Can I be a Christian “ethical slut”?

Recently, many queer and Christian friends of mine have waded into questions of sexual ethics. Some of them are reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, and they are apparently getting a lot out of it. Because I’m prepping to start writing my PhD dissertation on the intersection of Queer and Pentecostal theologies, I’m loving the chance to read Michel Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality. These two “conversations” put me in mind of the sex-positive classic that encourages us to recover The Ethical Slut in each of us. And because my theological brain never stops working, I said to myself, I said: “I need to write about this!”

The Short Form (or, TL;DR):

  • Sexual concern is a form of “doing what love requires.”
  • The Ethical Slut claims, “Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.”
    • Nice means “kind and generous”
    • Good means “conferring or having wholeness, integrity, fittedness-to-the-situation”
  • The core of sex-positivity is, “Be free to have the ethical sex you want, and also to refrain from sex you don’t want or deem unethical.”
    • Which means that ace/aro folks and celibates are included, if they want to be!
    • We often shame people who exercise this freedom by calling them sluts.
    • Sex-positive disposition is compatible with the Gospel and is a bridge to useful conversations in the broader society.
  • Mature decision-making requires learning to make sound decisions “from the gut,” as Jesus did.
  • Ethical sex is (a) good.
    • Primary focus on misuse or abuse of sex leads to debilitating fear and shame.
  • God can and does use the ethical sex in my life to teach me about God’s character, and I delight in it thoroughly.
  • If all this makes me a Christian “ethical slut,” so be it!

The Long Form (or, Strap yourself in, here we go!):

Bolz-Weber is a badass Lutheran pastor who isn’t afraid to challenge religious dysfunction in the service of helping people experience liberation and flourishing. When Christians do our sexual ethics, she argues that we must go beyond the non-negotiables of informed consent and reducing harm to what she calls concern: Looking out for the genuine well-being of self and others in the realm of sexuality and having sex.

In volume three of his History of Sexuality, Foucault discusses how, in Greek and Roman thought, sex could not be wrong or harmful of itself (because it was Nature’s gift to humanity); on the other hand, the practice of sex could give immediate rise to all kinds of problems for “the care of the self.” One should, if possible, have sex only when the need of the soul and the body are in sync. The body, for these folks, is closer to Nature because it cannot be misled by the soul’s potentially distorted belief about how things are. Be careful not to excite yourself beyond the needs of the body, say the ancients, or you will have poor care of the self.

“Well then,” I said to myself, “taking all of this into account, does that mean The Ethical Slut is wrong?” Donnie Easton and Janet Hardy’s cheeky book (I’ve read the first edition) encourages us to have the ethical sex we want and to refrain freely from sex we deem unwanted or unethical.

“Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” is a core thesis of TES. I’ve appreciated it because it has allowed me to challenge the sticky fundamentalist sexual programming of my youth, which seems more rooted in shame than in beauty, truth, and goodness. But the question sticks with me: Is intense desire in the soul and the body more dangerous than it’s worth? Has our culture, by embracing a belief in the goodness, appropriateness and even necessity of sexual expression across the adult life span, been misguided?

“Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.”

From Dossie easton & Janet Hardy, The Ethical Slut (Ten speed Press, 2017)

Never mind the wider culture: What about my own life and practice?! I am currently in (by any conscientious contemporary standard) a deeply healthy monogamous relationship, and I offered a first draft of the following in the context of a discussion about concern in sexual ethics:

I think it was Norman Pittinger who said, “The heart of Christian ethics is this: Do what love requires.” I take this memorable quip as the flip side of “do no harm.”

A central plank of my sexual ethics is joy or delight–what I like to call juiciness. It’s when all of me, including my body, seems to shout, “YAAAAAAS!” Sometimes–although this awareness is not necessary for my sexy times to be wonderful–it seems my lover and I bask in God’s own smile of pleasure.

