An open letter to “Evangelical Christians”:

Written on November 9th, 2016, on the morning after the US election:

Dear “evangelical Christians”:

Here’s a brief Bible refresher for you, because based on the way many of you voted yesterday, I assume you haven’t been reading it.

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49).

“”Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 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.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” (Matthew 25: 34-40).

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22: 37-40).

HELP ME UNDERSTAND.

— Whitney Roberts Logan’s personal Facebook page.

Loving one’s self.

Several months ago, I attended a church service in which the senior pastor decided to tackle the issue of “health care in America”. He spoke thoughtfully about how the bulk of Jesus’ ministry involved healing sick people, and instructing his followers to care for the vulnerable members of society. During this part of his sermon, I felt that kind of uneasy feeling then that I really like – the kind of feeling that reminds me how far my own head can get lodged up my own ass, and then empowers me to think about practical ways I could be caring for my community.

Towards the end of the sermon, however, the pastor tried to drive home his point by reminding his audience that when asked which was the “greatest commandment”, Jesus answered,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”, and then immediately went on to say,”The second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these”. (Mark 12:30-31).

My immediate reaction to this sermon’s meant-to-be-powerful conclusion was to wonder whether or not church-going folks are any good at loving themselves, and whether or not the church does a good-enough job of teaching people how to love themselves. Because, I thought, without a basic capacity to love oneself, part 2 of the ‘greatest commandment’ doesn’t carry much weight or power.

Since then, I have checked in with several handfuls of my church-going friends and asked them if they feel like the church is good at teaching people how to love themselves.

I’ll let you guess what their answers may have been.

And here’s the thing: it’s a pretty big deal if the church and church-goers are missing the mark re: the ‘loving oneself’ target. Reading the gospels, I find a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that A) Jesus loved himself – i.e. received God’s love – without reservation and B) that he extended this same whole-hearted love to every person he met. In fact, this was a big part of what made him so controversial during his time on earth. The religious leaders of his time did not appreciate the unbounded enormity of his love for himself or for others.

Somehow (and grievously), while I was growing up in church, I got the impression that I was supposed to first accept how fundamentally bad I was – you know, that whole original sin drama – before I could authentically and earnestly beseech Jesus to lobotomize those bad parts of myself, and finally become more pleasing to him.

Well, it’s pretty near-to-impossible to love yourself if you you’ve been taught – explicitly or implicitly – that you are basically evil. It’s equally near-to-impossible to love others when you assume that, like you, they are also basically evil. And because of this unfortunate assumption about human nature, you are then psychologically primed to start searching for people who appear to have “conquered” their evil impulses, in order to reassure yourself that it can be done.

Public Service Announcement number 1: no one conquers “evil” (please click that link); we simply have an opportunity to become more and more psychologically and spiritually honest, which allows us to make wiser, and healthier choices.

Let me briefly explain why it is 100% impossible to love others well if we don’t first love ourselves well. I will use myself as an example:

When I am critical and intolerant towards myself, I am critical and intolerant towards others. If I notice some unacceptable aspect of myself – those shadowy, hard to admit parts of my psychology – parading around in someone else’s skin, my first defensive instinct is often to judge that person harshly, or perhaps to reject them entirely. Somehow allowing myself to feel curiosity or compassion towards them becomes threatening to me, as if I’ll have to admit my own similar shortcomings if I get too close to other peoples’.

Does that make sense? Maybe it’s a bit ‘Psychology 101’ for some of you, but I find that for a lot of people this is a fairly complex idea. So let me make it even more simple:

THINGS WE DON’T WANT TO ADMIT ABOUT OURSELVES OTHER PEOPLE ACTING OUT THOSE SAME THINGS = PSYCHOLOGICAL CRISIS.

Here’s some good examples:

  • A closeted gay person expressing homophobic ideas or actions.
  • Someone that cares a great deal more than they’d like to admit about wealth and material things, who then condemns wealthy people for how they choose to spend their money.
  • Deeply felt inferiority feelings parading around as machismo, or bullying.
  • Systemically disempowered women being critical of “successful” women.
  • Someone with partisan political sentiments (who cannot admit this blind-spot to themselves) dismissing another person’s political ideas as partisan.
  • A compulsive over-eater who frowns upon compulsive [anything else].
  • Someone who feels insecure about their romantic relationship (or lack thereof) being critical of other people’s romances.
  • Christian extremists’ hatred for Islamic extremists.
  • An arrogant person noticing someone else’s arrogance and pointing that out disdainfully (I’m real guilty of this one sometimes, ugh).

Do you get the picture? It’s impossible to be compassionate with others if we cannot first be sincerely compassionate with ourselves.

