Are You Hearing Voices?

Who do we turn to when things go wrong? Who can be counted on to never leave our side? To always be there when we need them? Scripture tells us that God can be trusted for this, that in fact Jesus died and was raised again so that we could have a deeper connection with God the Father, that through Jesus the Spirit of God lives in us. No matter what happens in our lives, no matter what we go through, God is always looking out for us.

Who can we count on to tell us who we are? To remind us when we forget, or when we just aren’t sure anymore. Our culture has many answers to this question. Corporations try to tell us who we are and what we need every day. Sociologists have told us that we are nothing more than the sum total of the influences of our social environment; including our family, our friends, the TV, movies, and anyone and everyone we happen to meet along the way. At least that’s what the sociologists I’ve talked to have to say about it.
But let us not forget society itself, which is proud to tell us that we are either a man or a woman, pink or blue, normal or not normal. Society never fails to tell us when we transgress the written and unwritten rules of who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.

Yet here again, the real answer is that God can be counted on to tell us our real identity and to remind us when we forget. God transcends the limits of culture, family, the media, and society. Many well meaning people can twist God’s words to us and tell us lies about who we are. I’ve certainly experienced that, have you? But though God loves all of his children, He doesn’t necessarily speak through all of them. He will always be honest with you, may even tell you things you don’t want to hear. Yet he never speaks guilt or shame into you when He speaks.

Anytime you hear a voice speaking guilt or shame into you, be it external or internal, know that this is not God. God is always proud of you, even when you mess up. He may correct you, but God’s correction will always build you up, not tear you down.
In the course of our lives we may hear many voices that try to tell us who we are. We may hear it from the movies or TV shows we watch, we may hear it from people trying to sell us something. We may hear it from family or friends, from politicians, or our own church leaders. We may hear it from strangers on the street who are bursting with opinions, willing to share them anyone owning a functional pair of ears.

Every day we are bombarded with messages about who we are or what we need, most of which are either false or irrelevant. Some sound good and yet simply aren’t true. Others are hurtful and are definitely untrue. Some of the most negative messages come from within ourselves; they can sound like still small voices and doesn’t God speak in a still small voice? And yet these inner voices can speak condemnation to us, telling us we are worthless, not normal, not right with God, etc. But again, we must remember that God does not speak condemnation to us. Often our inner voices are fed by culture, by media, by our social environment. Some days our past can speak lies to us: “You won’t amount to anything. You never have, don’t you remember?” or “You poison everything, look at the number of friends you’ve lost over the years.”

But God can cut through all these voices if we listen for Him, remembering that His words always encourage, even when they aren’t what we want to hear. It is sometimes difficult to hear God through the many voices of culture, society, and the inner dialogue of our own thoughts. Some people may even have other obstacles between them and God’s voice, such as my friends who suffer from schizophrenia. But God’s voice is always there, patiently reminding us who we are, we just have to listen; some of us may have to listen harder than others. And even if we can’t hear Him, we must remember that He is still there.

A simple trick to remember if we can’t hear God is this one that I use all the time: anytime you have a negative thought or feeling that’s weighing you down, embrace its opposite, even when it doesn’t feel true. God’s voice is never oppressive, so if you’re feeling oppressed it’s not from God. This technique deceptively simple, so simple we may be tempted to dismiss it. “It can’t be that easy,” we think. But in a way it is.

I myself have spent a significant portion of my life battling depression. The last few years of my life have not been good ones. I’ve lost friends, been denied many job opportunities, and am currently struggling with a mountain of student debt I acquired while studying for a degree that has yet to pay off for me. Time and time again I apply for work, sometimes I even get an interview, but I’m always passed up.

My depression would have me believe that there is no future for me, that I am beyond hope. But this is not what God has to say to me, I know that because it is not in His nature to be so cruel. And in my worst moments I find that reminding myself of this opens the door to hearing from God. I start remembering other things my God has promised me, and before long it’s like God and I are having a lengthy chat about what He thinks of me.

This approach isn’t perfect, it’s just as prone to human error as any other, but with practice it can be a useful tool. God always meets us halfway anytime we attempt to find Him in the midst of our circumstances. The truth is, when we try to seek him, we often find He’s already been trying to get our attention for quite some time.

God is always speaking, and if we let it, His voice can be much louder in our ears than any of the other voices speaking in or around us. Many will try to distract us from the voice of our God, but in the end it is we who choose what voices to listen to. Practice makes perfect.

Former Christian Singer Jennifer Knapp Reclaims Her Voice

Jennifer Knapp was fly fishing along the banks of a river somewhere in middle Tennessee when the world learned that she was a lesbian.

Rumors about the sexuality of the contemporary Christian music singer had been swirling around for years, especially facing-the-musicafter she quit her career during the height of her success and retreated into self-imposed obscurity.

Had she quit the business because she was a lesbian? After all, Knapp herself, in her new autobiography Facing the Music: My Story, acknowledged that contemporary Christian music artists are often held to a higher moral standard, seen as role models who represent Jesus.

“[E]very Christian artist’s career rests in the hands of those who measure the integrity of their spiritual journey against their own idea of what a Christian is, or should, be,” she writes in the book. “Fail to represent that standard to the right people and your CD could sit on the shelf collecting dust, career over.”

