Reflections on Snyder’s “20 Lessons”

By Bentley Stewart

On November 15, Timothy Snyder, a Yale Historian, posted to his Facebook page “twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.”

I’m going to highlight just four of the pieces of advice and what they mean to me: numbers 3, 4, 6, and 8. I’d love to hear which pieces of advice have resonance for you and how you interpret their meaning for your own life and practice.  

3. Recall professional ethics

This one might be my favorite, because this roots us in our callings. Our professional codes hold us accountable to our roles in participating in advancing the human project. We are not obligated to do all of the work. We are not free from doing any work. 

While I’m no historian, I will make the bold assertion that it is the codes of ethics of the professional guilds that helped Europe transition from the feudalism of the Medieval Ages into the emergence of a (for lack of a better term) “middle-class” during the Renaissance. 

One of the most famous codes comes from antiquity. While the Hippocratic Oath does NOT include the maxim “do no harm,” it has many of the markers of modern codes. It does include instruction for caring for those who cannot pay for services. It has a moral division of labor; they were physicians not surgeons. It also forbids taking sexual advantage of the power imbalance inherent in serving vulnerable populations. 

I am a clergy person, which is a sacred trust between the communities I serve, and by whom I am held accountable, and our shared mission to serve the world. For me to remain in good standing within my ordaining body, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I must adhere to our code of ethics. Additionally, I'm endorsed as a hospital chaplain, meaning there's heightened awareness of and concern for serving vulnerable populations. In addition to the professional codes of ethics for chaplains, I took on additional commitments as an educator of spiritual care providers.

All of these commitments demand that I listen deeply to the suffering of others and amplify the voices of the oppressed and the vulnerable. My profession demands that I speak to powers that are being abused in ways that diminishes the dignity and sacred worth of any of us.

4. When listening to politician, distinguish certain words.

“…the first violence is committed against language itself....“ 

A friend recently visited the Holocaust Museum in DC. He posted this sign to Facebook. He asked for help with translation. Here’s the translation offered:

“The headings of the columns across the top, ‘Political prisoners, career criminals, emigrants, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, a-socials.’

“The title of the sign reads: ‘Identifying Markers for Those in Protective Custody.’ The Nazi word ‘Schutzhaft’ demonstrates that under fascism, the first violence is committed against language itself. The Nazis claimed they were placing inmates into the camps to ‘protect’ them from the German people who were angry for the very existence of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. Compare the term ‘Alt-right.’"

For a contemporary example, I turn to the euphemistic “new-speak” of the eviction order of Standing Rock by the Army Corps.:

“In his letter to Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, Colonel John Henderson of the Army Corps stated, “This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area.” Let’s be clear about what this means. Our people have been attacked again and again by people I can attest from experience do not look at Natives as human beings. While our people have converged in peace, police from around the Midwest have also converged, to play their role in this moment of colonial and anti-colonial struggle. Morton County police and the police who have travelled from afar to join them have done everything short of killing our Water Protectors, and the only solution to this aggression that officials can produce is to further repress us.

The Army Corps letter also states that officials are worried about “death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.” Such pretense would be laughable if this situation weren’t so tragic and enraging. The government has proven at every turn — including its approval of this pipeline route — that it has no concern for our well-being or survival. Any claim to the contrary is a spineless PR maneuver, though some will surely latch onto it, so as not to see this shameful moment in US history as President Obama’s swan song.”

6. Be kind to our language.

Micah 6:8 describes the duties of being human as “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” 

We are called to be kind. We are not called to be nice. My colleague, Ruth Schulenberg, recently informed me that the etymology of nice is the French for “naïve.” 

Now more than ever, we need the principles of non-violent communication. Assume good intentions until there is good reason to know that is no longer true. Use “I” statements. Avoid starting with “you” statements that often feel accusative and can trigger defensiveness. Rather, distinguish between intent and impact. For example, make observations first before stating your feelings. “I heard you say ‘x.’ Is that a correct summary?” Once you have clarified the speech, “When I hear you say ‘x,’ I feel ‘y.’” 

…. now, PAUSE and breathe. Wait for them to engage. Perhaps they will take ownership of this impact. Perhaps, when confronted with this impact on me, they will revise their initial statement. Important note, when someone confronts me with the impact of my language on them, I need to remember that impact is always more important than intent. If they are not interested in my intent, I have no right to force my explanation of my intent on them. I need to apologize for the impact and commit to doing better next time.  This process is laboriously slow and the advantage of that is it gives us time to breathe, which helps us activate our prefrontal cortex rather than our amygdala’s fight or flight response. 

Another helpful tool is the first mantra of Improv: “yes, and.” Whenever possible, “build” on the offering of your conversation partner, rather than “block” the emerging dialogue.

“Yes, I agree with you about this aspect of ‘x,’ and I’m wondering what you think about this aspect of ‘y.’ Do you think that adds any nuance to the discussion about ‘x?’” 

Another version of this comes from Systems Centered Therapy. “I join you about ‘x’ and I have a difference with you in regards to ‘y.’”

For me, the problem with being “nice” is that I might sacrifice my voice in order to accommodate someone else’s understandings which violate principles I hold dear. 

Theologically, I draw from Martin Buber’s concept “I-Thou.” We long for communication where we are both seen and heard and in return we see and hear the other person. We long for the meeting of two subjects, each honoring the dignity and sacred worth of the other. 

Violent communication is characterized by an “I-it” dynamic. Our conversation partner is dehumanized and becomes a label: a racist, a communist, and on and on. 

“Nice” communication is the sacrifice of my own human dignity and is characterized by an “it-Thou” dynamic. Making you feel comfortable and liking me is more important than risking real relationship by voicing my truth.

The “I-Thou” encounter is messy and fluid; and at its best, can be life-giving and transformative. 

8. Believe in truth.

The author speaks of “facts.” I’m going to differ from Professor Snyder (see point above) and refocus on “truth.” Following Quaker educator and activist, Parker Palmer, I distinguish facts from truth. Again, etymology is useful here. Facts comes from the French “to make.” We make facts based on observations of reality. We are a multi-cultural, pluralistic society. One culture, rooted in the Enlightenment Project, places a premium on objectivity over subjectivity. Many wonderful things have emerged from the Enlightenment project, such as modern medicine which strives for evidenced-based strategies for health and wellness.

In this age of “fake news,” we are learning that the strategy of propagandists is to fabricate facts. Remember, we make facts. Therefore, they are suspect to the biases of the person claiming objectivity. At their best, facts always fall short of objectivity. At their worst and most manipulative, they are fabrications. And yet, always remember to assume good intentions. And, check out assumptions and suspicions.  

“Hey that sounds strange to me. Can you cite the sources from where you learned that?”

Truth is related to the Anglo-Saxon word “troth,” from which we get the word “betrothal.” Truth is about commitments. Truth is about shared reality. Truth is discovered through the inter-subjectivity of “I-Thou” encounters (see above). 

Here are my guiding principles around truth (not an exhaustive list):

  • I am called to honor and respect the dignity and sacred worth of every human.
  • I am called to awaken in your humanity a respect for the humanity of others.
  • No one is beyond redemption.
  • Reconciliation requires both truth-telling and repentance. 
  • Evil is real and pernicious.
  • In every moment, we are given opportunities to collude with, accommodate, or resist evil. 
  • Our fundamental calling is the goodness of collaborating as care-takers of the living interdependent web of creation.

Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman.