And, why do I think it’s the church’s responsibility to teach this to it’s parishioners? Because Jesus did it.

He embraced all types of culturally repugnant people, and offered them intimate counsel and friendship. Some of the religious leaders of his time found his associations very troubling, and asked his disciples why he would choose to “eat with such scum?” (Matthew 9:11). Jesus answered them by asking them to “go and learn the meaning of this scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'” (Matthew 9:13).

I believe we have to “show mercy” both inwardly and outwardly simultaneously for mercy to be genuine. And I’m pretty sure Jesus said almost exactly this in his own cryptic, ancient semitc way:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.

Love each other in the same way I have loved you.”

– (John 15:9, 12)

In a sense, I believe he’s saying “my ability to receive (accept, or believe in) love is directly correlated to my ability to give love. Now, follow my lead: open yourselves up to the divine love that’s always available to you, and then give it away in exactly the same limitless way you have received it”.

To boil it down further: if we can’t embrace the darkest, hardest aspects of our humanity, then we sure as sh*t can’t embrace other peoples’ dark parts either. And from what I can tell, the whole entire ministry of Jesus was about embracing others, especially those willing to stand humbly in own their humanity.

So, Church leaders: if you don’t know how to teach this kind of love, and especially if you don’t know how to genuinely receive this kind of love for yourself, you need to hire people that do. We can’t fall asleep at the wheel when it comes to loving ourselves, or we can’t love others well. And if we can’t love others well, we can’t be the church.

 

Love each other.

The invitation is exquisite:

Love each other well.

‘Here, let me show you how’, He said.

‘It’s not burdensome, it’s easy’.

It’s light.

Why then is it hard to do?

That mortally vulnerable part of ourselves is such a tyrant.

So defensive about our own well-being.

‘Consider the lilies of the field’, He said.

‘Why are you so worried’?

Our timid unbelieving hearts do tremble.

Could it be that simple?

God, wouldn’t I love to be brave enough find out.

Sodom

Did you know that the biblical story of Sodom’s destruction is really a referendum on inhospitality? (Hint: not homosexuality).

#true.

Here’s the story: A man named Lot is the protagonist in this tale, and is described in this story as a “servant of the Lord”. He lives in Sodom, which happens to be an aggressively hedonistic town. According to the tale, the people in it are consumed with reckless greed and lust, which often times turns violent.

One day, Lot (our main character), sees two angels (i.e. living, breathing, divine messengers) walking up to the city gates of Sodom. He rushes towards them, and begs them to come stay in his house – in order that he might protect them from the violence of the city. They agree to this, and all is going well for a brief little moment.

Not terribly long after their arrival at Lot’s house, however, “all the men from every quarter” of the city surround the house and start yelling for Lot to surrender these heavenly visitors to them so that they can rape them. [Short hand: Some drunk, belligerent, and obviously violent men want to rape God’s angels, whom Lot has taken personal responsibility for by agreeing to house them.]

Soooooo, Lot goes outside and pleads intensely with the men at his door to leave them be, and even goes so far as to offer up his virgin daughters to the men in exchange for the angels. Of course, this is all kinds of troubling to me, but it’s also important for us to understand that at this time in history women were regarded as significantly less valuable than men (property), and humans as less valuable than angels, I imagine.

You tracking with me? Because this part is supremely critical: LOT IS NOT OFFERING HIS DAUGHTERS TO THE MEN OUTSIDE HIS DOOR BECAUSE SEX BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN IS BETTER THAN SEX BETWEEN A MAN AND A MAN. Instead, he is offering his daughters to these men because he believes that allowing these men to abuse a piece of his own property is better than allowing these men to abuse two of God’s messengers.

Do you understand?

The Bible itself describes Sodom in this way:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy”. – Ezekiel 16:49

Now, I do not see one single word about homosexuality in there.

Do you?

So, did I miss something? OR, is it just SO.MUCH.MORE.CONVENIENT for modern heterosexual Christians to convince themselves that homosexuality (something that doesn’t touch them personally) incurs the wrath of God instead of what the Bible actually says – i.e. arrogance, overindulgence, and indifference (something that may strike a bit closer to home)?????!

On behalf of every single LGBTQ+ person who has been needlessly tortured by their religious family, friends, clergy members, and law makers, I am sick and sorry about that.

Perhaps we can start making some progress here if we all understand the original story better.

Sin

I think the word “sin” is one of those words that has become so misused, misdirected, and misunderstood that it’s almost taken on a new colloquial meaning, quite different from it’s original conception. Most often, I have heard this word used like a weapon with which to wage a character-attack on oneself, someone else, or whole groups of people.  99 times out of 100, when I hear this word used by Christians, I cringe almost involuntarily. There’s just something I don’t like about how it sounds in most peoples’ mouths.

