While the nation has been engaged in a 46-year conversation on issues facing lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, it has only just started talking about the T in LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Let’s be honest here, the T has largely been silent because of a visceral discomfort with the issue. Many folks don’t know what transgender issues are or understand them. And the fascination with transition surgery only makes it more difficult for people to focus on the hate, discrimination and stigma that permeate the lives of transgender Americans. But that’s changing as more trans people come out and demand to be heard. – Jonathan Capehart, “Bruce Jenner, Jacob Lemay, And What It Means To Be Transgender”, Washington Post, April 22, 2015
Neither Bruce or Lipkins accurately represents the experience of transgender children, who can begin to understand their gender as early as age 2 and who identify as completely with that gender as their cisgender peers. Furthermore, allowing them to identify with that gender improves their mental health, relieving depression and anxiety.
Perhaps the most ironic problem with how Fox News has framed this story is the fact that Jazz Jennings is a real transgender teenager. The book is based on her experience growing up trans, including the fact that she was aware of her gender years before even arriving in Kindergarten, and is designed specifically to help affirm other kids in the same situation.
While one mom was worried that her son might be transgender, another parent was grateful that the school incorporated I Am Jazz. A parent of a transgender child in the Horace Mitchell School system wrote, “People in this country, parents in this country are outraged by bullying, teen suicide rates and the depression in children. The staff of Mitchell School is doing something about this.” He added, “LGBTQ issues should never be classified as a ‘sensitive subject’ — there is nothing sensitive about the way we are born. Blonde hair, brown hair, gay, straight or somewhere in-between, we are all people and we all need acceptance.” – Zack Ford, “Fox News Guest: Being A Transgender Kid Is The Same As Pretending To Be A Dog”, Think Progress, April 22, 2015
We are beginning a long-needed discussion regarding trans people, the abuse and discrimination they receive, and how their lives, their needs, and the obstacles they face are different from other sexual minorities. Add to the ignorance a gratuitous fascination with the mechanics of gender transitioning, and most folks know the path ahead is very long, mined with all sorts of traps. We have no choice, however, if we are going to be something resembling a civilized society with dignity, equality, and security for all our people.
We United Methodists, believe it or not, have dealt with this matter regarding trans clergy. In 2007, Rev. Ann Gordon transitioned to Rev. Drew Phoenix, and continued under appointment in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. The Judicial Council ruled that, as the Book of Discipline was silent on the matter of gender transition and active clergy membership, Rev. Phoenix’s appointment was legal and his status was not a matter the court could consider. Mark Tooley, leader of The Institute for Religion and Democracy was quoted at the end of the above article protesting the decision. His words have an irony he probably wouldn’t recognize:
“Predictably, the Judicial Council chose not to intervene in the Baltimore transsexual case,” Mark Tooley, director of UMAction, a conservative Washington-based activist group, said in a statement.
“But we expect the upcoming General Conference . . . will respond with legislation that upholds traditional Christian teachings about the sacredness of the human body,” Tooley said.
No action was taken in 2008. No action was taken in 2012. And the irony in these words should be obvious. “Traditional Christian teachings about the sacredness of the human body” don’t actually exist because traditional Christian teachings about the human body tend to view the body as evil. Thanks in no small part to the influx of neo-Platonism in the early centuries of the Church’s existence, the human body was considered more of a hindrance to faith than a center of sacred existence. It is all to easy to find references to the human body being constructed of dung and filth; the mother and birth canal being disparaged; our bodily existence consisting of filth, excretion, and fit only to host flies and worms at our deaths. For Tooley to claim that Christian teachings regarding the human body have been anything but negative is just ignorant pandering. I won’t deny my on discomfort with issues regarding gender dysphoria, matters of transitioning, and how to understand healthy trans people from pathological. These, of course, are matters as much of ignorance as anything else. Correcting that ignorance is in all our interests. It is not, however, up to trans folks to do that heavy lifting. On the contrary, we in mainstream society should educate ourselves, come to understand trans people as just that: people. We in the churches should remember that, because they are people, they are to be loved; we should be ready to listen to what trans people need from our churches; and we should never allow our prejudice to receive baptism, hiding our hatred behind the curtain of alleged declarations of holiness.
