My Slow-Walk, Surprising Journey

November 20, 2017

My church family, local and regional, has been fighting over human sexuality. And it’s been ugly. We all agree that there is such a thing as human sexuality, but the conversations go downhill from there. In the meantime, as I’ve been sneaking up on or crashing into geezerhood, I’ve been on a private journey to understand these issues better for myself. It’s a journey that has brought me to change my mind. This essay is about that journey. It’s not an argument, but a story of where I’ve come. I’m telling the story mostly for friends or for folks who have known me as a public person. I need to speak and act differently on these issues than I have in the past, and I want you to understand why. (If you want to read arguments, I’m a retired teacher who knows how to construct reading lists and such, but this is just my story.)

The most recent part of my journey began when I overheard two friends loudly declaring to one another how they agreed on the hot topic of Christian responses to homosexuality. “If we just did what the Bible says,” complained one, “we wouldn’t even be talking about this.” “Yes,” his friend agreed, “what the Bible teaches is clear and simple.”

Well, I knew that wasn’t true. I had studied this issue some years before and had already discovered the tangled web of disagreement that interpreters weave around this issue. I let the loud friends walk on, but I decided on the spot to study again what the Bible says, and this time from scratch. I told myself, “I’m a Bible guy. I have the training and the tools, I have the time, and others have published a lot of good research since I last worked on this. Just for my own understanding, I want to read the best stuff I can find, from all sides, and see what I can learn.”

So I set out to do just that. I didn’t buy every book ever written about it, but I identified the most highly regarded works, leaving my book budget (?) wounded and my bookshelves groaning (they’re used to that).

Some folks insist they can open their favorite English translation, just read it, and take it at face value. I learn more by studying about the original Hebrew and Greek words and about the cultures where they were used. Among other things, such study gives clues about which English translation is more accurate and about what we know and don’t know. Sound interpreters of the Bible insist on exploring all kinds of context – historical, cultural, linguistic, biblical, and more. So I studied.

Starting from scratch means trying to leave preconceptions aside and trying not to reach conclusions too soon. I did that for several years. I have finally concluded that the Bible does not well support the “traditional” view that my friends declared as “clear and simple.” The case for “clear and simple” usually relies on six or seven biblical texts nicknamed by some as the “clobber passages.” They basically include the story of Sodom, a law repeated twice in Leviticus, and a few passages from Paul’s letters. Some will argue more broadly from passages in Genesis about creation, though interpreters disagree on the application of these texts. In my judgment, arguments from these texts often neglect biblical context and cling to fragile filaments of evidence, sometimes supported by questionable translation. In the process, I did think often about how to learn from Leviticus about God’s character and purpose and yet, like early Christians, still live in a new way guided by the Spirit and by Jesus’ teachings about loving God and neighbor. (Offering more detail here would move from story to argument.) Further, the Bible doesn’t directly answer some important questions we have today as we try to think about and act responsibly in issues of human sexuality. Many readers find, however, that the Bible still offers helpful guidance.

The Bible calls us steadily to love and respect other people, all made in the image of God. It repeatedly urges us to act justly, to show compassion, and to watch out and care for those who are vulnerable and needy. While the Bible includes plenty of stories about sexual misbehavior, I don’t see them offered as examples for us to copy. (Following David into adultery and murder is a bad idea.) What the Bible teaches about sexual behaviors rejects anything that is demeaning, abusive, manipulative, predatory, or promiscuous. We should not trick, force, or use other people for our own pleasure or selfish ends. The Bible suggests instead that fully intimate sexual behaviors should be reserved for long-term committed relationships characterized by dignity and love. Even when we confront puzzling questions, the Bible gives us plenty to ponder.

A second major insight on my journey was to recognize that many churches routinely misunderstand and misrepresent people who have to struggle with questions of same-sex attraction or gender identity. Often these churches have insisted that people choose to be gay, seeing this as a sinful act in itself, and that they can repent and reverse that choice, often with prayer and help from reparative programs. To put it briefly and bluntly, I have learned that neither of these teachings is true. For the most part, people do not choose to be homosexual, and programs to reverse same-sex attraction don’t work.