For Knapp, however, ending her career was a matter of physical survival and not one of concerns over being judged on some moral failure. A grinding schedule of touring and recording had worn down her physical, mental and spiritual health.

It just so happened that Knapp’s need to rest from the relentless demands of stardom coincided with a budding relationship between herself and a woman named Karen, a music show manager Knapp had med through the industry. The two were fast friends and their relationship grew into much more when Karen became Knapp’s manager to take her through her final year in the contemporary Christian music scene.

It was that year, 2010, that her coming out story was orchestrated. Three interviews — one each with The Advocate, Christianity Today and Reuters — would be released on the same day during Knapp’s final tour before leaving the contemporary Christian music scene. Knapp received a text message from her management almost a month after the initial interviews saying simply: “It’s official. You’re out.”

She received the requisite hate mail along with messages of support and admiration, but took them in stride, even handling Southern California Evangelical pastor Bob Botsford with grace and patience during a follow-up interview ten days later on CNN’s Larry King Live.

“Bob, I didn’t lose my faith when I realized I was gay,” Knapp told him live on television that night, “but it took a lot of faith to tell the truth.”

It was that truth-telling that led Knapp to the Christian faith in her college years. The child of divorced parents, she had struggled to win approval and support from her father and step-mother for her budding music career. In high school, Knapp played the trumpet, and played it so well, she was awarded a scholarship to Pittsburg State University in Kansas.

When things finally came to a head with her father, however, she was left without means to pay for housing and other living expenses that went along with that scholarship. With the help of her grandparents, she finally went, but was mentally a mess.

She turned to drinking and promiscuous sex to ease the pain. At her lowest point, it was her Christian roommate Ami who finally turned Knapp on to Jesus and led her in prayer. She felt a sense of euphoria afterward, writing, “All of a sudden, I understood what it must have been like for Paul when the scales fell from his eyes (Acts 9). After that day, in the new language taught to me by my fellow friends of the faith, I was reborn.”

After that, Knapp began to again pursue her love of writing. She learned the guitar and joined a praise band meeting a man named Byron who would lead her through her early career to her first record deal.

Knapp’s story is at once deeply personal and incredibly moving, taking the reader along for the lowest lows and the highest highs in both her personal and professional life. Her sexual orientation plays a role, but is not the lead character in this book. Instead, it is Knapp’s own sense of integrity and faith in her drive to succeed on her own terms — often with the help of friends, mentors, and, yes, even God — that gives this book it’s driving edge.

It’s a reminder that LGBT people are far more than their sexual orientation or gender identity. It would have been easy for Knapp to write a trite, tell-all book recounting just the days she had to deal with the crap-storm that came after her coming out, and perhaps there’s a voyeuristic audience that will be disappointed that this book doesn’t do that.

Instead, what Knapp does is open up her soul to tell a deeper story — that sexual orientation is important — but it is not what defines our lives as LGBT people, despite the best efforts of the church and society to make us sexual caricatures. Knapp, as she has always done throughout her life, refuses to play the game everyone expects her to play, and instead has written a book that shows the depth of a truly human life, full of challenges, disappointments and failures, but in the end, reflects the deep joy of a life lived with integrity and grace.


Listen now to a short podcast preview of Whosoever’s interview with Jennifer Knapp. To hear the exclusive full podcast join us at the Whosoever Community.

Order a copy of Jennifer Knapp’s new book Facing the Music: My Story, and look for her new album, Set Me Free, that hits the stores on Oct. 14.

New Breed of Evangelicals Supports Marriage Equality

[Listen to a podcast with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality spokesman Brandan Robertson.]

Imagine it: The Evangelical Christian church in America is a place of extravagant welcome for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians.

Not the kind of welcome that we have right now. You know, the one where we’re welcome to sit in the pew, sing songs and put our money in the plate as it passes by, but we are not allowed to lead Sunday School, youth groups, or, heaven forbid, be church leaders such as deacons or preachers.

No, really. Take a moment to imagine the Evangelical church welcoming LGBT Christians with no conditions — with the unconditional love of Christ — just as they are. And while you’re lost in that fantastical fantasy, imagine those church leaders embracing you in your same-sex marriage and celebrating your relationship.

This is the vision of a new organization called Evangelicals for Marriage Equality.

Founded about a year ago by Josh Dickson, the former Deputy Director of Faith Outreach for the Democratic National Convention and Michael Saltsman, vice president of a Washington, D.C., research firm, the fledgling organization has big plans for the future of the Evangelical church.

“As Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, we believe you can be a devout, Bible-believing evangelical and support the right of same-sex couples to be recognized by the government as married,” reads the opening line from the statement posted at their Web site. “Our commitment to following Christ leads us to speak out for equal treatment under the law for others — whether or not they share our religious convictions.”

Those are fighting words to leaders of the right-wing evangelical church. The statement was found so revolutionary that three Christian magazines — Christianity Today, Relevant and World Magazine — turned down a full-page advertisement for the launch of the new group in September.

The organization has also been attacked by other evangelical leaders such as Andrew T. Walker, director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who accused the group of not making its case for marriage equality.

“I saw a lot of emotion. I saw appeals to injustice and craven caricatures of Christianity, but I didn’t see any real arguments,” writes Walker.

Brandan Robertson, the spokesman for EME is not surprised by the backlash.

