Monday, April 7, 2014

Reconciling My Faith With Being Gay

ESR student Justimore Musombi - originally from Kenya - delivered the following message in ESR Worship on March 27, 2014. 

            I grew up in a King James Bible believing Episcopal church. My step-mother was a mama Dorcas in my home church and a district chair lady of women. I used to go with her to church--not often, but once in a while. Sermons on hell and salvation raised a lot of questions in my young mind. At age 14, my second year in high school, in response to my spiritual questions, our school chaplain led me to trust in Jesus as my savior and I also become a convinced Quaker.

            Knowing that God loved me and had made me his child through faith in his blood was a life-changing experience, even at such a young stage. Being gay is not something to be embraced in my culture, it is something to be ashamed of. For a gay Quaker teenager, there was literally no one to talk to who would understand. And I had no computer or internet to Google for answers.  Not even a simple book that was positive about being gay would ever find its way into our school library or into our home. I knew that the Bible’s moral framework was not even positive about gay relationships. I was taught that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

            Back then, it never occurred to me that books positive towards gay people even existed or that many Christians have discovered that the Bible is affirming and positive towards gay people. It also never occurred to me that there were other gay people in the world or even that a church can be welcoming and affirming and that a gay person can be nominated to any church position or even be a priest. Even though I was saved and had the assurance of eternal salvation, I believed I was all alone and I felt that God hated me for being gay and that I would go to hell.

            Based on my own context, many people in my culture are still living in the days of ignorance. All people are victims of blind, unreasoned fear and hatred of homosexuality that has been passed down generation after generation without much thought and almost no careful historical, cultural, or linguistic study of the ancient biblical records. Up to date, people still don't know the difference between sexual preference and sexual orientation. Personally, I used to think that homosexuals were perverted heterosexuals resulting as a mental illness, people who, for some reason, chose to have sex with people of the same sex. I didn't know that homosexuality is mysteriously imprinted with the need for same-sex intimacy and affiliation in our mother's wombs, and that however much we try to avoid it, our sexuality, like heterosexuality, is a permanent condition.

            In my culture, people don't understand the real nature of homosexuality; they fear the rumors that they could be recruited into homosexuals. People have often said that homosexuals are abused children, and that homosexuality is a mental illness. That homosexuals shouldn't be hired to work in public offices, and that they are more promiscuous than heterosexuals. And that if homosexuals could commit their lives to Christ and have a heterosexual marriage and family, they could escape this terrible sin.

            The isolation, guilt, and loneliness I experienced before my coming out were devastating. Standing it brought years of tears and tons of turmoil as I struggled to integrate Christian faith and sexuality. In high school and college, I was in the closet and in a nightmare. To survive, I pushed the gay stuff to the back of my mind and focused on learning. I wanted to be a priest. Maybe then God would allow me to go to heaven. Strangely enough, alone with my secrets, no one knew my suffering, not even my close relatives and friends. Coming to ESR and hearing people's public confessions about their sexual orientations was like leap of faith to me, but still I wasn't ready to open up and confess my sexual orientation. One day my friend Brent Walsh asked me whether I was gay or not. Quickly I denied it, but he kept pushing and told me that it is okay to be gay and no one is going to judge me and that God still loves me just as I am.

            Meeting gay students at ESR and going to LifeJourney Church re-started my quest to discover for myself what the Bible really says about homosexuality. I think my coming out journey actually began here. Years ago, I was angry at God. Why, I wondered, hadn't anyone ever told me that being gay was okay and that I could partner with  a wonderful gay Christian man for life? Witnessing gay relationships at LifeJourney Church was the backbone of accepting myself and gaining that confidence to say “Yes, I am gay and I believe God loves me just as I am.”  This assurance gave me the excitement to share my coming out story with my close friends back home. However, some of them and family had already heard my story through LifeJourney Church’s website that contained the news bulletin about my coming out story. The church had my story on a weekly bulletin to help me find a car that would enable me to go to Indianapolis every Sunday to join other members for church worship. The link of this article was forwarded to my home church and my family members with a friend over here in the States who knew me and with whom I had shared my story, trusting that he would keep it private and confidential.

            Someone forwarded the article to my family, friends, and church, and they became angry at me. They called me abusing me and wrote me terrifying and threatening e-mails that scared me to death. Depression lapped my soul like waves assaulting an endless beach. I experienced intense feelings of loss, rejection, loneliness, feeling unworthy and unwanted. These feelings relentlessly filled my heart to the point where I thought of taking my own life; maybe it would help to reduce the pain.

