The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Look at the bigger picture

Christmas Eve

In the name of Christ.  Amen.

Christmas is supposed to be about joy and peace and happiness.  But sometimes it can be a little bit frustrating, can’t it?

One of the things that can sometimes be frustrating for me about this time of year is the way that it brings out so many “experts”.  From the pseudo-documentaries about Jesus and the Bible that you find on television, to news personalities talking about Jesus’ ethnicity, to the many contacts we all have on various social media sites - it seems that during this time of year, particularly, everyone is an expert.  Expert theologians, expert philosophers, expert historians…  Everyone seems to KNOW - beyond the shadow of any doubt - the right answer.

Maybe it’s just me, and the circles that I run in, but it seems that this year it’s even more pronounced than usual.  With the marriage equality developments that have happened in New Mexico and Utah, and the law in Uganda to persecute gay and lesbian people, and the Duck Dynasty controversy: all coming together in the week before Christmas and all with religious overtones, there seem to be even more “experts” than normal.  They’re everywhere you look.

On all sides of all of these debates in the public square, I’ve been hearing self-proclaimed “experts” spouting all kinds of opinions about what Jesus wants and what God wants and what the church wants.  Everyone seems to be able to point to one or two verses from the Bible here or there that supports exactly what they think.  And everyone seems to think that anyone who thinks differently is utterly, and without question, wrong - even if the people they think are wrong have their own biblical citations to add to the stew-pot of opinions.

The mistake that most people tend to make in thinking about faith - and perhaps even about most other debates - is that they think too small.  God requires big thinking - expansive thinking.  Easy answers are never enough.

No stories from our faith illustrate this more than the stories that we tell again and again around this time of year - the stories of the incarnation; the stories of God walking among us as Christ.

If we look at just the tiny bit that we hear here tonight, the story is pretty unimpressive: a young woman has a baby alongside the man who would soon be her husband.

Sure, there were choirs of angels, but I’d bet: if you’re a parent, or if there’s some other child in your life that you spent months anticipating - I bet you’ve heard those same choirs of angels rejoicing their arrival.  I know I have.

The real miracle of Jesus’ birth is in its ordinariness.  It was just a night like most any other.  It was just an unimpressive little town.  Two parents who had never before made great waves in the world around them had a child.  A child just like you and I were.  A child just like all the children that make our Christmas celebrations so special as we grow older.  A child who was innocent, and beautiful, and full of promise - just like every other child.

I’ve often said that for me, the really thrilling thing to think about when it comes to Jesus is not that a person could become God, but that God could become a person.  The really exciting thing to imagine is that God could want so much to feel connected with all of creation and to have all of creation feel connected with God, that God would become like us: to share our experiences, to feel the joy, and the pain, and the anger, and the hunger, and the excitement, and the curiosity… of being a person.

That’s the miracle of the incarnation for me - not so much the power of a person, but the compassion of God.

But you wouldn’t know all of that if the lesson that we hear tonight was the only lesson there was.  It’s so much more than just a birth.  It’s so much more than just one story.  It’s so much more than just any one verse.

The metanarrative of the story of God that we hear in the story of Jesus is one of God reaching out - further and further until God could touch the very face of the earth; until God could feel what it’s like to live among the creation; until God could know us as only we could know ourselves.

That’s the bigger picture that lingers beyond this familiar Christmas story.  It’s not so much about miracles, as it is about connection.  It’s not so much about lordship, as it is about familiarity.  It’s not so much about power, as it is about love.

And in the metanarrative of the whole Bible, Jesus is simply one more example.  The story of our faith is the story of a God who strives from the beginning of all creation to help that creation know that God is as close as our next breath.  God is not far off or high or away, but right here - longing to know us and longing to love us.

In our awe, we imagine a God that we can’t reach.  But even so, God is reaching toward us.

That’s what we celebrate here tonight: that even in life’s most ordinary times, the extraordinary love of God is longing to breaking through.  Even when there’s no room in the inn, even when our circumstances seem most grave, even when the nights are darkest, or coldest, or we are most alone, God is reaching forth, in every way we can imagine and in ways we could never imagine, calling us into love.

