Happy 17th Anniversary!

Leaving Ford Dining Hall

Leaving Ford Dining Hall – Berry College

A friend of mine recently commented to me, “Are you aware that you are the only person I know who never, ever trash-talks about their spouse?”

There’s a reason for that. I was very, very picky about the person I married – and so was she. Neither of us knew what the hell we were doing, or how we were going to make it work, but we both knew that we were marrying someone who would take marriage seriously and would put our relationship above every other priority. To this day, I know that I am the most important person in her life, and that she is in mine.

And so, 17 years later, the room still lights up for me when she walks into it. No matter what is going on in my life, making eye contact with her or feeling her hand in mine is all it takes for everything to be right with the world. I’ve heard people say that love and passion fade with time, but as we approach the close of our second decade together, my own experience is that I feel both more deeply and more strongly than I ever have.

I love you Brigit! Happy Anniversary!


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How I Can Be a Christian

Origen of Alexandria

Origen of Alexandria (source: wikisource.org)

How can you be a Christian?  How can you be a pastor?

I suppose, as a socially progressive, academic clergyperson who lives in the Deep South, it is hardly surprising that I get asked these questions…a lot.  When someone learns that I teach that the Christian Scriptures are a collection of documents written and edited over centuries, and that those writers and editors were influenced by political and social forces as well as theological ones, they are often surprised to learn that I read the Bible and pray every day – even while knowing that not everything contained therein actually happened.  When they learn that I have a long history of advocating for same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom (including access to abortion) they are surprised to learn that I also believe and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The question comes from both sides.  Christian fundamentalists (or “evangelicals” as they prefer to be called to avoid confusion with people who hold identical social beliefs but attribute them to a different collection of scriptures) often believe that their interpretation of Christianity is the only authentic one.  For them, failing to hold to the beliefs they impose on the tradition is a rejection of the tradition as a whole.

Interestingly, non-Christians seem to be under the same impression.  Presumably their understanding of what Christians believe is based upon the portrayal of Christians on TV and in movies, and upon the representation of Christians on the news.  From that limited perspective, Christians are people who cling to a quaint, “traditional” understanding of society and a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

So, from the perspective of the left and the right, those of us who take a more thoughtful, historically-conscious approach to our faith must not be “real” Christians.  Here are some reasons why that view is short-sighted:

1. Fundamentalists aren’t really that “Fundamental”

Fundamentalists of every stripe like to portray themselves as biblical literalists who cling to the “timeless” truths of their tradition.  This is very far from true.  The beliefs and  practices of twenty-first century evangelicals would be viewed as permissive and libertine by their nineteenth-century predecessors, and would be almost unrecognizable from the perspective of the Early Church.  Since most people lack the historical perspective to recognize any changes that go back more than a century, modern evangelicals get away with calling themselves “traditionalists” when it’s really just that their innovations are slightly less recent than those of “progressives.”

They also are no more “literal” in their treatment of the Christian Scriptures than anyone else.  I have already dealt with that here, here, and here.  I do not feel the need to rehash all of those points in this essay, so I will limit myself to the observation that fundamentalists only treat texts literally when it supports their social agenda.  Those texts that run contrary to that agenda, or which undermine their claims about the Bible’s divine authorship or historical accuracy, are interpreted allegorically – often with astonishingly convoluted logic.

Consequently, I see no reason that non-fundamentalists should be held to a standard that the fundamentalists themselves do not keep.  Perhaps if fundamentalist Christians become pacifists who hold no property, fast multiple times a week, gather to stand for worship services that last an entire day, and require years of study before a person can become a convert – then I might find their argument more compelling.

2. Knowledge Moves Forward

The reality of the history of Christianity, however, is that beliefs about doctrine, Scripture, worship, and the nature of Christian obligation change dramatically from century to century.  Every religious tradition does this.  If they did not, those traditions would quickly fade into irrelevance.

