"Mezuzah the $#!t Out of It"

Essay by Rev. David M. Felten on 18 January 2018 0 Comments

I’m often inspired by the spiritual practices and traditions of faiths other than my own. Many of them come in handy as suggestions I can make to members of my congregation. With the exasperation many are feeling over our current political reality, I’ve had my mind on practices that could potentially help people push back the darkness and ground themselves in simple, life-affirming actions.

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Question

I want you to clarify for me certain issues that seem to me to impact our common existence. Are you in support of gay marriages and abortions? Do you think we have the antichrist and the Dragon in our midst today?

Answer

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your questions. I agree that they do impact on our common existence and our common humanity. I will try my best to respond to them.

The antichrist and the Dragon are metaphors found in apocalyptic literature. They speak to the gut and to the imagination but it would be very ill-advised to take them literally. (One should never take metaphors literally, as Paul says, “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.”) As metaphor, one can no doubt find many applications. They are indirect ways to talk about Evil and talk about evil we should be doing; there is plenty of it to talk about in today’s world. And Evil, being spiritual, is all around and within—it is not just “out there” in others. Thus the need to be alert as all warriors need to be. The antichrist and the Dragon represent the places where injustice (and therefore Evil) reign.(1)

Regarding abortion, let me say this. I am against it in principle as I think we should always be conservative about the gift of life and seek to conserve it. At the same time I am not against people who have abortions—I have never known anyone who took the decision lightly but very often there are solid reasons to not feeling one is capable of a 20 year commitment and responsibility for a new person in one’s life. This is especially true as we have wandered as a species from extended families to more and more singular households. Of course rape and incest as well as the threat to a mother’s life may also convince someone not to bring a child to term. Though against abortion in principle, I am even more against others (invariably men and male-dominated institutions) telling a woman what to do with her body.

Is there common ground between a “freedom to choose” position and a so-called “pro-life” position? Yes, there is. (I say “so-called ‘pro-life’ because many of those who are most zealous about condemning abortion barely make any noise at all about the killing of life that happens after birth such as issues of injustice toward children as regards proper education, health care, etc.) Sometimes people forget that to have a law that allows abortion does not require anyone to have an abortion. Such a law only makes it safe for those who feel an abortion is necessary. Why is that a bad or immoral thing? People will have abortions—it has always been so. So why not make it as safe as possible? Such a law is the lesser of two evils; it saves lives.

Of course a lot of the need for abortion could be alleviated by smart birth control. To forbid both abortion and birth control makes no sense whatsoever in my opinion and the entire ideology is based on false teaching from St Augustine in the fourth century, a sexual neurotic if there ever was one. He taught that all sex was sinful because one “loses control” and must be justified by having a baby. Why? Clearly he never understood the relationship between sex and love; and sex and play; or mysticism and sex, i.e. “love without a why.”

As for gay marriage, yes, I am in favor. Love is love. My Bible says “God is love,” not “God is heterosexual love exclusively.” Why not give gay partners the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual partners, wouldn’t that make for a healthy society? Science has spoken on homosexuality as it spoke 400 years ago about the Earth going around the sun. Homosexuality is the Copernican Revolution debate of our time. The answers are not found in the Bible but in nature, therefore in science whose job it is to study nature. (St Thomas Aquinas warned that “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.”)

Science has spoken: About 8% of any given human population anywhere is going to be gay or lesbian. Why should they not enjoy the stability and privileges of marriage? We have counted over 484 other species with gay and lesbian populations so homosexuality is found in nature, it is a minority, but it is not “unnatural” (except for heterosexuals and heterosexuality is unnatural to homosexuals). Creation is very diverse. Clearly God wanted it that way. Vive la difference!


In addition, indigenous peoples in America have told me that the spiritual directors over the ages to the great chiefs here were homosexual. Why? Because homosexuals bring spiritual depth to a community. The same truth is found in Celtic tribes and in African traditions as well. To worship a homophobic deity then is to deprive self and society of spiritual energy. Why do that?

~ Rev. Matthew Fox

_______________________________________________________

Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

Leading a Conference for Black, Pentecostal, Gay Clergy

Spong

Sometimes, my wife Christine and I have the privilege of entering into an experience that is unexpected, but so moving and profound that it opens doors to new understandings.

Normally we do not schedule lectures or interviews during December. That month is dedicated to our family and to the sheer joy of being disengaged. Despite that commitment, this year I received an invitation that was so compellingly unique that we broke our rule and in mid December flew to Phoenix, to address a conference of ordained people. That in itself is not unusual. However, these clergy were first, members of the Pentecostal tradition, which is not part of my background. Second, they were African-American Pentecostals, an audience that would not normally read my books or invite me to speak. Finally they were gay clergy.

This invitation developed when a member of this group was present at some lectures I gave in Portland, Oregon. At that gathering, this young man shared with me the isolation he felt with his multiple minority statuses. As an African-American he was separated from the predominantly white churches among which he lived; his Pentecostal tradition put him into a narrowly defined part of Christianity, and his gay sexual orientation alienated him from most of the Pentecostal movement in which he had been raised. He asked if I would be available to address a national group of black Pentecostal clergy who were homosexual. I felt like Paul must have when, in the Book of Acts, he had a dream about a person from Macedonia saying to him, "Come over and help us." Paul answered that invitation positively and so did I. I am so very glad I did.

Let me say quickly that this was not an easy conference for me. My body is not trained to sway in worship. My arms do not know how to wave in prayer. Ecstatic sounds do not normally come from my mouth in church settings. I told them they needed to understand that the Jews were known as God's Chosen people, the Episcopalians were known as God's frozen people. I tried, however, to participate as best I could. I suspect I looked a bit like Al Gore in the campaign of 2000. I never did manage to clap my hands in synch with everyone else!

There were about 100 people at this conference and most of them appeared to know each other. They called their movement "The City of Refuge," a reference from the Hebrew tradition in which certain cities were set aside for those who, no matter what they had done elsewhere, were always granted welcome. These clergy, while all Pentecostal in their worship style, were members of various denominations. They used many ecclesiastical titles: archbishop, bishop, apostle, evangelist and pastor. Some had forged a relationship with the United Church of Christ, a generally liberal, congregational form of Christianity that frequently provides structure for independent congregations and community churches. Under the umbrella of the United Church of Christ, churches that almost always fail in the second generation following their charismatic founders, have a chance at longevity by finding a pool from which to choose successive leaders.

During this conference, I listened to the message of each speaker. One evangelist preached with intense fervor and personal illustrations as she worked over obscure texts from the Bible with relentless passion. She knew how to communicate with her audience and the group responded emotionally and attentively. Her themes were belonging, forgiving, and rejoicing in the Grace of God that "saved a wretch" like you and me. Some in the audience leaped to their feet to affirm a word here or a phrase there. Others uttered constant verbal acclamations. Homosexuality was not mentioned publicly but many of the participants were same gender couples and signs of their physical affection, while not ostentatious, were clearly present. Privately when they talked to me or to one another, their sexual orientation was shared. "Same gender loving couples" was a popular phrase among the delegates.

I did not come early in the agenda. I was to be a change of pace, separating those aspects of their conference with which they were quite familiar. I have no anxiety about speaking publicly since I do so much of it, but as the time for my presentation drew nearer and nearer, I felt less and less confident that I would be able to communicate with this audience. My over developed left brain and underdeveloped right brain did not seem to fit this setting. I wondered what expectations they had when they invited me and whether or not I had any ability whatsoever to fulfill those expectations. As the time approached for me to step up front, I found myself lecturing myself silently: "You cannot be what you are not. Do not try! Just be yourself. Be open, be honest, be accepting. Do what you are capable of doing. Teach, illumine, explore and stay in dialogue." The lecture must have worked for peace descended on my soul.

I was introduced with incredible grace by the conference leader, Bishop Yvette A. Flunder, a gifted female pastor, who had been chosen and consecrated as bishop of 'Fellowship 2000.' Dr. Flunder, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, was the founder of something called "Refuge Ministries and City of Refuge UCC." In her introduction she stressed the need for more education, more understanding. She spoke of the loneliness that comes with alienation. She explained something about my role in helping the Episcopal Church come to terms with the issue of homosexuality. She asked them to listen openly and not be afraid to ask questions. Then she asked the group to welcome me. They responded enthusiastically.

I decided to approach this subject autobiographically, believing that people can hear a personal story more readily than they can absorb facts. Besides, my journey was not unlike theirs. I was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist Episcopal Church in the south. I did not know what a homosexual was. I cannot recall even hearing the word until I was 18 years old. Apparently, we did not have homosexuals in the south or perhaps it was that they were not allowed to be visible. When I finally opened my mind to that word and its meaning, I accepted the definition so prevalent in both my church and my region: If one were "liberal and kind," one viewed homosexuality as a mental illness that elicited pity and the hope of a cure. If one were "conservative and rejecting," one viewed homosexuality as an example of moral depravity deemed worthy only of conversion or punishment. I accepted those definitions for years as the boundaries inside which the debate on this subject would be conducted. In time, however, my life experiences caused me to challenge my stereotypes. I told them of the gay and lesbian people who had forced me to look again. These exemplary people lived their lives with such integrity that no one could say they were either mentally sick or morally depraved. I related to them the circumstances in which the first gay clergyperson had shared with me, the new bishop, his sexual identity; only to be told by me that he must keep it quiet as the price of his continued work in my diocese. I developed an ecclesiastical version of "don't ask, don't tell," which served well to keep my discomfort in check and to allow me to function without compromising my uninformed ignorance. Then I shared with them my study with a doctor at the Cornell Medical Center in New York where I first began to grasp a new reality that was ultimately undebatable. I learned that sexual orientation is not something one chooses, it is something one is. Sexual orientation is thus in the same category as left-handedness, hair and skin color and even gender. I learned that homosexuality constitutes a stable percentage of the human population at all times and in all places. External events or evil people do not cause it. Since it is present in the animal world one can hardly call it unnatural. My audience listened attentively and appreciatively. I closed with a simple assertion. If the words attributed to Jesus in John's Gospel are accurate, then the purpose of Christ was that all "might have life and have it abundantly." This means that anybody or anything that diminishes the life of any child of God must be declared to be evil. It is so clear to me. Racism, sexism, homophobia or any other prejudice that diminishes the life of any person, violates the deepest meaning of Jesus. One cannot be prejudiced and still be a follower of Jesus. My words were warmly received with much applause. The question period after the lecture was genuine, probing and revealing of great pain.

I heard them searching the Bible for ways to remove their sense of rejection. One could see their inner tension. They wanted to be part of the Pentecostal Christian tradition in which their lives had been nurtured. They wanted to be openly and lovingly what they knew they were. They absorbed this weekend like thirsty people who had discovered an oasis in the wilderness. Both Christine and I were embraced in their love, which melted all of the boundaries.

At the closing event of the conference, Bishop Flunder asked Christine and me if we would allow them to pray for us in their worship style. Of course we would. We were seated on two chairs and the conference delegates surrounded us, laying their hands on us wherever they could. They then blessed us verbally and at great length. Each person prayed aloud and all together. They gave thanks, asking God to be with us in all we do. They spoke in words and phrases common to Pentecostalism. Thank you Jesus! Thank you, Thank you. Thank you Jesus! Hallelujah, Amen. Praise God. Thank you Jesus. It was for us a new experience but we both felt touched by God. We might experience God differently from the members of this conference but their faith was real and their spirits were loving. When we left for the airport I found myself saying, Thank you Jesus! Thank you, thank you, Jesus.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published January 26, 2005

 

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