I Go and Seek With Longing: Marriage As Icon

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‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-2).

This mystery is a profound one. Where is the mystery in our discussions of the New Testament passages collectively known as the “household codes”? Our American culture is so preoccupied with winners and losers, consumerist “choice” and legal technicalities. Who comes first, who gets to decide, who goes on top, who gets the bigger piece, where are the loopholes? Most discussions of these passages of Scripture in the current Christian “blogosphere” reflect these concerns, and the tone of the arguments reflects the fierceness of a war for dominance. Even when someone attempts to drag the discussion back into the spiritual realm, another voice is quick to pipe up anxiously dragging it back to the drudgery of legalism and competition. So are you saying women should be pastors? So are you saying women shouldn’t work outside the home? What about this extreme situation? What about that proof text?

But this mystery is a profound one. And the Lutheran impulse has always been to back away from the scholastic hair-splitting and works righteousness legalistic list-making and recognize the mystery. We must accept the limits of our human ability to control and comprehend, and recover some sense of awe. Marriage is not a machine or system, an invention or blueprint for a building. It is an icon of Christ and the Church. As such, it can only point toward a greater mystery. Let us contemplate the implications.

In the beginning, we were the whole and undivided Image of God; meant to be one flesh, naked and unashamed. Since the Fall, we have been at war. Men and women, at war with one another. At war within our own sexes, at war within ourselves, with our desires, our needs; our inclination to do evil and our longing for good. We are not together like we once were. Too often we are apart, at odds, unable to understand one another across the divide of sex and sin. When we do come together, it is often with strife and suffering, conflict and defeat, violence and fear. This is not how it was meant to be.

As Augustine wrote and Luther affirmed, the shape of sin is a human folded in on him or herself. Incurvatus, thus, the sex divide deepens as men and women begin to see the other sex as the source of their problems and the obstacle to their desires, and retreat into a more rigid inward bend of selfishness. Men apart from women, women apart from men, humanity incomplete and isolated, the Imago Dei shattered; this is the beginning of hell. While individuals of course may vary, it is impossible not to notice that there is a distinct type of hell formed by men apart from women, and another type of hell formed by women apart from men.

In the hell of men, there is a panoply of perversions; anything you desire can and should be yours. Pornography on big screens all around the house, with the variations of degradation limited only by the depths of depravity and the laws of physics. Sex is everywhere and loneliness, not love, is its natural companion. Violence is the way the hierarchy is sorted out, might makes right. Women are objects, children are irrelevant. Part frat house, part gay bath house, part Stanford Prison Experiment, this is the hell that men make.

In the hell of women, the exterior looks far more peaceful, but within there is no trust. Betrayal is a constant, and here, too, loneliness is just beneath the surface. Fear, too, even to the point of paranoia, as groups of allies splinter and re-splinter and there is never a clear boundary between friend and foe. Doubt, second-guessing, indecision. Competition is a constant, but it is never acknowledged. The violence is psychological, a constant low-grade torment of the one targeted that always stays just subdued enough that she can be convinced she is imagining it, persisting until she is driven mad. Children are objects, dolls to be dressed or cast aside; men are at best useful idiots. Sniping, sneering, and snarking are the sounds to be heard. This is the hell women make.

Trapped in these hells, turned in on ourselves, men and women then dream up delusions about the power we might have over our condition and, importantly, over the opposite sex. All of this is futile, of course, but it occupies a lot of time and energy and always has. All the scheming to tame the shrew and smash the family; all the seducing and conquering; all the misogynist jokes and passive aggression; all the pick up artists and social constructionists; all attempts to put the pieces back together without surrendering the selfishness, or to destroy the template and escape the pain of failure.

Above all else, we always seek to dominate, and this goes for both women and men. In various eras of history, one may be more noticeable or successful than the other, and the methods vary with the times. But it is against this endless backdrop of mutual attempts at domination—Artemis cults and tyrannical husbands in the various forms both of these things take throughout history—that all biblical attempts to restore the icon of Christ and the Church must be read.

We are iconoclasts in the worst way, we rebellious men and women, hating and fearing one another, treating one another like enemies, seeing each other only as means to an end, scheming to overpower and reign over each other. It was not meant to be this way.

And so we are given, in the Gospel, a better idea. The image is restored to wholeness. And again and again—this is a profound mystery—this comes in the form of radical, total submission. Fiat mihi, the Virgin, Icon of the Church, speaks and the redemption of all humanity is set into motion, let it be done to me according to Thy word. Later on a dark night in the garden, the Savior Himself, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” For Christ “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” The terrifying trust of the fiat leads to Christ’s words, in the last moment, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit,” and with total surrender and submission unto death on a cross, true freedom finally comes to be.

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” In the Cantata (BWV 49) written around Matthew 22 and Ephesians 5, J.S. Bach has Christ the Bridegroom calling to the Church with words evoking the Song of Songs. “I go forth and seek with longing for you, my dove, my loveliest bride…I have loved you for ever and ever, and therefore I draw you to Me.” He goes forth from his Father and seeks us lost sinners with longing, and this, this is a profound mystery.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” How can anyone read this and not be stunned with the gravity of what is demanded? A total sacrifice, not my will, but thine, be done. A humbling unto death, even death on the cross. Here St. Paul addresses the male tendency to find violent solutions, the desire to conquer and dominate. No, no domination must occur, only a helpless lamb to the sacrifice, given over without reservation and with total trust and vulnerability.

…That he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” To be, as Luther said, a “little Christ,” in his vocation as husband and father. “That he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” No more objectifying, no more demeaning, no more using as a means to a selfish, sordid end. No fault-finding, no assessing on a rubric of one to ten. This is a profound mystery.

To be asked to submit to one who loves like this (curb the compulsive second-guessing), and to respect him (can the snark), seems a light burden in comparison. And indeed, I think it is entirely reasonable to argue that the intention is only for the wife to respect and obey insofar as the husband was living up to this exacting standard of godliness. To say this is not to open another can of legalistic worms and demands to define the exact parameters of loopholes unless one is seriously determined to escape the main point. That point being, of course the great mystery we have to consider here. The two sexes by definition separated and alienated, somehow resolved, somehow repaired, somehow one flesh again.

But what does this look like in real life?” It looks like an icon of Christ and the Church. If you can see the icon, if there is a window to heaven, a sign pointing to something greater, then the image is intact. “But who does the dishes? Who decides about moving to a new city? What if they want different cities?” Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.

For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” This is what God desires, the Imago Dei restored, one flesh, naked and unashamed. This, like the Eucharist, a foretaste of the feast to come. “My faith itself has drawn me here,” sings the soul in Bach’s wedding feast, “Thus My heart remains entwined with yours, thus I will to you be engaged and betrothed in eternity,” answers Christ the Bridegroom. This earthly longing, this union of one flesh, this is only the beginning. We are rehearsing our fiats, learning to surrender, unfolding from ourselves, dying and rising again and again.

