Thursday, December 31, 2020

Disciples News for December 2020

Perhaps it's an odd way to close out the year here, but there were some items from the December 2020 Disciples News that I thought worth sharing.

The first item is that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has a new way to gather reporting for their Yearbook. This tradition of publishing an annual book of reports from denominational agencies, regions, and congregations goes back to before the restructure that made the group a formal denomination in the traditional sense. Previously they had been a collection of churches gathered around common points of theology, but without a national or regional ministry structure. The Yearbook was an essential part of keeping everyone connected, and it continues to benefit the denomination today. Obviously it isn't the only denomination to keep records, but this holds a special place in that faith tradition. I hope the new system, likely named after Alexander Campbell, helps keep the practice going.

Next up is a piece I'm taking directly from the email newsletter. It's important to know that this opportunity is open to people who are not members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as well.

Disciples Peace Fellowship accepting intern applications

Disciples Peace Fellowship is now accepting applications for our 2021 Peace Interns! This 12-week, paid internship allows young adults to live out the Gospel imperative for peace and justice by working with camps and conferences, partnering with Disciples Justice ministries, teaming up with ecumenical and interfaith peace movements, and advocating for peace for justice. 
Information about this life-changing summer internship, the application process and all online application materials can be found at All applications and references must be completed and submitted by Jan. 31, 2021. 
If you have any questions about the internship or the application process, please do not hesitate to contact DPF's Mission Director, Rev. Brian Frederick-Gray, at

Finally, there's word the print journal 'Discipliana' is transitioning into an online format as the 'Journal of Discipliana.' With the cost of printing and shipping, it makes sense to me that they'd go this direction.

Journal of Discipliana to launch next month

Disciples of Christ Historical Society announces the launch in January 2021 of the Journal of Discipliana, an online only, open access, peer-reviewed journal for original scholarship that explores issues related to all aspects of thought and religious life and practice within the historical or contemporary Stone-Campbell Movement.

The Journal of Discipliana continues the legacy of the quarterly print periodical Discipliana, which suspended publication in 2014. Manuscripts may be submitted in Microsoft Word to Dr.Marc Toulouse at .

How this journal compares and contrasts with the Stone-Campbell Journal is something I intend to find out. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

Treasured Words | Christmas Day 2020

"But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart."
Luke 2:19 NRSV 

The family farm I was raised on had belonged to my great-grandparents on the Smith side of the family. My parents also owned another farm in the country where my great-great grandparents (Gonnerman) had settled not long after moving from Germany in the 1800s. Every Sunday and many 'Holy Days of Obligation' I was in the same Roman Catholic church building for mass that my Bone and Schwarzweller ancestors had attended for 5 generations. All that and more of our family history took place over the span of between 100 and 200 years in the same rural Missouri county. I was steeped in it, and heard the stories from my grandmothers, great aunts, and parents. When my own children came along I was far from that place, and there was no way the kids would absorb it almost by osmosis as I had. So, I passed the stories I remembered along to them, as best as I could remember, and added in my own. It mattered to me that they had an idea of who and where they came from, even if the stories are half-remembered and likely to fade away much further in another generation. 

The stories we carry with us, whether our own or those told to us, can shape the course of our lives. We reflect on them, drawing lessons and heeding their warnings. Like Mary, we often treasure the words others have spoken to us and those which we have read. We turn them over and over, and with the handling the edges are smooth and they are polished. Without realizing it we misremember and embellish, frequently in response to the needs of the present moment. Sometimes in speaking with my mother I've realized that an event that looked one way to me appeared very different to her, at least in memory. It could be that one of us is more 'right' about the true events than the other, or that we're both living with our own interpretations. 

What matters is what those stories do for us or to us. A harmful story we tell ourselves, such as those that convince us we are failures or unworthy, can go from past events to self-realizing prophecies. A childhood trauma, a youthful betrayal, a setback in our college years or early careers can haunt us or help us, depending on how we handle it. The words of ancient texts, like the Bible, can perpetuate negative stereotypes, misogyny, racism, nationalism, and systemic violence. They can also breathe new life into us, inspire the formation of communities devoted to fostering human flourishing, and cast a vision for a better, brighter, more inclusive and affirming future. With both personal memories and passages of scripture, which path is taken depends on which words we treasure most.

Jesus is said to have told his disciples that where their treasure is, so would be their hearts. What words are we treasuring today? Words that help, or words that hurt? Stories that lift us up, or that drive us down into despair. It isn't always easy to shift our focus, and there isn't always a silver lining to every thing. And yet if we are to have hope we must have faith in that which is best. Spend some time today, if you would, bringing to mind and treasuring at least one story that brings you joy which you have heard or lived yourself. Then, try again tomorrow with another one. Let those stories soak into your soul, and see if with time you don't notice a difference.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Sowing Light | Christmas Eve 2020

"Light is planted like seed for the righteous person; joy too for those whose heart is right."Psalm 97:11 Common English Bible

There is a lovely juniper tree in the front lawn of the place I grew up in rural northeast Missouri. Better known as 'red cedar,' this type of tree is quite common across the eastern and midwestern United States. When I was a child there were many such trees in the field just across the road from the house, having been seeded naturally from the old tree in our yard. Every late November before I was 11 or 12 my older brothers and I would cross the road and select the greenest tree of the best proportions to be our Christmas tree. Now anytime I smell cedar I can't help but be taken back to that time. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I learned that in cities and elsewhere it is spruce, pine, and fir trees that find their way into homes.

It was a simple matter for our cedar tree to sow all those seeds. It simply produced them and nature took its course. This is so with plants found in the wild generally. Meanwhile, if we want to have a good crop of corn, soybeans, or wheat, we have to sow the seed with a great deal of intentionality and effort. If corn has grown one year in a field but not the next, naturally there will be some 'volunteer' plants growing from seed that was left behind, but they are the tiniest of fractions of what had been there the year prior. It is only by planning, planting, and tending that farmers gather a harvest every year. 

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has it in error that '[l]ight dawns for the righteous' in this passage. I'm not sure why the translators made this choice, where the text actually has light identified with seed and not the dawn. The dawn just happens, more certainly even than seed is dispersed in the wild. Here, though, the seed is sown or planted. This is a matter of intention. Whatever the passage was originally intended to mean, we can draw from this the simple observation that before planting there must be intent leading to action, and then between germination,and harvest is a wait. Even just waiting a couple of weeks for germination can seem like forever to a gardener watching for new life. 

We could wait around hoping that things will get better, and that 'light' with be sown in our lives and in the world. Or else we can take action. With each day we can make a resolution to do what we can to make way for a little more light to grow in the world. We can't expect to work miracles or solve thorny interpersonal or systemic issues overnight. Instead, we make small choices about our lives and our interactions that can be liberatory, oppressive, or simply routine. Every so often over the course of that past 20+ years of adulthood people have told me how something I said or did really helped them. More often than not it seemed like a small thing to me at the time, if I even remembered it now. When such seeds sprout we can feel surprised by what grows from it, but the fact that it was a small good that became a greater good should not.