“We expected that because the sad history of Evangelicalism shows we have become bogged down with a political agenda,” Robertson told Whosoever in a recent interview. “Everyone who has responded to us has missed the point saying things like we’re trying to redefine marriage or water down theology. But, our statement explicitly says we’re not asking anyone to change their theology but rather we are saying, ‘you have a right to hold that theology but are you called by Christ to work to Christianize our government or are we called to love our neighbor?'”

EME has some heavy-hitters among on their advisory board ready to help make that case including well-known author and theologian Brian McLaren and Richard Cizik, the former vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. Cizik resigned that post in 2008 after saying during an interview on NPR that his views on same-sex marriage were “shifting,” and that he believed civil unions should be available for gays and lesbians.

In a post on the EME site he now writes: “While I haven’t come to a conclusion on gay marriage within the Church, believing sincere people will reach different answers on that question, I am convinced that we cannot deny basic societal and constitutional rights — equal protection and due process under the law — to people based on their sexual orientation or practice.”

This is the fine line the organization is walking — urging evangelicals to leave marriage to the political arena and reclaim the gospel of Jesus for the religious arena.

“We hope that as we change the hearts and minds of evangelicals through these conversations that our posture toward the LGBT community will improve because for far too long the church has been on the wrong side of history,” Robertson explained. “Once again, with this issue we have put aside the call of Jesus and picked up political agendas. It’s really harmful and oppressive to the LGBT community and we don’t believe that should continue.”

In October, Robertson and others from the organization will try to begin that heart-changing dialogue with Southern Baptist leaders at Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Robertson hopes to sit down with some of the leaders speaking at the convention to make his case for evangelical support of marriage equality.

Robertson hopes to make it clear to those leaders that their anti-gay message is not resonating with millennial members of the congregation. A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that 45% of young evangelicals support same-sex marriage, while only 19% of their elders over 50 do.

“We’re trying to show the older evangelicals that this is a generational issue and instead of pushing us out of the church because we support same-sex marriage, we want to show that we are people of integrity with biblical values, but this is where we’ve come to on this issue,” Robertson said.

He is going to Nashville optimistic that he can made a difference.

“If I can, as a millennial, sit in a room with evangelical leaders and have this discussion and show that dialogue is possible, that witness to evangelical millennials will be powerful and will allow them to come out in support of these issues,” he said. “As long as people of power don’t talk with millennials, there will be fear mongering language used and young evangelicals will shy away from speaking out on things they actually believe in and we’ll stay in our theological box. We want to be an example that these conversations can happen and you don’t have to give up your evangelical credentials to do it.”

Robertson does not approach his task with rose-colored glasses, however. He realizes that those evangelicals with political power, especially, will not move easily on a message that has served them well and kept organizational coffers full. In addition, he knows there are fences to mend with the LGBT population hurt by the evangelical crusade against the community.

“If you say the word ‘evangelical’ to the LGBT community, one of the first things that pops into their minds is “anti-gay” or homophobic and we’d like to correct that,” Robertson said.”I’d like them to see that there is a different kind of evangelical that is not working to deny them rights but there are actually people that look like Jesus.”

In the end, Robertson’s vision for the church is one of welcome for LGBT people, without strings or a hidden agenda to change LGBT people or champion legislation against them.

“If we can figure out how we can rediscover the root of the Good News and really center ourselves back around Jesus, the church is going to become a place that has tremendous potential for good,” he said. “It’s going to become a safe haven for LGBT men and women. It will become a place of safety and dialogue as well as a place for doubt. That’s a church I really envision and want to cultivate.”

Out On A Limb

“What do you think? If a man has one hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine, go to the mountains, and seek that which has gone astray?” — Matthew 18:12

The parable of the Good Shepherd and his care of the lost sheep stirs within us a sense of the enormous love God has for each of us. Those sheep that are safely tucked up in the sheep pen can be left, while the shepherd goes off, searching over valley and hill, among the banks of streams and across rough stony ground for the one sheep that didn’t keep up with the flock. Perhaps this sheep had found a delicious patch of grass to nibble, or more seriously perhaps it had bruised a hoof, and needed to walk more slowly while favouring that leg. We never find the reason for the absence of this sheep – or lamb – from the body of the flock. To the shepherd it was enough that one of his charges had not made it to safety and with nightfall approaching it would be prey for lurking wolves.

But not all shepherds care for their flock with such devotion. Before we go further I’d like to include in the category of shepherd all those who have the responsibility to look after the welfare, physical or spiritual, of others. Here we can include teachers, clergy, members of Parliament, parents and workers in the welfare sector. Many of those in such responsible positions appear to ignore or dismiss the needs of those entrusted to their care, while seeking to feather their own nests. Of these the Old Testament prophet speaks, in Ezekiel 34:4: “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”

These shepherds have served their own interests without concern for the needs or interests of those in their charge. If we take stock of events in our own neighbourhood, state or country we may find many examples of the damage that has been done to the most vulnerable of our citizens. Stretching back over months of questioning, the Independent Commission Against Crime inquiry in Australia has shown us time and again how methods to pervert the law have been attempted, and in many cases accomplished. The very people we elected to govern us; have been shown to put self-interest before good governance. Frankly we cannot put our trust in many of those around us, for they are not able to care for their charges.

