If it weren’t for you …

Essay by Rev. Gretta Vosper on 31 August 2017 4 Comments

Much of the work I have been privileged to do over the past thirteen years has been the result of a conversation I had one day with the late Reverend Jim Adams, founder of The Center for Progressive Christianity (now called ProgressiveChristianity.org). If it weren’t for you, much of this would never have happened at all. Think of it as an “It’s a Wonderful Life” contribution!

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I am interested in spirituality but not in religion but isn’t spirituality the same as religion?


Dear Reader,

Recently I had a thoughtful discussion with a thirty-something who wanted to talk about spiritualty but seemed to see it exclusively in the context of religion. And, like many of his generation, he was no longer connected to religion as such. He had a hard time seeing spirituality in his everyday world and yet he was working hard in preparing himself for a new profession, namely one in alternative (Chinese) medicine. I tried to get him to think of that as a spiritual calling; as a vocation of service. At first he was very hesitant.
Then I asked him, “What is your favorite painting?” Immediately he responded that it was Van Gogh’s painting of his shoes. “Why?” I asked. “Because it was so ordinary a subject,” he remarked; “Shoes take us places every day; I identified with those shoes. I just love that painting.”
He was getting it. Spirituality is our everyday experiences of depth and deeper meaning and the connection that they carry. Spirituality is present wherever we undergo or observe deeply. In this instance it came alive for this individual who is moved to observe or consider the shoes, the maker of the shoes, the wearer of the shoes and the fact that shoes take us places including to work, and to our loved ones and to home. Thus the artist painting the shoes and the young adult seeing this painting 140 year later—all of it comes alive and is triggered in Van Gogh’s painting of his shoes and the young man’s memory and appreciation of that painting.
Rabbi Heschel says that the role of ritual is “to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives."  An artist does that. Even our shoes carry radiance worth keeping alive in our lives. Often the first question about spirituality comes to this: “What makes you most come alive?” In this story, it was Van Gogh’s painting of his shoes. And you?

~ Rev. Matthew Fox


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible and Homosexuality

The Church's Dance in the 21st Century - Part 3

Spong"They glorified God not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Romans 1:21 KJV)."

"For this cause God gave them up into vile affections; for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet (Romans 1: 26,27 KJV)."

These Pauline verses represent the strangest and most overt condemnation of homosexual acts that can be found in the New Testament. Included here is the single biblical allusion to female homosexuality. These texts are frequently quoted to justify the overt prejudice of homophobia while their obvious meaning is either ignored or dodged. Paul is here asserting that homosexuality is neither a sickness nor does it result from a moral choice, it is rather God's punishment given to those who fail to worship God properly. Read it carefully, Paul is saying that God will afflict people with homosexual desires if they fall into improper habits of worship. It is both a startling and an ignorant claim. Imagine what it would be like to live in fear that if one does not worship in 'the right way,' one's sexual desire would be turned toward those of one's own gender! Would the God who either could or would do that, be worthy of anyone's worship? Would that not turn God into a demon? Would it ever be appropriate to use such a text to condemn homosexuality? Why would anyone articulate such an idea or suggest that this convoluted and bizarre idea should be called "The Word of God." Why do people still look in the Bible not for truth but for the confirmation of their cultural prejudices?

Paul was in many ways a tortured man. The passages from Leviticus and Genesis, condemning homosexuality convinced him that to be homosexual was to stand under the condemnation of the Torah for which the penalty of death was proscribed. Paul also knew the books called Maccabees that were incredibly popular in the first century so he would certainly be aware of the injunction in IV Maccabees 2:1-6, which suggested that if one were faithful and disciplined enough in worship, all desires could be overcome.

Fortunately, for our interpretive purposes we have other works of Paul like Galatians and Philippians in which he relates some of his autobiographical history, his passion for the law, his zealousness in his studies, his advancement in holiness beyond all of his fellows. What becomes clear in these epistles is that Paul's religious zeal approaches fanaticism. Fanatics are always defending a threatened security. That is why they erupt in rage when their religious ideas are challenged. Recall Paul's days as a persecutor of the Christians, his desire to exterminate that movement, throwing its adherents into prison and even participating in their execution. These are the typical responses of religious fanatics. Fanatics are deeply controlling people, seeking to silence their critics. They bind themselves inside the authority of religious rules, which become unbendable and self-defining. The typical pattern is to suggest that to 'oppose my views is to oppose God.'

The most rigid priest I have ever known lived this pattern out totally and in his way, beautifully. He never appeared in public without the proper uniform of jet-black suit and clerical collar. He followed a rigid discipline of daily prayers, including the obligatory rites of Matins and Evening Prayer. He celebrated or attended Mass each day of his life. The idea that the liturgy might be modernized was anathema to him. The possibility that women might ever become priests was inconceivable. Those things could happen only if the church sacrificed everything that was holy to him.

