible?

Matthew seems to want to bring a parallel of the birth of Jesus to the "virgin" birth mentioned in Isaiah 7:14. This had nothing to do with a messianic prophecy and it is quite obvious that Matthew was quoting from the Septuagint and not the original Hebrew Scriptures, which makes no mention of a virgin at all.

Luke wants to emphasize the supernatural importance of Jesus' birth and his future ministry. At the same time, he continues to emphasize that Jesus was a descendant of David. Jesus really can't be a descendant of David if he were actually born of a virgin. Mary's lineage is not discussed in the Bible. I know most people might just let that one slide. I tend to let the virgin birth slide.


Why would a virgin birth be important?


Some have said that it was necessary for Jesus to be born of a virgin to avoid humanity's Original Sin. Well, Original Sin wasn't a concept for our Jewish friends and it wasn't a tenet of Christianity until Saint Augustine of Hippo came up with this idea. There are even other Christians who believe that Mary was immaculately conceived, that her mother was a virgin when she was born.

The ancient understanding of fertility is not what we think of today. The ancients believed that the male carried the seed of a human and women were only the ground on which the seed was planted. This gives rise to the talk in the Bible of women being "barren" like a field is barren that cannot produce crops despite seeds being planted there. Our understanding of human reproduction nullifies this idea.

The main concept, however, that the writers of the Gospels were trying to bring is that Jesus was extraordinary, especially from his birth on. There was something unique about him, which was similar to the births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel. Even the Gospel of John indicates that Jesus as the Christ existed with God before his birth.

The idea of virgin births was also not new to the other religious societies surrounding Judea at the time of Jesus' birth.

Sometimes in our modern world we tend to take too literally stories from the Bible, when they were told symbolically. John Dominic Crossan, in his book, "Who is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus," states:  "My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally."


And Mary?


In our modern sensibilities, many have taken issue with this pronouncement from the angel, Gabriel, that Mary had no choice in the matter. In essence, that the decision for her to give birth to the child was forced upon her, almost as if it were a divine rape.

If we are to continue to look at this scripture, though, we can see that Mary was not apprehensive at all about the situation. Curious as to how it was possible? Yes. Was she not willing for it to happen? That was just the opposite.

We see this incredible speech by Mary, what we call the "Magnificat." She praises God that God has "pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly." God has "filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed." (Luke 1:52, 53 CEB)

It seems to me that Mary actually revels in the idea of giving birth to the Messiah. She rejoices and knows this is a cause for celebration and that the Messiah would turn the world upside down, raising the lowly and the weak and crushing the powerful and the rich.


What about me?


I grew up in a denomination (The Salvation Army) that placed little value on sacraments and recitation of creeds. To this day I could not recite the Apostle's Creed from memory, let alone the Nicene Creed. The Salvation Army developed its own creeds and sacraments (although they would deny this to anyone) through their doctrines, flag-waving, and singing about themselves. (Seriously, they are the only denomination I know that sings about itself.)

But having that upbringing, I have no qualms about not saying any of the creeds. They were not formative for me. (The creeds bring up the statement that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.)

And Jesus? Because I don't believe in a virgin birth, what does that do to my concept of Jesus? In a word:  nothing. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God. Jesus is the Word of God for me. I follow his teachings, who did not claim to be God, but insisted on calling himself the "Human One" (Son of Man was the old term). Paul celebrates Jesus' humanity, stating that Jesus did not exploit any divine prerogative, but he "emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming a human being" (Philippines 2:7 CEB). Paul commends us to be like Jesus.

So I will do just like Jesus did. I will be human. I will be like Mary and pray that the rich will be overthrown and the weak and lowly will be exalted.

Friday, December 10, 2021

A Progressive Advent - Who am I to Judge?

Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA from Pexels

Mystical Experiences


Have you ever had a mystical experience? You experienced something so profound, but had a difficult time trying to explain it. That's my best definition of a mystical experience. If I'm being honest with myself, I have experienced this both as a conservative Evangelical and as a Progressive Christian. Mysticism is not unique to any one religion, either. Normally it is very difficult for me to describe.

Once a friend of mine asked her friends for advice on devotions to read or whatever enhanced our Christian life. Something that has profoundly affected me is contemplative meditation, specifically body scanning. My friend had never heard of it and she looked it up. She thanked me for the advice, but said that she wasn't looking for relaxation techniques, but for something to read, like a book.

