Friday, December 28, 2007

The Practicing Progressive


Several Decembers ago, our congregation had just finished singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and most of us Lutherans were feeling as pleased as punch about our musical rendition. We were, if the truth be known, perilously close to committing the sin of pride, a particularly insidious indiscretion for our sometimes curious brand of Christianity. In the silent afterglow of our singing, a young man raised his hand and asked if he could address the gathered. He asked respectfully but with such intensity that I felt I couldn’t deny him and, besides, it was, after all, the Christmas season.

He strode to the front of the church looked out upon us all, offered his Arabic name, and told us he was a resident of Bethlehem, the one just outside of Jerusalem and to which entrance is determined by armed guards of the Israeli army. “I am here to tell you that despite your lovely hymn there is no peace in Bethlehem. There is instead very little hope in the place where Jesus was born.” He went on in his gentle but passionate manner to describe in disturbing detail the situation in his home town. When he finished there were few of us who felt much like belting out “Joy to the World!”

His intrusion into our normally pleasant little Sunday worship was more than a temporary disturbance. Ever since that disquieting morning, I’ve had trouble singing that old favorite with its evocation of a sweetly still little town.

Three of the world’s major religions refer to the land occupied by Israel and Palestine as holy but by all appearances it is anything but. Hardly a day goes by without news reports detailing the violent deaths of residents of one side by residents of the other. Our president’s recent attempt to facilitate reconciliation between warring factions is to be lauded but my sources indicate word on the street is far less hopeful.

Hatred fed by religious fervor is surely the most destructive force at work today. Any Christian with even a cursory understanding of history must admit to horrific atrocities in the name of the faith. Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and more would have to confess to similar acts of carnage. This very week, a gathering of normally peaceful Hindus in India wrecked havoc upon Christian homes and churches for some perceived slight. Arguably, religion has done more to create havoc in the world than any other social force.

All of which is why a picture from strife-torn Iraq in the news this week did more to lift my spirits than all the carols we sang on Christmas Eve. The photo was of the Christmas Mass in Mar Eliya Church in Baghdad. The pews were packed and sitting in the very front row were Shiite Muslim clerics and tribal leaders. They were announcing by their presence to be “in solidarity with our Christian brothers…to plant the seed of love again in New Iraq.”

Such sentiment is welcomed, of course, and I dare say may be part of a growing movement among some Muslims and Christians for greater understanding between these two monotheistic faith traditions. Indeed, this past October, 138 Muslim clerics and academics issued a document called “A Common Word” that announced their conviction that Christians and Muslims are both committed to “Love of one God and love of neighbor.” !00 Christian leaders, including Southern Baptist Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Life” fame and Robert Schuller from the mega-church Crystal Cathedral, signed a similar document in response entitled, “Loving God and Neighbor Together.”

Any attempt to find commonalities and to work cooperatively among various religious traditions should be both acknowledged and encouraged in the midst of continuing conflicts fed too often by religious fervor. Here in the mountains, the Vail Chapel, serving as host to a variety of religious traditions, is a stellar example of religious cooperation as it shares not just a worship center but office and fellowship space as well. Not only does such an arrangement contribute to goodwill and understanding among the congregants, it gently coerces clergy as well. It can be very awkward for a Lutheran pastor to bad mouth a Baptist preacher on Sunday morning only to meet him at the water cooler on Monday afternoon.

Which is precisely the point. The more the various faith traditions co-mingle and co-operate, the more possibilities for peace become present. Over and over again this truth is made evident. Whether it comes in a Christmas pew packed with Muslim clerics or a lone Palestinian man pleading his case to a congregation of slightly uncomfortable Christians.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Dec.22. 2007

It’s easy to be a cynic at this time of year. A quick stroll through Wal-Mart is probably all one needs these days to feel the hard shell of misanthropy encircling the heart. Inflatable crèches with “Happy Birthday Jesus” blinking in the background can accomplish much in turning even the most amicable agnostic into a sneering skeptic.

I’m actually quite an admirer of Jesus but I bemoan what much of religion and society has turned him into. I suppose it was inevitable that we’d get a miracle story surrounding his birth but turning those few pleasurable biblical paragraphs into a multi-trillion dollar industry seems a bit over the top to me.

Still, I don’t want my creeping cynicism to prevent me from remaining objective about divine intervention. After all, the Texas Board of Education is still claiming legitimacy for the six days of creation and a friend of mine admits to praying each time she goes into the City Market parking lot for a spot close to the front doors and, she claims, it inevitably appears although she also admits it sometimes takes ten or fifteen minutes for the miracle to actually take place.

Someone once said that coincidences are miracles where God chooses to be anonymous but I have a hunch the Almighty might be missing entirely from some of the recent allegations of celestial interference. “It was meant to be” claimed a bride named Mary from Provo, Utah. She married Brian Christmas earlier this year. Think about it. Or take the inevitable reports this time of year that claim someone has discovered Jesus’ actual manger in the basement of a home in Toledo or a similarly stretched astronomical assertion that exactly pinpoints a certain star’s earth-illuminating rays two thousand and six December 25ths ago. Such contentions only provide additional fodder for our growing cynicism.

Christmas letters are similarly suspect. We tread perilously close to wading into a sea of cynicism when we sit down to read our December mail. I mean, after all, what are the odds that every one of your Christmas correspondents’ kids are graduating summa cum laude from Oxford or just returned from a 3 year mission trip to the Amazon? (Disclosure: Even as I write this my wife is racing to the post office to mail the first of our thirty-three thousand yuletide epistles, each one claiming similar feats of progeny wonders.)

Christmas Eve holds its own temptations toward cynicism, particularly for the cleric. It is difficult at best for the pious pastor to look out upon the crowds that pack the sanctuary on this particular night and not wonder where all the folk were during the last fund drive. I especially remember the midnight service some years back when an inebriated part-time disciple loudly demanded change for the ten-spot he dropped into the offering plate.

Nevertheless, and despite anything Pat Robertson has to say at this time of year about Jesus coming back to damn to hell all homosexuals, Democrats and liberal-leaning Lutherans, I will continue to fight the good fight, trying desperately to resist temptation as I struggle against Christmas cynicism and so, in the best St. Perry Como tradition (Indeed, picture me, if you will, wearing a Santa hat and offering the grandest of smiles!), I wish you all the happiest of holidays.

I would like to add, however, for the sake of my own integrity and the future of all religions everywhere and with the foreknowledge that such action reveals my own moral and spiritual weakness, that I will be withholding my aspirations of goodwill from those folk who have, over the course of the past year, angrily flipped me off while driving speedily by…only to reveal a fish sticker swimming upon their back bumper.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Practicing Progressive


San Juan Capistrano is about to become noticed for more than just the swallows that return to its mission each year. This week a federal lawsuit was filed against a local high school teacher that contends he has made disparaging remarks about Christianity in class that were “highly inappropriate” and caused Christian students to “feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens”.

James Corbett, who teaches Advanced Placement European History at Capistrano Valley High School, finds himself as another potential victim of an increasingly popular movement that seeks to pit some followers of religion against reasonable pedagogical standards.

When a writer’s life is threatened for musing upon the less savory sayings of Muhammad, for instance, or when a college professor is silenced and accused of being anti-Semitic for criticizing the policies of Israel, our ability to objectively pursue intellectual insight suffers another blow. Sacrosanct belief systems can certainly be worthy of respect, even reverence, but they should hold no elevated status in an educational forum. Religions and religious systems should be subject to the same objective scrutiny as any other current or historical endeavor receives. Avoiding analyzing a religion for fear of offending its adherents makes a mockery of intellectual inquiry.

One of the great temptations of this hyper-sensitivity to religion is the current tendency to eliminate all religious references in the classroom. Appreciated or not, the Bible is arguably the most influential book in the development of western civilization and yet most public schools shy away from offering a curriculum that includes any analysis of the book at all. Countless political movements, innumerable works of literature, causes of war and forces for peace have been shaped by biblical passages and inspired by scriptural interpretations and yet one is hard pressed to find much reference to the Bible anywhere in the classroom.

It is a prickly issue to be sure but its difficulty should not be resolved by simply avoiding the problem. How does one understand the Zionist movement of the 20th century without a passing knowledge of the stories in Exodus? How do we make sense of Sunni and Shiite differences that may ignite a Third World War without studying the development of Islam? All of Asia is permeated by a plethora of religions that most westerners know little or nothing about. China and India are positioned to become the most economically influential countries in the world. Can we understand their political strategies or cultural differences without at least a cursory grasp of their religions? Christianity’s history is rich with art and music, architectural wonders and even scientific achievements but there is also a darker side of political intrigue, scholarly suppression and murderous wars. Surely understanding our present is at least partially dependent on scrutinizing our past and yet we have this educational void that threatens to grow larger with each egregious lawsuit.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m convinced that religion holds enormous power over both our past history and our current conditions. To ignore that power is to not just fail to understand how we got where we are but to fail to devise a workable plan for the future.
You don’t need Santayana’s oft-quoted warning, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” to understand the importance of historical analysis. A quick survey of our Iraqi pre-war intelligence, an oxymoron if ever there was one, makes painfully evident what can happen when we are ignorant of religious and cultural histories.

Rather than run from potential lawsuits by relinquishing the importance of religious literature and history, schools should recognize the enormous threat to honest intellectual inquiry that is posed by such litigation. There are times, I’ll grudgingly admit, when discretion is the better part of valor but, as we currently are witness to religious wars being waged around the world and in our own nation, this is surely not the time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

December 10, 2007

The second Sunday in Advent had us worshiping with the saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. If you’re not familiar with this very different congregation, I’ll give you a brief description of our Sunday morning experience.

