2015 Spiritual Autobiography: Colors

This year, the theme for our Spiritual Autobiography exercise in the Education for Ministry (EfM) program is: colors. Some of our instructions included the following suggestions:

Imagine the metaphor of an artist’s palette to represent your experience of maturing in faith. Name the “colors” that have gone into your personal maturing process: the people, events, resources, locations, and so forth that have been part of personal growth in knowing God. Colors can represent various moods and levels of energy. Try assigning an actual color to each of the people and circumstances that you identify. Identify when each color was added. Note how that person or circumstance or resource played a part in a personal journey of faith maturity. “Mix” your palette/ life by writing about the desires you have felt in relationship to God, the things you have tried, the questions you have raised, the affirmations and commitments of faith you have made, and the imperatives for action and decisions that you hold. An artist creates with a result in mind, a finished product at the end— a picture, a weaving, a sculpture. However, in the work of maturing in a relationship with God, the creative process itself may be more important than achieving an end. What do you think? What picture or sculpture or other work of art would represent your journey of faith maturity?

Source: Education for Ministry Reading and Reflection Guide Year C: Living as Spiritually Mature Christians (Kindle Locations 512-520). Morehouse Publishing.

I have partially cannibalized an earlier spiritual autobiography, simplified some parts and greatly expanded other parts. Instead of trying to list and identify every little thing that contributed to my spiritual development, I have instead chosen to focus this year rather narrowly on a couple of threads that run throughout my life mainly having to do with my relationship with my parents. These issues have been very much on my mind because my mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, yet I have had no direct contact with my parents due to being shunned by them on a religious pretext. I discuss this situation at length below.

–wh


 

2015-2016 Education for Ministry
Spiritual Autobiography: Colors

I was born in 1966 to very young parents – Bill and Elaine – in Pensacola, Florida. I have one brother – Brian – who is 2-1/2 years younger than I am. My father was a mechanical engineer and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.

We were a church-going family. From before I was born until I left the Church of Christ in my early 30s, I attended a lot of church services. And by “a lot” I mean twice on Sunday as well as Wednesday night, every week, without fail, even when we were travelling or on vacation. If the church doors were open, we were there.

My parents and me at 3 months old (1967).

Photo: My parents and me at 3 months old (1967).

The sermons we heard were Bible-based and generously peppered with quotes from scripture. Every member of our family had a Bible. We were expected to bring it with us to every service and to follow along with the preacher every time he referenced a verse to read it during his sermons. If you think you hear a lot of Bible read in Episcopal Church worship on Sundays, you have no idea how much scripture can be crammed into one 30 minute sermon. In fact, I remember this one time in my 20s when I suddenly felt guilty that I had never read the Bible cover-to-cover. But when I actually sat down to do so, I realized just how much of the Bible I already knew quite thoroughly even if I couldn’t always quote book, chapter, and verse on demand.

Listening to these sermons, I was exposed not just to scripture, but also to the particular dogma and doctrines taught by the conservative Church of Christ. Actually, exposed isn’t the right word — I was indoctrinated if not actually brainwashed. And the longer I am away from the Church of Christ and my family’s involvement in their faith community, the more I feel as if I was raised in a cult. (LINK: Is the Church of Christ a Cult?)

Screen shot 2015-10-08 at 4.48.30 PM

This building was the site of the East Hill Church of Christ when I was a child. It was designed by my grandfather, Samuel Crass (S.C.) Hastings. When I was a teenager, the building was sold to a funeral home and the church built a new building north of Pensacola. This building is today an Anglican mission. These screen captures were taking from Google Maps Streetview in October 2015. I'm actually very surprised the exterior has changed very little since I was a kid.