Here we return to the Good Shepherd. The story told in Matthew portrays one who puts the care of those in his charge before his own welfare. One can understand that the Shepherd would be tired and hungry as night approached, yet still he went out to search for the lost sheep. Casting my eye over dignitaries who have shown the same devotion to those in their charge, I cannot by-pass Princess Diana. She visited patients with AIDS and held some little ones in her arms. When she went to Angola she visited those crippled by land mines. She was deeply committed to the campaign to ban landmines, appalled as she was by the human and social consequences of this inhumane weapon which strikes blindly at the innocent.

Jesus, in the same manner, seeks out those who have been damaged as the result of their own actions or the actions of others, and cradles these people in his arms. How many times in our own lives when we have felt defeated by circumstances not of our own making, have we known the presence of our living Shepherd? I certainly have known that peace and love with which he surrounds me at such times. And it is almost as if I can hear his voice, “Peace, be still.”

Jesus knows the feeling of isolation, for his friends ran away when he was arrested. He faced Pilate, Herod and the Pharisees without any legal counsel speaking for him, presenting the truth. Alone he faced crucifixion and death. For these reasons we know Jesus has been before us in circumstances we can but imagine. In him we can place our trust, for he will be with us no matter how black “the night of our soul” we endure. He will go out on a limb, when we are too paralysed by fear and pain to climb to safety in our own strength. No branch is too high, no limb too thorny for the Shepherd of our souls to tackle on our behalf.

For us the choice of trust is easy, for Jesus promised “My yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.” To walk alongside Jesus yoked together in love is to know a life filled with blessings, hope and love.

Pseudo-Events Clash

More than a half century ago, historian Daniel J. Boorstin — a Ph.D. dissertation-adviser of mine — taught us to distinguish between events and pseudo-events. The latter, he noted, were staged to get media attention whether anything event-ful had happened or not.

On the border between events and pseudo-events are media reports on public opinion polls, reports that generate comment and no doubt have some influence on “event-events” like elections. Reports on polls concerning religious opinions often get sighted when we read or hear media accounts, and become topics in Sightings.

In recent weeks we’ve been over-battered by hard-news stories of religion, often in global contexts, so we’ll catch our breath and notice data from one of our many frequently-used sources, the Pew Research Center.

Reports on a survey in which 2,002 interviewed adults got to speak for a couple of hundred millions of us citizens, inspired somewhat confusing headlines: “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more” bannered David Lauter’s report (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 22) while “More Americans Support Mixing Religion and Politics” topped Tamara Audi’s summary and comment in the Wall Street Journal (also Sept. 22; see “Sources,” below).

Statistics in a short column can create a blur, so let’s simply focus on the report of an increase in the number of interviewees who welcomed more involvement by religious figures, including preachers (here code-named “church”), with controversial political issues (coded as “state”).

Both reporters background their story by noting that this increase occurs at a time when “institutional” participation in religion has weakened. Also easily extracted from their reports is a recognition that the cast of characters who want more preachers-preaching-on-politics has changed.

Readers with long memories will recall that in the fabled 1960s, it was religious leaders labeled “liberal” — e.g. on civil rights, the war on poverty, anti-war protests — who drew the most notice. Meanwhile, those called “conservative” were just beginning to rally for their causes — e.g., anti-legalized abortion, birth-control, homosexual rights, etc.

Back then, the “liberals” were accused of being too politically involved, while conservatives were pictured as soul-savers with more otherworldly interests. Never mind, or mind only momentarily, that these images were broad-brushed, and open to question and criticism.

Today, according to reports, those who want “more involvement” tend to make up the camp of those (mainly conservative white Protestants) who complain that their religious liberty is in jeopardy, thanks to moves by the “state” which, they say, impinge upon the rights of the “church.” November elections and at least two forthcoming Supreme Court cases will be “events” without “pseudo-” status. We’ll watch media coverage of these.

There are reasons for suspicion of polls, preachers, and commentators — including this one — but one reality stands out dramatically in this nation and in cultures often dubbed “secular.” Religion, however defined, observed, and exercised (or not) remains a vital feature of a world with which citizenries have to cope.

The national Founders, in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, drew some lines and set some broad ground rules on “church” and “state,” But they could not prevent citizens, singly or collectively, from kicking up vision-obscuring dust as they contend about issues of conscience, rights, and — we do well not to forget — power.

Sources:

Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. “Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning: Growing Appetite for Religion in Politics.” September 22, 2014, Polling and Analysis. http://www.pewforum.org/2014/09/22/public-sees-religions-influence-waning-2/.

Lauter, David. “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more.” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2014, Nation/National Politics/Politics Now. http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/politicsnow/la-pn-religion-politics-20140922-story.html.

Audi, Tamara. “More Americans Support Mixing Religion and Politics, Pew Survey: Nearly Half of Americans Now Say Religious Leaders Should Express Views on Social, Political Issues.” Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2014, Politics and Policy. http://online.wsj.com/articles/pew-survey-more-americans-support-mixing-religion-and-politics-1411401662.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-archive.

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.

War Is the Force that Gives Masculinity Meaning

In 2002, when Pulitzer Prize winner, Chris Hedges published War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he wrote in depth about the warrior culture that is the USA. “The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation,” he wrote. “It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”

In 2014 the American military-industrial-media complex is still salivating for war to further line its pockets. And a president elected to get us out of two wars in which we were mired, displays caution but finds himself pressured on many sides to do something warrior-like.