Studying the evolution of those changes, and the process that produced the Christian Scriptures, often poses a dilemma for young seminary students.  They essentially have three choices.  They can reject what they learn in seminary, and persist in a more simple understanding of the faith.  They can reject Christianity, believing that if the understanding of Christianity they had in Sunday School is not true, they cannot be Christians any more.  Or, they can find a way to participate in the tradition that is honest about biblical and historical scholarship.

I have chosen the latter option.  In every area of knowledge, our understanding of how to interpret observable phenomena changes as new information emerges.  We do not consider physicians “liberals” or “heretics” because they do not think a fever comes from an imbalance of the “humours of the body” or because they do not treat it with bleeding.  Nor do we claim that fevers did not exist in the eighteenth century because physicians of that era described them imprecisely and did not understand their cause.

The practice and study of faith should not be exempt from this process.  The Bible is the record of several generations’ encounters with the presence of God.  Those encounters were interpreted through their cultural beliefs, political concerns, prejudices, and superstitions.  Subsequent generations then re-interpreted those writings through the lenses of their own assumptions and limitations, as our generation does as well.  Being honest about that reality does not minimize or contradict the reality of those original encounters with God.  Nor does it impugn the honesty and sincerity of the faith journey of subsequent generations.

3.  Accountability

So should we just believe whatever we want and call ourselves “Christians?”  Nothing could be farther from my point.  To continue the example above, if a physician said, “Well, if fevers aren’t caused by a humour imbalance then I might as well believe they are caused by aliens” one would question the legitimacy of their medical training.  Likewise, recognizing that biblical and theological scholarship calls into question the assumptions of past generations does not mean that we should all run willy-nilly into whatever theological trend or ludicrous spiritualism seems appealing.

Through seminary training and graduate school, the ordination process, and continuing, prayerful study of both scholarship and Scripture, I hold myself accountable to the history of the tradition and the perspective of my colleagues.  This is an important element to Christian practice – it is not an expression of individual belief.  Christianity is about living in community.  Recognizing that the history of the tradition reveals drastic sea changes in belief does not mean abandoning accountability to the community that is rooted in that history.

4. Comfort with Ambiguity

Yet, as we have discussed, very few of the members of that community agree on everything.  Even limiting the boundaries to mainline Christianity, there is considerable diversity in belief and practice.  The obvious reality is that we cannot all be right, and – based on the long history of changes in Christian assumptions about “incontrovertible” truths, the Church has likely been wrong more often than it has been right.  An honest assessment of the truth of the Christian tradition means comfort with ambiguity; far fewer truths are as certain as we would like them to be.  Christianity is about a journey toward truth, not an affirmation of it.

5. Reality

Finally, I am a Christian pastor because – for me – the Christian tradition helps me understand the world as I have experienced it, and because Christian worship draws me closer to the metaphysical world I have glimpsed from afar.  There have been times when the presence of God has been a real and sustaining force in my life.  Prayer has brought me peace and focus, and I believe – along with Martha Berry and my Great Grandmother – that “Prayer Changes Things.”

I would not presume to claim that Christianity fully encompasses the depth and complexity of a transcendent God, but it draws me closer to that God whom my own experiences have convinced me is real.

Concluding Thoughts

A famous seventeenth-century quote by Rupertus Meldenius, but often attributed to St. Augustine, can be translated: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; and in all things charity.”  This logic is at the heart of why I am comfortable as a Christian and a member of the clergy.  Our essentials come from the broad consensus of the tradition, yet an honest appraisal of the history of Christianity reveals that – beyond those essentials – there is far more uncertainty than some might wish or claim.  Ultimately, if the gospel is to be “good news,” we must seek it – charitably – together as a shared question, not a settled answer, and my life is the richer for that journey.

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Happy Fathers Day!

At the Chattahoochee

At the Chattahoochee

When I was very young, I quickly realized that popular perceptions of what it means to be a “Dad” did not jive with how my own father went about the job. Every day of my life, I have always known that being my dad was the single most important thing in my father’s world. He went about learning to be a parent with great intentionality – reading every book he could on the subject, talking to parents and mentors whom he respected, and also talking with me about the decisions he made – even the mistakes he made – as a parent, and why.