The Truth Is Truth Can Be Found In A Lot of Places

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

My office is “my space.”  If someone takes the time to look around my office they can get a snap shot of my life and what is important to me.  There are the many shelves of books collected from my years in school and from inheriting the libraries of two other ministers.  My collection of Lions and Lambs are prominently displayed on my window sill.  All the finisher’s medals from my road races are hanging from the coat tree – which has no room for any coats.  There are many pictures of my family, especially my children and there are all sorts of small gifts and trinkets that I have gathered from thirty years in ministry.  One thing that hangs on the wall of my office, directly across my desk, is a small poster that contains Gandhi’s “Seven Deadly Social Sins.”  These seven sins are

Politics without Principle

Wealth without Work

Commerce without Morality

Pleasure without Conscience

Education without Character

Science without Humanity

Worship without Sacrifice

Though these words are not part of the canon of Christian scripture, I wouldn’t be opposed to having a Council that consented to adding them.  We could put them in between the Testaments as part of the Apocrypha.  I have them displayed in my office where I do, so that when I look up from desk, the face of Gandhi, which is part of the poster, is looking right at me.  I see his face.  I read his words.  I see the truth that is in both. Of course, Gandhi was a Hindu who said that he had a great deal of respect for Jesus but that some of his followers didn’t seem interested in following Jesus too closely. There is truth in those words as well.  

As a Christian, I should be interested in truth wherever I find it.  Whether it be in another religion or in the discipline of science or in the cultural norms of a different society.  Truth is truth and all of it is God’s truth.  For too long, much of the Christian faith has seen other religions as “a tool of the devil” and the only proper Christian response to be conversion.  That should no longer be the case.  Though Christ should always be our plumb line for how we understand truth, we should never think that our understanding of faith is the sole harbinger of truth.  Wherever there is compassion, wherever there is care for those on the fringes of society, wherever there is concern for enhancing life then there is truth to be found.   For those expressions of truth, as we understand it through Christ, we should be grateful for whoever shows it and whenever it is shown.  The ways of God are not limited to those of us who call ourselves Christian.  The ways of God are present wherever love and sacrifice and kindness to others is displayed.

Sometimes, I wonder if we are moving toward a day when the church and the synagogue and the mosque and the temple will no longer be symbols of different religions but symbols of the one thing for which all religions are ultimately looking for – the kingdom of God. 

Truth Telling

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Last night, the story on the national news was about the $636,000,000 Mega Millions Dollar Jackpot and all the last minute tickets that were being purchased. The reporter said that if there was one winner and they took the cash option they would receive $341,000,000.  He went on to state that if the winner kept 80% of that prize money and divided the other 20% among three charities there was a lot of good that could be done.  The first charity he mentioned was the Salvation Army.   A representative from that charity said that they could help about 150,000 families with their 1/3 of that 20%.  The second charity mentioned was Habitat for Humanity and they said they could build about 25,000 homes around the world with their third of that money.  Honestly, I don’t remember the last charity mentioned.  I started thinking about the fact that the first two charities were founded by people whose purpose was to follow the example of our Lord Jesus.  In this season when we celebrate his birth, I thought it would have been nice for the news reporter to mention that fact.  But, of course, I am a little biased.  For all that is wrong with the church, there are still some things that we get right.  The Salvation Army and Habitat are but two of the ministries rooted in the Christian faith that remind us where our attention and focus should be.  I was glad that they were highlighted on the national news even if their origins weren’t mentioned.

The more I thought about it, however, the more frustrated I got with the way this story was reported; the Mega Million winner giving a “generous” 20% to these charities.  The story could have been approached much differently.  If all the people buying tickets, hoping against the astronomical odds of getting rich, had decided instead to give their dollars to these charities there would be a whole lot more good that could be done for people.  More than one billion dollars’ worth of tickets were sold to create this jackpot of $636 million.  So a report could have been about what these three charities could have done with 1/3 of a billion dollars instead of 1/3 of 20% of $341 million dollars.  So the story was about what one person “might” do with an abundance, instead of focusing on what we all “could” do with what we already have.

The stories in the news today are about the two winning tickets for this Mega Million jackpot and the happiness of the store owners who sold those tickets.  For selling the winning tickets, the store owners get a large lump of money too.   Maybe these “winners” will be generous in sharing their winnings with the charities that were mentioned.  Maybe they won’t.   To be truthful, I think these lotteries and the “feel good stories” that come out of them are a very sad commentary on our culture and the priorities that have taken hold of us.

I know that people will argue that the funds raised with the lottery support education.  But the truth is much more complex.  This was the way lotteries were “sold” to people.  We were told the money made from the lottery would supplement education and make our public education system stronger.  Nothing wrong with that goal.   And with billions and billions of dollars raised over the past few decades through lotteries you would think that our public education system would be the best in the world.   Why then are there still so many public school systems struggling and having to make cut backs, struggling to make budget?  According to a March 2012 Washington Post story:

Because instead of using the money as additional funding, legislatures have used the lottery money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things.  Public school budgets as a result, haven’t gotten a boost because of the lottery funding. . . . . As one state education official said, “That’s been a slow and insidious movement that’s been going on for a few years now.” (“Mega Millions: Do Lotteries really benefit Public Schools”, Valerie Strauss)

So our children are sold two lies with the lottery. First, the lie that the money is going to be used to make our education system better.  And second, the lie inherent in the lottery itself, that buying tickets at the chance of getting rich is a good way to use their resources.  Hard work, education and wise decisions aren’t really important in this life.  All you need is just pure dumb luck. 

In just a few days, we will be celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus.  Whatever else we might believe about Jesus, as Christians we do believe that he came as a word of Truth spoken to our world.  Those of us who chose to invest our life by following him are to be people who, likewise, speak a word of Truth to our world.  Though we have all at some point bought into the Lies that are part of our world, it is imperative that we continue to strive toward the speaking of Truth.  Our culture’s obsession with wealth, made so clear by the billions of lottery tickets sold for the mere chance at getting rich, is one of the most profound Lies we have believed.   All the hypothetical questions about “What would you do if you won the lottery” keep us from the real question of “What are we already doing with what we have.”   Because the truth is, all of us working together, have more than enough to make this a more just and equitable world.   

Living Like You Say You Do

“The eye is the lamp of the body.  So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).


“It is a tenet of liberal Enlightenment faith that belief and knowledge are distinct and separable and that even if you do not embrace a point of view, you can still understand it.  This is the credo Satan announces in Paradise Regained when he says, ‘most men admire / Virtue who follow not her lore” (I, 482-483).  That is, it is always possible to appreciate a way of life that is not yours.  Milton would respond that unless the way of life is yours, you have no understanding of it; and that is why, he declares in another place, that a man who would write a true poem must himself be a true poem and can only praise or even recognize worthy things if he is himself worthy.” (Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle, 247).

I remember being in a history of preaching class my first year in seminary.  Different styles.  Different points of emphasis.  One of the early issues that preachers had to deal with was whether or not it was possible to be a good preacher while living a life uncommitted to the gospel.  That is to say, are there good preachers who are bad people?  Or, is it impossible, by definition, to be a good preacher and a scoundrel?  You’ve probably thought about that.

I remember thinking at the time that what one said as a preacher stood on its own—that the truth of my speech was unrelated to my actions.  I thought, “Sure you could be a jerk and still be a good preacher.  Look at Peter.

Getting it right first has never been a prerequisite for proclaiming the gospel.”  A study of Scripture reveals that God is constantly calling on the crooks and deadbeats of the world to be standard-bearers for the new kingdom (Jacob, Rahab, David, Paul, etc.).  I didn’t think the integrity of the preacher’s life impinged upon the integrity of the preacher’s words.