My meal is prepared

and my wedding table ready,

only my bride is not yet present.

Remember the Little Ones

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Leaving aside the current hot topic of same sex unions in the state and how the church ought to view them, I want to talk about what we owe to children.

Children are owed a loving relationship with their natural mother and natural father who join together in self-sacrificial love to provide their family with security and nurturance.

Because we live in a world corrupted and broken by human frailty, weakness, and selfishness, this is not always possible. Parents are separated from children and from one another. This is a reality. But mark my words, it is also a tragedy.

When this happens, when one or both natural parents are taken away by death, mental illness, addiction, criminal activity, adultery, abdication of responsibility, selfishness, or abusive behavior, we owe it to children to first of all, recognize and validate that they have experienced a loss. We are not to expect them to see it however we as adults see it. We are not to brush it off as “kids are resilient.” We must show appropriate concern. And, importantly, we are to do everything in our power to prevent them being forced to deal with such a loss in the first place, even if it means sacrificing an adult desire or putting up with some adult disappointment.

Second of all, we owe it to them to give them something as similar to what they have lost as possible. We must mitigate their loss, not compound it. Support the single parent, strengthen ties with other family. The single parent must set aside personal satisfaction to care first and foremost for the needs of the child. Divorced couples must die to themselves and give the child as much of a family as they can muster. If none of that is available, the child should be adopted into a stable, intact family with a mother and father ready to take up the same self-sacrificing roles in the stead of the missing parents.

Mothers and fathers are important, both. Not because of some stereotyped gender roles, but because in their myriad ways of being women and being men, they constitute the human experience and the base we need to grow from to develop as human creatures.

There are families that are missing a parent already and they must be supported and cared for. But we must not encourage the purposeful creation of children who will be denied a stable and nurturing relationship with one or both natural parents by design.

To wit, we must not encourage men to conceive children with women who they never know or care for. Through casual sex it’s bad enough, but inducing them to do it for money or social prestige, through sperm “donation” is another step yet of coldness and disregard for the child’s natural need for care and relationship. And using a woman for her body and her natural ability to grow a life within herself, objectifying her in this way is nothing short of horrifying and disgusting. Another adult’s desire to parent does not give him or her either the right to use someone’s body in these ways nor the right to disregard the right of the child to his or her mother and/or father.

Sperm donation reinforces the worst in society’s view of fatherhood and in the behavior of men. And as a woman who has grown, botne, and held three newborns of my own, I cannot talk of “surrogacy” and the ripping of a child from the mother’s breast by selfish men, without needing to hold back an urge to literally vomit. You may have the money to buy this, but no right, no one has that right.

No one has a right to obtain a child with money. No one has a right to parent that supersedes the right of the child to have his or her own parents and a home. I don’t particularly care what adults do in privacy, but you do not have the right to commercially obtain offspring to complete your family dream.

Every human life comes into existence through the merging if male and female biology. Every child has a mother and a father and unless the obstacles are overwhelming, they should be given a chance to know, love, and be loved by both. Rearrange whatever else you like, this truth is inviolable. We ignore it only at our peril, and at the expense of the most vulnerable, who are unable to protest until it is far too late.

Leonard Bernstein, the ELCA, and the grace of God

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I have been painted as a hardline conservative, a heartless legalist, and ever so kindly invited by anons to leave the ELCA in the past week as I have continued to consider core questions of ethics and scriptural authority and tradition and that whole megillah as it were. To those who are more supportive and less critical of the process I’ve been going through, I’m sure the question also remains, why stay where you are, why not go find a more orthodox church, and I am sure a few of you could provide specific recommendations in that category. (And trust me, I appreciate all that your traditions bring to the greater Christian table.) That said, I am writing this as much for myself as for anyone else, to get my thoughts in order, because it’s clearly not that simple or I would already have moved on.

I had opportunity to offer confession and receive absolution today and I left changed and renewed, and once again thanking God for the gifts he has bestowed upon my pastor. One thing that I greatly appreciate about our relationship is the ways in which we challenge each other. We don’t agree on everything, and there is mutual recognition that a few of those things are not small issues, really. But there is also respect, a desire to be honest but tread lightly and not wound or disturb this precious and fragile trust we have assembled, and enough space in between that I can see and understand how he arrives at his conclusions, and vice versa. There is no enmity or even desire to debate. I wouldn’t say this is relativism, it’s more of a recognition that each of us is only doing the best we can to understand something that is, ultimately, beyond us. There is a margin of error inherent in all human attempts at understanding Divine will. One has to approach these questions with both confidence and humility, ultimately. My conversations with Pastor take place in the space created between those bookends, and I am always better for having gone there.

I believe God makes use of this space to show us something about trust and forgiveness that could not be shown where there were greater congruity. It helps me put down my pride and get to the bottom of things rather than relying solely on rule checklists and blueprints and rubrics. Rhetoric set aside, I must deal with things are they really are, in all the discomfort and ambiguity of that reality. In some way I have difficulty explaining, the nature of our discourse helps me feel the presence of the Spirit in the sacraments that we share. The absolution is from God, not this man and not from my own heart, and I feel it acutely because we have come to a place where it can be heard with clarity. Stepping into the middle space, we set aside ourselves a little and listen. We hear each other, and we also hear the Lord.

I shared the experience I had last week, where I was in a miserable, depressed frame of mind and didn’t want to go to Bible study because I knew that I would just be annoyed by the comments there that some of the people always make and end up biting my tongue more than usual and getting mad. But I made myself go and something about just doing that, just sitting there and yes being annoyed by these familiar faces who are, in fact my spiritual community and the Body of Christ, healed me. Just being with them even as they harped on “the Old Testament God” and circumcision and “kids these days” for the umpteenth time, something about that drew me out of myself and back into the awareness of the presence of God.

It is because of moments like that, yes, that I am where I am. I continue to discern that God has things for me to learn here, and things to teach. It is good to be drawn out and challenged and humbled and encouraged, even if it is often painful. It is good to balance the confidence of growing faith with that humility that acknowledges my own margin of error—and the margin of error of Martin Luther, NT Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pope John Paul II and any other thinker I admire and whose writings I mark up one side and down the other with affectionate lines and punctuation and exclamations with my purple glitter reading pen.

We were given the Living Word of God and these human hearts and minds and it is an unsolvable puzzle, except by Christ, who solves all riddles and resolves all our dissonant chord progressions, when we rest him.