When this man's bishop would visit his church for confirmation, it would create in this priest almost unmanageable anxiety. For weeks in advance, he would choreograph that liturgy to make sure that the bishop would do it his way, so as not to allow his people to know there were options. This anxiety spilled over into the congregation, many of whom were attracted to that church out of deep security needs. The rigidity of worship and their ability to master the intricate details of their complicated liturgy, gave them a strange kind of comfort.

Ultimately, all of these control needs proved too much to be sustained and this priest literally fell apart psychologically and, for a period of time, was unable to function. The dark specter of depression began to consume him as parts of his identity that he believed were unacceptable began to rise in his consciousness. Suicide and a total psychotic break were both distinct possibilities. Instead, like Paul, in the book of Acts, this man had a kind of Damascus Road experience in which he accepted, as Paul seems to have done, a love that surrounded him just as he was. A sense of acceptance swept over him allowing him to face his reality as a homosexual person. In that moment he found the courage to let go of those things he believed were loathsome and evil and to be himself. At that moment the healing process began. That priest began to live anew. To use the language of Evangelical Christianity, he was" born again." He accepted his homosexual reality, began to allow himself to be honest and ultimately he was able to lay down both his rigidity and his fear. As he was restored to health, a person came in to his life that he allowed himself to love. In time they became partners and lived with each other in life giving faithfulness until age itself finally separated them in death. This priest helped me to see Paul's reality in a whole new way.

"Paul was just like me before I became honest with myself," he said, "Both of us were rigid about all the rules, violent when challenged, persecutors of those who suggested that the law, with which we bound ourselves, was not itself ultimate. After his conversion Paul began to acknowledge, just as I have been able to do, that even those parts of his identity, which he had not been able to accept, could be accepted by the God he had met in Jesus." That was an amazing insight to me and under the tutelage of this priest, I began to look at Paul in a brand new way.

Listen to Paul's language: "There is a war going on in my body," --- "With my mind I follow one law but with my body, I follow another" --- "Sin dwells in my members, causing me to do those things that I do not want to do and not to do the things I want to do" --- "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?" These are the plaintive cries of a man who endured the torture of being what he believed it was evil to be. They are articulations of ancient, painful memories. When those cries fade into the affirmation of acceptance Paul utters words like: "Thanks be to God who has given us the victory in Christ Jesus!" Then he goes on to say, "now I know that nothing can separate me from the love of God ---- not even my own nakedness." It is a remarkable portrait of a remarkable man, who strangely enough, is still quoted today by homophobic people to condemn what Paul surely knew that he was.

Yes, I am convinced that Paul of Tarsus was a gay man, deeply repressed, self-loathing, rigid in denial, bound by the law that he hoped would keep this unacceptable reality so totally under control that even he would not ever have to face it. Repression, however, kills. It kills the repressed one and sometimes, in the form of defensive anger, it also kills those who challenge, threaten or live out the thing that is so feared.

Much of the persecution of gay and lesbian people in the Church today has been carried out by self-rejecting, deeply closeted homosexual people. Frequently they wrap their externalized, rejecting and sometimes killing fury, inside the security of an authoritative verse from a sacred source called "The Word of God." This is how a terrible text is born and that is how Paul's tirade in the first chapter of Romans has come to be viewed as a legitimate basis for condemning homosexual people. It is a sinister, inaccurate and incompetent way to use the scriptures. We now expose it for what it has always been with the hope that, weakened and revealed, it will no longer claim new victims in every age.

There are other places in the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline corpus, which have also been used to hurt homosexual people, such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:10. There are also single references in 1 Peter and Jude that are favorites of the Bible quoters searching for a scriptural basis to support their prejudice. Scholars now conclude, however, that these texts may just as well be referring to temple prostitutes or the sexual practices of exploitation that no one, homosexual or heterosexual, would regard as appropriate and life-giving behavior.

The Christian ethic is ultimately a life ethic. When behavior increases life, expands love and calls all parties involved into a new being, then it must be called good. But when behavior denigrates, violates or diminishes anyone, it must be called evil. Sexuality per se is morally neutral. Both heterosexuality and homosexuality can be lived out in either life affirming or life destroying ways. If the Christian Church could only, instead of worrying about its internal unity, begin to lead the world to recognize the right of homosexual people to be accepted just as they are and to have their legitimate desires and sacred commitments blessed by the church and legalized by the state, then the Church would be a moral leader once again. For the fact is that all relationships that give life are holy and those that do not are unholy.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally posted April 14, 2004




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