The facility is relatively new and very beautiful. Done in a style that is reminiscent of the wooden Russian Orthodox churches that were built along the northern California coast in the last couple of centuries, St. Gregory of Nyssa is located in a semi-industrial area of the city. It has the particular good fortune of being situated directly across from the Anchor Brewery, a source of great memories from my seminary days.

We were greeted at the door and asked to fill out nametags…red if you were a first-timer and black if you had visited before. The sanctuary is famous for its dramatic depiction of dancing saints that surround you as you enter the nave. It is a great collection of celestial celebrities that aren’t limited to just those of the Christian persuasion. There is even a dog dancing above your head…which is more than coincidental as I will soon reveal.

Luther is there and so is Gandhi and MLK Jr. and a host of others…go to their website for a neat illustration.

The nave is divided into two distinct parts. At one end are comfortable chairs divided into two sections that face each other. In the space between the chairs is a reading stand on one end, surrounded by a plethora of staffs that support all kinds of beautiful fabrics and designs. At the other end is a settee out of the movie “The Ten Commandments”. It is here that the preacher, seated, offers his homily. Next to the settee is a set of large bell bowls that are rung in sequence at appropriate times.

As we sat, waiting for worship to begin, several people made their way over to us to offer their welcome. Most welcoming, however, was a large mixed-breed dog whose owner laughingly told us that we were sitting in his pet’s favorite pew. Being dog people ourselves, the pup offered a wonderful introduction to our worship experience.

There were no musical instruments to be seen and, indeed, the worship was done entirely a capella. The service of the word moved at a meditative pace with some chanting of Psalms, a reading from Romans and a commentary from the preacher with reflections from the congregation as well. Periods of silence were particularly appreciated by me…although I must confess that this part of the worship experience was entirely too orthodox for me but, then, I’ve come to the conclusion that just about any Christian worship is too orthodox for me.

After a time of silence, we moved to the other half of the sanctuary where the table is placed. There are no chairs here and we entered singing and circling the table throughout the verses. We were then led into a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer with full body movement including prostrating ourselves on the sanctuary floor several different times. The Peace was shared with lots of hugs but respectful of visitors’ awkwardness in the midst of the congregation’s own intimacy. Beautiful prayers were offered and many of the congregants added their own petitions as well. There was a clear invitation to all to commune and while the bread was distributed by the celebrant, we offered the cup to each other.

Then we danced with the saints. Still in our circle, one of the priests instructed us as to the four step circle dance that we were about to employ. It was reasonably simple to follow and after a few faltering attempts, it was a delight to do. Such activity does tend to break down any inhibitions among the worshippers and served, as well, to help us experience the mural that was painted above us in a new and very existential way.

After the benediction, the worship table was stripped and quickly became the place for coffee and goodies. Such a transformation had the congregation remaining around the table for much longer than traditional worship allows.

No question that we will return to worship again…especially after the announcement that first-time visitors were expressly asked not to put anything in the offering basket but rather reflect on their experience in worship and, if they returned, to then give generously.

I seem to remember that this particular ministry was commenced by a priest who had significant financial resources of his own. In any case, such a style would certainly be dependent on a few very dedicated folk who were willing to support a congregation with a decidedly non-traditional worship that is anything but “contemporary”.

The current state of Christian worship, be it traditional or contemporary, rarely appeals to folk who are looking for theological integrity and intellectual challenge in their religious experience. The good folk at St. Gregory of Nyssa seem to be seeking to rectify that incongruity with an unusual approach that invites serious consideration for progressive Christians.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

I was standing in a garden, a beautiful garden filled with gazebos and fountains, flooded with the light from hundreds, thousands, of the tiniest of oil lamps. It was the Hindu festival of Tihar, a five day long celebration of life that has its participants honoring all of creation. On this night, the festival manifested itself in flickering flames throughout Kathmandu. Out of the chaos that characterizes much of the city, I was guided through an aged stone portal and into this respite of quiet and charm called, most appropriately, The Garden of Dreams.

The Chinese concept of Yin and Yang came slowly to mind as I stood surrounded by candlelight, captivated by the contrast between the bedlam just beyond the garden's walls and this island of serenity. Recognizing the opposing forces of our nature that can keep us so wonderfully in balance or so painfully askew, I was grateful for this opportunity to experience its truth first hand.

Of course, a balanced life can be achieved in New York or North Dakota as easily as Nepal. It begins with the recognition that our spirit needs to be fed just as surely as our body. Such sustenance can come in a myriad of ways. For some it is traditional: communal worship, private prayer, ritual acts of obedience. For others, a less structured spiritual life takes its shape in a quiet walk through the woods or a boisterous song from the shower. The possibilities are endless, subject only to our own imaginations.

In the West, the truth of the aphorism: "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy." is played out in an epidemic of exhaustion that leaves parents little time with their children and almost none for each other. Our race to succeed in one world has us failing dismally in another. From well-appointed homes we send out children bereft of the spiritual nurture needed to bring our society back into balance.

Here in Nepal, where it is said there are more temples than houses, the quest for balance takes a decidedly different course. While Nepali culture should pride itself on its admirable hospitality toward differing religious traditions and its communal celebration of the spiritual life, one glance at a child rummaging through a pile of garbage on the side of a Kathmandu road is enough of a catalyst for an entirely different consideration. This is a country with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world at $300. Balance for the Nepalese will come when bodies are fed as enthusiastically as their souls.

I have long been enamored with religious systems that not only recognize the theoretical merit of the balanced life but make its achievement a paramount goal. Among these attractive South Asian people, the work of Mother Teresa and The Sisters of Charity comes readily to mind. The sisters' adherence to a religious understanding I do not share doesn't prevent me from enthusiastically supporting their work among the poorest of the poor. To find similar sentiments in other traditions should be a cause for celebration rather than conflict. Be they Buddhists or Born-Again Christians, Sudanese Muslims or Sri Lanka Sikh, religious folk who find ways of putting the truth of the balanced life into practice are, at least in my mind, the holiest of people.

In our race for our own particular rewards, we can become so convinced that only our tradition, only our system of beliefs, only our understanding of history, only our concept of what is civilized and what is not, is the only legitimate means of measuring progress. By such foolish convictions we become terribly out of balance and our actions then reflect that instability. Recognizing this reality helps explain the sad predicament we in the West now find ourselves in.

Standing amidst the flickering flames in the mysteriously lovely Garden of Dreams, I see not just the beauty of one night in Kathmandu but perhaps the answer to a world gone terribly wrong.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

September 1, 2007
Issue 29

Certainly the most exciting news item of the past week for me and I suspect for many, many others, was the revelations found in a new publication of Mother Teresa’s correspondence with a variety of confidants over many decades of her life. The letters reveal a deep disappointment with her spiritual life especially as it pertained to her perceived inability to experience the presence of God. Her confessions are being played out in the media as shocking disclosures that are shaking the walls of Christendom. Certain ardent atheists are having a field day with their claims (ala Bill Maher) that “She was on my side all along!”

The truth is something far more subtle and easily recognizable by millions of religious folk who have experienced similar doubts and anxieties along their own spiritual paths.

Many years ago, I authored a book entitled: “Confessions of a Christian Agnostic”. In it I tried to articulate some of the questions that are inherent in any religious faith but particularly to Christianity. In the intervening time I have received hundreds of letters from folk who enthusiastically identified with the idea of being both faithful and doubtful. This conundrum centered on the conviction that a good deal of Christianity was shaped by archaic understandings and ancient rites that had little to do with the personal quest to follow the teachings of Jesus. Many correspondents took great comfort in knowing there were others within Christianity with similar concerns. Unlike the caricatures of Christians employed by rabid anti-religionists on the one hand and fervent fundamentalists on the other, these spiritual sojourners found great meaning in their Christianity without abiding by outdated doctrines or primitive world views. Following in the path of Jesus…feeding the hungry, serving the poor, welcoming the stranger, working for peace and justice…unencumbered by arbitrary institutional mandates was a liberating and profoundly rewarding spiritual experience.

There are many Christian Agnostics who are distancing ourselves from archaic images of a anthropomorphic God “up there, out there” and aligning ourselves with the teachings of Jesus who often described the divine as being “in our midst”. In every act of compassion, in every gesture of charity and hospitality, in the search for peace, justice and mercy, there is, according to Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven”, the very presence of all that is holy.

In the current debate about the value of religion many fail to understand that faith isn’t always about doctrine and dogma. Many of us find great religious benefit in the way we live rather than what we are or are not supposed to believe. Ancient creeds matter less to us than current compassionate commitments. It is interesting to note that in three of the four gospels found in the Bible Jesus repeatedly requests that we follow him rather than insisting that we believe in him.

It is terribly presumptuous to be sure but I believe Mother Teresa was caught in this paradoxical struggle…discovering that the teachings of Jesus matter more than the teachings about Jesus. Her inability to blindly believe the doctrines about God, as painful as it was for her, did not prevent her from bringing unparalleled assistance to thousands of the poorest of the poor and in so doing accomplish the work of the very God she longed to meet.