Which brings me to music, which is where I go to simply worship and rest from the puzzling. If singing is praying twice then composing is, in a sense, prophesying twice, when such a gift has been bestowed. Whenever I am tempted to forget the mystery and hang my hat on legalism, it does me well to remember Leonard Bernstein, an excerpt from whose Mass I posted earlier. He was no saint, to put it mildly. His life was as complex as his astounding mind and hungry soul, and while he has been appropriated as an icon by this or that contingent, he defies their objectification, upon closer inspection. He was an agnostic Jew, officially, but no man who truly did not know at his core that there is an Eternal God could have tapped into beauty as he did. After his wife died, he experienced a miserable, guilt-wracked (he had cheated on her and publicly humiliated her with his flagrant behavior) decline into despair, out of control sinful and drug-addled behavior, and finally his own death.  The story of his last years is not often told as it again defies easy objectification—he came out as gay but then deeply regretted destroying the relationship with his wife which had been richer and deeper than labels and psychological theories and politics can ever respect, and rather than experiencing enhanced creativity and liberation in hedonism, he flew out of control and into a humiliating decline to despair.

He wrote a Roman Catholic Mass, though, which seems such a preposterously unlikely thing, and it is absolutely authentic and transcendent in its beauty and its spiritual depth. And when I was a very secular teenager with intense spiritual longings, it was one of the first seeds planted that grew into my Christian faith, years later. And I really believe that Bernstein—as much as Bach, that famously pious Lutheran—connected with the Spirit as he wrote. As well as any of us are able to ever do, he was made to see something, hear it, and be the conduit of that grace.

The biographical sketch I recently read said that Bernstein’s dying words were “what is this?” And I believe that at that moment he was given a chance to see that Spirit of Truth again and embrace it, as he embraced the music through which he had heard that Voice before, and be forgiven and given rest. It is the best any of us can hope for, each of us grasping and grappling with that inborn margin of error, stumbling and falling and rising again. How? Why? This is the mystery, the part Western Christianity often forgets to account for. But it is the mystery of faith that allows me my hope. I struggle to maintain it—it has been pointed out that I am a control freak and given to a characteristically Germanic desire to systemize and achieve predictability and those are astute and correct observations—and I find that holding this space within the ELCA, and especially in the mysterious security of my own parish community, keeps me grounded there.

This Postmodern Agora

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More thoughts on the “complementarian vs egalitarian” false dichotomy and a primer on secular left fundamentalist internicene battles, for post-evangelicals who have stumbled in here…

It is admittedly weird for me to even be involved in this conversation. I am a mainliner! I was raised in a religiously indifferent household and originally chose the church where I was baptized as an adult because it was so progressive on trendy social issues and had a female pastor. For most of my young adulthood I was deeply wrapped up in feminism and all the politics that go with that.

In fact, this whole debate, such that it is, is so foreign to me, I am sure I don’t get all the terms right. I am only vaguely familiar with many of the names mentioned. I know about Mark Driscoll because his obnoxious statements go viral pretty much weekly. I vaguely know a little bit about John Piper. I read Rachel Held Evans. Other than that, I am not deeply involved in the evangelical and post-evangelical world. I know far more about Catholic internicene skirmishes than any of this stuff.

So in all honesty, count me out of the comp vs egal team-picking. I choose neither. I am frustrated by the cultural baggage both sides bring to the table which obfuscates what I would really like to talk about: what is the meaning of these words in Scripture, and what would it look like to consider them seriously even though–maybe because–they upset my assumptions and do not seem to mesh with my political attachments?

As I said above, I came to read Ephesians 5 (et al) after a life of being deeply involved in feminism. Now those whose world includes the Pipers and Held Evanses may not be aware of the vastness of the far left, and all the weird and various things that can be found out there. Just as I don’t know much about John Piper, they might be baffled by the name “Amanda Marcotte.” These worlds seldom collide (except to debate abortion, I guess). But I came to the Word through years of “gender essentialists versus social constructionists” and “sex positivism” and long, exhausting debates about whether lesbians should tolerate bisexuals. And that is my cultural context. And it is the context from which many university-educated, secular-leaning women now come as well. It is a world of endless choice–everything from your gender and personal pronouns on out is customizable with limitless options–but little grace. You’d better “check your privilege” and get things right the first time, as your mistakes will be hoarded and shoved back down your throat when you least expect them. In its own way, it is more than a bit fundamentalist.

I was never a very good fit with this lot, but once I was in it was hard to think of myself ever leaving. Oddly enough the convictions I took on within feminism, modifying it for my moral comfort, marked me as “radical” so long as I identified first and foremost with the sisterhood, but “conservative” if I identified first and foremost with faith. Anti-pornography, anti-prostitution, and anti-sexualization-of-everything–these are actually outside the mainstream of feminism these days. The movement has been vastly handed over to those calling themselves “sex positives” and who do things like organize “slut walks.” (I hate that word, for the record, but that’s what they call it.) However the radicals were also profoundly anti-marriage, anti-family, and anti-me-getting-laid, ever, unless it was I suppose with one of them. So that was also a bust.

So obviously, I spent years completely rolling my eyes at any traditional marriage teachings that came up in the Bible. I even got in on the “Paul was terrible” bandwagon popular with some liberal Christians, for a while. I deconstructed and shrugged things off. Most of all, I avoided actually reading the passages in question, as though the words would burn my eyes out.

Then I read them, basically NT Wright forced me to read them, and he made it sound rather more reasonable than any of the noise generated by the Driscolls of the world. Of course Wright famously does not believe women are to be excluded from leadership, but he also does not shrug and snark this stuff off, and that made me think. And then I read the Veith and Moerbe book, and I started thinking about this from a different angle entirely. And I had a “eureka” moment.

What is missing from both the Driscolly complementarians and the feminists is actually following all the steps.

Driscoll macho men want to be served and want to be the king of their domain, but they cannot conceive of self-sacrifice, much less the kind of humility Christ shows the church with his “obedience unto death–even death on a cross.” They slide effortlessly from their facile reading of the texts into a profoundly pagan set of beliefs about who is meant to burp babies and who is meant to wear pants. It is ridiculous, a cloak for male ego.

Feminists want women to always be treated like we are right, even when we are wrong. Applying feminism to my marriage nearly killed it–and this is one tough marriage, let me tell you–at least three or four times. It is a cloak for female arrogance like cultural complementarianism can be a cloak for male arrogance. They want the husband to give up and give up and give up but they, the women, must never surrender, never give ground, never be placed in an “inferior” feminine position. That would be subjugation.

Both choose to ignore either the context of society, where men hold so many advantages, or biology, where women have real vulnerabilities. Both choose to ignore half of the context in the scripture. I maintain that this is because the entirety of the message is threatening to both worldviews.

Everyone SAYS they value compromise and mutuality, but the reality is, in our consumeristic, individualist American culture, the words “sacrifice,”
“submission,” and “surrender” are all dirtier than anything you’ll hear in a frat house. From the far right to the far left, everyone is loathe to utter these words much less live them out. But there is no compromise without someone sacrificing, there is no end to the fight without someone surrendering, there is no humility without someone submitting. Paul was actually radical because he took the traditional oikos hierarchy and inserted mutuality. Yes, she must submit, but he must sacrifice literally everything to earn that trust–eager to demand blind fealty now? Yes he must give you everything, but you must also give him everything. Eager to take ungraciously now? We don’t live in an oikos nowadays but why should we not learn something from this that can apply to our own situation?