All “experts” aside.

No matter who tells you that you’re wrong, or sinful, or not good enough - the bigger picture reveals the truth: God is reaching out.  God will move heaven and earth to have you know that you are loved.  God has moved heaven and earth to let you know that you are loved.

That’s what Christmas is about.  That’s what our whole faith is about.  It’s about the bigger picture.  And the bigger picture is painted with God’s love.  Amen.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A gay Christian from Louisiana responds to the Duck Dynasty controversy

I've been watching with interest the controversy that's been emerging over the past couple of days around
Phil Robertson, of "Duck Dynasty" fame, and the interview he gave to GQ magazine that many people found offensive.

The truth is, it was offensive.  But the further truth is, it wasn't surprising at all.

I'm a fairly recent fan of "Duck Dynasty".  I only started watching a couple of months ago.  I don't generally enjoy so-called "reality TV", but something about this show captured my attention.  I first sat down to watch an episode because my oldest nephew, who is nine years old and who lives in Mississippi, talked about it.  I decided to see what it was about, because I expected as our time together over the holidays approached, we'd probably be seeing it together.

I quickly started to enjoy the show.  There are elements of the show that, like all other "reality TV" shows, are almost certainly exaggerations of reality.  But there is also something about it that is authentic.

I know those people.  I'm related to those people.  Not those people particularly, but people just like them.

My mother's side of the family is actually named Duck.  That's their actual name.  (I even have an uncle Donald Duck, though no one ever believes me when I tell them that.)

The Duck side of the family are big duck hunters.  My grandfather owned several duck blinds in lakes around central Louisiana, and some of the fondest memories of my childhood are waking up hours before dawn and shuffling out with the men of the family into the crisp air of the rural central Louisiana winters to go duck hunting.

I never actually hunted - I was just a child.  But we, the children, would sometimes go along, ride out in the boat to the duck blind (which was like a really well-appointed tree house in the middle of a swampy, shallow, cypress-laden lake) and sit with my grandfather and uncles as they quietly waited for opportunities to hunt.  While we waited, we got to know our family better.  We learned about our shared heritage.  We learned the values of stillness, and quiet.  And we drank Dr. Pepper and ate Moon Pies to our hearts' content.

They were good times.

My family - the Duck family - was, in a lot of ways, very similar to the Robertson family.  And sometimes - not always, but sometimes - the values that were expressed in my extended family were a bit different from the values that I learned at home, with my immediate family.

Sometimes there were overtones of racism.  Sometimes there were overtones of heterosexism.  Sometimes there were overtones of gender inequality.  Those times made me uncomfortable, even as a child - even before I knew how to stand against them.  I knew they weren't the dominant values with which I was being raised.

But of course, those weren't the only values that were passed on in those duck hunting trips.  We were also taught to care for nature.  We were taught to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.  We were taught to value our family, and to respect our elders.  We were taught things like gun safety.  We learned to take pride in providing for our family with the ducks we brought home.

It wasn't always the "heritage of hate" that people in the Northeast and on the West Coast think about when they conjure their icons of the South.

That's what drew me in with "Duck Dynasty".  It reminded me of home.  Sure, there were elements of it that made me uncomfortable, but there were elements that reminded me of the good times - the good people - that are a part of my own upbringing.

I haven't watched every episode of "Duck Dynasty".  It's not the kind of show that I schedule my life around, or even set my DVR for.  But when there's nothing else on, it can be fun to have on in the background - just as those people represented on the show are an ever-present part of the background of my life.

A few weeks ago I was watching a rerun.  It was an episode where Willie - the CEO of the family
business - had given his parents a gift: a session with a photographer to get portraits of them with their dogs.  The photographer was a somewhat flamboyant (at least by Louisiana standards), "fashion forward" kind of person.  It was never mentioned whether or not he was gay, but that was clearly the implication.

As I watched that episode, a familiar sense of dread washed over me.  I knew what was going through Phil's mind.  I could see it in his guarded, uncomfortable movements.  I could hear it in his carefully chosen, self-censoring words.