These recently revealed confessions, provocative as they may be to some, only acknowledge what many of us have come to know and experience. Old ways of understanding God are giving way to new paradigms of faith that have little to do with bizarre rituals or antiquated ideas and everything to do with how we go about finding the divine in our midst. By her life and with her doubts, Mother Teresa pointed the way.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 28
August 15, 2007

When I was a kid I used to hang out at the local library wiling away my after-school hours immersed in reading stories by Beverly Cleary or thumbing through old Life magazines preserved in massive bindings that required both concentration and coordination to slide from the shelf without dropping and disturbing the dozens of silently engaged readers back when silence and libraries were synonymous.

I used to wonder about the old guys who sat at the long oak tables reading newspapers strung through bamboo poles or paging through magazines in between naps. It seemed to me that no matter what time of day or night it was these old geezers were in residence. I complained to no one but myself as I watched them taking up valuable chair space while depositing mini-pools of drool during their mid-reading slumbers.

Now fifty plus years later, and to no one’s surprise but my own, I no longer have to wonder.

So there I was last week sitting amidst a plethora of periodicals trying to decide which one I would pretend to read when a leggy beauty emerging from a limousine caught my attention. She was on the cover of a magazine called “Vanity Fair” whose current issue is a little larger than the “T” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia. A quick perusal with occasional longer pauses revealed the first 200 or so pages filled with equally beautiful women modeling clothes and other paraphernalia vital for personal happiness. Curiously, nearly all of these lovely ladies draped in Dior or Donna Karan appeared to be anything but happy. Sullen might best describe the overriding posture in the poses presented which, I suppose, has been the countenance determined to best sell expensive wardrobes to folk with expendable income by clever advertising executives, sullen or not.

Carefully clearing away the drool off my chin and vaguely remembering a similar scenario, I continued my scrutiny of the periodical. It was not without a certain sadness that I realized I had come to the end of the pictorial preface and was now faced with the daunting task of actually having to read.

The first article I happened upon was by Christopher Hitchens, an intellectually gifted author and journalist who has recently acquired renewed notoriety and growing prosperity by publishing a book entitled, “God Is Not Great”, a polemic against the evils of religion. The particular article in hand was an account of Hitchins’ recent book tour touting this latest volume and solidifying his reputation as America’s most fervent evangelical atheist.

Hitchins, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and a few less notable others, have tapped into a vein of popular cynicism that dismisses all religions as not just archaic and irrelevant but dangerous. It takes little research to understand where the fodder for such a rationale comes. The headlines are filled with bizarre and frightening examples of religion gone amok. Few can argue that heavenly rewards of perpetual virgins or divine punishment for people who don’t think like Pat Robertson is enough to drive most rational folk over the religious edge. But what Hitchins and the others fail to confront is the very positive elements of religious involvement that have nothing to do with suicide bombers or whacked-out TV preachers.

Religion, at its best, is a search for the sacred in life. The stories, myths, rituals and more are attempts to articulate this holy quest. When people come together to share their gratitude for life, their commitment to health and well-being, their longing for justice and peace…these are religious activities and sacred actions that serve as the very core of civilization. It is only when religionists confuse these proceedings with accurately describing history or objectively defining science that they run the risk of becoming dangerous and destructive.

What I would like to see are evangelical atheists like Hitchins spend less time attacking the bigoted and ignorant straw-men they erect as representatives of religious folk and confront instead the intricacies and subtleties of the spiritual life as it is experienced by millions of others who do not subscribe to bizarre beliefs or xenophobic philosophies.

And I would like him to do it in the next issue of Vanity Fair…but not until I’ve had a chance to peruse the first 200 pages.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 27
July 30, 2007

As I understand it, only one out of the 535 representatives and senators in Washington admits to being an atheist. Judging only from my own experience and what we all know about honesty in our nation’s capital, I have a hunch the real number is significantly higher. Of course, every poll taken on the subject declares the vast majority of Americans want their congressmen and women to be God-fearing folk just like themselves. So the odds of adding to the pool of self-proclaimed atheists serving under the famous rotunda are very slim indeed. Nevertheless, I would like to propose a possible means for allowing honest politicians to proclaim their true beliefs.

Anti-atheist prejudice is not just pronounced in Washington but can be found in a vast array of professional and cultural venues. Cases involving unbelieving teachers, police officers, fire fighters and many more have been taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union and other defenders of religious and non-religious freedom. A recent profile in The New Yorker magazine on Vernell Crittendon, the former spokesmen of San Quentin State Prison, shows just how deep this discrimination permeates. Crittendon was quoted as saying he would advocate for reduced penalties even parole for prisoners who participated in the prison’s public service programs but not, he emphasized, for participating atheist prisoners…even if they were exemplary models. “Without a belief in something larger than yourself, you backslide.” was Crittendon’s definitive rationale.

Similar thinking is at the center of the highly popular 12-step programs, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous. I have known a number of atheistic or agnostic
alcoholics who were bemused by this requirement and were forced to seek treatment elsewhere.

All of us, I am sure, have heard the fuzzy argument against atheism that emphatically declares that without the fear of divine retribution society would be in chaos and sinful behavior would run rampant. Such a low estimation of human behavior may say more about the proponent’s self-esteem than the proposition’s accuracy. We all have known folk who do not share a faith in God but are loving parents, productive co-workers, community leaders, valued members of society. The fact that they do not believe in God seems to be irrelevant to their contributions. And, of course, any one of us can cite more than a few examples of despicable behavior perpetrated by deeply believing people.

The time is long past to fully honor atheism as a viable understanding of reality and a philosophy that can provide meaning for engaging in a moral and productive life. The continuing prejudice against atheistic proponents is tantamount to racial bigotry, gender bias or homophobia. One hopes that more national leaders will come out of the theological closet and admit their religious reservations and resistance.

As an inducement to these closeted congressmen and women, I propose an alternative understanding of God that some may find fits their own perspective and provides a means of articulating dialogue about divinity that is not limited to the conventional monotheistic model.

The briefest glimpse at religious history will show that there is nothing new in this proposal but it is offered as a reminder to present-day politicians and others that there have always been alternatives to orthodoxy that have found favor among many. Indeed, some of the most inspiring religious leaders, past and present, have been decried at one time or another as heretics for their unconventional thinking.

My proposal would have us leaving God as proper noun and utilizing this powerful word in more descriptive ways. God as a verb or a modifier may make shared theological understanding more attainable. We do this already when we describe someone’s action as being “god-like” or when a friend returns from a hike and describes his time in nature as “holy”. Why must there be a source for such epiphanies? Can’t the epiphany be divine in and of itself? Surely this is what Jesus was indicating when he spoke of the Kingdom of God. He was describing a new realm of experience, a heavenly world, entered in the here and now. A world that comes into being in every act of compassion…feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, liberating the oppressed, etc. These are divine acts. These acts are god.

The convolutions of Trinitarian thought that seek to reconcile a divine being with divine actions can be a huge stumbling block for many who, not irrelevantly nor irreverently for that matter, participate in holy actions without believing in a holy one. Accepting the legitimacy of such a philosophical position could go a long way in allowing all people, politicians included, to express their honest religious understandings.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Issue 26
July 16, 2007

I’ve taken a break from God recently. After thirty some years of being in God’s constant company, I decided to put a little space between us these past few weeks. I honestly can’t say I’ve missed God much, which may come as a surprise to some, but I have missed the church, which may come as a surprise to others.

Truth to tell, I find I get along quite well without God. Gone are the late night struggles trying to make sense of a god of compassion in a world of hurt. No more grappling with the timeless conundrum of Job via Archibald MacLeish: “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God…”

It’s the church I’m missing…that eclectic mix of saintly sinners that can motivate, educate, contemplate and postulate in innumerable ways, igniting imaginations, focusing energies, finding solutions. In the church I’ve seen lives changed and compassion incarnated. I’ve witnessed disparate political views honored, apathy condemned and loving action accomplished. I’ve experienced conflicts resolved and tensions continued. It is that dynamic process of religious discernment and communal struggle I’m missing now.

Oh, yes. The problems, petty and not, that drain the spirit abound in the church but a healthy congregation finds ways to diminish their influence, a process that is often discomforting but almost always empowering. Shaped by the life and teachings of Jesus, a healthy congregation can take comfort and gain strength by focusing its energy on service to others. Doctrinal disputes or housekeeping chores seem petty when feeding the hungry or welcoming the stranger.

While wintering in Southern California, my wife and I discovered the joy of being in just such a congregation. All Saints Church in Pasadena, a parish of the Episcopal Church, has a long tradition of community service combined with a progressive theology. Each Sunday both the pews in the sanctuary and the chairs in the educational wing are packed with folk who, like us, were drawn by inspiring worship and critical thinking. I know congregations that provide similar stimulating resources exist but I can tell you from experience they are difficult to find.

As I was saying, God’s absence seems no great loss but being apart from the community of Christ is profoundly sad to me. So, during this recess, I am wondering if the experience of a dynamic church can replace faith in a theistic image of God? Can engaging in a community founded on compassion and social action rather than archaic theologies and ancient worldviews, be a legitimate expression of Christianity? Does following Jesus mean we must believe in God?

An initial argument would point to non-religious organizations that do good works (e.g. Rotary, Optimists, etc.) and suggest that such clubs might be an adequate substitute for those of us who seem to be looking for a Godless church. But is not godlessness we are after, rather a reinterpretation of what is divine. For a growing number of us, God is moving from being noun to becoming verb. The numinous is known in acts of compassion, service, hospitality and grace rather than through semi-comprehendible creeds or Augustinian doctrine. Hymns, liturgies, sermons and more that continue to point to a God up there, out there, over there, fail to reach those of us who are discovering quite the opposite. One of the great disappointments of the new Lutheran worship book is its failure to recognize those of us who find little inspiring in liturgies that continue to be shaped by an ancient theory of atonement that makes no modern sense at all.