The modern way of life, the progressive mode of thought, is avoidance of pain. The idea is that no one should be forced to live through anything suboptimal, to accept anything less than the ideal. This is a recipe for misery–and I know it from experience. The opposite of self-sacrifice is not self-preservation, but endless isolation. It is a kind of hell. The opposite of surrender is not victory but war. Without submission there can be no birth and no rebirth. Eventually we will all have the illusion of control yanked from our grasp. How hard but how comforting are the words, “the first shall be the last.”

But it gets more poignant yet, for me. For I came to realize, in hearing feminist objections to my even reading and taking seriously Ephesians 5 (et al), that there is yet another cart of cultural baggage to unpack. Among my progressive, largely secular cohort:

-People are largely comfortable with the idea of a woman being asked to offer her body as a living sacrifice so that a man, not her husband, can have a biological child to call his own with his male partner. This is seen as noble and even, in some sense, a duty, for the sake of fairness and equity.

-People advocate with a straight face for the legalization and professionalization of “sex work” from street prostitution to pornography, asking women to give their bodies as a living sacrifice to the lust of strangers.

-People are all for women giving up their bodies and possibly their health and future fertility to donate oocytes for implantation in other women, or even just for research purposes. This also seen as noble and dutiful.

-Many (including Marcotte and Hannah Rosin) argue vociferously in favor of “hook up culture” as a duty for young college and professional women, stating that women should get over their expectation of being loved and treasured, abandon marriage because it ties them down, and just take advantage of the open sexual market and give up their lives, their capacity to love and be loved, their desire for fidelity and commitment, and their fertility as a sacrifice to economics and professional achievement.

-People, in the name of attachment parenting, are comfortable telling women that it is in a sense sinful to use pain relief in childbirth or to opt to use products rather than our own bodies to feed our children. We are expected to give more attention to motherhood than Katie Luther and Anna Magdalena Bach did, than Rachel and Leah did, to give up our bodies and lives and minds and even the ability to close the door to use the restroom or check one’s email while in a public place, to be a dutiful progressive mother.

But the one thing that makes them squirm, oddly enough, is a wife giving herself up in surrender and trust to a husband who simultaneously takes on the role of her protector and provider, who is commanded to love her and forgive her, also giving himself up, even to the point of death on a cross, so to speak. For the woman to get sacrifice back from the man, for the woman to be supported and celebrated in her receiving of grace and forgiveness and protection, is just as radical in today’s Berkeley and Portland as it was in Paul’s Greece.

The progressives I come from proclaim their concern is for women’s freedom, that they object to traditional marriage because it “subjugates” and asks too much from women. But they are comfortable asking for women to submit, surrender, and sacrifice our very bodies so long as we are not loved, treasured, and protected by one man who also sacrifices for us. Getting money out of the deal is ok, but giving of yourself to a man who loves you, respecting him and trusting in him, that’s highly suspect.

That has given me something incredibly huge to think about.

Side C

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Recently I got an anonymous question on Tumblr asking me to clarify my stance on same sex marriage in the church. I figure that means I must be doing something right as I have been trying, recently, to strike an irenic tone ala Andrew Marin, where I antagonize neither those for nor those against. My greatest wish is for peace. I feel that both hardline sides have used this issue as a wedge and I don’t want to be part of that anymore. And the truth is, I am no longer sure what I think about this issue. Things have gotten complicated for me as I have delved more deeply into these questions. I started out unquestioningly an advocate of same sex marriage in the church–I put that priority before any kind of orthodoxy when I was new and naive in the faith. It’s not so simple for me now. So here’s how I answered Anon–I thought I’d post it here for comment and so I can expand upon these thoughts at a later date.

Like many of those I talk with, I do myself waver a lot on this issue, as I feel like it is incredibly complicated and difficult. I know some people feel it’s really clear cut one way or the other, but I am not one of those. I probably change my mind subtly on this subject a couple times every day.

I came to this subject from having been completely secular and very left-leaning for my entire young adult life. I did, up until very recently, identify myself with the “B” (bisexual) segment of “LGBT.” I no longer do so as I came to feel very uncomfortable and frankly wrong about it for several reasons, primary of which was that it seemed to indicate a door open where none was such, and came to symbolize to me an incomplete yielding to the “one flesh” intention of marriage, a lack of faithfulness in spirit even if there was faithfulness in body. It added an unnecessary and, when I got down to it, unwanted asterisk to the “death do us part” vow. It was a foot out the door, an eye watching the clock, a way to be present in the room by not in spirit, a way to tend into that basic Augustinian definition of sin, “homo incurvatus in se,” curving in on myself and becoming idolatrous thus, and in fact the search for “true self” and identity is a kind of idolatry too, and this was part of that. So I decided it was time to just close that door–cut off the offending hand. I also came to the conclusion that personally, speaking for myself, were I for some reason (God forbid) to be single again, my private understanding of my faith would not allow me to feel ok with having a same sex relationship. These are personal judgments, statements about the state of my soul and my way of tending to be drawn into sin, others have other ways of sinning and other concerns, so don’t take *this* as my final stance–it’s just the background. There are also cultural associations with that “B” that I find really upsetting and do not want to be associated with, personally.

Also, I chose my church based on its progressive stances on social issues (fortunately it has turned out to be a place where I have experienced great growth in faith despite my having chosen it for frankly all the wrong reasons). I never felt like this was even a question, for a long time. So that I am now truly considering the question with a mind open to the traditional perspective is frankly a surprise, even a shock to me, and probably everyone who has known me more than a year.

All this lead up to tell you: I can really only tell you where I am today in this struggle.

So for today:

1. I would say that my biggest concern in considering this issue is balancing a pastoral sensitivity towards the people who have a personal stake in it with a faithfulness to the Word of God and the traditions of the church. This sometimes sets up impossible conundrums, so I respect people who come to seemingly irreconcilable conclusions as I recognize they are trying to balance those same concerns. This is a painful and messy process, I hold, for EVERYONE. Not just the gay folks, not just the traditionalists who think it is a terrible sin. Everyone. I have the *greatest* respect for people like Andrew Marin who attempt to make peace and hold a space of mutual respect between the factions.

2. I am personally undertaking a long and deep study of marriage and sexuality in the church, considering many different faithful perspectives with great seriousness. As I come to understand the theology of marriage better and more deeply in faith, at this point–today–I find it a lot harder to justify any change to it that glosses over the aspect of gender difference. That doesn’t mean impossible, or that I am condemning anyone, but today–TODAY–I am finding that more difficult than I used to, a great deal more difficult.

My study doesn’t just encompass the issue of same sex marriage, though, it also is having a major affect on my attitude towards my own marriage and my own life. This isn’t me sitting up on high and telling others how to behave, I have been seriously convicted even in just the last six months to make some major changes in how *I* live, especially how I view faithfulness and these other basic principles. It’s mostly about seeing where I have sinned and where I can grow, while also learning about the greater concerns of the church. I am studying birth control and heterosexual relationships and these myriad aspects of what it means to live out a faithful Christian life in your sexuality and your marriage, just as much as anything about same sex marriage.