            Even though I had graduated from a bible college, had been in the ministry for 5 years, and had led many souls to Christ, still I was scared to death and afraid of my life and destiny because of these horrifying e-mails and phone calls I received on daily basis from my home country. One day while I was praying, the spirit of the Lord led me to read Matthew 15:21-28.
            My heart breaks and I am left without the ability to understand hatred and violence by or between human beings. My heart breaks when someone is denied a spiritual home. We are all born into this world worthy of all the love and opportunity our miraculous universe has to offer. Love is not love without a basic respect for human dignity and acceptance of who we are.
            In the Christian scriptures, Jesus repeatedly taught those around him to love their neighbors and even to love their enemies. This is a tough thing to do. Jesus knew this, and even He was not always good at it. He held prejudices like the rest of us, and learned along the way to be more affirming of people. In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus travels northwest of the sea of Galilee. One day while walking, a local woman approached him and his disciples. The woman was a Canaanite; historically, Canaanites were the pagan enemies of the Israelites. She came to them actually shouting and asking Jesus to show mercy and to heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon.

            At first, Jesus didn't answer. He didn't even acknowledge her. He just kept walking. Then his disciples advised him to just send her away, that she was too bothersome with her shouting. So Jesus said to her, “I was sent only to help the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v.24).
Whoa! Jesus basically said, “Hey lady, I am only here to help God's chosen people, and you aren't one of them. You are from the wrong side of the track.”
She wouldn't give up. She knelt in front of him and said very simple words, “ Lord, help me.” Still Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”(v.25-26).
            Whoa! Again Jesus compared her to a dog and refused to give her what was reserved for others. Jesus both metaphorically and literally dehumanized this woman to her face because of who she was. This is just the way my family and friends had linked me to a mentally ill person who is not supposed to eat dinner with healthy people. She still would not give up. At this point, she had nothing to lose and talked back to Jesus: “Yes Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table” (v.27).
Not only had Jesus dehumanized her, he had denied her very existence by not even affording her the basic consideration one allows a dog. This finally got to Jesus. It was an in-your-face wake-up call, and he realized what he had done. He said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v 28). With that, her daughter was healed. Jesus finally afforded her the worth and dignity he knew, and had even taught before, that every person deserved. This dignity and worth allowed her to be herself through her faith.
            Coming across such passages in the Bible gave me clarity of my struggles to reconcile my faith and my sexuality. I began to read tougher passages in the Bible that people slapped me with on my face. I couldn't read passages like Lev.18: 22, 20: 13; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:20; and many others that talk about homosexuality. I now clearly understand that the Bible does not say what I'd been told it says. The scriptures which are alleged to talk about homosexuality came alive to me as I read them in the context God intended. The peace of my coming out journey has rapidly accelerated. The Bible is my friend, not my enemy. I have now changed my position about what the Bible says concerning homosexuality.

            I now hold the truth that heterosexuals, young or old, can't be recruited into homosexuality. I remember, while I was young, that I was abused sexually by my close friend. This didn't contribute to my sexual orientation. And homosexuals are neither promiscuous;  they are as capable of controlling their sexual needs just as are their heterosexual colleagues. I am also convinced that homosexuality cannot be healed by God or by counseling therapy. And homosexuals who enter into heterosexual marriage to cure their homosexuality are more likely to cause terrible suffering and inevitable grief for their partners and for themselves as well.
            I believe further that sexuality, call it homosexual or heterosexual, is a permanent part of the mystery of creation; that each of us, gay and non-gay alike, is called by our creator to accept our sexual orientation as a gift and that we are called to exercise that gift with integrity, creativity, and responsibility. I know all this now, but I didn't know it then. I used to think that homosexuality was evil and that practicing homosexuals were condemned by their lust to misery, disease, and death. I was convinced that if I gave in to the evil spirit, my life would be ruined, my family would be destroyed, my vocation would be lost, my spiritual journey would be derailed forever, and my soul would be condemned to an eternity in hell. I just piled up more guilt, prayed daily that God would heal me, and tried to live a productive life in spite of the growing fear and frustration that I carried for many years in my life.
            Homosexuality is not something you change or heal or overcome. After fasting and praying for many years for God to change me to be the best pastor, husband, father, and praise and worship leader in my church, it was becoming obvious that there was nothing I could accomplish that would replace or end my constant longing to be in a long-term, loving relationship with another man. What I can only say is this: May God bless my life, my ministry, and my future life. Amen!