What with all the attention focused on issues surrounding gays and lesbians and marriage and ordination and church membership, we should never forget that “LGBTQ” contains a variety of different kinds of people, issues, and an openness to our creation and one another that, while demanding, reminds us that following Jesus is not easy. With the increasing visibility of trans people, including children and youth, let us be voices of support for them, their families and loved ones, and not forces for silence, bigotry, and death.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Unfortunately, mental health eludes many in our world resulting in considerable distress, stigma, and isolation. Mental illness troubles our relationships because it can affect the way we process information, relate to others, and choose actions. Consequently, mental illnesses often are feared in ways that other illnesses are not. Nevertheless, we know that regardless of our illness we remain created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
No person deserves to be stigmatized because of mental illness. Those with mental illness are no more violent than other persons are. Rather, they are much more likely to be victims of violence or preyed on by others. When stigma happens within the church, mentally ill persons and their families are further victimized. Persons with mental illness and their families have a right to be treated with respect on the basis of common humanity and accurate information. They also have a right and responsibility to obtain care appropriate to their condition. The United Methodist Church pledges to foster policies that promote compassion, advocate for access to care and eradicate stigma within the church and in communities. – The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012
Few things are more annoying to me than people who take up a particular cause, especially one that impacts them personally, and demand that all other causes be set to one side. Like conservatives with gay children who suddenly become compassionate, all such behavior does is demonstrate the lack of fundamental sympathy not only at the heart of conservative political ideology, but within the shriveling souls of the people themselves. It’s far better, I think, to admit one begins from positions of ignorance, a need for contrition for past failures, and the desire not so much to make one’s personal matters suddenly a thing of the gravest public concern, but at the least to let others know there is yet one more person who is learning about something we in America would so much prefer to set aside.
Mental illness is certainly one of those things. Anything that negatively impacts our national self-image as happy, youthful, beautiful, thin, sexually aware and competent without being too boastful about it, and certainly without anything such as scars from acne, a couple extra pounds, skating on the edge of financial ruin, and mental illness really isn’t something people wish to discuss. Physical and cognitive impairment are obviously on this list as well. We no longer tuck such individuals in our attics or basements; we do, however, ignore them in most of our policy discussions, our leisurely conversation, and most certainly in our churches. We have a hard enough time figuring out how to get folks to come, sit in the pews, and worship without adding such things as how we live with people who deviate from our social and cultural norms.
In our midst, however, are millions upon millions of people who live with mental illness. While depression is perhaps the most common form among people who are otherwise functional, anxiety disorders, OCD, even schizophrenia exist in our churches, our congregations, and our families. Unlike people with physical impairments, and some with cognitive impairments, it is impossible to know who is living with mental illness. You can’t look at someone and say, “Oh, this person has narcissistic personality disorder. Just look at her!” In part because of ignorance, in part because of fear stoked by imprecise and too often erroneous discussions in the media, despite the prevalence of mental illness, there continues to be an abundance of silence, overwhelming stigma, and deep prejudice about people who live with them in all their varieties.
For example, the painting above would represent, for the artist, Bi-polar disorder. Yet, when I found it online this morning, it represents what I see all too often when I look in the mirror. Because the self-perception of those living with mental illness is so severely impaired, this has implications not only for how our churches socialize with the diversity that is the American public. It also has deep theological implications: for pastoral counseling; for matters of theological anthropology; for the awareness of grace and how that becomes lived in the lives of individuals; how individuals understand doctrinal statements regarding anything from who God is through what it is to be sinful and saved to how to live in beloved community.