I’ve learned about choice from medical researchers and psychologists, as well as from the witness of homosexual folk who would gladly choose otherwise if they could. I had doubted the effectiveness of reparative programs, but became convinced of their inadequacy when the well-established organization Exodus International shut down in 2013. The head of the organization, Alan Chambers, apologized to those people they had hurt, said that their reparative programs don’t work, and closed their operation.

I knew through my experience that many churches’ teaching and attitudes harmed individuals and families (and the churches themselves). But it sobered me to learn how widespread and deeply hurtful these effects are. Many churches, even when they claim to be “welcoming,” marginalize and even show contempt for people who identify with the LGBTQ+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). And many Christians, both gay and straight, have left churches over it. Also, in response to teaching in churches, many families have rejected LGBTQ children, often leaving them homeless and highly susceptible to thinking of and attempting suicide. The list of harm could go on and on. But David Gushee sums up the situation well: “It says something really terrible when the least safe place to deal with sexual orientation and identity issues is the Christian family and church.” (Changing Our Mind, 35) I’ve come to believe that this must change.

I also learned a lot in my journey by getting to know people. Sometimes I knew them through reading, particularly in autobiography. Some I came to know through story, both direct and indirect. Some were widely respected leaders who wrote I’ve-changed-my-mind books, knowing that they would be trashed for saying so.

I have also learned through people I know and cherish personally. Some are people I’ve long trusted who changed their understandings and have quietly become advocates and helpers for folks in the LGBTQ community. Others have helped churches think together about these issues, overcoming the objection “let’s just not talk about it.” Still others have suffered for their advocacy, but have persisted in witness in spite of angry opposition.

Probably the most important people I have learned from are friends who are both homosexual and devout followers of Christ. Frankly, I’ve been slow to learn, I’ve been hurtful, and I’m having to apologize for that in trying to renew stalled friendships. I’m sure I have more to do. Even then, as my friends have extended grace, I give thanks that we share life in the family of God.

That’s my journey so far. I’m not a pioneer, as many others share this path. But it’s awkward, since plenty of folks I love and respect haven’t shared it. I know well that I still have lots to learn and lots of people to meet. Yet above all, I am glad to have learned more of the wide embrace of the love of God.

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It’s Hard to Be Right

January 19, 2015

When you’re right, it’s hard to be humble. When you’re always right, it’s even harder. A plaque my wife put in our kitchen reminds me about this: “When I married Mr. Right… I didn’t know his first name was Always.” (Already I have to confess that I’m not always right. When I shared a draft of this essay with her, my dear wife reminded me that we together saw this plaque in a shop, we both laughed, and I bought it. It is still in the kitchen, though.)

I’ve been trying to learn from Dallas Willard, a brilliant scholar and teacher in both the university and the Church. He was sure-fire smart and had thought about ideas more carefully than most, but the people who knew him best describe him as always humble and always gracious. “It’s hard to be right and not hurt anyone with it,” he’d say. When you’re sure you’re right, you can hurt people in all sorts of ways – belittle them, embarrass them, attack them, ignore them. Or you can give them a look that says, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that people who disagree with you may have something worthwhile to say. But it could happen. So skipping the evil eye, showing respect, and listening patiently might be okay.

Dallas would also say, “I assume that I am wrong about some things, because everyone else I know is wrong about some things, and it would be very unusual.” Not that you’d actually set out to be wrong. Mostly we’re not wrong on purpose, though sometimes we might avoid learning more so we don’t risk having to change our minds or admit that we were mistaken, maybe especially about things that are dear to us. In a Charles Schulz “Peanuts” cartoon, author Snoopy announces the title to his new book on theology, Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong? Sometimes I read books like that, not with that title, but with that spirit. Sometimes they rattle my cage.