Part of what helps me get to juicy is being concerned about how my partner wants to feel, and not just what he wants to do. In fact, Knowing the core emotions we desire guides the things we do and how we do them. For example: Kissing always happens in every sexual encounter with my partner. But I’ll kiss him differently if he wants to feel “cute and playful” rather than “sexy and assertive,” yes? We might not always “arrive” at the state we thought we wanted, but the effort to be fully present and enthusiastic is worth it, I think!

One thing I appreciate about Pastor Nadia and others is their desire to see Christians become spiritual adults who make insightful and intuitively sound decisions rather than constantly checking, “Am I following the rules?” Having a checklist is appropriate at a certain stage of learning. But if I’m called to be a friend of Jesus, even in my sex life, then I would like to become consciously and unconsciously competent at “do[ing] what love requires.” And being someone Jesus calls “friend” is the same thing as being an ambassador of God’s Kingdom.

Adapted from Facebook

But hold on a second–am I in the wrong about juiciness? For the ancients–and the Christians who read and cited them, shaping Christian theologies of sex and gender–is joy the wrong metric for me to use? Is asking questions about my desires and core emotions unhelpful? And if “doing what love requires” is my Christian conviction, doesn’t “sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” seem rather anemic and superficial? (At this point, I feel the hesitancy of a public speaker: There is no way I can say everything I think all at once. Try to be gracious, please, if you think I miss something important in what follows.)

If I’m truly serious about “concern,” does that mean there is no such thing as a Christian “ethical slut”?

For almost five years in my 20s, I worked for Environics Research Group, conducting opinion polls and social science research over the phone. (Yep, I was one of the phone monkeys calling during your supper, insisting–truthfully!–that I wasn’t selling anything but wanted to pick your brain.) Though the training wasn’t difficult, my supervisors drilled into us the importance of clarifying ambiguous responses.

“Always clarify when someone uses ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘nice,’ or ‘interesting,'” they said. “In our line of work, those are the four least useful words in the English language.”

“Sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you.” Oh, OK. Fair point. So:

“Sex is nice…”

What do you mean by that, Robbie?

For years, until fairly recently, I hated the word nice, as in, “They are a nice person.” A couple tropes were fixed in my mind. “Nice” was:

  • A slightly pleasant blandness that is easy to dismiss or overlook (“Nice guys finish last”); AND
  • A scrupulous politeness that could still flay you alive:
    • like a British bank employee who secretly thinks I’ve asked a stupid question. (To avoid this reaction during my two visits to the UK in the 2010s, I would walk up and say, “Hi. I’m a student from Canada, and I think I’m about to ask a stupid question.” It worked); OR
    • like a Southern matron who tells you, offering her warmest smile and a plate of treats, “Well, bless yer heart.” Apparently, she means “Fuck off,” “Go to Hell,” or both!

Everything changed for me, one late night in early 2020, while I watched an archive of a self-described “little rich white girl” named Heidi Baker speak to the students of the School for Supernatural Ministry at Bethel Church in Redding, California. This potent woman of God spends half the year in Mozambique running orphanages, “stopping for the one” she encounters on the street, and healing the sick (she has a particular charism for healing blindness caused by malnutrition).

I was in a particularly open state as Heidi told one “Holy Ghost story” after another. I’ll always remember how, after describing a day full of unnecessary and even silly graces from God that made her feel deeply loved, she exclaimed, “God’s just so nice to me!”

I started to cry as those other pictures of nice began to crack, and I heard God say to me, “I want to be nice to you, too, Robbie.”

Rev. Liz Edman, author of the book Queer Virtue, has recently become a beloved friend and intellectual playmate of mine. When I shared this experience with her, I remember she offered something like this: “I find myself, lately, saying to people, ‘I need you to be nice to me.’ But I’m not looking for something superficial. I’m looking for a deep blend of kindness and generosity.” Something in me started singing; I’m only just beginning to experience nice this way, at the beginning of my fifth decade of life. (That makes me 40, for those who wonder!)