The drumbeat includes the usual: ramping up of fear against an enemy, claims of a threat to what’s now called the “homeland,” and images of cruelty that invoke the sense that “we can’t let them get away with that, especially when they do it to Americans.” Few are interviewed in mainstream media who argue against the whole mindset.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders appeared briefly on “Meet the Press” in September for the first time in his career. But no Chris Hedges or Noam Chomsky is likely to appear as the debate centers on the best tactics of fighting the bad guys rather than how to change US policies that spawn terrorist groups.

In our culture, war is still the manly response; it gives conditioned manhood its meaning. With women in the military and LGBT people tolerated, a warrior reaction to any problem still won’t cause mainstream pundits to question any man’s masculinity, though it might cause them to question a woman’s femininity.

Even though there’s been a history of dissenters – Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, to name two well-known examples – and a long history of anti-war movements, America still falls back on a war model to attack problems from literacy, to AIDS, to poverty, to drugs, to crime. The tools of war get more sophisticated, while we sell them to the world to use, even profiting off of selling them to those who become enemies.

For war to continue to give us such meaning as well as war-industry jobs, we need more than just the selling of each new war through exaggeration, lies, and fears. Those tactics must touch something already within so the public relations of warmongering will resonate inside us.

Mainstream conditioning of our children through our major institutions must still make warriors and warrior-support personnel out of them through molding their minds, if the propaganda of each new war is to be effective. And, sadly, the old gender role conditioning that enables this hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

In fact, the dominant Northern European/American views of gender and its limitations have heavily affected alternatives that would have been found traditionally among Native Americans, Hispanic peoples, Africans, and Asians. Even in a culture where children are being told that they can be anything they want to be, dominant institutions that supposedly provide “role-models” such as the NFL or Congress, have failed to move outside genderized boxes, and, as if it surprises us, failed miserably to challenge the status quo, as we’ve painfully been reminded recently.

It takes the equivalent of mental child abuse to take the little boy who was born with his complete humanity intact, and to convince him that he will be considered an American masculine hero if he is willing someday to go off to another country and kill other men or be killed by them. Notice how the title “hero” is now applied to anyone who does just that.

It also takes the equivalent of mental child abuse to take the little girl who was born with her complete humanity and all its possibilities intact, and convince her that the solution to her fears, second-place status, meaninglessness, and hopelessness is to find fulfillment in supporting one of these male warriors. She might even stay with an abuser if she’s convinced that he is her savior from all that she’s supposedly lacks in life.

But our mainstream culture still does it. It still defines male bonding and teamwork as a group of men getting together to beat, defeat, or kill another group of men. Every male sporting event on television celebrates it with the most popular often the sports that reward men for harder hits or knocking the other unconscious.

Our culture still awards its warriors for killing another man. A man can get a medal for killing another man, but still be killed for loving one.

Much of its religion is still in a fight against the cultural change that threatens to fully accept lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people who challenge gender roles. Mainstream media gives such religion disproportionate attention, enabling them to feel like noble, righteous warriors in the “culture wars.”

And our culture remains stuck in the old gender roles, with otherwise liberal people still talking about their masculine and feminine “sides” as if those categories mean something definite. Or using supposedly positive comments such as: “You’re too pretty to be a lesbian.” “But you’re too macho to be a gay man.” “She’s trans, but you can’t tell. She’s so pretty.”

Finally, it’s still quite useful to install the fear of getting close ones own gender that’s the heart of homophobia. Without that, it’s much harder for men to make other men their enemies. It’s easier to fear them as threatening competitors.

While walking with my then 2 ½ year old grandson down the street, we passed a gaping open sewer. He grabbed my hand and pulled me away, saying “Grampa, be careful. That’s dangerous.”

To that little boy, holding hands wasn’t something that men don’t do. It was how they protect each other in their common humanity.

But you can’t shoot someone when you’re holding each other’s hand to protect one another. You’re instead more likely to feel the common humanity that would make looking for alternatives to war obvious.

God and the Gay Christian: A Whosoever Magazine Interview with Matthew Vines

In 2012, Matthew Vines produced a video that went viral, even though it did not feature even one kitten doing something funny or cute. Instead, his video was a speech he gave to his Presbyterian Church USA congregation in Wichita, Kansas, explaining exactly why six pieces of scripture, commonly called the “clobber passages,” do not, in any way, condemn homosexuality as we understand it today. The video has been watched more than half a million times and has been featured in major news outlets such as The New York Times.

“I knew the people at my church cared about me and loved me and I could tell they were pained because they wanted to be able to embrace and support me. I could feel the anguish and internal tension, but many felt they didn’t know how to embrace me without having to significantly revise their understanding of scripture,” Vines said in an exclusive podcast interview with Whosoever Magazine.

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The video has since been expanded into a new book by Vines called God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, which Vines admits relies on the vast amount of scholarship already laid out on the passages that supposedly condemn homosexuality. What makes his book different is that it is specifically tailored for a more conservative, Evangelical audience, taking a higher view of scripture than many progressive or liberal arguments against the common anti-gay scriptural arguments.