But the more I step into the pulpit, the more I am inclined to think I was wrong about the potential disconnect between the preacher’s life and the preacher’s words.  One thing my professor said during our classroom debate that I continue to see demonstrated in ministry is that if your primary job is telling the truth from the pulpit, you can’t lie with your life and expect people to listen to what you say on Sunday mornings.  If preaching is about telling the truth, you’d better get in the habit twenty four hours a day.

Ostensibly, he meant that preachers must always live truthfully—not just behind the pulpit—because there is no way after awhile to keep the different roles straight.  In other words, it’s impossible to sustain faithful ministry in a life that is schizophrenically removed from faithfulness.  If you live one way, while professing another, you’ll forget your story.

But not only will you forget your story, you will lose the ability to tell what a true story looks like.  The church has maintained through most of its history that, after awhile, there’s no way to recognize the beauty of truth while continuing to stand in a dunghill of lies.  You might be able to get away with it on a temporary basis, but sooner or later, you will lose the ability to discern truth from deceit.  “If your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

“So what?” you may be asking.

Your life is a proclamation of the gospel; it’s either a true account of who Jesus Christ is or it’s not, but you’re telling the world something about Jesus with every word you speak and every thing you do.  Neither virtue nor Jesus can be loved from a distance.

The truth of the gospel is that you can’t really even love Jesus if you refuse to live like him.

Why Can't We Say Our Denomination Is O&A?

Another Conversation

Pastor (First Church, Anywhere, USA): Hey Derek! Good to see you. Listen, I want to tell you that I’ve read some of your stuff about churches becoming Open and Affirming.[1]

Me: Yeah, I seem to be having those conversations quite a bit lately.[2]

Pastor: I also see that you think our denomination [Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)] should declare itself O&A.

Me: Yes, I do.

Pastor: That’s not going to work.

Me: Really? Why is that?

Pastor: Congregational autonomy. Churches can do and believe just about anything they want. So, to say that our denomination is O&A is basically a lie, because we have a significant majority of churches that aren’t.

Me: So, just so I get this right: Are you saying that we should never make claims about ourselves as a denomination that can’t be demonstrably supported in the life of all congregations?

Pastor: Not all of the congregations. If that were true, you could never say anything.

Me: True enough. Then, how many of the congregations need to be on board before you’re comfortable making claims about our denominational identity?

Pastor: I don’t know that we should put a number on it—but at least a majority.

Me: Do you think that should apply to our denominational Statement of Identity?

Pastor: What do you mean?

Me: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.” Should we be able to say that about ourselves if we don’t always live up to it? Should we wait to say that about ourselves until we can be reasonably certain that it’s true for Disciples and Disciples congregations … at least a majority of the time? At what point, and based on what polling data were we convinced that it was theologically acceptable to allow women to become ministers? Even though it’s fairly clear that in practice, at least based on the hiring practices of a majority of Disciples congregations, as a denomination we don’t believe in women ministers.

Pastor: But, here’s where you’re missing the point: The Statement of Identity is not necessarily supposed to be a descriptive statement. That is to say, we don’t slap that up on our web site, claiming that this is true of all Disciples all of the time. We put it up there to show us who, according to our best lights, we ought to be.

Me: Ok. So, here’s my question: How is voting to say that Disciples are Open and Affirming any more a lie because it doesn’t represent all congregations than saying that “Disciples are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world?” Neither are true of all Disciples everywhere. Isn’t that false advertising?

Pastor: No. It’s an ideal, not an empirically verifiable statement of fact.

Me: But voting to declare ourselves O&A as a denomination should be?

Pastor: It’s not the same thing. We don’t want to mislead LGBTQ people by telling them that we’re O&A and have them come and find out we’re not.

Me: I understand that—and I think it’s a legitimate concern. But the church always has to deal with the issue of hypocrisy—saying one thing, but doing another. What happens if a person who’s been hurt by the church before wanders onto the denominational web site and sees this Statement of Identity and thinks, “At last, I’ve found a denomination where I can be safe. They heal people here; they don’t break them?” Then that person goes to a series of Disciples churches and finds out that in practice we aren’t always “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Don’t we risk alienating people by representing ourselves this way, when sooner or later they will find out it’s not always true of us?

Pastor: All right, but at least we can all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world”—whether or not we always live up to it. We don’t all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “Open and Affirming.”

Me: But isn’t that what the second part of the Statement of Identity says? “As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.”

Pastor: “Welcoming” people to the table isn’t the same as “affirming” someone’s sexual orientation.

Me: I’m not so sure about that.

Pastor: You know what I mean.

Me: I think I know what people who disagree with me about this issue mean when they say it. But how does the average person reading our Statement of Identity know that?

That’s the point: If you say that we can’t honestly claim to be an O&A denomination because it’s not true of enough congregations, then you’ve seriously limited what we can say about ourselves as a denomination—since, we’re never in full agreement about much of anything. Moreover, we don’t have any metric in place by which we can measure when we’ve reached consensus—apart from “Sense of the Assembly Resolutions,” which is what many have said we cannot put forward on this issue because there’s not enough evidence to establish its veracity—a veritable ecclesiastical extravaganza of question-begging.

Additionally, if you say that we can’t claim to be an O&A denomination because it might mislead people by luring them into the church under the false pretense that we affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity—which they may soon find out isn’t necessarily true and by which deception they might be hurt—then we’re always in danger of false advertising and potentially harming people any time we hold out the vision of who we think God wants us to be … since we so regularly fail to live up to it.

“You are master of the straw man argument. You use this ‘conversation’ device to trot out easy arguments so you can knock them down.”

Fair enough. If the past is any indication, I’m sure I’ll get all kinds of email pointing out my failings as a logician, a theologian, and a human being.

But my point in all of this isn’t just to be right; it’s to struggle toward the truth. And the truth is that “We can’t say we’re O&A when we’re not” doesn’t settle the matter. It risks confusing different kinds of discourse. A Statement of Identity is at least as exhortative as it is declarative.

The question that our denomination will continue to contend with is the extent to which we can claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table,” when in practice we defend a brokenness that excludes people from that table.


  1. Open and Affirming (hereinafter: O&A) is a designation that speaks to the decision of a congregation or organization to declare itself publicly to be not only welcoming to LGBTQ people, but embracing of them as people created by God with equal standing in the church.  ↩
  2. As always when I write about this issue, I realize that not everyone agrees with me on the proposition that LGBTQ people are fine just the way they are—at least as far as their sexual orientation or gender identity. If that describes you, this post isn’t addressed to you and will just make you mad. I’m writing to people who already agree with me on the basic issue, but who (for whatever reason—and there are many) don’t think pressing ahead on the question of O&A is a good idea.  ↩

The Intersection of Cesarean Sections and the Cross of Crucifixion

Here is the third in our series of “best of” articles for 2011, which first appeared on October.  It was written by one of our editors, Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell.  Enjoy!

The nurses called it the crucifix position.  Lying flat on my back, my arms were stretched out like a T, and I.V. lines were running out of each arm and out of my lower back where the epidural line was placed.  This was not what we had planned.  This was not how we imagined our son’s birth would take place.

I had an uneventful pregnancy.  No morning sickness, no complications, I was as healthy as a pregnant woman can be and so was our unborn son.  Every checkup was routine.  The baby was in the right position.  No concerns.

After our due date came and went and we neared forty-two weeks, the “eviction” date set by most obstetricians, I was told I would need a medical induction and that it would be handled by another doctor in the practice, since my doctor was now on vacation.  I was given instructions to call in on Friday morning at 7a.m. with assurance that I would be at the top of the list to come in for my induction.