What constitutes a 'liberatory act'? Honestly, this is really difficult to define. It could be something small, like putting bird food out in the winter as an expression of our commitment to the 'interconnected web.' Maybe it's dropping someone a line who we haven't heard from for a while, or who is going through a tough time. In that we respect and affirm the inherent worth of each person. Voting is participation in the democratic process, a means by which the collective will is expressed. Perhaps it's working through our place in white supremacist culture, or advocating for immigration reform that renews the promise of America. 

In the days ahead, pay attention to what goes on, and find something, however great or truly very small, to do to bring liberation into the world. It's okay if this is difficult at first. Through trial and error, day after day, we can learn to recognize the needs of the world, and do our part to plant seeds of light. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Winter Solstice 2020

"As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." — Genesis 8:22 NRSV

In Norse mythology the winter solstice is when the wheel of the world is at its lowest point. In this liminal time of the year the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, but also the gods are closer. All but the evergreen trees had the appearance of death, and yet in the midst of this was a celebration, because even in the literal darkest of days there is hope of light. 

The seasons circle relentlessly, driven by the position and movement of the earth in relation to the sun. Growing up in Missouri I had four distinct seasons to count on, and I couldn't imagine living somewhere without a leaf-laden fall or a frosty winter. Then when I lived in Brazil I learned that it's not just a single uninterrupted climate there either. In Uberlandia, in the high savanna, I could count on July to give us a week where temperatures could drop into the upper 40s, and that August would be windy. In December going into January there was more rain than usual, and I even planted a garden one year on Christmas Day. 

As with the seasons, so with our lives. We are not exactly as we were yesterday, and tomorrow we will not be entirely the same as today. Taking it further, what seemed most urgent to us 10 or 20 years ago is old news now, if it is even remembered. Any time I feel that I'm too nostalgic for the past, I try to remind myself of the very real worries I had at the time, without trivializing them based on the improved perspective I have now.  

What presses on you most right now, and how do you think it might look to you in 10 or 20 years, assuming such time is available? You might at that time see that you were a survivor, and admire your strength. You might feel compassion for your past self, understanding how terrible things were. It's hard to say, but for a certainty this phase of your life will have passed. Perhaps you can put yourself in that mode of future perspective, look at yourself now, and find some compassion and admiration to carry you along. 

The wheel is turned to the lowest point, but from here on the cycle takes us back up again into the light. That is one of the few guarantees this world gives us, a promise kept year after year.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Holy Child | Fourth Sunday of Advent

"The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God." 
Luke 1:35 NRSV

A man once told me that when his first child was born, he felt no connection to her and, looking at her in the hospital, felt as though he was seeing an alien. That probably came down to lack of preparation, as he was still a teenager at the time. For me, it was an instant connection. In an instant I wanted only to hold and protect him. The only weirdness I felt was the uncanny feeling of seeing someone with a family resemblance there with me in Brazil. There was something profoundly holy in the connection I felt with him, just as there already was with his sister, my adoptive daughter.

When the angel Gabriel told Mary to expect a son, in keeping with many ancient myths it was to happen without a biological father. He said, 'therefore the child to be born will be holy.' Anyone who has had a child knows, however, that regardless of the parentage, every child to be born is 'holy.' The sacredness is found in the extension of the human family, the renewal of a lineage, and the incredible potential of each new life. The presence or absence of a father, the social status of the parents, and the other surrounding circumstances pale in light of new life. 

Too often children are born into situations that are far from ideal. An abusive home or extreme poverty comes first to mind, but in any case this world has never really been 'child-safe.' And so we do the best we can to shelter children, whether our own or those fate has brought into our lives via other paths. As a society we make and enforce laws to attempt to make things right for the little ones, and as families we extend love and care. Deep down we know that all children, of whatever race and whatever ability, are special. The hard-hearted find it easy to think carelessly about children in difficult settings, like war zones or drought-stricken areas, up until they see a face. In those eyes all but the worst of us see an innocence and vulnerability that we instinctively are drawn to defend.

No angelic visitation nor celestial sign is required for life to be holy and good. It is what we make it, and children come to us as a gift however they arrive. Perhaps your childhood wasn't very good. Childhood trauma should not be, and if that's a path you've walked, know that you are worthy of so much better. It could be that you are a single parent doing your best to provide. Know that your loving presence alone is most of the battle. Maybe you've never had children and never intend to have any. That's perfectly valid as well, and neither adds to nor takes away from who you are. Those without children but working for a better world are doing it for the new generations. 

Whatever your reality, you were born a holy child, and you are a gift to this world.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Repairing the Devastation | Third Sunday of Advent

About a week ago, Middle Collegiate Church lost its physical home to a 6-alarm blaze. It took 8 hours to extinguish the fire, and the 128 year old building was left completely gutted. My first encounter with Middle Church was through Pub Theology. Within a year of moving back to the United States from Brazil in 2015, have ascended out of theism in late 2013, I was missing not so much the deity as the context of Christianity. Jim Keat was on the ministerial staff of Middle Church at that time, and he was running a Pub Theology group in a bar near the sanctuary. After work, once a month, I joined that little merry band of mildly inebriated lay theologians. That served as a point of entry to some visits now and then to Middle Church, including for their annual Revolutionary Love conference. In 2018 my teenage son and I marched with them in the Pride Parade. Such lovely people. The destruction of their beloved meeting place has been on my mind as I've reflected on the readings for the third Sunday of Advent.

"They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations." — Isaiah 61:4 NRSV

There were settlements in the area where modern-day Jerusalem stands as early as 3000 BCE. Despite famine, disease, and countless wars over the many centuries, human habitation of this place has been essentially continuous. Every time destruction came to the city, people rebuilt on top of the old. As a result Jerusalem is regularly giving up secrets to archaeologists. You practically can't put a spade in the ground without hitting history. There's a tenacity revealed in this long history that I think reveals how much this place has always meant to people. They found worth in the location, the history, and perhaps also the idea of Jerusalem. In this I think there could be a lesson for us today.

The Lenape Native Americans held Manhattan and environs for unknown generations before Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano became the first documented European to visit the area that would become New York City in 1524. It was primarily the Munsee branch of the Lenape present at that time, part of the Algonquian ethnic and linguistic family. They hunted, fished, and gathered in the area, benefited by the presence of about 150 species of edible wild plants, abundant wildlife, oysters, and fishing, and also engaged in agriculture, raising such plants as squash, maize, and beans. There's evidence of human habitation in the area goes back around 9000 years, and it's not known how long the Lenape were in the region before European colonizers arrived.

While the area was mapped for the Europeans with Henry Hudson's arrival in 1609, it wasn't until 1624 that a permanent European settlement was established by the Dutch on Governors Island. A year later Fort Amsterdam was built on what was then the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Counting from then, that makes for about 395 years of European settlement in New York. 

When I started working in New York over a decade ago I was struck by the diversity of architecture, and by how people inhabit the spaces built in times past.  The city is history layered on history, and while fixed settlement here doesn't date back as far as it does in Jerusalem, it's not uncommon for construction workers to uncover some history. 

Workers digging near New York’s iconic Washington Square Park have uncovered two burial chambers. The crypts house coffins and human bones thought to be about 200 years old.

