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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. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. 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.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Will Christians Ever Get Together?

Someone asked me the other day, as we were reflecting on the current papal transition in Roman Catholicism, whether Christians will ever again all be together? Interesting question, and one that I have thought of... a lot. I want to talk about this in an autobiographical way.

You see, I was raised in a liberal Lutheran Church. The pastor who confirmed me was a Swedish guy, divorced, who re-married a woman who had once been a nun. Suffice to say, sexual morality was never a topic from the pulpit--that, and his best friend was our Bishop who had an openly gay child. That being said, as an academic for most of my early life and career, I never devoted much time to churchly things. I went to a few youth group events (canoeing in the Boundary Waters was my favorite), helped my dad teach confirmation classes at church while I was in college, and once even helped organize a national Lutheran Youth Gathering. But I went to worship only on Sundays (except Lent and Advent, when we had Wednesday night worships), and I always scheduled Sundays around the Minnesota Vikings, not church.

In college, where many people of my day experienced suffering for the first time as adults, I tried the Christian thing for a bit. And then I stopped it all. My first class was the "Bible as Literature," which fulfilled the religious requirement of my school. I never took another class on Christianity again until my second graduate school. (More on that later.) We had daily chapel, and I went quite a bit--unless the conversations were too scintillating--and usually because we had great music, and I loved the pageantry our chaplain had. (As a good Swede, he wore clogs and sandals with socks sticking out under his cassock and alb.)

I fell in love with stories of all kinds and of how to think. And really, over the last 30 years those are still the most valuable interests I have. So I read lots of stories, read lots of people who thought, and made a little career of it. Here's the thing: many stories have allusions to Christianity, and if you're going to understand even a little bit of the story, you should know some Christianity. (Think Leo Tolstoy.) And here's another thing: many of the best thinkers throughout human history have been Christian, and if you want to understand them, even a little bit, you should know some Christianity. (Think St. Augustine.)

So I spent a good six years meeting many people, some who were Christian, some who were not. I read a lot of books about Christianity in order to understand thinkers (I read more books about Christianity trying to understand Nietszsche than I did books by Nietzsche.) My friends now included openly gay people, atheists, Native American spiritualists, fundamentalist evangelical preachers-to-be, Spiritual but not Religious (This was 1981...but we were all trained in the 70s), and even a few mainline Lutherans. Then I met a Catholic.

Now I had grown up as a child surrounded by many St. Paul, MN area Catholics. They were exotic, interesting, and their services went on forever, usually in Latin. (Of course, once I went to college and learned Latin, they switched to English.) But this woman's family introduced me to a side of Catholicism I only had heard about in movies, or whispers in back alleys, as people sold their gold crucifixes for a dime bag. To be honest, when I encountered it for the first time as an adult I was shocked. Here's what shocked me the most: my friend could never be a priest...because she was a woman.

In 1985 it was INCONCEIVABLE to me that someone could be denied a calling based solely on her gender. She was a person of great faith, exactly the kind of person I would want to tell my sins to (admittedly, to her, they would have a certain deja vu quality), exactly the kind of person I would like to hear ruminate on the wonder and excitement of God's world. But this could never be because in her tradition, those roles of ordination could only be had by men. (Yes, I understand there are "alternate" ways of doing those things in her tradition, but I think we all know there is no such thing as "separate but equal.") I saw absolutely no reason why "just" because she was a woman she could not be an ordained priest. And even more shocking was how comfortable she and her parents were with this! I literally felt like I had stepped back into a story by James Joyce with all the self-loathing, hatred, and anger, and none of the poetic fluency to cover over the sexism. I've heard she has a good life, and made a lot for herself and her kids, her husband, and probably her friends too. She is that kind of woman. She could have done that for her church as well, but they wouldn't let her.

In answer to the question: will Christians ever get together? Probably not as long as I am called a Christian. Unless, those Christian traditions that exclude leaders only on the basis of gender and/or sexual orientation change to include them, I will never join those traditions. (Catholic or Protestant.) I believe in the God-giftedness of people regardless of their gender and/or sexual orientation more than I believe in Christian unity. And any tradition that denies that giftedness will never be united with me.

Of course, when I am gone things may change. But the thought that my wife could not be an ordained leader in a church just because she is a woman is the STUPIDEST thought ever introduced to Christianity. To compromise on that is to compromise on my God, who loves and gifts all people to better communities, and there is no distinction, "Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians. 3.28) Paul is not talking here of something that is going to happen, but rather something that has happened. I choose to live in religious communities that understand that because this has happened in Christ Jesus women may lead Christianity just as men may. That is my choice. But where is your line in the sand?

What does God mean for you in the community in which you practice religion? Are there any non-negotiables in your faith? With Christians? With other faiths? What would it take for you to be united with another tradition?

I understand sexism may not be an issue for you, or really maybe for many people, but I suspect we all have an "issue." Because of those issues, the chances of Christians ever getting together is pretty slim. Unless, of course, through God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit--we already are.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

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