Hillary Clinton was recently pilloried for her pronouncements on her Christian faith. One conservative commentator dismissed her religious reflections by saying that Democrats could win over religious voters who were…“religious in the way that Hillary Clinton is religious, which is to say a very liberal Protestant sort of view, in which they believe in everything but God.” Given my recent experience, I found myself thinking: “What’s so bad about that?”

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 25
June 11, 2007

Some of you will have already seen this but because I believe it is such a powerful description of the paradoxical nature of the situation in Palestine, I include it here. Pastor Russ Siler has been serving the English Speaking Lutheran Congregation in Old Jerusalem for the past four years and is now returning to America. His occasional epistles have been both inspiring and deeply disturbing. This is his final letter from the Middle East.

9 June 2007

It is almost as if I am returning to school after a summer break, preparing to write the obligatory essay on what I did over my vacation. Save for the fact that this term stretched out for four years, it was truly a break—a world apart from that which most people in my home country experience on a daily basis. Here is a world in which one is not free to travel where one wishes. It is a place not of freedom, but of restrictions—not of liberty, but of oppression. As my wife Anne and I prepare to leave this land which has been our home these past few years, I wish that I could package this segment of our lives and make it available to you in such a way that you could see, feel, hear, smell, taste, and touch the things we have. Then you would be as overwhelmed by joy, sadness, elation, and despair as we are. But I cannot. All I believe I am capable of doing is telling you what I will miss and what I will not miss as we return to the United States.

I will miss the beautiful homes left to us from a magnificent past, with their arched windows and ornate porches and high ceilings. I will not miss the piles of rubble and rebar which mark demolished Palestinian homes—more than 15,000 of them since the Occupation began, most on the flimsiest of pretexts by the Israeli army or municipal authority—where I know lie crushed under each one a family's dream of a place of their own.

I will miss the magnificent countryside, littered with rocks and hills of every size and description, and the rugged landscapes that Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Jesus, Peter, and Andrew hiked through. I will not miss the monstrous Wall, barbed wire fences, dirt mounds across unpaved village access roads, and ugly, prison-fortress-like crossings and terminals, ubiquitous in their barbarity. I won't miss them, because Israel presents them to you as dire necessities for their security, indeed, for their very survival, while we see the truth of Israel's reality which is to carve up Palestine into ever tinier clusters of humanity whose religious, cultural, societal ties are so slashed into disconnected ribbons that a nation is impossible.

I will miss ever so much the innocent smiles and playful giggles on the faces of the children—Israeli, Palestinian, international—all over the place. I will not miss the heaviness dragging on my heart like an anchor, as I realize how very soon that playful innocence will fall victim to fear and hatred, to bigotry and racism.

I will miss the steady stream of visitors—vacationers, pilgrims, seekers, tourists—that arrive like clockwork at our 9:00 am Sunday worship in St. John's Chapel. I will miss their delight at being in the Holy Land—many of them first-timers, but many more veterans of the land—their eagerness to meet Palestinian Christians whom, they soon learn, have been a vital presence here for the entire life of the Christian Church, and their openness to listen to narratives of the deadly conflict that the rest of the world seldom hears. I will not miss the busloads of tourists whose guide takes them to Bethlehem for a quick peek at the Church of the Nativity, then hurries them back to Jerusalem, because, "It's dangerous in the West Bank."

I will miss the witness of the courageous Israeli and Jewish women and men—Machsom Watch, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Women in Black, and all the others—as they tirelessly seek to stand in solidarity with people who seek justice and to educate those who wonder what unspeakable things are being done in the name of their beloved religion. I will not miss those coarse voices who violently insist—to the detriment of intelligent dialogue, discussion, disagreement, debate, or dissent—that any person who dares to criticize Israeli policy is either self-hating or anti-Semitic.

Perhaps, however, more than anything, I will miss the thousand times a week I hear ahlan wa salan—Welcome—singing out with genuine warmth from face after face of those who are desperately eager to let me know that, regardless of appearance, religion, or nationality, I am their brother. I have no doubt whatsoever that, were one of these persons to be down to his last piece of bread, he would beckon me closer and say, "Come, sit, eat!" What I will never miss are the questions spontaneously emerging from these same warm hearts, "Why does America treat us this way?" "Why do they help Israel oppress us and take our land?" "Will you please tell Mr. Bush that all we want is to be treated fairly; we only want justice." I will not miss these questions because I think they are harsh or prompted by bad intentions, but because I have no answers which will make a whit of difference to my sisters, to my brothers who are so baffled by the way our country treats them.

Some of you have asked what I will do when we return to the States. At this juncture I can only grin broadly and say "Retire!" We do know there are challenges and adventures awaiting us; we just don't know what or where or when. The only certainty in my mind—No. Make that in my heart—is that I will continue to speak up and to speak out. My friends here would understand if I did not. They would softly comfort me, "We know how hard it will be." The problem is that I will not be that easy on myself. I cannot see the tears in my brother's eyes without tasting the salty bitterness in my own mouth. And I cannot swallow the bitter taste; I must open my mouth and let it out!

Thank you for your faithful willingness to listen and for your constant support. They have been life-giving! Peace!

Russell O. Siler, Pastor
English-speaking Congregation
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Jerusalem, Old City

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 24
June 4, 2007

One approaches even a semi-respectful critique of the life and work of Billy Graham with more than a little trepidation and a healthy heaping of hubristic self-awareness. Nevertheless, the opening of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina this past week does provide an invitation for reflection on the legacy of America’s most famous preacher.

You may have seen the photo of, according to most polls, the most admired man in America, standing in front of his new library, flanked by three ex-presidents and his son, Franklin. Billy himself looks strikingly weak and must use a walker to aid his mobility. 88 years have taken their toll on this once impressively vigorous preacher. The New York Times reported that a number of laudatory speeches were made including the keynote address given by President George H.W. Bush who stifled a sob as he praised Graham as “the humble farmer’s son who changed the world.”

Certainly a case can be made that Billy Graham had more of an effect on the shape of American Christianity than any other religious contemporary, including the plethora of popes who reigned during Graham’s working years. I suspect that some of you will remember your own experience at a Billy Graham Rally when, after an hour or two of arousing hymn-singing, emotional praying and convictive preaching, the invitation was made to turn your life over to Jesus, the only savior of the world, and be born again.

And so you did, as did I…along with all the members of my Luther League youth group. While “Just As I Am” was played repeatedly over the public address system, we went down to the stadium floor that warm Los Angeles night and knelt before a gently smiling volunteer. Hands were laid upon our heads, prayers were invoked, a small tract on eternal salvation was shared and we returned to our seats convinced that our lives were irrevocably changed.

Adolescence is a temporary condition, of course, and our fervor waned, replaced with a piety seasoned by the ambiguities of passing time and acquired reason. For millions of others, however, a kind of spiritual adolescence remains. Easy answers to complicated questions continue to be welcomed today just as they were by those voluminous crowds who filled the arenas and stadiums for The Rev. Billy.

His message remained fundamentally unchanged over his tenure, altered only with a timely anecdote or poignant testimony of one more sinner saved from the fires of hell. Graham’s God is deeply disappointed in His creation offering one final solution to the problem of sin’s hold on humanity: “This is what Jesus Christ did for you. You and I are guilty before God, but Christ paid the penalty for our sins by dying in our place. And now our sins can be completely forgiven—all of them. The Bible says, "He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5). Ask Christ to come into your life today, and trust Him alone for your salvation. Then thank God for forgiving you of all your sins.”

The theme, of course, wasn’t new. But Graham honed it in a manner that made sense to the masses. Just as the Apostle Paul before him, Graham spent little sermonic time on the life and teachings of Jesus. It was the gruesome, bloody death of the only son of God that captured the imagination of this preacher. (Mel Gibson’s recent entry into religious filmmaking was a highly successful, if theologically repugnant, cinematic extension of Graham’s recurring message.) Over and over again, Graham focused his considerable oratorical skill not on the physical needs of this world but the promised rewards in the next. He claimed to be removed from politics but there hasn’t been a president in the last 50 years Graham couldn’t count as a devotee. His commiserating with Nixon, secretly taped, over their shared perception of the “stranglehold” the Jews had over the media was an embarrassment that only his enormous popularity allowed him to weather. The bigoted remark left many wondering whether it revealed the vestiges of a Southern upbringing or the inherent anti-Semitism of Evangelical Christianity. By and large, however, he successfully remained aloof from political issues. Many found this laudable. Some of us see it as a profoundly sad shirking of Christian responsibility.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is to be applauded for its extensive charitable activities although, quite frankly, a considerable amount of financial resources seem to be spent on simply perpetuating the association, as a quick perusal of the BGEA website will make disturbingly clear.

Billy Graham’s fragile condition and dramatic decline is a poignant reminder to all of us that even the powerful must one day forego their prestige and privilege and join the incalculable crowd who has gone before us. Despite his failing health, Graham appears certain, and certainly proclaims, an even better world awaits all those who agree with him.