I smiled. Body scanning, when one looks at it initially, does seem to be a type of relaxation technique, but it is more than that and it's hard to quantify. I first learned about it through the Liturgists Podcast. In their guided meditation, not only was I relaxed, which was an initial benefit of the meditation, but I also felt closer and more one with God than I ever had before. The experience was truly profound just as it was inexplicable. Those of you who just looked up the link probably are also scratching your heads to figure out what this has to do with Christianity.

It's a mystery.


There are certain aspects of my spiritual life that are so hard to fathom. This is one of them.

Paul, in his letter to the believers in Corinth, Greece, tried to expound on this (1 Corinthians 4:1-5 CEB):

So a person should think about us this way - as servants of Christ and managers of God's secrets. In this kind of situation, what is expected of a manager is that they prove to be faithful. I couldn't care less if I'm judged by you or by any human court; I don't even judge myself. I'm not aware of anything against me, but that doesn't make me innocent, because the Lord is the one who judges me. So don't judge anything before the right time - wait until the Lord comes. He will bring things that are hidden in the dark to light, and he will make people's motivations public. Then there will be recognition for each person from God.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Paul said it was like someone who is a manager of God's secrets (or mysteries). That is normally not exactly the first thing that pops up into someone's head when they think of a Christian, but that should be what we do. We are managers of Christ's mysteries.

What does that look like? I believe it's all in our attitude and how we engage other people. A loving attitude is how we should engage others.


Losing My Religion


When I was going through my divorce, I reached out to one of my mentors. He dropped everything he was doing and came down to be with me while my life and my ministry came undone. He listened to the heartache I was going through and was by my side. We don't believe the same things about God and theology: far from it, but he was there for me in a way that I will never forget. He was a servant of the mysteries of Christ.

I had just moved into a new apartment. My family was a great support to me and helped me move as best as they could, but physically this was very difficult for them due to their age and health issues. Being new to the area, I reached out to a friend who dropped everything he was doing and helped me move into my new apartment. He and I believe so vastly differently as far as theology is concerned. He is a conservative Pentecostal, but he was also a servant of the mysteries of Christ.

I had just been told I was unwelcome at my last church because of my views on marriage equality. I nearly thought I should leave it all behind. If that was how other Christians treated each other, why should I stay in that religion? Then I remembered this church, where the pastor had spoken up on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community so forcefully before the city council. I thought to myself, "If ever there were a church I would choose to attend, it would be this." So I went to this church, introduced myself to the pastor, who invited me to coffee. When I told him my story about being bisexual, being defrocked, and being told I wasn't welcome to be a member of my old church, he didn't bat an eye. He just accepted me for who I was. He was a servant of the mysteries of Christ.

I was not judged.

That could have happened, too. In all honesty, it did happen, but not by these people. I had family members who condemned me for being a sinner for being bisexual. No one, except for one person, from my last division (an administrative division of The Salvation Army) reached out to me to ask me if I was ok or to even ask me what happened. Instead, most of them gossiped about me and speculated as to why I had been terminated as an officer (pastor) in The Salvation Army. When I was rejected as a member of The Salvation Army and had to fight to become a member, most of the people in the local congregation unfriended me on social media or outright blocked me. 

It would have been so easy to lose my faith. I nearly did because of the hatred shown to me by those in my faith.

Why do I stay? It's because there were those who did not judge me.

Paul says as much:  "So don't judge anything before the right time - wait until the Lord comes."

One of the things that has hurt me the most was the judgment from other people. Christians would say that they were trying to tell me "the truth in love," but mostly that meant:  "This is how I am right and you are wrong." It was never showing me love, but trying to argue with me. I'll admit it. I am prone to engage such arguments, but these have proven to be fruitless.

Christians, both conservative and progressive, are masters at judging and canceling each other out. (By canceling, I mean getting a group of people to no longer support or acknowledge someone who used to be a part of their community.) Sometimes this is called "shunning." This is one of the most hurtful and hateful things Christians do and it rarely brings the intended effect.

Are there times when we shouldn't support another person because what they are doing is actually harming people? Absolutely. However, that should also be the absolute last resort and not the weapon one chooses right away.

Instead, we should be more prone to love, not judge. We should assume the best in people, not the worst. We should look on each other as God does:  created in God's image. When we see the divine in someone else, our attitude should change. It might not change the other person, but it should change us.

During this Advent, my hope for myself is to be more a manager of the mysteries of Christ and less a sentry posted at a gate that God has kept unlocked.