That Friday morning at 7a.m., I called in to the hospital.  I was told that every room was full and they could not accommodate me at that time, as if I were a hotel guest and not an overdue pregnant mother.  I was told to call back at noon, and when I did, I was told to call again at 2p.m.  By the time we were admitted, it was 3:20p.m.  I was put on monitors and discovered that I was having contractions at this time, and was progressing somewhat on my own.  However, the on-call doctor did not see me until after 7p.m., twelve hours after I was supposed to have been induced.  When she reviewed my charts, it was clear she was not familiar with me or my pregnancy and upon reviewing the size of my baby and she suggested a Cesarean section.

I was a fairly open-minded pregnant mother-to-be. While other friends of mine were telling me how they were going to have a fully natural childbirth or a water birth and had written birth plans detailing what they wanted, I wanted to be open to the process and understanding that I hadn’t been through this before, I wanted to be open to the possibilities of intervention.  The only thing I wanted to avoid was a Caesarean section.  I had never had surgery, and until this pregnancy I had never even been admitted to a hospital.  I was determined I was going to have a vaginal birth, and had been assured previously by my doctor that there was no reason I would need a Caesarean section.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was on a clock that had been set from the time I was admitted.  This is common in most hospitals in the U.S.  A pregnant woman in labor is put on a clock in which if certain progress is not made in a certain amount of time, labor is augmented.  If this augmentation does not progress things fast enough, or causes maternal or fetal distress, a Cesarean section may occur.  And every hospital is different—most want you to deliver within 24 hours of your water breaking, and some want you to deliver within 36.  Some doctors say you must dilate one centimeter per hour, others are more relaxed.  Around 7:30p.m., the nurse administered Pitocin, the drug that starts or enhances contractions.  And so the minutes began ticking away.

I labored well until the middle of the night when I realized how tired I was and that I needed to sleep—at that point I had been up for almost 20 hours and knew it was going to be much longer.  I hadn’t expected to wait twelve hours before being seen by the doctor and beginning the Pitocin.  I asked for the epidural, and with my lower body numb tried to sleep.  I did not know at the time, as it was not explained to me by the nurse or the anesthesiologist, but the risk of my blood pressure dropping while on the epidural required that my blood pressure be monitored throughout.  So every fifteen minutes the blood pressure gauge would squeeze my upper arm keeping me up.

Every hour the doctor came back, and every hour Pitocin was increased and I would progress a little more, just enough to keep me ahead of the clock and long enough for a new on-call doctor to come on to the scene.  However, as I labored on until the afternoon after being fully dilated, and after pushing for an hour and a half, falling asleep in the middle of contractions, the nurse looked at me and said, “I don’t think you’re going to do this.”

Lying in the crucifix position, exactly twenty-four hours after I had been admitted at 3:20p.m., I was cut open, my son taken from me, and when I did not hear him scream and kept asking questions, they knocked me out with narcotics.  My son AJ ended up in the Special Care Nursery for a few hours, as he was not breathing regularly, and there were a few other concerns.  My husband was almost completely silent as he was not sure what was going on, if his son was fine or if his wife was going to survive.  After an hour I was wheeled into a recovery room all alone, no husband, no son, just a nurse checking in on me.  While I was in recovery I later learned my entire family was able to go into the Special Care nursery and see my son but I was left alone, until I  was finally taken to my postpartum room and they released my son at the same time.  Not only was this “birth” traumatic, frightening and shocking more than normal, after all of that, I ended up with an infection and was back in the hospital a week later, having my incision reopened and later placed on a vacuum machine for a few weeks.  It took me twelve weeks for my incision to heal, when the normal recovery for a C-section is about 2 weeks.

Since AJ’s birth, I have questioned what happened to me in the hospital, not only asking my doctor questions about what went wrong from my point of view, but also talked to friends who had traumatic C-sections and have done some research online.  I viewed the documentary The Business of Being Born (2007), which questions the way the United States has handled birth in the last century, making birth more institutionalized, where birth becomes more of a medical/surgical procedure, rather than a natural process that has been happening to women for as long as human beings have walked this earth.  Produced by Ricki Lake, Business reviews how the hospitals, fueled by insurance companies, attempt to speed up the process of birth artificially as a way of moving women through Labor and Delivery to keep beds open, and how many of these “sped-up” births require Cesarean sections in the end.   The documentary also interviews obstetricians who admit that many of their colleagues will recommend C-sections because it is more convenient for their schedule, at the end of the day or before the weekend begins.  I have read of obstetricians performing them in the late evening before midnight, as it is one less patient during the overnight hours to worry about.

In the months before AJ was born, I had attended childbirth classes and had read several different books on childbirth and some of the medical interventions that might take place, but I had known so little about what would happen once I was admitted to the hospital, how the doctors and nurses would make decisions that I would not understand.  I did not understand the power dynamic that would take place in my role as a patient, how helpless I and my husband would feel in the hospital system, where we were given as little information as possible.

Since I gave birth and recovered from the infection, I have researched labor, delivery, and Caesarean sections.  TheUnited Stateshas the highest Caesarean section rate in the industrialized world.  As of 2006, the C-section rate in the US was 31% of all births, or about one in three.  The risk of a C-section doubles for a first-time mother when a medical induction occurs.  The World Health Organization recommends that countries have a rate of 15% or less, and countries with rates higher than 15% are at greater risk of soaring maternal and fetal death rates.

There are times C-sections are necessary: when the baby is presented breech and attempts to turn the baby fail, when there are risks to the mother’s health such as preeclampsia (high blood pressure), or risks to the baby’s health such as premature placental detachment, or prolapsed cord (when the cord emerges first in the birth canal).  However, there are many more C-sections that are made necessary due to standard medical practice in hospitals that are drawn on artificial conclusions, such as “the clock.”

The convenience of C-sections for doctors and/or hospitals is that C-sections are quick: from the time it takes to prep the room to the time the patient is sewn up and off to the recovery room is less than an hour and a half.  The procedure itself takes about twenty minutes.  Because every woman labors differently, from a few short hours to days, C-sections end the need of doctors and staff to constantly monitor the mother and baby’s health and progress.  In facilities with limited number of beds in a maternity ward, the need to turn over rooms can sometimes compromise the need of time for the mother to be in labor.  Things have to be sped up.  The clock is set.

Time ticks away.  Pitocin is started, increasing the strength and intensity of the contractions.  The contractions increase and the pain and intensity often become too much to bear, so the mother is given an epidural to numb the effects, but also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the laboring mother to change positions to help the baby move further down the birth canal.  Often the epidural calms the effects of the Pitocin to a point that it slows down the labor, and so Pitocin is increased again.  This cycle continues, with the epidural or other pain-relieving drugs administered at a greater measure to combat the intensity of the contractions, all the while creating an environment in which a baby undergoes great stress.  That stress can manifest itself in drops in heart rates or other vital signs, causing an emergency which requires a C-section to save the life of the child.  And if that were not enough, after twenty-four hours of labor most women are taken in for a C-section anyway because “the clock” has wound down from twenty-four to zero.

There are many risks involved with a C-section, which are rarely explained because there isn’t time, though the patient is given a waiver to sign.  It is up to the patient to ask questions.  I was not informed that the C-section could actually cause great risk to the baby as well as me.  I was not told that one of the outcomes may be that my child would have difficulty breathing, as my son did.  I was not told about the risk of infection, nor was I ever told that one out of every two C-sections has complications.  However, as one doctor friend of mine said to me off the cuff, “No doctor has ever been sued for performing a C-section.”