The certainty of Graham’s religious convictions is impressive to be sure but being certain should never be confused with being correct. One can’t help but wonder how different the world would be now if Graham’s considerable skills and enormous resources would have been employed less as a disciple of Paul and more of a disciple of Jesus.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 23
May 22, 2007

The death of Jerry Falwell has brought a plethora of punditry surrounding the unique American understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. The late Reverend has been condemned as a demagogue and hallowed as a champion of Christ. He has been lifted up as a paragon of virtue and decried as the personification of evil. He has…well, you get the picture.

All of this frenzy has set me to pondering my own understanding of this complicated connection between the church and state, particularly as it affects the role of the clergy.

Early in my ministry, I was profoundly influenced by a story, now oft-told, of a chance meeting between then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain at Yale. If you know anything of The Rev. Coffin you are very much aware of his willingness to express his passionate beliefs to anyone who would listen…or even those who wouldn’t. Coffin somehow managed to corner Kissinger while both were attending a White House function intended, one would suppose, for cordial conversation and convivial dialogue. What Kissinger got was anything but. Coffin railed at the Secretary over the administrations multitudinous failures on both the domestic and foreign fronts. Coffin was particularly incensed over the continued chaos in Vietnam and Nixon’s reluctance to admit defeat and terminate the U.S.’s involvement.

Once Coffin wound up it was difficult if not impossible to calm him down. Finally, Secretary Kissinger had had enough and interrupted the pastor long enough to say: “OK. Bill! I get your point but what exactly would you have us do?” Whereupon, Coffin replied with these immortal (at least for me) words: “As a Christian minister, my calling is to say to you, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, and your job, sir, is to figure out the irrigation system!"

The prophetic role of the pastor, priest, rabbi or imam is, at least in the American context, a valuable and desperately needed responsibility. Clergy are called to protect “the least of these” from any attempt to exclude them from full participation in all the rights and privileges of citizenship. Sadly, this needed role has too often been ignored by both the clergy and the religious establishment. This failure often comes when religious figures find themselves in positions of power, either in a localized congregation where fear of unsettling the parishioners precludes the prophetic voice or when proximity to political powers has religious authorities cowed and submissive. In either case, this crucial duty is too often shuffled aside and replaced with less offensive functions.

There isn’t a clergyperson around who hasn’t faced this issue. Some have managed to maintain ethical clarity and vocational integrity even as the rest of us pretty much just muddle through, trying to keep the folk in the pews and the money in the plates. Being at the occupational mercy of a lay-led Church Council may have its benefits but speaking truth to power is probably not one of them.

There is great relief, I can assure you, in retiring from the ministry and no longer being asked to offer pleasant little prayers or inoffensive homilies to the good and gathered folk. Worst of all, were the invitations to do the same before civic groups and community organizations. No, no…worst, worst of all came when I was invited to intone a brief prayer before the Colorado State Senate. I was informed by the smiling sergeant-at-arms that the prayer was to be both short and unobjectionable to those in attendance, qualities that were rarely part of my prayerful consideration. Nevertheless, I performed as expected and left the capital’s occupants pleased, I am sure, with both my brevity and my innocuousness. I also left vowing never to again repeat such a dishonest display of pastoral cowardice. I did, of course…not before state senators but too often before people that mattered much more to me. It was only in the waning years of my career when a modicum of wisdom mixed with the courage that comes with a career’s end that I stopped performing religious tricks and tried instead to speak the truth, at least as I struggled to understand it.

I remember reading of the suicide of a Lutheran pastor who had served for over 20 years as the chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives. I wondered then as I wonder now if this sad event might have been instigated, in part, by his long participation in a process that was inherently fraught with a conflicted conscience. Could two decades of inoffensive offerings to an inoffensive God eventually have taken its toll? Clergy everywhere struggle with the call to be, at the same time, pastor, priest and prophet. When this triad of professional tension is ignored the result is troubling at the very least and sometimes even tragic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 22
May 15, 2007

As you are no doubt aware, there have been several books recently published that have set as their foil no less an opponent than the Almighty. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris both have hit the bestseller lists. The latest tome to generate considerable interest is Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Those familiar with Mr. Hitchens, know that he is a gifted writer, a seasoned journalist, a diligent researcher and, curiously to some of us, an adamant support of President Bush’s war on Iraq. Although I haven’t read all of the preceding works, I am bold to suggest that these books, and several others recently released, tend to aim their arguments less at God and more at her representatives. Often these designated representatives are hardly indicative of religion as many of us understand it. Quoting Jerry Falwell (who died today) or Pat Robertson as spokespersons for Christianity is tantamount to employing Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as your average Muslim. And yet, these authors turn to those folk who represent the very fringes of religious movements, rehash their outlandish pronouncements and policies, then proceed to dismiss the 90+% of us who, unfortunately, share the same religious affiliation.

The failure of these books is not in their argumentation which is quite logical and reasoned…as far as it goes. What the authors fail to understand is the vast array of emotional, cultural, communal and psychological subtleties that shape our spirituality. It is terribly easy to build a ludicrous image of an anthropomorphic deity in order to successfully chop the straw-god down. It is far more difficult to dismiss those finely formed aspects of religious experience that guide the lives of millions.

In my own spiritual journey, I’ve found myself drawn closer and closer to religious community even as I move further and further away from believing in God. Such a paradox can really only be understood, I believe, by those involved in the life of the church. Witnessing the power of community to heal, comfort, inspire, forgive, work for peace and passionately advocate for justice is to realize that the sacred might be more readily found in the dynamics of human relationships than in belief in a superhuman being.

Certainly religions have been the cause of incalculable calamities…anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of history will acknowledge that sad fact. But it is also true that religions have been the source of untold blessings to the human community. Millions upon millions of our planet’s residents, past and present, have been fed, housed and helped in a myriad of ways that have enriched their lives and served as a foundation for developing peace and justice in the world. I suppose it makes it easy for the current crop of successful authors to write off these infinite acts of charity in light of the enormously dark acts religions have foisted upon us but such cavalier belittlement is intellectually dishonest and certainly shoddy scholarship.

The biggest challenge in my own ministry was countering a similar, if more personal, argument. Many, many times I would be confronted by folk who had experiences with religion that were anything but healthy…a bigoted Sunday School teacher, a hellfire and damnation preacher or an abusive “Christian” parent, to name but a few. Their view of religion was profoundly affected by such experience and understandably so. But it also offered an opportunity for a dialogue that might include the potential benefits of a healthy religious life. Taking my cue from some of my mentors, I would often say, “Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in because I probably don’t believe in him either.” The Progressive Christian movement is surely an outgrowth of pastoral conversations like these.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 21
May 7, 2007

Has Ratzinger Returned?

I was both surprised and delighted to read in The New York Times today that Liberation Theology is still giving fits to the Vatican. Despite my lament last week that this most formative movement had gone into hiding, Pope B. must still be bugged because he’s headed to Brazil to apparently pick up where John Paul II left off. Check it out here.

Vaya con Dios, Molly and Eric!

Today our second child, Molly, and her husband Eric, head off to The Sudan to begin a two year stint, he with the American Embassy and she as Director of Regional Development for the Mid-East and North Africa for Naturally, as parents we have mixed feelings about their choice of vocations but are enormously proud of their commitment and shared desire to implement peaceful strategies in an increasingly violent world.

Recently I received a copy of a speech by Craig Barnes, an international negotiator and author, delivered last month in Santa Fe. With the author’s permission (and his good wishes to Molly and Eric), I share it here as a poignant and profound reminder that there are many who join our daughter and son-in-law in both spirit and deed.
The Need for Empathy and Generosity in Foreign Policy

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 20
May 1, 2007

If I was concerned about the future unity of Christianity, I would be particularly worked-up over what is going on in the church of the Third World, especially in Africa.

It is ironic that it was to the Third World that my fellow seminarians and I turned, some thirty plus years ago, to discover a theology that resonated for many of us with the authentic teachings of Jesus. Liberation Theology with its keen minds and brave hearts shaped our theological formation in ways that continue to this very day. Although the remnants remain, Liberation Theology, punished and persecuted by Rome, is now relegated to historical textbooks and the occasional obscure treatise.

The irony, of course, lies in the fact that Third World Christianity, now dominated by the mega-churches of Africa rather than the mini-movements in Latin America, is shaping a future fraught with thinking vastly removed from the life and teachings of Jesus. It is out of Africa that we hear demands for the continuing bigotry against homosexuals including suggestions from church leaders to reinstate barbaric punishments against practicing gays and lesbians.

African Christianity also includes a plethora of pejoratives against women, particularly as church leaders. The stereotypical gang of old, white males running ecclesiastical institutions in America continues down south with one significant descriptive change.

Much of African Christianity now is a replay of some of the worst of 19th century Protestant piety complete with scriptural literalism and cultural conditioning. I remember how disappointed I was some years ago attending a large gathering of African Lutherans outside Arusha, Tanzania for Sunday worship. I expected to be regaled with the rhythms of native African themes and was surprised to hear the congregation sing all of their hymns straight out of the European colonial world. Progressive theological movements have been thwarted in Africa by the institutional church just as they have been in America. Those in power desperately seek to keep their authority by relying on practices and perspectives that have little in common with the life and teachings of Jesus. The difference being the African church is growing by millions while the American church is dying by the thousands. So if we want to see what Christianity will be looking like in the not too distant future, turn south.

As I say, if I was worried about Christian unity this demographical as well as theological surge would be highly problematic for me as a Progressive Christian. But rather than fret, I welcome the onslaught as I believe it will more than likely serve as a catalyst for a clear delineation within Christianity, dividing those who are drawn to a progressive understanding of the faith based on the teachings of Jesus from those who wish to remain locked in an orthodoxy molded by the traditional teachings about Jesus.