Friday, March 7, 2014

The New Prayer

Ellen Michaud, the 2012 writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion, shares about the power of prayer in this recent article from Live Happy magazine:

"Praying with others can be a richly textured experience. Whether it’s done in the silence of a Quaker meeting or as part of a group singing an ancient melody with its origins deep in the sands of the Negev, communal prayer is often a joyously multidimensional experience that moves us into a new space.

"'Prayer is a doorway to God,' explains Brent Bill, Quaker pastor, director of the new meetings project for Friends General Conference and author of the forthcoming book Finding God in the Verbs: Crafting a New Language of Prayer. 'It’s an opportunity to open ourselves, engage in an authentic dialogue, and get as close to God as possible.'"

You can read more from Ellen's article here, and check out her blog at:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making Room – From "Small and Full" to Spacious

ESR Director of Supervised Ministry Stephanie Crumley-Effinger delivered the following message in ESR Worship on February 20, 2014. You can read more from Stephanie on her blog, Surgery and Since.

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — "This is not dead," —
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — "This is enow *
Unto itself — 'Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."
* enough

(Thomas Edward Brown, Old John and Other Poems, 1893 )

Scripture Readings:
Philippians 2: 5-7  NRSV
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Luke 10: 41b-2a
“you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one."

Mark 4: 39
[Jesus] got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

Psalm 46: 10a
“Be still, and know that I am God . . ."

We live in a period of high demand for our energy, attention, and time. Multitasking, efficiency, and accomplishment are widely held up as virtues for all to achieve. In middle-class American culture, overworking is expected, and is typically a source of admiration, bragging points and self-esteem.

Communities of faith are no exception; I can’t find the source but see much evidence for the quote that "work is the drug of choice for the church". The sense of responsibility to live our faith by doing more for God and our needy world  tends to drown out the voices calling for centeredness, contemplation, and balance in life. While stewardship of the earth and of our time and finances are often addressed, there is relatively little said about stewardship of our bodies. In Christianity in general and in my own context of Quakers in specific, the influence of the ancient Gnostic anti-body attitude greatly affects us still.

Even while Quakers admire 18th century John Woolman in changing his occupation so as to have less business responsibility and more time for centered listening and responding to God's leadings this is seen as an exception rather than a model for us.

My Christian formation and practice resulted in my seeing faithfulness as something that required a great deal of activity, to which my body needed to be a quiet and obedient servant. When it would protest, usually in the form of back pain, I was annoyed at having to give in to its insistence. After years of chiropractic care and then physical therapy, adding daily exercises and being careful about certain activities such as carrying heavy things or sitting for long periods of time were my only concessions to my body's needs.  I resented the limitations and felt a general sense of annoyance at my body, akin to how I experience a computer when it malfunctions or the washing machine when it breaks.

Then two years ago, in February of 2012, a number of small tumors were discovered in my liver, and after additional tests I was diagnosed with a slow-growing malignancy, carcinoid cancer, which had metastasized to my liver from a primary tumor in my intestines. Unlike most cancers, carcinoid, in the form that I have, develops very slowly and it can be years before treatments that are typically used for cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiation, are needed. That June I had surgery to remove the original tumor and, following a summer of recovery, returned to teaching. But after a few weeks I was experiencing tremendous fatigue and had to make major modifications to my activity level (such as sitting instead of standing) to get through my days. Another round of testing resulted in every test for a reason for this disabling lack of energy being negative. Last summer my oncologist concluded that I had cancer-related fatigue, which according to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network is found in 75% of people with metastatic cancer. A medical leave this past fall semester was devoted to seeking recovery. With the assistance of a clinical health psychologist who specializes in working with people who have fatigue, it was a valuable time of learning and growth such that I am able to be here this semester. It was successful not in eliminating the fatigue, but in diminishing it and in teaching me ways to manage it more effectively.

One of the most helpful parts of the treatment was an eight week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), at the I. U. Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. Early in the course we were given the homework assignment for each day of the next week to sit for ten minutes in silence focusing on our breath. When thoughts came we were gently to release them rather than get drawn into thinking. I could hardly stand it. I was very restless and constantly distracted with thinking.  Despite being a quiet-appreciating Quaker for almost forty years, in learning mindfulness practice I discovered the extent to which, even in the silence of waiting worship or individual centering, my still body harbors a relentlessly busy mind.