Photos: This building was the site of the East Hill Church of Christ when I was a child. It was designed by my grandfather, Samuel Crass (S.C.) Hastings. When I was a teenager, the building was sold to a funeral home and the church built a new building north of Pensacola. This building is today an Anglican mission. These screen captures were taking from Google Maps Streetview in October 2015. I’m actually very surprised the exterior has changed very little since I was a kid. It doesn’t look like the home base of a cult, does it? 😉

The Church of Christ spends a lot of time discussing why everyone else was wrong. It was well and good to be critical of the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and so forth, because the Church of Christ claims to be the restored 1st Century Church established by Jesus. They believe they have the One Truth, that everyone else is going to Hell, and if you catch them off guard they’ll even tell you so directly.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is an author and Lutheran minister who, like me, was also raised in this conservative Church of Christ tradition. In her memoir, Pastrix, She writes,

Belonging to the Church of Christ – and therefore, being a Christian – mostly meant being really good at not doing things. Not drinking, obviously, not being snarky and sarcastic, not having sex outside of marriage, not smoking, not dancing, not swearing, not dating people outside the church, and, of course, perhaps most important of all, no mixed bathing. The better you were at not doing these things, the better Christian you were. It did not seem to me, even back then, that God’s grace or the radical love of Jesus is what united people in the Church of Christ; it was their ability to be good. Or at least their ability to appear to be good. And not everyone can pull that off.

So this is the not-so-blank canvas that I began with. When I was born, my parents in effect handed me their color-by-numbers kit with instructions that read:

  • Blue goes in the sky,
  • Green goes in the grass,
  • Brown goes on the mountain, and
  • Yellow goes on the sun.
Image: Sample coloring book page. "Artwork" only a mother could love enough to put on her refridgerator.

Image: Sample coloring book page. “Artwork” only a mother could love enough to put on her refridgerator.

All the controversies were worked out. All the theology was nailed down. All the possible questions about how and why were answered. And I was expected to learn the rules in detail as they were given to me, without questioning, because of course this was the only way for the picture to turn out right.

In his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg writes about three stages of maturity and I can clearly chart these stages in my own life. When I was young, it was normal to accept what the authority figures in my life were telling me without questioning. But about the age of 11, I began to question some of the things I was hearing taught, and the more I compared what I was being taught with what I read in the Bible, the more dissatisfied I became with this color-by-numbers canvas I had been handed.

The Church of Christ is very dualistic. Everything is either right or wrong, black or white, and their thinking is very us-vs-them. This dualism even extended to concepts of God. The Church of Christ, intentionally or not, taught me to think of God as a split personality: part Santa Claus and part Cosmic Cop. On the one hand, God is generous, willing to give more than we can think to ask. But on the other, God is waiting to catch a Christian unlucky enough to die with one un-repented sin to send them to an eternal Hell of fire and torment. “Loving, but just”, they like to say. This God — I have come to believe – is far from loving OR just… This God was schizophrenic and scary, and it took me many years to realize that this image of God doesn’t leave much if any room for love – if God is love – or for grace, because no one could possibly be vigilant enough to ask to be forgiven for every minor infraction. Fear, being a powerful motivator, was the very reason for this approach. Keeping people afraid ensures they stay good.

My parents meant well.

I can remember how we often sang a hymn that paraphrased Psalm 119:9-10 – it began:

How shall the young secure their hearts
And guard their lives from sin?
Thy Word the choicest rules imparts
To keep the conscience clean.

Everything my parents did was intended to secure and protect. However, this canvas was small in scale and strictly regimented. Each little area was clearly outlined and defined, and the expectation was I would fill in each section with the predetermined colors and get a gold star for getting them all correct when I was done.

This method may have worked for my parents’ generation back when America was less diverse, less divided by economic and social status, and more segregated by race. But, by the time I was graduating high school in the 80s, I was experiencing a very different world from my parents’. The tie-dye of social change in the 60s had burst into a complete mixing of colors in our culture and all the black-and-white outlines of division had begun to disappear. Equal rights for women was a big deal in our church and in my family in the 70s as they wrestled with the autonomy afforded women by the birth control pill and the increased social acceptance of divorce. In the 80s we saw the rise of HIV and the epidemic of AIDS pushing LGBT people into the public eye as they demanded to be heard and included in respectable society. And the rate of change increases as time go by, so that now in the 2000s we’re grappling with living in the multi-colored, multi-cultural world that Thomas Friedman described as “hot, flat, and crowded.”