Finally he said, "Clearly he's not from around here."

It didn't get the attention of the GQ interview, but I assure you, those words were just as homophobic as anything he said to the magazine.

That familiar sense of dread that I felt was because I knew what he meant: "He couldn't be from here, because he's not like us."  "He couldn't be from here, because he doesn't share our values."  "He couldn't be from here, because we don't let our boys grow up like that.  We don't let our boys turn into sissies."

Of course none of that is true.  I'm from there.  I know lots of guys like that from there.  Whether or not the photographer is actually gay doesn't matter.  His presentation was outside the norm, so he was the recipient of homophobia whether it was applicable to him or not.

I recognized the dread I felt, because I'd felt it before so many times myself.  I'd felt it from attitudes and biases directed toward me in my family, in school, and even in church.

But my dread wasn't so much about learning the truth of Phil's beliefs.  I knew them - or at least suspected them - before I'd seen that episode.  Homophobia, racism, and misogyny are the dominant cultural norms in that part of the country.  Perhaps they are in other parts of the country, too, but in the Deep South they're dominant enough not to be hidden.

No, my dread wasn't about learning Phil's beliefs, my dread was that he'd say something embarrassing to the network that would mess up a show that I was enjoying.  My dread was that I'd have yet another occasion that would lead me to have explain myself to people - yes, I'm a Southerner.  Yes, I'm from Louisiana.  But I'm not that kind of Southerner.  I'm not that kind of Louisianian.  Yes, I'm a Christian, but I'm not that kind of Christian.

My dread was the same kind of dread I'd feel if I had a friend at a family gathering and some aunt or uncle would say something just as embarrassing.

Of course Phil didn't say anything overtly embarrassing in that episode.  Or, if he did, the people at A&E edited it out for the sake of the show.  But I knew it was only a matter of time.  I knew he'd do an interview one of these days that would throw the whole enterprise into peril.  It was only a matter of time.

And that time came this week.

It would have been nice if this older, white, affluent but formerly poor, Christian Southerner had surprised us.  It would have been nice if, when asked about sin, he'd said something progressive or inclusive.  It would have even been nice if he'd said, "Sure, I have the beliefs you'd probably expect from someone of my generation and upbringing, but to each his own.  Who am I to judge the actions of another?"

Yeah, any of that would have been nice.  But it's not who he is.  I'd love it if it were, but it's just not.

The real point of my writing here is this: that internal challenge that many fans of the show are probably feeling right now - that challenge of liking the show, but not liking the beliefs of a person on the show - that's normal.  And it's worth thinking about.

It's an internal challenge that I feel all the time.  There are a lot of people from back home in Louisiana who have a different set of beliefs and values than I have.  They often believe things that I not only disagree with, but that I think are flat-out wrong.  Sometimes they believe things and support positions and people that I think are downright immoral.  And I know they think the same about some of my own beliefs and values.  Sometimes we even have it out with one another on Facebook.

But even through this disagreement - even through the big, painful disagreements that strike to the core of who we each are - they're still my family.  They're still my friends.  We still love each other.

That's right - WE LOVE EACH OTHER.

Core disagreements between people who love each other are painful.  But they're not as painful as not loving each other.  They're not as painful as broken relationships are painful.

So we stay in touch.  We stay in conversation.  We continue to chip away at each other, even though we know that we'll probably never convert each other to our positions.

But while the end result of that probably isn't conversion, we do end up seeing the humanity in each other.  We may never agree, but we have a chance to continue to love.

It's not perfect, but it's what we've got.

So no, I won't be boycotting Duck Dynasty.  I still won't be scheduling my life around the show, but I wasn't doing that anyway.  But I will still watch it now and then if nothing else is on and I feel like it.  I won't be buying any Duck Commander or Duck Dynasty merchandise, but I wasn't going to, anyway.

Instead, I'm just going to live into that tension.  I'm pretty good at it.  To some degree, it's my home.

But I'm not going to vilify anyone who disagrees with me.  It's simply not worth it.  For a gay Christian from Louisiana, it's just too slippery of a slope.