For many years I had appreciated the [above] poem, especially the lines “thou art all replete with very thou, and hast such shrewd activity” and being “small and full”. Indeed I had often prayed to be large and spacious so that there would be more room for God. What I had failed to appreciate, though, was that my very ways of seeking God were themselves part of being small and full and “replete with very thou.” I had largely mastered the first level of being able to sit quietly, the second one of being less reliant on words, and the third step of moving my thoughts from making “to do” lists to focusing on spiritual questions and themes where God was working with me. But now I was being challenged to move to a fourth level of making room, that of stilling even my theological questions and thoughts, so as to present my mind and heart fully to God in the silence.

This was very helpful, although challenging but I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that mindfulness practice and thus the MBSR course developed out of the Buddhist tradition. What did it mean for me as a Christian? Two questions became forcefully present -- How can I be both faithful and well?  What does it mean for living sustainably, as a good steward of my time, energy, gifts, commitments, and body, that the central figure of the Christian faith died?

I wondered the resources in Christian tradition for careful and kind stewardship of our bodies, since there is so much that reinforces a body-negating view. While that remains something for further exploration, I have been drawn to the theme of incarnation, of Jesus being present in a body. The first passage [above], from Philippians 2, is set in the context of Jesus’ diminishing of himself from divine to human, and Paul’s model for acting in mutually caring ways toward one another. But what I lift out for our consideration is that Jesus being present in human form can be seen as an affirmation of the importance of being embodied. Presumably God could have simply sent a spiritual resource, but instead we are told that God’s method was to provide a person, a someone, a presence integrating bodyspiritmind. Or as John I:14 states, “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. Similarly, the Genesis stories of God creating the world celebrate in loving detail the physical, material creation. This is especially visible in the Genesis 2: 7 account of God forming the first human being by hand and breathing life into this being.     

The call to be still and focused is a gift of the other three scripture passages -- from Luke, Jesus inviting Martha to stewardship of that moment, from Mark the story of Jesus stilling the storm, and from Psalm 46 the admonition to be still and know God. In these and many other sources, the Christian tradition is replete with guidance to take time from the fullness of activity and thoughts, to make room for God.

Some of the words of the guided imagery CD that my friend loaned me were a bit startling to hear: “ . . . my body has been teaching me something useful, that this cancer has been challenging me to learn and change and grow.” “I tell this cancer these things: ‘thank you for teaching me to stop and listen. Thank you for reminding me of what is truly important. You can go now.’" These words were a bit startling to hear but they are absolutely true to and resonant with my experience of the past two years.

I encourage you, especially if being “small and full” and treating your body like a machine are issues for you also, to make room for God by stilling yourself and seeking to be a faithful steward of God’s gift of your own precious and unique incarnation in this your body in this and succeeding moments. May it not take a “wake-up call” from your body, such as I have gotten, for you to do so.

To lead into open worship, here are words of George Fox, adapted by Paulette Meier:

“Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit, from thy own thoughts. Then thou wilt feel the principle of God, to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive God’s strength and power from whence life comes; whereby thou wilt receive God’s strength, to allay all blustering storms and tempests.”

Monday, February 24, 2014

FLGBTQC Mid-Winter Gathering

ESR student Justimore Musombi reflects on his trip to the Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns 2014 Mid-Winter Gathering in Portland, Oregon:

A view at the Menucha Retreat & Conference Center

I recently attended my first FLGBTQC Mid-Winter Gathering at Menucha Retreat & Conference Center in Portland, Oregon. I treated it as a mini-vacation from my busy and stressful everyday school life. Well, that was my initial take on my retreat day until I finally came to the realization I had during my time there. It wasn't just a vacation. It was a time for me to be able to take a break from my usual life and take a step back to take a look at where I am at the moment and where I want to be in the future.

This was a spiritual growth retreat which blends contemplation and community. Emphasis was on the worship sharing groups, along with ample time for the solitude of prayer, meditation, and reflection. This was a time for all of us delegates to come together to renew our spirits and re-center ourselves through time in the Christian community and intentional time with God.

The theme of the conference was about “Inclusivity” which was well expounded by Mariana Ruybalid. Another topic that we studied was semi-programmed meeting for worship on the theme of theological diversity led by Alivia Biko, pastor of Freedom Friends Church. I also had an opportunity to lead a workshop based on my spiritual journey as a Kenyan Quaker. I shared about my life history, my conversion and call in the ministry, and my understanding of the Bible and homosexuality based on the Kenyan context.