I believe in the end, my C-section was necessary.  The second on-call doctor during my labor who delivered AJ said the reason for the C-section was my fatigue at the end, not his size.  I had labored for almost 24 hours after being up for 36 hours, and I was utterly exhausted after the Pitocin and the epidural which was supposed to help me relax.  I was falling asleep between pushes.  Once AJ was born it was clear he was having trouble breathing.  The C-section ended up being necessary, and I was left with an infection and a twelve-week recovery.

All in all, as the saying goes, if I only knew then what I know now.  If I had known all the risks of the medical induction process, I would have asked to delay my induction.  At my last ultrasound, there was no cause for concern.  If I had known that my induction would be delayed by twelve hours by the hospital, I would have asked to come back the next morning.  I cried when the doctors began the C-section because I felt set up.  I do believe my C-section was necessary, but I also believe it was entirely preventable.  It ought not to have happened.

Jesus’ death by crucifixion was also necessary, and it should not have happened.  When I prepared for Holy Week the spring after my son’s birth, I found myself wrestling with these questions with a wrench in the stomach feeling: Why did Christ have to die for our sins?  Why did Christ have to die on the cross?

Perhaps I had been reading the story wrong.  I remember going to camp as a youth and being explained in a formulaic way, that Adam’s sin caused God to put Christ on a cross, which equals our salvation.  At the same time I remember at the same camp learning the verse by heart:  For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.  There seemed to be more to it than a simple equation of sending Jesus to die, much more than I could understand at that impressionable age.

It is clear in the Gospels that Jesus is innocent.  Jesus is falsely accused, there is no basis for the accusations, and Pilate even wanted to release him, but for fear of the crowds hands him over.  Jesus has done nothing to deserve death.  Jesus’ death does not appease a wrathful God but rather appeases the bloodthirsty crowd that demands his blood.

Jesus tells a parable during the events of Holy Week about the owner of a vineyard and his tenants (Mark 12:1-9). The landowner has sent servants who have returned beaten and abused.  It is clear that the landowner did not willingly send his son to die—that was not part of the plan of the landowner—but sent him because it was the necessary thing to do, the only thing to do, so that some would listen to him.  God sent Jesus to the world so that the world would learn and have relationship with God in a new way.  God knew, however, that our sinful ways would cause us to kill him.

When Jesus entered Jerusalemon that day, he knew what his end would be.  But the same crowds that would shout “Crucify him!” did not know this; they shouted “Hosanna!”  The same disciples that would flee from him, deny him and even betray him did not know this, they accompanied him.

Joseph was told in a dream to name the child Jesus because he would save his people from their sins.  What we forget so often is how many times Jesus healed people, restored people, and said, “Your sins are forgiven.”  It did not require his death to forgive our sins, but through Jesus’ death on the cross, death was conquered forever.  The paradox is that Jesus’ death was entirely preventable, but entirely necessary.  He was innocent and yet his death subdued the violence brewing between the Romans and the people; it quenched the blood thirst of the crowd that was not satisfied with Barabbas.  We remember that it was only after Jesus was handed over for death that Pilate and Herod became friends.

Jesus died in a system of violence resolved by violence.  The priests wanted him arrested but didn’t want to be responsible for his death, so they handed him over to Pilate.  Pilate didn’t want to be responsible for this innocent man’s death, and in Luke’s Gospel he tries to send him back to Herod, but eventually hands him over to the soldiers to be crucified, to please the crowds.  No one wanted to claim responsibility, but they all wanted him to be killed, to be rid of him.  To bring peace to the crowds, the priests, and the government, an innocent man was killed.

However, before we get to death, there is another birth we speak of in the Christian story.  When Nicodemus came to visit Jesus, he was told that no one could see the kingdom of God without being born from above.  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can I crawl back into my mother’s womb?”  Jesus told him he had to be born not only of flesh, but of Spirit.  There is another birth that happens, a birth that has no death, and that birth is triumphant because the cross conquers death.

I was exhausted when AJ was born.  I had slept very little in thirty hours and at the end, the Caesarean section was necessary for him to be born.  Despite what I went through and because of the research I’ve done I still believe it was necessary at that point, to give my son life.  But it ought not to have happened.  It was not at all what I expected when I became pregnant or when I prepared for the induction.  In the end, I have my son, born alive and healthy.  There are many women who have uncomplicated pregnancies that end up with Cesarean sections, surgical procedures that ought not to have happened, but because of the medical interventions that occurred, the artificial clock set up of the hospitals, the introduction of Pitocin and epidurals, many of those mothers and babies end up with complications requiring a life-saving Cesarean section, though not without its consequences.

All too often the decision to have a Cesarean section is made as a life-or-death decision.  It has to be made almost right away.  It has to be made to save the life of the child and/or the mother.  The responsibility of saving the life ends up upon the family caught in the process of birth, for ultimately they must sign the paper to give consent, even if not all the risks are shared.  However, had the hospital not put the laboring mother on a clock, had the doctor not decided that the contractions were not fast enough based on insurance policies and not medical necessity, had the anesthesiologist given all the risks to the patient ahead of time, perhaps a number of Cesarean sections would be avoided, and the health risks for both mother and baby could be reduced dramatically.

My hope is that as the World Health Organization puts pressure on the medical institution in the prevent unnecessary cesarean sections, to get off of the artificial clocks placed by insurance companies and hospitals.  Perhaps in the future we will have learned from our past C-sections.  It is time to end the systemic way women and children are put in danger, created by an artificial clock placed by hospitals and insurance companies in a system more concerned about turning over beds than the risks involved.

My hope goes beyond the operating room in Labor and Delivery to the side of the hospital bed.  The entire time I was recovering from surgery in the hospital, I was never seen by a chaplain.  I was never asked the question, “Do you want spiritual support?”  My hope goes beyond the side of the hospital bed into the churches and homes where friends and clergy will ask how you feel, but rarely want to hear what you feel, especially if you have any negative feelings about the birth process.  “Well, your baby is healthy, that is all that matters.”  “Your son is alive, you can thank God for that.”  Those statements, however true, are hollow and empty and allow the caregiver to ignore the feelings of the mother.  And I have barely mentioned what my husband went through in all of this.  My hope is that pastors will learn how to reach out to mothers who have given birth by Cesarean section or who have had other traumatic birth experiences to understand that not every birth results in a happy experience.  My hope is that clergy will recognize the emotional pain and trauma that has occurred for all parents involved, to not only recognize but honor and give validity to the multitude of feelings surrounding birth.

I cannot tell the story of the birth of my son, Anselm John, without telling the story of my C-section.  There are many women who can identify with the experience of Jesus on the cross, when their arms are strapped down in a T, when they are told this must be done to save a life.  They, too, are caught in a system where responsibility is pushed off, where a scapegoat is created, whether it be the mother for not making quick decisions earlier, or even the child, for not descending the birth canal fast enough.

We cannot tell the Christian story without telling of the crucifixion of Jesus.  We cannot tell the story of God’s love for the world without the sending of his only son and his death on the cross, a scapegoat for the system of violence.  I am reminded of what theologian Mark Heim once said: “Jesus’ death saves the world, and it ought not to have happened.”  That is exactly how I feel about my C-section: it saved AJ’s life, and it ought not to have happened.

Honesty Isn't Our Policy (Part 2)

(This is the second of two parts, the first appearing yesterday.)