Everything’s Coming Out Rainbows

At an early age, I had the feeling that I was different, and puberty brought with it the realization that I liked boys not girls. So, the first colors that began to appear on the canvas of my life and spiritual journey were rainbows. And knowing that rainbows didn’t belong on the color-by-numbers picture my parents expected me to fill out also brought with it the realization that at some point I would have to make a choice. The choice wasn’t an easy one, because as much as I wanted to make my parents happy and get that gold star, I could only do so by trading an authentic, honest, technicolor life for a very grey and lonely life of keeping my true colors hidden.

I played along for a very long time. Through my grade school years, I was an underachiever, a B student, a good kid. I stayed out of trouble, I was always home, and I was active at church. Because I knew I was gay, I didn’t date. There was no going to the Prom, there was no bringing girls home to meet the parents, and I missed out on many of the typical coming-of-age experiences most people have in their teens and twenties. I was marking time, doing what was expected of me. And in this metaphor, I was just barely painting around the edges, leaving the biggest parts in the middle blank until some future time when my life could truly begin.

Waiting for Life to Begin

Much of my spiritual journey has been about reconciling what I experienced as true – on the one hand — with what I’d been taught about how God (and my parents) expected me to live – on the other. But that situation was untenable. Simply put, I wasn’t called to celibacy. Through my 20s I focused on getting into and out of college and then launching my career in advertising. I spent a great deal of time alone when I wasn’t at school, at work, or in church, and I was very lonely. In my late 20s, I began to develop a couple of groups of friends, but these friendships weren’t enough to fill the emptiness of a life in solitude.

By the time I had reached the age of 30, I had seen more than one wave of friends and acquaintances marry and begin having children. I would read the story of Creation in Genesis where it says, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone…” to which I would say “Amen”… and then read the next phrase which in the New International Version says, “I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18) and I would wonder: where was the helper suitable for me to be found?

I spent too much time alone in the dark, crying and praying to God to let me be straight. For all the people like my parents who would condemn my “chosen lifestyle”, all I can say is that if fervent prayer or if just wanting it to be so could change someone’s sexual orientation, it would have happened for me.

Trading Fear for Love

Thank God for the Internet. With the advent of Amazon.com, I was able to search out and read books by Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer, John Boswell, and others. These were some of the first gay theologians and social activists I began to read that gave me a glimpse of a better future than I had been facing.

At the age of 33, I finally reached my limit. I was tired of being alone. I wanted someone to share my life with. Now that I was willing to admit to myself and to others what I wanted, then I needed to take action to make it happen.

My concept of God was changing, and if God was a loving God who knew the intentions in my heart, then I had to trust that God would approve. If God is love, it seems to me, then, where there is love, God will be there also, regardless of what some Biblical literalists might say or whatever clobber passages someone may cherry-pick out of their King James Bible. Coming out is a process, and mine began in the first years of my 30s. Almost all of my close friends and co-workers had the same reaction. “It’s about time!”

It was through 2000 and 2001 I reached my breaking point with the Church of Christ. As my theology was changing, I found that I could no longer even passively assent to what was being taught there by sitting in the pews. My attendance became spotty until at the end of 2001 the elders of the Church of Christ church in Memphis that I had been a member of for over a decade tracked me down and confronted me, to which I could only tell them I needed to take a break. Non-attendance means sin to them, so they “marked” me as an erring brother. If I were Roman Catholic, I would be excommunicated. This began my 8-year hiatus from organized religion.

From Memphis to Los Angeles

Dan Savage likes to say that every relationship you’re in will fail, until one doesn’t. After a short string of failed relationships, I met Brooks in 2003 through a mutual friend, and we have been together ever since.