So that is a major work in process. Expect more growth and change, there.

For today, bottom line, I am just struggling to reconcile various affiliations–I am a loyal member of a reconciling/affirming Lutheran church with no plans to change that and a desire to be a loving neighbor to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters there–and growing concerns about biblical faithfulness, and a deepening and complicating understanding of what marriage means in the church. It will no doubt continue to be a struggle.

Scary Words

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I’ve been reading a book about the Lutheran theology of vocation as it applies to family roles, “Family Vocation,” by Gene Veith Jr. and Mary Moerbe. As you can see from my vocation tag on Tumblr, it has given me a lot to think about. Of course the authors are traditionalists and so the ideas of headship and submission are considered. I had never been very comfortable with the Pauline passages in question and was surprised to find their exegesis palatable at all. I have found most contemporary expositions of what gets called the “complementarian” perspective to be cringe-worthy and loaded with a lot of nasty cultural baggage. On the other hand, I have not been entirely comfortable with the “egalitarian” understanding either. I didn’t find either of this false dichotomy represented what happens in my own marriage when things are working as they ought. And increasingly, I was dissatisfied with either a reading of Paul that loaded his words with assumptions about cooking and cleaning and man caves, an overlay of disgusting pagan sexism and Men are from Mars psychobabble. By the same token, I can’t stand when people use dismissive, even abusive, language towards Paul regarding these words of scripture. This book has helped me see it all in another way.

Presented here with a moderate degree of anxiety about how this will be perceived, and a moderate degree of uncertainty about how it makes me feel, the Veith and Moerbe exegesis of the notorious Pauline admonishment to submit.:

…Ephesians 5 does not describe slavery, but the relationship between Christ and the church—which entails Christ liberating his people from slavery and giving them freedom—as the pattern for the relationship between husband and wife…

Submission is, in fact, a discipline that all Christians are called to….Paul…says that all Christians should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21)

…Jesus submitted himself to his heavenly Father in fulfilling his own calling to be Savior of the world. In the garden, his own will was in tension with the will of the Father, but in this struggle, he manifests the very essence of submission…
Submission is christological. And, in its various guises, it is an intrinsic part of every vocation…The employee may not want to go into work, but he does. The new mother may desire to sleep late, but she gets up to attend to the inarticulate desires of her baby…

These are spiritual disciplines, exercised not in a monastery, with its vows of obedience, but in the everyday world.

(And in interpreting the order of the verses in Ephesians 5, they comment, “The purpose [of her submission] is to receive his love.”)

dot dot dot dot dot…that bit got my attention because I have heard it elsewhere recently…

My bottom line feeling? This all makes sense if you take it up in your mind at the exact same moment you take up the image of complete self-sacrifice on the husband’s end. Then you realize they are doing the same thing just one going forwards and the other matching it backwards. Outside that context, it’s going to turn into something preposterous indeed. Sadly I have seen that context distorted quite often, thus my surprise at finding these sections anything less then offensive. You could say this pair just makes very effective “excuses” for sexist, terrible passages in the Epistles. Or, on the other hand, you could say they are clearing away some destructive cultural baggage that has grown up around passages in the Epistles that describe a complicated dance of mutual sacrifice and surrender between the sexes which is an instrument through which we both experience grace and come to better understand the kingdom of heaven.

I realize it is fairly standard stuff albeit well-framed and phrased. They establish very clearly that submission is not to be seen as a signifier of inferiority (as the example of Christ proves) nor only a female thing (as that example, and the call for all Christians to submit to one another) nor something especially sexual in nature, nor do they conclude it has implications for women’s employment—they explicitly defend working outside the home, later. What we are left with feels to me like a mystery, a call towards something profound which I can’t quite explain. I am not at all of a mind to pick up the standard “submissive wife” stance with all its weird cultural baggage that one associates with the likes of casserole-making reality TV stars or, perish the thought, Mark Driscoll. The popular evangelical understanding of these verses still to a great extent seems crude and makes me cringe. For years, that’s where I let the internal debate on this subject stop. With or without a snarl at Paul.

However…however…

There is a certain synchronicity here that I cannot ignore. Because not a month ago, I was in a very profound and healing conversation with a very modern, woman-colleague-respecting, gay-affirming and Jon Stewart-watching Lutheran pastor (and brilliant homilist and exegetist) where oddly enough, we covered some of this very same ground.

How did we get there, on that day, to understanding the successful practice of my vocation as having been to receive love and bring forth beautiful new souls, without a single one of my hypersensitive sexism-detecting whiskers twitching? On the contrary, I can’t even describe the feeling of recognition and gratitude. Yes, yes! This is what I have done, what I have felt so strongly and deeply called forward to do at great cost, at such great cost. And it was not just not terrible of me, not a failure, but something right and true, like I always felt it must be. And someone sees it. And—I suddenly realized—God sees it too, and recognizes it for what it is. God is the only reason I could even do it.

Perhaps we came in from the other side of the map, perhaps it was the specific life and rhetorical context leading up to it that made things make sense and feel how they felt. But we were there, aware of Paul’s words somewhere in the background, and what I felt was freedom of a type that has no match, and a calling to great responsibility in recognition of having received a great gift in my life. What finally healed a wound of great depth was the realization that all the broken pieces of myself, all the confusion and inadequacy and pain and not fitting into anything quite right, all of it had already been swept up and given away as a gift to another. Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths—I have not, but, I have as Yeats says, my dreams, in all their fevered striving and interrupted abrupt endings, and I have spread them under the feet of my mate. All I have to do is let go and trust—trust that because I have been chosen, receiving love is my lot, and what I have given will be enough. It’s not mine anymore, I can be free. I have surrendered and been saved.

The common factor, of course, is that Word of God which flickers and lands where it needs to land. And of course not a word of this makes sense as anything but a weird fantasy without Christ behind it all. Christ is the guarantor who has already paid our ransom and in him, it all comes to rest.

Here and now, we walk through these steps, perhaps backwards and in high heels that sometimes pinch or dress shoes that slide too easily on polished floors. Through a glass, darkly. Forget the denim jumpers and lists of things women can and cannot do—shoddy misunderstandings of a profound truth. But don’t forget that moment you held the two in your mind at the same time, sacrifice and surrender, and you heard and understood Paul telling you that the husband’s body is not his own any more than the wife’s is hers, the Imago Dei wrested up out of the red clay.

Let us sing of the days that are gone, Maggie

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A discussion with an irritable college student on Tumblr the other day got me to thinking about the much-maligned and much-glorified thing called young love.

