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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Women and Religion

I have to tell you, I don't know why I am writing this post...but I do have some questions about the relationship between religions and women.

For example, Christianity spends a lot of time detailing the God-Human relationship, and then goes on to detail how people should relate to each other, sometimes in direction contradiction to what the God-Human relationship details. So, in Christianity we understand that God has made us free; however, in our relationship to each other we are to be servants (slaves, if you want to use the Newer Testament as your metaphor--but that's always dicey, if for no other reason than those of us who do not have a direct genealogical connection to slavery in our history tend to be a bit cavalier about it.)

When it comes to women this gets even more complicated, and I admit makes me quite uncomfortable and confused. Why can women not be leaders in congregations in a religion in which freedom to live as you have been created and called is "the prime directive?" It makes absolutely no sense to me to segregate leadership based on mutable cultural and historical factors while all the while proclaiming a freedom to live in grace and unity. I have never been able to wrap my mind around that (and for me, at least, if I can't think it, it is impossible for me to believe it). Why women cannot lead--on the basis of their sex--completely baffles me. I know, I know, I live in a world where women are enticed to be equal (even if they are not in reality), but don't we all live in some part of that world these days? Just because someone wants to deny women the right to lead because "We've never done it that way before" doesn't mean women aren't leading in other places these days. One of my most interesting conversations over the past few years was with one of my students from Liberia. I asked him what he thought of the USA these days, and he remarked "Why is your country so afraid of having a woman as President? We're on our third one already." THAT was what he thought was strange about us? Wow. The world is passing the USA right by.

The confusion I have with my own tradition is bad enough, but tomorrow I will be in conversation with another tradition that has hajibs for its women. Although I have read a few women scholars of Islam, I'm not sure if I've ever even met a women cleric, or, if they even have any in any part of Islam? (This is one thing I hope to learn a lot about tomorrow.) I am sure Islam, as with all other religions, has both its formal and informal operating procedures, and if women are denied formal rights, they no doubt exercise informal ones. But are there formal rights for women to lead Islam? And, if there are, how are those rights related to traditions of social dress and polygamy? (I am not too concerned about the cultural, economic, or historical factors here, I just want to know what Allah commands.)

Because my over-riding metaphor of the God-Human relationship is love into freedom, to restrict freedom on the basis of anything other than love strikes me as odd. What I mean is this: let us say a woman wishes to love God by fulfilling certain cultural, historical, and traditional roles. That is fine because it arises from HER love of God, not somebody telling her and forcing to behave in certain ways. Conversely, a woman who breaks certain cultural, historical, and traditional roles because of HER love of God is also living out her freedom, albeit in presumably different ways. It's the love and the freedom that's important, not how they behave in either case.

As some of you know, my wife is a pastor...(and apologies to all my other pastor friends, but she is the best pastor I've ever come across--it's one of the reasons I married her.) And she leads a lot of people both formally and informally in our tradition. She doesn't do it because she has to, or someone forced her to, she does it because she loves God--and she's free enough to live out that love as a leader. As her husband over the past 25 years I've learned there's not a lot I can do about helping her in her love of God, but there's a lot I can do in helping her be free. How do you help free the people you love in your life?

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Love, then obedience

I am attending a Christian-Muslim roundtable discussion on "A Common Word," a document published a few years ago by 130 plus Islamic scholars on how Christians and Muslims can learn to live and work together. I always consider these types of conversations important, as I am not a big fan of people killing each other...and killing out of ignorance or lack of conversation is the worst!

I believe Christians and Muslims can live and work together in the same places and the same neighborhoods. This is important, because I know quite a few people who do not believe this is true. For example, a friend of mine was relating how he was at a leadership event for executives of the company for which he works. In debating whether a woman in a hajib (head-scarf) should have her religious holidays off from work, most of the people demurred. I asked how could that be? My friend replied, "Most doubted she was the most qualified for her job." Notice what this says about those executives: how will they deal with religious pluralism in the workforce? By only hiring from one religion, probably theirs. It is not that Islamic women cannot celebrate religious holidays, but they will not have a job at this company, so the issue is moot. Let them celebrate! Somewhere else...
(I understand there are laws against this type of thing, but if you believe non-discrimination laws stop discrimination...you do not live in my world.)

The question is then--in my world--why should we live and work together? And, how can you make us? That is, even if I could convince people to hire the Islamic woman, how could I "make" them live and work with her? This is why "love" is more important than "obedience."

Unless these executives see some type of relationship, some type of mutual giving and taking with people of Islam, there will be nothing more than begruding obedience to laws they are going to work around to get what they prefer anyhow. Unless love, rather than obedience to laws, becomes the basis for their living and working together they will not do it.

As a kid I learned long-ago--you can't force busing!

