Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Orlando Tragedy, and Conservative Evangelicalism’s Not-So-Peachy Relationship with the Gay Community

While we are on the subject of Nadia Bolz-Weber, I would like to direct your attention to a sermon she preached in response to the Orlando tragedy a couple of weeks back.

In my review of Accidental Saints, I noted that there is much about her life and story to shove the evangelical gag reflexes into overdrive.  There is the progressive politics for which her strain of Lutheranism is known, the radical activism and resulting swath of scorched earth and burned bridges and denial of the existence of very real human differences, all in the name of tolerance and inclusiveness.  This shines through clearly in her response to a tragic shooting which was targeted directly at the gay community.

She references a piece by blogger Ben Moberg from his response to the tragedy:

And this is what I love about God: The Church has driven out LGBTQ people for centuries, with an especially intense malice over the last several decades, and in response to this, God just says, okay, fine, we’re good out here. Where you chase my people, I will be with them. Where they gather, I will be there. Clubs. Conversations. Protests. In lament and anger and tears and laughter and way too many drinks. I will be with them and make this right for them. I will love them more fiercely for their wounds. I will draw them close. I will know them and they will know me. They will tell you my name.

…and one almost gets the impression that there is a certain sanctity inherent in gays and other minorities by virtue of the fact that they suffer persecution at the hands of mainstream society.  In fact, the Moberg piece screams “Look at us (the queer community) if you want to see God moving in the world today”, a sentiment which I find equally distasteful whether it is coming from the Tim Challies and Al Mohlers of the world or from one of the oppressed and marginalized who are the special focus of God’s care and concern.  It is as if homosexuality is all part of God’s good and beautiful order for the world.

Heads up, people:  It’s not.

Homosexuality was never part of the divine pattern for marriage.  All along it was one man and one woman for life, and it was never anything different.  That is a conversation we have to have at some point, and I don’t see very many places in progressive Christianity where that conversation is being had.  So if your evangelical gag reflexes are kicking in at this point, I am totally with you.

And yet, this haunts me.  It grabs hold of my heart and will not let go.  Why?  Because it is the voice of a people who are oppressed and marginalized, a voice crying out to God to see their suffering, hear their anguish, and make it right for them.  Though there is no automatic sanctity for gays by virtue of their oppressed minority status, though homosexuality is not by any stretch of the imagination part of the divine pattern for marriage or part of God’s good order for our world–even so, God still hears their cries.  He will make things right for them.  He will call the perpetrators of this injustice to account.

For though homosexuality is not part of God’s good order for our world, the fact remains that we live in a fallen world.  Many things do not function the way God intended.  Human sexuality is one of them.  Thus it stands to reason that a small percentage of the population will be homosexual, or at least be predisposed toward homosexuality.  Some of these people are going to be in our churches, whether we want them there or not, whether we even know they are there or not.  We must make space for these people, in some form or fashion.

Our movement has, by and large, done a horrible job of this.  Though we are called by God to love all people, we see the biblical prohibitions of homosexual activity as clear license to shit on gays and the gay community and any who sympathise with them.  Well-known and respected evangelical leaders opine about the importance of the “gag reflex” when discussing homosexuality, while others opine that any attempt to make space for gays in our midst is “cultural capitulation” and is to be denounced in the strongest possible terms.  And when a well-known Christian organization announces that it will in limited circumstances hire gays, we howl and yell and scream so loud that in only days they reverse that decision.

That is not right, people.

Though it may push the evangelical gag reflex into overdrive when it seems that gays are accorded a certain sanctity by sheer virtue of the fact that they suffer persecution and discrimination (and believe me I’m right there with you, feeling the gag reflex too), the reality is that God has made it immensely clear that He is concerned with how other people are treated.  There is an abundance of Scripture to back this up.  So more than likely God is going to have some things to say about our engagement with the gay community.  And they will not be good.

Every person you will ever come eyeball-to-eyeball with is a person for whom Jesus died.  As a church we are going to have to answer for our treatment of people for whom Jesus died.  So even if there is no sanctity inherent in the gay community merely because they experience persecution and hate from mainstream society (there isn’t), the truth remains that they are people for whom Christ died.  For that reason God is immensely concerned with how we treat them.  God sees their suffering and marginalization, and He will make it right for them and call the perpetrators and all who support them to account.

We have got to figure out ways to make space for gays in our church communities.  It is no longer good enough (as if it ever was) to say that being gay is an automatic bar to being Christian.  Otherwise, we are just as bad as the liberals who, in the name of tolerance and inclusiveness, deny that there are any differences between human beings (any that matter, at any rate) and reduce us all to identical, interchangeable parts in the machine that is human society.

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When Words Fail

If you’ve been hanging around here for any length of time, you know that the liturgy is one of my big hobbyhorses.  But why?  Simply put, it is a time-tested means of keeping the main thing the main thing, of keeping the Christian story and message front and center at all times.  It is a drama and story that connects us to God and to each other.  It forms us as a people who are waiting faithfully for our Redeemer who has come and is coming again.

There are moments in our lives, in the lives of our church communities, and in the life of our nation, when words fail.  We just don’t know what to say because there are so many feelings coming all at once.  In these moments there is always the liturgy, the words of God’s people spoken week after week down through the centuries of church history, which speak on our behalf and which we can borrow for ourselves when our own words are just not enough.

There is a part of the liturgy which goes “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie elieson” (that’s “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”).  This is the only part which is still in Greek, for some reason it never made the jump from Greek to Latin.