He was expressing frustration with couples who are together what he thought was too brief a time, a few months, and stated that they were “in love.” A debate then broke out, as it will on Tumblr whether the statement is entirely serious or not, about how long was long enough to “really know you love someone” and of course, well, what IS love? Many are skeptical about the seriousness or permanence of those early declarations. It’s hard not to become cynical in our world of serial monogamy, but I would like to invite you to resist anyways. It’s worth your while to keep believing in love, even young love. That initial ardor is not meant to sustain a life together, but to provoke you to take those first crazy steps towards permanently joining your life to another and becoming one flesh. What counts the most is the promises you make and the fidelity with which you then keep those promises.

Many of us in our 20s to 40s today come from a family where Grandma and Grandpa got married between 1945 and 1948 or so, often within months of meeting, and are still together or buried each other. They were in their teens and early 20s and—sorry to further disillusion you—got married because after years away from dating prospects due to the war they were lonely and horny and in those days while yes, premarital sex existed, social disapproval and lack of birth control reliability made it unacceptable as a long-term way of life. Anyhow, they wanted more than that–as most of us do in any era–they wanted a home, a life together, a family. It is not good for man to be alone.

Any love that bloomed in the 9 months between armistice and the first wave of baby boom was likely love at first sight in all its giddiness; adolescent, infatuation, new and lusty and not too deep. These were veterans and their teenage brides, army nurses and servicemen who met and bonded under duress, people who uniformly would be told today they should wait a few years, go to college, and “find themselves.” But they pledged their troth and, for better or for worse, most of them stuck it out. And many of us of marrying age today have this case history in our own family tree to reflect upon when we think about what can become of teenage love and hasty promises made in heady times.

Because it’s what happened next that counts for something. It’s by the fruit that grows forth that we can know what became of that youthful passion. The vows are necessarily made in naïveté but one is given ample opportunity to uphold them—and let the love grow deeper—or betray them and let it wither. Every year is a different love. It grows from seeds planted when we are young and stupid and reckless, but also in a phase where we are fearless, open, unscarred, flexible, and eager to give and to be received, to receive the love of another, to go forth together into new places. This is not accidental.

My husband and I met a month or two after turning 18, and 6 months later announced we were getting engaged. You can imagine the reactions of everyone around us, in 1999. Vowing to be faithful to one love for life at that age in our time is more countercultural than a thousand lip piercings and tribal tattoos, more radical than moving to Brooklyn or joining the circus or a commune or a cult, more shocking and subject to condemnation than polygamy or bisexuality or infidelity or driving a gas guzzling Hummer. I am sure many people rolled their eyes at how stupid and superficial we must be to think we could know each other well enough to commit for life after only 6 months. Yet we had both known in the first week of acquaintance that we were made for each other, and never really doubted that. It was a challenge to wait a bare minimum period of social acceptability before declaring our certainty to the world. And my grandfather–who had returned from witnessing atrocities on the Pacific front to marry my then-19-year-old grandmother–believed in us, even if no one else did. He sized us up, with our trousseau of last-minute hand-me-downs and puppydog gazes and earnest passionate hope, and saw fertile ground that could sustain something real. And when he, the patriarch, spoke, everyone else shut up.

There were many opportunities after that day for us to part ways. At many of those moments, one or another powerful peer or family influence would have gladly supported one of us to leave, or at least understood. “Sometimes things just don’t work out” is the common wisdom of our day, like “things” have their own will and motives. It was hard to navigate the temptations and confusion of my 20s while sustaining a relationship that got so little social support and was greeted by many with skepticism and hostility. I felt like I had to constantly apologize, overcompensate with aggressive feminist rhetoric or stupid “alternative and edgy” experimental identity labels, to demonstrate I wasn’t “just a mindless conservative surrendered wife” and thus, I suppose, a “loser.” I was encouraged by more cosmopolitan female friends to just cut him loose and “go explore.” He was encouraged even by his own father to “go explore.” But we never did. Even after all the stupid mistakes, near misses, and dark hours, we never did. In just three years, we will have been together half the years we have been alive.

There is something amazing about growing up with your spouse, going safely through the awkward hormonal rush of late adolescence together, the confusion and anomie and economic desperation of your 20s, the fads and phases, experimental music, weird piercings, activist ramblings, spiritual seeking, changed college majors. No matter how weird and scary things got, I knew I could come home and be known and loved and accepted. Even before we began having children, our stories were collected in one volume. To be known so thoroughly is to be at once completely vulnerable and utterly secure. To go together instead of alone is an incredible comfort that I honestly cannot imagine living without. To know someone else so deeply and still never tire of talking with him is to never really be alone. To have been on such an adventure together so long that you begin to forget there was ever a before you

And for all of that, I am only now starting to really understand sacrifice and surrender and all these difficult things that in particular Luther emphasized as part of the vocation of marriage. We pulled through some awful trials out of sheer love and stubbornness, but if I had known these ideas then (we were completely secular at first, from secular families) would it have been easier? Or at least less terrifying? What if instead of rolling our eyes at puppy love, we started talking about the mechanics of marriage as a vocation, gave the young lovers something to work with when the time came to start troubleshooting? What if we gave them guidance and mentoring instead of predictions of divorce and doom and admonitions to love each other less, to see each other as objects and “shop around” for a better deal?

All of this is to say, what can it hurt to believe in young love and support the young lovers who earnestly declare their love for each other to you? If they split up, you will feel with all the more empathy their wounds. If they hit a rough patch, you can help see them through it and bolster them by having faith. And if they make it just fine after all, you can be the one telling all the cynics “I told you so.” Just like Grandpa.

Ordination: It’s Not About You.

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The photo of the woman minister wearing a hot pink Planned Parenthood themed clerical stole at a secular political fundraising party got me thinking again about something that has bothered me for a while. And this is going to be pretty blunt so let me say up front that I can speak with such boldness about this sin of pride because I have myself been guilty of it. In fact, when I was younger and encouraged to seriously consider going to seminary, I was a prime example of what I am about to rant about. I’m glad I didn’t go because I would have (a) been bad at it, probably terrible at it and (b) might have gotten ingrained in the wrong frame of mind and ended up too scared and overwhelmed and busy to snap out of it.

Becoming a pastor should be about becoming a shepherd, a servant leader. We all know this and give the idea lip service. It’s easy to be tempted by all kinds of grandiose ideas, of course, and this is a problem for anyone called to leadership. Arrogance, pride, greed, etc. And there are a lot of people who are good at textual study, counseling, oratory, and ancient languages who go to seminary but really should not. Some of them are shaped by it in a positive way and turn out ok after all, others turn out being living pastoral trainwrecks, a fair number come out somewhere in between. There’s a practical side about seminary—getting good undergrad grades, sending applications in to impress, writing papers, etc—that is very onerous and can make it easy to lose sight of the real reason anyone should take this burden on in the first place. But there’s still no excuse to forget the reason in the long term. The only reason anyone should go into pastoral ministry is because they are called by God and are responding with an earnest desire to “feed my sheep.”

