Obama, Marriage and the Mythical and Real Black Church

It’s been a few weeks since Obama “came out of the closet”. I may be late in response but many of the issues are clearly still relevant and important to address. Since Obama made his statement in support of marriage equality, there’s been a lot of somewhat annoying talk about how “THE Black Church” would respond. And, by the way, I am not one of these black folks who will say, “there is no such thing as ‘THE Black Church’!” Because you know what? There is a such thing. Not everyone black is in “The Black Church” and not every church with black people in it is “A Black Church” (So don’t worry white Christians it take more that 5 black people showing up to your church to make it a “Black Church”.) But there is indeed a historical, cultural, religious institution, whose culture and tradition transcends denomination and sometimes faith traditions and whose common connective factor is the ancestry and cultural heritage of the people in the pews.

I am someone who is from and of the Black Church even as I am not always in the Black Church. And as all of the responses and arguments began to come up for and against Obama, I felt the need to reflect on my journey in and out and back in to the Black Church. As one who is a straight identified ally of the LGBT community and one who feels called to prophesy against sanctified contradictions, I’ve had a really unique journey.

In 2006 I was recently out of seminary and thrown into a society that was charged with the politics of God and sexuality. I was told by the person charged with preparing me for ordination, “you must agree with Bush’s stance on Gay marriage” in order to be ordained. “I don’t agree with that.” I didn’t yell or scream or call this person a homophobe. I said, like our denomination, I believe in the separation of church and state. I said no president has the right to tell a church what to believe. In the same way that no church has the right to tell the country what to believe. That’s the point of being American and Baptist? Right? Wrong. “You might as well leave, if you’re going to say that kind of stuff.” And I was going to say that kind of stuff because it was the truth as I saw it and as it had been told to me in my Baptist Polity class. So I left… that room… the church where I was born and raise… and my denomination…

6 years later, I am ordained and spent some time pastoring and preaching freely. And while it felt good to be in a more progressive denomination, I missed the Black Church. And I realized how much I mourned the loss of something that served as my root and foundation. And in very cautious ways I’ve returned to that religious culture, while holding on to the denomination and culture that was able to affirm my call. I’m happier with my feet in both words. Too bad I cannot have both my soul and my call be affirmed in one space. But I believe that space is coming. And God is calling me and those like me be the midwives and help bring that space to life. But for now I need to heal.

All of these things considered, I wanted to share an excerpt from a sermon I wrote about a year ago about Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments), specifically verses 3-7, where God is speaking about worshiping false Gods and taking God’s name in vain. It was my response to the Eddie Long scandal but it is very relevant today. If anything this sermon is my invitation and loving but honest critique of the church of my ancestry and the church of my soul:

When we think about about God telling God’s people through Moses not to worship false gods and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, we often think about specific things, like the golden calf the Israelites worshiped or the fact that some people say “Oh my God” or OMG too much. But I wonder if there is a wider perspective on this commandment God is giving to God’s people. Because sometimes even as we are worshiping Yahweh only and have committed to never saying Oh my God or using God’s name outside or referring to God, there are ways that we can still be guilty breaking these two divine commandments…

And this leads me to think about the controversy surrounding the Bishop Eddie Long. This week, Bishop Long seems to have joined the infamous, ranks of people like Ted Haggard and others who claimed moral authority and got caught doing the exact thing they spoke out against.
In 2004 Eddie Long was one of the main anti-gay marriage organizers within the black community. On some level his movement against gay marriage during the 2004 election season, may have been what caused such a large group of black Christians to vote for George Bush. He preached vehemently about homosexuality as sin, as something to fight against, as something evil. And lo and behold, this week two very young men have charged this same man, with using his position to manipulate them into sexual relationships…

And when you hear stories like that you begin to wonder if people like Eddie long, are preaching the word of God or using the pulpit as place to work out his own confusion and struggle over his own sexual identity. He seemed to be preaching something unresolved as if it were resolved and Gospel. If he did commit these acts it seems to me that Eddie Long and the like, have not reconciled their sexuality with their faith. And in reality not many Christians have. It’s something we all have to wrestle and pray about. There is no shame in that. But it becomes shameful when that lack of reconciliation being prayed to and preached about as if it is God. He is forcing his congregation (and in terms of the 2004 election the country and the world), to hold on to his unresolved struggles. And on some level it is the same sort of idolatry and undue use of God’s name that God warned against so long ago.

But on some level it is not the individual preacher alone who is at fault for this sort of thing. There is very little space in the context of the traditional church for an exploration of identity, inclusive of sexual identity without silence. Whatever Eddie Long’s actions are a reflection of internally; there is a larger external issue that is rearing its ugly head as a result of this controversy. Whether we are talking about sexual abuse of a minor, women in the pulpit or sexual orientation, when it comes to issues related to gender and orientation, specifically in the black church there is silence. And the only way it seems to come out is in the deifying of our struggles, condemnation and judgment. Instead of having honest conversations, and listening for God’s voice, we speak for God and turn what has not been sorted out into divine fact. And it leaves many people with a range of problems and a choice between silence and spiritual homelessness.