A slightly less distinguished theologian, Mark Twain, once remarked, “The thing that gets you in trouble isn’t what you don’t know, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We might swap stories about how we’ve discovered this in our lives, privately or publicly. As a teacher I know that I’ve passed along wrong ideas and information, all the while trying to learn and grow. This can humble you; you’d like a do-over. And you regret any hurt you have caused. Sometimes I’ve made a huge mistake, kind of a “magnum oopsus,” though I won’t entertain you with accounts of all of these, and I might magnum my oopsus again. I’ve seen folks who too readily defend or get entrenched in their error. I’ve seen others who, even if embarrassed, will share their change of mind. All in all, it makes sense to me to find grace and humility, maybe especially about the things we know for dead certain. Humor helps, too, by creating perspective and reminding us of human frailty.

Of course, most folks are trying to think as straight as they can, even with all the distractions and roadblocks we may face. They aren’t joining those who say, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking of making a few more.” But I’ve discovered over time that I know less than I thought I did, that the vast world won’t yield easily to my grasp, and that mystery piles wonder on wonder far beyond my imagination. Maybe it’s part of learning and growing. Maybe it’s age; I keep trying to remember my date of birth and phone number when medical clerks ask. In the end, though, I keep trying to be as right as I can, but I want to learn more of humility and grace. And I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.

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Old Blokes Telling Jokes

November 26, 2014

When I first discovered the project “Old Jews Telling Jokes” I thought it was brilliant. Better yet, it was hilarious and wildly successful, going viral in books, in DVDs, on the internet (www.oldjewstellingjokes.com), and even on Broadway. A few creative folks had hatched a simple idea: video Jews telling funny stories and choose storytellers, men and women, who were at least 60 years old. The joke topics included Jewish mothers, rabbis, food, husbands and wives, illness and doctors, death, and much more. A simple form of a classic goes:
“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Oedipus.”
“Oedipus who?”
“Oedipus schmedipus, as long as he loves his mother.”
The project laid up a treasure of Jewish folk “telling the same old jokes they’ve been telling for forty years.”

Groucho Marx glassesSoon, despite how much I admire good Jewish humor, I began to think they shouldn’t have all the fun. On behalf of my faith community, I thought, “How about ‘Old Quakes Telling Jokes’?” It could happen. Technologically Quakers could do it. Most of us have electricity now and even video cameras; some are so skilled that people actually pay them to make videos. And I know there are old Quakes who can tell great jokes. Sadly, some of the best storytellers are now beyond old, and other terrific ones are still in training to be 60. (Sources tell me that one of our well-known training-wheel storytellers sneaked in to see “Old Jews Telling Jokes” the other night, probably to get some ideas.) But this could happen. Between the funny folks on my list and those that Friends across the country know, we have storytellers galore. Maybe even now someone is ready to set up a little studio and get started.

I suppose we would hear a variety of well-worn Quaker stories that would end with one of two punch lines: (Quaker with hunting rifle, not an Uzi, in hand, speaking to an intruder) “Friend, thee knows I would not harm thee, but thee is standing where I am about to shoot.” Or, to a balky beast, “Thee knows I cannot strike thee, but what thee does not know is that I can sell thee to a Baptist who can beat the tar out of thee.” (The word “tar” here reflects my generally polite upbringing.) Beyond these old stories, though, I’ve heard Friends joke about sensible shoes and about conferences where Quaker dietary preferences wiped out the yogurt supply for counties 50 miles around. Of course, there will be jokes about integrity, simplicity, tortuously long meetings for business, and dearly wanting to beat up warmongers. Occasionally collections of funny Quaker stories appear, such as the recently published one gathered by Chuck Fager, Quakers Are Hilarious!

Of course, I don’t want to hog this idea. It’s just that “Old Quakes…” keeps the punchy title and I know Quakers can be funny on purpose. But others should have a shot at it, too. Maybe you can get the same punch with “Old Sikhs Telling Jokes,” “Old Popes Telling Jokes,” or “Old Lutes…,” though I’m not sure that Lutes is honorable apart from Lutheran college football teams. Or you could break up the energy of the title to include others: “Old Baptists Telling Jokes,” “Old Russian Orthodox…,” “Old Sanctified Brethren…,” “Old Rastafarians…,” or “Old Fire-Breathing Disciples Telling Jokes.”