As I am about to finish my Master's of Divinity degree with hopefully two semesters left, I needed that time to know what God intends for me to do as I begin a new chapter in my professional/work life. The retreat was an eye-opener for me. I got to know myself better through the questions asked in our worship sharing groups, each of which had different intentions. An example was the the question “What is my passion?” This made me think of what I would love to do or what I am interested in, disregarding the degree I am taking and what is it about. Honestly, I am not happy with where I am right now and knowing my passion could help me find another path that I could take because doing what I love to do could or might be the best thing.

Justimore (2nd from left) marching in the Indy Pride Parade in 2013

Another question asked was “What is my biggest or most important question in my life as of the moment?” My answer to is was “Why is there need for me to suffer, be dishonored with my family, friends, and church based on my sexual orientation?” My reason was, “I'm just curious to know why because why do I need to suffer if we are all Christians and the Bible says that God is Love and we need to love all people even the unlovable ones? Can't we just all be happy instead?” I don't know but my question sounds cliché. Maybe I am to suffer for me to remember that God is always there for me. And that  I can always find refuge, security and rest in Him.

The retreat also reminded me that in everything that I do, do it for the greater glory of the Lord. There are times when it is hard for me to be productive with God in my mind because I get caught up with mundane things. The solution I was presented during the worship sharing groups was that I need to let go that which holds me back and hinders God's spirit to be manifested in my life.

I am so grateful for Earlham School of Religion for the traveling assistance and West Richmond Friends Meeting for my registration fees. I was given chance to share about ESR. I discovered that most people at the retreat didn't know much about ESR. I was lucky to find friends who showed interest of coming to ESR for further studies. It was such a wonderful moment in my life to connect with my tribe and my new family. Glory be to God!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bringing Them Home: Warriors Becoming Citizens, Citizens Becoming Companions

Thomas Swann shares his thoughts on Earlham School of Religion’s 2014 Willson Lectures featuring Rita Nakashima Brock:

A person can be hard pressed to pigeon hole Rita Nakashima Brock into a single label: feminist, theologian, reverend, protester; she moves with intention but also with the grace of an adventurer that knows the road often brings us to the unexpected, which is a gift of grace.  Her arrival to her current work as the co-creator of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School brings her journey to an issue exploding on our country's fabric of moral wholeness.  This year alone some 140,000 soldiers are expected to return from Afghanistan and start the journey back towards becoming the individuals they once were. “Without a new social, emotional, spiritual system that can help veterans of war move from a military system to civilian life, we sentence many of them to military cocoons or lonely states of limbo from which transition is nigh impossible.”

Bringing the warrior back home to their family starts at the end of the gateway at a local airport each and every day as deployments come to a close. Familiar scenes of joy, tears and relief are just the start however. Brock believes that bringing them to a place of wholeness is a journey demanding the cultivation of long-term friendships, which are as intentional as the course that molded them into the effective soldier that they became during 8 weeks of warrior formation known as boot camp.  As the soldier is trained to act upon a moral code of conduct essential to successful war campaigns with automatic response to orders of destruction, “moral reconditioning creates new moral systems” that does not eliminate the warrior code but lays upon it a new set of understandings that can bring healing and repair to the moral injuries of war.

In a series of lectures delivered at Earlham School of Religion she developed layers of understanding as to what is necessary to accompany returning soldiers in the often foreign journey of reentering a peacetime culture.   The tools to accompany this traverse come from a diverse palette ranging from the latest neuroscience to the ancient rhythms of ritual as displayed in the Navajo “way” blessings that draw a community into a 9-day healing focus of singularity and commitment. At the heart of moral injury is a brokenness that goes well beyond the body of the individual and leaves families and cultural institutions in a shambles. However it is the soldier with the broken soul who often reaches a place of lifeless existence and in alarming rates takes his or her life to end the pain.

Brock sees the church as a place where communities can step into a common energy of decompression and healing.   “The church is the only institution that commits to an individual from life to death” and thus has the potential to walk as a companion in this uncharted territory. At a time when the church seems to be seeking redefinition as its relevance is questioned by declining participation, the opportunity of forming new alliances and ways of bringing comfort to anguished souls cannot be missed. A warrior nation that does not return its warriors to full societal participation does not sustain itself. Hopefully, the sharing and acknowledging of the deep spiritual injury to our humanity may also shift the paradigm of aggression that dominates our current measures of choice in conflict resolution.