Unfortunately as I survey my denomination and its fellow liberal Protestant siblings, I see a lot of people going to seminary, and serving as pastors, for exactly the wrong reasons. Now as I said before, there are a lot of wrong reasons. And those reasons apply just as much to every denomination—from Orthodox and Catholic to Pentecostal and whatever. But I am limiting this to a specific problem I see in liberal Protestantism, that is becoming endemic. To wit:

-Ordination as a form of activism (the trainwreck woman pastor from my life was this to a t, she also encouraged every GLBT person in church to apply to Luther Seminary, no matter how unfit they were for ministry, even if they had only been a Christian mere weeks.)

-Ordination as a way to be a social worker with a mandate from God (PP stole lady; the likes of Meghan Rohrer)

-Ordained ministry as a platform to “baptize” your pet political and social causes or to sneak in non-Christian theological ideas though the back door (everyone who has ever worked at “herchurch”)

-Ordination as a way to say “now you HAVE to accept me, haha!”

-Ordination to be a hero (look at me I am so awesome, I am a trailblazer and warrior for equality! )

-Ordination as part of being Tumblr-unique (genderqueer bdsm lifestyle sub panentheist circus performer UCC minister! This is an actual person I know!)

-Ordination as a form of role playing or prop for unstable identity. (People who play dress-up with clerical garb in inappropriate venues…)

I think women can be every bit as good at ordained ministry as men. (Though there are enough men who keep knocking into that bar and bumping it down, let’s not get too excited—people are people.) And hopefully this will decrease the longer women are ordained. But I see WAY too many young women going into ministry as some kind of feminist statement, going on and on about how they are going to be a laundry list of non-Christian descriptors…minister. IE, “a queer kink-friendly tattooed and pierced trans ally eco-conscious pro-choice feminist Lutheran pastor!” or whatever. And this is just so inappropriate. I know part of it comes from insecurity—will the religious authorities really let me in even though I am all radikewl? I’d better play up how radikewl I am so my rad friends don’t dump me for being a Jesus Freak! But still, I would hope by the time someone is applying to seminary, let alone serving pastoral office, they would have the maturity to, um, get over it already.

It’s not JUST women who do this, either. I care more about women doing it because I feel guilt by association, I’ll be upfront about that.

I would have been like that if I had applied to seminary at 26, so I get where it comes from…I still think it is very, very bad news though. And needs to be screened out. There’s such an arrogance of coming at the church with a list of rigid demands and secular identity idols and demanding it to open up a spot exactly your shape and set your golden calves on the altar. There has to be some self-emptying, yes, even from ~oppressed groups~ like women and gays. There has to be some yielding and dying to self. There has to be a surrender of all those idols, give them up, leave them behind. You should not be able to bring them inside the temple gates.

As near as I can tell, though, rather than breaking it down, our seminaries to some extent encourage this, along with postmodernist crap and identitarianist segregation. People come back from seminary to visit and give 20 minute long sermons that no shit actually reference Derrida and some kind of neopagan conception of nature and Butlerean “gender role performance.” The seminary has links to the academy, as it must, but it must also be something more than just a different form of a cultural studies ph.d.

This is how we end up with a middle aged minister who thinks, her jaw set hard with a confrontational glare, that she has every right to abuse the symbol of Christ’s fetters and her duty to spread the Word of God, to promote a billion dollar organization of any kind. Much less one that makes its bread and butter ending human lives (however right or wrong you find that action, that is the action indeed) and promoting flashy propaganda for teenagers promoting sexual experimentation (again whether you think it’s a good thing or not, that’s what their teen outreach does, avowedly.)

We excused the egotism of the oppressed because they were oppressed, and this is a large part of how we got here. But if we are all equal in Christ, we must all be equally humbled before Him. The answer is not to prop the oppressed up on a platform so they can get a turn being arrogant, idolatrous, and blasphemous. The answer is for us all to set to work in our vocations with equal humility and dedication.

Take offense to this if you will, I suppose, but rest assured, there is effectively no discipline in the ELCA anymore, nor any of its cousins so near as I can tell, so my words will remain just what they are—the opinion of a relatively powerless layperson, worth about what they cost you to read.

But where do we go from here?

Bisexuality, Monogamy, Nuance, Side A, and Side B

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A while ago I finally stopped trying to force my moderate self into the pigeonhole of straight up lefty thought on a lot of things, and just take each issue as it comes with a more even keel and open mind. Less reactivity, no more going with the crowd on witch hunts to show I am legit, more listening, but also more openness about what *I* really think on things I have already given a lot of thought to, even when that doesn’t match up neatly with left or right. I’m happy with how this is going. I like being this way much better than being a nervous and apologetic “bad feminist” or whatever.

Among other things, I’m happy about the fact that not only do I now have productive and cordial discussions with both “side a” and “side b” Christians, I have come to understand what a wide range of opinions exist within each of those categories themselves. For those who don’t come from a background of talking this to death, “side a” refers to Christians who believe that gay marriage in the church is a good idea, and “side b” refers to Christians who believe that gay people are called to traditional chastity which means no same sex relations.

Nota bene to clueless seculars and straights: there are gays on both sides and it does not behoove one to assume, I have learned. I’m also pretty much not interested in talking to people, anymore, who have a mean and dismissive attitude about this. There was a day not long ago when I was one of the mockers, hahaha pathetic repressed bla bla bla, but nope, not anymore. The world became so much more interesting when I pulled my head out of you know where and started listening to people earnestly instead of just waiting to put a spin on what they said. I’m dead serious about all kinds of things that affect me as a person, other people are too, and I should take them as such, not as caricatures or foolish people incapable of knowing their own hearts or minds, which I feel is how lefties characterize gay people who have serious questions about whether same sex activity is sinful or not.

For those who think, as I used to, that it was either you are “pro-gay” or “homophobic” it is probably confusing to hear that there’s a range of nuance within both side a and side b. But I am finding there is. And this is just from talking to people and reading blogs and stuff…I still have barely touched the towering stack of “gay debate” books hiding on the bottom of my bookcase by the “birth control and abortion debate” books, where I hope my guests of honor won’t notice them.

This is going to get long so I will put a “read more” here, and sincere apologies to mobile readers.

Some of the nuance was refreshing to discover, but some of it is concerning to me. I had assumed that the Dan Savage type “monogamish” BS was a phenomenon fully outside the church, but it’s not. There are proponents of it within, as well, on the far end of “side A,” including a couple of relatively well-known Episcopal theologians. These people believe (cynically, imho) that true fidelity is either impossible or an unworthy goal, and that in particular, male weakness in this area must be accomodated for the church to be truly “inclusive.” Despite defining himself as a “faithful Catholic,” Andrew Sullivan holds this position.

This is very disturbing to me. I can only be in favor of a position where fidelity and life-long monogamy lose no further ground. I must energetically oppose any attempts to “loosen” or “open” the mores around monogamy and fidelity. The whole idea of Christian marriage is a model of singular life-long fidelity. I am curious just how prevalent this “monogamish” POV is among religious gay men. Obviously there are no reliable statistics, but if anyone wants to weigh in anecdotally, be my guest.