So far the team has identified more than a dozen coffins in the vaults, which could have been part of the burial grounds of one of two now-defunct Presbyterian churches, according to archaeologist Alyssa Loorya, owner of Chrysalis, the company tasked with investigating the site. 
(Powell, 2015) 

There's one even more intriguing in recent history.

On the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2011, a backhoe dug into an excavation pit in Elmhurst, Queens, and struck iron. Construction workers assumed they had hit a pipe. But when the claws of the backhoe emerged from the ground, it was dragging a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.

Scott Warnasch, then a New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner forensic archaeologist, initially viewed the finding as a recent homicide. “It was recorded as a crime scene,” Warnasch, 52, told The Post. “A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward.”

It turned out to be anything but. The almost perfectly preserved body was actually that of a woman born decades before the Civil War. She had been buried in what was once the grounds of a church founded in 1830 by the first generation of free African-Americans. (Kaplan, 2018)

What's true of our cities is true of many other areas of human life. The United States was founded by white colonizers who engaged in genocide and ethnocide, relying significantly on the labor of enslaved people. It is easy and convenient for white folks to say 'we should let the past be the past,' but not so simple when we are still living within the systems of oppression that were constructed long before we were born. In fact, this way of living is so ingrained that those privileged by it originally can't see it until it's been thoroughly explained to them. 

It isn't ghosts from the past that haunt us. It's the systems the long-dead built and which have been maintained through generations that cause so much harm. Society as a whole suffers, while the harm is counted in human lives wasted through violence and exploitation. It's nakedly visible in the existing criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex. 

Bringing this even closer, we each inhabit the reality of to whom and where we were born, where we were raised, our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and more. Even in matters where we can change, like our religion, there are often consequences through the rejection experienced in families for such a move. I was fortunate to have a mother who believed in me, and trusted that I needed to make my own decisions in life. This is so often not the case. 

Several years ago I was chatting with a childhood friend, catching up on old times. Our conversation turned to the difficulties faced growing up. My friend's home life was quite troubled, and now he has a beautiful family of his own. He talked about learning from his experiences, unpacking the trauma (my summary of his words), and moving forward. I simply observed that we seem to spend a good part of our adult lives trying to sort out what happened when we were kids.  

In 2015, world leaders agreed to 17 Global Goals (officially known as the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs). It's now five years on, and we have more work than ever to do. These goals have the power to create a better world by 2030, by ending poverty, fighting inequality and addressing the urgency of climate change. Guided by the goals, it is now up to all of us, governments, businesses, civil society and the general public to work together to build a better future for everyone. (The Global Goals)

Those goals and the proposed timeline look mighty optimistic, and frankly unrealistic, to me. And yet if we don't set goals and timebox ourselves, how will we ever build urgency to make the changes needed? Right now people are living in squalid poverty, and I'll emphasize here that it's almost never truly and solely 'their fault.' Quality education and appropriate healthcare are beyond the reach of people from Somalia to the United States of America. Climate change is already destroying livelihoods and spurring migration, which leads to conflicts over resources and stokes the flames of nationalism. All over the world, in places like Eritrea, Papua New Guinea, and Flint, Michigan, obtaining safe drinking water is not easily accomplished. We can and must do better with this world that we have inherited.

Certainly progress has been made. There's no way that over 7 billion people could have been kept alive on this planet with the agricultural methods, technology, and logistics of pre-20th century times. We understand germ theory, have developed vaccines, and manage to move food and other resources around the world. The basic capacity is there, but we lack the collective will to put our know-how into practice. Ideologies divide us, including those that call for us to look only to our own interests, and which demand more of under-resourced people than ever was asked of us. 

This whole world is a work in progress, attempting to heal from the past, live in the present, and build for the future. Like an individual sorting out a troubled childhood, we as a species are hindered by old traumas, and bounded by lingering prejudices that keep us from seeking our very best. We build on the bones and ruins of the past, like one of our cities, and we are shocked when what we have held sacred is burned by the catastrophes of life. We must carry on, having faith that the progress made can be extended. Clearing out the still-smoldering cinders of our losses, we can join hands and hearts to repair the devastation of many generations.


Kaplan, M. (2018, October 03). Secret identity of 150-year-old body found in NYC revealed. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from

Powell, D. (2015, November 06). Construction Workers Find 200-Year-Old Bodies Buried Just a Few Feet Below Greenwich Village. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from

The Global Goals. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2020, from

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Making Peace | Second Sunday of Advent

Once, when I was in the third grade, a game-like division arose in the class. There were two 'teams,' and I was the leader of one of them. Or perhaps 'ring leader' is the more correct term, since I'm pretty sure I instigated the whole thing. In any event, this went on for several days, with words exchanged and clear lines drawn in playground games, until one day the leader of the other 'faction' requested parley (that's exactly what it was though we didn't know the word for it then). Basically, we agreed to make peace, declared the division at an end with us as 'co-leaders,' and shook hands on it. At that, it was over, and all went back to normal. What I will never forget is the feeling that washed over me in the moment we sealed the deal. A passage from the Bible captures the essence of it.

"Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven." — Psalm 85:10-11 NIV

In life, that sort of peace can be terribly elusive. I've been 'on the outs' with some people for nearly 20 years before finding reconciliation, and there are others with whom no just peace can ever be found. One thing I know for certain is that peace never just happens, and it's never war that makes for peace. Victory only means that the fighting has been brought to an end. It takes hard work after the conflict to rebuild, restore, and reconcile. Where efforts towards those goals are left incomplete, fractures of mistrust and the seeds of further violence remain. 

Consider the Civil War. It ended slavery officially, but through the exploitation of sharecroppers of color, Jim Crow laws, and other systemic and personal means of discrimination the descendants of enslaved people have continued to be limited in life and made to suffer. The 'Reconstruction' was more about getting trade and the economy going than anything else, and it wasn't until nearly 100 years later that much of the official segregation of the races was outlawed. And still, so much remains to be done, as we are reminded every time a black man or woman is shot in the back or strangled by a police officer who is never held fully responsible for the crime. 

In 1948 the nations of the world signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 30 articles defining the basic rights of all people we catch a glimpse of the world as it could be. Among its opening lines we read:

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

There are those who say that this human rights declaration has 'failed.' If I'm understanding that perspective correctly, it comes down to the simple fact that some countries take this very seriously, and others only pay it lip service, if even that. Saudi Arabia is one of the first such nations to come to mind, given the brutality of their criminal justice system and the oppression of women. The same could be said of other Middle Eastern nations, where slavery exists through the employment of immigrants with very few legal rights, and none of the means to pursue what rights they have. But then, sadly, the United States of America is far from where it should be in relation to human rights. That's how I know that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights hasn't failed.

The declaration itself, in the quote above, states that it is 'a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.' This document alone doesn't have a magical power to change us. It does, however, serve as a point of reference and a written conscience for the world. I know that the United States is in violation of significant parts of the declaration, and certainly hasn't shown in recent years that it even embraces the spirit in which the words were written, because of what it says. The same goes for every other country on this planet.