For my own part, despite my willingness to discuss my own experience generally, the internalized stigma associated with mental illness – “he’s that crazy person” – becomes a hindrance to dialogue. Especially since “depression” is a word tossed about without adequate understanding; “anxiety” is often dismissed as the creation of a pathology out of privilege (which it might well be, I don’t know); and even well-managed mental illnesses have flare-ups either from improper medication, poor counseling, or just a bad day; all these make it difficult to clarify that “depression” and “anxiety” aren’t moods or states of mind. They can be crippling pathologies, leaving those who live with them incapable of speaking, of standing, of doing much of anything other than wondering how those long hours are actually just minutes. Awareness of the outside world is changed; not just one’s self-image, but how one perceives any stimuli becomes distorted through the various lenses and ear-pieces the diseases create. It becomes nearly impossible to notice even drastic changes in behavior, demeanor, interaction, and related perceptions without help from the outside. Then, there needs to be the willingness to hear and respond. Especially since, again speaking only from my own experience, the preference is to lock up inside myself.
Hostility and anger are just as much a part of one’s emotional responses as sadness, apathy, and silence. Particularly as Wesleyan Christians, what might this mean for how such a person might react to the teachings that our salvation, for us, is primarily a lived expression of love for others? When one’s internal mental and emotional make-up skews stimuli toward being perceived as hostile, and fear dominates a person’s interactions with others, how is it possible to move toward a healthy understanding of grace, of the internal sense of salvation? When one sees the horrific in the mirror, and accepts it as normal, how can love from others be contemplated?
We in the churches have so much to consider. I am not a very good teacher – particularly on days like today, when my brain-chemistry is off, and just getting through sentences is a bit of a struggle; when I’m using a great deal of energy to present this without too much deviance – and my only real goal in being public with what I live with has been to offer some kind of help, perhaps, to just one other person so he or she might come to know there are others who get it, so I don’t really know what good I’d be as such. On the other hand, I do think that, before any of us get so excited with how much we know, or think we know, that we consider the possibility that there are millions among us for whom spiritual reproof, or benevolent encouragement, or even proffered assistance just isn’t enough. How is it possible to have a meaningful theological discussion about, say, the imago Dei, when there are folks like me whose self-image is so fragile at the best of times – and at the worst of times shattered in tiny fragments – that it might be helpful to remain quiet?
Too many of us are too eager to rest comfortably within our own walls, our own comfort zones, it is good to remember there are many for whom those walls are not comfortable at all, but rather a prison cell with no light. Some of us don’t have comfort zones at all, because our living is a day-to-day process of negotiating with ourselves about moods, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. For those we are in need, first, of a willingness to extend compassion through listening to the stories others tell. Then, perhaps, if the invitation is made, a journey with folks such as myself would be a good way to remember how much we have to learn, how far we still have to go, and how much our words as well as our deeds need to reflect an understanding of how little we actually know before pronouncing judgment upon others.
What thoughts/beliefs/questions do you have about heaven? Any images? Quotes? Hopes/fears? – Rev. Melissa Meyers, Facebook
Like a lot of people, I loved the TV series Lost. Unlike a lot of people, I thought the final season and final episode were among the most beautiful, poignant television ever produced. Just the thought that a group of people would find one another again to travel together to the next big mystery moved me to tears. This was, despite the fact I figured out what was going on about halfway through those last episodes. The challenge, as Hurley reminds us, is to be ready. Some are. Some aren’t.
I’ve always connected this presentation of an interim state after death to what some call “Summerland” (there’s a song by that name by Polish musician Mariusz Duda, using the band name “Lunatic Soul”; check it out). It’s often described as a place of peace, a place where the newly dead watch the living. Perhaps they confront the demons of their lives and defeat them once for all. Perhaps they learn to forgive themselves. Perhaps, like legends and stories of ghosts around the world tell us, they are just stuck, trapped in between time and space, an echo of emotions too strong to release.
Of all the mysteries, whether or not there is anything for us, individually or collectively, after death is one that has animated human beings since before there were human beings. Evidence from Neanderthal graves show our close cousins were no less willing to prepare bodies for . . . something. Fossilized pollen, tools, weapons, clothes – all have been found in Neanderthal tombs. Similarity to Homo sapien burial practices cannot be wished away. Clearly, ours is a species, if not perhaps a genus, that is burdened to wonder, to fear, and to hope.