No one must look far into his or her own family or along the street to see the consequences of our country's inability to welcome back our soldiers to a world of wholeness, hope and possibility. We, even if a conflicted we, drove them into a place that has horrors that must be released and relived towards a place of return to something new and full of the marrow of life. The journey, as for Brock, has interesting turns for each of us and moves across boundaries of comfort. 

Rita Nakashima Brock is an accomplished woman of substance who finds a certain irony that her life has led her into conversations of partnership with people that once were on the other side of protest lines and now she sits with them at tables looking into the same pool of neglect and carnage. Generals and poets, scholars and citizens all can help to bring these injured souls back into the presence that they left behind not all that long ago. As we learn to serve these wounded warriors with our deep listening to their stories we may actually be taught by their companionship that good work can lead to new creation, bringing old and new into a flow of formation, which heals beyond our imagination. This is not a journey for the meek or self-absorbed. Anger will accompany this journey; silence, bewilderment and amazement. The narrative stories of these warriors are piling up on the shelves but so also are their bodies. The bodies, the loss, comes from not embracing “our body”, not to treat, but to walk, heart to heart, one single step at a time until they truly are home. Until our morality shifts and becomes inclusive to the wounds of moral injury their lives are bleeding a slow death.

Rita calls out in many directions, firmly and with penetration. One of her convictions is “that congregations are one place that should be welcoming veterans home, but few have committed to this work. It should not be undertaken with just simple good intentions, though good intentions matter a great deal. To welcome veterans into a community's life, we need to understand how to assist the transition from the values of military life to religious life. We must advocate for better services for treating PTSD, and we must support veterans' families and all they go through to welcome veterans home.” If we can spend endless resources to make them warriors what is the fair equivalent upon their return?

After sitting through a day of captivating and thought-provoking presentations the truth is that it is estimated that another 24 victims of moral injury have taken their lives to ease the pain. Yes, one an hour, day after day. I am left wondering if I can I say this is important enough to my sense of morality, important enough to move out of comfort and join in the discomfort. It only matters if my yes is followed by a step towards this new walk in a way different than we have chosen to this point in this war and all the others that have occupied our history.

Thomas Swann is a member of the Earlham School of Religion community and studies writing as ministry. This piece is a combination of information noted during the Willson Lectures and the reading of a series of posts by Rita Nakashima Brock in a BeaconPress Broadside. Thomas may be reached at and

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Media as a Mirror of Faith

Incoming MDiv student Angela Nevitt Roesler reflects on being mindful in a world of information:

When it comes to recognizing how our faith affects our daily lives (our choices and our behaviors), S. Joan Chittister makes a wonderfully powerful and concise observation in her book, In Search of Belief:
“Until I discover the God in which I believe, I will never understand another thing about my own life.  If my God is harsh judge, I will live in unquenchable guilt.  If my God is Holy Nothingness, I will live a life of cosmic loneliness.  If my God is taunt and bully, I will live my life impaled on the pin of a grinning giant.  If my God is life and hope, I will live my life in fullness overflowing forever.”
I have been thinking about this particular statement lately, and about the indicators around me that can help me see what kind of God I’m allowing to manifest in my life.  Since the information we ingest on a daily basis has such a huge impact on the way we understand and interact with the world around us (including our God!), I wonder if we can assess it as a spiritual checkpoint, or mirror?  
What do our patterns of media consumption say about our relationship with God?  Who is the God we seek to animate in our lives via the media we choose to feed our minds?  Is it a God of life and hope, leading us to fullness in our own lives?

After all, the age-old adage goes, we are what we eat… and as it would seem, we consume more media/ideas than food!  (Interesting statistics here.)
These questions remind me a lot of the Cherokee Legend of the two wolves where a grandfather teaches his grandson how to know whether "good or evil" will win over the struggles of one's inner life.  In the end, the spirit that wins is the one that we feed... If we apply that same analogy to the case of media consumption, we know that what we seek will begin seeking to connect with us in return thanks to evolving marketing tools.  What a striking and specific example to be mindful of what we attract!