Photo: Myself and Brooks

Photo: Myself and Brooks (Sept. 2014)

In 2006, Brooks got tired of working as a restaurant server and decided he wanted a career and not just a job. He told me he wanted to go to Los Angeles to attend Cinema Makeup School. So, I made a deal with him. If he saved up the money for tuition and went to Cinema Makeup School, when he graduated we’d move to LA if school went well and he had job prospects. Brooks moved to LA, rented a room from a nice family, and went to school for 8 months while I stayed in Memphis.

Although I was now out to all my friends and co-workers, and in a relationship, I still hadn’t come out to my family. At the end of 2008, I was making plans to move to LA to join up with Brooks, and was also making plans to visit my family in Pensacola for Christmas. I received an odd email from my brother which prompted me to call my parents. It was during that call they informed me that I wasn’t welcome to visit for Christmas. They knew I was planning to move to LA with Brooks, and they weren’t happy about it. But the policy was still don’t ask, don’t tell. My father was harping on the fact I wasn’t going to church as a pretext, because he wasn’t brave enough to ask if I was gay and I wasn’t brave enough to come out, so we both pretended that church attendance was his real issue.

A Bridge Too Far

After that emotional phone call with my parents, I sent my father an e-mail describing the paradigm shift I had been experiencing with my understanding of God and the Bible. In it, I used a quote from a book by A.J. Jacobs which outlines the difference between Fundamentalism and Modernism.

My father’s long email response included this memorable section:

If you actually accept this “Modernism” as you describe it, then you must regard the creation account in Genesis to be a “myth”? If so, you are worse off than we thought and you may as well deny the whole Bible.

You need to read and study more of what God wrote and less of what men write.

Pop quiz: who wrote the Bible?

So for the most part my family haven’t been nearly as generous as my secular friends. By accepting my sexual orientation, and by entering into a committed, same-sex relationship, my family has labelled me an unrepentant sinner. And in accord with some of Paul’s prescriptions to separate from erring Christians, have banned me from their home and have cut off contact with me completely. I am dead to them unless and until I choose to go back into the closet and resume attending a Church of Christ church of which they approve.

So while I have embraced and incorporated the rainbows, there are also dark and angry colors of sadness and loss mixed in the palette that composes the colors of my spiritual development.

Searching for Sunday

The irony is, for me, that even as my father was becoming more aggressive about shunning me and excluding me from the family – ostensibly about my church attendance – I was also feeling like I was ready to return to church. The idea of returning to a Church of Christ church wasn’t an option. Even in liberal California, a Church of Christ is still going to teach the same things I had walked away from. (LINK: This page details what the “church of Christ” typically teaches about homosexuality.) It seems that 8 years was how long it took for me to shake off the fundamentalist brainwashing and to finally to give myself permission to investigate another Christian tradition.

The Episcopal Church had been on my radar because I had noticed many of the authors of the books I’d been reading were either Episcopalian or Anglican, but otherwise I didn’t really know anything about what The Episcopal Church believed or taught. Separately, I had seen Ed Bacon on Oprah’s Spirituality 101 podcast where he had said, among other things, that being gay is a gift from God. So once we knew where we were going to be renting in Alhambra, I did some Google Maps searches for Episcopal Churches in the area. All Saints showed up, and eventually I made the connection that Ed Bacon was the Rector at All Saints, and All Saints was a short bus ride from our apartment, so that’s where I started.

Education for Ministry

While a huge part of my journey is one of reconciling my faith with my sexual orientation, it is also the story of coming out of biblical literalism, fundamentalism, and a faith grounded in fear to a richer, deeper, more loving approach to faith that exemplifies Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self. When I reached All Saints, I knew what I didn’t believe more than what I did, and I was looking for something to run to instead of just running away from. I met Ken V. in a small group at All Saints. He identified me as a seeker, and recruited me into his Education for Ministry group. EfM was just what I needed to complete my paradigm shift, and that experience cemented my belief that there had to be a better way to follow Jesus than the path I had been on. EfM has been a rich experience in learning to think theologically, in reading the Bible critically, and in taking the Bible seriously but not literally. I have developed a deeper understanding of scripture through an understanding of the context in which it developed. I am incredibly thankful for my EfM experience, and for my fellow travelers in that group. I learned so much from each of them, listening to their insights and their individual journeys of faith. And I am thankful that they were willing to always listen to me and allow me to be heard as well.