The most recent example of this occurred during a meeting with a minister on the eve of my daughter’s baptism ceremony. This man – a wonderful man, and a kind, generous, gracious host to our family during this event – wanted to make sure we understood what a baptism ceremony was, and what it was not. We had a lovely conversation about spiritual rituals in general, and I was very moved by the humility with which he approached his role in his church.

At one point in the conversation, he wanted to make sure that we understood that a baptism ceremony wasn’t some kind of “magic” transformation event, and that we would be leaving church that day with the same little baby we had brought with us. He said this warmly but seriously: “she will still cry, she will still be a sinner” –

I bristled.

He paused.

“It’s my understanding, sir, that the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ means to ‘miss the mark’. I don’t believe that my 7 month-old daughter can yet be aware that there is ‘mark’ for which to aim, and it doesn’t feel quite right to speak of her this way”, I said.

I knew this wasn’t a completely rational feeling, but I felt like he had insulted my tiny daughter’s reputation. Some fiercely protective instinct rose up from my belly, into my chest, and out of my throat a bit faster than my brain could mediate it. He was gracious, and while he offered a defense of the word use, I believe he also saw that I intended be unmoved about it, and gently backed away. If this had been a contest of character, he would have outperformed me in patience, gentleness, and self-control without the tiniest hint of pride or exasperation.

My point, however, remains a solid one. The Hebrew word most often translated as “sin” in English is the word chata’ah, which means to “miss the mark”, the way an archer might miss a target with his arrow. Chata’ah, or “sin”, is a mistake, an error, a big ole OOPS! To be committ a sin, you must be aiming for something and miss it.

I think that this word, and it’s associated imagery, is such a lovely, inviting, and compassionate way to understand the limits of our own humanity. We all know what it’s like to want to be – or behave – better than we are, and yet still keep making all kinds of little (or big) missteps along the way.

Perhaps that’s what this minister intended to suggest to us as he explained how the baptism ritual wouldn’t rid our daughter of her human limits. And frankly, I’m not sure I was listening well enough to have ascertained his precise meaning (well, would you look at that? That’s actually a perfect example of ‘sin’).  Nonetheless, if someone wants to call my daughter a ‘sinner’ – or one day explain to her precisely how she is one – I just want to be sure they understand exactly what they’re saying.

Psalm 100:1

One of the most striking things I’ve encountered during my attempt re-join the church, is how I feel about the music reverberating from inside it’s walls.

The first church service I attended after I decided I wanted to start going again was remarkably awkward for me (in part) because of the music. I was sincerely disappointed about this too, as some of my fondest memories from the church-going days of my youth involved singing to God with my whole heart: eyes closed, body swaying, hands raised, and my frequently tear-streaked face shining upwards at the God whom I was 100% positive could see and hear me.

It was beautiful, truly. I miss that feeling something fierce.

Yet, now that I’m attending church in my 32-year old skin, reading the lyrics of each song from the video monitor often gives me considerable pause. My body swayed along easily to the sweetness of the melody, and I probably could have danced about wildly to a wordless song of praise. Yet, singing along with the words I was reading felt pretty incongruous with my new way of relating to God.

So, what has changed?

For one thing, I forgot how militant the feudal symbolism in some Christian music can be, and I’ve spent too long working in trauma-informed social services not to bristle at the use of some words and phrases. Furthermore, I also failed to remember how unrelenting the use of masculine pronouns for God can be in church culture, not excluding it’s music.

During an earlier time in my life, I related to God with a kind of inexhaustible thirst for Him. I understood “Him” as a him then, and it didn’t bother me to speak or sing of him this way. Now it does. I think that it’s very likely that most reasonable biblical scholars, theologians, and God-fearing persons agree that God is beyond gender — however, I am almost never given an enthusiastic response when I suggest we update our language to something more gender inclusive when talking about God.

I’m not sure if that’s just because it’s an awkward linguistic transition for people, or if the human mind is so resolute in it’s need to beat back ambiguities that people just can’t go there, but here’s the thing: I have a DAUGHTER. And I need to make sure that she does not learn this particular implicit lesson about gender from her faith community: “if God is male, then male is God” (thank you Sue Monk Kidd for that one).

This is a non-negotiable for me as a parent. I need to find a faith community that will help me honor this evolution of language that is so desperately needed in our religious dialogue.

… Otherwise, my sweet girl is going to be singing a bunch of ‘at-home-revised’ lyrics to old, familiar songs. And I imagine that might set her up to run into some old, familiar walls that I’d really rather tear down for her before she even gets there.