That audience has proved less than receptive so far, with Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, penning an entire booklet designed to refute the book’s arguments before it even hit the shelves.

“I don’t think we can ultimately agree to disagree because this issue, and non-affirming beliefs, are very damaging to the lives of LGBT people,” Vines says about the backlash he’s faced from Evangelicals. “It’s also a double standard, because most people who hold non-affirming beliefs are straight and they don’t have to live with the consequences of their beliefs. They’re asking LGBT people to do something that is vastly harder than they themselves are doing. That separates LGBT people from God and it’s damaging to their dignity and their ability to form relationships.”

Vines remains unfazed by the pushback and is instead using his newfound fame to start a movement called The Reformation Project to change the church from the grassroots up. Vines believes that it’s harder for clergy and other church leaders to put their jobs and reputations on the line to reform the church on this issue. Instead, Vines hopes the arguments in his video and book will be enough to convince that moveable middle in the pews to demand that church hierarchies change on this issue and welcome LGBT people into full membership and full communion.

In this wide-ranging interview, Vines shares his LGBT-affirming interpretations of popular passages used against the LGBT community including Romans 1 and the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the end, he argues that LGBT people are not sinless, of course, but that God intends for LGBT people to be able to come together in intimate, committed sexual relationships.

Below, you can listen to a portion of our podcast interview with Vines. To hear the full interview, join our Whosoever Community. Members of the Whosoever Community get exclusive access to this kind of content every month and so much more including message boards, live group meetings, daily messages of inspiration and a chance to be themselves, be loved and grow their faith deeper within community.

podcast_iconListen Now: Matthew Vines Podcast

The Angel Within

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. — Jeremiah 1:5

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me. — Psalm 139:13,16

According to legend, when a young boy asked the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo why he was working so hard hitting the block of marble that would eventually become his greatest sculpture, David, the artist replied, “Young man, there is an angel inside this rock, and I am setting him free.”

Often the world judges people and events by the external circumstances. For without full knowledge we can never be sure our judgment is correct. God has known us from our conception and has designed works that only we can accomplish.

From humanity’s early days we have been given the gift of choice, and the realization of right and wrong. Each of us chooses the road we will take, regardless of our nationality or circumstances. We may choose to seek learning and knowledge no matter what the cost, or we may conclude it is beyond us. We may be born into a nation where poverty and disease prevail. In which case we may choose to seek out food and assistance for our family and ourselves, or we may simply accept the status quo.

Recently in Afghanistan we have seen the result when one girl who was determined to attend school defied the edicts of the Taliban. She was shot, but that shot rang out across the world, and we all realized how deprived these children were. Since her recovery she is now in the UK and absorbing her lessons as would a thirsty camel drink water.

Only God knows what lies inside each of us, just what potentials and gifts we have, and how our lives will unfold if we walk the path set before us. Nothing, no person nor circumstance can divert us from God’s goal when we choose to put our hand in that of our Creator. But it is we who must make the choices in our lives. We cannot blame our failures or disappointments on others for our response to interaction with others is always our own choice.

The most attractive people in the world are those whose inner beauty shines through their conversation, the peace they exude and their cheerfulness in the face of adversity. They look at the world, whether it is just their own region or events world-wide, and are awakened to the needs of others, and to the shortfalls in society. They are not usually the banner wavers, instead in their own quiet way they seek to be part of the remedy.

God is like the sculptor who sees in the rough stone of which we are composed a beautiful angel, a vision of loveliness. And in God’s hands that vision comes to life, and can reach its full potential. However from that initial glance to the finished product there are lots of hammer blows that will impact on that stone, blows that will provide the initial shape, and then all the finer gentler taps that define the figure emerging from the rough source. And every so often the sculptor steps back to gain a newer perspective of the work in hand, before recommencing the refining chiseling.

Looking back at our lives we can see the times when there has needed to be a distinct change in our lives, when circumstance had changed our direction, when close friends have relocated or become distant. In all of these circumstances we can see God’s hand at work, removing from our lives those parts or people who mar the emerging angel. The lighter shaping has been accomplished without too much disruption to our lives, but still the transformation God has in mind is constantly being achieved.

Of course there are those times we deliberately by word or deed leave the path God has chosen for us, and find ourselves in the quicksand of disaster. Our relationships have gone awry, our work has proved futile, and our attempts to assist have instead created more problems. Happily, though, God has not left us alone, and is there to take our hands and guide us to a path less thistle-strewn, and without the briars that have pricked us wherever we turned. The angel within the stone is re-emerging. God again holds the chisel. And our transformed lives emerge.

Balancing Solitude and Solidarity in the New Whosoever Community

I learned recently that there are a lot of folks who think my wife Wanda and I are weird. We were at dinner recently with a couple of friends who were talking about another couple we know and I looked at Wanda and said jokingly, “Y’know, I wonder what they say about us when we’re not around?”

I didn’t expect an answer, but they were quick to tell us: “Oh, everybody just thinks you two are strange because you don’t do a lot of things together.”

Wanda and I kind of laughed about that, but upon reflection, I suppose we are kind of strange in that way. I don’t like camping, so Wanda goes camping with other people.

Wanda doesn’t care for bookstores, or writing retreats, or music camps, theological events or beer festivals, so I tend to go by myself or with others. One of the features we even liked about the house we own is that it allows me to be in the office doing what I want to do and her being in another part of the house doing what she wants to do.