As a Christian (and the reason I am one) my relationship to God comes from God's love for me, not my obedience to God's will. In fact, I am comfortable saying that my obedience plays absolutely no part in my relationship with God (and I am willing to accept any consequences of this belief should I be wrong.) If I wasn't convinced that God loved me there is no way I would obey God, or even care. Like those executives, I would demur.

I understand that a lot of people worry that we are not "obeying" God's will these days...but I am not buying it because it is not important to me. I worry about the fact that we are not loving God's world enough...I see trees starving for water, I see children starving for affection, I see men starving for respect, and women starving for freedom...all the "obedience" in the cosmos won't feed those humgers. Those kinds of hungers are only fed by love...God's in, with, and under us.

May your table be full, and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Labels: Progressive Christian

Having just been warned about the negative temptation of labeling people, I though I might ponder over some of the labels people have called me recently. I am hoping this exercise is not so esoteric as to be useless to others, but I really don't know.

People call me a PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN.  And I think what people usually mean by this is that I believe gays can be Christian and that other religions have valid points to them. And I do believe those two points, but I believe so much more. But I am curious about the term "progressive."

I would much rather people call me a "liberal" Christian, especially as that terms was used 200 years ago to mean somebody who believed in liberty and freedom. Nowadays liberal tends to mean wishy-washy, or over-generous, or even not holding people accountable for their actions. I am none of those things, so I take the label "progressive" as the evolution of the sort of Christianity I espouse. The Christian faith I hold to wasn't called "progressive" 500 years ago (it was called "reformed" then), and it probably won't be called "progressive" 100 years from now.

But I believe in freedom and liberty to the point where all "law" is suspect. (In my tradition we have a wonderful Latin phrase--lex semper accusat-- which means "the law always accuses," from which we derive our undestanding that law can never be our final salvation.) Freedom and liberty are our destinations from which we were created, and they are God-given beyond our control. If a progressive Christian is one who is free, and who in their freedom seeks freedom for all others; then yes, I am a progressive...and so I encourage gays and people of other religions to engage and explore their freedom to live.

But I am not quite sure how such a belief is "progressive" because there is not much "progress" here at all. In fact, if you discerned from the line above, if we are created in freedom for freedom we are in some kind of cyclical loop that connects us to our beginning at our end...and that's hardly a good definition of "progress." But if you mean by progress that we are better off today than yesterday, or this generation better off than a previous generation, well, again...I am not so sure.

There are progresses--for example, the understanding that women have freedoms to explore their creativity outside of traditional social roles--the almost universal abhorrence of slavery--these are good progresses. But have we abandoned all the distinctions which make us human? Have we blurred our social roles to the point of failing to recognize gifts we have received for the "common good?" These are real questions for me (and I assume many others), and the label "progressive" doen't seem make sense in terms of those types of questions. For example, if a women chooses to explore her creativity within traditional social roles is that "progressive?" What if that is what God is calling her to do for all the rest of us? These are the things I wonder about...

So the label is what it is, and I will find myself more often than not with progressives when Christians get together...it doesn't bother me much, just as it doesn't seem to bother God much either.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Some thoughts on labeling

They call them labels, marketers call them brands, others call them stereotypes, but they are all the sme thing--ways to understand where someone or something fits in relationships to other people or things.

 I use to worry about stereotyping, but as I often said, I wouldn't do it so much if I wasn't right so often. The reality is, of course, that there is not a lot of difference between most people, but having said that...it's the differences that make all the difference in the world. When I say that there are not a lot of differences between people words like "label," brand, stereotype and others fit our general human situation. We all need to eat, we all try to communicate, and most of us within our cultural and social world do those things in similar ways

. But does that mean that every Black American teenager who wears a hoodie is a physical threat to a White American? No. But why do people think so? Media assault aside, something like a young teenager wearing a hoodie sweatshirt around a gated community should not be viewed as a threat. But we can't put the media assault aside--this is not 1912 anymore--but even so we have to overcome the negative with something positive. We have to see that our rush to label someone as a negative threat goes against the even more basic label of our common, shared, need to breathe.

The Christian tradition I have been a part of all my life has a way to work through the fear and confusion that arises when negative stereotypical images arise within our daily lives. "Don't bear false witness against your neighbor." Now, this is one of the 10 Commandments, but it doesn't mean "don't lie." It means something like: don't let your fear of your neighbor cause you to lose your own humanity. That is, always be human (true witness) around your neighbor. Martin Luther once commented that this commandment means to "Put the best construction forward" on what your neighbor says and does. In other words, if your neighbor does something you think stupid or ill-advised, try to see it from his or her point-of-view.

Being human around other humans, you begin to see where labels do not really tell the whole story. So we have to be aware of the negative power of labels, brands, and stereotypes precisely because they tempt us to be less-than-human. They tempt us to trade in our human power to share and live togeher, to laugh, and to trust, and to replace those noble virtues with fear, cowardice, and hate. Never strive to be sub-human, and labeling is often the first step in trading in your humanity for something far less worthy.

May your table be full, and your conversations be true.