For me – and this is, after all, an individual answer to a direct question – all I can say is, “Yes”, to all of it. Yes, it might well be there is just nothing. One last breath, let out completely, rattling the chest and vocal cords, then darkness and nothing. Many fear annihilation, as if it renders our lives meaningless. As we are the ones who create meaning, I see no reason to think our lives are of no consequence if afterward all that awaits us is utter silence. If one has lived well and loved well, isn’t that all that makes life meaningful?
I would also say, “Yes”, to the idea that some part of us lingers after our bodies have gone. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it just moves back and forth between states of matter, then energy, then back again. Our bodies, particularly our brains, are just big electrochemical engines, using energy, utilizing bioelectrical current to operate the brain. It is certainly possible that some excessive energy can become trapped, much as certain crystals can store energy and metals conducts energy. The residue, I would think, is probably pretty low. Most of the time, most of us are unaware of the presence of this tiny bit of residual energy that, if it exists at all, surrounds us. There might be moments we are aware – the flicker of a shadow, perhaps; a whispered sound in a quiet room – but most of the time the dead go about whatever it is they do unremarked and unremarkably.
I say “Yes” to heaven. Pearly gates, clouds, a gathering of friends and family reuniting our of mutual love. Silence, peace, quiet, rest, such a heaven is a place where we gather, all secrets laid bare, all slights and rages forgotten and forgiven, and the stillness of being, rather than the constant struggle of becoming, offers us a chance to experience what is in its totality without the veil of sense or thought.
Finally, I say “Yes” to the New Creation. At some point, all that is, most especially including death, will meet its final end. The dead and the living shall gather around the Throne of God. All creation shall bow, proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain, Lord, the keeper of the keys of Hell and Death. Then, death shall be locked away, destroyed once for all. We, the living who will no longer die, shall feast not on flesh and blood, but the bounty of Divine Love that will flow in the four rivers from the throne. It will be not just a celebration but praise. Life and death as we know and understand them will cease to be. All there will be is the Throne, the Light from the Throne, and the Lamb who, having surrendered the keys to the Father, now joins with us and the Father to praise the goodness and love that will be ours forever.
All these “yes”‘s indicate less gullibility (or perhaps heterodoxy) than a willingness to entertain all possibilities because, let’s face it – we just don’t know. Beyond the Final Judgment and New Creation, what is to come is rarely a topic of Scriptural attention. It is to this life we are called, for this world we live and suffer and love, and in this world we are born, live, and die. Death, and whatever might or might not come after for the individual, is a part of this world, and we are subject to it until the final defeat of the grave. Reincarnation? While I wouldn’t bet on it, it might be interesting, if only we could retain the memory of at least one prior life. A sorry half-existence, much as the Greeks imagined Hades? Not precisely thought-warming, to be sure. A private place of one’s own, filled with the bliss of life without the threat of harm? That certainly sounds attractive.
All I know for sure is that, if we are God’s beloved children, no less in death than in life, God will be with us, loving us, and preparing in us the way to our true Final Destination, which isn’t the grave at all. Ours is, after all, the cross, the grave, and the skies.
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan – Maya Angelou, “Alone” (fragment)
The mystery of identity is something we humans have struggled with for as long as we have first seen our reflections staring back at us from a stream or lake. Is that image all there is? What am I? Who am I? Who decides what that “I” is or means?
I sometimes think the Buddha was on to something when he realized that all the wisdom, all the sage advice, all the lessons from all the gods, led to the ineluctable conclusion not only that all that is, is a dream; more important, that “I” is an illusion we foster in pain and suffering, preventing us from realizing the beauty of what is. When the “I” disappears, the “I” appears as the one with the deepest compassion for those who continue to suffer. This is identity through non-identity, the promise that, in the words of Jesus Christ, the one who loses her life, shall find life.
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend who is a Unitarian Universalist minister. He was discussing the excellent, age-appropriate sexual education materials the UU Association provides its members. I have been saying since Seminary that, in order to create the kind of sexually ethical and moral people we wish, the churches should take the lead in teaching human sexuality. I had to admit to my friend that, in fact, we should borrow the material from the UU’s, because we United Methodists have yet to answer the question of sexual identity. We are, in fact, in the midst of trying to determine what it means to be a human being, a created child of God, called and saved and sent by our Triune God to work for the transformation of human lives and the world.