The keys to implementation are written into this same paragraph, in saying that 'every individual and every organ of society' is to:
  1. Keep 'this Declaration constantly in mind.' This is more than remembering from time to time, but really reviewing and thinking about these human rights when we read or watch the news, and when we reflect on local, national, and world events.  
  2. '[S]trive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms' is far from passive acknowledgement. While governments might do this, individuals and groups within society are still called upon to be advocates of human rights. Through doing this we can start to change hearts and, where that's not possible, use the force of popular opinion and electoral politics to achieve progress.  
  3. It's through 'progressive measures, national and international' that we will 'to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.' Whether the reluctant, recalcitrant, and unrepentant people in power want it or not. 
There is no one coming to save us. This is our struggle for peace through justice, and one that we in our times can work to build for a future time. So long as the dream lives in the human heart, and the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights exist to be know, we have hope for making peace that is real and enduring.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Historic Iniquities | First Sunday of Advent 2020

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
 (Isaiah 64:6 NRSV) 

When I was a small child I noticed a large stone sunken into the ground in the yard near the back door of a neighbor's house. It had a perfect concave shape indenting it, 7 or 8 inches in circumference (if memory serves, as I did see it many times thereafter). She had a few cats and she put food for them in it. I asked her about it, and she explained that it was from when Native Americans (she said 'Indians') had lived in the area centuries before. It was a grinding stone that had been shaped like a bowl through years of use, functioning like a mortar and pestle. That's the first time I remember having a sense of realization that there had been people in the area where I was raised in northeast Missouri before Europeans arrived. Still, with my child's mind I could only think of them having left, with no idea that they had been wiped out through disease and displaced by the arriving colonizers. 

Within just a few generations, the continents of the Americas were virtually emptied of their native inhabitants – some academics estimate that approximately 20 million people may have died in the years following the European invasion – up to 95% of the population of the Americas.

No medieval force, no matter how bloodthirsty, could have achieved such enormous levels of genocide. Instead, Europeans were aided by a deadly secret weapon they weren't even aware they were carrying: Smallpox. (Guns Germs & Steel: Variables. Smallpox 2005)

The estimates range from 80% to the 95% cited above, but in either case it was a breathtakingly huge number of people who lost their lives in the Americas. Civilizations collapsed. Trade routes were reduced to wildlife paths. Cities were abandoned and reclaimed by the forest. Burial mounds and sacred land were forgotten. That stone from my childhood was only one of countless artifacts left behind.  The situation this created made it even easier for European colonizers to claim land. For the natives who remained, this was the beginning of sorrows. Over the following centuries efforts would be made to relocate them to less valuable land, and to absorb them into Western culture through concerted 'education' efforts. One advocate of such ethnocide put it like this:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man. (Pratt)

In the meantime, another great evil was being done through the African slave trade. 

On August 20, 1619, “20 and odd” Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrive in the British colony of Virginia and are then bought by English colonists. The arrival of the enslaved Africans in the New World marks a beginning of two and a half centuries of slavery in North America(First Enslaved Africans Arrive in Jamestown Colony 2019)

A little over a year before the arrival of 'the Pilgrims' in Massachusetts. The number of victims is both overwhelming and, in some ways, perhaps a little surprising.

The most comprehensive analysis of shipping records over the course of the slave trade is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, edited by professors David Eltis and David Richardson. (While the editors are careful to say that all of their figures are estimates, I believe that they are the best estimates that we have, the proverbial “gold standard” in the field of the study of the slave trade.) Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.

And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That’s right: a tiny percentage. (Gates, 2013)

12.5 millions captured and shipped. 10.7 million who survived, and out of those a 'mere' 388,000 arrived in North America. Compare that to the number who were taken to Brazil. 

Of the 9.5 million people captured in Africa and brought to the New World between the 16th and 19th century, nearly 4 million landed in Rio, 10 times more than all those sent to the United States. (Bourcier, 2012)

Yes, I get that the total arrivals between the forgoing quotes don't precisely line up. It's not as though the records still extant are precise, given time and the sheer volume of the trade. Consider, though, 400,000 arriving in the United States, and 4 millions arriving in Brazil. In both cases, an incalculable injustice was done. In both countries the consequences of this grievous sin remain in the lives of the descendants of both the enslaved and the enslavers. 

The day after Barack Obama was elected president the first time I saw black folks actually congratulating one another in the streets of New York. For many of us it felt like our country had turned a corner, and the press was breathlessly asking if we were now in 'post-racial American.' Of course it couldn't have happened that easily, and in both the Tea Party and now with MAGA we've been seeing the backlash.

"It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted," Obama writes. "Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling assertions that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president. For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety." (Merica, Liptak, Zeleny, Wright, & Buck, 2020)

In 2020 we saw Black Lives Matter protesters pepper-sprayed, gassed, and beaten by police around the United States. I'm not referring to the cases of looting. I'm talking about the peaceful protestors who the police brutally attacked. We also saw Trump supporters screaming at Native Americans to 'go home,' as if this land weren't theirs far before the first Europeans or Africans showed up. 

Founded on exploitation, the United States of America and most of the so-called 'New World' are soaked in the blood of generations of oppressed people. White supremacy culture is so much the default in our institutions that often not only the white people but also people of color can't see it. It's compared to the water that a fish swims in, or the unseen air we breathe, and I think rightly so. This situation extends into every facet of our shared existence, including religion. My own Unitarian Universalist Association, as progressive a denomination as you'll find anywhere, is bears responsibility.

In 1989, a report titled “We Have No Problem… Again,” from the Black Concerns Working Group, [39] included the following words:

That the white majority refusal to acknowledge and accept the firsthand knowledge that people of color, indigenous and other marginalized groups face within our frames is maddening to those who experience it over and over among us.

These words still resonate three decades later. This lack of regard and respect is what leads to an evolution from accusations of “racial bias” to “racism” to “white supremacy culture.”

In spite of the promise of our movement, we still need to address the bias and oppression within our systems to build resilience in our living tradition for the times we are in and strengthen it for future generations. Making these changes will allow us to stay relevant. Addressing these issues will allow us to live into the theology we profess. Furthermore, if we are committed to this work as central to our faith, we will create the conditions in which all who are attracted to the theological premises of our faith can thrive. (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2020)

This isn't a matter of guilt, although there's plenty to be had. I've never kept an enslaved person, or driven an indigenous person out of their home. So far as I've been able to trace, none of my direct ancestors did either. Yet, they and I have benefited from a system that favors white men over everyone else. Though my hands are not red with blood, and I am not guilty of the crimes that founded modern society, I do have my part of the responsibility to work for change. The same goes for us all. 

All our righteousness is as filthy rags, and so long as we don't come to terms with that, the iniquities of our history will only continue to buffet us and sweep us away into chaos and recrimination.


Bourcier, N. (2012, October 23). Brazil comes to terms with its slave trading past. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

First Enslaved Africans Arrive in Jamestown Colony.
(2019, August 13). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Gates, H. L., Jr. (2013, September 19). How Many Slaves Landed in the U.S.? Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Guns Germs & Steel: Variables. Smallpox. (2005). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Merica, D., Liptak, K., Zeleny, J., Wright, D., & Buck, R. (2020, November 16). Obama memoir confronts role his presidency played in Republican obstructionism and Trump's rise. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Pratt, R. H. (n.d.). "Kill the Indian, and Save the Man": Capt. Richard H. Pratt on the Education of Native Americans. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Unitarian Universalist Association. (2020, August 04). Widening the Circle of Concern: Final Thoughts. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Using Scripture

Of what use is the Bible?