There isn’t enough space to enumerate all the things I have learned from Dad, but certainly one of them is that parenting is a partnership of mutual respect and honesty that requires an absolute commitment of time, energy, and priorities. Above all, it requires a boundless supply of love and grace.

I’ve never met anyone who has the kind of relationship with their father that I have with mine, although John-Francis Villines is always quick to point out that he and I also have that kind of uniquely close relationship of shared affection and trust. He’s kind to say so, but I think that’s cheating. In being the best father I know how to be to my own son, I am only following the example of the best father and the best man I have ever known.

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On Loyalty and Secrecy


WWII SAEDA Poster – USGPO – src: http://www.usmm.org/postertalk2b.html


Many of my friends – all fellow liberals – have been shocked by the vehemence with which I have condemned Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  Because of my generally liberal politics, their assumption is that I would value the men’s apparent act of conscience – their desire to see the “right thing” done – over their violation of their oaths of secrecy.  I do not, and here is why.

I have been an intelligence professional for over twenty years.  I am proud to be a member  of the Intelligence Community – an elite group of women and men whom I consider to be some of the finest people I have ever known.  Intelligence professionals bring a diverse set of skills to the table:  language proficiency, technical know-how, effective writing and speaking skills, the ability to organize and analyze complex information from disparate sources, the ability to think quickly under high stress, knowledge of other cultures and social systems, and psychology training – just to name a few.  There is one trait, however, that every single one of us has – absolutely and unequivocally:  we can keep a secret.

Secrecy is the lifeblood of intelligence work, not because we fear oversight or because our actions cannot withstand the scrutiny of the light of day, but because the lives of others depend on our ability to keep information – even apparently insignificant details – out of the hands of those seeking to harm our citizens.  Whether the topic is troop movements, collection methodologies, or the placement of covert agents – iron clad secrecy is fundamental and essential to effective intelligence operations.  The efforts, risks, and sacrifices of thousands of people working over the course of years can be compromised by one file copied carelessly onto a USB drive.

As a result, the safety of our nation requires a class of people for whom secrecy is the highest virtue, people on whom we can rely to never, under any circumstance, reveal classified information.  Those people are intelligence professionals, and we hold to the antiquated, anachronistic definition of “honor” that means we value our oath of secrecy over comfort, convenience, expedience, or other loyalties.  This is not hyperbole, nor is it overkill – it is absolutely necessary that we have such people for our nation to be safe.

What about the other requirements of honor?  What happens when one of us learns that members or agencies of our government – the body which acts on behalf of all of us who are “we the people” – act in a way that is cruel, dishonorable, illegal, or evil?  The simple answer is that we must act to prevent such things where possible, and punish them when necessary; but there are processes in place for just those purposes.  There are oversight committees, ombudsman inspectors, and open door policies – all within the cleared community – and each offers recourse for reporting abuses.

Are these methods perfect?  No.  Will some things, even shameful and patently wrong actions, slip through the cracks?  Almost assuredly.  No system is perfect, and if the Manning and Snowden cases indicate failures in those oversight processes we should pour considerable resources into resolving those failures.

That does not exonerate Manning and Snowden.  Even if there were no obvious casualties from their leaks, even if none of the information they provided would be of intelligence value to our enemies, even if they only made public information that our enemies already knew – they still broke their oaths of secrecy.  Every member of the intelligence community, from the PFC all-source analyst in a TOC to the National Security Adviser, only sees a piece of the puzzle.  It is not our job to determine what is and is not of value to our enemies.

It is our job to be people whom the nation can trust to always, in every circumstance, keep every single secret which has been entrusted to us.  That is a sacred trust, and failing in it is a cardinal sin.  It is, in fact, the cardinal sin, and those who commit it – except under torture – are traitors.