From many of our fellow United Methodists, who seem so eager to elevate words of confession and human teaching to the status of defining our existence as, first, Christian, then second, as United Methodists, what I read so often is the desire for clarity about the matter of identity. Particularly in the Christian West, we have for so long been taught that for each question, there is one and only one correct answer. With the growth of notions of individualism has come the notion that, at some level, “identity” is irreducible beyond any particular individual’s decision. The answer, then, to the question of identity becomes clear enough: I am who I say I am.
Except, of course, this just isn’t the case. Identity, like everything else in this transitory, time-bound existence, is never fixed, certainly never static, and there is no single set of words that can or do sum up who we are, even at any particular moment in time. Our whole life is an open-ended, never completely bound movement through and among a variety of interpretations, answers, restatements of the question, and only ever partial and incomplete answers.
These are themes I have rehearsed before. They are lessons we need to hear again and again. Just as yesterday I noted that we must always remain living within the tensions that abound due to our self-affirmation as followers of Christ, so, too, do I note that identity does not – indeed, cannot – ever be static. For as much as the desire to rest our identity in a particular set of definitions, circumstances, or adjectives brings comfort, reality teaches us, each day, this just isn’t the case. Even the call of our God differs each day, because we no longer inhabit the same space or time. We must always be ready to listen, hear, and obey something new each day, as we offer our confession of sins, seek forgiveness, and ask for guidance and direction. Time-bound, sometimes hide-bound, words of confession cannot ever replace the Living Word of our God. Teachings and principles, no matter how lofty and important, perhaps even decisive, can never replace the need to be ready for that new thing that is always breaking through, yet never complete in its incarnation.
Our identity as Christians, then, does not and cannot stand still. When we look in the mirror this morning, we do not see the same person staring back at us that we did yesterday. Why should be believe it at all possible that God’s call, God’s all-embracing offer of life, would remain the same in all its details? That it is, well, we rest our faith that it is so, and will be so. What it is, however, well, that must change. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the Living Word.
We should, at the very least, perhaps remember that the search for identity, particularly as the people called Methodist in the early 21st century, is a never-ending, always changing life of faith. It is not, nor can nor should it be, a question with a single answer. Ours is a God who already lives as a Community of Persons of mutual, interpenetrating Love; why is it we continue to pretend such a Living Three-In-One reality would offer us only a single answer to what is, in fact, not a question at all?
I’m always embarrassed when I discover things I have written, or remember things I have said, that are a bit too far over the top. There’s something that has always attracted me to hyperbole, but the fact is we in the churches do not need hyperbole anymore. We are inundated with it; we might well drown in it. We in the United Methodist Church, in particular, are awash in all sorts of hyperbole: rhetoric of crisis; the endemic threat of schism; charges and counter-charges of Biblical misinterpretation, or doctrinal ignorance, or threatening the faithful integrity of the denomination through one thing or another. It’s enough, I think, to make many on-lookers wonder if it is at all worth it to jump on board what seems to many, including many United Methodists, believe is a sinking ship.
Part of the reason for the over-heated, under-thought rhetoric is, I think, a failure to appreciate just how difficult it is to maintain some kind of proper balance in our understanding of our faith and faith-life. Having just lived through and celebrated Lent and Easter, I think this is a good time to recall that ours is a life that always straddles a far-too-precarious line. On the one side is a preference to emphasize the “here and now” aspects of our faith life (which include our rich heritage, the great cloud of witnesses that always surround us, and the deep wells from which we can draw Living Water) and the “not-of-this-world” aspect, with our counter-cultural stance (and never understood in a facile manner). We who, in baptism, die and rise with Christ, are indeed brought in to the inheritance to come in the Kingdom of God. We are also, not yet there. In this life, while we may be one of the few fortunate ones to have been perfected in love, we will not ever see the gates of the Kingdom open. We are people who live between the times. For that reason alone, the path we tread is not only treacherous; it is painful, and even the best-intentioned among us fall to one side or another. Falling may wind up with us crashing pretty hard, but there’s nothing difficult about falling, especially when compared to trying to maintain our balance in the constant struggle to maintain that tension.