Another irony of my journey is that the more I learn about the Bible, about theology, and about church tradition and history, the simpler the good news of Jesus becomes. Where once my concept of how to be a good Christian was defined by endless lists of dos and don’ts and by parroting strictly defined dogma, all that has been replaced by a much simpler, more loving approach. In short, I had to get past Paul in order to see Jesus.

Love Wins

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples:

…”The first [commandment] is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (NRSV Mark 12:28-31)

And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says,

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (NRSV John 13:35)

In the Genesis creation story, God says,

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”

I believe that being made in the image of God refers to a number of attributes of God that we find in ourselves. Among these are our gifts of intellect, reason, and skill and that God created us to be creative beings, to use all these gifts for the enrichment of ourselves and others.

My intuitive, critical thinking skills, my questioning nature, my love for learning, and my creative spirit ultimately moved me to want to use every Crayon in that box of 64 … at least a little bit. And to color outside the lines even to the point that the lines could no longer be seen in the finished product. Not that there ever will be a single finished product to show off, for I don’t believe that I’ll ever reach an end to my spiritual development as if there is a destination instead of only a journey. No, my spiritual life in this color metaphor has been destined for experimentation with unexpected color combinations, applied layer upon layer, through a lifetime of trial-and-error. Each new philosophy, experience, and person I encounter becomes another bit of color and patch of texture added to the surface of the canvas that is my life. It is a journey that will never be complete as long as I have a mind to wonder and an ineffable God to contemplate.

EDIT: In case anyone reading this is currently in a “church of Christ”, is considering leaving, or has already left, you may find the website at ex-churchofchrist.com to be worth checking out.

How should Christians respond to Caitlyn Jenner?

Yesterday, a friend emailed me asking about Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner and how Christians should deal with trans people.

She wrote in part,

Please answer a question for me. It is my understanding that a person does not ‘choose’ to transgender … It is really not a ‘choice’, but a diagnosis … Can you point me in a direction for valid information … I would like be able to speak affirmatively with documentation at the next family dinner … you remember the old book/chapter/verse mentality.

What I am having a very difficult time understanding is the ‘christian’ angle … [people I know] are saying … trans gendering is a sinful choice not a correction.

Here is my response to her:

Dear Friend,

The world is a lot more complex than conservatives like to admit. And it is a human tendency to want things simple and clear. We want to have black-and-white categories so we can pigeonhole and classify — it gives us comfort to believe we have control.

I believe we can learn a lot about our values and what we really believe by looking at people on the margins of society. Jesus went to the marginal, and welcomed them in, and even instructed his followers to care for those who society demonizes. And while most people are born with a clearly defined gender and sex identity, some are not. In reality, there is a huge gray area between what we think of as male and female. Just knowing that everyone doesn’t easily fit into male or female buckets is a revelation to people who haven’t been exposed to the concept.

So who are these people? Some are born with unusual genes and/or indeterminate genitalia. A genetic “boy” may have genitalia that looks like a female, or vice versa. Some have an unusual combination of hormones, genes, and physical appearance that make determining their sex problematic — these people are called “intersex”. A Google search for intersex easily turns up pictures and diagrams of babies with a range of genitalia characteristics.

Intersex
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersex

To be clear, Jenner is transgender not intersex. But knowing that intersex people exist helps us think about how to deal with people who don’t conform to gender norms.

Transgender
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender

I’m not familiar with any test to identify someone as transgender except to listen to them tell their story. If a person has a hormone imbalance or indeterminate genitalia, they may not necessarily be transgender. Doctors don’t perform sex reassignment surgery on just anyone and it is a many-year-long process of engaging in therapy and evaluation before surgery is approved.

In short, trans people have gender dysphoria: they feel they were born the wrong sex.