There are other jobs, other virtues, and other sins, and I think it is important that we have a public, national dialogue on what we consider the proper, ethical path for our nation to follow – both in overt politics and in covert intelligence.  Whatever that path, the lives of our warfighters, our public safety personnel, our civilians, and our allies all depend on the willingness of the intelligence community to do, under any circumstance, what we have promised to do – keep our nation’s secrets no matter what.

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First Sunday in Advent

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel - Rembrandt

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel – Rembrandt

It was the First Sunday in Advent and the last in November. We were in the shadow of the end of a millennium, and – unbeknownst to me – the beginning of a seismic change in the direction of my life.  In the Lectionary readings, Isaiah reminded us that – flawed though we are – we are clay in the hands of a loving Potter.  Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Mark, cried, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” And the Apostle Paul reminded us that we lack for nothing because our Savior strengthens us and God is faithful.

I let their voices roll around in my head as I made my way to Madison, Georgia. I had time to review my sermon, as it was more than an hour drive from our house in the city to the small, country church where I was the pastor. I often made that drive alone or in the company of our infant son. My wife Brigit worked most Sundays. Our son John-Francis heard his first homilies snuggled comfortably in the arms of any number of kind, older Southern ladies more than happy to sit with him on the back pew while I preached.

This Sunday, however, our whole family was together, and we made our way along the highway in the companionable silence of the early morning. The air had a hint of chill to it, but the sky was a cloudless blue against cleared fields and baled hay that shone a bright gold in the Georgia sun. If we looked closely, there were signs that winter was on its way, but for the moment we were happy to enjoy the last, gilded days of the South’s mildest season.

Advent, which begins the liturgical year for Christians around the world, is a season of hope. Often this hope is tied to the memory of the incarnation of Jesus, because the Christmas season is right around the corner, but the hope of Advent is even larger. In the four weeks before Christmas we remember that everyone and everything we know or value will someday pass away, and at the end of time our hope lies not in our accomplishments, but in the grace of God.

That is a more complex and subtle flavor of hope than the simple message of holiday greeting cards and Christmas carols. I had struggled with how to convey the texts’ messages of challenge and warning to my congregation, while also making certain to offer the hope that was at the center of the season and the gospel itself. I was not overly concerned. They were good sports.  Matriarchs, dairy farmers, mechanics, veterans, professionals – they had helped me grow into my calling while patiently teaching me to do the job for which seminary had given me the tools but not the workshop.

Normally I was the first to arrive, although the wife of one of our deacons would have come a couple hours earlier to turn on the heat. Today, however, I turned down the gravel drive to see that our aged white steeple presided over a parking lot full of cars. The congregation was over two hundred years old, and had once overseen a legendary revival that had prompted the citizens of a nearby town to rename their city “Newborn.” I wondered if a similarly great awakening was about to take place.

Brigit and John-Francis entered with me and found their usual spots for Sunday School while I went to my office to look over my sermon. I did not have much time to ponder the mystery of our increased church attendance, since the hour for Worship arrived swiftly. Our lector that day was the Chair of the Deacons, and his rumbling baritone proclaimed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

“At least this Sunday,” I thought acerbically, “if you came down you’d find the pews filled.  I wish I knew why.” Still contemplating the sheer number of freshly-soaped faces staring at me intently, I launched into a lackluster but adequate sermon to begin the new Church Year.

I quickly realized something was very wrong. Anyone who has had the privilege to preach in a rural, evangelical congregation knows that we are well-trained. We can tell by the preacher’s inflections and facial expressions when we are supposed to laugh, and so we do – even if the joke is a familiar one or more than a little lame (and further hobbled by the preacher’s delivery). Church is a place where we remember not to take the world too seriously, and our shared laughter creates its own liturgy, honoring the joy that is at the heart of the gospel.

There was no laughter in the congregation that day.  For twenty minutes I tossed the crumbs of my sermon onto a sea of blank stares, and all that came back was a sense that something was coming and everyone knew it but me.  For the first time I felt the fear that is also a part of the season of Advent.  The axe was at the root of the tree, and I suspected the fire was yet to come.

When it did, it was during the announcements and in the whispered words of the same Deacon who had read from Isaiah, “Pastor, the Deacons would like a word with you if you have the time.”