We early-21st century Christians, regardless of declaration of faith or confession, have an abundance of treasure surrounding us from which to draw to make ours an ever richer faith. From the earliest, Biblical creedal expression, “Jesus is Lord” to the declarations of the World Council of Churches and statements from the Roman Catholic Magisterium to our eastern brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Churches, we must remember that their confession of faith were the result of trying to live out the struggles of being faithful in a world that is both loved and passing; that we are those who are called to be God’s workers in this world, yet those who also can never escape the temptations, sin, and brokenness with which we live. Even the Saints, after all, had to sleep and eat.
Ours is a precarious life. We might find comfort in the assurances from our historical confessions, knowing they are the witness of those who have gone before, offered to us as testimony to the eternal reality of the Economy and Immanence of the Trinity. We might, however, find comfort in our practice of the faith, serving the world, resting comfortably that ours is a life patterned after the witness of Christ. Both, however, are necessary parts of our identity. We cannot rest comfortably in either of them, even if we find occasional comfort in each at different times. We are called to live the faith, the think through the faith, to seek understanding in the midst of the tension and muddle and confusion. Of course, we must always be willing to stand against those who would demand rest here in this dispensation under one or another of these extreme practices. Scriptures, tradition, history, and experience remind us that we cannot allow those who would distort our faith for whatever a variety of ends they might prefer. All the same, we should also remain willing to accept that we, too, are no less blind to our own errors, our own preference for one comfort or another.
We re not promised comfort. Our hope is not for a quiet life and peaceful death. The call to love comes from a mouth from which issues a blade so sharp it can separate flesh from bone. A moment or two of reflection is always necessary to remember that the depository of the faith from which we draw was created by those no less time-bound, history-constricted, limited in vision and both justified and sinful. We should remember they are no more infallible in their declarations that are our own. They were the result of people trying to confess their faith with the tools they had at hand. Whether focusing on our doctrine or our creeds, we must remember they are part of who we are, and exist both to remind us who we are, but also that part of our task is to clarify what might have been misunderstood in the past, or perhaps needs to be restated for better understanding today. Our confessions, our doctrine are as transitory as our lives.
So, too, are our actions. We can never rest confident that our actions satisfy the needs of our broken world. We United Methodists are called to discipleship for the transformation of the world. No matter how small our part, we should recall words from someone I knew once who reminded me that, when we act, it is like tossing a stone in a lake. The ripples, they don’t dissipate. They meet other ripples, that crash against waves from another direction, creating new movements in new directions until, perhaps years later, we dip our toes once again in that same lake only to find them washed by parts of the ripples we began many years before. In this, the result of the Spirit, ruach blowing across the waters of what seem chaos to create order and goodness, lies the sole consolation from our works. Justice, peace, righteousness, compassion – these are both the means and ends of our call. They are not, however, the totality of our faith. If they were, ours would be a poor faith indeed. It is God’s justice, righteousness not only among our fellow creatures but also before the Divine Throne, the peace that comes from a life lived in the Spirit, from the Son and Father, for the glory of our Holy Trinity; and compassion that believes each life, and all creation, is the beloved, very good result of Divine Love, forbearance, and grace. Without that horizon, we would wander aimlessly among the trees and lakes, deserts and oceans, trying to find a reason to care.
We cannot maintain this balance on our own. It is something for which we must seek each day; it is something we must also each day confess we have failed to maintain, seeking forgiveness from God and one another as we all struggle, best we can, to be and do and confess faith in the crucified and risen Christ. And we should remember that falling to one side or another, or perhaps backward or forward, may seem comfortable after the struggle to maintain our feet. The end of every fall, however, is a hard landing. Lucky for us we have one another, and our Divine helper, to keep our balance as we keep moving forward.
Returning to reflecting on reading. This time its Swiss Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and his Theo-Drama. So, you know, light reading.