But what do we mean when we say “Lord have mercy”?  Do we mean that we are asking God to not punish us for our sin, to not rain down upon us the fiery retribution which our sins deserve?  There is a place for that, I suppose.  Or do we mean that we need God’s mercy because our own is not enough?  That we need God’s wisdom and loving-kindness to be with us because we simply do not have enough of these things on our own?

This has been a crazy week in the life of our nation.  Two racially charged police killings in Baton Rouge, LA and St. Paul, MN, followed by the murder of five police officers in Dallas, TX.  Add to that several other instances of blacks being killed by white police officers, plus the Trayvon Martin thing back in 2012, and it seems as if our country has regressed woefully in terms of race relations.

Ever since the days of George Whitefield, our churches and our movement have proclaimed a gospel which has become increasingly narrowly focused on the individual and his/her right standing before God, all the while lamenting the decline of our culture and society at large.  There is a connection here, yet we do not see it.  (Perhaps we do not want to see it?)

Yet Paul’s theology of grace is not just about individuals getting into right standing before God.  It is about communities being transformed.  It is about individuals being reconciled not just to God but to each other, about the destruction of social and cultural barriers which people have erected between themselves and others to keep them in a state of separation and enmity.

This is not an add-on to the Gospel, or an implication of the Gospel.  Instead it is part and parcel of the Gospel.

Yet we have missed it.  Our land is thoroughly saturated with the Gospel.  Churches which proclaim it are on nearly every street corner.  Yet when you look at our nation’s history of racial animosity and especially at how things have ratcheted up in recent years, there is no possible way to believe that the Gospel which has saturated our land is the genuine article.

We have missed it.  And our brothers and sisters and neighbors are suffering as a result.

We need the mercy, wisdom, and loving-kindness of God to be with us, because clearly our own mercy, wisdom, and loving-kindness are not enough.

Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy.

Book Review: Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Several months ago I responded to a review by Tim Challies (actually a scathing diatribe very thinly disguised as a book review) of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints:  Finding God in All the Wrong People.  I had not read it then, but I had a very strong suspicion that it took a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity to get from whatever was in the book to what Challies was saying about it.  I have now had the opportunity to actually read the book, and my suspicions have been more than confirmed.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor out in Denver, Colorado.  There is much about her story to plunge the evangelical gag reflexes into overdrive.  For starters, she is a female pastor in a church that ordains female pastors and that may be reason enough for many of you to check out right here and now.  She has tattoos.  She cusses.  For many of you, that is probably not your style.  She and her strain of Lutheranism have progressive political commitments which may make your stomach churn.  But if you can stick it out, you will be rewarded with a tale of raw, unvarnished grace from one who is desperately aware of her need for God.

The book is a series of stories drawn from Bolz-Weber’s life and the life of her congregation–a motley band of misfits drawn together by a common dependence upon Jesus Christ revealed in their midst through Word and Sacrament according to the Lutheran tradition of which they are a part.  In each of these stories God shows up in unexpected ways, through unexpected encounters with the last people you would expect to be used by God.  We see a pastor desperately in need of God and honest enough to admit it.  We see the process of transformation in her life as she repeatedly encounters God in the last places she would expect, through the last people she would expect.

There is the story of how she reluctantly agreed to speak at a Lutheran youth conference, and then wound up on the plane sitting next to a teenage girl who was on her way to the same conference, and as she was drawn into this girl’s story it nudged her to get over herself.  There is the story of how she was sitting with a bishop friend at a denominational convention, snarkily critiquing the air conditioning and the opening music, only to suddenly find herself in way over her head trying to minister to a man who was going through an excruciating season of grief and loss.

And then there is the story which contains the formulation of Christ’s atonement to which Challies objects so strenuously:  “God gathers up all our sin, all our broken-ass junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life. Jesus takes our crap and exchanges it for his blessedness.”  This occurs within the larger context of a story of how she had shitlisted a parishioner because she felt uncomfortable around him and was unsure of his motivations for wanting to be part of her congregation.  Then she wound up having to officiate his funeral.  When a family member came up to her after the service and spoke of how much her church had meant to him in his final months, she describes her reaction as follows:

There it was.  A blessed exchange.  My crap for Jesus’ mercy.

I will never know Larry.  I’ll never know what it is like to love him, to see him, to know what the source of his tenderness toward his wife was or from where he drew his strength in his final days.  That is all lost to me.  But for some reason our congregation was a place of comfort for him.

Sometimes God needs stuff done, even though I can be a real asshole.  There is absolutely no justice in the fact that Larry loved me and that church.  But if I got what I deserved in this life, I’d be screwed–so instead, I receive that grace for what it is: a gift.

It is all well and good to sit in judgment of someone because their formulation of the atonement does not line up with what is in the doctrinal statement on file down at your church’s or denomination’s front office.  But at the end of the day, doctrine and theology have to be lived out in real life.  For it is in real life that we bump up against real people, who are the means by which God transforms us into Christlikeness.  If your theology has nothing to say to the real world in which real people live and move and breathe, then you need to change your theology.

This book is all about a pastor and a congregation who are desperately aware of their need for God, who routinely experience Jesus in their midst in the most unexpected ways, through the most unexpected people.  If you can get past the cussing, the progressive politics, and all the other things which cause a conservative evangelical stomach to churn, you will see that Jesus is very much alive and well on the streets of Denver.

And in the churning of your stomach, perhaps you will find God working on you.  Surprising you, jarring you out of your old comfortable prejudices, opening your eyes to see His life and His grace in the very last places you would expect to see it.