I don’t know in many instances whether such traditions even have jokes, though I think that any religion worth its salt has to have some humor in order to keep perspective and to tell the truth. Pope Francis raises my hopes by writing an apostolic exhortation (actually, a book) The Joy of the Gospel and by, on at least one occasion, wearing a clown nose as an accessory to his white papal garb. Baptist pastor Susan Sparks has a killer sense of humor and even does stand-up comedy (see Laugh Your Way to Grace). Garrison Keillor of the Sanctified Brethren helps, too. It’s reassuring to know that Quakers, with their high hilarity, won’t have to serve as jesters for the entire Christian community. Jews, clearly, have all the humor they need.

So stay alert. “Old Quakes Telling Jokes” may sprout from this seed. If you’re an old Quaker and funny, volunteer. If you’re not old enough, please stay healthy and send nominations. I think I need to start taking names.

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80 Per

October 7, 2014

A recent road trip stirred up my thinking about laws and drivers. Washington state, for example, posts higher speed limits than Oregon, apparently thinking that Washington drivers can handle it. As an Oregon driver, I’m not quite sure that I’m up to it, though my wife, who learned to drive in Washington, never hesitates. speeding carWhen we crossed into Idaho, I noticed even higher speed limits. 80 miles per hour! At first I thought that Idaho drivers must out-class us all, but that turned out not to be obvious. Drivers and machines whizzing by startled me. Especially the tractors. So I wondered how Idaho had set their 80 mph speed imit. Perhaps they took drivers’ average speed, since clearly some drivers viewed 80 as a suggested minimum. But then I thought that these drivers may be in that special group of people, whom I’ve seen elsewhere, who actually are above the law. There’s no published list, but they know who they are. I’m not in that group, though I’m perfectly willing to break the law for conscience’ sake. I know a lot of folks who do break the law, and mostly they’re pretty good people, even the Sunday School teachers. Some do violate the law routinely and even buy radar detector devices to help them speed. Others brag about what they can get away with or about how fast they can get to Bend or Boise. In contrast, I think that people who support civil disobedience should disobey the law only out of conviction, not out of convenience or whim. That’s part of obeying governing authorities, as Paul directs (Romans 13). If law-breaking is your habit, then taking a stand for conscience’ sake won’t be bold or convincing. It just piles on more being a law unto yourself. So, among other mundane practices, observing speed limits seems important to me. Perhaps some readers will find my mentioning it an uncivil obedience. However you take it, though, please don’t startle anyone.

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Cow Power

September 26, 2014

“College taps the power of cow manure.” As many colleges were gearing up for a new year, I discovered this headline praising Green Mountain College in Vermont for using electricity from generators powered by methane gas extracted from cow manure. The “cow power program” increased the college’s electrical costs a bit, but provided the “environmental college” a way to model using renewable resources based on the local economy. Students can even observe the energy-generating process at local farms. Apparently this and other sustainability initiatives have effectively reduced the college’s carbon footprint, so visitors can now walk on campus without worrying about stepping in carbon patties.

cow faceSuch initiatives not only bring immediate practical benefits, but they also help fire up the imaginations and consciences of students who may not have pondered the environment and methane beyond fart-lighting contests in their dorms. “Cow power” can also bring a bit of gender equity to campuses that have for years used only b.s.

Actually, firing up students’ imaginations and consciences is what good colleges and universities do. Of course, they’ll teach students to read and write, to think and solve problems, and to develop other useful skills. But they want students to dream less about how to make a bundle than how to make a difference. They help students explore worlds they’ve never imagined and re-imagine the worlds they already know. They help discover the magic in methane. So cheers for the colleges with Cow Power and for the students they serve.

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Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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