I think God may be calling the black church and the church in general to something new. God is calling us to honesty and diversity and truth. God is calling us to remember and honor (but not worship) who we were and what we’ve come from and be open to what’s next. God is challenging us to move with the movement of the Holy Spirit and not block the movement with our fears of the unknown. God is challenging us be daring enough to stop letting the worship of tradition continue to hold us back and abuse us. God is challenging us to seek God’s face only even if it means breaking out traditions and living outside our comfort zones.

Amen…

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Re(storation)(birth)(generation)

Take one faithful step at a time…
she said to me…
and pray… I’ll be praying with you…

That lavender to purple moment leads me to an open field
where God encourages me to walk maybe run.
But definitely be free to dream…
at least let go…
there are still limitations in myself
expectations
so right now I can only look and imagine myself in that field…
I can only stand on the periphery
wondering if it is the green pastures beside the still waters
… is it love?
…is it the mentorship I could never find?
My spirit will take one.
My body the other.
But it doesn’t matter
… that I can pray again or actually that my prayers can consist of
anything but untrusting angry cries at God…

that I can see that field is merciful in itself…

oh for grace to trust him… trust her… trust God… oh for grace to trust…

Log-eyes vs Rainbow Seekers: My response to Lillian Daniel’s Articles

Why you hatin’ on the spiritual not religious???

That’s what I’d like to ask Lillian Daniels after reading both her short reflection in the UCC Still Speaking Devotional and her longer article in Christian Century. And what did that man do to you beyond tell you his story? Did he hit you? Did he have a bad aura? Did one of those God-is-a-rainbow children call you a name? It just feels extreme to me.

After the 40trillionth 2030 clergy friend posted the short reflection on Facebook, I thought I should probably read it. And I posted the link on my page and said the following:

Well… I hear and feel her. There are some spiritual/not religious folk are products of a “self-centered American norm.” BUT the last person who told me “I am spiritual, not religious,” has a story of being rejected by his church. He could not find that divine community in the church where he first found God. And I suspect that many of the spiritual/not religious among us have similar stories. So I think I’d turn the question away from the individual and turn it back on to the church: what are we doing to make sure that people no longer feel the need to run to the mountains to find the spirit of the living God? What do we do about the fact that it seems as if there are less roadblocks to God in nature? What do we do about the fact that nature will never ask you too “qualify” for access to the divine but humanity will?(And I am not just posing these questions to so-call conservative churches…)

Then one of my brothers in ministry asked me to read the longer “more nuanced” piece and see if my opinion would change. And it did change my opinion… but not for the better. I shifted from thinking about my friend who recently left the ministry and the church because of poor treatment, to thinking about Jesus in Matthew 7:4. I want to ask Lillian Daniels, “how can you say to your brother,’let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” And I’m not just asking Lillian Daniels. I am posing this question to ALL church pastors who feel for whatever reason that those who chose to find spiritual alternatives to organized religion are somehow missing out on the authentic God.

On some level, I understand what she is saying specifically. I at least partially understand the idea that communal engagement is more likely to produce true foundation. I understand the theory that religion and the religious can create a sustaining foundation. But what I don’t agree with is the idea that we as the church have the right or good answers. I don’t agree that God can always be experienced better in a structured (Christian)community.

And I go back to Matthew 7 because I don’t think we need to be point a judgmental finger at the Spiritual/Not Religious until we as a church get some saline solution and wash that plank out of our eye.

Her thesis seems to be the closer you get to a community filled with people the closer you get to the “real” God, who is not “invented”. This takes away the possibility that an authentic God can be found in the sky, mountains, rainbows and birthdays that GOD created. It says that humans are the only things God created or the only God created thing that God dwells in. It takes away the possibility that the Spiritual/Not Religious could interact in a community and find the same things you find in a church. It says that we in the church or houses of worship have a truth that no one on the outside can access. And it says that what we have now, this religion that has been passed through thousands of years of imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny and false divinity, is THE truth.

And maybe it was the truth. I believe that Jesus is the Truth. And I believe the church as Jesus intended it could heal all and save all. But what I am not as confident about is the state any church is in today, even churches that are filled to the brim with people, even churches who are preaching “good theology”. Way too often the church today has nothing to do with the truth that God spoke through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

I think we all “invent” God. Some do it collectively. Others do it individually. And I think there is truth in all our our inventions. I believe God speaks through our mythology. The certified canonized mythology and the rainbow in the sky mythology.

Truth be told, the church community is often much more interested in maintaining (worshiping) tradition. We are often distracted by holding on to “how it we always did it” that we miss God who is standing in the middle of our sanctuaries waving his/her hands like an air traffic controller trying to get our attention. How is that better than someone who experiences the authentic movement of the Holy in nature?

As one who feels called to ministry in a parish I understand Rev. Daniel’s need to defend the validity of organized religion. But as someone who has often felt unwelcomed in a diverse rainbow of organized religious spaces, I also feel the need to take a closer look at what we have. The key is not to point finger in one direction or another. The key is to find where God is in both and try to move toward something more authentic. The rainbow people need to visit church sometimes and the church folk need to find God in a rainbow every once in a while.

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