On a broad scale, TV and radio adjust content to majority ratings – so you may not personally see more of what you like if you aren’t in the majority, but what is playing is always indicative and ever adjusting to social trends and desires.
The Internet, on the other hand, works via its intelligent search and social media engines to give us each more of what we individually want (and less of what we ignore) – without us ever having to think about it.  That being the case, we can easily find ourselves in a “small world” of our own design where our exposures are more or less limited by our likes, subscriptions, and “follows.”  How important to recognize the world we are creating for ourselves – and that we are significantly empowered to influence and improve the quality of our environment.
So, back to my original question, if we take time to assess our online interactions and news, what can we learn about our relationship with God?  What do our followings, interactions, and activities reveal to us about our beliefs?  Are they harsh and critical?  Taunt and bully?  Filled with life and hope?  Does the reality of the picture they paint jive with the God of our hearts?  If not, what new "seeking" (liking/following/ subscribing) or pruning might we do to change the flow of information and create an opening for a more expansive God to shine through for us?
I think when we are indoctrinated in a certain way of seeing the world that it can be hard to believe that any other way exists – but when we really pause and seek change, new things emerge.  One of my friends who I love following posted a beautiful quote on Facebook today... "Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen."  I think that's a great thought to feed upon.
In 2014, let’s be mindful of the world of information that we submerse ourselves in and seek to consciously shape our surroundings in the image of our most loving creator God.  If we pay attention to the clues of our informational surroundings and adjust what we “ingest” (and generate!) to help us stay connected with the God we believe in, I wonder what new things will emerge!

Ultimately, if we believe, like Joan, in a God of life and hope, hopefully the environments we submerse ourselves in (including media) will reflect and support us in that!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Beyond Beliefs

ESR Director of Recruitment and Admissions Matt Hisrich reflects on John David Geib's recent book Beyond Beliefs:

“This book of words is for all of us who are seeking for more than just words.” With this invitation, retired Malone University theology professor and founding dean of the Logos Institute John David Geib begins his exploration of a Christian faith that is not hostile to postmodern culture. “Post-modernity opened the door to personal experiences,” says Geib, and “[f]or me, this means Our Present Time is a time to return to the experiences, beyond words, pointed to in the original writings of the first followers of Jesus” (emphasis original).

The lengthy introduction is an embrace of this idea. Geib shares openly about his own struggles with faith and culture and how the nonreligious environment in which he was formed shaped how he ultimately came to a strong faith. He sees the development of atomic energy and LSD as key moments that both marked the zenith of the modern era and the beginnings of the postmodern era, as humanity saw that scientific progress could bring destruction with it. This is the most personal section of the book and also the most successful in dialoguing with those from a postmodern perspective.

Already, though, postmodern readers might sense cause for concern when Geib employs phrases to describe them such as “Post-Modern humans” (xxvii). To whom is this book really addressed?  I think it’s fair to say that the primary audience is not “Post-Modern humans.” He makes this clear toward the end of the book when – apparently addressing another audience – he says that “Experiential story sharing, or narrative communication, may represent an initial contact point with those who consider themselves Post-modern.”

To some extent, this helps explain the structure of the book. On the one hand he seems to be offering an empathetic historical account of how postmodern thinking came into being so as to help those from other perspectives gain some understanding rather than simply being dismissive. On the other hand, though, he clearly operates out of - and argues for - a very clearly defined orthodoxy. He emphasizes a non-denominational perspective, but one that (while it may cut across denominations) is nonetheless arranged (book title aside) along a fairly specific belief set.

The transition from chapter one to subsequent chapters is jarring in this regard. Almost immediately Geib shifts from personal experience as his point of reference to a heavy reliance on proof-texting scripture to establish his position.

“Irreligious readers may get bogged down,” The Kirkus Review of the book cautions, “by continual references to biblical passages.”

This approach creates a tension between what Geib says he is trying to do – getting beyond words and beliefs to a direct experience of Christ – and what he actually does on the page – outline a set of words and beliefs about what that direct experience looks like. Here, for example, he describes what we might call a “beyond belief” experience:

“Many in our Post-modern age have stopped believing that words can describe reality or objective standards. They are not primarily logocentric, or word centered, in their lived experience. I am returning to the experience of the supernatural persuasions of The Holy Spirit. I now see more than ever that depending primarily on the supernatural, interior persuasions of The Holy Spirit that are beyond mere words will ultimately lead people to authentic experiences with Jesus” (emphasis original, 32).

But later, he shares what can only be described as a doctrinal statement of belief:
“Jesus taught His first friends and followers that The Father, Jesus, and The Holy Spirit shared with one another Oneness, their common Eternal Deity, from all eternity. Jesus temporarily gave up the use of this type of Oneness with God, the use of Jesus’ Deity, and assumed the limitations of living as a human. As a true human, Jesus exchanged His human life for us so that we would receive His eternal Life.” (53)

This latter statement is chock-full of specific theological viewpoints about trinity, atonement, and the nature of God and Christ. These are positions that Christians have discussed and debated since the earliest days of the faith. If we are to get “beyond beliefs” to genuine relationship with Jesus, then why is it so important to articulate this particular conception of the life and work of Jesus? Geib continues in this vein later as he explains how God’s eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent nature resolves many theological concerns – again advancing a particular understanding of who God is (86-87).