Which is not to say that we don’t spend time together and enjoy it. We do, but it has been the time apart that has helped us stay together. We’ve encountered other couples who have to do things together all the time, even though one may not like the activity all that much. Or, one person in the couple doesn’t get to do their favorite activity because the other won’t go along or doesn’t want them to do that activity without them or with others.

Wanda and I, however, have a natural rhythm of alone and together time, but sometimes that, too, can get out of whack. There are some times that one is the loneliest number, when we’ve been apart too long and we begin to get lonely, or take the other person for granted or lose our intimate connection. There are also times when we can be together for too long and then two can become as bad as one … when we’re getting on each other’s nerves and snapping at each other.

The key to any relationship, I believe, is striking that balance between being apart and being together, between pursuing individual fulfillment and coming back together to dream common dreams.

Our personal relationships, then, are a microcosm of this larger world we live in. Each of us needs some time for personal retreat, but stay too long and you may become a lonely world-avoiding hermit. Every human being is a social creature who needs to joy and comfort of a community, but if we stay too long, we can find ourselves feeling lonely even in a crowd as we come to expect too much from those around us, asking the community to give us what we can only find in solitude.

Instead, we are called to find a balance between solitude and solidarity.

A Healing Community

Even Jesus knew how important this balance can be. In Luke 5:15-25, the story begins with Jesus retreating to “deserted places” to pray. But, by now, Jesus’ popularity has grown around the area and whenever he shows up, a crowd seems to gather, so he finds he must balance his solitude with his public ministry.

This passage gives us a clue on how to do that. As Jesus was preaching and healing inside of a home, the crowds were so large that some men who were carrying a paralyzed man on a bed could not get him in to see Jesus. So, ingenious fellows that they were, they climbed up to the roof and ripped a hole in it so they could lower the man down to Jesus.

What does this teach us about making room for being alone and together? First, it teaches us the danger of spending too much time alone. I understand this danger, because I tend to be a bit of a hermit. Given the choice of staying home or going out, I’m more apt to stoke the home fires than light up the night on the town.

Those of us who tend to hibernate are like this paralyzed man — we can no longer get out and function in the world. We’re so stuck in our caves that going out into the light of day can be painful, so we stay where we are, paralyzed with fear, or loneliness, or both.

This is where the community becomes important for hermits like me. It took a community to bring this paralytic man outside and get him the healing he desperately needed. This is the role of community — to heal us, to help us become whole, functioning human and divine beings, to hold us accountable and give us a sense of belonging.

Spend too much time alone and you become certain that you don’t belong anywhere. This is one of the major causes of depression in our society. People believe they don’t belong, that no one cares and no one would miss them if they were gone for good.

This is the calling of community, to seek out the paralyzed and get them what they need to be healed, even if we have to tear off the roof to accomplish that. This is the entire purpose of our new Whosoever Community, to seek out those paralyzed by isolation, loneliness or in the grip of the lie that they cannot reconcile their sexuality and spirituality and practice both with integrity and help them heal so they can take up their mats and walk as whole human beings.

In this new community, we come together to support one another, to grow our own faith and provide a safe and sacred place to explore both our sexuality and spirituality without the fear of being condemned for either.

I invite you to visit the Whosoever Community and see what we have to offer. Joining is easy and cheap — just $5 per month, or $50 each year (which includes two free months). Members have access to exclusive content such as podcasts, a chance to connect with LGBT Christians and straight allies in their area, message boards and live events such as book studies and special teaching and question and answer sessions.

As a community we’re called to provide for each other, whether that means giving love, friendship or just holding a space where those around us can be who they really are without fear or judgment. We are called to carry each other, to recognize our solidarity with one another and call each other into the wholeness of community life.

Go here to sign up to become part of the Whosoever Community!

Jesus Christ: Terrorist

A pastor friend of mine recently posted this status on Facebook: “‘Just follow my rules and behave, and nothing bad will happen to you,’ is the exact opposite of the message of Christ.”

It reminded me that the version of the Christian message I was given growing up as a child was even a bit more terrifying than that. I was told the “Good News” of Jesus could be summed up this way: “Do as I say, and nobody gets hurt.”

As a child, I didn’t question the message. I didn’t understand that the message was essentially the same that bank robbers, hostage takers and other terrorists use to keep their victims in line so they can get their way and control others.

As lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith, that threat is even more menacing, since we are told from the get-go that if we even think about pursuing our God-given sexual orientation or gender identity, or give in to that “twisted gay theology,” or dare to see our differences as a “blessing,” we will get hurt. Of course, the church makes good on its threat to hurt us when we embrace how God has created us. We get criticized, yelled at, abused and finally kicked out of the church because of our failure to do as they believe God commands.

But, what they ultimately mean by getting “hurt” when we can’t keep the terroristic command to conform to compulsive heterosexuality is that we will go to hell. By daring to live into our sexual orientation or gender identity with honesty and integrity, these terroristic Christians warn us we’ll receive the worst “hurt” of all — eternal damnation in the hottest sections of a fiery and never-ending hell.