In my early teens I became very concerned with religion. In retrospect I know that this was driven to a large extent by depression and my perfectionist self-sabotaging, but at that time and for many years thereafter I could only see what was inside me as an emptiness due to lack of meaning and purpose. Fortunately, that quest led to an improved social life and identification of purpose that helped lighten the load of my depression and guided me to overcome my self-sabotage to some extent. In those early days before and immediately after leaving the Roman Catholic Church in which I'd been raised I spent a lot of time reading the Bible. For a long time I felt that I understood very little, but as I watched evangelical programming on TV and read books about the Bible I started to piece a picture together. It wasn't until I was in college, though, that I was presented with an actual method to interpret the Bible.

Though I think there was far more detail in what I originally learned, what I retained was that as I read the Bible I need to ask myself who wrote this particular text, to whom it was written, in what genre, in what age, and for what purpose. Always before I'd muddled through knowing that various people wrote different parts of the Bible, but believing that God was the supreme author, and that in some sense it all had meaning for me. It was as though the Bible were a communication directly from God to me, and the same for other people as well. This certainly contributed to my difficulty in understanding parts of the Bible, and led me to some shaky interpretations.

We see signs (literally) of this among evangelicals to this day. Walk into a Christian bookstore and you'll probably find wall decorations for sale quoting Jeremiah 29:11: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" Contemporary Christians often interpret this as a message of assurance from God to them, even though the chapter itself tells us who it was actually written for in verse 1: "This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon."

Another out-of-context favorite among evangelicals is 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." For conservative American Christians this means that whatever problems the United States faces will be overcome if the church as a whole repents and prays. Presumably this will mean mass conversions to the evangelical faith as well. They really like citing this verse in particular around the annual National Day of Prayer, and I've personally heard it used a number of times in sermons and speeches as a politically conservative call to action. All this despite the fact that the event portrayed in that chapter is the dedication of Solomon's temple, and the 'people' are the ancient Israelites. 

As contrary as these and similar popular interpretations of Bible passages are to a rational approach to literary interpretation that attempts to get at the original meaning of a text, they were actually the norm for most of history, including in the Second Temple Period and in the early church. Among Jews it is referred to as 'midrash.'

In biblical studies, “midrash” is the word often used to describe the transformation of the meaning of biblical texts by later communities of faith. Midrash (a Hebrew word) is tricky to define. Generally, I define midrash as an approach to the text that goes beyond and beneath the “plain meaning” of the text for the purpose of addressing some difficulty in the text or bring that past text into conversation with present circumstances. (Enns, 2020)

An example of this would be Paul's creative reinterpretation of the meaning of Hagar and Sarah, found in Galatians 4:21-31. If I had submitted a paper in my undergraduate ministry training program that used that sort of reasoning, I would have gotten an F and likely been referred for counseling. And yet, that was a fairly conservative application of midrash, compared to others that can be found in history. 

If you're going to be an honest reader of the Bible, you have to let go of and that is that it was written for us. It was not written for us, these are, are things that were written over millennia. And they were written for the people in their time, they've turned out to be wonderful meeting places, to, for other people to come in and meet God in, because that's what they're doing. They're trying to point to God. And so if we let they're pointing to God, inspire us to look for God, then then scripture is a good meeting place, but they weren't written for us. (Chvala-Smith, Chvala-Smith, & Long, 2020)

The church uses the Bible, a selection of 66 (Protestant), 72 (Roman Catholic), or 81 (Coptic) texts as the foundational point of reference for all thinking. How each communion and individual sect within Christianity uses these Scriptures varies, and from pulpt to pulpit within denominations the details can vary to some small degree, depending on the thinking of the preacher. Through the centuries of the Common Era people have gathered to hear these writings read and expounded upon. They've attended passion plays, Bible studies, lectures, Sunday School, and more to wrestle with the meaning. Too often for my taste they've gotten caught up straining out gnats but swallowing camels in the process. At worst, specific interpretations have been used to oppress, exploit, and justify the killing of others. At best, people have found a liberatory message and communities have been bound together in a commitment to living their best life in pursuit of highest meaning and right living.

To me, it isn't necessary to seek 'God' in the Bible for a church to be doing it right. Nor should all be expected either to agree about meanings or to accept without question everything said within the Bible. As a Unitarian Universalist, I'm part of a tradition that holds to no canon and no creed. I know people who are part of progressive churches, and in one case a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a strong Christian tradition, who are atheists. That's certainly not for every atheist, and depending on the ethos of the church I might not care for it much either, but it works for some. The Bible can provide a common language and set of stories for a community to meet and explore what it means to be the best we can be, as well as how to grieve, lament, love, forgive, hold responsible, be accountable, and show grace. In the prophetic yearing we find in its pages for justice and peace we can find inspiration for the struggle against oppression and for human flourishing. 

Or, a congregation can find any of a number of other methods for doing the same, without scripture. That is also valid. Culture, history, and science alone can provide all that's needed. What sets the Bible apart is simply that it is a well-worn, tested resource. The risk of misapplication and harmful interpretations can happen based on any product of human creativity, and it falls to us to bear the responsibility of avoiding that pitfall.


Chvala-Smith, C., Chvala-Smith, T., & Long, C. (2020, November 27). Being LGBTQIA+ Affirming and Christian. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Enns, P. (2020, March 08). Christians and the Old Testament: Don't Expect Jesus to Solve Your Problems (Or Do; It Depends). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Covenant Relationships and Cross-Cultural Ministry

Enrolling in the Master of Divinity program at Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology means reading books by authors I thought I'd never read again. Mind you, I'm not complaining. This is part of what I signed up for when I chose a seminary affiliated with the Churches of Christ. One of these writers is Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, who is considered an expert in the area of cross-cultural ministry. The book in question, one of several on the reading list for my cross-cultural leadership course starting in January 2021, is entitled "Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership." While it has some strong points, there is one central weakness I've found. 

For as much as he talks about 'covenant communities,' he says nothing about making an explicit team covenant. In everything he has to say about forming the covenant he relies on the practices of worship, learning, training, and debriefing. He refers to some concepts from the Bible and sets covenant community in distinction to other modes of operating, but again, I found no guidance on creating an actual covenant. I can only assume that this is meant to be an implied covenant based on common belief in Jesus. The devil is always in the details, though, and I think that by not making the matter more explicit the underlying challenges he seeks to resolve with this type of community will only persist. Even white North American evangelicals differ among themselves on what it means to be a Christian in community with each other, and so the differences can only be wider among them and different types of Christians in other cultures.

Within Unitarian Universalism we have a resurging interest in the concept of covenant, drawn from our roots in New England congregationalism. While in the days of the Puritans and among the evangelicals of our time the covenant is seen as being between humans and between humans and God, UUs understand it more simply as the terms of the relationship between people. It is fairly common now for us to create a class covenant at the beginning of each year of Religious Education (aka 'Sunday School), when committees form, and in order to bring common understandings to entire congregations.