Such a division is being played out right now. The Anglican Communion is agonizing over the actions of the American Episcopal Church and the threat of a schism is very real indeed. Representatives of African Anglicanism are staking their claim on American soil, ordaining Episcopalian traditionalists as bishops and advocating congregations to leave the Episcopal Church en masse. Surprisingly to some, many Episcopalians are digging in their heels and declaring their conviction in the legitimacy of women and gay priests and bishops. Anglicanism is in an uproar and the result, I believe, will be an ecclesiastical split that will be seen by the traditionalists as justified punishment but by the progressives as liberation. The Episcopal Church of America will emerge as a leader in Progressive Christianity and as a shining beacon to those who worry about the growing influence of a restrictive Third World Christianity on the church.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 19
April 24, 2007

In the aftermath of the horrifying Virginia Tech murders, I was particularly intrigued with the nationally reported interviews of two Blacksburg clergy, a Baptist and a Presbyterian.

They both were involved in the pastoral care of family members of those killed as well as grieving VT students. In the interviews, neither man made mention of any theological concept to try and explain the terrible event. Both suggested that the proper Christian response in such a time is a ministry not of explanation but of simple presence. To offer a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, or even a symbol to rail against, was how both pastors felt they could best serve.

I have had the good fortune to have as a friend an evangelical pastor with a very traditional and conservative theology. Over the years and as our friendship deepened, it became clear to both of us that although our theological understandings of Christianity were very, very different, our desire to follow the teachings of Jesus were remarkably similar. Certainly there were some divergence of opinion and strategy and occasionally we realized there were some issues we would probably never agree on but, by and large, when we stopped arguing doctrine and started serving others, we trod the same path. Building a food bank, assisting with housing, visiting the sick, being present for others…these were ministries to which we both could not only intellectually affirm but assist each other in actual practice. I think we both realized that authentic Christian discipleship is found in this mutual practice rather than in theological principles. All the doctrinal detailing holds little value if Christian adherents fail to follow Jesus.

One of the distinguishing marks of Progressive Christianity must be the willingness to put aside theological differences for a greater good. This, of course, is much easier said than done. To ignore the condemnation, even damnation, of a Christian claimant in pursuit of a mutually desired goal is to experience the challenge of Jesus’ call to love our enemy. If the Billy Graham Crusade or World Vision or Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is providing desperately needed goods and services to those in need around the world who might otherwise go without, it is incumbent upon us to put aside our doctrinal disputes and support their efforts. Again, this may be a terribly difficult course for some of us to follow, particularly in light of how many of us have been treated by our conservative Christian brothers and sisters, but surely the end here justifies any means available.

I suspect it is easier for many of us to reach out to non-Christian folk than align ourselves with conservative Christianity. But it may be that in finding ways of cooperating with those most critical of our own beliefs that we find ourselves more closely following Jesus.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 18
April 16, 2007

He shook his head, smiled, and dismissed a whole religion with, “And to think they believe Mohammed rode up to heaven on a horse!”

And to think we believe that a man actually rose from the dead.

Another poor Richard once reminded us that people in glass houses should be careful about what they say about other religions.

I’ve always liked the Sundays after Easter when we gain a little distance from the mythology and move a little closer to the truth. During Holy Week, a friend of mine signed his e-mail to me: “Christ is risen! (Existentially, of course.)

Several years ago, while hosting a seminar with Bishop John Spong, I received a letter from a fellow Lutheran pastor who chastised me for inviting someone “who doesn’t believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus.” I marveled at the gall of my correspondent, who, I suppose, isn’t interested in theological perspectives different than his own. I also wondered just what his theological perspective might be. I assumed he clung to the conviction that Jesus did, in fact and in body, walk out of the tomb that long ago Sunday.

As we seek to construct a Christianity for the modern mind, it is fair to ask whether literalistic declarations regarding the resurrection are either instructive or helpful. Must we have this particular form of divine authentication for Jesus’ teachings to be true? We need a physical resurrection only to validate Christianity’s thesis of atonement. Paul’s bold declaration that our faith is in vain without Jesus rising from the dead holds no power for many of us. Our commitment to the teachings of Jesus is not voided by our rejection of his physical resurrection.

A number of years ago, several members of my parish passed a book onto me that had captured their imaginations. The novel’s central theme was the discovery of the bones of Jesus in an ancient tomb outside of Jerusalem. The realization that Jesus hadn’t actually risen from the dead sent the entire world into turmoil, hurtling us toward an apocalyptic end. Thankfully, at the last minute, the bones were proven to be not those of Jesus and the world was saved from extinction. Whew! I found it, to say the least, a bit overwrought. This was pre-The Da Vinci Code or the recent claim to have found the ossuary of Jesus but it still shook up my congregants. What if the resurrection isn’t a fact of history? Would Christianity (let alone the world as we know it) come to a screeching halt? Not for me and, I suspect, not for millions of others who have found the teachings of Jesus to be a guide to discovering a life of meaning, purpose and, yes, even hope…with or without the bodily resurrection.

Ironically, there is no more powerful symbol of authentic Christianity for me than that of death and resurrection. The reality that life is a series of dyings and risings proclaims a truth that resonates deep within. “The only constant is change” someone who must have understood the metaphor of resurrection once said. All of us, sometimes very reluctantly, know that is true.

Curiously, Christianity has too often demanded acceptance of Jesus’ physical rising while missing the power of the metaphor. No institution is more resistant to the little deaths and resurrections that comprise a healthy understanding of life than the church. It is a sad paradox that insisting on a literalistic understanding of the resurrection of Jesus prevents many inquisitive Christians from experiencing the true power of the resurrection.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 17
April 9, 2007

A man I very much admire included this verse from the new Lutheran Hymnal in his Easter message:

Come to the table of mercy, prepared with the wine and the bread.
All who are hungry and thirsty, come and your souls will be fed.
Come at the Lord's invitation; receive from his nail-scarred hand.
Eat of the blood of salvation; drink of the blood of the Lamb.

I believe I understand and appreciate his message but I find his method, well, repugnant. Surely there are more theologically authentic ways of announcing God’s grace than ones that rely on this strange, and repulsive to many, obsession with blood.

I know, I know, blood is the source and symbol of life, the nectar of the gods, without it we could be folded up and carried in a suitcase, etc.…I know all that but I still don’t like it. And I continue to wonder why it maintains such a hold on Christians.

In a recent interview, Wes Craven, a movie director who has nearly perfected the blood-drenched horror film with “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream”, was asked about his profuse use of blood in his movies. He immediately began to talk of Christianity and its fascination with that same bodily fluid. He was enthralled, he said, by the fact that Christians drink it, save it, wear it, sing about it and more…and concluded his own obsession with it couldn’t be all that abnormal.

He may be right but I never go to horror films and I can only watch violent-prone movies through the gaps in my fingers clasped tight across my face. (Many years ago, I was working on a film as an assistant make-up man. The scene we were shooting that day took place in a bar and involved a machine-gunning massacre. I was assigned the job of filling condoms with stage blood, tying them off, attaching a small electrode to the tip and then taping these blood-filled beauties onto the actors who were about to be executed. This important work took the good part of the day and involved lots of laughter and black humor. But when the time came to shoot the scene and the machine guns went off and the blood burst forth, I had to put my head between my knees to keep from fainting at the sight of all that FAKE blood!) So you see I’m probably not the most objective critic here. Nevertheless, I believe I speak for more than just me on this common albeit disturbing Christian image and can offer a helpful criticism or two.

For instance, if we have moved away from the bizarre theory of Jesus having to appease God by atoning for the sins of humankind by being tortured and slowly killed, isn’t it about time we carefully scrutinize our liturgy and hymnody for vestiges of that discarded understanding? Certainly the death of Jesus must have been a bloody affair and, yes, the image of that blood letting is a powerful one as we ponder its unjust occasion but must we continue to equate Jesus’ loss of blood with our spiritual gain? Besides, didn’t Mel Gibson do enough of that already?

On this past Palm Sunday, I listened to a carefully constructed sermon that had as its main thesis the proclamation that “Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the world but because of the sins of the world.” The preacher made clear his conviction that Jesus’ death was not ordained by God but was the result of a commitment to live a Godly life, a life of compassion. It was, I thought, a most helpful invitation into Holy Week. Unfortunately, the liturgy in which this sermon sat was filled with very different images. Over and over again, the hymns that were sung resonated with the archaic atonement thinking that the preacher had just rebuked.

I recognize that the wheels of change turn slowly, especially those bearing the church, but surely I was not the only one who was troubled and confused by the incongruity. The time has come for our liturgy to support our theology. Sentiment should not be confused with sanctity. Much of what we continue to cling to in Christian worship has little to do with assisting Christians in the world today. It is time to move on.

Humbly, I offer a revised version of my friend’s lyrical Easter sentiment with the hope we continue to find new ways of proclaiming the authentic message of Jesus:

Come to the table of welcome, prepared with the wine and the bread.
All who are searching and seeking; hear what the master once said.
Come at the Lord's invitation; receive from his compassionate soul
The gift of a joyous friendship; the gift of a life made whole.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 16
March 27, 2007

I am sure that Richard Mau, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, is a kind and compassionate man. I also understand that he has a reputation as an enlightened evangelical with an ecumenical spirit and oratorical skill. I have no reason to doubt any of this but I believe his theology is intellectually bankrupt.