John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. – John 3:16-18
We who are labeled, or perhaps label ourselves, “progressives” in the Church – and oh how I wonder what that particular label means – are often accused by our brothers and sisters of being too mealy-mouthed, unwilling to offer both the bad with the good, at least when it comes to presenting the clarity of the message of the faith: that believing and living faith in Jesus Christ has real consequences, in this world and the next; likewise choosing not to hear or so live has real consequences as well, and not what any would call good. Just the other day, the Rev. Christy Thomas wondered in an aside in a piece recounting a visit to a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, if we who bare that meaningless label “progressive” have the ability to remain vital precisely because we concern ourselves with openness rather than building clear boundaries between ourselves and others; the latter, she noted, seems to be a particular human characteristic that is almost ubiquitous. Part of the discomfort, I believe, includes a hesitancy in presenting the message of salvation – what we call the Gospel, euangelion, Good News – in its full import and weight. That would include the flip-side of all our talk of Divine forbearance, grace, the holy life, and the Grand Welcome at the New Creation: the very real (in Scripture) word that some, at least, shall turn to God to plead their case and the God whose endless love, dogged pursuit, and all-embracing grace shall turn to them and say, “I don’t know who you are,” and their end shall be, shall we say, less than pleasant. First the Pit, then at the New Creation, a turn in the Lake of Fire before that, too, is destroyed along with all that is sinful, broken, and evil in “the former things”.
My wife and I have always enjoyed a good chuckle at the above partial-passage (the fancy term is the Greek word pericope). Yet, the message of Jesus . . . was it any different? Substantively, of course we have to say that it was, if only because of who Jesus was as opposed to John the Baptizer. Yet Jesus always insisted there was a not-so-happy ending for those who rejected him and his followers. The mystery of Divine Judgment is a difficult point of contention among Christians, to be sure. As I noted yesterday, our human understanding of justice have absolutely nothing to do with Divine righteousness. So, too, the passages in Scriptures regarding judgment, damnation, and most especially those that hint at predestination have led many over the centuries to conclude the mass of humanity, regardless of their most sincere efforts and honest faithfulness, shall nevertheless wind up someplace uncomfortably warm when all is said and done. Particularly in our current moment, with a resurgence of neo-Calvinist thought from what was once called “the Emergent Church Movement” offering young men especially the consolation that cultural and social norms of masculinity bear the stamp of Divine approval, it is with a wariness Calvin himself (if rarely in those who followed him) enjoined that anyone should venture to speculate on the mysteries of predestination, damnation, and how one could know how one fits in to the Divine Economy.
Personally, I’ve always thought the occasional hell-fire and brimstone sermon was a good thing. It reminds us that our business is serious, that this whole Christian thing is no trifle but, on the contrary even the most mundane moment carries eternal significance, both in a sublime but also in a terrible sense. I also think such things should be targeted carefully. Everything is context dependent. For example, telling a young Palestinian Christian that he has to believe in Jesus and be good or he will go to hell ignores the fundamental hellishness of his day-to-day existence. My guess is such a message would receive more of a shrug than anything. On the other hand, telling a young, upper-middle class white woman that baptism enjoins her to incarnate the love of God for this world; that failing to do so, whether out of ignorance or a preference for comfort or worst of all refusing to see in the naked, hungry, and imprisoned her brothers and sisters, does indeed bring with it a cost far more high than the occasional discomfort she might experience being with those who are dirty and in need. In other words, we privileged Westerners – we privileged white Westerners in particular – could benefit from the reminder that “the Good News” carries with it concomitant bad news. We are, after all, like the Pharisees as presented in another Gospel account of John the Baptizer, who responded to their approach: “You hypocrites! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” We need to recognize our place in the current Providence of God, and live accordingly, always with the memory that we are not Christians to be comforted in our already-comfortable existence. We are Christians because God has called us to a great work. Failing to do that work and coming up with excuse after excuse as to why we aren’t doing it carries an eternal cost.
This is serious business. Life-and-death stuff. Hearing the whole Good News and remembering it is always bad news for someone else – including us – is a good thing. Even for a mushy progressive like me.