Recently the congregation where I'm a member, Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, New Jersey, voted to put the following covenant in place:

Love guides this congregation. Love calls us daily to acts of liberation grounded in antiracism. We affirm that we live in the complexity of intersectionality and that building healthy and loving relationships is a spiritual practice, requiring both inward and outward focus. Thus, we covenant to listen deeply, speak compassionately, express gratitude, and embrace our unique diversity. We endeavor to communicate honestly and with compassion, particularly when we are in conflict. When we hurt one another, we will try to make amends, forgive and reconnect with an intent to repair, change and grow. Our purpose is to be radically inclusive, feed the human spirit and heal the world. In celebration of the common purpose that unites us and with the aspiration of Beloved Community before us, we will do our best to abide by this covenant.

This isn't an easy covenant. There are parts that we're not all entirely sure we know what they'll mean in practice. Certainly the covenants of our smaller groups aren't quite as lengthy or formal. For a cross-cultural ministry team, whether based in the United States or anywhere else around the world, a clear covenant that was formulated and agreed upon by the founding members of such a team, and which is held up on a regular basis for reflection and application, can be a step in the direction of putting everyone on the same page. Cultural expectations can still get in the way, but the covenanting team will have committed to creating their own culture. The same could conceivably be done for a larger group, such as the participants in a community center, with its projects and programs.

That said, there is some genuine wisdom that I deeply appreciate in Dr Lingenfelter's book. This is only to be expected given the decades he's devoted to the subject. The way that he defines cross-cultural leadership is fairly ecumenical, given his otherwise strongly evangelical perspective. This particular sentence he repeats a few times in the book, so I'm not bothering with a page number.

"Leading cross-culturally is inspiring people who come from two or more cultural traditions to participate with you in building a community of trust, and then to follow you and be empowered by you to achieve a compelling vision of faith."

That 'vision of faith' language does not necessitate a specifically Christian outlook, although that's what Dr. Lingenfelter meant based on the wider context. In any case, it's a solid definition for anyone engaging in faith-centered cross-cultural ministry, including a Unitarian Universalist like myself. In fact, holding in in the broader sense as a UU expands the possibilities. If I find my way into community development work in Brazil, for instance, that 'vision of faith' can be expansive enough to include Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and others. So long as our shared vision is one of higher ideals aiming towards building beloved community, it should work. Jesus could even be centered as a master teacher without requiring a particular understanding of his divine or human nature. Forming an explicit covenant would help ensure we're all on the same page as to how we will interact with, uphold, and submit to one another.

In another part of the book, Lingenfelter addresses a key challenge that faces many leaders: letting go.

"The risk of letting go is great. Some may judge us to be inept because we have not controlled outcomes that seem essential to process and progress. We ourselves will feel anxiety and stress because the things that we believe are important may not happen in the way that we desire. The disciplines we think are essential to success may not be followed. The outcomes may be disastrous for the group and for the individuals involved." (p 129)

In preparing for mission work in my youth I heard about this repeatedly. Professors and ministers talked about letting go of a sense of full ownership, allowing people to take control, do things we don't like, and either fail or succeed. And sometimes the toughest part for our pride can be when the people we lead make a choice to which we object, and then it turns out to succeed. Many a missionary has founded a church only to make it into a mini-U.S. embassy. The church culture is American, growth can be limited, and an overdependence on the missionary(ies) can create havoc when they're no longer there. 

Although I don't intend to do church-planting work, I have come to realize that if I were to do so, the range of possibilities for one in the Unitarian Universalist tradition on foreign soil would would be wider than those of any Christian church. The thought serves at times as a method for me to analyze what matters most to UUism, making it the faith it is, and what is adiaphora. My role as UU clergy in that situation would be, I think, to offer the gifts and perspectives of the living tradition, lead within covenant, and provide pastoral care, accepting that how the community develops could be quite different from what I'm familiar with, or else resemble too strongly for my comfort another style (like evangelicalism or Pentecostalism). 

Lingenfelter goes on in another place to describe the difference between 'responsible-for' and 'responsible-to' leadership.

"Responsible-for leaders demonstrate emotional attachment to their role and results, and they exercise power and control to achieve results and assure quality. In contrast, responsible-to leaders demonstrate emotional detachment from their roe and results, and they grant authority, responsibility, and freedom to other people, whom they then counsel and hold accountable to achieve results and quality." (p 133)

He illustrates this from an experience he had with his daughter in her teen years. He saw himself as responsible for her, when in fact she had to be responsible for herself. His role was to be responsible to her, meaning that he would provide guidelines and guidance, but that she would have to be responsible for her own conduct. This is a very common problem for parents transitioning from being correctly responsible for their small children to those same children becoming responsible for themselves as they proceed through their teens and into their 20s. Some never make that transition, and others only poorly and with great difficulty. This is something I know only too well, from first-hand experience as a parent.

"Westerners, educated to trust the power of reason and rationality, assume that people will act responsibly and rationally. This is a false assumption. Most of us, if we are honest in our self-assessment, will recognize that we often act first from our emotional being. The natural consequences of this attribute of human experience and response is that leading a multicultural team always involves irrational and emotional relationships." (p. 157)

As I write this in late November 2020, I still feel very raw about a situation in which I faced the irrationality of another person. Just a few days ago my landlord, with whom I thought I had a great relationship, berated me for asking him to cover up my appliances and dishes in the kitchen while he did some repainting. This was a project he had undertaken on his own, and that I had welcomed. He covered my living room furniture while scraping and priming the walls, but didn't do the same in the kitchen, leaving a thick layer of paint dust over everything on the counter. I only discovered it as I went to make dinner, and would gladly have moved things or covered everything up myself had I known he wouldn't do prep work there. His explosive reaction to me pointing out the dust and asking that he cover things or let me know ahead of time so I could do it was shocking, and he became so belligerent that I had to tell him to leave. I'll be moving when the lease runs out at the end of January.

This unfortunate experience has reminded me that it's difficult to know what's really going on in other people's minds and hearts, and that even with a seemingly good relationship something completely unexpected can come forth from others. Reason simply doesn't apply to all aspects of human existence. If this is the reality when people live in essentially the same national culture, you can imagine how much more explosive the differences can be between people of different cultures. Explain as you might the perspective you're coming from, and no matter how well you think you know the other cultures involved, nothing will erase the radical variable of human emotion and irrationality.

Overall I enjoyed this book, although as I indicated above, I do wish that Dr. Lingenfelter had tied it together with a clearer description of covenant formation. In case you're interested in the UU approach, here's a link to some more information:

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Those Not Judged | Reign of Christ 2020

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is portrayed showing a tender heart for his own people. In places the prophets described him as the source of their punishment, due to their lack of faithfulness in the covenant he had made with their people. In any case, there's a scene where he is pictured as the shepherd, and Israel as the flock. A pastoral depiction fitting for the time and place. 

I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. — Ezekiel 34:16

You don't have to be familiar with animal husbandry to know that destroying the strongest of the flock and investing resources in the weakest isn't the usual way to go. It's a guaranteed loss of money. The comparison has definite limits. The problem here was that some were thriving in the Babylonian captivity, away from their ancient homeland, while others knew only scarcity and want. The trouble then, and which remains until now, is the lack of concern we show for our fellow human beings.