I come to this conclusion after one late-night listening to Mau’s comments on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” radio call-in show. You can listen to his remarks right now: . Perhaps you will come to another conclusion but I found his responses to host Neal Conan’s questions, as well as those of some listeners, revelatory of the strange convoluted exegesis that evangelicals often employ.

“As a Christian who takes the Bible seriously…” Mau prefaces his remarks and then goes on to claim that his view should be honored and not dismissed as the ranting of a homophobe. Yet he sidesteps criticism that his reliance on the Bible for his position is neither coherent nor consistent. Why, one wonders, does he not keep a kosher diet or demand that women remain silent in church or support the continuation of slavery…all of which receive emphasis in the Bible.

I suspect that Mau is justifiably fearful of the slippery slope that exists for those who are willing to consider the voluminous and very credible research available on the formation of the Bible. Once one begins to muse over the possibility that particular scriptural passages might reflect more of the tenor of the times than the actual desires of the divine, one confronts a radically different approach to the Bible. Mau, and others like him, are afraid of the ultimate destination of such thinking. And so they should. Simply by reflecting, as he does on this show, on the pain that his position causes to homosexuals, Mau begins the process of realizing that the compassionate life modeled by Jesus supersedes even scripture. This is a very dangerous position for an evangelical Christian to ponder and so, at least on this show, Mau relies on the biblical bromides that substitute for intellectual insight among conservative Christianity.

As I listened to the show, I grew more and more irritated with Mau’s intellectual dishonesty. His protestations of compassion rang hollow next to his unwillingness to confront the incongruities in his exegesis. One questioner wondered if such faulty thinking should even be given a voice any longer. The caller cited the fact that misogyny and racism were no longer considered worthy positions of public debate. Why, he asked, is homophobia? Although both the host and the guests quickly dismissed the caller’s question, it bears some consideration. Considerable time and energy have been wasted in certain school systems, for instance, on the ludicrous biblical interpretations that seek to pass as science. Is it not time to do the same with this kind of intellectual inconsistency that passes as Christian pastoral care?

I have a hunch that Mr. Mau is very much aware of the tenuous nature of his reasoning but I also suspect that he is concerned where a more consistent pattern of thought might take him. As president of a prestigious evangelical seminary, Mau knows full well the political ramifications of a more honest position. Sadly, it appears, he would rather risk his intellectual reputation than his institutional support. Choosing a fraudulent line of reasoning, Mau has indicated his willingness to choose the clamoring crowd over the compassionate Christ.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 15
March 20, 2007

One of the first things that strike you about the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. is just how impractical it is. The immense gothic structure has terrible sight lines, lousy acoustics and an ambient temperature just above freezing. From where I sat last Friday night (along with three thousand other soon to be peace-marchers) the only way I could see what was going on in the chancel was by watching one of the half-dozen flat screen TVs that hung incongruently from the immense columns that stretched sentinel-like down the nave.

There was, however, and most curiously, something very comforting about such architectural foolishness. Some of it came from knowing that this same ecclesiastical design has been used for centuries to house the hopes of millions.

I remember attending mass at the magnificent cathedral in Chartre, outside of Paris, many years ago and, even though I understood little of what was being said, I felt an enormous connection with the countless pilgrims from the past who once stood where I was then standing. I often curse the burdens of tradition but there are times, many times if the truth be told, when I realize its blessings.

Comfort was drawn, as well, as I tried to focus on a cathedral ceiling that seemed to reach beyond my focal plane. Cavernous structures cannot hope to achieve affirmation in these ecologically sensitive times and yet that vast and admittedly wasted space sent my spirit soaring. The immense emptiness welcomed my imagination, inviting me into a world of wonder. Such architectural excessiveness, I realized again, pits my occasionally prudent, even prissy, piety against the extravagance of grace.

The new cathedrals, mega-churches is how they’re now named, eschew waste by building theatres of comfort with acres of convenient parking. Sanctuaries are replaced with auditoriums whose slanted floors guarantee a good seat to all. Digital sound and graphics provide the needed accoutrements and narthexes are no longer employeded since processions are passé. Certainly there is drama but it comes with the hyperkinetic excess that too often accompanies insipid substance. The audience, it is assumed, leaves contented, pleased with the program.

And the programs are usually very well ordered. We don’t much care for chaos, we Christians. A nice, cohesive plan is what we find motivating…simple answers to profound questions, when questions are even allowed. Christianity, it seems, has forgotten the beginning tenet of its sacred story: Out of chaos comes creation.

The cathedral’s construction was, of course, carefully considered and realized but, given the tenor of these times, it seems a confusing creation. It offers little of what the world of Christianity seems to want these days. Clear answers and definitive doctrine seem less attainable in the magnificent mystery of this strange and foolish space.

And this cathedral, with its obvious lack of concern for congregational comfort, exudes a different, even disturbing, sense of being. Seen from above, the cathedral declares its intention. It is built as a cruciform and this architectural cross proclaims a distinctive understanding of discipleship. It bespeaks of calling rather than comfort.

And yet, there I sat, last Friday night, comforted by that uncomfortable space. It is a paradox, I know. But what, on this strange journey of faith, is not?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 14
March 13, 2007

At a now famous meeting in Texas with Protestant pastors, John Kennedy vowed that his Catholic faith would not unduly affect his decision-making as a president. His diminishment of his religious affiliation helped convince not just the clergy in attendance but the majority of American voters as well.

Similar concerns are being voiced regarding current presidential candidates. I’ve learned more of Mormonism in the past few weeks, thanks to Mitt Romney’s candidacy and the popular press, than I ever learned in seminary. I’ve been educated as to Hillary’s teenage commitment to her youth group, McCain’s attendance at church, Obama’s concern over his out-spoken pastor and the official Catholic view of Giuliani’s multiple marriages. Presidential religion is in the news again and the world is growing restless, restless and worried.

And who can blame us? After six years of an Evangelical Christian president who wore his faith on his sleeve, many folk are looking for a candidate who will keep his or hers under wraps. But as pleasant as that possibility at first appears, it is ultimately antithetical to Progressive Christianity and strikes at the very heart of our faith.

When society turns to the religious and growls, "Mind your own business", every Progressive Christian should sit up and take heed. What is our business? If we believe that the church's only business is a kind of private piety reserved for intimate family discussions or Sunday morning worship then we have no understanding of what it means to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. To be a Progressive Christian is to commit our life to the teachings of Jesus. This is unequivocal. There is no compromise. To be a Progressive Christian is to put our commitment to the compassionate life above everything else.

My point is that our Christian faith must shape all that we do or it is not Christian. It is Christian only if it makes Christ and his life and teachings paramount. This is what it means to be a Progressive Christian. We are shaped by the teachings of Jesus and we are called to take those teachings everywhere we go . . .into our homes, to our work, to the world.

The opportunities are everywhere. Are we embarrassed to stand up for the oppressed when someone tells a racist joke at a party? Do we not want to make a scene when confronted with snide and sexist remarks? Do we continue to allow our children's lives to be filled with violence and pornographic images from TV because we don't want to cause a commotion? Do the millions of hungry in this world and the thousandsof homeless in this country not merit our attention as followers of the one who was born homeless and poor and died the same?

As a Progressive Christian, I find the concern with a “too religious” candidate confusing. What better way to understand a person’s deepest desires and ultimate concerns than for he or she to talk of their faith? Welcome the discussion! Invite the dialogue! Let’s find out what these candidates really believe. In the process, maybe we will discover our own true faith as well.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 13
March 5, 2007

Our Evangelical President must have been more than a little surprised this past week when he heard Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez call Jesus “a guiding light” for his self-styled socialist revolution. After all, not too many years ago Mr. Bush boldly claimed that same Jesus as his “favorite philosopher”. With apologies to The Bard…“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Georgeio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies.”

How could two so different politicians claim the same inspiration for their opposing religious and political views? The best answer, I believe, can come out of Progressive Christianity and its understanding of two decidedly different approaches to understanding Jesus.

The first approach is often described as the “Pre-Easter Jesus”. It is centered on the life and teachings of Jesus as described in the synoptic gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke and elucidated by a growing number of scholars who along with Biblical study have immersed themselves in the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, and other social and physical sciences.

The second approach, the “Post-Easter Christ”, finds paramount meaning not in the life and teachings of Jesus but in his death and resurrection. St. Paul, rather than the gospel writers, is the primary source for this view. His letters in the Christian Bible offer virtually no information on the life of Jesus and very little regarding Jesus’ teachings. Instead, Paul focuses his attention on the development of a mythos that has Jesus acting as an agent of atonement for the sins of humanity who is revealed as divine at his resurrection. It is this understanding that captures the imagination of the emerging Christian movement in Paul’s time and remains the primary focus of orthodox Christianity.

In essence, one understanding deals with the teachings of Jesus and the other with teachings about Jesus.

Neither understanding necessarily precludes the other but the differing emphases can help clarify the Bush/Chavez conundrum. Where President Chavez discovers inspiration in the Pre-Easter Jesus’ radical approach to social problems: abandonment of the class system, elevation of the poor, uncompromising criticism of the rich and powerful, President Bush finds similar inspiration in the Post-Easter Christ whose claimants propose an ideology of religious imperialism that is less concerned with issues of social injustice and more with matters of eternity. Again, these positions are not clearly oppositional but do offer insight as to the wide disparity of understanding among those who claim to be Christian.

Another contemporary example of this dissimilarity was as recent as last night’s Discovery TV program on “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The contention that newly discovered ossuaries once contained the bones of Jesus and his family, including a wife and child, has made headlines of late and caused considerable consternation among some Christians. One can understand the cause of concern for folk committed to a Post-Easter Christ, a savior who rose bodily from the grave and ascended into the heavens. The discovery of evidence that would indicate a more mundane existence as well as a very ordinary death could make for theological trouble for these believers. The most credible reports indicate little supporting scientific evidence for the program’s claim but one can be assured that other similar hypotheses will be explored… especially when one considers the enormous popularity of Dan Brown’s “ The DaVinci Code” which posited a similar intriguing albeit heretical proposition.

For those of us who find ourselves drawn to the Pre-Easter Jesus, such theological ruminations hold a certain intellectual interest but not much spiritual significance. We find meaning and purpose for our lives under the tutelage and model of Jesus’ life. His mythological ascendancy is understandable to be sure but ultimately irrelevant for our own spiritual journeys. We also recognize that such a confession is disconcerting for some Christians who have yet to comprehend the distinctly different ways of understanding Jesus.

As for Presidents Bush and Chavez…I can’t say I’m all that impressed with how either gentleman has appropriated either the teachings of Jesus or the teachings about Jesus.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 12
February 26, 2007

This past Sunday, I had the privilege of being on the front lines of one more tactical offensive in the growing movement many are calling: The New Reformation. Although to be entirely truthful I wasn’t actually on the front line. It was more like seven pews back.

Worshipping at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena this California winter has brought an added and unforeseen benefit to my initial intention of simply avoiding the snow and cold of Colorado for the first time in 25 years. All Saints may be familiar to some of you via their recent encounter with the Internal Revenue Service. Seems there are some in the IRS who take offense at the “political nature” of the preaching at All Saints and have initiated governmental action to remove the congregation’s tax-exempt status. All of this is being done by agents with straight faces even as they allow far larger congregations to engage in all kinds of political activities including sermons designating who one should vote for and publications threatening excommunication if one doesn’t. The difference, of course, is that All Saints leans left in their activities while the bigger, richer, more powerful churches lean way to the right, right toward the White House.

All of us have watched as cherished liberties and constitutional mandates have eroded these past six years. This assault in Pasadena is simply one more example of the kind of tyranny taking place these days. Nevertheless, All Saints continues its compassionate ways whether the government likes it or not which leads me back to Sunday’s front line action.

But it wasn’t governmental sanctions All Saints was battling Sunday. These were ecclesiastical. You may have read of the recent confab in Tanzania of the primates of the Anglican Communion which resulted in an edict issued to the Episcopal Church in America to “fast” from ordaining gays and lesbians or officiating at same-sex blessing ceremonies during the forty days of Lent. A reasonable request one might concede…as long as one is not gay or lesbian. In that case, the call for fasting is nothing more than the perpetuation of policies that have kept our homosexual brothers and sisters from full participation in congregational life.

In his sermon on Sunday, Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, reminded us that we must never fast from justice, never abstain from seeking the compassionate way of Christ. He then announced that the All Saints congregation would continue to include all people, without exceptions, in the life of the parish. There will be no cessation in the church’s commitment to inclusive ministry, Bacon proclaimed, and the congregation rose up from their pews and applauded as one.

It was a moving moment to be sure but more than that, it was one more clear declaration that the New Reformation is continuing to capture the hearts and minds of more and more Christians who find the compassion-centered teachings of Jesus far more compelling than the too often restrictive regulations of the institutional church.

Although it is in its infancy, the New Reformation is beginning to grow and the evidence can be found in similar acts of compassion coming out of congregations and individual Christians all around the world. If my correspondence is any indication, and I certainly believe it is, adherents to the New Reformation are making themselves heard both within and without most denominations. A plethora of blogs and websites are being created in cyberspace to provide forums for this emerging movement. Here are just a few:,,, and, my personal favorite, There are literally hundreds of others and more forming every day and they are indicative of something new and exciting making its way into the life of the church…whether the church is ready or not.

On Sunday, the Christians that surrounded me at All Saints Church made it very clear that they were more than ready. Onward!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 11
February 19, 2007

I love Lent.

It may seem more than a little idiosyncratic for someone so averse to employing certain religious traditions as I to admit such devotion but I do, unashamedly. From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, I savor this contemplative season. Part of my attraction, I am sure, has to do with my inherent Lutheran nature that finds self-reflection, even self-censure, something of a pleasurable pursuit and forty days all too brief to return to the writings of Kierkegaard or view the films of Bergman once again. The idea of setting aside time each year to ritually re-examine one’s motives and goals has great appeal to me. I am far too much of a realist to fail to acknowledge the dark underbelly of human existence that the church calls sin. Denying our propensity toward self-serving ways leads to the kind of naiveté that allows us to ignore the often destructive ramifications of our own actions. Everything from petty gossip to global warming, incidental hurts to violent imperialism, can find its cause in our self-centeredness. A whole liturgical season set aside to confront such a conundrum seems time very well spent.

If only most churches would spend it more wisely.

Too much of the valuable time of Lent is taken up by too many churches acknowledging ancient formulas that seek to rectify our collective conduct. Oh for a Lenten season that leaves behind the ludicrous litanies of blood atonement and divine appeasement! Can we not spend this holy season in congregational contemplation, musing on the holy power of compassionate action and Christian discipleship?

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” seems strangely inappropriate to a religious tradition consumed by personal prospects for eternity but suitably shocking for a religion that is centered, as Jesus’ was, on the kingdom of God in our midst. Lent reminds us that our allocation of time is limited. Rather than avoiding such a sobering reality with fantastic notions of a life to come, faithful disciples of Jesus will find in Lent the inspiration and courage to experience the kingdom that comes now…in every gesture of grace, in every act of kindness.

For most of the year we rest in romantic notions of an ordered universe, a divine plan. Lent, on the other hand, whispers a different truth. Life is less under our control than we would wish. Unexpected events lie in hiding, only awaiting an improper and unwanted time to make their appearance. The proper Christian response to such a foreboding future, it seems to me, is not the pious acquiescence of Job but the compassionate action of Christ, a life centered not in ourselves but others, a life lived in the kingdom that is in our midst.

And so I wish us all well on our Lenten journey. May it stir our spirits and open our hearts to truths we’d just as soon forget but desperately need to remember.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 10
February 12, 2007

I am sure we have all had a good laugh over the announcement that Pastor Ted Haggard, after three months of spiritual counseling, is “completely heterosexual”, so let’s move on to less humorous news.

Like the report out of Atlanta this week that told of the ecclesiastical trial of Lutheran pastor, Bradley Schmeling. Unlike Pastor Haggard, Pastor Schmeling long ago announced his homosexual orientation and, according to all accounts, has served his congregations and his denomination, well during the ensuing years. Schmeling’s problem and the cause of his appearance before the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Board of Discipline lie with his honesty. Wishing to live an authentic life, he informed his bishop that he had fallen in love with another man and was living in a monogamous relationship with him. The bishop, as bishops are wont to do, immediately pressed charges against Pastor Schmeling for disobeying the guidelines for pastors of the denomination.

In its 14 page decision and with a slim one vote majority, the board announced that it felt “compelled” to remove Schmeling from the ELCA clergy roster for disobedience. At the same time, the board said it was “nearly unanimous” in its disagreement with the current set of pastoral standards enforced by the ELCA and urged the denomination to consider making significant changes.

While I can sympathize with the board’s wish for a different outcome, I am appalled by their lack of courage. Somehow giving precedent to the enforcement of institutional mandates over compassionate albeit “illegal” action seems antithetical to the foundational identity of the Lutheran movement. Had Dr. Luther waited for institutional change before leading his followers on a different path, we would have one less denomination today. The explanation employed by the Board of Church Discipline sounds perilously close to the obstructionist tactics Christians have used in the past to deny women and minorities their equal rights as children of God. What if Rosa Parks had waited until Montgomery’s Town Board officially approved the rights of African-Americans to sit in the front of the bus? What if Nelson Mandela had waited for his apartheid government to change its unjust and evil ways? What if the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire had caved in to ecclesiastical pressure rather than celebrating Gene Robinson as its bishop?

I am ashamed that my church remains mired in a morass of theological mumbo-jumbo when the spiritual lives of thousands of faithful gay, lesbian and bi-sexual laity and clergy continue to be undermined. I am angry that the leadership of my church, so concerned with pacifying its conservative members, chooses to perpetuate institutional injustice. The ELCA long ago left the fold of Biblical literalists, so why does it continue to cling to archaic understandings of human nature only endorsed by Christian fundamentalists and other, equally ignorant and damnably bigoted, fanatics?

What many found so laughably ludicrous about the Haggard announcement this week was the seemingly blatant lack of authenticity inherent in the declaration. No one of any competence in the fields of psychotherapy or human sexuality, I suspect, gives any credence to the pronouncement. Even those of us untrained in such specialties can see through the sham and shake our heads at such foolishness.

And yet when a dedicated pastor who, by all accounts except that of the institutional church, has led an exemplary life, he is condemned for failing to meet arbitrary guidelines, guidelines that appear to make authenticity and integrity subservient to long discredited worldviews and archaic biblical biases.

Let us hope that someday soon the ELCA will look back to its roots and turn to its future unafraid of re-formation.