So: “Sex is nice [ie, kind and generous]…” It seems not so superficial after all, because we’re back in the heart of concern and “doing what love requires.” Can I be generous and kind to my partner if I’m solely focused on gratifying myself? Is it nice to dismiss my own desire for juiciness as bland or stupid? Doesn’t something need healing and compassionate attention if I ever hear, within myself (or from my partner, God forbid!), “Fuck off!”?

As an allosexual with a high sex drive (someone with statistically typical sexual desire who loves a consistently high frequency of sexual encounters) I think it’s important that I say this: My asexual, aromantic, and celibate friends and loves have taught me to resist any pressure, from within or without, to engage in behaviours and relationships which I do not want and/or I find unethical. This is also being nice to myself and others. The freedom to choose, and to refrain from, sexual and romantic relationships which are consistent with my conscience–alongside consent, reducing harm, and concern–is the core of sex-positivity as I understand it.

Unfortunately, society often shames people who desire, advocate for, and practice this kind of freedom. We call the sexually actives ones, at least, sluts. (We’re probably just not-so-secretly envious, yes?) Some of my conservative Christian siblings contribute to this shaming by calling sex-positivity a contemporary name for everything the Bible calls sexual sin. Despite this caricature, disagreement about sexual ethics is not the same as culpably resisting God’s desire comprehensive (including sexual) well-being. If the core tenets of sex-positivity are as I’ve described them, they are congruent with the Gospel of the Kingdom, and can lead to fruitful conversations with our neighbours. (In my experience, most Christians and Christian institutions balk at having these further conversations because we don’t like talking about having sex and we’re afraid to find out we might not be at the bottom of the sex-ethical slippery slope. Mores the pity.)

My asexual, aromantic, and celibate friends and loves have taught me to resist any pressure, from within or without, to engage in behaviours and relationships which I do not want and/or I find unethical. This is also being nice to myself and others.

“…and pleasure is good for you.”

Foucault’s History of Sexuality notes repeatedly the ambiguous nature of pleasure and desire for Greek, Roman and early Christian sources (though he argues, quite cogently, that the reasons such ambiguous attitudes arise stem from very different starting points for classical pagans and Christians). Regardless, as I read, I keep thinking of how Greco-Roman even some of our contemporary Western sexual mores feel to me.

When Hellenistic Christians were learning the Gospel, they used the resources of their cultures to struggle with how best to present a truthful picture of the One God and Creator. Emotion for humans, “moving out” from oneself, requires, they thought, a change. The presence of change in a thing means, according to some philosophers, that the thing in question is imperfect.

The ancient church, then, encountered a major barrier to the acceptance of the Gospel for their circumstances. Dozens of Scriptural texts, on a literal reading (especially of the Hebrew Bible) indicate that God changes his mind often enough to keep things spicy. But I can hear an informed ancient Christian protest, saying something like this:

Change means imperfection–what an insult to God’s character! We need to read these texts in the light of our conviction of God’s perfection. Perhaps God accommodates finite creatures like us by giving us what we can understand at the time. Perhaps there really is no good analogy between human emotion and God’s experience of Godself. God is impassible, and does not change. To believe something so ridiculous as “God the Father can suffer” is a grave heresy that we must not allow!

This view of God has implications for belief about the nature of personhood. Humans are most like God when we have an even and rational disposition. Our emotions are highly disciplined: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

There are some good things about this view of God and humanity, but here I want to highly what I think is a serious problem: Consistent and intense emotions of all types become suspicious and problematic. In white English-Canadian society, if I express myself passionately about politics or religion, many will perceive as an ideologue, a potentially dangerous dogmatist. Over and over in my experience of Christian institutions, leaders look with suspicion upon those who cannot articulate their faith in well-ordered, defensible statements. When leaders craft theology and legislation to shore up Christian community, they often conflate “questioning theology and ethics” with “personal rebellion against God.” Where this occurs, there is a disastrous blow to the safety and appropriate flexibility of Christian communities. It is a devastating mistake.