That being the case, Christians have a stake in the practice of truth-telling, which, as we have said, presupposes a life sustained by practices that embody truth.  In other words, you can’t be a Christian and a liar.  Now, to say that is not to say that Christians don’t lie; they do.  In fact, Christians are just as capable of lying as anyone else.  Rather, to say that “You can’t be a Christian and a liar” is to say that the life lived by a Christian can no more be shaped by deceit than the life of a United States Marine can be shaped by pacifism.  Obviously there are situations when a Marine can choose non-violent resistance over violence.  But always to live non-violently would be to betray the very oath taken upon becoming a Marine in promising to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” presumably using violent force if necessary.  To live self-consciously non-violently in the face of every threat would, by definition, make a person something other than a Marine.  How much more so for Christians who speak baptismal vows about following the God of truth to have lives characterized by untruthfulness?

In fact, the early church was so convinced about the need for truthfulness and lives lived in congruence with the truth that they included the odd and chilling story of Ananias and Sapphira in their scriptures.  At first glance, it seems, Ananias and Sapphira are being punished for keeping back from the church a portion of the sale of some land.  In many cases this passage is used by the church today to inveigle a larger pledge on Commitment Sunday or to convince people of the ramifications of selfishness—as if to say, “Don’t hold back on the church (and by implication the Holy Spirit)—the life you save may be your own.”

However, the word of judgment Peter speaks to Ananias and Sapphira deals not with their tightfistedness, but with their duplicity.  Peter says, “While it [the land] remained unsold, did it not remain your own?  And after it was sold, were the proceeds at your disposal?  How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart?  You did not lie to us, but to God!” (Acts 5:4).  The question to modern Christians is, “Why would the early church want to include such an obviously threatening story in its recounting of the birth of the church?”  To convince parishioners of the need for consistent and unselfish giving?  No, the church has held up this story as a way of underscoring the need to ensure the integrity of the body of Christ as a truthful community.

From our reading of Acts at this point we are left to conclude that the early church, especially as it was being established in a less than hospitable environment, believed that truth-telling was essentially a matter of communal survival.  That is to say, they understood that in a pluralistic Greco-Roman world in which truth claims were as thick in the air as they are in popular modern culture, and in a sociological context in which the church appeared to many to be a threat to the stability of the established order, the church knew that its claims about Jesus would ultimately be judged by whether its followers lived truthfully according to the claims they advocated.  That being the case, the early church rightly understood that truthfulness, from the perspective of the body of Christ, is always a matter of life and death.

Is honesty always the best policy?  From the perspective of the church, honesty, truth-telling, truthful living is the only policy—but it’s more than just a policy, a strategy for staying out of trouble.  Saying that honesty is the best policy in the abstract, of course, requires no real moral courage.  Who would argue in the abstract against honesty?  In real life telling the truth is a risky venture.  Jesus wasn’t killed, after all, because he was nice, but because he couldn’t shut up.

Our modern response to the story of Ananias and Sapphira is telling.  Peter seems to most modern ears not to be particularly pastoral to Ananias and Sapphira, but rather abrupt and judgmental.  However, the problem may stem from our misunderstanding of the word pastoral.  A pastor, evoking the image of a shepherd, isn’t a personal masseuse, or a self-help guru—someone whose sole purpose is to make the flock feel good regardless of how it behaves.  A pastor, like a shepherd, is charged with the duty of helping the flock navigate the dangers of the world around them, so that the flock can find sufficient food and water in order to reproduce.  Not speaking the truth to the flock about the perils that face it for the purposes of keeping the peace, far from being a virtue in a shepherd, is in fact unfaithful, un-Christ-like, un-pastoral.  Peter sees the dangers of the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira and speaks a word of truth in the face of it.  Based on that particular way of thinking the church has a sacred responsibility to name dishonesty when it occurs—even at the short-term expense of a peaceful environment.

The church orders its life, and therefore the life of its members, around the truth of Christ.  Christians are honest, not because it works, but because as followers of Jesus, we have no other way of being.  Our willingness to live like the one we follow bears out the value and veracity of our truth claims.  Honesty isn’t our policy; it’s our identity.

Honesty Isn't Our Policy (Part 1)

Honesty, as the saying goes, is always the best policy.  If we believe that, the question is: Do we practice it?  Do we live our lives truthfully?  Now, someone might object that telling the truth and living the truth are two different animals.  That is to say, the question of telling the truth without living that truth begs the question about whether it is possible to be Charles Manson (i.e., a complete schmuck) and still speak something approximating the truth, inasmuch as it is argued that the truth is not contingent on anything outside itself to be true.  In other words, one account of the truth maintains that there is something that exists independently, objectively “out there” that is called the “Truth.”  What one needs to do when there exists competing truth claims, goes the thinking, is to appeal to the “objective standard” of “Truth.” This formula works serviceably well when the question has to do with whether or not 2 + 2 = 4 or whether the population of Louisville is larger than that of Lexington.  If, however, the question raised is whether or not University of Louisville fans are less dedicated fans than University of Kentucky fans or whether or not Christianity is true, to what uncontestable “objective standard” does one appeal?

Absolutism, or the belief, not merely that there is an “absolute truth” but that that “absolute truth” can be apprehended by human beings—if they only “try hard enough”—is a difficult argument to sustain, just to the extent that it is possible to have two reasonably intelligent, reasonably passionate, reasonably sincere individuals disagree on where to go to find the absolute truth that will settle their argument.  Should they look in the Bible?  The Koran?  The Bhagavad-Gita?  The DaVinci Code?  Dr. Phil?  The periodic table of elements? Who gets to decide what’s true?  Or where do we expect to find the true account of truth to which everyone will defer?  Absolutism runs the risk in the end of only being able to communicate by monologue.

“Does that mean,” as many will quickly ask, “that everything is relative?  That there are no standards of truth to which we may appeal?  Do we throw our hands up in the air because there is finally no way to adjudicate between competing truth claims?”  No.  Relativism, as a set of truth claims, collapses under its own weight.  As James McClendon has pointed out: “As a general theory [relativism] seems to ask us to believe (a) that it is (in general) true, and (b) that nothing is (in general) true—and both can’t be the case” (Ethics: Systematic Theology, Abingdon, 1986, 350). Relativism as a theory of knowledge is logically absurd—or should we say, it’s only relatively true—whatever that means.

Therefore, to assert that honesty is the best policy is only to have begun the discussion, not to have settled it.  If absolutism is problematic and relativism is logically indefensible, how are we supposed to talk about truth?  Or as Pilate put the question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

When asked “What is truth?” how did Jesus respond?  We are left to assume that Jesus said nothing, because Pilate immediately left Jesus and went outside to address the Jews.  Why didn’t Jesus say, “The truth is x, y, and z, and you would know that if you only studied your _______?”  Or why didn’t Jesus say, “Truth is such a slippery subject, I’m not sure we ought to waste time trying to nail it down to a single definition.  After all, all definitions are ultimately equal?”  In fact Jesus let the silence hang in the air, as if to say, “If you want to know what truth is, look at me.  I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

In a world in which we seem incapable of sustaining a conversation about truth between faith systems, perhaps the only way we have of judging their truthfulness is by observing the kinds of people they produce.  It seems to me that the only way we have of judging the truthfulness of a particular set of truth claims is by examining whether, and to what extent, there exists a people capable of embodying those claims.  That is to say, are the people named by a particular truth claim living the truth to which they appeal, or more to the point, are they living truthfully?  Do people who claim to follow Jesus, for example, live in ways that honor Jesus’ commitments?  Or, as Samuel Wells remarks: “Pragmatic tests of Christianity focus on Christian tradition and the ‘richness of moral character’ it produces in much the same way that science judges its theories by the fruitfulness of the activities they generate, and significant works of art become so in the light of the interpretation and criticism that surround them” (Transforming Fate into Destiny, Cascade Books, 1998, 86).