In the so-called 'Rust Belt' there are communities left behind by the departure of manufacturing for other countries where labor is cheaper. Throughout the country every time a black person is pulled over by the police they wonder if this time their name will become another hashtag. Women are underpaid compared to men and deal with sexism, trans folks suffer violence, and desperate families crossing the southern border are torn apart by a system for which cruelty is the only point.

The most passive thing anyone can do in the face of these injustices and all the others is nothing. The second most passive is praying and saying 'God is in control.' That's just the same as giving up, and it's contrary to what the man from Nazareth is said to have taught. 

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ — Matthew 25:35-36 

Those verses sit square in the middle of a depiction of judgement. The nations are divided between sheep and goats. In this scenario, you definitely don't want to be a goat. They're the ones who saw the deep needs around them and took the most passive routes they could. Or worse, they are the ones who caused harm to others or perpetuated systems that oppressed. The sheep, for their part, saw the immense poverty of material and spirit and did something about it. They even visited the prisoners. 

Notice two things here.

First, there's no accounting for the ones who were fed, clothed, and housed. Are they sheep or goats? Since this was not meant to be a literal depiction of a final judgment (after all, people aren't really sheep or goats, but rather humans) there are limits to what was being said. The focus is not on where they are in relation to judgment, but rather how people were behaving toward those most in need. No moral judgment is being applied to the needy, including the prisoners. We can't assume that they are all innocent, nor does that matter.

Think a little deeper about this one. The moral qualities of the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, and imprisoned are not a factorAll that matters for the purpose of this story of judgment is how other people respond to them. They are not held up as the mythical virtuous poor. They are not necessarily the bum with a heart of gold. All we know is that they are at the margins of society, clinging on by their fingertips.

Second, there was no waiting around for a deus ex machina turning of the tide to change things. Often when we contemplate these verses we associate it with giving a meal to a homeless person or even volunteering at the local soup kitchen or food pantry. That's all well and good. Nothing against that, so long as it's done in humanizing and not dehumanizing ways. The more difficult connection for us to make is between these verses and the systems and processes that leave people without the necessities of life or the formative experiences to participate in society in a healthy way. We often separate what we think we can do, which is volunteering, from what seems beyond us in effecting social change. 

That, however, is the point of organizing. 

While in Ezekiel we hear about a god who will shepherd his people and judge the oppressors, in Matthew we find a demand that we be the ones to enact justice. I'm not here to hold those in some sort of false tension. Time and again the prophets of Israel and Judah called on the people to turn back to doing what is right, caring for one another and especially those below the bottom rung. Not only that, they raised the alarm about corruption in high places and honored traditions that kept people in bondage. 

One last little point. In the face of all the terrible words and deeds of people who call what is factual and evidence based 'fake news' and treat conspiracy theories like the gospel, and in light of the crisis in the natural world, it can feel absolutely overwhelming. This to the point that we feel as though we might as well not try. What can one little person do? Well, one person can link up with other such people and pray with their feet, marching for change and organizing for a more just society. Also, one person can simply check in on an elderly neighbor, wear a mask responsibly during a global pandemic, give blood, donate to organizations that care for others and/or which work for positive change, or simply tip generously.

Search for the lost and bring back the strays, without judgment. 

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Friday, November 13, 2020

No Shame

Before proceeding, a word to any young people who are being told that their sexuality is 'wrong,' especially by your church. You are not wrong for being you. Your feelings are natural and only become wrong if you act on them without a person's consent. As for safe sex, which is vital, have a look at this page on the Planned Parenthood website. Your family and/or church may have made Planned Parenthood seem like the devil. Maybe you really don't agree with their position on abortion. But the information about sex and sexuality is accurate and useful. 

Now that we have that out of the way, I'm going to select parts of the article, indicated by bold italics, for comment. 

One of the reasons there’s a widespread definitional dating in our day is because recreational dating doesn’t deliver what it promises. 

What the hell does this sentence even mean? I looked up 'definitional dating' and as of November 13, 2020 nothing came up. Is this a term he coined? If so, he's responsible for explaining it. The editorial staff at RELEVANT let it pass, so I wonder if it means something to them.

And you know what they say about the definition of insanity — it’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. 

That is not a definition of insanity. Salon refers to that as 'the most overused cliché of all time.' While I disagree, as 'perfect storm' has to be the most overused, it certainly ranks up there. This is low quality, unprofessional writing. Worse, it's disparaging towards people with mental health issues. Using an ugly and completely false stereotype is no way to begin an article about love and sex.

How about trying a different approach to dating?

This isn't a 'different approach.' Back in the 90s, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, Joshua Harris made waves with his book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye." It promotes formal courtship and the ideal of waiting even to kiss until the wedding day. Harris was only around 21 or 22 when the book was published, and his naivety shows in the book. I'm only a year younger than him, and when I read the book in college I couldn't stop rolling my eyes. And yet, many of my ministry professors spoke very highly of it.

In recent years Harris has retracted his entire position and ceased publication of his book. If you're interested you can read his mea culpa here. Perhaps it's also worth noting that he's also said that he no longer considers himself a Christian. 

Countless young women of my generation suffered from the imposition of purity culture within evangelicalism, as did those of the lgbtq+ community. Anything other than heterosexual sexual relations after marriage were acceptable, and anyone who 'deviated' from this norm were being misled by Satan and 'the world.' Girls were told that if they had sex with someone before marriage, no one would want them after, because they'd be like chewed gum. As though her entire value as a human being was hanging on whether or not she'd ever experienced vaginal penetration. Worsening matters, consent was never mentioned in all of this, leaving girls and women who had been sexually abused feeling terrible about themselves as well. 

Take 90 days to get to know each other without pressure. Gasp! “90 days?!” Hey, it’s just three months, less than the length of a football season. That’s not such a long time to spend forming an intentional friendship, which might lead to intentional dating, which might lead to marriage, now is it?

Remember that so far in this article the writer seems to be trying to be all hip and cool. He hasn't mentioned abstinence by name, and of course he won't because a lot of people would stop reading. This 90 days isn't about waiting that time before sexual intimacy. He means 90 days of no kissing and maybe no hand holding.

If you can, go through this process with advisers in the form of a trusted married couple who are wise in the ways of the Lord. The first time you meet with them, it’s like an on-ramp to a relationship. The last time you meet with them, at the end of 90 days, it’s like an off-ramp to get out of the relationship easily if it hasn’t worked out. Or else it’s like a green light to continue the journey and see where it goes.

Now he's describing the literally romanticized belief in 'courtship' that purity culture advocates. It infantalizes young adults and adds a layer of bureaucracy to the relationship. Once older people are involved it makes the matter all the more serious. This is immediately no longer anywhere near light-hearted dating, sex or no sex. It's a courtship. The stakes are raised psychologically, and this can have the effect of locking in a bad relationship. 