When the ELCA changed the requirements for pastors, they allowed same sex relationships that are “monogamous” and “accountable” but they did not require it to be under the form of a marriage. This opens up for me the question of whether heterosexual cohabitation is now de facto seen as “close enough” too, and whether they have truly and completely given up the ghost when it comes to witnessing for lifelong fidelity, divorce only in dire circumstances, and remarriage a rare thing. It seems that is the case, and depresses me further. It is as though they are setting fire to the house of Christian marriage so the gays will stop inquiring after it, rather than just opening the door. It also brings to mind troubling comments that some far left radicals, even within the church, have made about the end goal being to bring down the “patriarchal institution of marriage and family.”

Some people on the far right of “side A” feel obliged to allow gay marriage only because they believe homosexuality is biologically determined and that gay people have “no choice” and it would be cruel, thus, to exclude them from lifelong partnerships. I think this is a rhetorically weak stance (to the point of nearly breaking just under the weight of being described in writing) but it may also be one of the most common shades of “side A” out there, especially among church leadership. Yet often I see people who hold this stance or something close to it also want to be “inclusive” of bisexuality. This makes no sense to me. Of all the shades, bisexuals have the most amount of “choice” in who they partner with, no matter how you see sexuality as being determined. Bisexuals can literally choose to be in a straight relationship and lose nothing. Asking them to choose this is a low-cost request. They can even continue working as allies with the rest of the sexuality continuum. If your argument in favor of expanding marriage in the church is “they can’t help it” then bisexuals either have to be told to “just help it already, after all you can!” or you have to admit that your stance is both scientifically and socially unsteady and dubious.

All this is floating around in my mind because I see the whole thing taking a slant, in the ELCA and ECUSA and other liberal Protestant mainstays, that is unsettling and frankly not what I had expected when I was a young hothead pushing aggressively for gay marriage in the church. I am seeing not simply a mimeograph of the heterosexual marriage standards of yore with “bride and groom” crossed out and replaced, but a total bulldozering of the institution of Christian marriage in these churches. I feel like, for those of us who started out as affirming but constitutionally and theologically of a conservative bent, the radicals got away from us and have won this whole thing now. It’s not ours anymore, what we wanted to preserve but possibly modify is being completely laid to waste. It weighs on my mind on a daily basis. What have we done, and what shall we do about it now?

Institutionally and theologically, the questions all lay wide open and very much undetermined for me. Thus the stacks of books and late night discussions. But personally, I have a great deal of clarity now. I’m reluctant to describe it out in the open, but others who are deeply considering these issues or who are just interested in conversation are welcome to message me about it. You can probably guess by the fact I won’t publish it on Tumblr that my personal stance for my own life is of a fairly conservative bent—if I were to write a serious-sounding theological defense of “monogamish” it would win nothing but praise and approving reblogs, but the conclusion I have reached is more likely to get me called some very colorful names and invite speculation of a nature I prefer to avoid.

I did have a quarter life crisis about this stuff on a personal level, some six years or so back. The ELCA pastor I had at the time turned out to be a bad egg. I mean, not just IMHO—she got sacked and put on administrative leave for some of the stuff that went down with not just me but other people she advised and traumatized. But the thing that gives me a creeping sense of dread is how resonant her bad advice—advice so wicked it was called by my current absolutely “gay affirming” pastor “actually demonic”—was with the overall ethos of the church at the time of the 09 convention, at the time we were making that change from “pastors must be married” to “living together is close enough for now.” And how many people she was able to call upon within the church to encourage me—even pressure me—to go down a path of great selfishness and hedonism that I fortunately was too shy to actually approach. I would have felt no resistance, no one would have called me back, no one would have admonished me. This troubles me every day. How can we grow as Christians without accountability? How do we re-establish standards and accountability now that the radicals have won? What have we done, what have we let happen, and where do we go from here?

These are very, very serious questions that keep me awake as I sweat it out week after week in the pews of the mainline these days. I want to hear your thoughts on it.

Review of “When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough” by Lillian Daniel

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It was hard to decide how to rate this book—if Amazon let me do half stars I would have assigned three and a half. Like a lot of people, I wanted to read this book because of the essay that makes up the first chapter, wherein the author hilariously mocks the people who are always snottily telling her they are “spiritual but not religious.” She expertly sends up some cliches that were long overdue for a sending up. It was great. If the rest of the book had been even close to that, I would have cracked a rib laughing and given it five easy stars.

Unfortunately things get a lot more shaky after that solid start. I don’t know the history of these essays, but it read to me like the author was offered a book deal on the strength of that first essay and told to patch together some of her other writings as fast as possible, because the quality is very uneven and it reads like a rush job—especially when, late in the book, she reiterates material from the opening essay pretty much verbatim without any apparent reason to do so then and there. It comes across not so much as a coda but as some kind of editorial dementia, and rather than gluing the book together, just threw into the spotlight how slipshod the construction was in the first place.

To be fair, there are some really excellent pieces in here. The story about facing her first death as a pastor was very thoughtful. The story of grooms waiting in the basement of her church, and the essay reflecting on pastors who think of their congregation as an “us” versus those who think of it as “them” stand out as gems. But on the other hand, there are also a lot of pieces that are too brief, too cliched, or both. A rant about the politics of immigration in the USA simply rehashed talking points that I can personally recall hearing on a regular basis since the late 1980s, shed no new light on the subject, and cast her political opposites as oversimplified villains rather than capable opponents. There were too many touching stories about pets, including—yes, truly—one about a plucky blind kitten who “walks by faith not by sight.” Groan. This is Reader’s Digest pap, and not as incisive, daring, or entertaining as what I had come to expect from her opening essay. The fact that she proved herself capable of better insights and better writing with pieces like the one about her dying church caretaker only made these weepy cheesepuff pieces seem lazy by comparison.

The ironic thing is, this book struck me as “spiritual, not religious” to a T. The short, easy to digest, misty-eyed anecdotes where the narrator gets brought down a notch by a homeless man’s unexpected background; the “carpe diem” sentimentalism where the narrator realizes, gosh darn, just being here with my kids is reason enough to bring out the good china! And thank heavens for the catastrophic flood of my basement that got me to bring out the old photos for a stroll down memory lane! She even finds the brighter side of her parents’ divorce. Aww. It’s a wonderful life! All of this is the exact kind of “chicken soup for the soul” that the author so wittily sends up in the first chapter. Where is the firm backbone of religious faith that she testifies to in that opening salvo, beneath this mush?

The author’s cheesy sentimentalism and NPR-as-confessional-statement bent reminded me a lot of Anne Lamott. If you like Anne Lamott, you will love this book—and when she’s funny, she’s way funnier than Lamott ever is. But I am not a fan of Lamott so it began to grate on me, and, disappointingly, I was glad when the book finally ended.

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