If I am right that the only real way to decide between two truth-claims from competing systems of belief is to look to the sorts of communities of character they produce, and if the only way to judge communities of character is by whether they produce people capable of living the claims they espouse, then living truthfully is the only way to establish the truth of those claims.  Put another way, brick-layers lay brick, cooks cook, and Christians live like Jesus.  Clearly, not everyone who wears the name has mastered all the practices necessary to be named a master craftsman in these crafts, but the shape of one’s life is determined by one’s commitment to living faithfully with the name—brick-layer, cook, Christian.  It is, after all, possible to take any of those names in vain by failing to practice, or practicing poorly, the disciplines of each craft.

However, when practiced well the very product of the craft (i.e., the wall, the cake, the life) stands as legitimating evidence of the value and veracity of the craft.  Consequently, for Christians, living truthfully isn’t only a matter of practicing the craft of Christianity well; it is the very means by which the truthfulness of Christianity is judged in a world where truth claims abound and compete.  In other words, speaking the truth is the product of a truthful life.


(The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.)

Telling the Salty Truth

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

We live in a society that cares very little about hearing the truth.  In fact, we often go out of our way to avoid the truth, in favor of some more palatable lies.  I have a feeling that’s why we are so enamored of talk shows.  We see the sorts of people and situations featured on Jerry Springer or Montel Williams, and we figure that, compared to their outrageous behavior, we have few problems.  We can avoid having to face our own sinfulness and lostness precisely because we surround ourselves with people and stories more depraved than we are.  We circumvent the process of being honest with ourselves about who we are; and we are just as dishonest with one another.

If we’re asked about what we think of someone’s new hairdo or someone’s new choice of a partner, either we lie outright, or we ask first if they really want to hear the truth (viz., “Do you want the truth?”), implying of course that if it’s all the same, we’d much prefer to lie and save everyone the embarrassment.  Lying comes much easier to us.  And sometimes knowing the truth and being unwilling to say it is even a worse form of lying.

Telling the truth is painful, which is why this verse from Colossians is so perplexing.  In the Oxford Study Bible the helps say that “seasoned with salt” means “with spiritual understanding.”  Next it gives reference to Mark 9:50.  I find that particular interpretation of Mark (i.e., “spiritual understanding”) unsatisfying.  The salt that Mark is talking about is cleansing, purifying—“Everyone will be salted with fire” (Mk. 9:49).  Mark goes on to say that “Salt is good” and that it may bring peace, but more in the sense that an enema is good: It may clean you out, but in the process, it’s going to be extremely uncomfortable.

It occurs to me that the church needs to speak the truth about some things.  I’m at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Nashville, at the moment.  I just came from a very moving service, centered on healing and wholeness for those afflicted with AIDS.  The Reverend Bill Lee spoke the difficult truth about how when folks need healing, people who follow Jesus ought to be ready to tear the roof off to bring it to them.  It then struck me that there are a whole lot of people who need to find the healing love of Jesus, but the church is often not only unwilling to tear off the roof to bring it, in some cases the church is guilty of reinforcing the steel girders that keep people on the outside, hammering away to break through.

Why have we as a denomination at our national gathering, for instance, once again avoided having the conversation necessary to bring healing and wholeness to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?  I know there are difficult disagreements surrounding this issue.  People get mad.  It’s tough.  But this issue isn’t going away just because we don’t want to talk about it.  We’re Christians, people who follow a crucified nobody—tough is what we do!  The church—we folks who follow Jesus—shouldn’t be afraid of dying for what we believe in; we should be afraid of not speaking truthfully.  Where did we ever get the idea that we could get away with anything less?

There are going to be a lot of people who disagree with me—who think that LGBTQ folks are in need of some kind of repair before they get access to the healing love of Jesus.  But I think LGBTQ folks are already the way God wanted them; it’s the church that stands in need of repair.

There are going to be a lot of people who disagree with me—who think we should let this lie, avoid stirring the waters.   But I think there are too many people dying up on the roof to let it lie.

All of which brings us back to Colossians.  How can the author say, “Let your speech be gracious,” which implies blessedness, life-giving affirmation, and then turn around and add, “seasoned with salt?”  They certainly don’t appear at first to go together.  In fact, those two phrases look awfully awkward placed next to each other.  How can talk seasoned with grace be also seasoned with salt?  It may just be that the biggest part of grace is telling people the truth rather than the lies they’d prefer to hear.  Come to think of it, if it is the salty truth we speak to people, rather than the savorless lies that help them maintain their self-delusions, then maybe we’ve spoken to them with “spiritual understanding” after all.


Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn't like to talk about it . . . so don't ask.)



The Second Reformation Sunday, October 31, 2010 on the 493rd anniversary of the posting of the Thesis of Martin Luther

Reclaiming the Fundamentals of The Way

by Douglas C. Sloan

The Way is to...

* live the sacred life - here and now - of the one universal Good News message as the Kingdom of God.

* worship God, who has never been, at any time for any reason, a capricious God of death, war, murder, destruction, violence, abuse, vengeance, hate, fear, lies, slavery, systemic injustice, oppression, conditional acceptance, exclusion, segregation, discrimination, shunning, ostracism, eternal condemnation, eternal punishment, retribution, sacrifices, patriarchy, matriarchy, empire, nationalism, only one culture, only one race or portion of the population, parochialism, sectarianism, dogma, creeds, pledges, oaths or censorship – and who has never behaved as a Greco-Roman or narcissistic deity.

* worship God, who is singular, solitary, nonmaterial, immanent, transcendent – the sacred and ultimate reality, the divine mystery, the more – and who has always been a consistent God of life, peace, creation, truth, healing, rehabilitation, restoration, forgiveness, reconciliation, inclusion, participation, diversity, liberation, justice, resurrection, transformation, love and grace. There are neither multiple nor opposing divine forces or entities or identities or personalities. There is only God.

* know the grace of God to be unconditional and boundless – my acceptance by God requires nothing of me.

* know the love of God... be unrelenting and unlimited; .........makes no exceptions and has no qualifications; be the constant inviting presence of God; and be the unconditional acceptance by God of me in my entirety as a gift.

* worship God, whose will is and who has always yearned for us to... free and independent; .........think; curious; intelligent and wise; .........value knowledge over ignorance and compassion over knowledge; creative; .........grow and mature; long healthy satisfying lives; non-violently without vengeance; generous; hospitable; compassionate; no harm; .........heal and rehabilitate and restore; .........forgive and reconcile and include all and have all participate; good stewards of all resources; here and now as one family; in a loving intimate relationship with God; transformed through resurrection; and the kingdom of God.

* worship God, who has always been the same and whose character does not change and who is not capricious or abusive or narcissistic. God performs neither miracles nor acts of retribution. God neither saves nor condemns. God has never required and never accepted a sacrifice by anyone for any reason. God desires worship as relationship, not praise or euphoria. God does not preplan or predestine or interfere with the course or end of my life.

* reject as components or identifying characteristics or requirements of faith and worship and church and Christianity and life and God and Jesus and the Good News message and the Kingdom of God: death, war, murder, destruction, violence, abuse, vengeance, hate, fear, lies, slavery, systemic injustice, oppression, conditional acceptance, exclusion, segregation, discrimination, shunning, ostracism, eternal condemnation, eternal punishment, retribution, sacrifices, patriarchy, matriarchy, empire, nationalism, the superiority of one culture or one race or some portion of the population, parochialism, sectarianism, dogma, creeds, pledges, oaths, censorship, the valuation of thoughts or beliefs or praise or euphoria over justice and service and relationships, and any consideration of post-mortal existence.