His view of scripture provides another example. On page 59 he states in an open-ended way that, “The words of the scriptures, as signs on a highway do, point not to themselves but to the way, or in the case of the scriptures, to The Way, Jesus” (emphasis original). Several pages later, though, he follows this by describing “Jesus as believing that the teaching Jesus gave before being glorified was also inspired by God and thus authoritative” (62-65). This, Geib says, is “clear beyond dispute ” (65).

Modern and post-modern distinctions aside, of particular theological concern to this reviewer is Geib’s repeated emphasis on the very limited value of humanity. “God needs nothing from humans in any way to bring about God’s sovereign plans” (87). This is a strong theological claim, and certainly not an uncontested one. A reader might justifiably ask why humans exist at all, and why God seems so interested in working with and through us.

With reference to Jesus, Geib argues that “Exchanging Life with Jesus is Jesus giving repeat performances of His Life in anyone who allows Jesus to do so” (49). Geib’s vision of God (at least as presented here) seems fairly self-referential, leaving little room for God’s love of individual human beings in all of their uniqueness operating in unique times and places in the world.

Geib, left, with fellow retired Malone professor John Oliver. The new company Oliver House Publishing, launched by Geib, Oliver, and Stanford Terhune - published Beyond Beliefs.

Geib’s association with Malone University, which was founded by Friends, and his listing of Robert Barclay’s Apology as one of several “Specific Christian creedal beliefs that I agree with,” on his Logos Institute bio page, indicates a potential point of contact with current Quakers, postmodern or otherwise. Much of what Geib says about direct experience with the divine should actually resonate strongly with Quaker theology. The whole effort to get “beyond beliefs” and move toward personal narrative and an inward experience of Christ rather than the mere repetition of scripture is one that the Religious Society of Friends has been working on for centuries.

It was Margaret Fell, after all, who in the 1600s became a convinced Friend after hearing George Fox raise the challenge, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?”  While there are points of connection with Quaker ideas, though, many Friends – again, postmodern or otherwise – might bristle at some the creedal language informing the bulk of his theological statements. This, of course, gets us back to the heart of the general tension at work in the book.

One way to read this book would be to see Geib holding these two pieces together – postmodernism and doctrinal, textual authority – as a way to accomplish a tactical maneuver. Maybe this is really a manual for how “moderns” might try to more successfully evangelize “post-moderns.” My sense, though, is that he is genuinely speaking from his experience and trying to begin a dialogue. Perhaps a better way of reading “Beyond Beliefs,” then, is as a memoir – an account of one man’s effort to reconcile his upbringing with where he finds himself now. He makes it clear that he has been wrestling with the boundaries of belief his whole life when he shares that “My parents raised me in a loving home without any formal religious beliefs… Little t truths existed for me, but Capital T truth? No!” (14-15).

If readers approach “Beyond Beliefs” in this way, and understand Geib’s intent as “an initial contact point with those who consider themselves Post-modern,” then it becomes easier to set aside the lack of engagement with real-life, flesh-and-blood postmodern humans in this book. Readers can hope that this initial contact point then becomes the first title in a series.

Perhaps Geib could take up this task through an open and honest dialogue with those he is writing about. Would he consider, for instance, co-authoring a book with someone who considers themselves postmodern? Or maybe he could begin some small group discussions and one-on-one interviews with this group and share these along with his own processing and reflections on the matter.

This is important, because there really is worthwhile work to do in building a bridge between a culture of skepticism toward orthodoxy and textual authority on the one hand, and one rooted in those very attributes. This is a project “for all of us who are seeking for more than just words,” and I am confident we all have much to learn. As Geib reminds us:

“Whenever we focus on the letter of the Bible, no matter how well-intentioned, we can supplant and can even kill the unity of The Spirit and faith in Jesus. Whenever we begin to confuse Jesus The Word with our understandings of the Bible and our third-level understandings of the Christian faith, our sermons, teachings, doctrinal statements and stories, we can supplant and even kill the unity of The Spirit and faith in Jesus... When that happens, we may allow the letter of the words of God and our own words to kill our possible experience of oneness with Jesus and one another” (emphasis original, 65-66).