Gender Identity Disorder
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_identity_disorder

My experience of my own body is that I’m a male, I am happy being a male, and have never seriously wished I were anything else. But my experience isn’t universal. If you saw the Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce Jenner, you saw him speak quite movingly about his experience and his life-long struggle to fit in, to be normal, to deny deep-seated feelings and the experience that he is and always has been female despite having been born a male.

If I am insecure in my own gender identity, I might feel threatened by this story. Fear is a powerful emotion. And instead of asking why I have that reaction, I may turn to my religion for certainty so I can separate my experience from “the other” — the thing that I fear — to say he’s falling into sin and is leading people to ruin God’s plan for him and for the Earth. And they will often turn to Genesis, Leviticus, or some other ancient prohibitions about men wearing women’s clothing or whatever other cherry-picking they can get out of the Bible.

So, what do we do with people who don’t fit neatly into the male or female buckets?

If we believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves, we listen to them tell their story. (“What would Jesus do?”)

And that’s what I believe we do with people who are transgender and with all people, really, because that is what Jesus did and what we ask God to do every time we pray. Can we really say we love our neighbor as ourselves if we won’t even listen to them? How much do you love someone if you tell them their experience of themselves is wrong?

Bruce told his story. His experience is his experience. And while his experience isn’t my experience, I have no reason to claim he’s lying or wrong in telling his story. I honor his bravery in being honest and vulnerable to the greater world around him by sharing his pain and the story of the journey he has been on.

This is my loving response to someone expressing a life lived in pain.

The problem with Biblical literalism and the conservative concern with authority is this: what do we do when the scriptures are silent on a subject? Jesus never said anything about people being transgender and the apostles and New Testament writers didn’t, either. Without a direct command or an approved apostolic example — to use the Church of Christ hermeneutic — they will search for a necessary inference. I’ve never been happy with this hermeneutic, because every time I questioned why the CofC did something that I felt contradicted their own exegetical methods or that could be done a different way, it always boiled down to “that’s just the way we do it” to end the discussion. That never satisfied me. Instead, I prefer to look at how Jesus treated people, then told his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Proof texts on love abound…

John 13:35 NRSV
“…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Romans 13:8 NRSV
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

1 Peter 3:8 NRSV
“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”

1 John 3:14 NRSV
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.”

Dealing with people who want a black-and-white distinction between male and female can be hard, because they’ve never bothered to learn the kinds of things I’m writing here. If you want to get someone to think, start asking “why” questions to draw them out and to articulate what they are feeling on a gut level.

  • “It is important to you that everyone fits neatly into either the male or female category? Why?”
  • “What do you think Jesus would say to Bruce Jenner if he were here today? Why?”
  • And keep following up on their responses with, “And why is that important to you?” or “Why does that matter?”

It may take a while to get to the bottom. Often, I think, there is some prejudice against the opposite sex — men fearing being perceived as weak since they view women as lesser, or women fearing violence at the hands of aggressive or stupid men. In my parents’ case, their fear of spending an eternity in hell is their biggest motivator and the main reason they deny love to people who are different. It all keeps coming down to fear… But we know what the writer of I John said about fear…

1 John 4:18 NRSV
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

You might want to check out She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan — a great autobiography about a man who transitions to female.

Also, My Transsexual Summer is a British TV series that is on YouTube worth a watch.

Once you hear trans people tell their stories, you’ll be thankful that isn’t your own problem and you will see that they’re living with a situation you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I see nothing in scripture that says what a person is is sinful, only what they do and that based on the motives in their heart.

If Mike Huckabee had claimed to be trans in high school so he could shower with the girls in P.E., what is the motive in his heart?

I know this is long, but I’ve included links to lots of other resources. I haven’t addressed complementarianism which is part of your original question and probably a longer discussion.

Complementarianism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism

I’d also recommend you check out Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Nadia was raised in the Church of Christ like we were. She left organized religion for a while and is now an ordained Lutheran priest. She has a lot to say about how if man is made in the image of God, then what about woman? And about how a 13 year old boy has more authority in the church than an adult woman. I heard her speak here in LA just after her book was released.