* read scripture... a sacrament for the experience and presence of God; .........for inspiration and motivation and contemplation and meditation and .........spiritual truth and insight and illumination about God is a presence and influence in my life and better understand the love and grace of God and discern how God is calling me forward and .........beyond my previous understanding of God a better and more complete and more mature understanding of God and God is calling me forward a more loving relationship with others and with God.

* know the best understanding of scripture requires... .........a scholarly knowledge of the original languages of the scripture and .........the linguistic devices used in the scripture .........(cultural assumptions, coded language, humor, sarcasm, hyperbole, .........poetic metaphor, etc.), .........of the cultural and historical environment in which the scripture was written, .........and .........of the people of that time by whom and for whom the scripture was written.

* know scripture as the metaphorical and narrative and thoughtful writings by the ancestors of my faith, who recorded their contemporary and historical, personal and cultural perception and understanding of the presence and influence of God in their lives and in the life of their community. While, at most, it can be persuasive or instructional, the scripture is not controlling.

* know the community of followers of The Way and worship and living the Good News message as the Kingdom of God to be more important than dogma and creeds and land and structures and debt and continuing expenses and material abundance and wealth accumulation and to be more important than pledges and oaths and empire and nationalism and patriotism and citizenship and civic religion and patriarchy and matriarchy and parochialism and sectarianism and political influence and social standing and financial clout.

* know largess to be more important than largeness and to hold that generosity and hospitality to all is a fundamental element of the Good News message and a defining characteristic of the Kingdom of God.

* know compassionate service to those who are hurt or lost or oppressed as a fundamental element of the Good News message and a defining characteristic of the Kingdom of God. Service requires partnership between the server and the served. Holy and wholesome service requires that the server be competent and healthy. Service is not slavery, not some form of enforceable servitude, and not an opportunity or a justification for the server to be oppressed or abused.

* know that as the children of God, we are one family in one place. There are no races, no tribes, no indigenous peoples, no ethnic groups, no castes, no nations, no royalty, no aristocracy, no social classes, no economic classes, no genders, no sexual orientations, no geography, no religions, no denominations, no sects, no churches, no elite, no privileged, no saved, no unsaved, no slaves, no outcasts, no untouchables – none of these are a consideration or a barrier or a limitation to the possession and development and utilization of time and effort and gifts and talents for service to others or participation in the Kingdom of God – there is no “us” and no “them”, no “here” and no “there”, no families other than the one family of all people together in one place as the children of God.

* know Jesus as: an intelligent compassionate Jewish mystic who had a strong persistent connection to and participation in and understanding of God; who could explain the reality of God to others and introduce them to a personal experience of God and a personal relationship with God; a messenger of the Good News and an example of the Kingdom of God. Because Jesus was effective as a messenger and successful as an example, he was killed. Both in message and self-understanding, Jesus was non-messianic and non-eschatological.

* know an experience of “the resurrected Jesus” or any other positive divine experience as an experience of the immediate and tangible presence of God, to know with confidence the reality of being and being in and of the Kingdom of God.

* not regard Jesus as divine or as a sacrifice or atonement or ransom or a substitute for me. The Good News message and the Kingdom of God and the presence and experience of God are what are divine in mortal life. Because of the love and grace of God, sacrifice and atonement and ransom and substitution on my behalf are not required for me to be accepted by God and to participate fully in and as the Kingdom of God.

* know the reemergence and revitalization of the disciples after the death of Jesus: ......–– as the first followers of The Way; ......–– as the first Good News resurrection and transformation; ......–– as the first example and witness that ......–– resurrection and transformation do exist and ......–– do not require death as a precedent; ......–– as example and witness that ......–– resurrection and transformation are available to all; and ......–– as example and witness that ......–– the Kingdom of God is here and now and active.

* know baptism, regardless of the method used, as a public act of private intent – to commit to living as a follower of the Good News message by being the Kingdom of God. Other followers are to provide the new follower with tolerance (ideally, acceptance) and the safety of time in a place devoid of condemnation and retribution which is necessary for the new follower to put behind and to put away a past life, to let the previous life die and in its place resurrect a new transformed life and person.

* know communion, regardless of the frequency it is shared or what elements are used, as a public act of universal unity. We gather at an open table where, without exception and without qualification, all are invited. At an open table, we celebrate and affirm the ever-present life of the Good News message and the ever-present all-inclusive unifying love of the Kingdom of God.

* proclaim “Jesus is Lord” and mean that I have no other Lord, that no person of any social or political or religious position has dominion over my life. To proclaim “Jesus is Lord” is to take a moral and spiritual stance and to commit an act of radical counter-cultural non-violent defiance of the oppression and systemic injustice committed by empire and civic religion and by individuals who are more interested in power over others than in service to others. My faith is personal. My faith is not a matter of proxy or the authority of others.

* know that the Good News message is not a loss of my freedom or independence, indeed, it is a much fuller realization of my freedom and independence; is not a forsaking of intelligence or wisdom or knowledge or the search for new knowledge or learning or finding new ways to see reality, or new insights into the workings and purposes of reality, or discovering or creating new visions of what reality could be; is not to forsake seeking or questioning or doubting or examination or reexamination or analysis or reanalysis. The Good News is dynamic, not static; is life, not death, not after death; is growth, not stunted development; is moving forward and moving beyond my current existence and is moving forward and moving beyond my current understanding of my existence and of God.

* be guided and instructed by the Good News message, which is: ......–– God is unconditional boundless grace and unlimited unrestrained love ......–– and always has been;

......–– God wants to have a loving intimate relationship with each of us ......–– without exception and without qualification;

......–– seek justice as healing and rehabilitation and restoration;

......–– seek universal reconciliation and inclusion and participation;

......–– in healthy partnership, ......–– compassionately serve all who are hurt or lost or oppressed;

......–– be generous and hospitable to all;

......–– live non-violently without vengeance and ......–– with a cheerful fearlessness of death and worldly powers; and

......–– be – here and now – the Kingdom of God.

Whatever we do – Whatever we are – Wherever we are – – can never separate us from the love and grace and the surrounding and inviting and welcoming and inclusive presence of God.

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REFORMATION II - letter size --- 8.5" x 11", 6 pages (appropriate size for copying and sharing)

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BIOGRAPHY Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 4950 East Wabash Avenue, P.O. Box 3125, Terre Haute, IN 47803-0125 (812-877-9959). Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an open and affirming congregation where Doug has served as Elder and Treasurer and enjoys his continuing membership in the choir as the lowest voiced bass. He graduated in 2009 with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University and a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University in 1997. Since August 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has been published in DisciplesWorld and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. In the summer of 2010, Doug became a contributor to [D]mergent. Of the 7 articles he wrote, 5 are in the top 10 most-viewed articles at [D]mergent. Doug is married to Carol, a First Grade teacher, and is the father of two sons.

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STUDY RESOURCES To better understand the theology of Reformation II, please read the previous seven [D]mergent articles by Doug Sloan, listed here in order of publication: ..........RECLAIMING CHURCH ..........GOD IS... ..........RECLAIMING GOD ..........RECLAIMING MIRACLES ..........RECLAIMING NOT ..........RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS - an epistle ..........RECLAIMING FORGIVENESS - it's personal