One of our innate and counterproductive biases is referred to as 'previous investment' or the 'sunk cost fallacy.' In terms of human behavior, it refers to the idea that having dedicated time and energy to something, it's best to stick with it even though the results, if you were clear headed and realistic about it, are no longer what you want. In other words, by adding formality to the relationship and dedicating a prolonged period of time to analyzing it, an emotional investment is being made. That and the time spent can lead a person to conclude that they should stick with it. 

There are other biases that work against us as well in this sort of situation. Choice-supportive bias, for example, is that which leads us to amplify the good about a decision we've made, downplaying the bad. Conversely, we amplify the bad of the other options we had. It might have been better not to date that person, but since you're in it already you're automatically looking for ways that it's good, and how not dating them would have been bad.

No matter how old or how experienced you are, if you want to have a pure relationship and not create too strong of a physical tie before marriage, then you need to agree from the outset about what you will or will not do. You may be thinking, I don’t need boundaries. I’m grown. Well, so are your pain, disappointments and frustrations. Boundaries aren’t bad; they’re actually a blessing. 

There we have it. He finally said 'pure.' What is a 'pure relationship'? While he's not as explicit about what he means as he should be, he means 'sexually pure.' It's weird to me that people often just automatically accept this language. It's the exact same as saying that any sexual relationship outside of marriage is 'impure.' But where is the impurity? Only in the sex, which really doesn't stand up to reason.

If Todd wanted to talk about boundaries, it would have been great if he'd discussed consent. Evangelicals do not discuss consent, by and large. Just as safe sex isn't necessary if you're abstinent, consent is seen as unnecessary because that happens at the wedding ceremony.  This fantasy doesn't really help. Young unmarried people have sex. It's a simple fact. However much parents want to prevent it, and the church preaches against it, more often than not they'll be having sex.

When I was attending a small Bible college in Missouri in my late teens I heard a story told to a class by a professor about some students who had been expelled several years before. He said that one day he was in his office when someone in the neighborhood called to inform him that two of the students were having sex in a car on her street. He asked how she knew they weren't from the local community college, and she replied, 'because of the Bible college bumper sticker on the car.' He and a couple of others were waiting for them when they returned. After some discussion they were expelled. That professor wanted to make clear to the freshman class that there was nowhere they could go to get away from their obligation to remain abstinent until marriage.

Most of my classmates were married before they graduated Bible college. Because who can wait?

Set a curfew. Every date needs an ending time. Decide that one of you is always going to go home at midnight or whatever other time you agree on. 

In other words, set a time for the date to end so there won't be a sleepover situation.

What’s a no go for touch? Maybe it’s hugs that last longer than thirty seconds. Or French kissing. Or whatever. Know the triggers that could take you all the way to sex. 

Here's where he really shows his hand. Premarital sex is bad and therefore must be avoided. Don't go "all the way." It sounds juvenile because it is.

What else would help? Maybe you’ll agree not to watch movies with sex scenes in them. Or not to send each other notes or texts that are too suggestive. A lot of couples agree to never chill in a horizontal position (lying down on a couch or bed), only in a vertical position.

The Pharisees have a bad reputation through the anti-semitic exaggerations of the canonical Gospels, but this is what we'd call 'phariseeism." Evangelicals talk up grace and freedom, when in actuality they spend a hell of a lot of time making rules about this and that.

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. — Colossians 2:21-23 (NIV)

These kinds of boundaries may seem petty, and they’re not meant to be legalistic.... 

And yet they are both.

....but they have a way of helping people keep from succumbing to natural temptations. They create a safe place for you to learn about each other. They encourage less touching and more talking.

If they're natural temptations and not unnatural, then why demonize it? Oh right. Purity culture.

If somebody loves quality time and the other one loves physical touch, you’d better set strong physical boundaries because one is going to want to sit on the couch all the time and the other one is going to want to be touched — and that’s a recipe for a baby.

No discussion of safe sex. The assumption is that since premarital sex is bad, then preparing for it in any way is also sinful. Therefore evangelical teens aren't usually educated about premarital sex, and young evangelicals have unprotected sex. They just do. Why pretend that evangelical youth aren't actually having sex behind everyone's back?

After ninety days, have a conversation to see where you stand. Are you attracted to each other? Green light or red flag? 

Oh the sexy formality!

I always encourage people to pay attention to patterns, not potential. All of us have the potential to do better in our weak areas, but can we live with each other’s patterns? For instance, she may seem flirtatious to you, but she says it’s just her personality — she’s bubbly and likes talking to everybody. Can you live with that? Transformation in this area may come eventually, but even if so, there’s no timetable on it.

Note that this all relates only to cisgender people in a heterosexual relationship. Sex between other types of people, and recognition of the range of genders and sexualities, are both off the table. Also, in the example the woman is 'the problem' without necessarily meaning to be. Therefore as always men are warned to be careful. Women are portrayed in purity culture as not being terribly interested in sex itself, and at the same time as potential whores. It's incredible. 

You may want to go ahead with more dating together, hopefully leading to engagement and marriage, or you may decide to call it quits. If you do decide to end it here, hopefully the breakup will happen without all the painful ripping apart that can happen when a dating couple is too tightly bonded. 

Here's what he's actually talking about:

In romantic love, when two people have sex, oxytocin is released, which helps bond the relationship. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, the hormone oxytocin has been shown to be "associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people." When it is released during orgasm, it begins creating an emotional bond -- the more sex, the greater the bond. Oxytocin is also associated with mother/infant bonding, uterine contractions during labor in childbirth and the "let down" reflex necessary for breastfeeding. (Obringer, 2005)

Your relationship goal of marriage is still alive and healthy.

Marriage is the goal. No discussion of other ways of relating, and there's no discussion of singleness. If you want to have sex, you have to be married, and the goal in any case is to get married. I've heard adult singles in churches over the years comment that they feel like second class citizens at times in their own congregations. People will often ask very personal questions about a single person's love, such as 'when are you going to get married' or 'are you seeing anyone yet?' Individuals aren't 'half-people.' They are full human beings. The talk of becoming 'one flesh' through marriage is misapplied here.

In a blog post last year I wrote about how you can't trust (most) churches on sex, and in that piece I discussed the sex education curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL). Created through a partnership of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, this material provides age-appropriate material for guiding discussions around sexuality. While there are parts for children, teens, and adults, the section that seems to get the most attention is the one directed at teens. This curriculum provides accurate information about sexual health, guidance for sexual ethics, and opportunities for candid conversations about sex itself. Despite its origins in two religious groups, the material is entirely non-religious, suitable for any sex ed course. Rather than produce something only for their own people, these denominations opted to create something to benefit everyone. 

You can learn more about OWL at either of these sites: 
The following are some titles that I strongly recommend around this topic. 
  • Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, by Tina Schermer Sellers [This one could be particularly useful for psychotherapists and clinicians working with evangelicals or exvangelicals, and also for clergy providing pastoral care to former evangelicals.]
In close, a blessing:

If you've been bound by purity culture, may you find freedom. 

If you've been hurt by purity culture, may you find healing. 

May we all experience the joy of being our full, human selves.

Let there be no shame in being who we are, whoever we are.


Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Obringer, L. (2005, February 12). How Love Works. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from

Todd, M. (2020, November 10). Mike Todd: Three Ways to Transform Your Dating Life. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from