What I perceive as an undue suspicion of emotion surfaced one day in my World Missions class at Bible College. My prof, who often fired off brilliant one-liners worth the cost of my tuition in themselves, said this: “Theology is a better motivation for mission than compassion.” At the time, I agreed completely.

To his credit, my professor was trying to warn a roomful of newly Evangelical teenagers about the seriousness of burnout and compassion fatigue in the lives of Christians. Better to operate with a settled theological conviction rather than by the vicissitudes of my emotions, I heard him say. Seems clear, reasonable, and good–to a point.

I admit freely that it’s possible that my 18-year-old self misunderstood him. But here’s my problem with his formulation as I remember it: The four biblical Gospels consistently report Jesus (whom I affirm as fully God and fully human) being “moved with compassion” to respond to the needs of those around him! As I understand it, we could translate “compassion” more literally from the Greek: “And Jesus, moved from his bowels…” From the gut, we say today.

My learned professor, I think, was over-emphasizing cognition and mental will: If your feelings don’t agree, remember your rational commitment to Jesus, and do the job anyway. As training wheels on our “faith bike,” as a stop-gap measure in an acute time of crisis, what can I say except, “Amen”? But I suggest it seems perfectly reasonable to track with the implication of Jesus’ experience: It came “up” from his body, not (only?) “down” from his mind!

Here’s my contention: Because he practiced being in God’s presence so consistently, because he met and talked his Abba so often, because he knew the Holy Spirit on him and in him, Jesus could “trust his gut,” knowing how to respond appropriately to everyone who came to him. And he often did it without stopping to pray first! Jesus reached a point–unclouded by sin in a way we aren’t it’s true–where God could trust him with saving the entire cosmos. Though we adopted siblings of Jesus do not yet have sinless maturity and fully-alive humanity, Jesus’ learning process and ours are identical.

As it was taught to me, St. Teresa of Calcutta founded the Missionaries of Charity, and often said something like this to those who asked to volunteer with her order:

If you wish to come and work with us, do not come because you love the poor; there will be days when you do not love the poor. Do not come because you wish to do works of charity; there will be days when you do not wish to do such works. But if you come because you seek Christ, you are most welcome; you may find Him everywhere you look.”

No citation found

St. Teresa, I think, went to the heart of what my professor might have missed. I hear her this way: If you first seek Jesus, everything else will follow. Sure, there will be days when I’ll feel like shit and do the right thing as if on automatic–but is this normal? I think not. Why? Because our best and most integrated experiences come “up” from our bodies and not (first of all) “down” from our rational minds. (I am not blaming people, like Teresa, who did the work in the face of void in her soul–far from it. What I am claiming is that Christians seldom know how to help people reach the place where the conviction “do what love requires” settles into our heads, hearts, guts, hands, feet, and genitals. If someone like Teresa is being tormented, this is wrong. If a believer in Jesus holds to him by mental force without ever feeling and knowing the love of God for them, great is their faith, but the Body of Christ has failed them somehow!

If I could meet my learned friend again, I would say to him, “Sir, the compassion of Jesus is the best motivation for mission there is, and I need to learn it in my body–so thoroughly that it shifts my emotions and bodily dispositions toward his, and not just my intellect.” I hope we would, soon enough, be in happy agreement.

What does this have to do with “pleasure is good for you”? Many Christians fail to consider that our best and most holy responses need to consistently arise from our bodies, including our emotions and feelings, and not just the part that can logically deduce the “right answer.” As difficult as this sometimes is for any number of good reasons (says the boy with cerebral palsy on the autism spectrum!), our bodily nonverbals and gut responses go much deeper than our words.

What if it’s true that (as the Psalms tell us), “At God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore”? What if John Piper, a self-described “Christian hedonist,” is right when he says, “God’s own experience of Godself is joy?” What if, according to the Westminster Catechism, “The chief purpose of humankind is to know God and enjoy God forever?” What if the “Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood?” What if that Word, Jesus, “For the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame”? And what if, like Jesus, we will all eventually experience the resurrection of the body–what if our good bodies are permanent? If, with our whole selves, we want to affirm these things, doesn’t that say something about how the juiciness of the body is a deep, messy, joyful good?

I am increasingly convinced that goodness at its deepest–like truth and beauty–far surpasses a superficial moral evaluation. Good(ness) is not exactly easy to define; it seems a lot more like “I know it when I see it.” (From the gut again!) But I wonder if it means something like this, “Being worthy of, and conferring, fittedness, wholeness, integrity, and sustainable growth in a given situation.”

I don’t know why this should be controversial, but it seems to me that sexual pleasures can confer, and are worthy of recognition as, profound goods. (Focusing only or primarily on the misuse and abuse of these goods leads to shame and paralyzing fear, which never help good discernment.)

Here’s my provocation for you. When:

  • my partner is making my toes curl…
  • all I can say, over and over, is, “Fuck, it’s so good!”…
  • the intensity of sensation and connection becomes so great that my upstairs (queer) neighbours can probably hear my moans…
  • kissing is breathy and ordinary…

…it is precisely these experiences that can and do reframe reflect, refract, and refocus how nice God is to my love and me in our whole life together. God teaches me, through my sex life, about God’s own character. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

What was I saying? O yeah: Sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you. If giving thanks to God for the juiciest and most consistent sex of my life, wanting (and getting!) it often, and training myself to be a fully present and enthusiastically messy provocateur for the man I love makes me a slut, than so be it.

I guess I can be a Christian “ethical slut,” after all. Soli Deo Gloria!

Lent 2018 – 8 March

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Psalm 107:17-22

A simple thought, but one that goes to the core of my Christian experience. Healing is part of God’s character, part of his “steadfast love” or chesed. Wherever the power called Sin has touched human life with destruction, it is always God’s will to set it right, always God’s will that we sing songs of joy for our deliverance. (Those same songs of joy, it seems, can set others free. This is one of the reasons we still sing this Psalm today!)

As a man who lives with Cerebral Palsy, I know that God wills my healing (and even my cure!) because this is the model I see in the person and ministry of Jesus. And the character and ministry of healing part of the mantle that the Church carries into every age and place.

O faithful, healing God:
Stretch forth your hand to heal,
and to cause your people to minister that healing with joy!
For the sake of Jesus, your Son,
we say: Amen.

Lent 2018 – 5 March

Yikes. I have a big gap to fill when I’ve got the chance. But God is good, so let’s get started again…

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Hebrews 9:23-28

But as it is, he [Jesus the Messiah] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (emphasis mine!).

I had never noticed this before: “not to deal with sin.” I suppose I believed it anyway, because I have learned from non-violent atonement theologians that Christ’s Cross is God’s decisive dealing with all sin. But (at least according to the author of Hebrews), the Second Coming of Christ is not for smacking sin around again, but to save/liberate (judge? set right?) those eagerly waiting for him–we will be adjusted so that we have the capacity to live in God’s re-creation. This is a staggering thought, to me.

I would just like to note, as an aside, that this passage is the reason why orthodox Christians do not affirm reincarnation; according to this author, human beings die once, and afterward face God, who longs to set us right through the ministry of Christ on the Cross.

I wonder what kind of freedom I would walk in if it rested in my body that Christ’s Second Coming is not about “dealing with sin.” Perhaps I (along with so many others!), would let go of the lie that God (the Father) is out to get us somehow, or needs to make sure we understand how lucky we are that He’s let us join his Kingdom. But O! speaking as a disabled man who has so many questions, may Jesus stir up in me, and in every human heart, an eagerness for his return, and for the liberation of all things!

Lent 2018 – 21 February

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Proverbs 30:1-9

Every word of God proves true;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
    or else he will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar.

I first learned these words of Scripture in an Evangelical counter-LDS pamphlet, as part of the reason why orthodox Christianity rejects Joseph Smith as a false prophet and sees LDS doctrine as heretical. The way I remember the context, the basis of the argument was that the canon of Scripture is closed, and the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants add to the canon, the word that God has proved true. Unfortunately, the canon is closed only on a technicality–the Christian tradition is so scattered in its expressions that we could no longer add to the canon even if it were possible to call a genuinely ecumenical council that would carry authority across the entire Christian world.

But as I read these words today, I recognize that they are saying something profound and dangerous about prophetic ministry: prophets and sages require deep humility and listening, so that they discern and speak what they hear from God, and no more. There is certainly room for God to speak new things–in Matthew 4:1-11 (another reading for today), Jesus says that “Humanity does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Please notice that the sentence is in the present, and not the past, tense.) But as the oracle who wrote Proverbs 30 knows, along with Jesus, there is a profound temptation to forget or add to God’s goodness in ways that fundamentally compromise the ministry that we are called to carry in the world.

Two things I ask of you;
    do not deny them to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or I shall be poor, and steal,
    and profane the name of my God.

Just as Jesus was tempted to forget God and supply his own needs by the Satan, I must admit that as a poor PhD student and disabled man, it is easy to justify taking (read: stealing because I didn’t ask permission) food that isn’t mine from the communal fridge because I run out of groceries and feel hungry. (Usually, this is poor planning on my part, not dire need.) Both literally and metaphorically, I will ask now for the food and daily materiel I need, so that my life will be in balance, full of gratitude. Those who have what they need, no more and no less, see more clearly the world in which they live and minister, and thus, it seems, are less likely to “deny” God or “add to his words.”

May He grant me the grace to repent, plan better, and discern the word He wants me to carry with balance, skill, gratitude, and clarity. Amen.

Lent 2018 – First Sunday of Lent (18 February)

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

This is one of the passages that some Christians turn to that suggests what some Jewish traditions call “the harrowing of hell,” which implies universal human salvation because of the ministry of Jesus. (That’s a much longer conversation!)

This passage also connects the Flood stories of Genesis to Baptism. I find it interesting that it doesn’t seem to have a typical idea of what “baptismal regeneration” means–almost as though God zaps the water and pow! a new Christian! But baptism is an “appeal to God for a good conscience through Jesus’ resurrection.” Baptism “saves” not because of a property of the water, but based on the authority of God’s faithfulness expressed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. If God didn’t do that (raise Jesus), baptism as the efficacious sign of salvation doesn’t do anything for us.

There is an ethical dimension to baptism–it is an appeal to God for a “good conscience,” a heart and life shaped in such a way that we will consistently make the thousands of large and small choices that bring us to deep love of God and neighbour, and mature citizenship in the Kingdom/Commonwealth of God.

This Lent, if you want to follow Jesus, to whom his Father has subjected all things, please consider His call to be a baptised citizen of His realm, a visible member of his Church. Baptism is a primary way that we can deliberately make room for Jesus, and display to the world that we intend to give Him all the honour He is due.

Lent 2018 – 17 February

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Psalm 32

I just realised that this Psalm is the source for a line from one of my favourite worship choruses: No Longer Slaves, released by Bethel Music. “You surround me with a song of deliverance from my enemies.”

I love this Psalm because I am someone who has needed real and serious forgiveness for many things. I’m not just talking the daily misunderstandings that usually get cleared away between friends, but serious, stupid, uninformed choices that brought serious harm to people. I love that David, responsible for rape and murder, among other things, was willing to be held accountable by his community, even though he was the king. And I’m glad that loving pastors, counselors, and friends held me accountable, and that somehow, I learned the grace of God’s steadfast covenant love–the kind that refuses to divorce me even when I have gone way wrong. It has been a delight to even feel forgiven by both God and those I’ve harmed.

With my elder brother David, I can say, “Since this was my experience, which was so terrible, so also will it be for anyone who is willing to acknowledge the times when we have culpably broken shalom!” This Psalm also reminds me of Paul, sitting in prison near the end of his ministry, writing to his crew at Phillipi: “This is a saying worthy of full acceptance: ‘Messiah Jesus came into the world to save sinners’–of whom I am the foremost!” There is something so joyful in being able to say, “I was a thus-and-so kind of person, and I remember that. But I’m not there anymore; I am free because Jesus has been kind to someone like me.”

I wish for you, dear faithful reader, the grace and joy of knowing both giving up your sin and taking up the forgiveness that will wash all your guilt away. May we all be eager to do everything we can to restore relationship with those we harm, and to celebrate when God, often through God’s people, rescues us from the floodwaters that we ourselves often provoke.

Lent 2018 – 16 February 2018

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: 2 Timothy 4:1-5

For me, this is one of my favourite texts in the New Testament; I’m also tempted to hate it, because it is one of my personal texts of terror.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 

Though I acknowledge that the Pastoral Epistles were probably not written by the historical Paul, I always appreciated that traditionally, Timothy was understood as a young pastor as young as 20, whose congregation was very difficult. Along comes “Paul” to urge his young charge to be faithful to the Gospel.

When I spend time with people in “progressive” mainline churches, I wonder if we proclaim the same message that the earliest Christians did–how much time to we spend persistently convincing, rebuking, and encouraging each other with the utmost patience? The idea that we should convince someone of the truth of the Gospel, never mind rebuke someone because of unchristlike behaviour or doctrinal error, seems very uncomfortable in a cultural context that prizes pluralism.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

This is the part, except for the last sentence, that makes this reading a “text of terror” for me (and, I imagine, many other queer Christians). You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard Christians use the second half of this reading to say: People who believe that they can be faithful Christians while being in sexually active same-gender/sex relationships are “gathering to themselves teachers to suit their unbiblical and perverse desires.” They believe myths about sexual orientation and gender that are not true.

I often wonder if people who say such things ever stop to consider that they may be equally guilty of the same procedures, not only about queerness but about many other areas in which they have not examined their privilege. For myself, the Gospel writ large is a much more interesting conversation than the much smaller debate about sexual morality; however, as someone who is theologically convicted that faithful queer relationships are part of God’s provision for joy and goodness in the world, I need to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of” someone who proclaims God’s good news, and “carry out [my] ministry fully.”

I know that I often fail, and I often feel an unfair level of scrutiny from those who do not agree with me. But I remember something my hero Peter Gomes said when the voices in his world said that he couldn’t be Black, gay, and Christian: “I offer my life as evidence to the contrary.” I would like to think that we queer Christians will be able to offer something serious and joyful to the Church and the world about the Good News we share: Messiah Jesus will put right everything and everyone, the living and the dead.

Lent 2018 – 15 February

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Daniel 9:1-14.

Sometimes, our repentance has more impact than we know. As I read the passage in Daniel, I remembered three things.

  1. Repentance is not just a ‘spiritual’ action, if by spiritual we mean individualistic, apolitical, and totally subjective. Repentance (choosing God’s agenda over our own) happens not just in our daily lives but in much wider social contexts. Daniel mentions his own: “the first year of Darius…a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans.” Most Israelites (at least if they are of the upper class) are not living on their home soil anymore, but under the thumb of a dangerous Empire. How is the people of God going to admit their complicity in the situation and nevertheless experience God’s forgiveness and compassion?
  2. Wise individuals have a role to play in representing the community before God, and also calling the community to repentance. Daniel was the one who discerned that it time for God to act, but he didn’t distance himself from his people, their trials, or their sins–even though they were under judgement. He gets on his face and uses “we” language over and over. What does this look and sound like in 2018? Where and who are the prophets and sages who intercede for the people of God and do not deny complicity in the messy injustices of our current political and church climates? As Cindy Jacobs, a pentecostal teacher, says, “Not all intercessors are prophets, but all prophets are intercessors.”
  3. Though it isn’t in the reading, according to the book of Daniel, the repentance of the people and God’s action of restoration are worked out in the context of what many Christians would call spiritual warfare. It is easy, in the West, to think that injustices and blessings are only systemic, and thus, in some sense, only human. But I don’t think this is what the Scriptures teach. There is a realm of agency surrounding the human and biological that Christian tradition calls the angelic–and not all angelic forces are on God’s side. In Daniel, it’s almost as though the angelic force of the next political regime in the region has an impact on what Daniel, Israel, and God are able to do now! (Of course, if Daniel was written in the era of Roman occupation, the point still remains that the negative angelic weight being brought to bear on the situation is immense and dangerous.) When we truly receive the call to repent, we will often find that forces we barely understand make it a long and difficult road. As retired pastor Eugene Peterson writes, repentance, especially in the face of political and angelic principalities and powers, is “a long obedience in the same direction,” — and the direction is the heart of God made known in and as Jesus by the power of the Spirit. Only a people committed to deep love of the Trinity, and all that entails, will have the wherewithal to do effective living in the midst of spiritual battle.

Ash Wednesday 2018

Revised Common Lectionary reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

I always thought it was funny that Jesus, in today’s reading, tells his people not to make showy public prayers, and then his followers in catholic traditions make a show of their prayers by putting ashes on their foreheads! For myself, because I didn’t grow up in such a tradition (though I am now Anglican), I am uncomfortable going out in public with ashes on. For other Christians, whose regular practice includes the ashes, wearing them in public is not “showy,” but a mark of deep formation and authenticity.

In this season of Lent, regardless of how we treat the prayer of ashes, let us remember that “where our treasure is, there also is our heart.” I wonder how Jesus will clear the junk out of my life to reorient myself to His treasures, this Lent.

Lord Jesus,
I know that you call me your treasure. Cause me to do the same for you, that my heart will be increasingly where yours is. And may this be true not only in my life, but in the lives of all people who want you to receive the honour you are due. Amen.

Strawberry ice cream. A poem.

We sit perched in a soda-shoppe,
carving our spoons
through generous bowls
of rich and gracious strawberry ice cream,

debating about bodies.

She thinks that the idea of sex with Jesus is heretical
(never mind that many of the Christian mystics
lead us strongly in that direction,
or that the Son of God and Son of Man
was a human male who probably had orgasms
after the onset of puberty).

She thinks that trans* people need healing of their gender identities,
that God would prefer everyone to be clearly Adam and clearly Eve,
because this is (clearly) much closer to the perfect will of God
than the messy battle of messing with pronouns
and doing battle with dysphoria and dissociation.

She even thinks, after years of feeling secure
in her Jesus-loving lesbian life,
that she must seek healing, instantaneous
re-orientation to a heterosexual happiness
that eludes her in her current touch-deprivation,
or (only slightly better) her repeated falls into the arms of women
who give her fucking fabulous orgasms
but no true hold,
no murmur that speaks the truth:
“I see you, Beloved.”

I believe that each one of us,
in community,
has our own journey of integrity,
of growing by inches into royal robes stitched for us by the hand of God–
into the full stature of Christ.

Her journey does not look like mine–
nor does it need to:

But for myself,
I cannot yet hear in the certainty she expresses
the rich and gracious flavour
of intimacy with Jesus,
the joy of being unafraid to be wrong
because he is right,
even and especially when I am not.

And I wonder how many times,
in my burning desire to scatter the Gospel
and protect children of God from the dangerous and salty
depths of real heresy and real blasphemy,
my own words have not tasted like rest, like belovedness,

like sitting in a soda-shoppe
smiling the simple sensuality
and rich graciousness
of strawberry ice cream.

In repentance–
smirking flirtatiously at the hot waiter–
I order another bowl.