Ah, Hell …

Ah, hell … that place we like to send the people we don’t like, or the people we disagree with or those who dare to question our beliefs. We love the idea of hell because it’s a place we can consign those who don’t live up to our idea of morality. It’s a place we can put all those people who leave children or dogs in hot cars on a summer day. It’s the place we can put all those people who behead innocent journalists in the name of their bloodthirsty god, not to mention a place for anyone who professes allegiance to such a god. It’s the place we can send our political and religious foes to and feel superior about our own sense of morality.

But, if we believe in the message that Jesus actually did proclaim during his time on earth — y’know, that message that says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” — how can we justify sending anyone, even those real terrorists who use the threat of pain, economic destruction and death to get their way, to a place of eternal damnation?

For me, a belief in a literal hell where people burn and are separated from God for all eternity, flies in the face of Jesus’ real message of grace that is freely given to everyone whether they “deserve” it or not.

Recently, a couple of good articles about hell — and how many people are beginning to get the idea that it probably doesn’t really exist — have been posted on Facebook. I highly recommend reading both of them to better understand the concept of hell, how it developed, and why it’s not really found within the teachings of either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures.

In this post, author Ken Dahl, gives us a wide ranging history on hell — how the concept was created and why it’s not a biblical concept at all.

The false concept of hell violates the nature of God, which is unconditional Love. It violates the wisdom of God, the pleasure of God, the promises of God, the oath of God, the power of God. It negates the full power of the cross of Christ. It goes against the testimony of the prophets; it violates the testimony of Jesus Christ and his apostles. It violates the scriptures in their original languages. It violates the writings of the early church leaders who read the scriptures in the original languages. It goes against our conscience, and it goes against our hearts.

In this post, Benjamin Corey runs down the five reasons why the idea of hell is losing its cache with Christians who can’t bring themselves to believe that Jesus is a terrorist.

The Jesus we find in the New Testament is loving and just — but not dementedly cruel. In fact, in the New Testament we see a Jesus who notices suffering all around him and repeatedly states “I have compassion for them.” That compassion consistently moves Jesus to action, often breaking the taboos of his day to alleviate their suffering. The Jesus of scripture is hardly the type of person who’d enjoy torturing people.

What the Hell is the Point, Then?

Someone on Facebook, however, made the point that if everyone is saved, if there is no hell and grace is not a one-time-get-it-now-before-you-die kind of offer and God’s reconciling grace can even extend into eternity to save even someone like, y’know, Hitler, what’s the point of Christianity then? What’s the point of doing good, of being good, or evangelizing other people to accept your religion? Most importantly, if we all “get to heaven” when we die, what’s the entire point of salvation?

James Mulholland and Philip Gulley in the book, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, make a compelling argument for ditching the idea that Jesus died for our sins — that we must believe he died so that God would not hold our sins against us. In short, we’ve been taught that Jesus died to “atone” for our sins. That unless God took the life of his son as a “ransom” for our sins, God would have to hold each of us accountable for those sins. If that’s true, then Jesus had to die to protect us from God! What kind of God is that?

Instead, Mulholland and Gulley argue that the “forgiveness of sin didn’t require the death of Jesus. It only required God’s resolve to forgive. Grace isn’t about Jesus paying for our debts. It’s about God’s removing our transgressions, as far as the east is from the west.”

So, what got Jesus killed? Grace, according to these authors.

“The cross is simply one more sign of humanity’s consistent resistance to grace,” they write. “We silence any messenger who challenges our quest for a favored position.”

Moreover, we love to consign those kinds of messengers to hell, as well. But, once we understand the magnificent gift that grace really is, I think we can no longer believe in either a ransom theory of atonement or in a literal hell. This is no easy task, however, because we love to see those we hate burning in hell for all eternity because of how they treated us or those we love. A gift such as grace, that demands no repentance, no adherence to a particular religion’s set of doctrines and dogmas, and requires no confession of faith, seems deeply unfair to us. In our minds, we have to earn salvation. We have to be worthy of God’s grace.

This, Mulholland and Gulley argue, is exactly the sin we need to be saved from: our self-absorption, our belief that the world revolves around our judgments not just of ourselves, but of the world around us.

“Salvation,” Mulholland and Gulley write, “comes with believing God loves you unconditionally. It is abandoning the misconception that you are rejected because of your bad behavior or accepted because of your goodness.”

When Jesus gave us the greatest commandment, telling us to love God with all our soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was simply saying: “Don’t be self-absorbed.” Instead, we must step outside of ourselves and learn how to live into that unconditional love that God has for us, then extend it outward to everyone around us, friend and foe alike.

This kind of love is dangerous because it asks us to give up our ideas that our way of life, our way of belief, or our particular religion is the one, true and only way to reach God. Yes, this kind of view does make evangelism worthless if your goal in telling others about the God you serve is to “convert” them to your belief. If, however, your evangelism is about telling people about a God that offers unconditional love and grace, free of charge, abundantly and wastefully to anyone and everyone who will accept it regardless of human designations of race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation or whatever, then your evangelism becomes full of purpose — that ultimate Holy purpose to help others find salvation by repenting of their own self-absorption.

As LGBT people, we have been held hostage to the image of Jesus as a terrorist long enough. We have to stop believing in any God that says, “Do as I say and nobody gets hurt.” Instead, we must turn to the true God that says, “Do as I say — love yourself and everyone around you unconditionally — and everyone will be saved.”

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians, and author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches.