From time to time, I get letters - more and more these days, they arrive by email - and most of the time I ignore them.
I actually have a file with the FBI and Homeland Security. Nothing has been added for several years but at one point, I had ten letters, a poster of Hitler someone sent me (you know, what every good Progressive Christian needs for the wall in her office or home), and a coupla handfulls of roofing nails that were thrown all over the parking lot of the church - especially near my car.
I have come to ignore the ones that are from fundamentalist folks who want to know why I believe what I believe, but mostly they want to tell me that if I don't stop believing what I believe I am going to hell.
Except, of course, for those who figure I'm "so far gone" (read: confident enough about my faith and articulate enough to write convincingly) that they just need to tell me that I'm going to burn in hell for eternity.
You know. Because they figure I need know that. Actually, what they really want me to know is that THEY are going to heaven and they sure are relieved and thankful to God to know that while they may have to put up with my sorry excuse for an existence on this side of Paradise, they rest secure in knowing that I won't be in spending any part of Eternity with them.
How "bad Christian" of them. (You'll understand this term in a minute.)
Once, I entered into an email exchange with a man named "Otis" - that was his real name. Said he was in his 70s. "Cradle Episcopalian" who had left the church over the ordination of women. His wife still attended the Episcopal Church where they were married and their kids had been baptized and married, but now, now with all this stuff about homosexuality, he just knew he'd never be able to go back to church.
He was writing me, however, because he knew his time on earth was drawing to a close and he wanted to get "right with God" before he left. For the sake of his wife and his children and grandchildren, he wanted to be able to have his casket borne from the family church and have his funeral there. Not for him. For them.
So, he wondered if he could ask me a few questions. You know, as a pastor. To help him. For the sake of peace and unity in his family. Especially in their time of grief. Could I please spare a few moments to answer a few questions from a dying old man?
Pretty good, huh?
So good that, unfortunately, I took the bait. For the next six months, about twice a month, Otis would send me questions and I would spend hours answering him.
Long story short, the next thing I knew, I was at a gathering where I met up with Bob Duncan, then the bishop of Pittsburgh, who told me that our friend Otis had met him at the airport and handed him over 300 pages of our email correspondence. Turns out Otis, a good Foot Soldier for the Lord, had been doing some 'intelligence spying" in enemy territory.
I remember writing an essay about it, which I titled "Mr. Otis Regrets"
Well, that betrayal taught me a coupla very important lessons which led me to develop some rules for myself.
1. Never trust a skunk. Oh, they are soft and cute and furry and it's not that they mean any harm. It's just in their nature to pee on you whenever they feel the need to defend themselves.
2. Skunks don't change their stripe. Nothing you can say or do will move or change anything they believe.
3. Never enter a conversation, dialogue or debate with a skunk about scripture. They really don't want to know what you know or think or believe. They just want an opportunity to show you what - and how much - they know and think and believe. (See lessons one and two above.)
Okay, so that was then, and this is now. Yup, I'm going to break my own rules.
I got a letter from someone who describes himself as a graduate of a Bible College who lives in the Heartland. I'll call him "Mike." He wrote me what appears to be a very earnest email, asking sincere questions about why I believe what I believe.
I've promised "Mike" that I would think and pray over his letter and that I would answer it, but before I do that, I would like to ask your help.
I'm going to reprint the bulk of his email here, stripping it of identifiers. Please read it and give me your best advice about how to answer and/or your answer to his questions.
I'm going to ask you a few things, first. A few "new rules":
In other words, please show "Mike" that you are truly, honestly, fully the follower of Jesus I know you all to be.
1. Suspend your natural inclination to suspicion and assume that "Mike" really wants/needs answers to the questions he seeks.
2. Treat him with utmost respect - the kind you wish you were shown those times that you have engaged in this kind of exchange.
3. Try to keep your answer brief. This is not about debating facts. This is about faith development.
4. Respond to one point at a time. Just answer The One Thing you are most passionate about. (See 'keeping your answer brief' above.) If you are passionate about two or three of Mike's questions, please answer them separately - and, as briefly as you can.
5. Be as generous, kind and patient as you know how to be - as Jesus would want you to be with one of His own whom He loves as much as He loves you and me.
And, He does. Love us. Very much.
Okay - here we go. Here's the letter from "Mike":
Hello, my name is "Mike", and I was just reading your blog.I've written to "Mike" telling him that I've asked my friends for some help before I respond to him. While he waits, I offered him this story which former President of the House of Deputies, George Werner, recently posted on HOB/D.
First off, I have to let you know -- I am completely against just about everything you believe in.
BUT: Here's what I hope sets me apart from a lot of bad Christians -- I am not going to fuss bitterly with you or be mean about it. Instead, please let me tell you why I feel that it is important for me to contact you.
First off, I am an independent, fundamental Baptist, and I was privileged to acquire a Pastoral Degree from ***** Baptist Bible College in May of 2009. I attend the Southwest Baptist Church in ***, **, and I love it there. Okay, now to get to the point. :)
I am truly, humbly wanting to understand where you are coming from in some of your beliefs. I have a couple of questions to ask you. I hope this doesn't strike you as rude or mean or anything odd -- I am sincerely wanting to know.
The first question: I believe the Bible (I read the King James), and I interpret it literally (I am a victim of pious hysteria, I reckon ) and historically.
While I understand that there were certainly some culture differences that we would definitely say "no way" to (you mentioned slavery and polygamy, which, although they existed, we know that they were never intended nor supported by Scripture, although we find that God showed grace in these situations), I have always interpreted Romans chapter one as being very clearly against same-sex relationships, without any room for cultural misinterpretation. It appears to really denounce the homosexuals that indulged in what the Bible calls "vile affections" and so on.
So I suppose that's my first question: How do you interpret Romans chapter one? To me, it seems that to for us say, "Well, that was the culture then" or "Well, that's Paul's bigot opinion" really kind of discounts the Bible's perfection and infallibility, you know? I mean, if we fall back on that excuse, then we might as well throw the whole Bible aside as just a now-culturally irrelevant book for our society. So that's where I'm at with that question.
The second question: I have always wondered this, and, admittedly, at some times with a certain amount of dogmatic condescension -- If one of the qualifications for a pastor in I Timothy 3 is to be the "husband of one wife," and women are commanded not to teach in I Timothy 2:12, then how does a woman (whether straight or L/B/T) justify being a pastor?
Please, please, PLEASE do not misread my tone in asking that question. I am not asking it with an "Ah-HA! Got you THERE!" tone. No, I am sincerely asking, because I cannot see any way around it.
Therefore, seeing as you are an intelligent person who, from what I gather from your blog, can hold her own in a discussion and provide good reasons for her beliefs, I hope you won't be one of the many who just say, "You bigot! Don't you know anything? Blah, blah blah...!"
Rather, I anticipate you giving me a reasonable rationalization as to why that verse apparently doesn't mean what it says, you know?
My third question would be as follows: On the issue of the "patriarchy," I can definitely see where your position is, and I can see where you come from. However, I read in the Bible that the woman does indeed have a certain role (that is no less important or significant, only different) to play in God's plan.
I disagree STRONGLY, SO STRONGLY with that arrogant person who said something to the effect of "well, when a woman gets beat, it's really HER fault..." No, the Bible clearly lays it out that, when there are problems in the home, the leader (in the patriarchy, I suppose that would be the man) is to blame, and needs to take responsibility.
So, here's the question: How do you interpret the instruction of the following passages: I Corinthians 11:3 (well, pretty much the whole first half of the chapter), Ephesians 5:22-24, I Timothy 2:9-15, and I Peter 3:1? It seems lucid to me that God (through His human instrument, Paul) is telling us how to go about this "patriarchy." So I would like to know what your take is on that.
I have a BUNCH of more questions regarding the Anglo-Catholic beliefs (I suppose it would be called "High Church?" Is that right? Not sure...), but I don't want to waste your time with those. I really just wanted to ask you some of the more "Kaeton-centric" questions.
Ma'am, thank you for reading this email, and I hope you realize by now that I am just sincerely wanting to know what your position is on these passages, and how you interpret them. I know that, by now, you have probably encountered a lot of zealous people who fling down a lot of "fightin' words" and start in on their Bible preaching and, well, condemnation.
But I want you to know that I am not writing you to do that. I have no intention of picking a fight; instead, I just want to know how you can read the same Bible I do and yet believe so differently, you know? As you know, I am quite firm in my beliefs in the Bible, as I am sure you are, too.
I just hope to get some answers to my questions from a woman who seems to know how to defend her side of the issues.
Again, thanks for taking the time to read this, and I really, really hope to hear from you soon.
For His sake,
It's from Archbishop Donald Coggan from the '76 General Convention.
Today, I offer Karl Barth's recurring dream. Barth was a fascinating character. During the thirties he taught in Germany. When he didn't like what he saw with Hitler and the Third Reich, he spoke up often enough that we was deported (banished, exiled) to his home country of Switzerland.Okay - so, off you go then. How would you respond to "Mike"?
Later in his life, when he was often toasted as a significant theologian, he would tell of his "Recurring Dream." he would find himself hurrying desperately to get to the gates of heaven. He was pushing a library cart in front of him filled with his books, papers and life's work.
When he looked up, he realized that both sides of his path were filled with multitudes of angels, laughing uproariously at the notion that anything he had on his cart could make a difference in gaining him access to the Kingdom.