Let me know what other questions you have.

In Which God Meets Us Where We Are

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15)

Peter looked up to meet Jesus’ gaze even as Jesus looked away to indicate the group of fishermen eating breakfast around the camp fire nearby.

Peter’s response, barely audible, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”

This conversation between Jesus and his disciple can be found at the end of The Gospel of John. In this scene, the disciples have been on a boat fishing in the Sea of Galilee, when they spot Jesus on the shore. This is one of a small handful of times the scripture records Jesus appearing to his disciples following his crucifixion, and the last time such appearance in the Gospel of John. This scene is significant to us not merely because it is the last one recorded, but because of this particular exchange with Peter.

Everyone has favorite bits of scripture that speak to them. The Gospel of John has been my favorite book of the Bible for about as long as I can remember because of this particular conversation between Jesus and Peter. This scene touches me every time I read it. In this intimate discussion I sense the profound forgiveness that Jesus extends to Peter, and by extension to all of us who seek to follow him. In it, I feel the generous spirit of Christ as he forgives his disciple and heals their relationship. Jesus doesn’t merely forgive and forget, he goes much further, entrusting Peter with the care of his fragile flock of followers, the church.

“Feed my sheep.”

When we read this story in our English translations, it is powerful and touching enough. Knowing that Peter denied Jesus three times, we can imagine the shame and contrition that Peter might be feeling, even as he is confronted with his friend who miraculously lives among them again. But behind the words, once I started reading about the meaning of the specific words Jesus and Peter are using in this conversation, a whole other dimension of the love of Christ for us opened up to me. There is a subtlety to this conversation that gets lost in translation, a subtlety that should not be missed by those who read this chapter of the Bible.

Becoming a follower of Jesus didn’t fundamentally change Peter’s personality. Peter had an impulsive nature, as we can see when we read through the Gospels. I remember hearing a sermon a few years ago when the speaker said of Peter that when he didn’t know what to say he just kept talking. It may have been this element of his personality that made him a natural leader for the other disciples. But it also marks him as a real, flawed human being. Who can’t relate to that?

After Jesus’ arrest, we read, “Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.” (Jn. 18:15-16) This other disciple was probably John, the author of this gospel, but the text itself doesn’t make this claim. Entering the courtyard, Peter gets questioned about his affiliation with Jesus.

Because Peter and this other disciple enter the courtyard through a connection to the high priest, it is possible the other disciple was assumed to be loyal to the temple and not a follower of this recently arrested criminal. Maybe Peter looked nervous and sweaty, so gave himself away based on his demeanor. In Mark and Luke’s version of this story, Peter is easily identified as a Galilean, but Matthew’s version specifies that Peter’s accent gives him away. Reza Aslan, in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, writes, “Long before the Roman invasion, the term ‘Galilean’ had become synonymous with ‘rebel.’ … The Galileans seem to have considered themselves a wholly different people from the rest of the Jews in Palestine… These were pastoral folk—country folk—easily recognizable by their provincial customs and their distinctly rustic accent…”

“You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

“I am not.”

We don’t get any hints about how the other disciple may have reacted to this denial. We might be shocked at this quick denial, reading this in the safety of our homes. But to someone who had been following a teacher facing a death sentence for rebelling against the Roman Empire, an answer of “yes” to the gate keeper’s question might have resulted in instant arrest.

Peter’s earlier impulsiveness along with his ethnic distinctiveness had made him a memorable figure. The other people in that courtyard were sure they had seen him before, and so pressed him with the same question again and again. At each questioning, he escalated his response, until finally, as the Gospel of Mark describes, “… he started to curse and to swear with an oath, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about!’” (Mk. 14:71) At which point, he realizes he has fulfilled Jesus’ prediction of this very denial.

“And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:75)

We don’t really know how many times Jesus may have appeared to his disciples following his resurrection. So we have no way of knowing what opportunity Peter may have had to discuss these events with Jesus. I imagine that when Peter saw Jesus on the shore, he jumped out of their boat and swam to shore to meet up with Jesus for any number of reasons. And perhaps to apologize in some way. If so, the once talkative Peter might have found himself suddenly searching for words.