We met in the Sunday School room that also served as the space for business meetings. The Chair stood and read a prepared statement which began, “Pastor, this is nothing personal…”

As with “This is not about you, it’s about me,” an introit like this invariably leads to a blow that is both deeply personal and carelessly brutal. This conversation would prove to be no exception. I was given the opportunity to tender my resignation (pastors are almost never fired), presented with a minimal severance check, and asked to leave and never return.

The church had called a meeting in the wee hours of the morning prior to my arrival that day. I was not invited. There was only one agenda item: my sermon from the previous Sunday.

On that day, the 21st of November – Reign of Christ Sunday – I had deviated from the Lectionary and preached from a selection of texts I had chosen to address an event on the minds of all our members. The previous week our state ecclesiastical body had expelled two congregations for the first time in the nearly 200-year-long history of their existence. The two Atlanta churches – both served by friends of mine – were clear and public in their advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The rhetoric against those two communities of faith, especially in rural parishes like mine, had grown passionate and vitriolic.

I had entered the pulpit that previous Sunday terrified. I even brought two sermons with me, one from the lectionary that proclaimed the hope of unity in the reign of Christ, and the other from a collection of epistles and gospel fragments addressing pastorally the issue of homosexuality. My professional and prayerful opinion – then as now – was that any consistent, faithful approach to Scripture does not allow for the condemnation of homosexuality.

I didn’t want to say that to my congregation. I told myself that my reluctance was because they would not be able to hear the why of such a sermon because they would not be able to get past the what of it. Over the course of a sleepless night I realized that my real fear was losing a job I loved, a career path I was quickly ascending, and a paycheck that we desperately needed to pay our mortgage.

The writers in Proverbs remind us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and ultimately that persuaded me which sermon to preach on the 21st. To this day, I recall the image that I could not shake – of me, standing before Almighty God, and God asking me why I refused to speak the truth from the pulpit. If even a single word I had ever proclaimed were true, how could I face my Creator and admit that the one time it really mattered I was more concerned with protecting myself than speaking for those on whom the Church had turned its back?

And so I had ended the previous liturgical year with the proclamation that the gospel included our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters just as they were. A week later, I started the season of Advent unemployed and unlikely to find a new congregation. My church, to its credit, had not been unanimous in their response to my sermon. Many had argued to keep me, but had ultimately agreed that the loss of an idealistic, big-city pastor was better for the church than the inevitable congregational split.

My colleagues were quick to offer their support. One – who had prayed during my ordination that God would take me, bless me, break me, and give me away – told me, “You were taken out for offering your very best stuff.  Don’t ever forget that.” I haven’t. Another simply told me, “They were wrong.  You were right.” Less helpfully, a number of them called to tell me “I wish I could have said what you said, but…” The pastors of both congregations that had been removed from our communion called to tell me I was part of their story too. I will always be honored that they counted me among their courageous number.

I also heard from a number of people whom I did not know. They told me how the Church had wounded them. They told me how painful it was to be told that they had to choose between the God to whom they had given their soul and the person who was their soulmate. I came to realize what a small price I had paid for the privilege of speaking on their behalf.

A part of me had known that a moment like that would come at some point in my ministry, but my ego had assumed that the stage would be larger and the consequences more far-reaching. A small, inconsequential church in a distant farming community hardly seemed worth the permanent sacrifice of my professional career.

But the gospel does not work that way. The riddle of Advent is that we are called to hope for a kingdom yet to come, while understanding that it will only arrive if we live as if it were already here. If we spend our lives waiting for that big chance to live out that hope, the opportunity for us to make a “real” difference, we miss the thousands of moments where we could have taken just a tiny bit of hate, anger, bigotry, or ignorance out of the world and replaced it with a little kindness, grace, or wisdom. Sometimes, the price we pay for that little bit of faithfulness or courage seems exorbitant, but – as anyone who has faced despair will tell you – that is nonsense. Hope is priceless.

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