Jesus addresses him by his original name.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15)

Koine Greek has several words we can translate as love, and two of these are used in this exchange between Jesus and Peter. First, agape is the self-less, unconditional, purest form of love. The Wikipedia entry for Greek words for love elaborates on this definition by saying, “Whether the love given is returned or not, the person continues to love (even without any self-benefit).” The other word for love used here is phileo, “affectionate regard or friendship”. Understanding that these two different words for love are in use, with their shade of meaning, reveal an interesting characteristic of Jesus as he asks the same question three times. (Apologies in advance for my butchered Greek.)

The first time, Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you agape me more than these?” to which Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.”

The second time, Jesus asks, “Do you agape me?” to which Peter again replies, “Yes, I phileo you.”

I could speculate a number of reasons why Peter replies to Jesus using a different word than the one Jesus used. Instead, what I find amazing is what happens the third time Jesus asks this question of Peter.

“Simon son of John, do you phileo me?”

Jesus condescends to meet Peter where he is, and uses the same word Peter used.

“Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time… He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I phileo you.”

Jesus responds to all three of Peter’s answers saying, “Feed my sheep.”

In scripture, God is described as unchanging and eternal. But in his relationship with specific individuals, as well as with mankind as a whole, God is demonstrably and amazingly flexible and forgiving. Throughout the Bible, God actively seeks out mankind and desires relationship with his creation. We are imperfect, so God condescends to meet us where we are, even as Jesus met Peter where he was.

This principle of the condescension of god—condescensio Dei—can be seen in many instances of God’s dealing with his messengers. God bargained with Abraham over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen. 19) God bargained with Moses when telling him to confront Pharaoh and lead the Jews out of Egypt. (Ex. 3-4) God also wrestled with Jacob who bargained for a blessing before agreeing to release God (or a man or an angel?) from his grasp. (Gen. 32) God chooses his messengers for his own reasons, is willing to meet them where they are, and accepts their limitations as the vessels of his word.

The most famous examples of the condescension of God can be found in the John 15. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In all three of these parables, we are the thing that has been lost, we are the valuable thing being searched for. We are the lost sheep for which the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in safety to go in search of the one. We are the lost coin for which the woman who still has nine silver coins in hand turns up the lights and sweeps out the entire house in search of the one. We are the lost son for whom the father watches every day to return, sparing no expense in celebration when his lost son finally returns to him. In these stories, God desires to know us and to have a relationship with us. We are precious and unique to him. He never stops seeking us until we are found.

Even with the concessions that we demand of God, we too often and too quickly fail to meet God’s simple request of us, “…Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk. 10:27)

God’s love for his creation endures, holding back nothing for our sake, not even the life of his Son. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (Jn. 3:16-17)

We are imperfect, yet God desires relationship with us and meets us where we are. As sincere as we may be and as much as we may try, yet still we make mistakes. That we make mistakes and can be forgiven isn’t the point. The point is that God desires connection and relationship with his creation. He actively seeks us out, and willingly wrestles with us to the extent we’re willing to wrestle with him.

In our relationships with each other, disappointments and betrayals are inevitable. We are human, after all. The question isn’t whether those we care about will hurt us, but when. What matters is that we choose to continue to be in relationship with the people whom we love through the hurts and disappointments.

Peter was with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ preaching career. Peter saw all that Jesus did and heard all that Jesus taught. Yet Peter was imperfect and denied Jesus three times. Jesus in turn forgives Peter three times, a fitting symmetry.

Jesus meets his disciples where they are, on the beach that morning. He meets Peter where he is, guilty and humbled. And he meets us where we are. Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, he seeks us out, meets us where we are, and never gives up on seeking relationship with us, his beloved creation.

Note on translations:
I’ve used a couple of different translations of the Bible here, including but not limited to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and Holman Christian Standard Version (HCSV).